Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League who is paid millions to counter all criticism of the Catholic Church and its abusive priests, exposes his ignorance of secularism and its history in "The Prayer Scare and Beyond."

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After learning from a piece penned for OnlySky a while back by Hemant Mehta that Donohue is paid $1-million a year to shield the Catholic Church from all forms of criticism, I decided to trawl through his Catholic League posts to ascertain what he does to justify his outrageous salary, and found this breathtaking bit of claptrap titled “Prayer Scare and Beyond.”

A half century ago, those who were not religious tended not to be anti-religious, so they had no impact on the faithful. That’s changed. With almost three in ten Americans not adhering to any religion, there has been an increase in secular militancy, the likes of which we have never seen before in this country.

It’s not just the increase in the ‘nones’ that is troubling (those who answer ‘none’ when asked what their religious affiliation is), it’s the changing cultural milieu that is a problem. We can thank the ruling class—the elites who command our most important institutions—for this development. Their hostility to religion is so strong that they even object to people praying, or talking about religion, in public.

Where does one begin to show Donohue that skeptics have rubbished religious beliefs for centuries using all means at their disposal, and all that has changed is the method of communicating their contempt of superstition to the masses?

Pencil drawing by Spencer Alexander McDaniel depicting Diagoras burning a statue of Herakles to roast his lentils (turnips). Behind him on the wall is a badly damaged fresco of the goddess Athena. The illustration shows his son son watches on with horror. Image via Wikipedia CC BY-SA 4.0.

One could start with the Greek poet Diagoras, “the Atheist” of Melos, who, in the fifth century BCE, had a bounty put on his head for “impiety” for setting fire to a statue of the “divine” Greek hero Heracles. He used the flames to cook either turnips or lentils. The jury’s still out on that, as various accounts differ.

Fortunately, he managed to flee his accusers and was never found.

He was one of the lucky ones. French scientific scholar Etienne Dolet, a French scholar, translator and printer got on the wrong side of the Catholic Church for his attacks on the Inquisition, the city council and other authorities in Toulouse.

After being imprisoned several times, he was eventually convicted of heresy, strangled, and burned with his books due to the combined efforts of the Parlement of Paris, the Inquisition, and the theological faculty of the Sorbonne. He died in 1546.

Others executed for the “crimes of heresy, atheism, and blasphemy include: Lucillio Vanini (1619), Kazimierz Lyszcznski (1689), 20-year-old Scottish student Thomas Aikenhead (1697) and Jean-Francois de la Barre (1766). Aikenhead’s execution occurred 85 years after the death of Edward Wightman (1612), the last person to be burned at the stake for heresy in England.

Opposition to 20th century fundamentalism in the US

In the 20th century, the US experienced two spikes in Christian fundamentalism that nonbelievers sought to counteract by burying the zealots beneath an avalanche of scorn.

The first occurred in the wake of the publication of Darwin’s publication, On the Origin of Species. This led to the passing of laws in six states that prohibited the teaching of Darwin’s evolution ideas in schools because they contradicted the biblical account story of creation.

Biology teacher John Scopes, from Dayton, Tennessee, as well as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) were outraged by the new law that came into effect in his state. Scopes took the decision to teach his pupils about Darwin and evolution in his biology lessons in order to make a political point.

He was arrested for breaking the law, and what ensued was a trial in 1925 that garnered a huge amount of publicity—and a backlash from those who thought “The Monkey Trial” was irrational and ridiculous.

Scopes, who was found guilty of teaching the theory of evolution to his pupils and fined $100 (approximately $1,460 in 2020), believed that trial had dealt a mortal blow to fundamentalism. He said:

I believe that the Dayton trial marked the beginning of the decline of fundamentalism … I feel that restrictive legislation on academic freedom is forever a thing of the past, that religion and science may now address one another in an atmosphere of mutual respect and of a common quest for truth. I like to think that the Dayton trial had some part in bringing to birth this new era.

H. L. Mencken, reporting on the trial for the Baltimore Sun, added:

Let no one mistake it for comedy, farcical though it may be in all its details. It serves notice on the country that Neanderthal man is organizing in these forlorn backwaters of the land, led by a fanatic, rid of sense and devoid of conscience.

He was referring, I assume, to William Jennings Bryan, who helped prosecute Scopes and testified at the trial as a “biblical expert”. Asked by Scopes’ lawyer, Clarence Darrow, about the Jonah and the Wale myth he told the court.

When I read that a big fish swallowed Jonah—it does not say whale … That is my recollection of it. A big fish, and I believe it, and I believe in a God who can make a whale and can make a man and make both what He pleases.

In another context, he said:

No one can earn a million dollars honestly.

Take note, Mr. Donohue.

Darrow was once quoted as saying:

The fear of God is not the beginning of wisdom. The fear of God is the death of wisdom. Skepticism and doubt lead to study and investigation, and investigation is the beginning of wisdom …

The case was appealed in the Tennessee Supreme Court. In a 3–1 decision written by Chief Justice Grafton Green, Tennessee’s Butler Act, which criminalized the teaching of evolution, was held to be constitutional, but the court overturned Scopes’s conviction because the judge had set the fine instead of the jury.

Bryan died in 1925, five days after the trial.

Image via Liberty Univerity/Wikipedia CC BY SA 3.0

Scopes’ belief that Christian fundamentalism had been defeated by a rationalist backlash, was wrong, as evidenced by the establishment of The Moral Majority in 1979 by Baptist minister Jerry Falwell Sr. (above) and associates.

It played a key role in the mobilization of conservative Christians as a political force and particularly in Republican presidential victories throughout the 1980s. It had a short lifespan, because rational Americans had no stomach for its barmy right-wing “values.”

In 1989 the misogynistic Falwell was quoted as saying:

I listen to feminists and all these radical gals … These women just need a man in the house. That’s all they need. Most of the feminists need a man to tell them what time of day it is and to lead them home. And they blew it and they’re mad at all men. Feminists hate men. They’re sexist. They hate men; that’s their problem.

This from Wiki:

By the end of Ronald Reagan’s presidential administration, Christian Right organizations were generally in a phase of decline. After Reagan’s two terms in office, donations were decreasing, because after eight years of Christian Right-supported leadership, the nation was no longer seen as in the same state of supposed moral peril as it was when Reagan first took office.

The Moral Majority’s financial base seriously eroded by the time it became part of the Liberty Federation; its financial difficulties ultimately were a major factor in the decision to disband the organization. Falwell offered an optimistic public opinion about the Moral Majority’s dissolution. Disbanding the Moral Majority in 1989 in Las Vegas, Falwell declared: “Our goal has been achieved…The religious right is solidly in place and … religious conservatives in America are now in for the duration.”

Right-wing Christian zealots, aided and abetted by white supremacists and neo-Nazis, regained lost ground, and then some, when Trump opened the doors of the White House to a frightening assortment of Christian lunatics, some of whom were handed key posts despite having no expertise in politics.

Image via YouTube

One that immediately springs to mind is Paula White, above, a deranged Pentecostal preacher who was appointed to head Trump’s “Faith and Opportunity Initiative.”

Americans United for Separation of Church and State was quick to denounce White’s appointment on November 1, 2019. Its president, Rachel Laser, said:

Televangelist Paula White is unfit to serve in the position of advisor to the White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative. She has no experience in government or public service and no history of undertaking the kind of interfaith outreach necessary for this role.

Instead, she has operated in the shadows to influence public policies that discriminate against women, LGBTQ people and religious minorities, and the nomination of partisan judges who will support those harmful policies.

When Donohue learned that the former Insurrectionist-in-Chief had contracted Covid, he said:

I have full confidence that this man [Trump] is close to Superman. I think he is the most energetic man I have ever met in my life, and I see him as bouncing back. I think the projection will be very rosy.

Eight years ago, the blowhard declared that “marriage is about family, not about love”:

YouTube video

In another Catholic League post, Donohue wrote:

For 2000 years, the Catholic Church has been the subject of countless lies, especially on issues that touch on sexuality. Today, the biggest lie is that the Church suffers from a ‘pedophilia’ problem … Progress cannot be made unless we deal squarely with the facts. And the fact is that we’ve had a homosexual crisis in the priesthood all along.

Bottom line: From antiquity to the present, nonbelievers have vigorously opposed superstition and dogma, with many paying a high price, even losing their lives, for their opposition. To claim that atheists have become more “militant” over the past 50 years is utter baloney. Mehta’s piece revealed that the Catholic League has a war chest of $60 million. With that amount at its disposal, you’d think I would find someone far more intelligent and credible than Donohue to front it.

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Veteran journalist and free speech activist Barry Duke was, for 24 years, editor of The Freethinker magazine, the second oldest continually active freethought publication in the world, established by G.W....