Student Article: Disseminating Parallel Realities
Some time last year, I noticed that that the local chapter of Campus Crusade for Christ had been quite aggressive about chalking the URL "EveryBadger.com." I ignored it initially, but early this fall I decided to take a close look at the site. It turned out to be a close replica of their national site EveryStudent.com; the replica's main purpose seemed to be to give UW-Madison students (whose mascot is the badger) the false impression that Crusade created an entire website solely for them. EveryBadger is only one of many such fake-attention generating clones, which includes a site for Jewish students named (without a hint of irony) WhatChutzpa.com.
The use of multiple sites is, however, a minor deception compared to the contents of the site(s). The site presents a series of articles purporting to rationally defend various aspects of Christianity, and many of them contain falsehoods that would make Jonathan Wells">Jonathan Wells1 blush. Their leading article, "Is there a God?" contains an entire section devoted to making bizarre claims about the allegedly miraculous nature of water, including the clam that water is a universal solvent (did the author's high school teachers never do an oil-and-water demonstration for them?)
Another article asserts that if the universe had started out as nothing but hydrogen, it would have never produced anything other than hydrogen, demonstrating an inexplicable obliviousness to the fact of nuclear fusion.
A third article on the historical reliability of the Bible claims, among other things, that the Bible has not been altered since its writing, a bogus claim that I would have thought would have been off-limits since the publication of Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus.
The story of EveryStudent/EveryBadger/WhatChutzpa(indeed).com is no isolated event. In 2006, journalist Michelle Goldberg made a splash with her book Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, widely presented as showing a real threat of theocratic take over in the US. However, that hype leaves out a major part of the book's story. Goldberg explains how the book's origin lays in a conversation she had had with a literary agent, where she commented that "liberals and conservatives no longer merely had divergent values-they occupied different realities, with contradictory facts, histories, and epistemologies."
In the introduction, she describes going to a home-schooling convention with tables full of home schooling resources presenting a radically different picture of reality where creationism is science and America was founded as a Christian nation. "I sometimes felt I was in a novel by Jorge Luis Borges, drifting through a parallel reality contained in a monumental library of lies." Goldberg gives a chapter each to examining the efforts creationist pseudo-scientists and theocratic pseudo-historians, and also looks at the propaganda of the abstinence-only and anti-gay movements (the latter includes a book devoted to the extraordinarily reality-challenged claim that homosexuals are responsible for Nazism).
Perhaps most galling is the fact that the leaders of these efforts quickly drop any pretense that their claims are based on honest inquiry when they think no one is listening. "A lot of time in the public debate, Christians will say, 'Well, the Bible says so,' or 'God says this is wrong.' And that's true, but in public "usually you have to use terms and facts that the other side accepts as reasonable." In other words, assume your religious views are right, and then cook up the evidence to make your position look reasonable to outsiders (and perhaps to believers who are starting to have doubts).
This is an effort that Evangelical groups have engaged in at every level. Long before the creation of EveryStudent/EveryBadger/WhatChutzpa(indeed).com, Campus Crusade chapters were used to heavily promote the book The Evidence That Demands a Verdict by Crusade's primary spokesperson, Josh McDowell. The publication and promotion of McDowell's book, which claims to evidentially demonstrate the truth of Christianity, is a strange episode American religious history, given that one can both question the extent to which McDowell was its author and the extent to which it is a book. The inside of the book says it was put together with the help of a "research team" of eleven college students, and it is not as if McDowell took their research and wrote the book, because the text contains hardly any original writing: it is mainly a series of pro-Christianity sounding quotations held together by the most minimalistic framework. In spite of this, in 2006 "his" "book" was listed #13 on Christianity Today's list of top Evangelical books, an achievement which attests both to the organizational power of Campus Crusade and the desire of Evangelicals to find rational validation for their views.
To give a distinctly local example, there is a church in my city that has fairly close ties to the local Crusade called Black Hawk Church. It could be thought of, pardon the oxymoron, as a mini-megachurch: not a massive complex, but upscale with modern music and video screens and a large enough membership to support five services every Sunday. In checking out the church, I discovered that not long before my first encounter with it had had a "Barriers to Faith" lecture series, designed to bolster members' confidence in the rationality of their beliefs.
Though I missed the talks, I could get enough of a flavor of their content from the reading list which the church keeps on their website. It contains much of the standard literature, including at least one entry that should shock anyone familiar with its contents: Thomas Schmidt's Straight & Narrow, defending Evangelical views on homosexuality. In the course of the book, Schmidt purports to present legitimate scientific data showing those who "chose" homosexuality are buying themselves a horrible, miserable life. The data is cooked in the most embarrassing fashion; for those interested in the details I recommend Jim Burroway's spot-on parody The Heterosexual Agenda: Exposing the Myths.
What makes that particular form of Evangelical propaganda so vile is the clear and very serious harm it causes to real people, because it helps keep alive the climate of bigotry responsible for, among other things, the high suicide rate among young gays and lesbians.2
For any student leaders out there looking for a target for activism, this is it. It's not just a matter of countering the misinformation, it's a matter of making people understand that there's a very good chance that their local "seeker-friendly," we-are-not-fundamentalists Evangelical group is spending much of its resources spreading misinformation on a level that is irresponsible at best and mendacious at worst.
For those out there reading this on Facebook, I recently set up a Facebook group called Campus Crusade Against Christian Misinformation as a simple way to warn people; join and send out invites if you want to get the word to your friends. Of course, that is a very small initial blow and there's much more to be done. Keep it in mind at your next planning meeting. I'm available for contact if anyone is interested in suggestions on proceeding.
1. Noted creationist. See Nick Matzke's Icons of Obfuscation for a fairly thorough account of Wells' misrepresentations of science.
2. "Victimization for Sexual Orientation Increases Suicidal Behavior In College Students." Science Daily, 25 September 2007. URL: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/09/070924140326.htm. Accessed: 3 October 2007
Chris Hallquist is president of Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics at UW-Madison, and the owner of the blog The Uncredible Hallq.