Traveling through Tennessee recently I spent quite a bit of time listening to conservative Christian radio stations. They've become much more prevalent since I was a teenager. Nowadays it's hard to turn the dial without tripping over half a dozen of them.
I grew up in the South and I've spent a fair bit of time studying religion in general and Christianity in particular, but nothing prepared me for some of the things I heard. Substitute "Allah" for "Jesus" and it could have been Taliban Radio. To cite but one example: there was an entire show devoted to the question of whether women were more easily taken in by lies than men, with the obvious Biblical launching pad of Eve and the Fruit of the Tree. But though it began rather gently and furtively, it didn't end that way. Fifteen minutes or so into the program the advocate of the women-are-more-easily-fooled-than-men position was saying that women are "absolutely worthless" (an exact quote) except insofar as they have a relationship with Jesus, and ranting about how horrible it is that some people to try to teach young girls to have self-esteem (can you imagine?) because it diminishes their true source of worth, which is Jesus, etc. etc. It was so extreme it almost seemed like the sort of thing that Richard Dawkins might come up with to parody religion. But this was no parody.
And, of course, the person saying these things was a woman.
But what shocked me the most is that over three days and many hours of listening I never once heard even a hint of dissent or doubt. Not once did anyone ever say, "Whoa, hold on just a second, are you sure about that?" Every comment, no matter how extreme, was met with, essentially, "Amen, Hallelujah, and furthermore..." The only hint of a moral qualm came from a caller who was agonizing over who to vote for now that the Republicans have been exposed as child molesters because "the Democrats just want to hand the country over to the homosexuals."
A pickle indeed. I felt the caller's pain.
I have never worried much about religious fundamentalism in this country because I have faith (yes, faith) in our evolved moral intuition, that when push comes to shove common sense (and commerce) mostly prevails. I decided to put that faith to the test with a little experiment: I would post on the Internet an ironclad logical argument that according to the Bible, cannibalism is not a sin.
The result that I was expecting -- hoping for actually -- was that people's moral intuition would take over and make them say to themselves, "Whoa, hold on just a second, that can't be right." (I was also expecting a lot of angry responses from people telling me I was going to burn in hell, which is how True Believers generally deal with cognitive dissonance.)
Instead there was just a deafening silence, and two people saying, essentially, "Gee, he might be right."
I find that very scary. If without even trying very hard I can convince people that God thinks it's OK for them to chow down on their children, just think of what someone who is really skilled and charismatic could do. If people won't raise their moral hackles at the thought of cannibalism, if women can't be bothered to dissent when they are told they are "worthless", I fear we may be in for some truly horrific times before we emerge from our collective nightmare. The Taliban are not in Afghanistan, they are in East Tennessee.
When I was 30 I read a book called The Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism. The first question is "Can one doubt the existence of God and still be a good Jew?" The answer is: not only is it possible, it is required to maintain at least a little bit of doubt about His existence because absolute certainty leads to fanaticism. I think the world would be a better place if that creed were more widely spread. Maintaining a little bit of doubt about whatever you believe is a good thing if for no other reason than that it keeps you humble, which even the most ardent Christian at least ostensibly believes is a virtue.
This, I think, is the central evil of both the religious and political Right nowadays: they have transformed people's perception of doubt. On the Right, doubt is not a virtue. It is not a tempering force that can keep you out of trouble. It is instead a distraction, an emasculating influence that robs you of focus and purpose. Doubt is a Bad Thing that must be eliminated.
The problem with this point of view is that it only works if you're God. If you're a fallible human you will occasionally make mistakes, and sooner or later reality will get in your face with the fact that you are not always Right About Everything. At that point, if you have hewn to the belief that doubt is bad, you have to start invoking some serious psychological defense mechanisms, like denial.
Alas, denial seems more fashionable than humility at the moment.