In the aftermath of the Columbine massacre, you may have heard of Cassie Bernall. A fellow student, Emily Wyant, propagated a narrative to the media in which the shooters asked Cassie if she believed in God, and shot her when she said yes. A book recounting this version of events, titled “She said yes! The unlikely martyrdom of Cassie Bernall” can be found on Amazon.
Just one problem: It didn’t happen that way. Cassie was shot while hiding under a table. The only thing her killer said to commemorate that event was “peekaboo” as confirmed by the 911 recordings. Emily Wyant recanted her story more than ten years later. She and a second student named Craig had heard the exchange but not seen it, wrongly assuming the voice belonged to Cassie.
It turns out an exchange similar to the one they recall did occur, between Dylan Klebold and Valeen Schnurr. She’d dropped to her knees and was praying to God. Dylan asked if she believed in God. She said yes. He asked why. She said “Because I believe, and because I was raised that way.” He shrugged it off and left, declining to finish her off. She was among the survivors and later confirmed this version of events.
So in fact, not only did the shooters not murder Cassie for being a Christian, they actually spared Valeen, who vocally affirmed her faith and prayed in front of them. If Dylan and Eric were the angry anti-religion maniacs the media account made them out to be, that doesn’t make sense.
But it was too late, a legend was born. A faith-promoting legend which helped a largely Christian nation find a silver lining in a tragedy…and which cast the blame onto atheists, their favorite punching bag. All the makings of an irresistible narrative, which is why Rick Santorum was repeating the myth as if it were true as recently as 2015.
With a few exceptions, Christians love a good faith promoting story so much that they don’t particularly care how credible it is. They are not a people famous for scrupulous fact checking, to put it generously. It also resonated with evangelicals in particular because the scenario of holding fast to your beliefs in the face of death, as a gunman demands to know if you’re a Christian, is one they have a near fetishistic fondness for.
That exact scenario was proposed to me and the rest of my classmates by the teacher when I attended a fundamentalist Christian middle school. The sort which flies the Christian flag above the US flag, and teaches six day, young earth creationism from the ACE curriculum.
“What would you do” we were asked, “if a masked man with a gun barged in here and said he was going to shoot everybody who won’t deny Christ?” An oddly specific and contrived situation, but we all eagerly said we would refuse to deny Christ even if it meant losing our lives.
The in-religion rationale for this is obvious. If we denied Christ, we might live another 60 years or so, but then we’d die in disbelief and be damned to Hell for it. Why a loving God would torture his own children forever simply for coming to the wrong conclusions in a world filled with confusion, we didn’t think to ask.
However if we refused to deny Christ and were shot dead, we’d go to Heaven and be partying with Ted Bundy and a couple million Nazis before the end of the day. So clearly from a perspective which assumes Christianity is true, the answer is clear: We should rather die than renounce our beliefs.
If you step outside of that perspective however, the situation looks very different. If there is no Heaven or Hell, or if admittance to the afterlife does not depend entirely on holding extremely specific beliefs about what happened to a Jewish carpenter 2,000 years ago…then we were simply being trained to maintain belief even if it meant our deaths. Why? Because Christianity has no use for nonbelievers and would rather you die than leave the fold.
That’s what Christianity looks like under the mask, and why such care is taken to keep the mask from slipping. Faced with the reality that millions of Christians readily accepted a false narrative which exploited the tragedy of a school shooting to promote their religion and denigrate nonbelievers, many simply reject it and double down on the original narrative put forward by Emily and Craig.
The next school shooting to be exploited for religion points happened in my home state of Oregon, at Umpqua Community College. Nine were killed; the professor and eight students. This time, the shooter did ask his victims whether they believed in God.
This seemed to be, at long last, vindication of the Christian martyrdom fantasy. It was breathlessly reported across numerous media outlets that the killer was an atheist who selectively killed Christians. Only once again, as the survivors got their own stories out, that turned out not to be the case.
Only two of the nine victims are known to be Christians. One is known to have been a pagan, another agnostic. While the killer did ask victims if they believed in God, and if they believed in life after death, the killer responded “I’ll meet you there” if they said yes. That does not sound like an atheist.
Neither does the description of his beliefs found on his Facebook which say spiritual, but not religious. His manifesto was later recovered wherein he condemned black men, expressed the belief that God, Satan, Heaven and Hell are real, and that the circumstances of his life forced him to ally himself with the “demonic hierarchy” which would reward him for his crimes in Hell.
None of this fit the desired narrative however, so it went largely unreported. A few of the articles from 2015 have been amended with this information but many remain uncorrected to this day. Christians who readily internalized that narrative have gone on believing in it. Probably even if they saw the corrections at some point, those simply went down the memory hole.
This brings us to the sordid tale of Alex Malarkey, perhaps America’s most aptly named kid. Alex purportedly had a near death experience on the operating table in 2003 in which he visited Heaven. The book recounting these events was published in 2010.
Just one problem: Alex Malarkey confessed in 2012 to having fabricated his story under his father’s guidance, but not before the book based on his account solid over a million copies in just five years.
Colton Burpo may as well be another Alex Malarkey, as he followed the same formula. NDE on the operating table, glimpsed Heaven, his parents got rich writing a book about it in 2010 and then even richer when the movie based on the book came out in 2014. There’s still a ministry named after the book going strong to this day.
Colton differs from Alex only in that he has so far stuck to his guns. At the time of this writing, he still insists he visited Heaven. 2010 saw a spate of what are now called “Heaven tourism books” capitalizing on the popularity of the genre, and there are people who will say with a straight face that Colton’s story is true even if Alex’s isn’t. I once heard during an argument about this topic, “They can’t all be false, and if even one of them is true…!”
Interestingly Alex remains a devout Christian, and there exist numerous Christian books dissecting the claims behind these Heaven tourism books and discounting them on a Biblical basis. But that has done nothing to curtail their popularity. People love to be told what they want to hear, and will pay big bucks to anybody willing to do that.
A supposed “living painting” of the Virgin of Guadalupe, reported breathlessly by viral Facebook posts as having been confirmed to possess miraculous properties by none other than NASA, is a good example of how brazen a lie Christians are ready to believe if it affirms their faith.
Said to have been inspected by NASA, who found that it constantly remained at body temperature, that the pupils expanded and contracted in response to light sources, etc. it should not come as any surprise by now that these reports were completely fraudulent. Lest any Catholics smugly wag their fingers at the Protestant fraudsters on this list, imagining there’s no similarly long, accomplished tradition of faith promoting fraud in their own denomination.
To claim NASA has vindicated a miracle was a gamble: Extremely compelling, that a secular institution regarded as pushing the envelope of science would recognize a religious miracle. But also trivially easy to expose as a lie, given the free availability of NASA’s public statements ordered by date.
NASA’s supposed study of the artifact and subsequent statement on its authenticity was said to have happened in 1979. That is easily searchable information and would have been reported on in other publications of the day. No NASA materials to that effect from 1979 can be found, nor any reports from any media outlets at that time corroborating the claim.
But none of the Christians who excitedly spread this fake news bothered checking into the veracity of the story. It was exactly what they wanted to hear, which if anything disinclined them to investigate it. Skepticism commonly flies out the window when you tell people what they want to hear, and dearly wish to believe. The discovery of artifacts confirming deeply cherished religious beliefs, for example.
Case in point, the late Ron Wyatt made a long and profitable career as a young earth creationist archaeologist doing just that: Purporting to have found an extensive list of truly impressive, some would say eyebrow raising archaeological proofs of the Bible including:
- Fences from Noah’s farm,
- Anchor Stones from Noah’s Ark,
- Noah’s Home and a Flood-inscription at that site,
- laminated Deck Timber from the Ark,
- Noah’s Altar,
- Tombs with Tombstones of Noah and his wife,
- the precise location of the Red Sea Crossing,
- Wheels from Egyptian Chariots involved in the pursuit of the Israelites from Egypt,
- the Book of the Law written by Moses on Animal Skins,
- Gold from the Golden Calf fashioned by Aaron,
- the Ark of the Covenant,
- Tables of the Ten Commandments,
- the Tabernacle’s Table of the Showbread,
- Goliath’s Sword,
- Jesus’ Tomb and the Stone Seal of the Tomb,
- a sampling of Christ’s Dried Blood, proving the doctrine of the Virgin Birth by means of a “chromosome count,” etc.
Now even most Christians scoff at claims this grandiose. Some in his own denomination even bothered to document his frauds. But there are still plenty who swear by this guy, I argued with one right here on Medium not too long ago.
As people of this sort often do, when you are reluctant to read their materials about some guy finding Noah’s Ark, Jesus’ blood, etc. they interpret it as fear of their invincible position, rather than weariness at the prospect of having to trudge through concentrated, weapons grade nonsense for 12 hours. For what prize? Even after writing down all the problems with it and proofs it’s fraudulent, the other guy will just cross his arms, harrumph, and say you didn’t come at it with an open mind.
Frankly, Ron had a pretty good fraudster survival strategy: Any attack on the credibility of his claims can be reframed as an attack on the credibility of Christianity, and put down to a lack of faith. I’m not even angry, I’m impressed. If you want to keep wealthy rubes sending you money for decades with nothing to show for it, Ron has revealed how.
A certain goofy looking man in a military uniform once said “The people will more readily believe a big lie than a small one”, as they will doubt anybody could have the audacity to make such remarkable claims if they aren’t true. Ron Wyatt based his career on that principle.
At websites such as Ark Discovery and Wyatt Research, you can read about his career of non-stop relic discovery that would be astonishing and hard to believe even if it were a secular archaeologist finding relics unrelated to the Bible. But because he is not a secular archaeologist and his discoveries (if real) would validate the Bible, he had no shortage of gullible Christian followers, the wealthiest of whom funded his “expeditions”.
Notably, he did not at any point assent to independent genomic analysis of the purported blood sample. He has also declined to allow independent examination of the Ark of the Covenant supposedly still in the possession of his family.
The chariot wheels, which he purportedly found in the Red Sea at a depth of 200 feet, he claimed to have accessed using recreational scuba gear rated for a maximum of 134 feet. His photos of the wheels could not have been taken 200 feet down as they are brightly lit, as expected of much shallower conditions. Ron did not assent, as you might have guessed, to carbon dating of the chariot wheels.
Ron was perhaps the most brazen Ark discovery claimant, but hardly the only one. There were, between the 70s and the 90s, a spate of ‘creation scientists’ claiming to have discovered the remains of Noah’s Ark. Each time the Christian media would go nuts and reflexively validate it, only to shrink away from those statements or bury them when it was later shown to be fraudulent.
We were shown many of these hoaxes when I attended that fundamentalist Christian middle school, under the pretense that they were legitimate. This includes the infamous purported human footprint inside of a dinosaur footprint, supposed carvings of a stegosaur found in a decrepit Mayan temple, and the partly decomposed remains of a plesiosaur hauled up out of the sea by Japanese fishermen (in fact the remains of a basking shark).
I am convinced now that the faculty knew these were hoaxes. They did not care. In their mind, the most important thing was to guarantee our salvation. If they had to trick us in order to do that, what does it matter? Would we really be angry with them in Heaven, when their tricks were the only reason we made it?
This is the reasoning behind “faith promoting lies” and their prevalence in modern religions. Primarily Judaism, Christianity, Mormonism, Islam, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Never at any point do they pause and ask themselves “If I am willing to lie to get someone else to believe in Christianity, maybe other Christians before me have also done that” and “maybe it’s just a snowball of lies built on lies, going back to the beginning of this religion”.
This brings us to “Cdesign Proponentsists”. To make sense of that word salad, you have to understand the events of the Kitzmiller vs. Dover, Pennsylvania court case. The defendants, part of a movement seeking to teach ‘Intelligent Design’ alongside evolution in public school science classrooms, insisted that ID was a new science and not in any way related to the religious notion of creationism.
This was a crucial point, as it is still not permitted to present religious teachings as factual in a public school setting. This constitutes the teacher promoting a particular religion to the students, some of whom may not belong to that religious tradition.
So, in order to bypass that rule, creationism received a facelift. Religious language was removed from the textbooks they hoped to use in the classroom to teach Intelligent Design. But because the textbooks were formerly ‘creation science’ textbooks, all instances of words like “creation”, “creationism”, “creationist” and so forth had to be replaced with “Intelligent Design” and “Design Proponents”.
Naturally since the guy they got to do this was a Christian, he botched the job. Instead of “intelligent design proponents”, it came out “cdesign proponentsists” as a result of “design proponents” being inserted thoughtlessly into the middle of the word “creationists” by the word processor, replacing only the portion of the word he’d done a find and replace for.
This seemingly tiny fuckup was the smoking gun, undermining the long repeated insistence that Intelligent Design was unrelated to creationism. How exactly they thought they could copy/paste creationist textbooks with some word changes without it being noticed is truly a mystery until you remember what sort of people we’re discussing here.
Christians, and creationists in particular, are difficult to stay angry at for long because of how incompetent they are. Like the bumbling villains of a Saturday morning cartoon, they are always their own undoing. Dishonest and dopey make a poor combo, as in order to be sneaky effectively, you must first be smart.
This article was reserved only for faith promoting hoaxes which were attempts to convince the gullible that Christianity is true (or that nonbelievers are evil) by way of deliberate fraud. There were other examples I might’ve included but didn’t, as the purpose of the scam was simply to make money rather than vindicate Christianity (Stan Meyer’s water powered car investment scam)
There are also examples along those lines sufficiently large in scope that I feel they deserve their own article, like the involvement of The Family in annual prayer breakfasts and presidential prayer retreats. Also the successful election of senators and congressmen who are high ranking distributors in the infamous pyramid scheme Amway, founded by the husband of Betsy Devos, who has herself been an outspoken advocate of “Christianizing” public school textbooks.
Also omitted from this article are sufficiently obvious hoaxes that I am unconvinced any significant number of Christians actually believe in them, like photoshopped images of giant skeletons supposedly having belonged to the Nephilim. If anybody in the comments protests that they believe those images are legitimate, I will do a follow-up.
Finally, Muslims also have their own wide selection of faith promoting hoaxes, such as the story that Neil Armstrong heard the call to prayer while on the Moon, witnessed a giant Qur’an carved from lunar stone on the surface, and converted to Islam thereafter. Really wacky stuff that also deserves it’s own future article.
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