Friday, January 15, 2010

Pat Robertson, Propagandist for Atheism?

There have been many reports of what Robertson said about Haiti and many condemnations of it; what is missing from public discourse is an account of what exactly is outrageous about what he said.

First, just so that it’s clear what I’m talking about, here are the notorious words uttered by Pat Robertson on his program The 700 Club on January 13, 2010 (transcription from Media Matters, where the video can also be seen):
And, you know, Kristi, something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French. You know, Napoleon III and whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, “We will serve you if you will get us free from the French.” True story. And so, the devil said, “OK, it’s a deal.” And they kicked the French out. You know, the Haitians revolted and got themselves free. But ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after the other. Desperately poor. That island of Hispaniola is one island. It’s cut down the middle. On the one side is Haiti; on the other side is the Dominican Republic. Dominican Republic is prosperous, healthy, full of resorts, et cetera. Haiti is in desperate poverty. Same island. They need to have and we need to pray for them a great turning to God. 
Of course, Pat Robertson’s notion of what constitutes a “true story” can be gauged by the crackpot theory of a two-hundred-year-old plot for global domination by Jewish bankers, Freemasons, the “Illuminati,” and other Satanists that he expounded in his 1994 book The New World Order. An account of its contents may be found in Michael Lind’s Up from Conservatism: Why the Right Is Wrong for America (New York: Free Press, 1996), pp. 99–120, or on line in “New World Order, Old World Anti-Semitism,” an article by Ephraim Radner that appeared in Christian Century for September 13, 1995. A single paragraph from Radner’s article will give you the flavor of Robertson’s thinking:
Robertson traces the historical progress of this conspiracy, back to Lucifer and his machinations in antiquity. In the modem era the conspiracy has been promoted through a small secret society founded in late 18th-century, Bavaria called the Illuminati, whose members purportedly infiltrated Freemasonry, organized the French Revolution, recruited Friedrick Engels and other communists to their cause and orchestrated the Bolshexik takeover of Russia. Through their control of international banking, the Illuminati-dominated servants of Satan, according to Robertson, have imposed a system of national and private credit and interest that has saddled the nation with debilitating and enslaving debt, robbing the American people at once of their independence and their control over their religious life.
Getting back to Robertson’s more recent outburst of paranoiac idiocy, one should note that his so-called “true story” actually has what might be described, if misleadingly, as a historical basis. The event that presumably caused his febrile brain to conceive that the Haitians swore a “pact to the devil” was a religious ceremony that reputedly took place on August 14, 1791, at Bois Ca├»man in what is now Haiti under the leadership of a slave and vodou priest or houdon named Dutty Boukman. (Whether this event actually occurred seems to be a matter of dispute.) Boukman reputedly prophesied on that occasion that the slaves of Saint-Domingue (as the colony occupying the territory of what is now the Republic of Haiti was then called) would rise up and overthrow their white masters. On August 22, an uprising began, in the course of which Boukman was captured and killed by the French authorities. The revolt continued without him, and in two years’ time, slavery in Saint-Domingue was at an end. By the end of 1803, the Haitians had overthrown and expelled the French (who, by the way, were under the rule of Napoleon Bonaparte at the time; Napoleon III was not born until 1808).

The idea of a pact with Satan, as far as I can gather, is just more of the sort of lurid fantasy habitually extruded by the brains of right-wing religious fanatics like Robertson. I suspect that in his view any religious practice much different from the Evangelical Protestantism with which he is comfortable is Satanic worship.

But the benighted and delusional character of Robertson’s version of history, however interesting, is really not the issue. What has made his remarks notorious is the fact that they identify the earthquake in Haiti, and other misfortunes that have dogged the history of that nation, as divine retribution. This sort of utterance on his part is nothing new. As Media Matters points out, Robertson has a record of indulging in such prophecy:
  • Remember when Jerry Falwell said, two days after the events of September 11, 2001, “I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the A.C.L.U., People for the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America, I point the finger in their face and say, ‘You helped this happen’”? He said that when he was appearing as Robertson’s guest on The 700 Club, and Robertson’s reply was, “I totally concur.” Though Robertson seems subsequently to have tried to put some distance between himself and Falwell’s remarks (he described them as “totally inappropriate,” a phrase that in the perverted moral discourse of the present day passes for severe condemnation, though really it only faults Falwell’s choice of occasion and not the content of what he said), he also issued a written statement that made his stance on this issue perfectly clear: “We have insulted God at the highest level of our government. Then, we say, ‘Why does this happen?’ It is happening because God Almighty is lifting His protection from us.”

  • On The 700 Club for September 12, 2005, Robertson intimated—though he did not plainly assert—that the occurrence of the Hurricane Katrina disaster and terrorist attacks on the US was due to the legality of abortion here (transcript again from Media Matters):

    We have killed over 40 million unborn babies in America. I was reading, yesterday, a book that was very interesting about what God has to say in the Old Testament about those who shed innocent blood. And he used the term that those who do this, “the land will vomit you out.” . . . You look at the book of Leviticus and see what it says there. And this author of this said, “Well, ‘vomit out’ means you are not able to defend yourself.” But have we found we are unable somehow to defend ourselves against some of the attacks that are coming against us, either by terrorists or now by natural disaster? Could they be connected in some way? And he goes down the list of the things that God says will cause a nation to lose its possession, and to be vomited out. And the amazing thing is, a judge has now got to say, “I will support the wholesale slaughter of innocent children” in order to get confirmed to the bench.
  • On The 700 Club for January 5, 2006, Robertson attributed the stroke that paralyzed Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the murder of his predecessor Yitzhak Rabin to their having tried to divide God’s land, in defiance of biblical prophesy. Robertson said (transcript again from Media Matters):

    The prophet Joel makes it very clear that God has enmity against those who, quote, “divide my land.” God considers this land to be his. You read the Bible, he says, “This is my land.” And for any prime minister of Israel who decides he going carve it up and give it away, God says, “No. This is mine.” And the same thing—I had a wonderful meeting with Yitzhak Rabin in 1974. He was tragically assassinated, and it was terrible thing that happened, but nevertheless, he was dead. And now Ariel Sharon, who was again a very likeable person, a delightful person to be with. I prayed with him personally. But here he is at the point of death. He was dividing God’s land, and I would say woe unto any prime minister of Israel who takes a similar course to appease the EU, the United Nations or United States of America. God said, “This land belongs to me, you better leave it alone.”
    By the way, the passage to which Robertson alludes is this one:

    For behold, in those days and at that time, when I restore the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem, I will gather all the nations and bring them down to the Valley of Jehoshaphat. And I will enter into judgment with them there, on behalf of my people and my heritage Israel, because they have scattered them among the nations and have divided up my land, and have cast lots for my people, and have traded a boy for a prostitute, and have sold a girl for wine and have drunk it. (Joel 3:1–3, English Standard Version)
    Setting aside the question of how anyone in his right mind can take a bit of ancient literature purported to record divine utterances as a title deed to an entire country, it is obvious that the passage promises divine judgment upon foreign nations that have conquered the land of Israel and dispersed the Israelites among other nations, not upon Israelites in possession of the land who have given away some of it.

So Robertson has been at this sort of thing for a while, and we can expect that as long as he is with us he will provide more of it. What I find curious, and rather frustrating, about the reaction to his remarks in public written media is how elliptical the comments have been. Trolling through the Google and Google News search results for “Pat Robertson Haiti,” what I find, besides bare reports of what he said, consists almost entirely of remarks or exclamations on how outrageous, offensive, absurd, insane, moronic, insensitive, inhumane, and so on it is, or he is. What I have not found is an explanation of what exactly is outrageous, offensive, and so on about it.

Perhaps it is felt that the point is too obvious to merit explanation. Well, I grant that it is obvious that what Robertson said is outrageous and so on. I do not question that for a moment. What I want to know is: why is it outrageous? What makes it so? Is it the idea that the catastrophes that have befallen the people of Haiti—mutatis mutandis the people of New Orleans, of New York City, of the United States, and so on—are in some measure the fault of the victims? Is it the idea that the victims, or some of them, or some of their ancestors, have incurred God’s wrath? Is it the pretense to prophetic knowledge of how God works in the world? Is it not the thoughts themselves but merely the act of giving public utterance to them? (Were they merely, as Robertson said of Jerry Falwell’s remarks about the September 11 attacks, “totally inappropriate”?) It may well be that different people have different reasons for being outraged by Robertson’s remarks. But if there are so many reasons, why have I heard so little about any of them?

I have, as of the moment of writing, seen only one published comment on Robertson’s remarks that contains any analysis or explanation at all: an entry by Ronald Lindsay in the blog of the Center for Inquiry under the title “One Cheer (Amid a Chorus of Boos) for Pat Robertson.” Lindsay offers Robertson a left-handed commendation for exposing by his example the absurdity of religious belief. He writes:
In recent years, in response to increased critical examination of religion, many liberal religious apologists have claimed that these critiques of religion have it all wrong. There is no all-powerful, personal God, overseeing and intervening in our world, who guides hurricanes away or toward land depending on His will. Instead, there is only some nebulous spirit or life-force that fills us with joy, and makes us want to join hands and sing “Kumbaya.” In fact, some scholars, such as Karen Armstrong, argue that religion is not about belief in a personal God at all, but about commitment and activity.

For the ordinary believer this is all rubbish. Ordinary believers—and they do believe—have faith in a robust God, who can deliver them from evil (or not). Pat Robertson reflects the views of the ordinary believer. You see them all the time on TV being interviewed after some natural disaster. They claim they prayed to God to spare them from the tornado/hurricane/earthquake and God answered their prayers. Notably, the people who died can’t speak to the issue of why their prayers were not answered, but Robertson at least tries to offer an explanation. The victims were cursed for some reason, and in the case of Haiti it was because of an imprudent pact with the Devil. (Is there ever a prudent pact with the Devil?)

Of course, Pat Robertson’s claim is absurd. But his claim usefully underscores the absurdity of religious belief in general, instead of obscuring it with a veil of touchy-feely doubletalk.
In other words, Robertson, in Lindsay’s view, is a reductio ad absurdum of religious belief, and thus a walking argument for atheism. Sophisticated apologists for religion like Karen Armstrong try to disown the excesses of such cranks, but their notions of what it means to believe in God have little bearing on what ordinary religious people actually believe. Ordinary religious people believe in a God that intervenes in the affairs of the world to reward the faithful and punish the unfaithful—the God of Pat Robertson, or something very like it. Many of them may dislike Robertson’s conclusions, but they are committed to the same premises and the same logic. His absurdities are therefore theirs.

Thus Lindsay. Now there is an obvious non sequitur here. Granted that, as Lindsay claims, the lofty sophistications of theology do not reflect the beliefs of ordinary religious people, and granted that, as he also claims, the beliefs of ordinary religious people entail the absurd conclusions of a Pat Robertson, it does not follow that Robertson’s conclusions exhibit “the absurdity of religious belief in general.” All that follows is that they exhibit the absurdities of common forms of religious belief.

That conclusion, however, seems to me notable by itself; and it suggests to me an explanation of why so little has been said about what was outrageous in Robertson’s remarks. Most people who believe in God, I suspect, would disavow any claim to prophetic insight. They would deny that they know what worldly events may be attributed to God’s influence, or what God “means” by them. Yet nearly all such people believe that worldly events do show God’s influence and that God does mean something by them. So even if they disclaim knowledge of how God works in the world, they feel free—or perhaps “compelled” would be more like it—to venture judgments about such matters. The lone survivor of an automobile collision says, “God must have kept me alive for a reason!” Oh, and did he cause everyone else to be killed for an equally good reason? Someone makes repeated efforts to succeed in a certain line of work before finally giving up: “God must have meant me for other things.” Well, that is one way to reassure yourself that you made the right choice: pretend that your perfectly ordinary human decision had divine authorization. And so on.

People who think this way may find Robertson’s conclusions offensive because it is inhumane toward the victims of catastrophe to believe such things; or they may condemn his giving public utterance to such conclusions as “totally inappropriate”; neither objection has anything to do with the truth or falsehood of the conclusions. Such objections leave standing the possibility that what Robertson says, his historical delusions aside, may be perfectly true: they merely fault him for saying or perhaps merely believing such things. I suspect that the reason why we do not hear much about what is outrageous in his remarks is that identifying it means identifying what is outrageous in widely and strongly held religious beliefs, namely the idea that God’s actions and intentions can be discerned in worldly events.

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  1. I think that if you want a 'religion' in order to experience elevation, you could do much worse than attend meeting with the society of friends, which seems to demand no objective'god', or belief in it, but rather 'centres down' on "that of god in all of us". Group counselling or meditation, anybody?

    There is an article in 'New Scientist' of 13 January 2010 regarding 'Emotions You Never Knew You Had', which considers elevation to be one of them. Fair enough, but why externalise the source of one's elevation?

  2. The usual religious line is that God had a reason for this or that but we cannot know what it is, due to our puny minds' inability to grasp the all-knowingness. A person who believed this concept would have ample grounds for outrage at Robertson's presumption that he has access to the mystery while others do not.