By Gary Sloan
How fares free speech
in America, you ask. I've done a protracted test of sorts, and the results
are--well, let's say enigmatic. Maybe you can make sense of it all.
As Shakespeare might say, I'm lost in it.
For thousands of readers
in north Louisiana, I am "that atheist professor from Louisiana Tech
University," located in the small town Ruston, on I-20, not far from
Mississippi. For ten years, I've written anti-religious letters and
columns to the two largest newspapers in the northern half of the state.
The letters have elicited about 400 written responses, most published.
I decided to defend nontheism
because no one else was doing so, even though both papers had long been
saturated with pro-Christian letters and features.
My comeuppance followed
hard upon my first letter and has, through the unabated responses to
subsequent letters, continued ever since. Bible Belt readers, I now
realize, neither suffer a fool gladly nor hesitate to call a fool a
I am often advised to read
Psalms 14:1 ("The fool has said in his heart, 'There is no God'"). In
the responses, the ad hominem retort has flourished like a perennial
weed. I have been christened with such unendearing epithets as Satan,
anti-Christ, Hitler, Stalin, Lenin, Mao, Mussolini, Attila the Hun,
Madelyn O'Hara (sic) and William Buckley, Jr. (because of my putative
predilection for sesquipedalian diction). I have also been nicknamed
after diminutive species: mouse, minnow, housefly, spider, ant, flea.
I am rebuked both for being
an intellectual and a pseudo-intellectual, and I don't know which is
worse: "Sloan may be an intellectual, but he's also a gibbering idiot
and a bubble and a half off." "Mr. Sloan is highly intellectual--that
is, he speculates about things he doesn't know anything about." "Sloan
ought to consider it is no coincidence that intellect and ignorant begin
with the same letter."
My bogus intellect frequently
elicits exhibitions of wit: "I was no magna nor summa cum laude, but
simply a grateful 'thank you laude' when I graduated." "Sloan thinks
Jesus is a liar, a bum, a beggar, and thief. In his vast wisdom, he
has confused Jesus with Bill Clinton." "Professor Sloan has a BDIP degree
(bombastic, doctrinaire, intolerant, and predictable)."
One reader sent me a clipping
of his response to one of my letters. A dime and a note were attached.
The note read: "Send a copy to a friend--if you have one." Offhand,
I couldn't think of one.
Eleven professors signed
a letter assuring parents not all faculty members shared my views: "If
you or your children enroll at this university, you will meet faculty
who have Dr. Sloan's perspective. But you'll also meet many faculty
who are committed to Christ."
An editorial page editor
refused to print my responses to criticism of me, though he printed
critics' responses to my criticism. When I publicly pointed out the
double standard, he wrote a column defending himself: "Sloan is right,
you know. His turning upon those who criticized his deep emotional aversion
to worship was prevented. It just seemed too, too sadistic on my part
to do otherwise. I think of the Bible Belt as people who are proud to
give their allegiance to a higher spiritual power rather than follow
the unwashed rudiments of man."
Some respondents try to
strong-arm editors. A professor of economics spearheaded a movement
to have my letters squelched: "Sloan's letters are the moral equivalent
of yelling 'fire' in a crowded theater. It is time to suspend publication
of Sloan's clever but ill-intentioned letters. They pump up his ego
at considerable expense to the public good." A guy named Bubba wrote:
"If you share Sloan's beliefs and that is the reason for your continued
support, then you can cancel my subscription. I'll pass this along to
all my buddies, and you'll probably hear from them also."
Respondents assure readers
my foot will slide in due time: "While I will pray for Sloan, I pray
not to see him in the end, because I don't plan to go where he's heading."
Some display a Dantesque dash: "It looks like Sloan is going for the
whole enchilada--death, followed by the White Throne judgment, humiliation,
condemnation, then thrown into the bottomless pit by an archangel with
an attitude, to swim around in a burning fire with his master, the devil
Some think I'm still salvageable:
"God has shown me that you, sir, will in time accept Jesus as your savior,
and you will stop disgracing Him." One woman was grandiose: "Mr. Sloan,
you are like Saul. I believe God is going to use you the way he did
Saul. I just can't wait to see you proclaiming the gospel of Jesus."
On my answering machine, a Pentecostal woman left a message in tongues.
After the last indecipherable word, she emitted a long, satisfied exhalation.
Some commiserate with me:
"Gary, I often wonder who let you down. Was it your mother, your wife,
a friend? What filled you with such hate for all that is sacred and
Several churches have made
me their project: "Gary, next Sunday at 10 a.m. we will be praying that
the Holy Spirit will reach out to Gary Sloan and that he will receive
a sign by Wednesday, June 14th, at 6 p.m." If the sign appeared, I missed
it. A large Baptist church (Six Flags Over Jesus, one wag called it)
blazoned a pithy homily on a marquee that faces a thoroughfare: "GARY,
GOD IS REAL, AND HE LOVES YOU DEARLY." No one from the church dropped
by, wrote, or called.
I've received two published
letters of support. The first was from one of my wife's undergraduates:
"Hurrah for Gary Sloan! I hope he runs for President!" The effervescent
student was, I surmised, bucking for an A. The other kudos was from
a devout Christian: "Gary, with every letter you write, you bring people
closer to Christ. Keep up the good work."
After I had written my first
letter, a colleague said he figured I had a death wish or had gone off
my rocker. He may be right on both counts. Come to think of it, maybe
all this has nothing to do with the First Amendment. As I said, I'll
let you decide.
What do you think? Leave your comments on the Guestbook!
is a retired English professor from Ruston, Louisiana. Besides numerous
articles in scholarly journals, he has written articles on religion,
science, and literature for most of the major freethought magazines:
Skeptic, Free Inquiry, The Humanist, American Atheist, The Freethinker,
American Rationalist, The Truth Seeker, etc. He also writes commentaries
for the Scripps Howard News Service.