A tribal shaman was once interviewed by a skeptical anthropologist and asked whether or not he actually believed in the truths behind the spiritual medicine he practiced. The shaman’s reply was surprisingly candid, for he admitted that his technique was completely fraudulent, and yet he still defended it for the simple reason that it often seemed to heal the patients. This brief exchange cuts to the core of the issue of why some people are religious and others are not. It all boils down to two simple questions – “Is it true?” and “Is it good?”
An atheist is someone who answers “no” to the first question, and usually (but not always), “no” to the second question as well. As such, there are a variety of tactics that atheists will employ in promoting arguments against religion. Charles Darwin, for example, was supposed to have been nudged permanently over the cusp into disbelief after having studied the behavior of a certain species of parasitic wasp. This particular wasp injects its eggs directly into the body cavity of living caterpillars so that after hatching, its larvae are provided with a steady food supply as they devour their unfortunate hosts alive from the inside out. Having seen this, Darwin could simply no longer permit himself to believe that a kind and loving Creator would cause or allow such needless cruelty.
Observations such as these, while interesting, and while sufficient reason for some to reject the claims of dogmatic religions, actually do nothing to answer the question of whether or not God exists. After all, perhaps he does exist but is in fact, a petty, cruel tyrant like those the ancient Greeks believed in, or like the vindictive monster found in Deuteronomy and Leviticus. It’s the same when people such as myself point out all of the violence, oppression, and irrationality inherent in the worst abuses and atrocities perpetuated in the name of religion – things like 9-11, the recently revived “War on Women”, and denial of human-caused global climate change.
The main problem with this tactic – besides leaving open the question of God’s existence – is that it can also leave a lot of generally good, honest, moderate people feeling unfairly stereotyped or sidelined in the debate. The response it generates is often one of sincere and touching bewilderment, expressed in replies such as; “What’s wrong with being a Quaker? We don’t hurt anyone,” or, “I condemn the actions of terrorists. I support women’s rights to choose and to have access to birth control. I accept that humans are causing global warming. What’s wrong with me ‘just believing’ in a higher power?”
I’ll admit, these are perfectly valid points and they deserve to be addressed. Moreover, I also agree that it probably doesn’t feel very nice to be lumped in with the fanatics without being clearly shown the connections tying the two groups together (not that it feels much better once the connections are made explicit). The answer to these questions however, is not quite as straightforward as the black-and-white certitude that makes Bible answers so appealing. The best way I can think to answer them is to do as psychologists so often and irritatingly do; that is, to answer with a few questions of my own – ones whose relation to the questions at hand might not be immediately obvious, but which tie directly back into the first of the two fundamental questions about religion posed at the beginning of this article, namely, “Is it true?”
I’ll start with this one: “What’s wrong with believing that the moon is made of cheese?” Well, other than being false and making whoever holds this view appear ignorant, I suppose it’s relatively harmless, even kind of sweet if coming from a small child. So how about this one: “What’s wrong with believing that one plus one equals three?” Once again, the short answer is simply that it’s not true. It’s mistaken; it’s incorrect, and therefore at odds with the fact that we as humans seem to intrinsically value the truth, even at the level of brain chemistry. (*Recent studies have shown that we actually get a little hit of dopamine whenever our beliefs correlate with observable facts.) But equally as important are the practical consequences that come from being wrong about simple arithmetic – especially considering how important numbers are to our money-centric society.
So let’s now step it up an order of magnitude and ask this: “What’s wrong with just being racist?” Ouch. This one’s enough to make most people bristle, as immediate revulsion or defensive posturing kicks in. Racism is wrong because it’s wrong, right? We’ve been taught all our lives that it’s wrong. It’s immoral, it’s unfair; it’s judging people on something they can’t change (nor would they want to), and we’ve seen how ugly things get when it becomes policy or law. “But what about just holding the belief itself if you never act on it or let it affect your judgment in any way?” Assuming that such a mental separation is even possible, it would still seem that the belief is wrong simply because it doesn’t align with the facts of the world. There is no valid evidence upon which to base any ideas of racial superiority. Thus, for all of the above reasons, it’s easy to say that racism is neither true nor good.
Let’s then bring the discussion back to where we left off and look at what separates those who believe from those who don’t. Religion is a complex subject, despite its best efforts to vastly oversimplify the world, and despite surface appearances to the contrary. On the one hand, it’s an incredibly straightforward process to become a member of most religions. To become a Muslim, for instance, one needs only to recite three times the magical incantation, “There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet.” Bam. Just like that, you’re a Muslim (and if you should change your mind later on, the penalty for such “apostasy” is death – talk about reading the fine print before signing!) To become a Christian, one need only declare that “I accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.” This can be done even if you’re a mass murderer on your way to the gallows. As long as you have never “denied the Holy Spirit” then all else can be forgiven and you’ve earned your entry through the pearly gates.
To be an atheist, on the other hand – especially in the modern sense – is not quite so simple. It requires a bit more time and effort, for to simply reject God without any good reasons for doing so seems rather closed-minded, and if popularity alone is anything to go on, probably not a very safe bet either. It’s exactly the process of gathering and reflecting upon those reasons and then assembling them into a rational framework that tends to make atheists so knowledgeable and articulate in their beliefs. True, there are crass and ignorant atheists just as there are in any other group of humans, but in general, atheists know far more about religion than even most religious believers. Recent polls bear this out and it’s easy to get a sense of it just by reading the commentaries attached to any online article about the subject.
But what about tolerance? Religious believers will often complain that they don’t like when atheists denigrate their faith by referring to it as “imaginary” or a “fairy tale”. It’s tempting to come back with the retort, “Well, if you don’t want people laughing, you probably shouldn’t have such funny beliefs,” but in all seriousness, do they really think atheists are the bad guys for mocking their beliefs when those beliefs include the assertion that all unbelievers and infidels are going to be tortured in Hell for all eternity? When those beliefs declare that one small band of one particular species, on one small planet, circling an ordinary yellow star, in the outer reaches of one of a hundred billion galaxies – that they are the hand-selected personal favorites of the Creator of the Universe and therefore they’re entitled to special treatment? The two positions hardly seem equivalent.
There is also the tired old fable still being pedaled by the Pope and many lay believers that atheism is responsible for all of the crimes of the twentieth century – that, and its corollary, that morality is impossible without belief in God and fear of his punishment. Let it be stated unequivocally that this is bullshit, pure and simple, and just because it comes out of the pontiff’s mouth doesn’t change that.
For starters, like the ruthless grand inquisitor Tomas de Torquemada who was responsible for the torture and burning alive of tens of thousands of accused witches across Europe, or the abbot and papal legate Arnaud-Amaury, famous for launching a medieval massacre of the heretical Cathar sect with the words, “Kill them all, the Lord will recognize His own,” Adolph Hitler was also a Christian, as distasteful as that fact may be. In Mein Kampf he stated, “I believe today that my conduct is in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator,” and his SS guards all wore belt buckles with the inscription “Gott mit uns” (God is with us).
Stalin may not have believed in the Christian God but that’s because he already had his own god, namely, himself. He had giant statues and posters of this god put up all over the Soviet Union to which he demanded unquestioning obedience – not exactly the spirit of free and open inquiry that underlies atheism. The same goes for Mao or Kim Jong-Il or any other brutal totalitarian dictator. The reason these men imposed their special brand of state-sponsored atheism is because they perceived (correctly) the Church as standing in the way of them controlling the populace, for the Church is not very accommodating to competition.
No one is in any way suggesting that America go down this path. I can only speak for myself but I think it’s fair to say that atheists – as a group and as a movement – have no desire to control anyone or anything. We simply want to see religion out of government as the Founders intended; and if it’s not going to stay out of politics, then it shouldn’t be given special treatment, like tax exemption. As George Carlin memorably phrased it, “If churches want to play the game of politics, let them pay admission like everyone else.”
As for the worn-out cliché that it takes fear of God to promote ethical behavior, it’s such an intellectually empty assertion it hardly deserves mention if not for the fact that it’s so often repeated. First of all, if atheists are such raving criminals, why do they account for less than one percent of the prison population? How are they not all in prison? Secondly, if the Bible is the source of all morality, then on whose authority do people decide that slavery, and death by stoning for adulterers, are in fact, immoral? The Bible fully supports these practices – who are we to disregard God’s word? And don’t come back with the excuse that Jesus came to repudiate the barbarities of the Old Testament, for he clearly stated, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill.” (Matthew 5:17)
What it all comes down to in the end is that beliefs matter. Beliefs have real-world consequences. Hitler launched the holocaust because he believed that Jews were inferior and needed to be cleansed from the Earth. Osama bin Laden blew up the World Trade Center because he believed that America is the Great Satan and must be destroyed to make way for a global Islamic caliphate. Rick Santorum believes that homosexuals are an abomination; that women are subservient to men; that America is a Christian nation that should be ruled by Christian laws. How can anyone honestly believe that such views are harmless?
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m certainly not promoting the idea of “thoughtcrime.” That’s something that only fascists and Christians do. When Jesus says, “Whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart,” (Matthew 5:28) he utterly ignores the fundamental distinction between thought and action. He renders moot the value of self-control; of considering an action and then, having thought through the possible consequences, deciding against it. Is merely thinking about breaking one’s diet by a having a slice of chocolate cream pie for dessert the same as actually having one? Does the thought alone constitute gluttony? Hardly. But if there’s any value at all to his statement, it’s the recognition that what people think is important. While absence of belief says nothing one way or the other about how someone is likely to act, strongly held, emotionally charged convictions are powerful influencers of behavior, and if those beliefs are irrational, then look out. This is why atheists will no longer remain silent as we watch our country heading down the road toward theocracy. We will not stand for it, and we are legion. Expect us.