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When God Talks, People Listen ... and Trouble Follows

From the pages of the Old Testament to the testimony of Boyce Singleton in his murder trial, nothing can be clearer than this: having God in your head is the perfect way to short-circuit reason and conscience.
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In the beginning -- well, very nearly the beginning -- God said stuff like this: "Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass."

Whew. Now, that's tough love.

Have things changed? Depends on who you ask. To some, it appears that God spends his days answering prayers, doing miracles, and inspiring remorse and reform. To others, it looks as though God keeps busy prompting mischief, cursing Haiti for making a pact with the Devil, sending tornadoes in hot pursuit of homosexuals, and changing His rating of Home Depot stock from a "Buy" to a "Sell."

Just lately, He's gone and told a perfectly decent, God-fearing athlete to set his room on fire. Here's how the Spokesman-Review recounts it:

A pro football player who leapt from his burning third-floor apartment in Liberty Lake Thursday said he started the blaze with a marijuana blunt because God told him to ... Kevin Marcus Ellison, 25, a starting linebacker/defensive back for the Spokane Shock arena football team, initially told firefighters that he'd been smoking in bed, but ... Shock general manager Ryan Rigmaiden ... said Ellison told him he started the fire with a marijuana blunt at the advice of God...

You're not buying it? Well, neither am I, and I doubt any jury will either. They'll figure that Mr. Ellison is either cynical or nuts. It might well be the latter. In another, far more tragic case, an appellate court has ruled insane the belief that God wants you to do something that you would otherwise know to be wrong.

Boyce Singleton Jr. admits that he shot and stabbed his pregnant girlfriend to death in their New Jersey home, but as he told the jury, "It was the right thing to do because it was something God was telling me to do." His conviction has been overturned, because that, my friends, is certifiably wacko-rama-ding-dong.

Despite God's published views on slaughtering the Amalekites, not to mention the hapless Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, I agree with the court: such claims are insane. But this raises a more important question here: Aren't all such claims of private revelation from God either cynical or nuts?

For instance, did God really tell President George W. Bush to invade Iraq? If the Almighty wanted us to take out Saddam, why just tell one person? We live in a democracy, after all, and war is a really big deal, especially when it goes as badly as the invasion of Iraq ended up. Why not do what other leaders do: hit the Sunday morning talk shows? It's His time, after all. I feel sure producers of Face the Nation would have bumped the usual rabble of politicians to give God, say, 10 minutes to make His case.

Or, to take a more recent instance, is it sane to believe that earlier this year, when there were still nine Republicans running for the GOP nomination, God spilled the beans to Pat Robertson about who the next president will be? According to the Christian Broadcasting Network's Preach-in-Chief, God did just that, but, dadgummit, He won't let Robertson share the good news. Still, wink, wink, nudge, nudge, Rev. Pat gives a pretty strong hint that God's SuperPAC won't be backing Obama.

Turning to business news, at last month's Home Depot shareholders' meeting, one Bishop Robert Smith of Arkansas delivered a message "directly from God," according to the broadcast team at the American Family Association. The message was this:

"Nice company youse have here," the Heavenly Father muttered hoarsely, as he ran a finger across a laminate countertop. "Be a shame if anyting was to happen to it ... or your shareholders." OK, I'm not absolutely certain that's the way the scene played out in Bishop Smith's head, but it was apparently much like that. God, it seems, is ticked off about the Home Depot's support of equal rights for gays.

No doubt some of the people who claim to bring prophetic messages from God are cynical liars, and no doubt some others are certifiably insane. But that leaves millions of Americans who are not crazy in general but who believe they hear the voice of God in their heads. Scholar T.M. Luhrmann of Stanford University has recently published a book on the subject. In it, she says that a growing number of evangelicals train their brains to experience God directly, as a sort of friendly coach in their heads. Plenty of neurological research backs up her anthropological observations.

To an undiscriminating atheist, this is just part-and-parcel of the nonsense of religion. But to anyone who believes that faith can be rational, this is a deeply disturbing trend. Any rational religionist would agree that a just God would not play favorites, let alone whisper orders for genocide, pointless discrimination or murderous rampages in anyone's ears.

But for the followers of Old Time Religion, that's just what happens. From the pages of the Old Testament to the testimony of Boyce Singleton in his murder trial, nothing can be clearer than this: having God in your head is the perfect way to short-circuit reason and conscience. It provides indisputable cover for whatever a believer may do. You cannot argue with it; you can only say: "Dear God! That is insane."

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