The Ben Stein E-mail

There's this e-mail that makes the rounds now and then. It's always reported as being "written by Ben Stein," though actually only the first part of it is (the bit about Christmas trees). You should be able to get the basic idea of what the e-mail says because the text of the entire e-mail is embedded in between my responses, but if you're interested in the original article itself and the validity thereof, you might want to read these things first:

Anyway, my mother forwarded this to me (as it was forwarded to her) and she said, "Love to hear your response to this." And respond I did. After writing it, I decided some of the points I made were things I wanted to say on my site, so here they are. The e-mail text is in the Courier font. Enjoy!

The following was written by Ben Stein and recited by him on CBS Sunday Morning Commentary.

My confession:

I am a Jew, and every single one of my ancestors was Jewish. And it does not bother me even a little bit when people call those beautiful lit up, bejeweled trees Christmas trees. I don't feel threatened. I don't feel discriminated against. That's what they are: Christmas trees.

Very true. Christmas trees are Christmas trees.

Well, considering many people decorate them because they're carrying on a tradition they don't even realize was invented to celebrate Pagan traditions, this is a bit ironic, but I don't have any problem with someone decorating a tree in celebration of Christmas if they think it helps their holiday seem merrier. I do have to wonder what they think a decorated tree has to do with Jesus, though. Ancient Pagans revered a tree that could stay green in winter as a symbol of the Green Man's birth and a promise of spring. If a Christian has any insight as to why they celebrate Christmas on December 25th even though the Bible makes it obvious that the birth couldn't have happened in the dead of winter, I'd love to hear it.

But considering it's always been common knowledge (among those who actually pay attention to the past, that is) that early Christians deliberately appropriated the time frames and celebration styles of the cultures they were trying to indoctrinate as it made conversion easier, I think I already have my answer as to what Christmas trees symbolize. . . .

It doesn't bother me a bit when people say, "Merry Christmas" to me. I don't think they are slighting me or getting ready to put me in a ghetto. In fact, I kind of like it. It shows that we are all brothers and sisters celebrating this happy time of year. It doesn't bother me at all that there is a manger scene on display at a key intersection near my beach house in Malibu . If people want a creche, it's just as fine with me as is the Menorah a few hundred yards away.

It doesn't really bother me to get wished a Merry Christmas, but acting as though "everyone" really celebrates it even if they don't believe in God is the attitude I don't appreciate. We're NOT "all brothers and sisters celebrating this happy time of year" any more than we're "all brothers and sisters celebrating this happy time of year" when the kids get out of school and talk about summer vacation as if everyone gets to go on leave just because they are. I don't know about you, but I have to work even if it's summer, so "summer vacation" doesn't apply to me and I wouldn't want people to assume I'm celebrating it.

I don't like getting pushed around for being a Jew, and I don't think Christians like getting pushed around for being Christians. I think people who believe in God are sick and tired of getting pushed around, period. I have no idea where the concept came from that America is an explicitly atheist country. I can't find it in the Constitution and I don't like it being shoved down my throat.

Nobody likes getting pushed around for anything they hold dear. That's universal. It's not just the people who believe in God. And I've got news for anyone who thinks everyone's pushing "people who believe in God" around: More than 98% of the people in the world believe in some form of supreme spiritual being, and the remaining maybe one and a half percent are NOT bossing around the rest of you in a dictatorship. They're just not. People who believe in God are in power. Known atheists are significantly less likely to get elected for public office than even homosexuals, and we all know how much the Religious Right hates THEM. If not being a theist basically means everyone thinks you don't have the moral integrity or the proper values to lead, that means you don't get to whine that you're getting pushed around for believing in God.

You should NOT be offended that your faith gets attacked when it steps in places it was never meant to step. Many people who believe in God still don't believe other people should be forced or encouraged by government or society to believe in their religions. Nobody claims America is "an explicitly atheist country." In fact, many places in America are the most religious on Earth--Europe is a lot more atheist than we are. The Constitution doesn't say we should not believe in God. It just says that we should never establish an official religion or use the government's power to enforce adherance to any religious creed whatsoever.

Or maybe I can put it another way: where did the idea come from that we should worship Nick and Jessica and we aren't allowed to worship God as we understand Him? I guess that's a sign that I'm getting old, too. But there are a lot of us who are wondering where Nick and Jessica came from and where the America we knew went to.

. . . Is someone saying somewhere that worship should be transferred to celebrities and now thou shalt not worship God how you want? Yes, where DID this idea come from? From this e-mail. Because nobody is saying that.

In light of the many jokes we send to one another for a laugh, this is a little different: This is not intended to be a joke; it's not funny, it's intended to get you thinking.

Billy Graham's daughter was interviewed on the Early Show and Jane Clayson asked her "How could God let something like this happen?" (regarding Katrina) Anne Graham gave an extremely profound and insightful response. She said, "I believe God is deeply saddened by this, just as we are, but for years we've been telling God to get out of our schools, to get out of our government and to get out of our lives. And being the gentleman He is, I believe He has calmly backed out. How can we expect God to give us His blessing and His protection if we demand He leave us alone?"

Ahh yes. Katrina (or 9/11, or Turkish earthquakes, or fires in California) happened because of what humans did to God.

Wow. This has to be one of the most stunningly ignorant and ARROGANT statements I've ever heard.

First off, Billy Graham's daughter is speaking for God, and right there that's the picture of arrogance. She's claiming that because some people did some things that won't let her religion get its grubby little fingers into the nooks and crannies that the Constitution decrees it shouldn't, God reared back and said "Fine then. Have a natural disaster and see how you like it! (But I'll make sure to aim it at a place where no direct correlation can be drawn, so people like Billy Graham can claim it's because of homos or abortion being tolerated there.)"

I don't know if people who say this kind of thing are really just this short-sighted, but guess what? Natural disasters have ALWAYS happened. And they are just that: Natural. Forest fires and hurricanes and floods and earthquakes exist because they are part of how nature renews itself. They are side effects of a planet with weather systems and a plate tectonics mechanism, and that's a fact. THEY HAPPENED LONG BEFORE HUMANS GOT HERE. Can they seriously believe that putting the smackdown on display of the Ten Commandments or something like that could CAUSE natural disasters? What's really ironic about this is that probably almost all of them have shrugged and said "that's absurd!" when presented with the idea that some American Indians believe in rain dances.

But secondly, the bit about "being the gentleman He is, I believe He has calmly backed out" . . . I hardly even know how to start. Maybe I shouldn't, and should just say . . . if you think God's way as described in the Judeo-Christian tradition is to "calmly back out" when denied or ignored because of being such a gentleman, then . . . you should READ A BIBLE. Because you obviously HAVEN'T. The God of Abraham is only the most jealous, obsessive, foul-tempered, bad-mannered deity in all of Western literature. When he says don't look back and you look back, you get turned into a pillar of salt. And on a grander scale, if God gets sick of the way everyone's acting, He tends to do things like, oh, flood the whole world and drown everyone. God of the Bible is extremely intolerant, especially of anything that involves belief in and respect of HIM. Not to mention that if He "backed out," does that mean the hurricane or terrorist attack or earthquake happened by itself because His presence disappeared? Or does it mean He sent it in retaliation for our actions? (That last sounds more like Him, as per the Bible.) Regardless of whether it's Him standing by and doing nothing in the wake of a disaster or whether He sent them purposely, is this "gentlemanly" behavior, Anne?

The statement Billy Graham's daughter made was hardly profound and insightful. It was just a demonstration of ignorance and arrogance . . . and furthermore, sadly, it is all too prevalent an attitude among those who think themselves the true followers of God's real message.

In light of recent events...terrorists attack, school shootings, etc. I think it started when Madeleine Murray O'Hare (she was murdered, her body found recently) complained she didn't want prayer in our schools, and we said OK.

Wait, things started going wrong recently? You found a "starting point" of humans-ignoring-God-related disasters? This is getting silly! Maybe this is a joke e-mail after all.

School is a government-run institution. If you want to have a moment of silence for some reason, dandy. But you can't announce that it's prayer time and definitely can't dictate a "correct" prayer to the students because doing so is directly in opposition to the Constitution's tenets. And yes, leading students in prayer or suggesting anything that they "should" be praying about in a school setting DOES indicate that this is the school's position on such things. If your family was Christian and you were taught Christianity all your life but then you just happened to be the minority in some area, I would think you would be grateful for any rule that says your children wouldn't be subjected to the majority religion in a place they are required by law to go every day.

Then someone said you better not read the Bible in school The Bible says thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal, and love your neighbor as yourself. And we said OK.

Actually if you take certain parts of the Bible as literature they are interesting parables, and it's true that no understanding of Western literature is complete without at least a basic understanding of the Old and New Testaments' contribution to the body of literature. In fact, I read the story of Job in high school as required reading, and I didn't think there was anything wrong with that assignment. Reading the Bible is not outlawed in school. Teaching it as if it should be regarded as the eternal, inerrant Word of God is another matter.

And the Bible says a hell of a lot more than "thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal, and love your neighbor as yourself." The Bible does NOT have the monopoly on morality, and the Bible is not the only place you can find it. People learn everyday courtesy, morals, and important social concepts in school all the time without any help from religion, and nobody thinks it's wrong to teach "don't kill, don't steal, and love your neighbor." It's just that the document that's been repeatedly posted and removed in classrooms worldwide is a RELIGIOUS DOCTRINE.

So most people who want this doctrine posted in schools hop up and down screaming "there's nothing wrong with the Ten Commandments! Even if they came from a religious source they're still a good idea! Our children need moral guidance!" But do they even KNOW what the commandments are? I think there are only four of them that are obviously "good ideas" in all situations, and then there are two more that are probably good ideas in most situations. Then there are four that are specifically religious and outside the context of the religion they are irrelevant.

Yes, it's a good idea to not murder, not steal, not lie, and not commit adultery. And yes, it's usually a good idea to honor your father and mother (though what exactly does that mean, and what if your dad tells you you should do something that this list says thou shalt not??), and it's usually a good idea to "not covet" (though again what exactly that means is a little hairy--are they saying you shouldn't be jealous--a feeling you really can't help, since it's in the human nature supposedly created by this God--or are they just saying you shouldn't try to get it for your own? That's already covered in stealing, I thought).

But then, "thou shalt have no other gods before me," "thou shalt not make idols (or graven images)," "thou shalt remember the Sabbath," and "thou shalt not take the lord's name in vain" . . . these are RELIGIOUS. EXPLICITLY SO. They are not just "good ideas." They are specific religious practices. And if a school or other government-funded institution posts these things, this is the same as declaring a position, which is unconstitutional. It is illegal to not pay your taxes. I think it's only fair that it be illegal to use the tax money to support actions that break the same laws that say I have to pay the taxes. It's a double standard, and it's wrong and stupid.

Not to mention I somehow doubt that it's because the Ten Commandments weren't on the wall of the classroom that some kids got disgusted and started a school shooting. Saying that's the case is misdirection of the worst kind. How many psychotic people have murdered others specifically in the name of God? A lot. What they had in common was being psychotic. And considering the Old Testament depicts one of its heroes being willing to sacrifice his son to God because he heard a voice in his head saying God wanted him to kill his kid as a show of faith, I don't think the Bible is necessarily a good document to help people figure out where their morals should lie. A modern dad who did that would totally get put away. Think he shouldn't? Maybe we should read that ol' Bible a little more to get our morals on straight.

Then Dr. Benjamin Spock said we shouldn't spank our children when they misbehave because their little personalities would be warped and we might damage their self-esteem (Dr. Spock's son committed suicide). We said an expert should know what he's talking about. And we said OK.

This is kind of non sequitur. Child rearing is different for everyone and there are experts on both sides for and against spanking. Is this e-mail trying to tell me that if we teach children that all their transgressions will be answered with violence, they will grow into less violent people? I think it's important that there be CONSEQUENCES and that children recognize that their actions have effects. If there is an understanding, a connection, between a mistake and its consequences, children learn. Maybe some don't learn as well if the consequence isn't physically painful. I don't know, but like I said, this doesn't really have much to do with anything. (Oh yeah, and Dr. Spock doesn't have a son who committed suicide, either. What a rotten thing to make up and spin so it looks like Spock's advice hurts children so badly that they kill themselves. Smooth. One of his grandsons, who was schizophrenic, did commit suicide, but it'd be disgusting to assume that a mentally ill young man must have killed himself because his grandfather didn't know what he was doing when it came to child-rearing. It's horrifying that someone would take a family's personal tragedy and try to make it an advertisement for the truth of a unrelated religious agenda!)

Now we're asking ourselves why our children have no conscience, why they don't know right from wrong, and why it doesn't bother them to kill strangers, their classmates, and themselves.

Except that people have been shaking their heads at the state of the world and whining about "kids today" since antiquity. It is no worse today than it was. It's just DIFFERENT, which makes some people think it's worse. I guarantee you, if you went back in time a few hundred years, say to the time of slavery, and saw that white masters were allowed to torture or kill their slaves just because they were thought sub-human due to their skin color, you would shake your head and say "OH, what has happened to the state of the world? This is upside-down! How can people be so cruel? We would never act like this in my time!" That's just how it was then, and it was horrible, and now the horrible things in our world regarding how we treat each other just happen to be different. We're not really going in a downward spiral. Some things are worse than they were, and some are better.

Believe it or not, documents like the Ten Commandments were written in the times of the early Jews thousands of years ago specifically BECAUSE morals have always been a struggle for the human species. Making a generalization that children today have no conscience and kill people and claiming it has something to do with a lack of God in their lives is obscenely ignorant. During the Crusades Christian soldiers killed strangers for God plenty of times, and during the Inquisition witch-hunters tortured people in the name of what God wanted (by their understanding of Him--and I guarantee you, it was Bible-based).

Probably, if we think about it long and hard enough, we can figure it out. I think it has a great deal to do with "WE REAP WHAT WE SOW."

Funny how simple it is for people to trash God and then wonder why the world's going to hell. Funny how we believe what the newspapers say, but question what the Bible says.

Considering believing in God, being religious, or even attending church has NO correlation with being a good person, I'd say this is misleading. It is not God that keeps people on the straight and narrow--and it never was. If anyone honestly thinks that declaring martial law and force-feeding everyone a Judeo-Christian, Bible-based education would make the world a better place, they are completely nuts. They tried that in seventeenth-century England. Guess what happened? The United States of America happened.

People ran away from that kind of brutality, that kind of enforced adherence to a specific moral philosophy as seen by the ruling party, and they started their own place where people would be free to think what they wanted about God and everything else. This society WAS founded on freedom--NOT on God. This country's founders, the people who wrote the Constitution, were Deists, and many of them weren't even Christian in the real sense of the word. When they wrote in our founding document that there should be no officially recognized state religion, they spelled out that they meant "freedom of religion--and freedom FROM it, if desired." They did NOT mean "This great new country is going to be a place where people can worship Our Idea of God any way they want based on Judeo-Christian values."

If you're going to moan about where the America we used to know went to, try taking a look at what it's become compared with what it was meant to be. Our country's motto is now "In God We Trust," and idiots who seek to pull the wool over our eyes act as though it's always been that way. Nope. It became our motto in 1956. It used to be "E Pluribus Unum." "Out of many, one." And that was the intention of the people who WROTE the founding documents. (In 1782, incidentally. It has a bit more history than "In God We Trust." Especially since it's Latin.)

We ended up with a motto that doesn't represent all of us because the people in power believe this way. How dare you claim YOU'RE the ignored, the shunned, the stepped-upon when it's your bigotry and small-mindedness that's causing a lot of the problems we have . . . and now you're blaming the problems on people's failure to further accept your hijacked platform!

Those of us who don't believe in God the way you do--or don't believe in God at all--generally practice religious tolerance. We have to do so in order to avoid committing immoral acts like killing, lying, and stealing--we have to tolerate you because it is your right to practice something even if it's dumb, and we aren't planning on killing you, lying about you, or stealing your country to deny you that pleasure. Unfortunately you're trying to do that to us, and you have always done so because those are the kinds of morals you find in those Bibles of yours. You complain that we "take them out of the schools" and that's why people don't know what's in them, but DO YOU? Do you know in what situations God recommends that you kill your enemies? Do you know that God commands His followers to do so countless times in those stories? Do you even realize that that's what you're essentially doing? You're trying to bury us as if it's a "sad state of affairs" that your religion isn't in charge of what people do and think. What's a sad state of affairs is when people think it needs to be.

Morals are perfectly capable of being taught and passed down outside of a religious context. Do you refrain from robbing banks simply because you know the police will probably catch you and throw you in jail? Or do you refrain because you know that money isn't yours and it's wrong to do it? I vote for the latter. And I for one have never needed the looming figure of an angry God in my head threatening me with hellfire in order to behave like a decent human being. I behave decently because my mother taught me to respect other people and do things to and for them only to increase their happiness, if possible. (Or at least don't hurt them.) I never heard her say one word about how if I behaved badly I would get punished by God, nor did she tell me I should depend for my sense of what is right and wrong on a book. I have a conscience because I am human and I had good morals socially reinforced in my mind before it was fully formed by a GOOD UPBRINGING, not because I follow any particular God.

Funny how you can send 'jokes' through e-mail and they spread like wildfire but when you start sending messages regarding the Lord, people think twice about sharing. Funny how lewd, crude, vulgar and obscene articles pass freely through cyberspace, but public discussion of God is suppressed in the school and workplace.

Are you laughing?

Funny how when you forward this message, you will not send it to many on your address list because you're not sure what they believe, or what they will think of you for sending it.

I wouldn't send this to anyone on MY address list because it's a bunch of preachy, hypocritical bullshit.

Funny how we can be more worried about what other people think of us than what God thinks of us.

Or what some arrogant son-of-a-bitch is trying to tell me God thinks of me because of my unwillingness to follow a "revealed" text written by men thousands of years ago.

The men who wrote the books of the Bible probably didn't know what was good for my soul any more than the doctors of that time knew what was good for my body. Speaking for God like this just takes the cake.

Pass it on if you think it has merit. If not then just discard it... no one will know you did. But, if you discard this thought process, don't sit back and complain about what bad shape the world is in.

Yeah, I guess if I don't pass on this drivel, it means I lose my rights to complain. That makes a whole lot of sense. The whole thing was written with this smarmy tone as if obvious truths were being conveyed here; as if everyone who reads it would necessarily agree with the idea that rejection of the Bible (and the God described in it) is the cause of all these problems we have in the world.

Truthfully? I found it pompous, pretentious, presumptuous, and not at all profound. It's obvious the author of this piece thinks this is really laid out clear here and that all who read it will see where the real blame lies.

*I* think the real blame lies in trying to blame everyone else for not "seeing the light" by your definition.

The "light" is all of us being allowed to create our own, and being free to live by it as long as it doesn't snuff anyone else's out. If you don't like light, just put out your eyes. Don't put out the sun. Some of us like it where it is.

My Best Regards,
Honestly and respectfully,

Ben Stein

MY Best Regards,
Honestly not respecting you very much right now,

May the Force be with you

Some connections:

Any comments left here are PUBLIC. If you are not comfortable with that, mail me directly.

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Comments from others:

Toon Review: I read this whole thing out loud. (Yet to myself, which is weird.) I honestly agree with everything that you've said. I know that sounds like a lot of butt kissing, but trust me. I'm not exaggerating. First of all, I doubt this was written by Ben Stein, so says my gut instinct. Second, you've raised many interesting and educational points, so much so that I think this should be a big long four-part youtube video. (If it isn't already.)

And, I kid you not, I had the EXACT same thought some time ago when you were talking about Abraham killing his son as a sign of faith, and how if someone were to do that today, (In the name of God,) well, I don't think very many people will believe him. I used the same ideology to wonder. For instance, there are a lot of Christians I know (I'm not one of them) who say they are waiting for the Messiah to come back, for Jesus to return. Uh huh. And if someone TODAY were to show up and claim he was the son of God, everyone would think he's a maniac. I could say more on the matter, but I don't want to fill up too much space. :P

Thank you for a very interesting read! Keep it up. And may the Force be with you as well.

Bunks: That's a very well-written piece. I was impressed with some of the info you provided (most notably how religious unrest in England led to the founding of America). Ben Stein makes me sad. Ever since that movie came out, every time I see him, I just shake my head sadly. I used to like him a lot; he's a smart guy & very funny. But this kind of thing destroys all credibility.

Synesthesia: Ben Stein kind of annoys me. Mainly because of his video about evolution I should see one day. It's just that creationism or intelligent design shouldn't be taught in schools as science because it's just not real science, but theology!

Anyway, the person who wrote that part about Spock's son was wrong. His son didn't commit suicide. Suicide has little to do with not getting spanked.

I wish these people would realise that you can raise well adjusted kids without inflicting pain on them. That to say that when spanking was mainstream every single child in the whole country was good, patriotic and pure is just plain false. It's like they don't want to look at the whole picture but they just want to believe that the 50s was such a perfect time and only recently now that there's Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas, and since there's not enough paddling in schools only NOW has the country suddenly turn "evil".
What are these folks smoking?

Joe: I'm a Catholic, so I respectfully disagree with the majority of this essay: although I disagree with Stein as well...odd. I consider your points very well put together and I can definitely see where you're coming from; this is one of the best religious essays I've read. The problem is that you don't have all the facts in some of your cases. For example:

"And considering the Old Testament depicts one of its heroes being willing to sacrifice his son to God because he heard a voice in his head saying God wanted him to kill his kid as a show of faith, I don't think the Bible is necessarily a good document to help people figure out where their morals should lie. A modern dad who did that would totally get put away. Think he shouldn't? Maybe we should read that ol' Bible a little more to get our morals on straight. "

Well, here's the thing. You didn't quite finish the story. Abraham did not kill his son. The "voice in his head" also happened to tell him not to: that it was just, as you noted, to show his faith and commitment. I'm not trying to start a debate (unless you're interested, in which case I'm game), I just figured it might be worth pointing out.

Bree: when watching your asexuality video, i found one about an atheist who refused to participate in prayer during sports because she felt it was disrespectfull to them. Because of that, she was excluded and harrased by teachers and students. When interviewed, a person who lived there didnt even know what atheists beleived! (a basic understanding of word stems could have could have clued them in...)

Wolfgang: Great essay. Small nitpick: when you say "They tried that in seventeenth century England. Guess what happened? The United States of America" Your history is just a bit off there. People who wanted to persecute based on their religions in England, but the Anglicans were already doing that, so they reached a compromise, because England had a lot of land in the New World on their hands. The crown gave people colonies for a diverse number of reasons, but most with total religous freedom only had it incidentally. Then there was this thing called the French-Indian War, the aftermath of which the Crown handled poorly, which ended up creating lots of new taxes. Like the people in current U.S. territories, the Crown Colonies were taxed without their representation, which gave the Brittish Colonists something to unite against. A lot of the scholars of the day were Deists, and scholarly, charismatic men took to leading this Revolution. Realizing that the "country" they were planning to create was filled with bottom-of-the-barrel religions that England was quick to toss out for being too conservative (Puritans) or too liberal (Quakers), they decided that the Union as a whole shouldn't have a religion. Since their original post-Revolutionary Union, what with it's Articles of Confederacy that pretty much said "Do what you want, States, but pretty please help us be a Union.", didn't work out so well (see: Shays' Rebellion) they made a new Constitution "in Order to create a more perfect Union". When they added the Bill of rights, the same charismatic scholars who led the Revolution decided "Okay, let's build a wall of seperation between Church and state", because that was a popular idea at the time. And that's how America was made! Wow. for a historical nitpick, that was pretty long. Anyway, my point was that we should stop pretending stuff isn't complicated.

Michael W. Gephart: It is not necessarily anti-Christian to call a Christmas Tree a "Holiday" tree. Many people leave their tree up until after New Years. Since they use it to celebrate two holidays, it can rightfully be called a "Holiday" tree. Merry "Xmas", non-believers!