I do not feel obligated to believe that the same God who endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use. (Galileo Galilei, quote taken from Michael Parenti’s new book titled God and his Demons)
Recently, I’ve received some private emails from readers of this blog concerning my passing statement that I am an atheist. I mentioned it as a minor point at the very end of my article Trusting God and Worshiping Mammon, which deals with separation of Church and State in the American constitution.
Several people have since emailed me to ask me why I don’t believe in God, expressing their own doubts. One of these correspondents tells me she doesn’t believe in God either. Like many in her position, she dreads the loss of respect and affection of friends and family, fearing that admitting an atheist outlook would cause loved ones much distress.
I well can understand these swirling feelings, and I sympathize with their plight. All of us atheists have faced the discomfort of disapproval or loss of friends because of this at one point in our lives.
Not long ago, I had just such an emotionally painful experience, an experience not untypical for atheists.
I used to participate in a physical fitness web forum whose owner, an ordained minister, often said he is honored to be my friend. But then, a month or so ago, he started a thread titled “The Fool Says In His Heart There Is No God.” This refers to a Bible verse that says atheists are fools and incapable of producing anything of good.
For 2 years on that forum, my atheism was no secret and also no big deal. I have always been respectful of everyone’s religion on this site, which has so many Christian members. As a gentleman who had participated for several years in this forum, the forum owner’s reference to a biblical verse that actually proclaims atheists are evil fools seemed rather thoughtless at best and bigoted at worst.
So I attempted to deal with this insensitivity in a conciliatory, polite, and gentlemanly manner.
But instead of responding in kind, several “Christians” saw fit to attack my personal character in a hurtful manner, including 2 moderators, although several other Christians treated me much more charitably. And because several moderators directed angry hateful words at me, I now feel unwelcome there, despite having been a respected member in good standing for so long.
Atheists frequently run into such negative attitudes. In fact, neither my experiences nor the experiences of those atheist-leaning blog readers who wrote to me are at all untypical, at least here in the United States, where our nation’s founding documents supposedly enshrine freedom of conscience for all citizens.
As a matter of fact, several recent polls have demonstrated that atheists are the least trusted group in the United States today, although not all religious leaders approve of this type of judgmentalism.
For example, on March 18th, 2007, the Reverend Edward Searl of the historic Unitarian Church of Hinsdale, (which was founded in 1887), gave a sermon about atheists called America’s Most Reviled Minority. In his sermon, Reverend Searl gives these interesting figures from several Pew Research polls.
First was a list that arranges in order of unpopularity various American religious or ethnic groups, and atheists were at the top of the list with 50% of Americans not liking or trusting them:
- Atheists 50%.
- Muslims 31 %
- Evangelical Christians 17%
- Catholics 14%
- Hispanics 13%
- Asians 12%
- Jews 10%
- Blacks 8%
Second was another list, from top to bottom, showing the “unwillingness” to vote for a “well-qualified candidate” of their own party, with atheists once again least likely to be voted for:
- Atheists 50%.
- Muslims 38 %
- Homosexual 37%
- Evangelical Christian 15%
- Woman 12%
- Jewish 10%
- Black 6%
- Catholic 5%
You can see that atheists are even less trusted to hold office, regardless of whatever other qualifications they may have, than are Muslims or homosexuals. Additionally, half of all Americans disapprove of atheists.
As an example of this popular disapproval of atheists, Reverend Searl, in his above-referenced sermon, quotes president George Herbert Walker Bush who made this statement during his run for the American presidency:
I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.
I cover the slogan “one nation under God” in my article Trusting God and Worshiping Mammon.
So, Just What is an Atheist?
An atheist is one who does not believe that God exists. There are conservatives, libertarians, liberals, radicals, socialists, communists, humanists who are atheists. In short, atheism is not a shared political or social world view. It simply means lack of belief in the existence of gods or God.
For purposes of clarity, when I capitalize the word “God,” I refer to the deity of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and the Baha’i faith, or more simply put, the Abrahamic religions. When I use the lower-case “g” in the word “god,” I refer to a deity in a more generic sense. This practice is in conformity with the rules of the dialect I use in this blog, Standard American English.
The word “atheist” comes from the Greek word “a-theos” where “a” means “without” and “theos” means “god.”
So, simply put, an atheist is one who does not believe in any gods. And in the context of the Abrahamic faiths, an atheist does not believe in the capital-”G” God. On the other hand, a theist is one who believes that at least one god exists.
Actually, in the case of the Christian religion, historically speaking, there really are at least two overlapping but somewhat separate conceptions of God. One is the common popular conception as found in the Bible. This is the God-as-old-bearded-guy-in-the-sky. The second conception is the theologian’s conception, as described in the seminaries by religious scholars and philosophers, a spirit without a body, without a sex, non material, not occupying space, infinite and limitless, all-knowing, and actually somewhat remote and unreachable except by some kind of spiritual telepathy, which we call prayer. Both versions envision God as being separate from the world, not part of it, as well as being the creator of the universe and the ultimate reason for its existence. Judaism and Islam have slightly different conceptions, as does the Baha’i faith, but fundamentally they all believe in the same deity, which we call God in English. I’ll deal with how these religions, especially Christianity, view God in another article.
Protestant Christian fundamentalists believe the Bible is both inerrant and sufficient. That means they believe the original Bible contains no mistakes (inerrancy), and that it contains everything one needs to believe about the one true religion to be saved from an eternity of being tortured by fire (sufficient). To them, the Bible is the guide for righteous living and righteous believing. The Bible contains everything the Fundamentalist deems important and necessary to know about God. That’s in distinction to the Catholics who view, along with the Bible, the traditions of the Church, the pronouncements of the Pope when speaking as the leader of Christendom on matters of faith and morals (ex cathedra) as also being sources of knowledge needed for salvation. (Catholic Popes seldom speak ex cathedra).
And suffice it to say, the God of the Bible can be pretty jealous and vengeful and mete out some terrible punishments to those who lack faith, those who are guilty of sin, and sometimes not always on just the guilty, for example, the flood.
There is a long Christian tradition of believing that non Christians will not be saved but instead suffer a horrible torture by fire. Only faith in God’s word and acceptance of Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior can save you from this grisly roast. And if you belong to the wrong sect, you don’t stand a chance.
In the last century or so, this ultra-sectarianism has moderated somewhat, and many Christians, especially many lay Christians, don’t think they’re the only ones who have a chance of salvation. But many, especially fundamentalists, believe if you do not have unquestioning faith in the “word of God,” you’re doomed. And the word of God is in the Bible.
For fundamentalists, not believing every word of the inerrant and sufficient Word of God in the Bible leads to not “being saved” or being sent to hell after death.
That’s polite talk for what the gentle Jesus describes in these words: “…a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 13:42). There are many other lurid Bible verses that describe in great detail the eternal torments of hell, the pain of fire and unquenchable thirst.
In my youth, fundamentalist preachers quite commonly emphasized the gruesome tortures of hell by quoting Jesus. This was called “hellfire preaching.” Hellfire preaching has not been as common in recent years. Maybe it’s considered to be bad marketing to claim those who don’t believe exactly as you do should be literally tortured with fire for eternity. Today, we would consider a person who sets fire to someone to be a psychopathic monster. Notwithstanding present-day sensibilities, the God of the Bible and the gentle Jesus threaten to torture those without faith with fire. Such Bible verses seem to contradict the more generous and admirable Jesus of other parts of the Bible.
Atheists cannot prove there is no God. I, as an atheist, can’t disprove God’s existence. I also cannot disprove the existence of unicorns, the chupacabra, or leprechauns. But I personally believe they are all about equally plausible. They all seem like mythical beings to me. Of course, I could be wrong, but I see no evidence for any of it.
Over the centuries, many religious philosophers have tried to prove God’s existence rationally, but none of their proofs have withstood rigorous examination. Perhaps in later posts, I’ll examine some of these proofs, but in the meantime, the reader is encouraged to read Bertrand Russell’s little essay “Why I Am Not A Christian,” which includes an excellent summary of the classical proofs and rebuts them. Russell writes in a clear and approachable English, and those blog readers who have English as a second language will not find it too difficult.
Moreover, I think that the philosophical idea of an all-perfect, all-knowing, all-loving, infinite creator is a logically inconsistent idea, for reasons I’ll go into in another article.
Every few years, somebody publishes a book or an article touting some new proof for an “intelligent designer,” or some quantum mechanics discovery that establishes the necessity for God’s existence, the spiritual realm, the immortality of the soul, but these all turn out to be variations on the classical arguments that Russell describes and refutes in his excellent, brilliantly-clear and readable little essay. The link above to Russell’s essay will allow you to download an Adobe PDF version of this work.
The Bible says God created the first man out of the dust of the earth, breathed life into him, and created man in his own image, the image of God. God gave humans a spark of the divine, albeit in an imperfect way, by giving humanity the promise of immortality.
I’d say that humankind created God out of the clay of the earth, shaped God in humankind’s image, and then breathed the living spirit of human nature into God, with all its greatness and all its faults. That’s why the God of the Bible seems so flawed yet so grand, so capable of tenderness and cruelty, so great with love and yet with hate, all at the same time. God appeals to the best in us while at the same time, he appeals to the worst in us. By creating God, primitive forebears Adam and Eve committed the Original Sin.
An honest, sensitive, and imaginative reading of the Bible shows us ourselves in our most primitive tribal garb, our darkest passions, our most noble yearnings, our striving for eternity, the tales we tell ourselves in dreamlike gossamers of mythology.
Religion has been a cultural vehicle for much good in the world, as well as much perfidy. Religious people have created schools, hospitals, fed the poor, ministered to the sick. Likewise, they have shed oceans of blood and brought terror in their wake in the name of holiness. Religion is both exalted and debased. Religion drapes the historical actor in both the raiment of nobility as well as the bloody rags of the war machine. It is at the same time both the hero’s justification and the scoundrel’s justification.
I was educated in Roman Catholic schools, and my teachers were excellent. The head master was a man of true wisdom and charity. He loved us boys (in the positive sense of the word; I was not aware of any sexual abuse or exploitation in that all-boys school). He made it possible for us from low-income families to get tuition for an excellent education, and he encouraged us to think for ourselves.
Decades later, I came to understand how progressive he actually was, how he must have stood up to the bureaucracy, men in bishop’s garb who were not at all comfortable with the low tuition and the working-class kids. He taught us math, to be passionate about Latin, to read literature. He taught me to love books, to question history books, to analyze language, and he encouraged me to ask probing questions. And he taught us and me to write, to rewrite, to care about writing. And he saw all this as his mission in Christ. He was only a simple Irish priest, a minister to us people of limited finances. But he was, I think, though unknown today, a great man and a great teacher, though today I disagree with so much of what he thought.
I had dinner with him once years later, after I had become an adult and had come out as an atheist, and he was as gentle, generous, gracious, and magnanimous as ever.
Religious culture was fundamental in the development and expressive power of my native language, as well as many other languages. The King James version of the Bible was a milestone in the English language.
European classical music and American Jazz all have roots in Christian music. Western art draws great inspiration from religion, as have American and European literature and philosophy.
Just as religion has been used to justify much bloodshed, repression, oppression, war, slavery, and genocide, it has also been used to motivate the fight against injustice, racism, capitalism, greed, corruption. Appeals to religion both informed the Martin Luther’s anti-Semitism and of Martin Luther King’s great civil rights and antiwar sentiments. Religion supported the legitimacy of slavery and also fueled the antislavery and abolitionist movements.
As Karl Marx said, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation.” Religion is humanity’s heartfelt yearning for hope, for a future of justice and peace, while at the same time being the distorted mirrored reflection of the human condition viewed on the rippled lake of a tumultuous reality.
Yes, religion reflects our culture back to us, albeit imperfectly, and it hints at our potential greatness.
The Unexamined Life Is Not Worth Living – Socrates