The dilemmas of an atheist in a hotel suite

“But the officials of Sukkoth said, ‘Do you already have the hands of Zebah and Zalmunna in your possession? Why should we give bread to your troops?’ Then Gideon replied, ‘Just for that, when the Lord has given Zebah and Zalmunna into my hand, I will tear your flesh with desert thorns and briers.’” (Judg. 8:6–7)
“[Gideon] took the elders of the town and taught the men of Sukkoth a lesson by punishing them with desert thorns and briers. He also pulled down the tower of Peniel and killed the men of the town.” (Judg. 8:16–17)
“Turning to Jether, his oldest son, [Gideon] said, “Kill them!” But Jether did not draw his sword, because he was only a boy and was afraid. Zebah and Zalmunna said, ‘Come, do it yourself. ‘As is the man, so is his strength.’’ So Gideon stepped forward and killed them, and took the ornaments off their camels’ necks.” (Judg. 8:20–21)
Gideon prepares for battle.

While many of the characters of the Old Testament are unsavory — including, of course, God himself — Gideon, a relatively minor character in the book of Judges, deserves special mention. His actions of massacring towns, destroying false idols, and being an all-around asshole are notable but not wholly unique in the pages of history’s best-selling novel; what really sets him apart is that Gideons International — the largest and most successful Bible-distributing organization in the history of the world — chose, in 1899, to name themselves after him.

In April of this year, Gideons distributed its 2 billionth book of scripture. They now distribute an average of two books per second, and are only speeding up: the first billion took them 93 years. The latter? Under 14.

Just about everyone who has stayed in a hotel room has encountered one of these books: they inhabit those oft-ignored bedside table drawers, and lie waiting for some unsuspecting traveler. This unsuspecting traveler was me, just a few weeks ago, in a hotel room in Prague: and it hit me, for the first time after seeing probably hundreds of such Bibles in my lifetime, how fucked up the practice was.

The obvious question is why the Gideons get such a special status, since in almost every hotel and motel room in the entire United States there is a Bible from the group. I used to think the Gideons were just really good at sneaking, Mission Impossible style, into every hotel room and placing a copy of the scripture; however, according to Mental Floss, it turns out that the Gideons provide enough Bibles for each room when a hotel opens, and the management distributes them themselves.

Gideons International

So why is this accepted and so widespread? Though, yes, 70.6% of the US still identifies as Christian, according to a 2014 survey by Pew, this has declined over seven percentage points, from 78.4%, since 2007. In the same time frame, the percentage identifying as atheist has doubled: from 1.6% in 2007 to 3.1% in 2014. A similar, but more slight, upward trend has been seen with other non-Christian faiths. Though not all hotels stock Bibles — many boutique hotels catering to a younger crowd, along with more upscale chains like the W hotels, no longer have Bibles in rooms — they are still a fixture of most.

Gideons Bibles are so widespread that they blend into the background; it’s bigger news when a hotel doesn’t have them than when they do. A small amount of hotels have started to offer other religious texts upon request, but that doesn’t change the fact that the Bible is the default. If you don’t say anything, you get a Bible. Can you imagine the shitstorm if a hotel stocked all its rooms with a Qur’an by default? Or a Torah? Or a copy of the true good book, The God Delusion?

Hotels aren’t schools (more on that later); there’s not a fundamental ideal in our country of “separation of church and lodging”; there’s no reason hotels can’t offer Bibles. But there’s also no reason that ardent freethinkers, atheists, and, yes, people of other religions should be coerced into sleeping with Jesus at their side. Maybe the market works, but not if the entire market is basically doing the same thing: you can’t choose to frequent a hotel that has no religious message when not many exist.

No women allowed, but bring us your children!

The Gideons never have been much for progressivism.

Along with their choice to name themselves after an old-school murderer and plunderer (who, as a side note, happened to be conquering and killing the racial minority Bedouins in the name of a righteous cultural and religious manifest destiny — sound familiar?), the Gideons have yet to allow women enter their organization, even in 2015. Though Gideons’ wives are allowed to have a limited role in something called the Auxiliary, they have no official standing — and unmarried women can have nothing to do with the organization at all.

The Gideons also repeatedly ignore the law, and no one really fucking gives a shit.

In the United States, the Gideons — as recently as 2014, in Kentucky — have distributed Bibles at schools during school hours with authorization from administration. This is as clear a violation of the First Amendment as you can get, since the Gideons were the only group to get the privilege, and the school is directly and indirectly sponsoring the activity. It’s such a clear violation, in fact, that federal courts have already ruled against religious material in public schools, as far back as 1947, multiple times: here, here, here, here, and here, for instance.

But they continue the practice, and even brag about it: on the About Us section of their website, “students in the fifth grade and above” are first on the list of who the group targets with its distributions; on their homepage, a picture of twenty students in what is clearly a classroom hold Gideons bibles and wear identical, presumably Gideon-sponsored, sweatshirts. Mostly, because the places the Gideons often go about doing it are so overwhelmingly Christian already (in Kentucky, for example, 79% are very or moderately religious, and almost all of those are Christian) that no one bothers to complain; many even think that it’s a good idea. Also, many don’t even know that the practice is illegal, since handing out Bibles in other public areas is fine and dandy.

“A Unique Focus”

However, when legal conflicts have arisen, the Gideons have found a way to escape the requirements. Though the Constitution clearly bans the Gideons themselves from passing out their literature, it doesn’t ban students from doing the same. Accordingly, Gideons International has recently started its LifeBook initiative, which aims to give copies of small “LifeBooks” — purposefully designed to be not immediately identifiable as scripture — to students, for them to carry to school and hand out. The About section on the LifeBook website addresses the benefits of having students hand out the books rather than Gideons, stating, “Working through local churches, The Life Book Movement provides free copies of The Life Book to Christian students to give to classmates. Because students have the right to distribute religious literature in public schools, this unique approach provides an opportunity for churches to mobilize their teenagers to reach their classmates with the Gift of the Gospel.”

Looks harmless enough!

The ultimate goal of all of this, presumably, is the same reason the Gideons place their books in hotels, prisons, medical centers, VA hospitals, domestic violence shelters, and, yes, schools in over 150 countries in the world: to spread God’s word, including that wonderful story of their namesake, to people who may otherwise have gone without hearing it at all — what an enviable situation!

What to do

You can’t force a hotel to not stock a room with a Bible, just like you can’t force a restaurant to take that creepy picture of Jesus off the wall whose eyes are following you everywhere. But you can do a few things.

Firstly, ask the hotel before you show up to please remove the Bible from your room. If your discomfort is just that — discomfort — and not part of some larger moral crusade, this is probably what you should do. You could also ask them to instead stock the room with a different religious text or something like The God Delusion, but this doesn’t always work. If they refuse on both fronts, welcome to America. Time for option two.

If you get to the room and find an unwanted Bible, you have a few options. Stealing it works in the short term, but knowing Gideons International, it won’t be long before another one of their 2 billion Bibles makes its way back. Instead, you could buy a sticker from Freedom From Religion Foundation to slap on the cover, which makes for a nice passive-aggressive response. Or, you could buy a bunch of other religious texts, like the Qur’an, or a complete Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris collection, and leave these new books in the drawer with the Bible.

Technically, the hotel owns the Bible — it is a free gift from Gideons International that the hotel has accepted — but they can’t really do anything if you just throw it out, since it was, after all, free.

A fallacy of faith

In the United States, religious organizations are completely tax exempt. They fall into the category of organizations which “prevent cruelty to children,” offer “relief to the poor,” “maintain public buildings,” or work to “eliminate prejudice and discrimination.” The “advancement of religion,” according to the IRS, is on the same level. Though I won’t get into how this is just another example of how pro-religious and anti-atheistic tendencies are explicitly built into the legal system, I will say that this means, according to the law, Gideons International is clearly tax-exempt: since they are, after all, clearly “advancing religion,” like Phillip Morris clearly “advances” the use of cigarettes.

This tax exemption doesn’t just mean, though, that the Gideons are immune from paying the devil’s dues, but also that they don’t really have to file with the IRS at all. Like all nonprofits, they are heavily encouraged to release some sort of yearly financial report, but these reports are so vague that all we know is the Gideons total revenue and total expenditures. This is troubling: the Gideons raised about $120 million last year, but we have no real idea where it came from other than the general “cash donation” catchall checkbox.

Whenever I see a Bible in a hotel suite, I’m reminded of the disturbing uselessness of proselytizing. Those two billion Bibles probably cost around two billion dollars to print over the past 100+ years, nevermind the labor and administrative costs of the organization. As I “imagine no religion,” as John Lennon notoriously encouraged, I’m disheartened by the amount of effort that goes into “advancing religion,” as the IRS calls it. I “imagine” what we could accomplish if those 300,000 Gideons spent their time lessening racial divides, or working to end homelessness. I “imagine” how many meals we could provide as a society with the annual $120 million in revenue the Gideons procure annually. And lastly, I “imagine” how many people would be enlightened with a copy of Darwin or Dawkins or Locke or Kant in their hotel rooms, instead of the Bible.