Just because you grow up in the Bible Belt (I was born
in a West Virginia hamlet with no electricity) doesnt mean automatically that
youre 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 havent been to church in 20 years." He said,
"Finethat means youll 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
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 the Rev. 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 vanishedand later was
found dead of alcoholism in a San Francisco hotel room, his pockets crammed with cash.
Marjoe Gortner, the sometime boy evangelist, wrote that Allen advised him how to tell when
a revival was over: "When you can turn people on their head and shake them and no
money falls out, then you know Gods 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. (They
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 claimfrom papal bulls
and ayatollah fatwas to astrology horoscopes and tarot card readingsis mumbo-jumbo.
I joined the Unitarian Universalist Church and allied myself with its toughest doubters.
As far as Im concerned, theres no tangible evidence for any mystical, magical,
At the newspaper, when I was taken off the religion beat and reassigned to
investigating corruption, I was relieved. I had felt dishonest reporting stuff I deemed a
fantasy. Eventually, I won 15 national prizes as an investigative reporter, and became the
But my disdain for supernaturalism didnt 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. Theyre a universal delusion. So I
wrote five books and dozens of magazine pieces pushing this message.
As you may guess, its a bit precarious for a crusading agnostic to run a
newspaper in the heart of the Bible Belt. I dont 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 schoolsbut 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 hes covering a zoo of make-believe, he just grins. Hes
even tolerant of me.