Witch Hunting for Fun and Profit
Several years ago a man named John Todd was making a stir in Evangelical circles. He attacked prominent Evangelical leaders as members of a secret conspiratorial group known as the Illuminati.
Todd offered no documentation for his claims, so one would think he'd have been readily dismissed. Yet many Evangelicals didn't dismiss him. His story fit the pattern of the false, one-world religious system they believed would emerge in the last days. No one seemed to care that he offered no proof.
Eventually Todd was discredited, at least so far as the mainstream Evangelical world was concerned, but not until after damaging reputations and confusing and misleading simple believers.
His story is important because it represents a recurring phenomenon in popular American Evangelical culture, a phenomenon which is evidenced by such figures as Alberto Rivera (promoted by Jack Chick, who also promoted John Todd) and Tony Alamo. It is what might be called the "heresy hunter's syndrome."
This syndrome isn't confined to oddballs like Todd, Rivera, Chick, and Alamo. There's a host of popular Evangelical spokesmen, more mainstream in reputation if not in attitude, who find it their business to expose heresy within Evangelicaldom.
People such as Dave Hunt, Constance Cumby, Hal Lindsey, and Tex Marrs always seem poised to sound the call for the next heresy hunt. While these folks aren't as far out as the others, in a sense they're more dangerous because they claim the rhetorical middle ground between the indifferent and the alarmists.
Such self-proclaimed guardians of Evangelical orthodoxy have discovered false teaching in places one would least suspect it. As respected an Evangelical as James Dobson of Focus on the Family, for example, has been accused by Dave Hunt of secularist and modernist thinking.
What's Dobson's problem? He calls himself a Christian psychologist, something which Dave Hunt believes is a contradiction in terms, and he also stresses a sense of self-esteem, which Hunt opines is inherently contrary to the total depravity of man. In short, Dobson, according to Hunt, is unwittingly furthering the secularist/modernist agenda within Evangelical Christianity.
The Dobson example could be multiplied again and again. In most cases the factual, logical, and theological lacunae of these Evangelical inquisitors are discoverable easily. Yet, in the popular mind, to be accused is to stand convicted.
Alarmed by this trend, Evangelical apologists and cult researchers Bob and Gretchen Passantino have written a book critical of this inclination to anathematize any position not held by defenders of the Evangelical faith.
The authors possess notable qualifications as observers of the contemporary Evangelical scene. In addition to working with top Evangelical apologetics and cult-awareness organizations in the country (groups such as the Spiritual Counterfeits Project and Cornerstone magazine), they also ran CARIS (Christian Apologetics: Research and Information Service) for a number of years before starting their present ministry, Answers In Action.
Witch Hunt challenges Evangelical writers and apologists to substantiate charges made against fellow Christians. The Passantinos warn against witch hunting, which they say occurs when "sincere but ill-equipped Christians jump into the middle of unavoidably complex controversies and combine faulty techniques and rash judgments with complex issues."
What leads to witch hunting? A sampling of items the authors mention includes: a lack of theological sophistication, little or no professional association or working relationships with competent cult research groups, the mistake of thinking "different means wrong," an obsession with Bible prophecy, inadequate research on a topic, and the absence of critical thinking.
In addition to cataloguing such errors, the Passantinos provide specific examples of witch hunting.
A man once criticized their organization, CARIS, for not carrying tracts against Catholicism. This fellow was convinced Bob Passantino was a Jesuit. After it was pointed out that Jesuits are celibates and Bob Passantino is a married man with children, the accuser replied, "Only a Jesuit would have such a clever disguise!"
This story illustrates the problem with conspiracy theorists: In their thinking, lack of evidence is positive proof of how thorough the conspirators are. (Child 1: "Elephants are hiding in the strawberry patch." Child 2: "But I don't see any." Child 1: "That just proves how well they can hide!")
Another example of witch hunting might be called "guilt by semantical association." This is when a person is accused of holding suspect views merely because he uses terms also used by the heterodox. The authors cite Constance Cumby's attack on Evangelical author and environmentalist Tom Sine.
Cumby's book, Hidden Dangers of the Rainbow, implied Sine is connected to the New Age Movement because he used the term "New Age" 150 times in one of his books. In response, the Passantinos point out how Cumby herself used the term 178 times in the first six chapters of her book. They write:
"Obviously, she was criticizing the New Age Movement, and the frequency with which she used the term is irrelevant. But so also is the frequency with which Sine used the term. We do not agree with much of Sine's economic, political, and theological interpretations and ideas, but it is not fair to condemn him by word statistics."
Sometimes witch hunters follow the precept that similarity implies descent--they argue that things which look alike must be related.
The Passantinos use the example of Mormonism and Hinduism to illustrate the deficiencies of this approach: "For example, both Mormonism and an.aspect of Hindu thought teach that man can become God. However, the Mormons do not get their teaching from the older Hindu teaching, which contradicts Mormon theology in that it is pantheistic--God is the impersonal all, rather than henotheistic--one chief god is worshipped among many in existence. Just because both the Hindu and the Mormon say, `Man can become God,' one cannot necessarily conclude that both teachings are the same, come from a common source, or one comes from the other."
The Passantinos have hit upon a weakness in contemporary pop Evangelical culture, but is any of this relevant to Catholics? Yes, for a number of reasons. First, it shows Catholics what not to do. Many of the mistakes the authors mention are easily made. Better to learn by example from others' mistakes than by experience from one's own.
Second, many Catholics frequent Evangelical bookstores, watch Evangelical television, or listen to Evangelical radio programs. They're liable to be misled about who their friends and enemies are. Catholics may wind up with a distorted view of someone like James Dobson, who, on balance, is friendlier to Catholicism than people such as Hunt and Lindsey.
Third, many witch-hunting procedures discussed by the Passantinos are employed against Catholicism. In fact, some of the standard works to which Fundamentalists turn to learn about Catholicism (Loraine Boettner's Roman Catholicism, Alexander Hislop's The Two Babylons, Joseph Zacchello's Secrets of Romanism) are full of these techniques. Understanding how they're used against others can help us respond when they're employed against us.
Although there's much Catholic readers can learn from Witch Hunt, two minor caveats need to be made.
For one thing, the Passantinos' paradigm for determining Christian orthodoxy is thoroughly Protestant, as one might expect. It's basically sola scriptura.
The maxim, "In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity," which the Passantinos propound, works, provided we agree about what the essentials are and how we determine them to be such. The trouble is that Catholics and Evangelicals don't agree on these points. (Evangelicals don't even agree among themselves about what the essentials are.) This must be kept in mind by the Catholic reader of Witch Hunt.
The second point is that witch-hunting procedures used against the Catholic Church aren't examined. Clearly, the Passantinos regard Catholics as fellow Christians. The charges made against Catholicism by the witch hunters are at least as grievous as those made against other Evangelicals. It would have been helpful to both Catholics and Protestants if the book had considered them.
These points are minor and aren't meant to detract from the laudable job the Passantinos have done. Witch Hunt provides a much-needed examination of conscience for certain Evangelical authors. The book probably will not be heeded, at least not by those in most need of its message. Such a reaction will only underscore the authors' thesis.
-- Mark Brumley
By Bob & Gretchen Passantino
Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1990
What this country needs isn't a good five-cent cigar -- Vice President Thomas R. Marshall presumably got his wish for one of those -- but a good, practical defense of atheism. The Atheist Debater's Handbook isn't it.
The cover blurb reports "this lively book was written to provide the skeptic with an arsenal of arguments against the theist," and the preface says the author's aim is to "offer a concise set of rejoinders for use by atheists in their formal (and informal) debates with theists. . . . For some time now atheists have been in need of firm grounds upon which to base their position. My handbook offers them this foundation." No it doesn't, and that's a loss to both sides.
The atheist is cheated because he's paying for a book which, he thinks, will tell him just what to say to intelligent theists if ever he finds himself in discussions with them. It will tell him to say This if the theist says That . It will give him just the right riposte to any claim the theist might make, and it will set forth the very best arguments atheism has to offer for itself.
In fact the book isn't arranged like that at all and is nearly useless as a primer for real-life debates. Anyone planning to rely on it to train himself for public combat should think about returning to the library for other books.
The theist is cheated because he needs to read atheism's best case if he's to learn to deal with unbelief, but from Johnson he gets atheism's third-best defense. (This book isn't even second-rate.)
Here are two examples of Johnson's flaccid reasoning:
He says the existence of contingent beings doesn't suggest the existence of a necessary being (that is, God). "A necessary being is defined as a being who exists necessarily. It follows that a necessary being would exist regardless of the existence of contingent beings. . . . [I]f God would exist regardless of the existence of contingent beings, then one cannot base an argument for His existence on the existence of contingent beings."
The misses the whole point. If a being is found to be contingent, then it must be contingent upon some other being--either another contingent being or a necessary being. The theist argues against an endless series of contingent beings relying on one another and in favor of their ultimate reliance on a being which is necessary.
Here is Johnson's argument against miracles: God's mind can act on matter--so why not a human mind? Are there occurrences which appear miraculous? Why, it's only human minds working on matter in inexplicable ways. We don't have to posit a divine mind. "The presence of miracles can be used as evidence that some human minds have the power to perform them."
Johnson triumphantly exclaims that the theist's "reasons for believing in God have thus far been demolished. . . . On the question of the existence of God, the only reasonable position is atheism." If that's true, Johnson hasn't shown it, as even dispassionate atheist-readers must confirm, and his publisher owes buyers a refund.
-- Karl Keating
The Atheist Debater's Handbook
By B.C. Johnson
Buffalo: Prometheus Press, 1983