I’m Chrys Stevenson, a freelance writer and researcher from Queensland’s Sunshine Coast.
These days, I tend to do more researching than writing, but when I really get a bee in my bonnet, I still like to have a good vent here at the Cross-Eyed Bear.
My current research focuses on women’s issues (including #metoo and domestic violence), Australian social and cultural history, and voluntary assisted dying. My clients include some of the country’s leading journalists, writers, academics and media personalities. It’s a job I literally fell into by accident but one I love.
My own writing tends to focus on religion and politics; specifically the intrusion of Christian fundamentalism into Australian politics and our public institutions. I was the ‘scribe’ for the team (led by Ron Williams) that twice took the Federal Government to the High Court over the National School Chaplaincy Programme. I wrote the first chapter of The Australian Book of Atheism (Warren Bonnet, editor), and I’ve written for ABC’s Religion and Ethics, New Matilda, Online Opinion, the King’s Tribune, The Big Smoke and numerous other online journals. I’m probably best known for my article about the Australian Christian Lobby – Is the Australian Christian Lobby Dominionist? Short answer – yes.
I also write on gender politics. My blog post, Defending Deveny (a transcript analysis of ABC’s Q&A) and my King’s Tribune article “The Blokeyness Index” (an analysis of gender representation in the Australian media) have both been cited extensively in various books and articles.
I’m passionate about honesty, fairness and personal responsibility. I’m left leaning, but I’m not a member of any political party and I’ll happily criticise all of them. The two maxims I live by are: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men [and women] do nothing” and “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.”
I hope you’ll enjoy “Gladly, the Cross-Eyed Bear”. If you’re wondering about the name of this blog, it’s a mondegreen taken from the hymn, Gladly the Cross I’d Bear.
If you like my writing, you can see more of it scattered across the internet. My LinkedIn profile
Many thanks to Glenn Watson for producing the Gladly, the Cross-Eyed Bear image and the ‘new look’ Gladly blog. Thanks also to Wikipediatrician extraordinaire, Susan Gerbic (Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia) for the photo.
There are 5.2 million people in Queensland. They are people of different races, different religions (or no religion), different political views, different educational achievements, professional skills, and different socio-economic status. But, we Queenslanders have one important thing in common: one day, each and every one of us 5.2 million people, is going to die.
And, of those Queenslanders who are eligible to vote, four out of every five want the right to choose the time and manner of their death should they be afflicted with a terminal illness or neuro-degenerative disease.
That right will be granted to Queenslanders this week, but not without a fight; a battle against misinformation and propaganda, and against our own political representatives who wilfully chose to ignore the expert evidence presented to them and voted against the clearly expressed views of the majority of their constituents.
I followed the debate in the Queensland parliament closely, and found myself thinking, “Who are these politicians raising ‘concerns’ about voluntary assisted dying that have been repeatedly debunked?”
I’m a professional researcher with modest resources. But, over the last 10 years I’ve investigated almost every claim about “slippery slopes” and “vulnerable groups” and hundreds of “horror stories” about people being euthanised “against their will.” I’ve found 99.99 per cent of them to be completely unfounded and 99.99 per cent of them emanating from religious sources.
Religious lobbyists would be very wrong to suggest that we, similarly, reject their arguments out of hand. We don’t. We look at each and every claim, statistic, and case study. We chase down academic papers, medical and government reports, police and judicial inquiries, and first-hand accounts by the people who have used VAD, their families and their doctors.
We don’t just “google” sites that agree with us. We look at each and every claim and ask, “Could this be true?” And we set out, honestly, and without preconception, to establish the truth.
Why? Because advocates of VAD have absolutely no interest in putting vulnerable people at risk, or allowing doctors to maliciously murder patients against their will, or any of the other horrible scenarios suggested in the reams of propaganda put out by religious astro-turf organisations. If there are issues, we want to know about them and address them. But, in almost every case, what we find are bodgy statistics, half-truths, stories ripped from their context, and straight out, bald-faced lies.
Nobody summarises this better than Emeritus Professor of Law, John Griffiths who said in his book Euthanasia and the Law in Europe:
“Imprecision, exaggeration, suggestion and innuendo, misinterpretation and misrepresentation, ideological ipsedixitism, and downright lying and slander (not to speak of bad manners) have taken the place of careful analysis of the problem and consideration of the Dutch evidence.”
And yet, the vast majority of LNP politicians (and some members of the ALP) this week, repeated this kind of propaganda as if it were true. Did they approach their jobs in good faith?
Surely politicians, who have much better resources than I, have access to the parliamentary library, to expert researchers, and to the many academic, government and judicial inquiries which have determined, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that voluntary assisted dying laws are safe and pose no threat to vulnerable groups.
OK. I accept there are a range of views about voluntary assisted dying. But politicians aren’t elected to vote on ‘views’ – they’re elected to vote on hard evidence from credible sources, and in accordance with the reasonable desires of their constituents.
The safety of VAD laws is not contested – despite what religious propaganda may ask you to believe. There should have been no politicians standing up in parliament this week raising “concerns” about the safety of the carefully drafted Queensland VAD Bill. There aren’t any legitimate concerns.
Really! This kind of legislation has been tried and tested all over the world with none of the apocalyptic results predicted (or recounted) by opponents. We know it works and the laws drafted in Australia are the most restrictive anywhere in the world.
The only legitimate objection politicians could possibly have had to the Queensland Bill is their belief that life is sacred and that suffering provides an opportunity for death-bed conversion and salvation.
The question is, is it legitimate for a politician to inflict their religious convictions on to constituents who do not share their views?
Imagine if a politician was considering whether a bridge should be built in her electorate and she held a firm view about where it should be located – perhaps somewhere convenient to where she lived. In this case, expert opinions would be sought, engineers reports ordered and town-planners consulted. Of course, there would also be a public consultation process.
Imagine if the expert reports determined that the politician’s preferred location was completely unsuitable – and that 80 per cent of her electorate wanted the bridge located at the site suggested by the experts. It would be politically judicious for the politician to put aside her personal preference (and graciously accept she was wrong).
But, if, instead, she went to parliament and dismissed the expert reports, raised “concerns” written by parties with a vested interest in locating the bridge at her preferred location, and made verifiably false allegations about the safety of the site preferred by experts, she would be in egregious breach of her ethical responsibilities.
Yet, that is exactly what happened in the Queensland parliament this week. Politicians are entrusted with representing the reasonable views of their electorate. And yet, repeatedly, we saw politicians standing up and blatantly betraying the people they were elected to represent.
It should be no surprise to anyone that the majority of those who said “No” to Queensland’s voluntary assisted dying bill were from the LNP. But this was no political objection. The vast majority of politicians who opposed the bill have firmly held, conservative, religious views which they privileged above the wants and needs of their constituents.
As politicians discussed their voting intentions this week, I did some investigation about the reasons behind those “No” votes.
Jarrod Bleijie (LNP – Kawana) said he was voting against the Bill because he worried about children accessing the life-ending medication by accident. This has never happened, ever, anywhere in the world. Mr Bleijie has made no complaints about pharmacies dispensing any number of drugs that might (conceivably) fall into the hands of children, nor of palliative care practitioners bringing potentially lethal medications into the residences of those who choose to die at home. But dig a little and you will find that Mr Bleijie is an elder of the Kawana Waters Uniting Church. He was formerly a director of Mercy Ships – a controversial Christian missionary group that grew out of the evangelical Youth With a Mission. To his credit, Mr Bleijie, is at least honest about where his alliances lie. “I am not bashful about declaring that I am a practising Christian,” he boasted in his maiden speech.
Another ‘honest’ LNP politician was Andrew Powell MP (LNP Glasshouse Mountains) who confessed what his colleagues wouldn’t:
“My vote doesn’t reflect my electorate’s views – Jesus guides the way I operate.”
Jon Krause MP (LNP – Scenic Rim) said he would vote “No” because he thinks the legislation is too “risky”. It’s clearly not. So what else explains his decision? Mr Krause didn’t disclose his family’s very close association with the Lutheran Church.
“No” voter, Tim Mander MP (LNP – Everton), who used all the debunked talking points against VAD, is a Christian and bible college graduate and formerly CEO of Scripture Union Queensland.
Jim McDonald MP (LNP – Lockyer) decided that, although 82 per cent of his constituents want the right to choose VAD, he is happy for them to die slowly, (and not necessarily without pain or suffering), under palliative sedation. This is a method by which doctors provide very strong drugs to patients, knowing they are very likely to kill them eventually, but consoling themselves that this “isn’t their intention.”
Similarly, Pat Weir (LNP – Condamine) betrayed 79 per cent of his electorate when he flagged his intent to vote “No” – and suggested, falsely, that two-thirds of his electorate supported his stance. In fact, credible polling shows that two-thirds of his electorate “strongly agree” that VAD should be legal. Mr Weir is a Catholic.
So, too, is Linus Power (ALP – Logan) who said he was concerned that VAD might be used by people who were suffering intolerably from symptoms other than pain. Pain is the most manageable end-of-life symptom – although not always manageable. End-of-life suffering occurs from a tsunami of physical and psychological symptoms which are no less distressing, whether or not pain is included. And who is Mr Power to determine whether someone’s suffering must be endured because pain may not be the major issue? It seems far more likely that it was Mr Power’s Catholic convictions about the sanctity of life – and suffering – that directed his vote.
Another “No” vote from the ALP came from Joe Kelly (ALP – Greenslopes), a graduate of Ignatius Park (Catholic) College in Townsville. Mr Kelly’s stated concern with the bill was that it puts nurses in danger of criminal conviction. This has never happened – anywhere. I imagine Mr Kelly’s objection came as quite a surprise to the more than 2,000 members of Nurses Supporting Voluntary Assisted Dying, a group run by Queensland nurse, Fiona Jacobs.
The legislation, of course, was expertly framed by the Queensland Law Reform Commission who would never have recommended legislation with that kind of glaring loophole. But, of course, a politician can’t just state baldly that he’s really uncomfortable voting against the Vatican’s Evangelium Vitae – even if that Papal encyclical means nothing at all to the vast majority of the constituents he represents.
Then there is Dan Purdie MP (LNP – Ninderry) who, coyly, referred to his school in his maiden speech without actually mentioning its name. Why? Did Mr Purdie envisage that one day he’d be required to choose between his electorate and his religion and that some snoopy researcher might find out he was a Catholic – educated at Padua (Catholic) College?
Of course, Mr Purdie didn’t ‘fess up that his objection to the Bill was religious. Instead, he simply ticked off all the Catholic propaganda talking points which have been repeatedly debunked and disproven. It’s not just misleading – it’s really lazy to accept information that accords with your preconceptions at face value, while rejecting expert evidence that shows incontrovertibly that your preconceptions are wrong. At least be honest and say, “On this issue, I’m voting with the Pope, not the people.”
I won’t belabour this further by listing every religious LNP vote. It’s not always apparent what religious affiliations politicians have, but I’d happily bet the vast majority of LNP politicians who voted against the bill either did so on religious grounds or because they were muscled by the LNP’s Christian right faction.
Is the LNP a political party or a theocratic movement? And if their aim is theocracy, why not be open about it?
Queenslanders deserve better. Queensland Catholics and other Christians deserve better! These politicians did not even represent their views. The majority of Australian Catholics and Christians support VAD and you can see that broken down by electorate in Neil Francis’ excellent statical analysis of the 2019 Vote Compass survey here. This survey asked constituents to say to what extent they agreed with the statement: “Terminally ill patients should be able to end their own lives with medical assistance.” [Scroll down to the third (main) table and click on the name of the electorate for detailed results.]
As Neil reports:
“Those supporting VAD laws include nearly four out of five Catholics (78%) as well as most Anglicans (84%) and other non-Christian faiths (82%). Among voters with no religion, there was almost universal support (95%).”
Please don’t think I’m saying religious politicians have no place in parliament. There is absolutely no reason why people of faith shouldn’t hold political office – providing they accept that decisions should be evidence-based and guided by the reasonable wishes of the majority of their constituents. Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk was raised Catholic but voted based on the evidence and the overwhelming agreement of the people of Queensland.
But, I see no difference between a politician who answers to the Vatican or some other church, and a politician with an allegiance to a foreign power, or to some shonky real estate developer. It’s true that (on this issue at least) Queensland politicians weren’t betraying their constituents for a nice little beachfront unit after they retire. But they were selling their constituents out because they fear losing the right to reside on a prime piece of real estate in the hereafter. If that is the basis on which a politician makes decisions, they are not fit for office.
Despite the religious shenanigans this week, Queensland’s VAD bill will pass – almost certainly without any of the vexatious amendments. But, I hope that when casting their votes at the next election, Queensland voters will consider the LNP’s (and some ALP members’) shameful betrayal of their constituents.
Since vaccinations for COVID-19 became widely available, there has been a flood of stories about anti-vaxxers and COVID conspiracy theorists dying of the disease they so passionately believed was a ‘hoax’. There is inevitably some degree of schadenfreude about these deaths, but it’s important to remember these are real people, with friends and family who love them. No matter how vehemently we might disagree with their politics, religion or beliefs about COVID-19 and vaccinations – we should never be glad about someone dying. In fact, we should be doing everything we can to prevent it.
Safe, thoroughly tested, vaccines are now widely available. Yet, a significant number of people are still refusing to have them. Unvaccinated people are nearly 30 times more likely to be hospitalised by COVID-19. In the United States, only about 1.1 per cent of COVID-19 deaths can be attributed to people who were either partially or fully vaccinated.
It is true that a COVID-19 vaccination will not necessarily stop you from contracting the virus – the same is true for flu vaccinations which are widely accepted. But results show that, if you are vaccinated, you are far less likely to become extremely ill, require hospitalisation, or die.
Millions of people have now been vaccinated with no ill effects, but people are still dying unnecessarily.
COVID-19 cannot be prevented or cured by alternative treatments. There are solid, scientific reasons why vitamins, hydroxychloroquine and Ivermectin won’t work. People who have been persuaded by these arguments are dying unnecessarily.
These are not ‘idiots’ or people of no consequence. Their deaths should not be dismissed. These are doctors, lawyers, athletes, community workers, politicians, broadcasters, singers, musicians, and athletes – many of them were healthy, young people with bright futures ahead of them.
Their grieving families are now left with the consequences of their loved-ones’ mistaken belief that they knew more than the vast majority of the world’s medical and scientific community; that they were somehow smarter than the experts – despite having none of the specialist training of the scientists who assure us that COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective. Tragically, many found it’s too late to discover you’re wrong when the nurse is intubating you.
Jodi Doering, an emergency room nurse from South Dakota, said that, even as they are dying, patients who refused vaccines and didn’t believe the virus was dangerous are screaming for some kind of magic (unproven, untested) medicine to cure them. It doesn’t exist. Doering says:
“Their last dying words are, ‘This can’t be happening, it’s not real.”
But it is happening – repeatedly. Perhaps, some who are sitting on the fence, might read a news report about an anti-vaxxer or conspiracy theorist who has died of COVID-19 and be persuaded to seek out a vaccination. But, I wondered how much more powerful it would be if all (or, at least, many) of these reports were compiled into an A-Z of anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists who gambled with their lives – and lost.
A – H Scott Apley, American City Councillor, 45
Republican city councillor, H Scott Apley, was anti-mask, anti-vax and anti-lockdown. He enjoyed mocking public health messages on Facebook. He was a proponent of mask burning and thought public health messages urging people to get vaccinated were “disgusting.”
In August 2021, Apley was admitted to hospital with pneumonia-like symptoms. He tested positive for COVID-19, was placed on a ventilator and died. Apley left behind a wife and a 5-month old son who both tested positive for the virus.
A GoFundMe page was set up to help pay his funeral expenses.
B – Gisèle Beaudoin, French-Canadian Country Singer
Canadian country singer, Gisèle Beaudoin, 70, believed that COVID-19 was a conspiracy. She didn’t believe in vaccines or masks. She sent video links to her family to try to convince them that COVID-19 was nothing to be concerned about, causing her sister to distance herself.
On 1 May 2021, on the same day that thousands of anti-vaxxers protested against COVID health measures on the streets of Montreal, Gisèle Beaudoin died of COVID-19.
Before she died, Gisèle asked her sister to tell her Facebook followers to get vaccinated.
C – Curt Carpenter, America, 28
Curt Carpenter from Alabama was a vaccine sceptic. He didn’t ‘believe’ in COVID-19. He thought it was a hoax.
Carpenter, a young man, who was overweight but otherwise had no underlying health problems, spent 51 days in intensive care battling the disease he didn’t believe exists, before losing his life to it in July 2021.
Curt’s mother said he changed his mind about the virus when he could not breathe without oxygen – the same day he was put on a ventilator. On that day he said, “This is not a hoax, this is real.”
D – Kyle Dixon, American State Prison Guard, 27
Kyle Dixon, 27, was a Donald Trump supporter. He believed the COVID-19 misinformation that was spread by the former President. Masks don’t work. The virus is a hoax. Only old people get sick. Dixon believed it all.
When he began to suffer symptoms of the virus, Kyle tried to treat it with cough medicine.
Kyle Dixon died on January 20, 2021. It is unlikely he was vaccinated given the beliefs prevalent in his family circle. Seven of Kyle’s family members fell ill with COVID-19.
While some members of the Dixon family understood the virus is real and can be deadly, others have clung to QAnon propaganda, even despite the young man’s untimely death.
“I wish that they could have been there his last days and watched him suffer,” his sister said.
E – John Eyers, British Fitness Enthusiast, 42
John Eyers, a British fitness enthusiast loved climbing mountains. Fit and healthy, he thought there was no need for him to get vaccinated. He had had asthma, but, otherwise, had no underlying health conditions. He didn’t want to put a vaccine in his body.
Ironically, after contracting COVID-19, Eyers’ body was pumped full of “every drug in the hospital” but to no avail. He died in August 2021, leaving behind a grieving mother and twin brother who wish he’d had the vaccine.
F – Dick Farrel, American Radio Host
Florida TV and radio personality, Dick Farrel called COVID-19 a “scam-demic.” He thought Dr Anthony Fauci was a “power tripping lying freak.” It made great radio.
“Why take a tax promoted by people who lied 2u all along about masks, where the virus came from and the death toll?” he posted.
Farrel is not broadcasting or posting any more. He died of COVID-19 in August 2021.
Before he died, Farrel changed his mind about the vaccine. “GET IT!” he texted his friends. “I wish I had gotten it.”
G – Hans Kristian Gaarder, Norway
Norwegian man, Hans Kristian Gaarder, believed the conspiracy theories that COVID-19 was a fake disease. When he became ill after two, large, illegal gatherings in his barn, he refused to believe he had been infected with the virus and did not seek medical treatment.
Mr Gaarder, who proudly claimed to have done “his own research”, is now dead.
G – Goncalves Family, Wales
The Goncalves, a Portuguese family living in Wales, were persuaded by anti-vaccination messages and refused COVID-19 vaccines. Now Basil, 73, Charmaine, 65 and their son Shaul, 40, are all dead after catching the virus.
The only surviving member of the family has urged others to have the vaccine that would have saved his parents and sibling.
H – Stephen Harmon, Hillsong Church Member, 34
Stephen Harmon, a member of Hillsong Church in America, wasn’t just evangelistic about Jesus, he was also spreading the word about the folly of having a vaccine to prevent COVID-19.
“Got 99 problems but a vax ain’t one,” he tweeted in June. Harmon regularly joked about the virus on social media, believing God would protect him.
Harmon asked for prayers after falling ill with COVID-19 in July 2021. He died in August 2021 after being intubated – knowing he may well not wake up.
H – Brent H, British Father, Early 50s
A British man, known only as Brent H, boasted in September 2019, “I’ve never taken a flu shot and I’ll never take a Covid shot.”
Brent bet on the fact that zinc and a vitamin D regimen would protect him against the disease more than any vaccine.
Brent H, who had no underlying health conditions, died of COVID-19 in June 2021. His daughter posted on social media, “I know he’s been saying otherwise, but PLEASE save your families this heartache. Go get your shot.”
I – Isabella’s Family – United States
Isabella, 21, was the only one in her family who didn’t buy into anti-vax, COVID-19 conspiracy theories. None of her family was vaccinated when her great-aunt and great-uncle both died of COVID-19 – despite having been eligible for a vaccination for months.
Now, having seen Isabella receive a vaccine with no ill-effects, more members of Isabella’s family have started getting vaccinated despite believing previously that the virus wasn’t serious.
J – Patient of Nurse Jessica, 14
A 14-year old girl died of COVID-19 after her anti-vaxxer parents refused permission for her to be intubated.
Jessica, the nurse who stroked the girls hair as she died, is convinced the child would have lived if she had been put on a ventilator.
The teenager had been looking forward to starting high school and wanted to be a vet.
Keenan died of the virus in July 2021 after saying he wished he could turn back time.
K – Dr Stephen Karanja, Kenyan Catholic Doctor
Dr Stephen Karanja, chairman of the Kenya Catholic Doctors Association, was an outspoken opponent of COVID-19 vaccinations. Karanja believed that the vaccine was “totally unnecessary” and the motivation “suspect.” He was not supported in his claims by the Catholic Church, but was a well-known anti-vaxxer who had “often allied with [other] religious leaders to oppose mass vaccination campaigns.”
Instead of the COVID-19 vaccine, Dr Karanja promoted unproven treatments including steam inhalation, hydroxychloroquine and Ivermectin (a horse-worming treatment).
Dr Karanja died of COVID-19 in April 2021.
L – Les Lawrenson, British Solicitor
Les Lawrenson, 58, was a British solicitor. A graduate of Cambridge University, he was a health 58 year old before contracting COVID-19.
Lawrenson refused to be vaccinated. He believed, being a healthy, relatively young man, he didn’t need it. He hoped that he’d get the virus and pick up antibodies ‘naturally.’
He said in a vlog:
“The idea that we have to afraid of this bogeyman – this COVID-19 – [that] this somehow is a monster. We’ve got to get over this.”
When he did get sick, he didn’t seek medical help. The monster won. Lawrenson is dead.
M – Gary Matthews, British Artist
British portrait artist, Gary Matthews, liked to share anti-lockdown messages on Twitter. Relatives begged him to wear a mask and follow social-distancing advice, but he refused. After spending a week in hospital. Matthews died of COVID-19 at his home in Shropshire on 13 January 2021.
His family remember him as shy, gentle, kind, and talented. They loved him very much. Now, he’s dead, the victim of what London mayor, Sadiq Khan, describes as “pernicious propaganda”.
P – David Parker, British Nightclub Manager
David Parker, a British nightclub manager, enjoyed mocking people for taking the ‘experimental vaccine’ and for being taken in by a ‘big pharma’ conspiracy.
Proudly unvaccinated, Parker died of COVID-19 in August 2021.
R – Lydia and Lawrence Rodriguez, American Parents, 40s
Lydia Rodriguez, a 42-year-old mother of four, didn’t believe in the COVID-19 vaccine.
At the beginning of August 2021, Rodriguez and her husband Lawrence were both breathing with the help of machines after being admitted to hospital with COVID-19. The virus has, reportedly, ravaged their bodies. They have been hospitalised for weeks.
If they manage to survive – which is not at all certain – they will face long recoveries and possibly long-term health problems. Their household and medical bills have become overwhelming.
One of the last things Lydia said before being intubated was to make sure her kids got vaccinated.
S – Landon Spradlin, American Evangelical Musician
Landon Spradlin was a conservative Christian musician from Virginia. His mission in life was to save souls. He looked after himself. He didn’t drink or take drugs, and did his best to care for those who did. He loved people and believed that God could heal anything.
“There are documented cases of God healing AIDS,” said Spradlin. “God can cause limbs to grow out where they’ve been chopped off. God can raise the dead.”
Spradlin rejected the idea that COVID-19 was dangerous. He thought the media was creating mass hysteria in order to manipulate people’s lives. He didn’t believe he needed to be vaccinated, wear a mask or practice social distancing. He was a soldier of God, and God would protect him.
Returning from an evangelical mission to the New Orleans Mardi Gras in 2019, Spradlin was racked by coughing fits. His wife was also ill. Spradlin collapsed at a service station and was rushed to hospital. There, he was intubated and diagnosed with COVID-19. Later, as his kidneys shut down, he was given dialysis. A network of believers prayed fervently for his recovery.
God didn’t save Landon Spradlin. He died at 4am in the morning.
While Spradlin’s network was in disbelief at his death, one friend seemed to understand that even God has limitations, “By making these claims [that God will protect you], you overpromise in God’s name.”
T – Texas Patient, 30s
A man from San Antonio, Texas was so unconcerned about COVID-19, he attended a COVID party – ‘designed’ to test the theory that concerns about the virus were unfounded.
He contracted the virus. Now he is dead.
Just before he died he said to his nurse: “I think I made a mistake. I thought this was a hoax, but it’s not.”
U – Mark Anthony Urquiza
Mark Anthony Urquiza, a first-generation Mexican-American, was a healthy 65-year old when he died from COVID-19 at the Democratic National Convention in August 2020. Urquiza was a disenchanted former Trump supporter.
“His death is due to the carelessness of the politicians who continue to jeopardize the health of brown bodies through a clear lack of leadership, refusal to acknowledge the severity of this crisis, and inability and unwillingness to give clear and decisive direction on how to minimize risk.”
V – Phil Valentine, American Radio Host
Nashville radio host, Phil Valentine, was a vaccine sceptic. He has been described as “a visionary of the conservative movement.” Valentine thought that even if he got the virus, he wouldn’t die from it.
He was wrong. He did.
W – Caleb Wallace, American “Freedom Defender”, 30
Texan, Caleb Wallace, was passionate in defence of his ‘constitutional rights.’ The 30 year old led “freedom rallies” to protest against face masks and vaccines. He believed his personal freedom mattered more than other peoples’ health.
When Wallace fell ill, he did not seek medical treatment. Instead, he self-medicated with aspirin, vitamin C and horse-wormer.
Wallace died of COVID-19, leaving behind a wife and three very young children.
Z – Linda Zuern, American Trump Supporter and New England Politician
Trump supporter, Linda Zuern was a proud member of the pro-Trump group, the United Cape Patriots. She believed COVID-19 was a plot to create a one world government and used her Facebook page to spread conspiracy theories about the pandemic. Like many who shared her political views, Zuern was not vaccinated.
Zueren died in July 2021 from complications resulting from COVID-19. Her mother also fell ill with the virus, but survived.
Zueren was praised by one of her compatriots for doing “so much work on the conservative movement”.
Get the Damn Vaccine
Michael Freedy, a Las Vegas father of five, died of COVID-19 in August 2021. In one of his final texts he wrote: “I should have gotten the damn vaccine.”
Please – don’t end up as a cautionary tale on an A-Z list of people who gambled with their lives and lost.
“Through many dark hour I’ve been thinkin’ about this That Jesus Christ Was betrayed by a kiss
But I can’t think for you You’ll have to decide Whether Judas Iscariot Had God on his side.”
– Bob Dylan, With God on Our Side
Aspiring politician, religious lobbyist, and former managing director of the Australian Christian lobby, Lyle Shelton, has spent his life fighting for what he believes is right. In these battles, Shelton believes fervently he is doing God’s will; that he has God on his side. And yet, isn’t it peculiar that every battle Lyle takes on ends in abject failure?
There are three possible explanations for this.
There is no God
There is a God, but he is not, in fact, on Lyle’s side.
There is a God and he is using Lyle in much the same way he used Judas Iscariot.
Of course, my preferred option is “(a)”, but I have been wondering, of late, how Lyle reconciles his abysmal track record with his dogged belief that God is a member of his cheer squad. Surely, if God were on Lyle’s side, he would emerge triumphant – at least occasionally.
Lyle Shelton was raised in a cult – the Logos Foundation. By definition, cult members believe they are God’s chosen people; that they, alone, understand God’s will. So, I have some sympathy for Lyle. He was conditioned from an early age to believe it was his mission to ensure God’s will prevails.
Through no fault of Lyle’s, the Logos Foundation was a monumental failure. Founded in New Zealand in the 1960s, Logos later relocated to Australia where it fell under the leadership of former Baptist minister, Howard Carter. At its peak, the Logos Foundation boasted around 150,000 members and was linked with various international dominionist movements. Under Carter, Logos took on the “overt theological-political paradigm” of the “post-millennialism of Presbyterian Reconstructionist theonomy” – a movement which effectively calls for a Christian coup of the world’s governments in order to reinstate divine law and justice. (See my article on the Australian Christian Lobby and dominionism, here.)
With Carter, Lyle’s father, Ian Shelton, was a leader of the Logos Foundation, so this was the world-view and Christian mission into which Shelton junior was indoctrinated. One can certainly imagine that when a young person is told their family was chosen to help return the world’s governments to God’s stewardship in order to create a world fit for the second coming of Jesus Christ, it has a profound impact. It’s an entirely more beguiling prospect that following Dad into the family plumbing business!
But, it appears, God was not on the side of the Logos Foundation.
In the 1980s, the cult moved to Queensland where Carter and Shelton senior became involved in the 1989 Queensland State election. (Lyle was, then, 19 – old enough to understand what was going on in the ‘family business.’ Logos lobbied heavily for candidates to adhere to Christian principles and biblical ethics, oppose pornography, homosexuality and abortion, and perversely – given their strong ‘pro-life’ position –return capital punishment in line with Old Testament law (not just for first-degree murder, but for homosexuals as well).
This approach backfired spectacularly in uniting Queensland’s Christian forces to reclaim the Queensland government for God. Instead, mainstream churches recoiled in horror, distanced themselves from Logos and denounced the campaign.
Soon after, Logos leader, Howard Carter (supposedly anointed by God), was exposed as living the high life on Foundation funds and was found in flagrante delicto with a female parishioner. The cult fell apart and, soon after, Carter died, of eye cancer.
The Logos Foundation’s only surviving remnants were the Shelton family’s Toowoomba City Church, (established in the aftermath by Shelton senior) and a group called the Network for Christian Values (of which we’ll hear more, later). God, it seems, was not on the side of the Logos Foundation, nor had he anointed Howard Carter, after all.
As a young man, Lyle worked as a youth pastor at his father’s church, and still gives the occasional homily there. Later, he studied journalism and, for a time, worked as a reporter for a rural newspaper. But, not surprisingly, given his upbringing, Lyle aspired to a career in politics.
“I had politics in my blood,” said Lyle in a 2019 interview with Lech Blaine of The Monthly. “Our family discussions around the kitchen table were about politics and religion – the two subjects you should never talk about in polite company.”
(There are many who would suggest that Lyle Shelton should never be let loose in polite company in the first place.)
In 2000, Lyle enjoyed one of his rare successes. He was elected to the Toowoomba City Council on a platform of expelling the sex industry from the city. Lech Blaine describes Lyle colourfully as “Ned Flanders with a country Queensland twang.” But, if God exists, he must have an extraordinary sense of humour. Because, at the same election, the good people of Toowoomba elected Dianne Thorley as their mayor. Blaine describes Thorley as an “independent feminist” and:
“… a lifelong underdog, a short-haired former pub chef who swore like a drunken sailor with Tourette’s. She didn’t wear make-up, jewellery or dresses. Her voice was husky from chain-smoking menthol cigarettes. At 19, she gave up a baby for adoption. Her platform featured personal honesty, empathy for the destitute and, presciently, environmentalism.
… Thorley spoke publicly about surviving a violent marriage with a Pentecostal wife-beater, and recovering to become a successful businesswoman. She describes her ideology as “pro business with a social conscience.”
When Thorley confronted a local graffiti artist she told him if he persisted with his vandalism, “I’ll rip off your dick so hard you’ll have to piss sitting down.”
Undeterred, Lyle and his father attempted to persuade Thorley to join with them in doing God’s work in Toowoomba. She responded, “Fuck off Lyle! Just let me have a smoke and coffee in peace.”
You’d think if God were serious about helping Lyle do his bidding in Toowoomba, he wouldn’t have saddled him with Di Thorley as mayor!
Needless to say, Toowoomba’s sex industry survived the Sheltons’ best efforts to eradicate it. I wonder if Lyle ever considered that God was on the side of the sex-workers.
To be fair, Lyle did have a big win during his time as a Toowoomba City councillor. He successfully joined a fear campaign against a scheme, instigated by Thorley, to address the city’s chronic water shortage by recycling sewage. Spooked by a flood of misinformation, fake news, and conspiracy theories, residents voted against the scheme in a plebiscite. The defeat prompted Mayor Thorley to describe Lyle as “a duplicitous little shit.”
If God was working on Lyle’s side, it seems God didn’t want Toowoomba drought-proofed with a scientifically proven, environmentally friendly method of water purification. If that’s the case, he truly does work in mysterious ways.
Emboldened by this victory, Shelton ran as a National Party candidate at the 2006 Queensland state election. He was roundly defeated by Labor’s Kerry Shine, 10,000 votes to 6,000, with Lyle’s candidacy prompting a 4.9 per cent downturn in the Nationals’ vote and a 1.7 per cent swing to Labor. Even God was not able to secure Lyle Shelton a seat in the Queensland Parliament.
I’ve been told by those who were around at this time that Lyle took the defeat hard – very hard. I have some sympathy. Imagine, being told from childhood that this was your destiny, that God and prayer would see you through, and then losing – badly.
Following the collapse of the Logos Foundation, former Logos members formed the Network for Christian Values, headed by the cult’s former national co-ordinator, Derek Brown. It was this group – strongly aligned with Christian dominionism and Australian fascism – which formed the Australian Christian Coalition – later re-badged as the Australian Christian Lobby. So, with Lyle’s political aspirations in tatters, it only made sense that “Plan B” was to get him a job as chief of staff of the Australian Christian Lobby, serving under managing director, Brigadier Jim Wallace.
There is no denying the ACL had considerable clout under Wallace. But, as many of us fought back against the regressive and harmful positions of that organisation, its grip on power began to decline. Wallace helped us out by making several major strategic errors, including becoming embroiled in a firestorm over an ANZAC Day tweet. Unwisely, in what might have been dismissed as a drunken tweet were it anyone other than Jim, Wallace suggested Australian soldiers had not fought for “gay marriage and Islamic [sic].”The public outcry forced Wallace into an embarrassing backdown.
Just as mainstream Christians were repulsed by the political machinations of the Logos Foundation, they rushed to reject Wallace’s take on the ANZACs.
“For what it’s worth,” tweeted Victorian Baptist minister, Simon Moyle, “I’m a Christian leader and @JimWallaceACL doesn’t remotely speak for me or any other Christians I know.”
If mainstream Christians feel that God is not on the side of the ACL, you have to wonder, “Whose values does this group represent?”
It wasn’t too long after the ANZAC Day debacle that Wallace retired and Lyle Shelton took his place as managing director. By then, the ACL was already a sinking ship and Lyle had none of the charisma or gravitas of his predecessor.
Lyle’s big opportunity to shine and re-establish the ACL as a political force was in the debate about marriage equality in 2017. Though, like King Canute, Lyle tried valiantly to turn the tide of public opinion, his campaign failed. Nearly 62 per cent of Australians voted “Yes” to marriage equality and the Australian Christian Lobby emerged defeated with their reputation in tatters. The ACL had offended all but the most conservative religious extremists with its harmful and dishonest campaign against what Lyle described, somewhat hysterically, as “The Yes campaign and their noisy rainbow-flag-waving storm troopers.”
You have to ask, “If God is on the side of the Australian Christian Lobby – if God anointed Lyle to represent his will on this issue – how is it that the ‘rainbow-flag-waving storm troopers’ won, and Lyle and his merry-band of theocrats lost. I’m sure Lyle was as perplexed as I am.
The rainbow-hued defeat seemed to turn Lyle a little loopy. He has subsequently campaigned against the depiction of cartoon lesbian ponies in the TV show “My Little Pony” and had an absolute conniption when a path in Alfred Park, Sydney, was painted in rainbow colours to commemorate the third anniversary of the national marriage equality vote.
“To all the children who might see this in Prince Alfred Park, Sydney,” tweeted Lyle. “Your mother is not a ‘birthing parent’, she is not a ‘chest feeder’, you were not born in the wrong body, & no adult for lifestyle reasons has the right to deny you the love of your mother & father.”
While it’s impossible to know the conversations that went on at the ACL after the defeat of their campaign against marriage equality, the fact that Lyle departed in 2018 suggests there was a (mutual?) agreement that he wasn’t the man for the job. Geez, if you can’t win a political battle with God on your side, something is very, very wrong. And I’m betting the ACL weren’t about to blame God.
Since then, Lyle has failed to find traction in his life-long mission to bring us under the thumb of a Godly government.
After leaving the ACL in 2018, Lyle joined Cory Bernardi’s Australian Conservatives as their communications director.In 2019, he ran for the Senate. But, despite Lyle’s best efforts, the Australian Conservatives’ performance was woeful; they failed to get a single candidate into parliament. In June 2019, Bernardi announced that he would deregister the party – apparently closed due to lack of interest. Where the f#ck was God?
Questioned about the dismal result Shelton said, “Sadly, we have not done well. It was not our time.”
You’d think God might have let them know that before they put in all that effort!
If God can’t communicate clearly with his earthly representatives about when they should run for parliament, you haveto wonder whether there are other communication breakdowns between Yahweh and his chosen ones. Maybe God wasn’t against marriage equality, after all? Maybe Lyle just got it wrong.
Just as Lyle failed to get into the Queensland parliament in 2006, he failed to enter the federal sphere in 2019. If God wants Lyle in politics, he has a very funny way of showing it.
Defeated once again, Lyle worked as part-time staffer for Queensland LNP politician, Mark Robinson.
During this time, Lyle became embroiled in a ding-dong row with a couple of drag-queens who were innocently reading fairy tales to children in a council library. The furore resulted in a (gay) religious protestor taking his own life and Shelton being sued $20,000 for defamation. It was all very tacky, and it’s hard to imagine the Creator of the Universe looking down and feeling proud that Lyle was “doing God’s work.”
In April 2021 it looked as if God had finally decided Lyle’s time had come. With veteran religious bigot, Fred Nile, forced to retire from his own party, Lyle Shelton was to be ‘parachuted in’ to take his place in the NSW upper house. Sydney MLA, Alex Greenwich, spoke for many when he was asked how he felt about the light-weight Shelton succeeding heavy-weight Nile:
“Letting a politically irrelevant blow-in fill your vacated shoes is a sad legacy to leave after 40 years in Parliament.”
But Lyle, it seems, has the luck of Job when it comes to his political career. Just this week it was announced that, riven by internal squabbles and financial mismanagement, Fred Nile’s Christian Democratic Party has been forced into receivership. Before Lyle even had a chance to get elected, the party seems to have crumbled beneath him. Although it’s probably unfair to blame Lyle – who came so late to the CDP table – there has been some reference to his propensity for sending political parties down the gurgler.
Lyle Shelton was raised to believe he was chosen by God to help transform the world’s governments to create a world worthy of Christ’s return. And yet, at every turn, he has failed in spectacular style. The Christian parties he has joined have crumbled beneath him. He has failed to win every major battle he has taken on. He has never succeeded being elected and, like his father’s cult, his homophobia, bigotry and anti-scientific stance has lost him the respect and support of mainstream Christians and their churches.
It’s hard to believe that God, if he exists, could be so hugely inept at assisting his “Chosen One” to do his bidding. If God does have some great inscrutable plan in which Lyle is an actor, he seems to have cast Lyle as Judas rather than Jesus – the screw-up who gets everything wrong and lets the whole team down.
Perhaps it’s time for Lyle to consider whether God is really on his side – or whether God is looking on, appalled, with the rest of us.
Many years ago, on behalf of Atheist Nexus, I wrote a submission to the Australian Human Rights Commission on Freedom of Religion and Belief in Australia. Pulling together statistics on religiosity in Australia took months. The research was both scant and scattered.
From: Religiosity in Australia, Neil Francis, Rationalist Society of Australia (2021)
It’s a big read at 150 pages, but well worth the effort. I highly recommend you find a comfy chair, snuggle down with a cuppa, and devour the whole thing. You’ll also find a short summary of the research by Paul Karp in The Guardian.
The aim of Neil’s detailed, statistical analysis is “to help inform legislatures, governments, regulatory authorities, media and the public about Australians’ actual religious attitudes and behaviours.” It is not ‘opinion’, it is information based on statistics and sound evidence.
Neil shows, definitively, that the Australian Census does not provide an accurate assessment of Australians’ attachment to religious faith. The 2016 census suggests that 60 per cent of Australians identify with a religious denomination. But, the census question does not ask whether the respondent practices that religion, whether they believe in its tenets, or if they ever attend religious services. In fact, as Neil’s study shows, when asked expressly if they belong to a religious organisation, 62 per cent of Australians reply in the negative.
Remarkably, 48 per cent of Catholics, 44 per cent of Anglicans and 27 per cent of minor Christian denominations say they are not practicing members of their professed faith. Consistent with these statistics, 71 per cent of Australians say religion is not important to them – including nearly 50 per cent of Catholics.
In “Felons, Ratbags, Commies and Left-Wing Loonies”, the chapter I wrote for Warren Bonnett’s (2010) The Australian Book of Atheism, I charted the history of Christianity in Australia, I agreed that, while convicts, colonists, pioneers and those who came after them may have been nominally Christian, Australia, at its heart, has never been a ‘Christian nation.’ (I made a similar argument in a speech about Jeremy Benthamin 2014.) Neil’s research confirms this is as true in 2021 as it was in 1788. We are a nation in which a small majority of the population are nominal, but not practicing, or even believing, Christians. That should have real implications for political policy-making.
Consider, if religion was an important factor in Australians’ lives, most Australians would choose – on what many consider the most important day of their lives – to get married in a church. And yet, 80 per cent of weddings are conducted by civil celebrants, not ministers of religion.
Further, Neil’s study shows, most Australians do not follow the conservative churches’ line on social issues. The majority of Australians support progressive social policies including abortion and women’s reproductive rights, voluntary assisted dying, marriage equality, the legalisation of recreational drugs and the need to address global warming. As Neil points out, the “Christian values” so loudly espoused by the Vatican, and from conservative religious pulpits around Australia, do not reflect the values of the churches’ own congregations.
In 2018, 40 per cent of Australians claimed to hold no belief in either a specific deity or even a generic “higher power.” That makes unbelievers the largest ‘religious’ grouping in Australia. But an even more startling finding in Neil’s study is that: just 1 in 5 Australians – only 20 per cent – are certain that God, heaven, hell, religious miracles, and life after death are real. That includes, on average, just 1 in 3 Catholics (32%), and around 1 in 4 Anglicans (23%) and Uniting/Methodists (23%).
This confirms my argument in Felons, Ratbags, Commies and Left-Wing Loonies that, for many, attending church is about networking, social status, socialising, culture and tradition, and a sense of obligation, rather than any particular commitment to the tenets and beliefs of the church.
With Neil Francis, the Rationalist Society of Australia has provided us with an evidence-based document that will help to counter the hollow propaganda of the religious right. Politicians who genuinely wish to represent the values of their constituents would do well to consider Neil’s findings.
Australia is not, and has never been, a ‘Christian’ nation and our governments’ policies should reflect the views of the majority, not the ideological propaganda of lobbyists whose views are not even consistent with those of the people they claim to represent.
You wouldn’t know it by listening to church leaders, but the majority of Christians and Catholics support voluntary assisted dying (VAD). The latest Australian Electoral Study data, collected by the Australian National University, shows that 74 per cent of Catholics, 78 per cent of Anglicans and 81 per cent of Uniting Church/Methodists want VAD legalised.
VAD is also strongly supported in the countries and jurisdictions where it is legal. In Belgium, for example, 53 per cent of the population is Catholic (compared with 23 per cent of Australians), yet, around 80 per cent of Belgians support their country’s very liberal law on assisted dying. Around 81 per cent of the Portuguese population is Catholic, but almost 60 per cent support VAD. So, although ‘the Church’ might oppose VAD, most Catholics don’t, and those who do are a fringe group, unrepresentative of the majority.
While the most vocal opposition to VAD comes from this Catholic minority, it’s not always obvious. Catholic opponents of VAD often take great care to conceal, or at least not disclose, the religious affiliation which dictates their view on assisted dying. This is similar to a climate scientist arguing against the contention that human activity causes global warming, while failing to disclose they work for an oil company; or a medical doctor warning the current MMR vaccine is dangerous while failing to disclose his investment in the development of an alternative vaccine. It is, to be blunt, unethical and dishonest.
Recently, when New Zealanders were debating whether to legalise voluntary assisted dying, a letter from the Catholic Bishops advised:
When Canadian film-maker, Kevin Dunn, produced, directed and starred in an anti-VAD documentary, Fatal Flaws, he failed to disclose that he is a devout Catholic, from a family of devout Catholics, his father was a ‘pro-life’ activist, and that his media company was formed expressly to provide ‘slick branding’ for pro-life propaganda. Neither does Dunn disclose in his documentary the information he provided when interviewed on The Eternal Word Television Network, a global Catholic news network:
“… When I turned 50, I said to the Lord, I said, ‘Lord, you know I’m doing all of this work and raising this family and I’m getting to mass and doing – but I want to do more.’
And a few people talked to me: ‘Could you do more for pro-life?’
And I thought, ‘You know what? I’ll do this!’
That’s where the impetus [for the documentary] came.”
All of this is concealed from the viewers who are meant to assume that Dunn is just an everyday guy with a passing interest in getting to the “truth” about VAD. He never tells you that his mind was irrevocably made up before he set out on a world-tour to discover “the truth” or that every person he interviews was carefully selected, edited, or counter-acted, to tell the story he wants you to hear.
This year, academic publisher, Springer, released a book called Euthanasia: Searching for the Full Story: Experiences and Insights of Belgian Doctors and Nurses. The blurb for the book notes that it is written by written by “ten Belgian health care professionals, nurses, university professors and doctors specializing in palliative care and ethicists who, together, raise questions concerning the practice of euthanasia.”
I should not have been surprised that a) they were all Catholics or that b) the word ‘Catholic’ does not appear anywhere, not even once, in the text, the authors’ biographies, nor in any kind of disclosure of their affiliations. But I was surprised. Stupidly. I am always surprised that the people claiming to inhabit the moral high ground are so willing to be deceptive.
Neil Francis, from the pro-VAD website, Dying for Choice, enlisted my assistance in searching for the “full story” on contributors to Euthanasia: Searching for the Full Story. As researchers, we are trained to inquire of any scholarly work: “Who wrote this and what, if anything, is their agenda?”
This project took Neil and me – two professional researchers – many hours, finding and reading articles and news stories in English, French, Dutch and German! A general reader has no hope of ‘stumbling’ across this vital information – and the writers rely on that.
Neil’s research on the Belgian book, together with some information supplied by me, is detailed in his blog post: Springer publishes polemical anti-VAD anecdotes. Scroll through the list of contributors and note how often the word Catholic appears!
As debates over legalising VAD in Australia continue, it’s important for politicians to realise that, when people, (often touting their professional expertise), argue about the ‘dangers’ of VAD, the ‘evidence’ they produce has, inevitably, been widely and soundly debunked. Scratch the surface and you will find their opposition is based on ideology, not evidence. Politicians must ask, “WHO is this person, and why are they making this argument?” If they do some investigation (or ask us!), they will find, as we so often do, that the doctor, nurse, bioethicist or university professor, loudly proclaiming the overwhelming weight of evidence in favour of VAD is wrong, is also a devout Catholic or evangelical Christian, Orthodox Jew, or Mormon missionary.
Christians have every right to object to VAD and to choose not to avail themselves of the law when it is introduced. But they do themselves, or their religion, no favours by being deceptive. Being deceptive – either by commission or omission – is dishonest. There should be no place for dishonesty about an issue which has such a fundamental impact upon people’s lives and the nature of their deaths. And it is outrageous and unconscionable that we have come to expect that professional people of faith will, knowingly, provide false and misleading information to public debates and inquiries while concealing the religious convictions which drive them to do so.
Most moments in our lives wash over us, quickly forgotten. The information which shapes and changes our views is often acquired incrementally – we know what we believe, but it’s hard to recall how or when we came to form our opinions. But, on rare occasions, a single insight, or piece of information, can transform your understanding of the world in an instant. These tectonic shifts in perspective are so rare, they become etched, indelibly, in our memories and can change our lives forever. The revelation that changed my life and world-view was the statement, “Christians lie.”
Long before I was any kind of activist, long before I’d even started the university degrees which gave me the skills I now use as a professional researcher, I attended a party. The host was a ghost-writer for a series of famous detective novels, the guests, an eclectic mix of professionals, artists and writers, and a few ‘randoms’ like me.
At that time, I had very few strong convictions. I wasn’t religious, but I was curious about the history of religion. I knew nothing about evolution – it wasn’t taught at the private school I attended as a teen. And, although I may well have agreed with the concept of voluntary assisted dying, it wasn’t a subject to which I’d been exposed. I might have described myself as nominally Christian, although I’d long since ceased to believe in an omniscient or omnipresent deity. Like most Australians then, and probably now, I thought of Christians and Christianity in general as ‘good’ – even if I didn’t buy in to the whole ‘God’ thing.
A young couple at this party stood out from the rest of the guests. Looking vaguely like hippies, I saw them locked in earnest conversation with a man in his 40s, who I knew to be a scientist. I didn’t like him much. He was abrasive and arrogant, but the volume of the conversation was escalating and I was intrigued, so I moved in as a spectator.
They were discussing evolution. The young couple, recently converted to some fundamentalist faith, were arguing passionately that the theory of evolution had been definitively debunked; that only creationism could explain the complexity and diversity of life on earth. To my uneducated ear, they sounded well-educated, well-read and convincing. But, the scientist was better read, knew the sources they were relying on, and eviscerated their argument forensically.
“Who says that?”
“Based on what evidence?”
“That’s not what that study says! Have you read it?”
“You’re quoting that completely out of context? What he really said was …”
It was the first time I’d witnessed a clash between ‘belief’ and ‘knowledge’ and, at length, ‘belief’ was reduced to a lot of ‘humming and harring’ until, roundly defeated, it retreated to the buffet and affected a feigned fascination with the finger food.
Talking to the scientist later, I said, “I enjoyed the argument, but they did seem really well read and well informed. What about all the evidence they talked about?”
The scientist looked me straight in the eye, and in a tone which reminded me of God instructing Moses from the burning bush he said intoned slowly, but emphatically, “Christians lie!”
I was not, then, particularly well educated, but I was not stupid. I had, of course, entertained the idea that Christians might be mistaken in their beliefs. But, it had never occurred to me that people who aim to emulate Christ and inhabit the high moral ground might tell bald-faced lies. It would be another 20 years before I’d call myself an atheist, but this was a revelation which changed my entire view of the world. In fact, the idea that Christians might lie hit me so forcefully that every time I find evidence to support that assertion, I time-travel back to that long-ago party and hear the scientist’s words ringing in my ears.
Some time later, I came across research undertaken by Dr Martin Bridgstock. In the 1980s, Bridgstock was struck by the amount of ‘scientific evidence’ being put forward to support creationism. The material was sufficiently convincing that Bridgstock decided he should investigate it. Just as I had been at the debate at that party, Dr Bridgstock was taken aback to find the Christians compiling these academic arguments weren’t just mistaken – they were lying.
“Anyone encountering creationist claims for the first time is bound to be struck by the amount of scientific evidence they produce. Major scientists are quoted, scientific papers referred to, and important findings detailed. Given the sweeping nature of the creationist challenge, it is logical to ask a simple, basic question: how reliable is the evidence that creationists produce?
… I examined the creationist literature, and checked claims that creationists made. Two rough statistics summarise my findings.
First, on average, each creationist reference to science has two errors: these comprise a minor error (e.g. a wrong page, date, or an error in a quote) and a major error. The latter is an error which gravely misrepresents, and changes the meaning of the evidence quoted.
The second statistic is that roughly 90 per cent of creationist references to science have something gravely wrong with them: that is, they have major errors.
This result — repeated many times — shocked me profoundly. It meant, if correct, that creationist claims could not be believed without careful checking. It also meant that the normal give-and-take of discussion simply could not exist: how can you discuss something with people who have made so many errors?
… Misquotes are not uncommon in creationist literature. More common is taking a quote, or some information out of context, so that its meaning is altered.
… It is quite common to find creationists quoting only part of a scientific paper, if the part they do not quote conflicts with the point they wish to make.”
And, once misleading academic-sounding documents are published, he says:
“… one notices also that they quote themselves and other creationists extensively.”
That is, having misrepresented legitimate academic texts, they then quote their own dishonest texts as evidence.
“As one works through the creationist literature, one constantly finds errors, changes and misquotes of this type. On top of these major errors, there is also a thick scattering of trivial errors. This suggests to me and to other researchers that creationist claims are not reliable. Ultimately, this lack of accuracy appears as a form of arrogance. The one thing any researcher needs is humility before the majesty and complexity of the universe. It is this lack which renders creationism a menace to scientific enquiry.”
Reading Bridgstock was another one of those “lightning bolt” moments in my intellectual evolution. It took me from the assertion that “Christians lie” to carefully documented and incontestable evidence that this was true.
By the time I read Bridgstock I was much better educated, having completed a university degree and post-graduate studies as a mature-age student. Concepts such as ‘evidence’, ‘credible sources’, ‘respecting the context of quotations’ and ‘being aware of ideological agendas’ had been drummed into me. With this rigorous training behind me, I was even more aghast that anyone with a tertiary education could betray the discipline of academic research and writing this way.
In 2013, I attended a debate in Brisbane between astrophysicist Professor Lawrence Krauss and Dr William Lane Craig on the topic, “Has Science Buried God?” Speaking first, Krauss, to the shock of both the audience and Craig, immediately launched into an impassioned speech about his opponent’s history of lying for Jesus. It was brutal, but Krauss didn’t just claim that Craig was a liar, he backed it up with video evidence. Speaking to Eternity News after the debate, Krauss explained:
“There’s no point in my debating William Lane Craig—he’s not going to learn anything from me or listen.
… I happen to think William Lane Craig abuses science and says many, many, many things that are not only disingenuous but untruthful, but recognises that his audience won’t know that. So one of the reasons I like to do these [debates], and certainly why I agreed to allow the first one to be videotaped, is to demonstrate explicitly examples of where he says things that he knows to be manifestly wrong, but also knows that the audience won’t have access to the information.
… I wanted to show that he was a liar. I think I did that, in my opinion, in the last debate. And I’ll do it again. I want to show what the science is. So I’ll show it again.”
“… when Dr Craig says ‘Scientists say this’ without any support, without any references, that it’s just some quote from someone, or no quote at all … [people] should be suspicious of what he says.
… I think he knowingly abuses science and other people’s arguments—distorts them— I think he does it because he believes in the end. He amazingly believes, wholeheartedly, in the scriptures. And I think his attitude is that because they’re right, anything goes to prove their right. But that’s not how we learn about the world.”
Around this time, voluntary assisted dying was becoming a hot topic of conversation and, as I heard the many arguments advanced in opposition to it, I started using the research skills I’d learned at university and had honed in the years since graduating to look into it. My research took me right back to that party in the 1990s where I was first introduced to the idea that Christians lie. I became such of an expert on the subject, I was invited to deliver the keynote speech to the Dying with Dignity NSW annual conference in 2011.
In my speech, I argued that Christians were not just lying about voluntary assisted dying, they were using the same dishonest tactics to argue on various fronts – about abortion, LGBTIQ people, and stem-cell research. Different topics, same strategy. I argued that the material emanating from pro-life and anti-gay advocates wasn’t just misinformed – it was blatant and deliberate lying. It was dishonesty and deception strategically employed for the purpose of achieving a religious goal.
I gave the example of The Family Council of Victoria (FCV) – affiliated with a number of prominent Christians and Christian organisations including the Catholic Women’s League and Fred Nile’s Christian Democratic Party. At that time, under the heading “Abortion and Breast Cancer” the Family Council of Victoria’s website stated that:
“The link between induced abortion and breast cancer is substantial … The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in the U.K. has issued warnings of a 30% greater risk of breast cancer via leaflets and the internet.”
But, when I checked the website of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG), it said:
“… there is now evidence to conclude that induced abortion is not associated with an increase in breast cancer risk.”
And, it was not just that the FCV hadn’t caught up with the latest news. The RCOG’s statement had been on their website for eight years.
Another example related to LGBTIQ issues. An anti-gay Christian group called the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuals had cited an article by Professor Lisa Diamond to support the thesis that sexual identity can be changed. In fact, her study said exactly the opposite. Professor Diamond pulled no punches in her public rebuke:
“… there’s no chance that this is a misunderstanding, or simply a different scientific interpretation of the data, that’s simply not possible. This is a wilful misuse and distortion of my research. Not an academic disagreement, not a slight shading of the truth, its wilful distortion. And it’s illegitimate, and it’s irresponsible, and you know that, and you should stop.”
As I’ve developed as a researcher, I’ve learned that on issues such as evolution, abortion, stem-cell research, LGBTIQ issues and voluntary assisted dying, when you find a claim or an anecdote that is blatantly untrue, the source will almost inevitably be a Christian activist or organisation – although the link will almost always be concealed or undeclared. Dig enough and you’ll find that doctor is a devout Catholic or Mormon, that ‘neutral’ journalist is an evangelical Christian, that outspoken politician is even more outspoken when addressing her local Baptist church, that ‘secular’ bio-ethics organisation is funded by the Catholic Church, that MP’s presentation was authored by a religious ghost-writer with no academic qualifications, and that ‘not particularly religious’ opinion writer has strong family links to a fundamentalist church.
The lying, coupled with the subterfuge, is jarring – even after you’ve encountered it time after time after time.
It should come as no surprise that opposition to voluntary assisted dying is almost exclusively linked to, or inflamed by, religious activists or organisations. In an interview with VAD activist, Neil Francis, Els Borst, the Dutch MP who first introduced VAD legislation to the Netherlands, reveals there was a time when the lies emanating from the Vatican were so egregious, the Dutch government sent a delegation threatening to cut diplomatic ties.
Els Borst: Their journal, the Osservatore Romano, was writing, was publishing articles saying that in the Netherlands, people who went to a nursing home or an old people’s home, didn’t dare to do that any more because they were so afraid they would be killed by their doctor after a week or so.
And we were so angry about this, absolute lies, that we went together, to the Vatican, and we told them that if they didn’t stop that sort of lies in their journal, that we would stop diplomatic relations with Vatican City.
I can still remember the night Neil shared that, as yet, unpublished information to me, as we shared an Asian meal in Brisbane. I found I still had the capacity to be shocked.
One of the most scathing assessments of this religious strategy of dishonesty and deceit comes from John Griffiths, emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Groningen. Writing in a scholarly book on Euthanasia and Law in Europe, Griffiths says:
“Imprecision, exaggeration, suggestion and innuendo, misinterpretation and misrepresentation, ideological ipsedixitism, and downright lying and slander (not to speak of bad manners) have taken the place of careful analysis of the problem and consideration of the Dutch evidence.”
I had Griffith’s quote in mind today as I was reading a document, recently published by Andrew Denton’s Go Gentle Australia (GGA) (for which, in full disclosure, I have done some work in my professional capacity as a freelance researcher.) GGA’s “A Guide to the Debate on Voluntary Assisted Dying” points to a ‘minority report’ opposing the introduction of VAD, by Western Australian MP, Nick Goiran. Goiran (a committed Christian) warns of the high number of wrongful deaths occurring in countries and jurisdictions which have legalised VAD. At face value, it’s a terrifying account. But GGA’s assessment of Goiran’s claims is strangely reminiscent of Martin Bridgstock’s critique of creationist literature, three decades earlier. GGA explains:
“Analysis shows the bulk of the evidence used in this report was not peer reviewed but instead came from abbreviated versions of official reports taken out of context, newspaper stories and anecdotes told by anti-euthanasia physicians.
A detailed investigation of 26 allegations of ‘wrongful deaths’ presented in the Minority Report shows that only six out of 26 cases (less than a quarter) related to patients who may qualify for an assisted death (under the legislation that was being debated in Western Australia).
Twenty cases in the Minority Report were entirely irrelevant because the subjects fell outside the proposed criteria.”
Among those cases found by GGA to have been grossly misrepresented in Mr Goiran’s account were: one rejected as ‘lacking veracity’ by the CEO of the health care provider in which the incident occurred; four in which the victim of the ‘wrongful death’ was still alive, and; two in which the subjects were not approved for assisted deaths and died by their own hands.
In short, the report was a tissue of lies, based on half-truths, misreporting and information taken out of context. And Goiran is far from the only culprit. This is not the exception, but the rule.
Now, let me be clear. When I say “Christians lie” I do not mean every Christian lies. I don’t even mean that most Christians lie. But what I can say is that Christians who engage in ideological activism designed to curtail the freedoms of others, or impose their religious views upon those who don’t share them, routinely lie, distort, misquote, and present information out of context – and they do it deliberately. I know this because I have seen them corrected and directed to the correct information time and time again, and yet, they continue to pump out the same, old, discredited arguments.
Further, not content with this outrageous mendacity, they routinely conceal, and, in fact, deny outright, the religious ideology which underpins their convictions.
Call me naive, but even today, when I scratch the surface and find that a blatantly dishonest account has been authored by a Christian I am still as shocked as I was the first time the scientist at that party said to me, “Christians lie.”
I still struggle to understand how people who claim to be fighting on the side of truth and morality are routinely willing to just make shit up in order to achieve their goals. What’s more, because I do not tar all Christians with the one brush, I know that many, perhaps most, Christians are appalled at what is being done, and said, in their name. It is, to put it in Biblical terms, an abomination.
Christians lie. In doing so they betray everything their religion is supposed to stand for. Conservative Christian activists are dedicated to defending the things they hold sacred, but they are all too ready to violate the one thing that should be sacred to all of us, whether we are people of faith or of none – the truth.
1. That protection (i.e. social assistance and welfare) should come from ‘community’ not the state, and that those who expect protection from the state are immoral.
2. That groups which coalesce in order to obtain protection from the state are evil and strip their members of their individuality and humanity.
3. That it is not his job to save the world – it is God’s, working through his community of believers.
Now, there are some pretty big contradictions in Morrison’s speech. There he is, a Pentecostal Christian, speaking to a group of people who identify first and foremost as Pentecostal Christians. His speech is littered with the jargon of Pentecostal Christianity. And, as he speaks, the audience responds vocally in a ritual heard only in Pentecostal Churches. The Prime Minister enjoins them to form (church) communities and bring others into them. None of this, apparently, strips the members of the ACC churches of their humanity in the way that identifying as a feminist, a unionist, a refugee, a person of colour, a person with disabilities, or a member of the LGBTIQ community does.
Morrison decries this kind of ‘identity politics’ saying:
“There is a fashion, these days, to not think of Australians as individuals. There is, particularly, I think, amongst our young people – and I worry about this – people think of themselves (it’s called ‘identity politics’), they think of themselves by the things they can describe in collective with others – these are important things – one’s ancestry, one’s gender, where one’s from …. but there is a tendency for people not to see themselves and value themselves in their own right as individuals. And to see themselves only defined by some group. And to get lost in that group, and you know when you do that you lose your humanity. And you lose your connection, I think, one to each other. And you’re defined by your group not by, I believe, who God has created you to be, and to understand that. And that’s a big thing going on in our community and our society, and it’s corrosive. It’s absolutely corrosive, and I think it’s undermining community and I think it’s undermining the self-worth Australians can have. ‘Cos if you’re only defined by what pack you’re in, or what group you’re in, or what box you’ve been put in, and how others have defined you or sought to define you, either to enlist you to their cause or whatever that might be, Australians need to understand that they, themselves, individually and personally are unique and wonderful. … I think it’s an evil thing, I think it’s a very evil thing. And we’ve got to pray about it. We’ve got to call it out. We’ve got to raise up spiritual weapons against this.”
And just how do you raise up spiritual weapons? Through the church. In fact, he calls upon his audience to go out and evangelise to build (church) communities.
“I need you to … reach out and let each and every Australian know that they are important, that they are significant and, as we believe, they are created in the image of God. And in understanding that, they can go on a journey that I’m very confident you can take them on.”
Morrison makes it crystal clear that when he says ‘community’ he means ‘church community’.
“I’ve always been at a community church. That’s where I want to be. In a church that believes in community and creates community. And the essence of community is each individual understanding that they’re valued, that they’re unique, that they can respect one another, that they can contribute to one another. We cannot allow what we feel entitled to, to be more important than what we’re responsible for … Morality is about not only focussing on you, but on the person next to you … That is the essence of community. You can’t pass a law for it.”
You can’t pass a law to show people they’re valued? You can’t pass a law to encourage people to respect each other, e.g. in the workplace? You can’t pass a law to ensure that the disadvantaged get a hand up and a fair go? I’d beg to differ.
When Morrison says, “I need you to keep building community in this country,” he doesn’t mean communities of disadvantaged people, he means faith communities. When he says, “You can’t replace community with governments,” he means, “You can’t replace church communities with governments.”
He makes this very clear in his opening comments. When Morrison (not uncharacteristically) offered no useful solutions to social problems, he says Jenny Morrison’s father would become frustrated. In response, Morrison would say, “You know Roy, I can’t fix the world. I can’t save the world. We both believe in someone who can.”
For Morrison, the solution to social problems is to outsource them to God. It’s a typical Morrison “it’s-not-my-job” response. It’s not my job to hold a hose. It’s not my job to fix social problems. It’s not the government’s job to fix social problems.
And, for Morrison, people who work in co-operation outside the church to lobby the government to address social inequity are involved in the work of the devil. He drives this point home by referencing Rabbi Jonathan Sacks book on morality.
“Our rights used to be how we were protected from the state. And now, it’s what we expect from it.… What we once expected from family and community, now we contract this to the state and to the market.”
Morrison agrees, saying, “You can’t replace community with governments, with the markets, with other institutions .. you can’t!”
The Prime Minister makes it clear that when he is talking about “community” he is talking about a church community.
His ACC speech is self-indulgent and waffley, but it’s full of Pentecostal dog-whistles. Essentially, he is preaching the Pentecostal prosperity doctrine of individualism. What counts is not what disadvantage you’ve been born with or acquired throughout your life, but your relationship with God. If your relationship with God is strong enough, and if you tithe until it hurts, He will lift you out of your disadvantage you and reward you. If you are not rewarded, you have only yourself to blame.
As Bruce Duncan explains in an article for Social Policy Connections:
“The ‘prosperity gospel’ reduces religion to a magical technique to advance one’s individual self-interest, ignoring that the Gospel is meant to be ‘good news for the poor’, the Bible’s code for all in distress. The prosperity gospel instead focuses on individual wellbeing, rather than promoting wider concepts of solidarity and social justice in an effort to promote the common good of everyone, but especially of the most disadvantaged or marginalised.”
Duncan reminds us that, as Treasurer, Morrison:
“… pursued hard-line neoliberal policies, condemning welfare recipients as the ‘taxed nots’ while committing $65bn in tax cuts for the big corporates. More recently he rejected ‘the politics of envy’, code to disparage calls arguments for a fairer distribution of wealth, and deplored those who are ‘takers’ but not ‘makers’.”
For Morrison and his ilk, if anyone is going to look after the poor, the marginalised and the disadvantaged, it should not be the government – it should be the community – the church community. And, of course, it is his tribe of fundamentalist Christians who will decide who gets what, who is deserving and which people just need to ‘pray for God to change them’ or just pull their goddamn socks up.
Morrison’s ACC speech is just a fuzzy version of hardline fundamentalist Christian economics. Here’s what Christian libertarian, Thomas L Johnson, says on the subject:
“Any Christian who does not openly and vehemently denounce all forms of government welfare, cannot, in truth, call himself a Christian, for government welfare is the antithesis of Christian charity. Government welfare operates on the premise of force, whereas Christian charity can only exist where there is freedom of choice —where there is an act of the individual will. Since government welfare programs are outside the control of the individual, and thus outside the realm of free will, they are outside the province of Christian morality and are consequently evil, and must be condemned by all moral men.”
Morrison could have taken exactly this quote as the basis for his speech. But why would he suggest that such a huge burden be carried by people of faith?
Because, when the poor and disadvantaged become dependent on the church, the church gets the big government grants and the power that goes with that. What’s more, the church gets to call the shots on the services it provides.
We can already see the effect of this in the Catholic Church’s dominance in the health care sector. Regardless of the patient’s personal needs or beliefs, Catholic hospitals deny them access to legal procedures like abortion, tubal ligation, and voluntary assisted dying because they do not accord with the institution’s Christian values.
When the Church, rather than feminist groups, provides pre-natal counselling services, abortion is not mentioned as an option. If the subject is raised, the pregnant female is provided with a raft of misinformation about how abortion is likely to cause breast cancer and psychological issues. God’s work is done.
Churches like Hillsong and Horizon, hold to the New Apostolic Reformation’s 7 Mountains Mandate. Their aim is to build the power and influence of the church across all public institutions in order to create a global theocracy. Only then, they believe, will Jesus return to the God-fearing society his apostles (NAR church leaders) have prepared for him.
So, when Morrison tells you his policies aren’t derived from the Bible he’s probably right, they aren’t. But they’re certainly inspired by the twisted tenets and beliefs of the Australian Christian (Pentecostal) Churches and the New Apostolic Reformation.
The idea that Christian charities can take the place of the welfare state was particularly popular in America under Trump. Emma Green in The Atlantic tells us:
“President Trump’s initial budget proposal would end aid for poor families to pay their heating bills, defund after-school programs at public schools, and make fewer grants available to college students. Community block grants that provide disaster relief, aid neighborhoods affected by foreclosure, and help rural communities access water, sewer systems, and safe housing would be eliminated.”
Importantly, Green notes that most of the money that goes into churches doesn’t get spent on helping the poor and the disadvantaged, but goes towards the defraying the costs (and luxurious lifestyles) of clergy, building, materials, etc. That’s been very obvious in the recent Hillsong scandal in the USA where money tithed to the Church was used for the high-flying life-styles of the pastors.
Make no mistake, Morrison sees the devil at work in women’s March4Justice, in refugees’ rights groups, and in LGBTIQ communities. The only community he is not threatened by is the community of fundamentalist Christians and, it is to this community he wishes to channel the maximum amount of money and power.
Maya Angelou once said, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”
In his speech to the ACC, Scott Morrison has shown us who he is.
This article appears in the Winter 2020 edition of The New Liberator, published by the Rationalist Association of NSW. Back issues of The New Liberator are available on the association’s website. Membership of the NSW Rationalists is very reasonable and includes 4 hard-copy issues of the New Liberator per year and the chance to participate in the ‘RATS’ lobbying efforts. Established in 1912, The Rationalist Association of NSW is currently headed by Meg and Max Wallace and Steve Maxwell. For membership and enquiries, email: email@example.com. You do not have to live in NSW to join.
It’s been a hell of a year. We’re only half way through 2020 and already Australians have battled bushfires of unprecedented scale and ferocity, watched a global pandemic kill hundreds of thousands and send countries and individuals into self-isolation. Now, we’re looking on as America’s tinder-box of racial and cultural polarisation begins to ignite.
Crisis brings out the best and the worst in us; it throws trends which have been bubbling along in the background into stark relief. One of those trends is not new, but perhaps more prevalent as politicians and populations grapple with how to understand and manage a tsunami of apocalyptic challenges. There’s an old saying, “Opinions are like arseholes – everyone has one.” That’s never been so true. Today, the unqualified, unfiltered, and often unwashed denizens of social media fill our news feeds with their self-confident, and often contrarian, views on current affairs. Lately, the world seems to be full of Renaissance men (and, to a lesser extent, women) who appear to have in-depth, expert knowledge on any subject you care to mention. As an American Facebooker, Tyler Boshoven, recently observed:
“I think the coolest thing about this entire Coronavirus thing is realizing how many people I know have been secret expert virologists this entire time! Like, I know most experts are warning about the severity of the virus, but Johnny drop out over here says it’s no big deal!”
What caused Australia’s bushfires? Climate change? That’s certainly the view of climate scientists and pyrologists. In November 2019, fire chiefs warned “the climate crisis was making bushfires deadlier and bushfire season longer.” But, because that narrative didn’t suit the Coalition and big business, the issue quickly became politicised. Murdoch journalists, coalition politicians and right-wing commentators deflected attention from climate change by pointing the finger at arsonists. Even in the face of overwhelming evidence that this was not the case, people with no expertise in climate science or fire-fighting dug in.
What caused COVID-19? Virologists who examined the virus closely say it has none of the tell-tale signs of genetic manipulation. Yet social media buzzes with conspiracy theories that the virus is a Chinese biological weapon, deliberately released to bring down Western democracy. Some conspiracists argue that radiation from 5G phone networks has compromised our immune systems and that the virus is a ploy to introduce legislation for compulsory vaccination and inject us all with tracking chips. That this fear-mongering directly contradicts the views of experts matters very little. One in eight Australians now believe 5G is spreading Coronavirus and nearly half believe the virus came from a Chinese laboratory (Essential Poll, 2020).
Recently, when Professor Peter Doherty warned that Australians are becoming too relaxed about COVID-19, The Australian’s economic journalist, Adam Creighton, responded, “I’m concerned people aren’t relaxed enough!” Twitter wit, @DocMelbourne pondered:
“Hmmm. who to trust? One of Murdoch’s lackeys or a Nobel Prize winning immunologist?”
For those of us who value expert opinion, scientific consensus and the importance of evidence, the world seems to have become a Huxleyan dystopia in which experts are untrustworthy no-nothings while @WuhanWarrior from Twitter, a high-school drop-out who works at the local Higgledy-Piggledy, knows the ‘real truth’ because he’s ‘done his own research.’
Fire and pestilence are not the only crises we are confronting this year – we have been afflicted with a plague of ultracrepidarians – people who give (usually contrarian) advice and opinions outside their own area of expertise.
While ultracrepidarianism is a contemporary issue, it is far from a modern affliction. The etymological roots of the word ‘ultracrepidarian’ come from the story of the artist, Apelles of Koa, recounted by Pliny the Elder around 4BC. When Apelles put his art on show, the artist liked to hide behind his paintings in order to eavesdrop on people commenting about his skill. Apelles was a reasonable man. When a cobbler noted that Apelles’ rendering of a sandal was flawed, the artist recognised the man’s expertise and repainted it. Emboldened by the artist’s respect for his knowledge, the cobbler then ventured to suggest the subject’s leg could also do with some correction. This was a step too far for Apelles who rebuked the cobbler, “Sutor, ne ultra crepidam!” – literally, “Shoemaker! Not beyond the shoe!”
Photo:Apelles fresco by Giorgio Vasari, Casa Vasari, Florence
Following Pliny, English satirist, William Hazlitt, recorded the word, ultracrepidarian in 1819. In a put-down that would not be out of place in a Facebook flame war, Hazlitt railed at a newspaper editor:
“You have been well-called an Ultra-Crepidarian critic. From the difficulty you yourself have in constructing a sentence of common grammar, and your frequent failures, you instinctly presume that no author that comes under the lash of your pen can understand his mother-tongue … There is an innate meanness and vulgarity in all you do.”
It should come as no surprise that, 200 years after Hazlitt, ultracrepidarianism is taking over the interwebs. After all, the free world is now led by America’s ultracrepidarian-in-chief, President Donald Trump. Trump is the poster-child – the apotheosis – of ultracrepidarianism. Never, in the history of the world, has there been a greater ultracrepidarian! Trump (who lied about graduating first in his class), graduated from Wharton business school without honours. Six of his businesses were declared bankrupt between 1991 and 2009. Yet, he claims to have an almost super-human breadth and depth of superior knowledge. According to Trump:
“I think nobody knows more about taxes than I do, maybe in the history of the world.”
“Nobody in the history of this country has ever known so much about infrastructure as Donald Trump.”
“I know more about renewables than any human being on Earth.”
“I know more about ISIS than the generals do. Believe me.”
“There’s nobody bigger or better at the military than I am.”
“Nobody knows banking better than I do.”
“I understand the power of Facebook maybe better than almost anybody.”
“Nobody knows more about debt.” (That just might be true!)
Omnisciently, Trump even claims:
“I know more about Cory [Booker] than he knows about himself.”
Completely undeterred by his lack of medical training, President Trump recently astonished his medical advisers when he suggested that ingesting or injecting household bleach might be a good way to treat COVID-19. Why not? It works on your kitchen benches!
“I’m not a doctor,” the President admitted, but (pointing to his head), “ … I’m, like, a person that has a good you-know-what.”
While Trump clearly values his own expertise, he is not a fan of it in others.
“You know,” he said at a 2016 rally, “I’ve always wanted to say this … the experts are terrible!”
This anti-intellectualism is not confined to Trump. Climate-change denier, Myron Ebell, director of an American libertarian activist group, has derisively dubbed climate change scientists “the expertariate.” Ebell has a masters degree in political theory from the London School of Economics, but no expertise in climate science. Yet, he says:
“The people of America have rejected the expertariate, and I think with good reason because I think the expertariat have been wrong about one thing after another, including climate policy.”
For ideologues, hampered by the fact that science doesn’t support their views, inflating the frequency of scientific error in order to damage the prestige of (and public trust in) scientific institutions is a common strategy.
Anti-intellectualism is not a purely American phenomenon. In 2016, when ten Nobel prize-winning economists warned about the dire economic and social consequences of Brexit, conservative British politician, Michael Gove replied that “people in this country have had enough of experts with organisations from acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong.”
And it seems, Gove, who has no economic credentials (he read English at Oxford), was right. The nation’s leading economists were derided as ‘Chicken Littles’ and Britain voted to leave the EU – 52 to 48 per cent.
Anti-intellectualism flourishes in a world that has embraced a bastardised version of ‘cultural democracy.’ As Salon’s cultural critic, David Masciotra, explains:
“The true villain in a cultural democracy is the intellectual. The intellectual insists on standards of evidence, reason and logic when attempting to reach a conclusion regarding a matter of social import. She undermines the dogma that all nonsense is created equal, which renders her (or indeed him) unfit for participation in the increasingly masochistic rituals of liberty.”
Ironically, the blurring of class barriers and the democratisation of education and knowledge has not lead to a greater respect for expertise. Instead, says Professor Tom Nichols, author of the book The Death of Expertise, democratisation has fostered:
“… the growth of an irrational conviction among Americans that everyone is as smart as everyone else.”
This is not a position of intellectual snobbery. The argument isn’t that experts are smart while everyone else is dumb. Nor is it an argument that people should not seek out information and voice opinions. The problem is not that people are stupid or uneducated, but that people have been encouraged to believe that having a degree, or professional expertise in any area, qualifies them to advance contrarian views beyond their own specialisation. Vocational education bares some responsibility for this compartmentalisation of knowledge. Now, students are educated to be specialists rather than receiving a broad-based education in humanities. An Arts degree is widely viewed as worthless because “it won’t get you a job.”
On Facebook, recently, I was put in my place by an anti-vaccination advocate:
“A confirmed sheeple indeed! You would do well to research before making such ignorant statements!!! You’ve been blind-sided by incedious [sic] manipulation. As a Natural Health Practitioner, I have been directly involved with the victims of vaccines.”
I am not a scientist, but I am an academically-trained, professional researcher, with 10 years experience researching and debunking vaccination myths. I have actually done my own research.
“Do your own research” is the last resort of the online ultracrepidarian. The problem is that many have no idea how to do their own research and have no appreciation of research as a career in its own right, requiring years of training and professional experience. As Professor Tom Nichols says:
“I fear we are witnessing … a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laypeople, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers—in other words, between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all.”
This will resonate with those who recently heard celebrity chef and self-appointed ‘wellness guru’, Pete Evans, opine that “doctors don’t know much about biology” while defending his promotion of a machine that flashes coloured lights as a cure for COVID-19. Palpably ‘fed up to pussy’s bow’ with ultracrepidarians like Evans, Michael Vagg, a clinical associate professor at Deakin University School of Medicine says:
“Of all the weasel words immunisation deniers use, I get most infuriated by the ‘do your own research’ trope. You don’t need to. Unless you’re a senior research scientist with your own lab, a posse of postdocs and serious wad of cash, we don’t need your help” (Vagg, The Conversation, 2017).
When people say ‘do your own research’, says Vagg, they want average people to be allowed to disagree with decades of rigorous, serious scientific effort. But, he warns, when relying on the internet:
“The average person with high-school knowledge and healthy faith in human decency has no chance [of distinguishing fact from fiction].”
What drives people, with no relevant expertise, to dissent from the consensus opinions of those who have spent a lifetime gaining academic and professional credentials in their field? Research confirms Aristotle’s maxim: “The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.” Similarly, psychology has identified the Dunning Kruger effect: “The less you know, the more you think you know.” Like the cobbler in Pliny’s story, when someone is confident in, or recognised for, specialist knowledge they do have, they tend to become hubristic about areas beyond their expertise. Psychologists call this ‘over-claiming.’
Learning new information makes us feel good. Thinking that we’re smart gives us a buzz. But having our opinions or beliefs challenged makes us feel bad. Psychology suggests humans have an innate need to think highly of ourselves – even if this requires a breathtaking level of self-deception. For example, someone can be as dumb as a post and still feel justified in pointing to their head to claim, “I’m like a person who has a good you-know-what.” This is called ‘belief-superiority’ – the conviction that your preconceptions are right, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. And don’t be feeling smug! Who among us hasn’t stood on a bathroom scale, exclaimed, “That can’t be right!”, weighed ourselves again (maybe repeatedly), then insisted, “This scale must be broken!”
Belief superiority is nicely illustrated in the Netflix documentary, Behind the Curve. When proponents of the ‘flat earth’ theory invested a substantial amount of time and money into experiments to support their hypothesis that the world is both flat and static, every experiment they conducted proved the opposite. The flat-earthers acknowledged the findings but said, “We obviously were not willing to accept that.” If their scientific experiment had proved their assertion they would have crowed about being right. But when repeated experiments proved they were wrong, they insisted either the equipment or their methodology must have been at fault. As journalist, David McRaney (2011), says on his “You’re Not as Smart as You Think” blog:
“When your deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory evidence, your beliefs get stronger.”
Because of the ‘buzz’ we get from validation, people tend to seek out a ‘tribe’ that shares their views. The internet has facilitated that task. People with belief superiority congregate in groups that feed their confirmation bias. The result is the extreme polarisation we are witnessing in today’s ‘culture wars.’ Statistics show that, in America at least, fewer and fewer voters and politicians identify as moderates. The middle-ground is disappearing as people scream at each other across a deepening chasm; each side intransigently convinced they are right – often in absolute ignorance or contradiction of reliable data and evidence.
So what is one to do when confronted with an ultracrepidarian in the wild? While it’s true it’s almost impossible to sway the opinion of the person you’re arguing with, there is a good chance you might influence the bystanders. “Fight for the crowd” is a strategy which dates back to the gladiators in the Roman Colosseum. You are not fighting to win against your opponent, but to convince the audience that your argument deserves a ‘thumbs up.’ Argue to persuade the jury, not the person whose position is clearly entrenched. You almost certainly won’t convince them – but you might just persuade the onlookers that online ultracrepidarian is talking a load of old cobblers.
From time to time I get emails from people who have managed to extract themselves from the BCF, due, in part, to reading Helen Pomeroy’s brave testimony about her experience – an experience that nearly killed her.
At the time, Helen was involved in the Streetcar Forum which I’m pleased to see is still up and answering questions for survivors of Hall’s Christian Fellowship cults.
BCF has a ‘sister’ organisation, the MCF – Melbourne Christian Fellowship – also under the auspices of Mr Hall. I recently heard from Paul Kovaks (a pseudonym) who left the cult in 2016. Paul has started a WordPress Blog, MCFExposed, also with the aim of informing and supporting those who are within the grip, or trying to escape from, the psychological and spiritual abuse inflicted by Hall and his group of elders.
“The carnage of destruction from Vic’s messenger word is horrific in scale and nature. People locked up. Families separated. Financial ruins. Children lost. Divorces justified. Men! Women! Wake up. “
It’s important to say that both Helen (at least when I knew her many years ago) and Paul did not abandon their Christian faith – they simply came to realise that the kind of ‘faith’ being peddled by Hall and his cronies was a perverted and abusive form of psychological slavery, completely at odds with the doctrine of the Christian Bible.
I am not a Christian. I don’t believe in God or Hell or eternal damnation and I live a happy, contented and ethical life. People in cults are led to believe that if they do not follow the doctrine of their religious leader, they may as well be atheists for they have abandoned God. This is clearly untrue. People who leave cults can decide to abandon their faith (and, I guarantee, they will not suffer for doing so), but, more often, they retain their faith in God and come to realise that their sincere desire to please God was cruelly exploited by men (and sometimes women) with no authority from the Creator.
For those of us without faith, our aim in exposing cults is not to encourage people to walk away from their religious beliefs, but to walk away from an organization which is preaching a corrupted version of those beliefs and which is causing them pain and psychological damage. As an atheist, I am not in the business of de-converting anyone. And, when people of faith like Helen and Paul tell me their stories, my only aim is to help amplify their voice, not argue with them about religion.
With no authority, other than that which they claim for themselves, Hall and Co. demand that their followers abandon their own hopes, dreams, wishes and personal judgement. They demand that followers forego (what they see as) their personal relationship with Christ, and to have that relationship wholly mediated through the authority of the elders.
“Most of the time throughout my years in attendance it was publicly and privately expressed and implied that these people as leaders, were the voice and messenger of God, and that to disobey that voice and messenger was to disobey God Himself.”
Williams speaks of:
“A perverted concept of unity, which in reality translated itself into almost total and unquestioned obedience to the leadership. “
That is not a religion – it’s a cult.
According to Paul, those who do not obey the elders are told they are marked for Hell. That is a frightening prospect for someone who believes in such things and whose mental health has been worn down with years of religious/psychological abuse from church ‘authorities’.
No religion should be based on fear. When people fear the consequences of not obeying their leaders, they fear their leaders. When they fear their leaders, they fear each other – they dare not confide their doubts to others lest all hell (literally) breaks loose. And as everyone stays silent, the leaders gain more and more power, and the victims become more and more isolated, worn down and fearful. It is a vicious circle.
“I frequently discerned in my spirit that I was being analyzed as I spoke privately with 2 or 3 of the local Sunbury leaders. Rarely in my 7 years there, did it feel like we were having a normal conversation expressing the freedom and liberty of the Holy Spirit, as according to 2 Corinthians 3:17. It was as though they were trying to hunt out sin in my life!”
Under these circumstances, people – people who are supposed to have been made in the image of God – are reduced to little more than vegetative, tithe-paying, cattle. As Paul says on his MCFExposed blog:
I thank Paul for contacting me about his escape from the Melbourne Christian Fellowship and his blog. He is trying to get traffic to his blog so that people associated with the MCF will be able to find it through a Google search.
My brother served in both the Australian navy and the airforce.
My cousin and his father served in the airforce.
My father served in the AIF in Morotai.
My uncles served in the Middle East, including one who was in the Rats of Tobruk
Both my grandfathers served in France in World War I.
My grandmother was a military nurse.
My grandfather, Harold Robert Norman Stevenson was the recipient of a Military Medal.
And yet, as the descendant of this military family, I am effectively excluded from attending Anzac Day commemorations because of the overt religiosity (often tinged with right-wing, religious fundamentalism) of the current commemorations. I am sure I am not alone.
Norman A Stevenson
I am an atheist. My father, whose service cost him his mental health, was an atheist – although he preferred to call himself a ‘Jumping Calathumpian’. Yet I cannot attend a commemoration without being assaulted with religious, prayers, sermons and a sanitised version of Anzacs as god-fearing, saintly heroes that would both amuse and horrify them.
It’s time the RSL took religion out of Anzac services and made them secular. People of all religions and none, including Indigenous soldiers, served at Gallipoli and in other campaigns across time and place. We cannot continue to commemorate them in a way that distorts and dishonours this reality.
Australian defence personnel were not religious in the past, nor are they now. A report from Colonel Philip Hoglin of the Australian Army reminds us of the:
“… overlooked reality that the largest ‘religious’ grouping in the ADF no longer subscribes to, or is affiliated with, a religion.”
John (Jack) Thomas Webster
In 2015, over 47 per cent of ADF personnel had no religion. It is also likely that many of the remaining 53 per cent are only nominally Christian – do not attend church, believe in the power of prayer, or even believe in a supernatural deity.
Religious ANZAC Day services certainly don’t represent the contemporary ADF. But, what of the Anzacs?
As a group, the Anzacs were not religious. After the war, Australians were profoundly uncomfortable as the church worked assiduously to co-opt the commemorations.
Last year, Ann-Therese King shared a letter from her grandfather’s French fiancée to his mother, describing her impression of the Australian soldiers who defended her homeland in World War I:
“… they are big, hard men, men, who live hard, fight hard, and think less of death than any other body of men I have ever met. They seem to be very irreligious, and sometimes uncouth, but they are brave and large-hearted, and though naturally we have men of all kinds with us, I think their code of honour is the most admirable, that is to be found.” (My emphasis)
This is confirmed by Australian anthropologist, Bruce Kapferer in his book, Legends of People, Myths of State. He says:
“Many of the soldiers … were irreligious virtually by intention. Christian religion was part of the disciplinary framework of the military and the officers of religion were part of that structure of domination which denied to the men a self-determining autonomy valued in egalitarian thought.” (My emphasis)
Similarly, in his book, Inventing Anzac, professor of folklore at Curtin University, Graham Seal, says:
“… the expression and observance of religious belief was discouraged within digger culture.”
What these historians are saying, is that religion is not just irrelevant, but antithetical to the Anzac tradition.
Kapferer is clear: Religion was not just absent from Anzac culture – irreligion was ‘valorised’. In fact, the essence of Anzac, part of what became the ‘religion’ of Anzac was this irreligiosity.
Historian, Michael Belcher, refers to the padres who accompanied the Anzacs as ‘poorly appreciated’. The Anzacs, themselves, referred to them as “Cook’s Tourists”.As World War I veteran,Major Frank Valentine Weir wrote in his letter diary on 31 December 1916:
“Note all you say re Parson Rogers Chaplains have a great time 1 in bed every night & only 1 parade a week Church – carry the rank of an officer & no responsibility – the free lancer every where they go & recognize no C.O.”
After the war, says Belcher, most Australian clergy were reluctant to participate formally in Anzac Day commemorations because they did not want to glorify WWI as a ‘Holy War’.
“An Anzac Day service without prayers which, it Is hoped, will be acceptable to all Churches …”
Their plan did not totally excise religion:
“The proposed new form does not Include spoken prayers or the Benediction, but the hymn ‘Abide with Me’ will be included. An opportunity for those attending the service to recite the Lord’s prayer will be provided.”
The Moderator of the Victorian Presbyterian Assembly (the Right Rev. F. W.Rolland)responded positively to this mostly secular plan:
“Personally, I realise that the Returned Soldiers’ League desires to have everyone attend the gathering at the Shrine. It is almost Impossible to arrange a service that will suit everyone,and the question seems to resolve itself into securing the greatest good for the greatest number.”
Surely the RSL and the church, today, could be equally as magnanimous?
The extreme religiosity of many Anzac services is disrespectful to the memory and tradition of the Anzacs, to many of their family members and to many of those currently serving in the ADF. The conservative, right wing dog-whistling that takes place in some sermons (see, for example, my “Perverting Anzac Day for Jesus“, 2016) is exploitative and excludes many of us who would like to participate.
Few would begrudge the opportunity for the faith community to agree upon an ecumenical prayer or observance, but, beyond that, Anzac commemorations must be secular so as not to exclude anyone, including the Anzacs who would not recognise themselves in the sanitised saintly soldiers who are honoured, today, in their stead.