Secular Fundies

The New York Sun recently broke the story of how Dr. Timothy Shortell, associate professor of sociology at Brooklyn College, had described religious people as “moral retards.” His words created a controversy because, at the time they were published, he was hoping to move up to the top of the sociology department at Brooklyn College.

“On a personal level, religiosity is merely annoying — like bad taste,” Shortell wrote in the online journal Fifteen Credibility Street. “This immaturity represents a significant social problem, however, because religious adherents fail to recognize their limitations. So, in the name of their faith, these moral retards are running around pointing fingers and doing real harm to others. … They discriminate, exclude, and belittle. They make a virtue of closed-mindedness and virulent ignorance. They are an ugly, violent lot.”

The comments are pathetic and bigoted. Yet Shortell was never in danger of losing his teaching job. In fact, he said he was the “victim of a political attack,” expressing anger at the “administration's ‘inadequate’ defense of his academic freedom.”

Imagine a professor using Shortell's rhetoric against homosexuals, writing that “in the name of their orientation these homosexual retards are running around pointing fingers and doing real harm to others,” and that “they are an ugly, violent lot.” He would be immediately fired, and then pilloried in the press.

Yet Shortell's remarks display the very qualities he so self-righteously condemns as a given among “religious adherents”: pointing fingers, belittling and “virulent ignorance.”

Another example of this double standard is a movie titled The God Who Wasn'd There. Written, directed and produced by Brian Flemming, described as a “former fundamentalist,” the pseudo-documentary claims that it “unflinchingly examines believers and the origins of their beliefs.”

The movie's website explains that this cinematic examination of “modern Christianity” includes a journey to the nerve center of Christianity: “An interviewer asks Christians outside a Billy Graham event if they can tell him about how Christianity spread in those early days. Astonishingly, no Christian has a clear idea. Many stammer when asked the question — as if they'd never even considered it before.”

This polemic only proves that some Christians know as much (or little) about first-century Christianity as most Americans know about the origins of the United States. When I read the claim that the movie will prove “contemporary Christians are largely ignorant of the origins of their religion,” I simply say, “Tell me something I don'd already know.”

Many Catholics admit that they know very little about early Church history. What does that prove about the origins of Christianity? Nothing.

Professor Shortell's website expresses admiration for philosopher Bertrand Russell, author of Why I Am Not a Christian. Flemming, meanwhile, is a sort of Bertrand Russell Jr.: lots of bluster, but no content. Neither man seriously engages Christian scholarship; neither seems to understand the basics of Christian theology or spirituality.

They rant, rave and unleash apocalyptic pronouncements. They adhere to a fundamentalism of disbelief. They are legion.

And they are ripe for conversion to the Catholic faith.

Carl E. Olson is editor of