By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
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Gleason isn't an angry man. He's just against the bad fruit that religion often produces. "Why am I doing this?" he asks. "Because I see all around me religion causes harm for society."
He blames organized religion for psychological harm—telling folks they are experiencing problems because of sin or a lack of faith in a god—as well as emotional and financial harm. Gleason doesn't believe churches should be tax exempt or that ministers should receive a housing allowance. Faith-based programs such as abstinence education are dangerous, Gleason says, and his tax dollars shouldn't be funding them.
Indeed, while the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops bemoaned President Obama's mandate—later reversed—that employers with religious affiliations, such as Catholic hospitals, cover contraceptives in health-insurance plans, the bishops gave no hint of sending back the hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars that Catholic religious charities receive from the government. Mother Jones reported in February that under the Obama administration, Catholic religious charities have received more than $650 million. That includes money from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, to the tune of $81.2 million—up from $71.8 million during the last three years of the Bush administration—to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which has repeatedly blasted Obama over the contraception controversy.
Gleason's concern about religion infecting public life extends to foreign policy, especially when it comes to some conservative politicians whose support of Israel often seems to flow from an apocalyptic vision based on a particular view of the Bible. Politicians such as former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, who, on June 8, 2008, informed the congregation at Wasilla Assembly of God that "our national leaders" are sending "our military men and women . . out on a task that is from God. That's what we have to make sure that we're praying for, that there is a plan and that plan is God's plan."
Gleason says he likes to ask Christians if they support Israel because they believe Jesus will return there, and if Israel ceases to exist, that means He can't come back. He doesn't hesitate to bring up the n-word at the end of his lectures and debates: nukes. "If there is going to be a nuclear war, who do you think is going to push that button: a reasonable person that's the president? Or a theological president that's going to start the apocalypse?"
He takes his argument a step further—to the boundaries of polite discussion: Atheists are actually more moral than religious people. "Atheists examine their world to become atheists," Gleason argues. "Most atheists are not like the guy who says, 'My mom died. I prayed like hell, so there must be no God, and I'm a goddam atheist.' We're not like that. Atheists are people who have a philosophical bent to them. We want to find out what makes us tick. We want to find out the truth of the world through natural means, and when you do that, you come to the conclusion, I'd say, 100 percent of the time, the Golden Rule rules, that the goal of lowering suffering in the world is more moral."
When it comes to the concept of salvation, he claims to have nothing to worry about. "My actions, I own," Gleason says. "I do not have to cleanse them."
As for the 10 Commandments? You can toss out almost half of them. "Look at the first four," he suggests. "God pushing his weight around—that has nothing to do with morality."
Don't even get Gleason started on the question of how a supposedly all-powerful creator can allow people to suffer so much pain and suffering. "The problem of evil is one of the hardest things apologists have to contend with because it's very difficult to say why people that are truly innocent, little kids, or even babies, for that matter, are killed so easily," he says.
Gleason agrees with people who argue that various secular regimes—particularly those of Hitler and Stalin—were responsible for more slaughter in the 20th Century than anyone else. "They are actually right," he says. "Political systems have killed more people than Christians [did] in the way of the Crusades and the Inquisitions and everything else before that."
Of course, it's not for lack of trying. "Being second," Gleason says, at least when it comes to murder, "is not something to brag about."
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Ray Comfort is a street evangelist who has preached all over the world, from the shores of New Zealand to the piers of Southern California. A doppelganger for the late actor Peter Sellers, Comfort's The Way of the Master TV ministry often features actor Kirk Cameron of Growing Pains fame, who recently told CNN's Piers Morgan that he thinks homosexuality is "unnatural" and "detrimental and ultimately destructive to so many of the foundations of civilization."
The pair teaches Christians how to evangelize. Comfort regularly preaches at the Huntington Beach pier, where he sometimes finds Gleason and the gang holding up signs: "Don't believe in God? Join the club."
He and Gleason have become friends. They have lunch together at least once a year.