Bible Belt Epistle Wars
by Gary Sloan (e-mail: GSloan@liberator.net) [October 13th, 2000]
For thousands of readers in north Louisiana, the buckle of the Bible Belt (as locals proudly proclaim), I am "that atheist professor from Ruston," a small town on I-20, not far from Mississippi. For ten years, I have written nontheistic letters, about 200 in all, to the Shreveport Times and the Monroe News-Star, the largest newspapers (combined readership a quarter of a million) in the northern half of the state. In these letters, I have presented arguments against supernatural forms of religion, including the Christian variety. Both newspapers are routinely deluged with letters and columns from local fundamentalists. My letters have provided the only local countervailing responses. They have elicited over 300 published replies and about 200 more sent to my home. Anonymous telephone calls are common. The letters have given me a revelatory tutorial on the mind of true believers.
I began writing apologies for atheism because no one else was. When I wrote my first letter, I was surprisingly idealistic for a middle-age professor. I would unfetter knowledge from the ivory tower and let it gambol on the village green. I would illuminate caves of ignorance in benighted souls. Galvanized by my lofty intent, other freethinkers in the region would burst from their closets, fly to their keyboards, and help me feed hungry minds. That never happened. Here are samples of what one unimpressed believer called Sloanian slogans:"Even if a creator exists, he isn't necessarily interested in our backwash orb. Nor must a creator be loving and kind. As John Stuart Mill observed, whoever or whatever created the animal kingdom must be fond of blood baths."
"Paul's silence about the details of Jesus' life, as they are later depicted in the gospels, makes sense when Jesus is viewed as a creation of the late first-century."
"Unlike Yahveh, the Old Testament tribal deity, Jesus doesn't wipe out whole villages, including cattle, sheep, oxen, fowl, and she-asses. Nor does he go ballistic when someone goes a-whoring after foreign gods or unhygienically 'pisseth against the wall.' Jesus, as Mark Twain groused, is infinitely more ornery. He deprives unbelievers of the consummation they devoutly wish: eternal death. Jesus would have them gnash their teeth and wail and broil forever."
"Some of the musty arguments for the existence of God still rear their hoary heads. Design, for example. Creationists contend that complex wings could not evolve from rudimentary precursors, but had to be created fully formed. The conviction betrays an impoverished imagination, unable to grasp the developmental effects of minute, incremental organic modifications occurring over millions of years. Evolution is a story of micromutations, not macro."
"Atheists disbelieve in God not because they are necessarily cantankerous, arrogant, or pernicious, but because they find no compelling evidence to support the belief. For many, the concept of an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibevolent being is an absurd impossibility, like a square circle. Along with Thomas Huxley, Darwin's bulldog, atheists believe it is immoral to maintain 'that there are propositions which men ought to believe without logically satisfactory evidence and that reprobation ought to attach to disbelief.'"
My comeuppance followed hard upon my first letter and has, through the unabated responses to subsequent letters, continued ever since. Bible Belt readers, I now realize, neither suffer a fool gladly nor hesitate to call a fool a fool. I am often advised to read Psalms 14:1 ("The fool has said in his heart, 'There is no God'"). In the responses, the ad hominem retort has flourished like a perennial weed. I have been christened with such unendearing epithets as Satan, anti-Christ, Hitler, Stalin, Lenin, Mao, Mussolini, Attila the Hun, Madelyn O'Hara (sic) and William Buckley, Jr. -- the Firing Line host, not for any political conservatism on my part (that would have endeared me to many locals), but because of my putative predilection for sesquipedalian diction. I have also been nicknamed after diminutive species: mouse, minnow, housefly, spider, ant, flea. Beetlejuice was unexpected: "Gary Sloan. Gary Sloan. Gary Sloan. Say his name three times and he appears."
I am rebuked both for being an intellectual and a pseudo-intellectual, and I don't know which is worse: "Sloan may be an intellectual, but he's also a gibbering idiot and a bubble and a half off." "Mr. Sloan is highly intellectual--that is, he speculates about things he doesn't know anything about." "Sloan ought to consider that it is no coincidence that intellect and ignorant begin with the same letter."
My bogus intellect frequently elicits exhibitions of wit: "I was no magna nor summa cum laude, but simply a grateful 'thank you laude' when I graduated." "Sloan thinks Jesus is a liar, a bum, a beggar, and thief. In his vast wisdom, Sloan has confused Jesus with Bill Clinton." "Professor Sloan has a BDIP degree (bombastic, doctrinaire, intolerant, and predictable)." Some respondents leave their flanks exposed: "Sloan searches his dictionary for uncommonly used words like 'omnipresent' and 'omnipotent.'"
I sometimes feel like the man without a town. A Ruston citizen wrote to the Monroe paper: "I'm sure the good people of Monroe realize most Ruston people don't share Gary Sloan's opinions. You can have him if you want him." The sequel was swift: "No, thanks. We've got our own cesspools." A Shreveport reader sent me a clipping of his response to one of my letters. A dime and a note were attached. The note read: "Send a copy to a friend--if you can find one."
Eleven professors signed a letter assuring parents not all faculty members shared my views: "If you or your children enroll at Louisiana Tech, you will meet faculty who have Dr. Sloan's perspective. But you'll also meet scholarly faculty who are committed to Christ."
An editorial page editor refused to print my responses to criticism of me, though he printed critics' responses to my criticism. When I publicly pointed out the double standard, he wrote a column defending himself: "Sloan is right, you know. His turning upon those who criticized his deep emotional aversion to worship was prevented. It just seemed too, too sadistic on my part to do otherwise. I think of the Bible Belt as people who are proud to give their allegiance to a higher spiritual power rather than follow the unwashed rudiments of man."
Some respondents try to strong-arm editors: "Sloan's letters are the moral equivalent of yelling 'fire' in a crowded theater. It is time for the News-Star to suspend publication of Sloan's clever but ill-intentioned letters. They pump up his ego at considerable expense to the public good." A guy named Bubba wrote: "If you share Sloan's beliefs and that is the reason for your continued support, then you can cancel my subscription. I'll pass this along to all my buddies, and you'll probably hear from them also."
Respondents assure readers my foot will slide in due time: "While I will pray for Sloan, I pray not to see him in the end, because I don't plan to go where he's heading." Some display a Dantesque dash: "It looks like Sloan is going for the whole enchilado--death, followed by the White Throne judgment, humiliation, condemnation, then thrown into the bottomless pit by an archangel with an attitude, to swim around in a burning fire with his master, the devil for eternity."
I have been linked with Satan so often that I have developed an affection for him: "There are people who enjoy doing evil things. When I read Sloan's letters, I can just see an evil Satan sitting there writing. He is using Sloan's body, but the evil comes from the master spirit of evil."
Some think I'm still salvageable: "God has shown me that you, sir, will in time accept Jesus as your savior, and you will stop disgracing Him." One woman was grandiose: "Mr. Sloan, you are like Saul. I believe God is going to use you the way he did Saul. I just can't wait to see you proclaiming the gospel of Jesus." On my answering machine, a Pentecostal woman left a message in tongues. After the last indecipherable word, she emitted a long, satisfied exhalation. Some commiserate with me: "Gary, I often wonder who let you down. Was it your mother, your wife, a friend? What filled you with such hate for all that is sacred and true?"
Several churches have made me their project: "Gary, next Sunday at 10 a.m. we will be praying that the Holy Spirit will reach out to Gary Sloan and that he will receive a sign by Wednesday, June 14th, at 6 p.m." If the sign appeared, I missed it. A large Baptist church (Six Flags Over Jesus, one wag called it) blazoned a pithy homily on a marquee that faces a thoroughfare: "GARY, GOD IS REAL, AND HE LOVES YOU DEARLY." No one from the church dropped by, wrote, or called.
I've received only two published letters of support. The first was from one of my wife's (a Shakespeare specialist) undergraduates: "Hurrah for Gary Sloan! I hope he runs for President!" The effervescent student was, I surmised, bucking for an A. The other kudos was from a devout fundamentalist: "Gary, with every letter you write, you bring people closer to Christ. Keep up the good work."
When I entered the epistle wars, a colleague asked me whether I had a death wish or had gone off my rocker. Both, I am sometimes inclined to think. Still, I tell myself that the battle isn't irreparably lost. A little lump of idealism remains. And a hard core of pertinacity.
Resources and Avenues for Further Study
Star Tribune: Creationists' Flawed Arguments Church & State: Louisiana Time Warp News-Star: Locals talk about Liederman's religion, its influence on voters
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