Just because you grow up in the Bible Belt (I was born in a West Virginia hamlet with no electricity) doesn’t mean automatically that you’re a fundamentalist. My family never went to church. Most people I knew laughed at “holy rollers.”
I wandered into adulthood and, rather by accident, became a reporter at The Charleston Gazette. The staff contained a few Catholics, but most of the rest were heathens like me. Our city editor was an H.L. Mencken clone who ridiculed redneck religion and wrote brilliant columns lampooning hillbilly preachers.
One day he told me: “Haught, we want you to be our religion columnist.” I said, “But I haven’t been to church in 20 years.” He said, “Fine – that means you’ll be objective.”
So I started attending churches and reporting my impressions in a Monday column. I covered everything from a national Episcopal bishop assembly to rattler-waving serpent-handler services – from Ph.D. theologian lectures to a “spiritualist” church receiving messages from the dead. I heard thousands babble “the unknown tongue.” (Once, believe it or not, I took Harvard theologian Harvey Cox to a snake-handler church in the hills. When the worshipers began “dancing in the spirit,” Cox jumped up and joined the hoofing. Honest to God.)
I covered evangelist Tiz Jones, who secretly burgled homes in towns visited by his revival, until he was caught and sent to prison. I covered a brawl among rural Baptists who fell into doctrinal dispute and attacked each other with “seng hoes,” mountain implements used to dig ginseng.
Once I wrote a sneering account of a faith-healer who claimed that he raised the dead. He sent 40 of his followers to storm the Gazette newsroom. Luckily, I was out. The night city editor called for burly printers to back the mob out the door.
Faith-healer A.A. Allen came through West Virginia with his traveling show, which included jars containing bodies that Allen said were demons he had exorcised from sick people. (Skeptics said they were frogs.) At Wheeling, Allen vanished – and later was found dead of alcoholism in a San Francisco hotel room, his pockets crammed with cash. (Boy evangelist Marjoe Gortner, who confessed that his shows were a money scam, wrote that Allen advised him how to tell when a revival was over and it was time to go to the next city: “When you can turn people on their head and shake them and no money falls out, then you know God’s saying, ‘Move on, son.’”)
I watched religious history being made in the 1974 Charleston uprising against “godless textbooks.” When our county school system adopted new books, a born-again board member and evangelists declared that the texts were un-Christian. Mobs filled the streets. Schools were dynamited. Two people were shot. School buses were hit by bullets. A fundamentalist boycott left classrooms half-empty. The Ku Klux Klan and California porn-fighter Robert Dornan came to Charleston to oppose the evil books. (The texts looked just like ordinary schoolbooks to me.) The madness finally ended after a preacher and a couple of his followers were sent to prison.
Well, my years of covering Bible Belt religion hardened my youthful skepticism into militant agnosticism. I came to feel that every supernatural claim – from papal bulls and ayatollah fatwas to astrology horoscopes and tarot card readings – is mumbo-jumbo. There’s no tangible evidence for any mystical, magical, miraculous malarkey. I joined the Unitarian Universalist Church and allied myself with its toughest doubters.
At the newspaper, when I was taken off the religion beat and reassigned to corruption investigating, I was relieved. I had felt dishonest reporting stuff I deemed a fantasy. Eventually, I won 15 national prizes as investigator, and became the paper’s editor.
But my disdain for supernaturalism didn’t fade. I felt compelled to tell the world that believing in gods, devils, heavens, hells, angels, demons, miracles, saviors, salvation and all the rest is chasing a will-’o-the-wisp. Invisible spirits are imaginary, as far as an honest observer can tell. They’re a universal delusion. So I wrote five books and dozens of magazine pieces pushing this message.
As you may guess, it’s a bit precarious for a crusading agnostic to run a newspaper in the heart of the Bible Belt. I don’t hide my beliefs; my books are reviewed in the paper. So far, there has been no fundamentalist outcry. But I try not to flaunt my skepticism before churchgoing readers. Endlessly in editorials, I attack religious attempts to ban abortion, to censor movies and magazines, to halt sex education, to outlaw stripper clubs, to distribute Bibles in schools, to restore the death penalty, to teach children creationism, to provide tax-paid vouchers for church schools – but I do it in purely secular language.
Our new religion reporter is a gentle Jew who bends over backward to be fair to every belief. When I tell him he’s covering a zoo of make-believe, he just grins. He’s even tolerant of me.