by Richard Dawkins
Can you imagine what it might be like to be homeschooled by fundamentalist parents and then sent to Liberty “University” to round off your education? Can you imagine living in a world where the only argument you ever hear in favour of, or against, a point of view, is a bible quotation? And the only counter-argument is another bible quotation? What would it be like to be so brainwashed that “Every word of the bible is literally true” has the same axiomatic status in your mind as “Parallel lines never meet.? So brainwashed that it never even occurs to you to ask who actually wrote the bible and what their authority was for saying what they said? So brainwashed that you never reflect for a single moment that millions of others in the world have different scriptures and believe them just as strongly and with exactly the same (lack of) justification? Can you imagine a childhood spent in a state of total, unwavering conviction that your beloved grandfather is spit-roasting in eternal hell (along with the Roman Catholics), and that you’ll be headed the same way if you’re not careful?
This was Timothy Short’s early fate, and I close this memoir filled with admiration for his intellectual courage in finally breaking away from all that poisonous nonsense and becoming an atheist. A happy and fulfilled atheist, who yet never stopped loving his fundamentalist parents and even retains an affection for Liberty’s infamous founder Jerry Falwell. His autobiography makes for fascinating reading because he takes the reader by the hand, deep into the mind of a fundamentalist nutjob, and it’s like entering a strange alien world: a world where reason is despised , evidence feared and science actively denigrated. Also rivetting is the inside story of Liberty “University” with its weirdly oppressive prudery and its institutionalised system of Big Brotherish spying on the private lives of students.
And that other inside story, the saga of Short’s gradual recovery from his “education” – it really was a struggle – has a kind of epic quality. A bit like Julia Sweeney’s Letting Go of God. But Tim Short’s struggle was harder, because he had further to go: although its infant indoctrination is every bit as powerful and insidious, the Roman Catholicism of Julia’s upbringing was measurably less loony than the kind of Southern Baptism that usurped the innocent mind of Tim Short. Catholics don’t have to believe the bible is literally true: talking snakes, prophet-swallowing whales and all. Indeed there were times in Roman Catholic history when the bible was a forbidden book.
I was delighted to read that The God Delusion played a pivotal role in Tim Short’s conversion to reality. He undertook to read it as a test of his own faith, having been advised not to. He was confident in his ability to withstand any arguments that might be thrown at him, and he believed his “professors” who told him I was a poor philosopher. Significantly, the parts of the book that most troubled him were not the scientific parts and the refutation of the argument from design, No, what finally turned Tim Short was the full realisation of God’s appalling moral character, especially his incitement to genocide against the indigenous tribes who happened to make their living in the Lebensraum promised to the Israelites.
I suppose it’s not so very surprising that, for a biblical fundamentalist, the toppling of God should have to come from within the bible itself rather than from scientific data. How could God, the loving God of my upbringing, how could God do such appalling things, and so pitilessly, so ruthlessly? The particular brand of religious nuttiness of Tim’s teachers didn’t even allow him the getout that Jesus came to the rescue, came to reverse the horrors of the Old Testament. Jesus himself, for those freaks, was personally implicated in everything Yahweh ever did, including slaughtering every man, woman, child, ox and ass – excepting only virgin young women “which you may keep for yourselves.”
Tim Short comes across as a likeable young man. His relationship with his father is touching, as is the warmth with which he passes the affection (though not, of course, the indoctrination) on to his beloved baby son. He even manages to retain some regard for Liberty “University”, including the unspeakable Jerry Falwell, though it’s genuinely hard to see why. The place comes across as appalling in every particular, but that is my judgment from Short’s objective account of the details, not his personal opinion. The loyalty of an alumnus shines through, and it gives added confidence in the reliability of his evidence for the prosecution. As does the obvious reluctance with which he finally let go of God, and the cognitive dissonance with which he tried to make excuses for him.
As it happens, Tim Short was a student at Liberty at the time of my own brief encounter with the place. I was actually giving a lecture at the neighbouring Randolph Macon Women’s College. Tim and his fellow Liberty students were encouraged by their “professor” to go along and hear me. Not to heckle: hey were encouraged to be polite and respectful in their questioning, but they must on no account admit to being from Liberty (some of them nevertheless did). And they turned out in force, filling the front two rows of the Randolph Macon auditorium and dominating the questions after my lecture. Respectful indeed they were. And the challenges that they posed to me were almost embarrassingly easy to deal with. You can hear the whole thing here:
Tim Short himself missed the occasion:-
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Tim continued to wrestle with himself and eventually, after a mighty struggle, came to the right conclusion. He emerged the other side, an atheist. Then of course he had to deal with his grieving parents. And that’s a moving story in itself.
This book was published in 2011 and I’m sorry I only just got around to reading it. Nevertheless I recommend it, if only because it is a revealing insight into the workings of a mind made alien by pernicious indoctrination, and a damning exposée of the internal workings of America’s leading institution dedicated to such indoctrination. The editing of the book is poor to non-existent, and it’s a pity it wasn’t taken up by a better publisher. The cultural allusions and similies are such as to bewilder a non-American reader but that’s OK: who cares, after all, whether the Phillies are a football team or a boy band? The point is that this is a moving memoir (paradoxically the more moving because of the poor quality of the editing and publication-values) by a decent and intelligent young man, who struggled courageously against the effects of an appallingly low grade education and emerged triumphant – and happy – the other side.