Bible Belt Beelzebub
By Gary Sloan
How fares free speech in America, you ask. I've done a protracted test of sorts, and the results are--well, let's say enigmatic. Maybe you can make sense of it all. As Shakespeare might say, I'm lost in it.
For thousands of readers in north Louisiana, I am "that atheist professor from Louisiana Tech University," located in the small town Ruston, on I-20, not far from Mississippi. For ten years, I've written anti-religious letters and columns to the two largest newspapers in the northern half of the state. The letters have elicited about 400 written responses, most published.
I decided to defend nontheism because no one else was doing so, even though both papers had long been saturated with pro-Christian letters and features.
My comeuppance followed hard upon my first letter and has, through the unabated responses to subsequent letters, continued ever since. Bible Belt readers, I now realize, neither suffer a fool gladly nor hesitate to call a fool a fool.
I am often advised to read Psalms 14:1 ("The fool has said in his heart, 'There is no God'"). In the responses, the ad hominem retort has flourished like a perennial weed. I have been christened with such unendearing epithets as Satan, anti-Christ, Hitler, Stalin, Lenin, Mao, Mussolini, Attila the Hun, Madelyn O'Hara (sic) and William Buckley, Jr. (because of my putative predilection for sesquipedalian diction). I have also been nicknamed after diminutive species: mouse, minnow, housefly, spider, ant, flea.
I am rebuked both for being an intellectual and a pseudo-intellectual, and I don't know which is worse: "Sloan may be an intellectual, but he's also a gibbering idiot and a bubble and a half off." "Mr. Sloan is highly intellectual--that is, he speculates about things he doesn't know anything about." "Sloan ought to consider it is no coincidence that intellect and ignorant begin with the same letter."
My bogus intellect frequently elicits exhibitions of wit: "I was no magna nor summa cum laude, but simply a grateful 'thank you laude' when I graduated." "Sloan thinks Jesus is a liar, a bum, a beggar, and thief. In his vast wisdom, he has confused Jesus with Bill Clinton." "Professor Sloan has a BDIP degree (bombastic, doctrinaire, intolerant, and predictable)."
One reader sent me a clipping of his response to one of my letters. A dime and a note were attached. The note read: "Send a copy to a friend--if you have one." Offhand, I couldn't think of one.
Eleven professors signed a letter assuring parents not all faculty members shared my views: "If you or your children enroll at this university, you will meet faculty who have Dr. Sloan's perspective. But you'll also meet many faculty who are committed to Christ."
An editorial page editor refused to print my responses to criticism of me, though he printed critics' responses to my criticism. When I publicly pointed out the double standard, he wrote a column defending himself: "Sloan is right, you know. His turning upon those who criticized his deep emotional aversion to worship was prevented. It just seemed too, too sadistic on my part to do otherwise. I think of the Bible Belt as people who are proud to give their allegiance to a higher spiritual power rather than follow the unwashed rudiments of man."
Some respondents try to strong-arm editors. A professor of economics spearheaded a movement to have my letters squelched: "Sloan's letters are the moral equivalent of yelling 'fire' in a crowded theater. It is time to suspend publication of Sloan's clever but ill-intentioned letters. They pump up his ego at considerable expense to the public good." A guy named Bubba wrote: "If you share Sloan's beliefs and that is the reason for your continued support, then you can cancel my subscription. I'll pass this along to all my buddies, and you'll probably hear from them also."
Respondents assure readers my foot will slide in due time: "While I will pray for Sloan, I pray not to see him in the end, because I don't plan to go where he's heading." Some display a Dantesque dash: "It looks like Sloan is going for the whole enchilada--death, followed by the White Throne judgment, humiliation, condemnation, then thrown into the bottomless pit by an archangel with an attitude, to swim around in a burning fire with his master, the devil for eternity."
Some think I'm still salvageable: "God has shown me that you, sir, will in time accept Jesus as your savior, and you will stop disgracing Him." One woman was grandiose: "Mr. Sloan, you are like Saul. I believe God is going to use you the way he did Saul. I just can't wait to see you proclaiming the gospel of Jesus." On my answering machine, a Pentecostal woman left a message in tongues. After the last indecipherable word, she emitted a long, satisfied exhalation.
Some commiserate with me: "Gary, I often wonder who let you down. Was it your mother, your wife, a friend? What filled you with such hate for all that is sacred and true?"
Several churches have made me their project: "Gary, next Sunday at 10 a.m. we will be praying that the Holy Spirit will reach out to Gary Sloan and that he will receive a sign by Wednesday, June 14th, at 6 p.m." If the sign appeared, I missed it. A large Baptist church (Six Flags Over Jesus, one wag called it) blazoned a pithy homily on a marquee that faces a thoroughfare: "GARY, GOD IS REAL, AND HE LOVES YOU DEARLY." No one from the church dropped by, wrote, or called.
I've received two published letters of support. The first was from one of my wife's undergraduates: "Hurrah for Gary Sloan! I hope he runs for President!" The effervescent student was, I surmised, bucking for an A. The other kudos was from a devout Christian: "Gary, with every letter you write, you bring people closer to Christ. Keep up the good work."
After I had written my first letter, a colleague said he figured I had a death wish or had gone off my rocker. He may be right on both counts. Come to think of it, maybe all this has nothing to do with the First Amendment. As I said, I'll let you decide.
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Gary Sloan is a retired English professor from Ruston, Louisiana. Besides numerous articles in scholarly journals, he has written articles on religion, science, and literature for most of the major freethought magazines: Skeptic, Free Inquiry, The Humanist, American Atheist, The Freethinker, American Rationalist, The Truth Seeker, etc. He also writes commentaries for the Scripps Howard News Service.