SEB Mailbag: Chain Mail from Ben Stein. Kind of.

I’ve mentioned before that most of my extended family is religious to some degree or another so it’s not uncommon for me to receive chain mails with variations on the taking-the-Bible-out-of-school-is-the-cause-of-all-our-societal-problems theme. I got one such chain mail today and while I can usually just ignore them with only minor irritation, today’s missive bugged me enough that I hit the Reply All button and dashed off a reply that could very well put me in the doghouse with some folks for a while.

It was a lengthy enough reply, and of sufficient quality, that I thought I’d share it here with you folks. I won’t mention which side of the family it came from nor whom sent it as that’s not important. My goal wasn’t to shame anyone or make them feel stupid, but to point out the inaccuracies and deceptions the chain mail contained. It purports to have been written by Ben Stein, but as you will see in the reply that’s only half-true.

First, the original email:

The following was written by Ben Stein and recited by him on CBS Sunday Morning Commentary.

My confession:

I am a Jew, and every single one of my ancestors was Jewish.  And it does not bother me even a little bit when people call those beautiful lit up, bejeweled trees, Christmas trees…  I don’t feel threatened..  I don’t feel discriminated against.. That’s what they are, Christmas trees.

It doesn’t bother me a bit when people say, ‘Merry Christmas’ to me.  I don’t think they are slighting me or getting ready to put me in a ghetto.  In fact, I kind of like it.  It shows that we are all brothers and sisters celebrating this happy time of year. It doesn’t bother me at all that there is a manger scene on display at a key intersection near my beach house in Malibu ..  If people want a creche, it’s just as fine with me as is the Menorah a few hundred yards away.

I don’t like getting pushed around for being a Jew, and I don’t think Christians like getting pushed around for being Christians.  I think people who believe in God are sick and tired of getting pushed around, period.  I have no idea where the concept came from, that America is an explicitly atheist country.  I can’t find it in the Constitution and I don’t like it being shoved down my throat.

Or maybe I can put it another way: where did the idea come from that we should worship celebrities and we aren’t allowed to worship God as we understand Him?  I guess that’s a sign that I’m getting old, too.  But there are a lot of us who are wondering where these celebrities came from and where the America we knew went to.

In light of the many jokes we send to one another for a laugh, this is a little different:  This is not intended to be a joke; it’s not funny, it’s intended to get you thinking.

Billy Graham’s daughter was interviewed on the Early Show and Jane Clayson asked her ‘How could God let something like this happen?’ (regarding Hurricane Katrina)..  Anne Graham gave an extremely profound and insightful response..  She said, ‘I believe God is deeply saddened by this, just as we are, but for years we’ve been telling God to get out of our schools, to get out of our government and to get out of our lives.  And being the gentleman He is, I believe He has calmly backed out.  How can we expect God to give us His blessing and His protection if we demand He leave us alone?’

In light of recent events… terrorists attack, school shootings, etc..  I think it started when Madeleine Murray O’Hare (she was murdered, her body found a few years ago) complained she didn’t want prayer in our schools, and we said OK.  Then someone said you better not read the Bible in school.  The Bible says thou shalt not kill; thou shalt not steal, and love your neighbor as yourself.  And we said OK.

Then Dr. Benjamin Spock said we shouldn’t spank our children when they misbehave, because their little personalities would be warped and we might damage their self-esteem (Dr. Spock’s son committed suicide).  We said an expert should know what he’s talking about..  And we said okay..

Now we’re asking ourselves why our children have no conscience, why they don’t know right from wrong, and why it doesn’t bother them to kill strangers, their classmates, and themselves.

Probably, if we think about it long and hard enough, we can figure it out.  I think it has a great deal to do with ‘WE REAP WHAT WE SOW.’

Funny how simple it is for people to trash God and then wonder why the world’s going to hell.  Funny how we believe what the newspapers say, but question what the Bible says.  Funny how you can send ‘jokes’ through e-mail and they spread like wildfire, but when you start sending messages regarding the Lord, people think twice about sharing.  Funny how lewd, crude, vulgar and obscene articles pass freely through cyberspace, but public discussion of God is suppressed in the school and workplace.

Are you laughing yet?

Funny how when you forward this message, you will not send it to many on your address list because you’re not sure what they believe, or what they will think of you for sending it.

Funny how we can be more worried about what other people think of us than what God thinks of us.

Pass it on if you think it has merit.

If not, then just discard it… no one will know you did.  But, if you discard this thought process, don’t sit back and complain about what bad shape the world is in.

My Best Regards,  Honestly and respectfully,

Ben Stein

I will reproduce my reply after the break.

So here’s what I sent off as a reply. I tried very hard not to be bombastic or write it in a way that suggested I was directly criticizing any of the recipients, but that doesn’t mean some of them won’t take it personally. Hopefully they will see it for the attempt at honest discussion it was meant to be:

I must say this is better than the usual chain mails of this sort. This one is at least half-way accurate in that the first four paragraphs were actually said by Ben Stein on CBS Sunday Morning back in December of 2005, but everything after that point — starting with “In light of the many jokes” — is an insertion by parties unknown (see http://www.snopes.com/politics/soapbox/confessions.asp).

It’s also wrong on a number of issues and makes a number of spurious claims. Let’s take, for example, this segment:

In light of recent events… terrorists attack, school shootings, etc..  I think it started when Madeleine Murray O’Hare (she was murdered, her body found a few years ago) complained she didn’t want prayer in our schools, and we said OK.  Then someone said you better not read the Bible in school.  The Bible says thou shalt not kill; thou shalt not steal, and love your neighbor as yourself.  And we said OK.

While it’s true that Madeleine Murray O’Hare’s court case is what resulted in mandatory Bible readings and prayers in school stopped as a violation of church and state, it’s not true that anyone has said you should not read a Bible in school. Anyone is welcome, children or teachers, to carry a Bible (or any other religious book) and read it within the halls of a school on your own time. What’s not allowed is mandated Bible study or prayers led by teachers or school officials. The whole point is to avoid having the government, in this case in the form of school officials, promoting one religious viewpoint over all others. The government is supposed to remain religiously neutral.

As for school shootings and terrorist attacks starting after this case was decided, well, that’s quite simply false. Of course it depends on what you mean when you say “terrorist attack.” Do you mean any attack meant to cause terror and disrupt the government of the United States, in which case the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865 would clearly count as a terrorist attack. Especially considering that his assailant, while American, considered himself to be acting on the part of a foreign nation (the Confederacy). I could cite any number of other terrorist attacks, depending on how you want to define them. There have been school shooting prior to 1963 as well, but this email is already getting long.

As for O’Hare herself, what her being murdered has to do with anything being discussed here is questionable. Unless the author is suggesting that she met a bad end because she pissed God off, which doesn’t exactly make God seem all that great a guy.

Then this bit:

Then Dr. Benjamin Spock said we shouldn’t spank our children when they misbehave, because their little personalities would be warped and we might damage their self-esteem (Dr. Spock’s son committed suicide).  We said an expert should know what he’s talking about..  And we said okay..

Yeah, that’s total bullshit. Both of Dr. Spock’s sons are still alive and doing quite well for themselves despite the lack of regular beatings. One is a Museum Director and the other owns his own construction company. Now his grandson did commit suicide, but he suffered from schizophrenia so it’s hard to conclude how a lack of spankings had anything to do with that unless you think you can beat schizophrenia out of someone. See http://www.snopes.com/medical/doctor/drspock.asp

Of course even if Dr. Spock’s son had committed suicide, that wouldn’t prove his theories on baby rearing were incorrect or that spankings do no harm as the author seems to be trying to suggest. It’s also worth noting that his book Baby and Child Care was published in 1946 whereas the O’Hare case was in 1963 so whoever wrote this can’t even get their chronological history correct.

Now we’re asking ourselves why our children have no conscience, why they don’t know right from wrong, and why it doesn’t bother them to kill strangers, their classmates, and themselves.

Yes, the kids these days are totally out of control and running rampant in the streets mowing down innocent strangers with total abandon! Why it’s almost impossible to step outside without getting caught up in a drive-by shooting!

Except that that’s not really true. How many people who received this email can point to an example of a child they personally know that would fit the description of having no conscience or not knowing right from wrong and that aren’t bothered to kill strangers, classmates, or themselves? How do you explain that Youth Violence is at the lowest levels since its peak in 1994 and continues to decline?

Are there kids out there who are as described in this chain mail? Sure, but they’ve always been there, even back when mandatory Bible lessons were allowed in the schools. There are plenty of adults who also would fit the description. The suggestion that there’s an epidemic of kids with no conscious or morals gunning everyone and themselves down as a result of a lack of mandatory school-led prayers and Bible readings just doesn’t fit the facts.

Funny how simple it is for people to trash God and then wonder why the world’s going to hell.  Funny how we believe what the newspapers say, but question what the Bible says.  Funny how you can send ‘jokes’ through e-mail and they spread like wildfire, but when you start sending messages regarding the Lord, people think twice about sharing.  Funny how lewd, crude, vulgar and obscene articles pass freely through cyberspace, but public discussion of God is suppressed in the school and workplace.

There’s just as much to question in the Bible as there is in any newspaper, but we won’t go into that right now. It could also be argued how trusted newspapers are anymore given the fact that readership has declined so far that many of them have gone out of business or are on the verge of doing so.

As for people who think twice about sending messages about the Lord through email… all I can say is that if my inbox is anything to go by then I fail to see any real inhibition on anyone’s part. I get them all the time from total strangers and family members alike. Nor is discussion of God suppressed in the school or workplace as near as I can see. At least not when it doesn’t interfere with what you’re there to do: learn or work. For that matter, there are more than a few schools that offer Comparative Religious studies and even a form of Bible study as part of their curriculum and there are plenty of businesses out there who not only promote discussions about God, but are quite vigorous in weaving him into every aspect of the business they can.

It really is unbecoming to see so many Christians engage in this kind of self-victimization as though they were some sort of persecuted minority when they really make up the vast majority of the population and engage in quite a bit of persecution themselves. When you can point to someone here in America being hauled off to prison for no reason other than he dared to wear a cross around his neck and engage a co-worker in an honest discussion about God then you’ll have something to complain about, but the last time I checked you weren’t the religious group being kicked off of planes because you scared someone by having a religious message written in a foreign language on your t-shirt. Or for being too brown.

It’s been 47 years since God was supposedly “kicked” out of public schools. Get over it for crying out loud. At times it seems like it’s not enough for Christians to have their religion and worship as they wish. They have to find ways to impose it on everyone else via government endorsement. They’ve managed to hold onto the national motto (changed in 1956) and the pledge of allegiance (altered to include “under God” in 1954), but that’s not enough. No, they have to suggest that the nation is being overrun by killer children because they weren’t force-fed Bible recitations in public school regardless to whether or not there is any truth to that claim at all! It also doesn’t help the image of Christians when they take some celebrity and put words in their mouth they didn’t say. While I’m sure Ben Stein wouldn’t disagree with the sentiments expressed in this missive, it’s still a lie after the first four paragraphs for it to be written as though he said it. Isn’t lying supposed to be a sin?

I wonder if it has ever occurred to whomever it is that writes these chain mails that perhaps the reason lewd jokes and crude articles spread quickly through the Internet, but no one wants to talk about God with them at work or school is because the stuff on the Internet isn’t so indignantly self-righteous?

Just a thought or two.

Les

8 thoughts on “SEB Mailbag: Chain Mail from Ben Stein. Kind of.

  1. I have no idea where the concept came from, that America is an explicitly atheist country. I can’t find it in the Constitution and I don’t like it being shoved down my throat.

    It is in the Constitution, by its omission. And by the Treaty of Tripoli that was commissioned by President George Washington and signed by President John Adams (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Treaty_of_Tripoli). Perhaps your skills at searching are a little lacking?

    😉

    And your addition of not liking it “shoved down your throat” is a two-edged sword.

    🙂

    Peace.

  2. Legaru

    But there is a difference between a secular state and an atheistic state? The Treaty of Tripoli,I believe merely states that the US is not specifically a Christian nation. It doesn’t comment on the existence of any god or gods, just that the US was founded as a secular nation.

  3. A well written reply that states the answers to the comments made in the chain letter. I find myself forwarding some religious messages because they do make sense but I do delete many because the say send it on if you dare or or if you don’t send it something bad will happen to you. I don’t take kindly to veiled, empty threats about any subject and will do what the Hell I please with what I read. Thank you for your thoughtful reply to the e-mail you received.

  4. Leguru, I wouldn’t say that the Constitution is atheistic by the omission of anything promoting religion. It is, as YMO pointed out, a secular document. If you read the writings of the Founding Fathers, particularly the numerous letters they wrote to various congregations that contacted them, it becomes clear that it wasn’t an atheistic government they were trying to form, but a religiously neutral one where people were free to worship as their conscious dictated whether that was the Christian God, Muslim God, or no God at all.

    We should begin by setting conscience free. When all men of all religions … shall enjoy equal liberty, property, and an equal chance for honors and power … we may expect that improvements will be made in the human character and the state of society.
    — John Adams, letter to Dr. Price, April 8, 1785

    And let us reflect that, having banished from our land that religious intolerance under which mankind so long bled and suffered, we have yet gained little if we countenance a political intolerance as despotic, as wicked, and capable of as bitter and bloody persecutions…. error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it…. I deem the essential principles of our government…. Equal and exact justice to all men, of whatever state or persuasion, religious or political; … freedom of religion, freedom of the press, and freedom of person under the protection of the habeas corpus, and trial by juries impartially selected.
    — Thomas Jefferson, First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1801

    I must admit moreover that it may not be easy, in every possible case, to trace the line of separation between the rights of religion and the Civil authority with such distinctness as to avoid collisions and doubts on unessential points. The tendency of a usurpation on one side or the other, or to a corrupting coalition or alliance between them, will be best guarded by an entire abstinence of the Government from interference in any way whatever, beyond the necessity of preserving public order, and protecting each sect against trespass on its legal rights by others.
    — James Madison, letter to Reverend Adams

    We hold it for a fundamental and undeniable truth “that religion, or the duty which we owe our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence.” The religion, then, of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man: and that it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate.
    — James Madison, A Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments, addressed to the Virginia General Assembly, June 20, 1785

    Quotes courtesy of Positive Atheism.

    These are but a few examples of such writings, but it doesn’t take many of them to see the intent of religious pluralism and separation of church and state which the Founding Fathers intended when creating our government. I think they had a pretty good idea which is why I’m so pro separation of church and state. Not because I think it should be atheistic, but because I don’t think either side benefits from being entwined. Or, at the very least, too many others suffer when they do.

  5. Excellent job, Les’ great response more than covers it. It reminds me of an e-mail I once got, supposedly originally written by Jay Leno, where (if I remember right) “Jay Leno” criticizes comedians or people in general who made fun of George W. Bush. A quick youtube search will show that the real Leno had no qualms about making fun of Bush. But I suppose either through embellishment or shear intentional forgery people come up with these kind of false messages; hence the Gospels.

    At any rate, forgive me for whipping a dead horse:

    Funny how we believe what the newspapers say, but question what the Bible says… Funny how lewd, crude, vulgar and obscene articles pass freely through cyberspace

    Easy compromise there; just send lewd, crude, vulgar and obscene Bible verses in your e-mails. You will have plenty of material to use, and both sides will be happy.

    Funny how simple it is for people to trash God and then wonder why the world’s going to hell.

    As Les noted, Secularism doesn’t trash God, it merely allows people to have their own opinions about God without government coercion. I am sure that the person who wrote the e-mail is also a Conservative who likes to claim to want to get government out of our private lives. The real Ben Stein certainly does. Again, great irony.

    As for ‘Merry Christmas’ and Christmas Trees; neither bothers me. Just don’t put a Christmas Tree on public property or, if you do, be sure to include the messages and ideas of other groups, such as Atheists. I recall Fox getting very angry about Atheist signs; great irony there as well. And, lest we forget, Conservatives these days are trying to ban a Mosque on private property; these are the defenders of religious freedom?

    The Founders were mostly Deists; they were certainly not a cabal of Christian theocrats.

  6. But there is a difference between a secular state and an atheistic state? The Treaty of Tripoli,I believe merely states that the US is not specifically a Christian nation. It doesn’t comment on the existence of any god or gods, just that the US was founded as a secular nation.

    and,

    I wouldn’t say that the Constitution is atheistic by the omission of anything promoting religion. It is, as YMO pointed out, a secular document.

    What, exactly, is the difference between secular and atheist? I did not state anti-theist, I said atheist. As in no god exists. And in the Constitution, no god is mentioned, hence: atheist, or secular. Not that most of the founding fathers were or were not theists or Christians, just that the documents referenced specifically omit or announce that this country is NOT a Christian one.

    😉

    Peace.

  7. Leg

    While I can see your point to some extent, and I would agree with your point that atheist means “do not believe in a god” rather than “actively believe there is no god”, I still cannot work out how a country, which is incapable of believing anything – not having a brain and all – could ever be considered theistic or atheistic – such claims seem rather silly.

    Surely an atheistic society would be one where the majority are atheists. We might say that an atheistic country would be one where the constitution (or other foundational documents) specifically said that there is not enough information to accept the claim that a god exists, but a secular one doesn’t even broach the subject.

    I’m not sure. I don’t think anyone has ever defined what an atheistic country is, or how we might recognize one. Certainly, I think you and I would agree that the USSR was not an atheistic country, but perhaps something like a substitutional theocracy…. I am happy with the definition of secular, as “having no position, neither positive or negative, on the question of the existence of god”, although that would be a very weak tea drinking type of person, methinks.

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