We all know the story of President George. W. Bush implementing measures in 2001 which essentially ended U.S. Stem Cell research and put American medical science a decade behind the rest of the world for no other reason than his religion got in the way of the public good. Alone this is a standout example of why this thing called New Atheism (a vocal, rational rebuttal to unjustified religious interference in secular societies) exists, but there is a better, much lesser known Bush story which paints an even clearer picture, and to get there we must first go through this unlikely chap:
Meet Elwood P. Dowd; a softly spoken, gently mannered, entirely likeable man who had – he said – an invisible six-foot, three-and-one-half-inch tall rabbit friend named, Harvey. Granted, it’s an odd admission for a grown man but in forty-seven year old Elwood’s defence Harvey was in fact a Púca, the Gaelic word for Goblin, who just so happened to resemble a very tall rabbit.
In Mary Chase’s 1944 play, Harvey, the goodhearted bachelor Elwood is regarded as a harmless eccentric in the small town in which he lives. He buys tickets in two’s, always carry’s a spare hat and coat for Harvey, and is forever seen chatting away with nothing at all as if it were the most natural thing to do. When his sister and niece arrive to live with him things inevitably change. Fearing for his mental health, his sister, Veta, attempts to have Elwood committed to Chumley’s Rest, a mental hospital whose staff accidently have her committed instead, and only after the mistake is recognised does a mad, comedy-prone search ensue for her brother and his invisible companion. As the story unfolds, Elwood’s delusion has a peculiarly warming influence on the sanitariums employees, including the strict Dr. Chumley, and only just before Elwood is to be given an injection of the ominously named Formula 977 that will make him into a “perfectly normal human being” does Veta realise she’d rather have Elwood the same as he’s always been – carefree and kind – even if it meant living with Harvey.
I saw Henry Koster’s 1950 movie adaption staring Jimmie Stewart as a child and simply fell in love with it. It was the type of storytelling that flung me across the rumpus room floor where I watched the pixelated black & white images whizz pass while sitting so close to the screen that my breath misted up the glass. I was enthralled and completely given over to this marvellous fantasy, but not for one moment did I – a kid raised in the Catholic Church – put two and two together and connect Elwood’s delusion and my own belief in God. One was a fanciful yet cracking story of imaginative innocence while the other was, self-explanatorily, real. It’s what adults believed. Although charming and entertaining, 6ft tall invisible rabbits were clearly preposterous. Magical sky beings on the other hand were entirely reasonable and talking to them was encouraged. That was to say with the exception of Thor, Jupiter, Berstuk, Veles, Tepeyollotl or any of the thousands of other mystical beings the Carmelite nuns who ran my primary school had told me to ignore for obvious reasons.
It was only years later, at University studying Chases work, did I revisit the play and come to see just how astonishing it was for the very things it wasn’t. Harvey was an accident; a burst of pure human reality so apparently blinding in its unintentional brilliance that it was missed by all but a few. Here was the audience, dare I say it Chase herself, immersed in the fantasy and feeling genuine empathy for Elwood while ignoring the stage-lit fact that we are all Elwood P. Dowd with our very own Harvey’s, albeit our Harvey’s went by different names and were typically far less talkative. We sat obediently, eye’s fixed forward watching an intimate expose of our own unhinged mental states play out in front of us and simply did not see it. Or perhaps it’s more correct to say, we choose not to see it. Instead we, the audience, circled the wagons and cheered the delusion on while booing Veta, the villain through her rationalism. Villains must be trampled on, and in the end it is Veta who is indeed defeated and then ultimately redeems herself by allowing Elwood to keep his delusion running for no other reason than everyone is happier that way. The delusion is in effect celebrated and the audience leaves happy, perhaps even relieved.
“One of the delights of the season,” wrote New York Times critic, Louis Nichols, at the time. An interesting choice of words and clearly so ‘delightful’ that the play won the 1944 Pulitzer for Drama. It was awarded this accolade not because Chase bravely tore open the fabric of our elaborate belief systems and challenged our collective and consecrated delusions but rather because it was a ‘delightful’ departure from the harsh realities of a world at war.
Now, regretfully, Mary Chase died in 1981 so I cannot ask her if she was attempting something more detailed or even mischievous with her work, but I think I already know the answer. If she had been she certainly never spoke of it in any public forum that I’m aware of. She was a Catholic, a devout Irish Catholic to be more accurate, with a love of Celtic myth and folklore: one in the same thing to an atheist but to an ardent theist belonging to two completely different desert carts travelling in two completely different directions at entirely different speeds. Still, accidents do occur, be they genetic or of the mind, and Mary Chases Harvey appears to be just that: a magnificent, truthful accident.
Is Elwood delusional? Of course he is. Should we challenge him? Not on your life! That would mean challenging ourselves, and that’s a bridge few people are willing to cross. It’s easier not to. The perception is that Elwood’s delusion is harmless, and just as long as it is we can ignore it because it offends no one. It’s a paper tiger, non-toxic, and the message presented is that the world is just better with the delusion running. Formula 977 – rationalism, logic, and common sense – has no place in this world. Guiltless things are, after all, perfectly innocent.
That, quite obviously, is an outrageous falsehood.
There was nothing at all harmless or innocent about Dena Schlosser who while listening to church hymns in 2004 cut off the arms of her 11 month year old baby girl because she claimed God had wanted her to do it as “an offering” before the apocalypse. There was nothing guiltless about Deanna Lajune LeNay who in 2003 bludgeoned her two boys to death because “God was testing her faith.” There was nothing inoffensive about Andrea Yates who in 2001 drowned her five children because “Satan had possessed her” and she wanted to “save them from Hell.” There was nothing savoury, excuse the pun, about Otty Sanchez who in May, 2012, beheaded her three week old son and ate part of his brain because Satan told her to. And there was nothing at all childlike about Julia Lovemore who in June, 2012, killed her 6 week old daughter by shoving pages of the bible down the child’s throat because she wanted her to ‘absorb’ the books message of love.
As repulsive as each of these religiously-inspired behavioural malfunctions are they are not the example which I choose to make my point here. Recent history has been furnished by another even more grotesquely malformed Elwood P. Dowd incident, and that story is told by this man:
Meet Thomas Römer; professor at the University of Lausanne who in the winter of 2003 found himself on the end of what was conceivably one of the most bizarre series of calls ever made in the history of telephony.
The inbound caller identified herself as the head of Biblical Services for the Protestant Federation of France and had what seemed at first to be a mildly odd but otherwise perfectly innocuous question: who the hell are Gog and Magog?
Unfortunately for Römer, an authority on the Old Testament, there was no straightforward answer. He explained that depending on different translations of the Bible one can read, “Gog and Magog,” “Gog from Magog,” “Gog, in the land of Magog,” or even “Gog, prince of Magog.” The short answer was however that Gog and Magog were two creatures, Römer said, that appear in the Old Testament’s Book of Genesis and in two ferociously obscure chapters in the Book of Ezekiel where the author saw in a vision these embodiments of evil – perhaps lands, perhaps kings, perhaps demons – bringing total war to Israel. Complicating matters even more, in the New Testaments’ Book of Revelations Gog and Magog resurface and are seen as being rallied by Satan to battle in the prophesized ‘end times.’
Baffled, the caller pressed Römer asking more specifically, how would Gog and Magog apply to an American evangelical Christian? This was a question more easily answered. Evangelicals, he outlined, believe Gog and Magog to be powerful demons who are harbingers of God’s Final Battle prophesized in apocalyptic Judaic texts.
The story of this call might have ended here had it not been that the enquiry had originated from the highest office of French politics. Then President, Jacques Chirac, had reached out to the Protestant Federation of France (who in turn had reached out to Römer who confirmed the story in a 2007 article in the University of Lausanne’s magazine, Allez savoir) so as to get some urgent clarification following one of the most bewildering calls in its own right ever placed to the Elysée Palace. That particular call had been dialled-in from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington D.C. by U.S. President George W. Bush in a failed attempt to broaden his “Coalition of the Willing” in the build up to the invasion of Iraq; the greatest strategic blunder since Lord Cardigan arrived at a less-than brilliant idea on the morning of the 25th of October, 1854, and decided to take his Light Horse Brigade out for a ride at the Battle of Balaclava.
In an interview with French journalist, Jean-Claude Maurice for his book, Si Vous le Répétez, Je Démentirai (If You Repeat it, I Will Deny it), Chirac spoke of being “boggled” at the words he was hearing, and for very good reason. “Gog and Magog are loose in the Middle East, and the biblical prophecies are being fulfilled,” Bush informed his French counterpart recounting the conversation. “This confrontation is willed by God who wants to use this conflict to erase his people’s enemies before a New Age begins.”
This little publicized event – a story Andrew Brown of The Guardian rightly observed “we should all be ashamed of missing” – is a disturbing insight into the workings of a religiously deluded mind; a mind which belonged to a man who claimed God spoke to him on a daily basis (Sharm el-Sheikh, August, 2003) and whose decisions led to the deaths of some 5,300 American and coalition soldiers, the irreversible maiming of some 50,000 others, the killing and maiming of perhaps as many as 500,000 perfectly innocent Iraqi civilians, and the displacement of 4 million refugees. A decade of wanton carnage and destruction made possible in-part or in-whole because in the early stages of this century the President of the United States believed two wildly ambiguous demons had leapt from the pages of an Iron Age fairytale.
Such wild and frankly bizarre imaginings were however far from Bush’s alone. Influential American evangelical preachers such as John C. Hagee, Benny Hinn, George Morrison, Pat Robertson, Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell were all equally obsessed with the hobgoblins contained in the Book of Revelations and had been whipping audiences up with fiery dispensationalist sermons for years before Iraq; speeches often littered with prophetic fatalism and calls for all-out war in the Middle East so as to bring forth the apocalypse and hasten the 2nd coming of Jesus. In 2001 such talk among evangelicals had become the rule, not the exception, and after the events of the 11th of September the conditions were in place for a Christian Fundamentalist’s hoedown from hell.
Now precisely how much of this fatalistic religious longing for the destruction of the world affected George W. Bush’s thinking only he can say. What we do know with a great deal of certainty via Chirac and Römer is that such biblical end time prophecies were without doubt on his mind in the lead up to the invasion. Yes, the original justification – the public face – for the unprovoked, pre-emptive war was the ‘certain’ presence of Weapons of Mass Destruction and the imminent threat of “mushroom clouds over U.S cities;” fantastically erroneous claims which have since been blamed on a series of colossal miscalculations in Intelligence and interpretation. Unquestionably, there was a series of monumental miscalculations in Intelligence and interpretation but it wasn’t just Bush Administration officials in the centre of the delusional clusterfuck. Gog and Magog were in there too, and in this version of Mary Chase’s Harvey, Elwood P. Dowd had command of the world’s largest army.
Volumes have of course already been written on the more pragmatic geopolitical, oil-centric motivations that shaped this shameful and bloody event, but entire libraries could and should be written on what has amounted to be one of the greatest misadventures outside the bounds of rational human thought and action. I’m loath to say it but such libraries will however probably fail to materialize. It’s not in our nature at this time to challenge ourselves that way. Not at least in popular culture. It’s uncomfortable, desperately awkward, fabulously embarrassing, and in the end it’s just easier for most of our neighbours to play Veta.
Not playing Veta is however what best describes this thing called, New Atheism. It’s a noise that has grown in volume since 2001 and is at its very core a reaction to the outward manifestation of dangerous religious hogwash exerting unjustified influence on society. It’s a noise that says, “No, not anymore. We’ve had enough of this adult fantasy absurdity.” It’s a noise that says, “Evidence for your god now, or shut up.” To our neighbours it’s a noise that says, “This is Formula 977… I’m going to hurt you with the truth, not comfort you with a lie.” It’s a noise that says, “Keep your 6ft tall invisible rabbits out of our schools, our politics, our science, our military, and off our streets… and don’t try to convince me that that rabbit ordered you to kill.”