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The small South Dakota city I live in has a daily newspaper that publishes a weekly “Religion” page, like local papers all over the country have for probably centuries.

Alternating local Christian pastors write what amount to sermons for the page, which is fine. The problem is the thoughts of pastors or religiously inclined writers are the only ones to appear in these “From the Pulpit” essays.

I know; I asked the editor if he would allow articles on nonreligious topics, and he said, “No.” I asked he editors of other area newspapers, who said the same thing. There’s no reader interest for that kind of thing, they claim.

Yet, I’ve seen data that about a quarter of the population of my state is religiously unaffiliated, which tracks with national data. So, I’m skeptical of editors who claim readers have no interest in nontheism. I think they — like many of their diehard, older readers — are not only uninterested in religious doubt but deeply suspicious of it, mainly because they know so very little about it to counter their bias.

So, by banning nonreligious essays in their newspapers, these editors are compounding the problem by perpetuating ignorance and accommodating religious prejudice.

Therefore, it was doubly annoyed to read this week’s intellectually thin pastoral offering by a local Seventh Day Adventist minister, titled “Breaking the Spell,” which ironically is also the title of a bestselling book by atheist author Daniel Dennett, “Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.” The book explains that religion exists as an inevitable byproduct of the processes of evolution and natural selection, independent from any purported deity.

The gist of the local newspaper column was the idea that people are only capable of “breaking the spell” of Satan’s grip when they follow “God’s Word” absolutely in “every pursuit, every choice, every decision the believer makes.”

“Breaking the spell, the hold of the enemy on our hearts and minds will necessarily mean throwing off every bewitching influence in our lives,” he advised readers.

The hook for this article was when the pastor had recently read about a priest at a Catholic school who came under fire from parents for “fringe” ideology after he banned all books in the sorcery-infused “Harry Potter” fictional children’s series. The cleric “purged the books from the library,” he said, because, “The curses and spells in the book are actual curses and spells.”

And, as everyone knows, of course, “actual” spells (whatever those are) are far more damaging than made-up ones, right?

Just to be real here, there are no such things as supernatural “curses” and “spells” in reality to begin with. Religions have just decided to be terrified of them for long centuries nontheless.

The upshot is our local pastor/columnist decided to write a story telling everyone, with a completely straight face, that the only way for kids to avoid the devastations of curses and spells is to avoid even reading about them — and read instead only Christian scripture (i.e., the “Word of God”).

In effect, he was telling parents and schools to prevent their kids reading one form of fiction (“Harry Potter” books) so they could concentrate on another (the Bible or Catholic catechisms).

If they don’t do this, the pastor opined, they would never get to Heaven.

“[I]f we will trust God now, we’re promised to one day hear the best words ever a human ear could hear,” he wrote, paraphrasing Matthew 25:34): “Come, Blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you.”

Except there’s zero evidence in the real world that such a “kingdom” exists anywhere, so it’s a good bet that evocations to the contrary are fraudulent.

My beef is that my local paper’s readers are only getting one side — a very sketchy, dubious tale — of the story of human existence. It just reconfirms the fictions we were all told ad nauseum in childhood.

Meanwhile, the “real” story — of the “Big Bang,” evolution, techtonic geology, social psychology, and the power of natural human compassion and cooperation, etc. — is completely left out.

This is exactly how we end with the Inquisition, the Crusades, Catholic-against-Protestant religious wars, 9/11 and ISIS atrocities, People’s Temple murder/suicides and Heaven’s Gate suicides. It starts with people believing things for which there is no verification.

The truth is, what we don’t know can hurt us far worse than what we only think we know because of what we’re not told.


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Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...

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