|Cartoon by Bradley James Peterson|
Some years ago I was talking with my friend Bill. He is an atheist and asked me about a comment that I had made about God. I told him that I believe in God but not in religion. He asked me how I, as a thinking person, could possibly believe in God. I told him that I found it to be too much effort to be an atheist in a theist society. That I felt an emotional pull towards the various ideas of God and an afterlife. That it wasn’t important enough to me to be confrontational with true believers. But, I must admit that my responses basically boiled down to laziness.
Whether or not there is a supernatural being orchestrating it all, I desperately want there to be an afterlife. I can’t bear the thought that my loved ones who have died are simply gone. My brain cannot wrap itself around the notion that when I die there is nothing – that it will be so nothing that I won’t even be aware that there is nothing. There won’t be an “I”, and there won’t be “aware”, and there won’t even be “nothing.” I have no way to even think about such a thing (or such a non-thing), so, I desperately want there to be a heaven, or reincarnation, or some kind of afterlife. But guess what, I want a lot of things. I want to have the body of a 25-year-old again. I want vast wealth, power, and fame. I want to have dinner and/or sex with a long list of interesting, attractive, intelligent people. I want my cell phone to get better reception. But guess what, I’m probably not going to get any of these things, and even though I want there to be an afterlife, that doesn’t mean there is one. Just as with poor cell phone reception, I’m going to have to accept it and learn to live with it.
I recently watched an outstanding Ted Talk by Richard Dawkins from 2002 in which he talks about being a militant atheist. He made many important points. Among them he notes that all believers in Yahweh are atheists when it comes to Zeus, Poseidon, Mars, Odin, Thor, Osiris, Seth, Horus, and 100’s of other gods of the Greeks, Romans, Norse, Native Americans, Inuit, Pacific Islanders, etc., as well as, Vishnu, Shiva, Durga and the whole Hindu pantheon. Dawkins says that he takes atheism just one God further. Implicit in this I found the idea that when learning about these non-Judeo-Christian gods, most people find the stories to be anywhere from quaint to ridiculous. The Maori of New Zealand believe that the Polynesian demigod Maui pulled up the north island of New Zealand with a fishing hook. When modern worshippers of Yahweh hear that story, they find it cute and silly. But no thinking person could critically read the Old or New Testaments, or the Koran, without finding the stories held therein to be equally naïve and even absurd.
Dawkins’ Ted Talk was not my first exposure to atheism. Years ago I watched Jonathan Miller’s BBC series A Rough History of Disbelief (aka “A Brief History of Disbelief”), many of which can now be found on YouTube. I found it fascinating, so I followed it up with the equally brilliant, “The Atheism Tapes”. I subsequently read my friend Valerie Tarico’s, The Dark Side: How Evangelical Teachings Corrupt Love and Truth. Each of these are highly recommended.
Even after all these convincing arguments I couldn’t give up my wish that there be some kind of god with a promise of some kind of afterlife. I didn’t care about the religion that was bestowed on me, and I was well aware of the atrocities committed throughout history in the name of virtually every deity conceived by the mind of man. But being an atheist was just too much trouble and I wanted an afterlife, so, I remained “spiritual but not religious.” The lazy man’s escape hatch.
Yet I live in a world where I am daily bombarded by the nonsense promulgated by pandering politicians and other pious pinheads. The very people who should be most impartial – politicians, newscasters, and even some scientists – either believe in and proselytize for some version of god, or pretend to do so.
And then there were last night’s terror attacks in Paris, committed in the name of Allah. Dear God, where are you that you let such atrocities be committed? Dear God, why do you command your followers to perform such acts in your name? God? God? Hello?
So, OK, I’m “coming out” as an atheist. But, why a “militant atheist”? Because I can’t just admit that I am an atheist and sit back wiping my hands clean of terrible acts done daily in the name of “god.” Noted atheist Christopher Hitchens says that he is offended by the notion that he needs to read a 2000-year-old book to know right from wrong. I agree. The subtle nuances of behavior in a polite society, and the laws that pertain to my slice of the world, are created by my particular culture. But the more fundamental questions of right and wrong, good and bad, come from my own empathy with my fellow creatures. I know that the attacks in Paris last night were evil. I don’t need to read the Old Testament or ask my rabbi to understand that it was a wrong act. I don’t need to read the Koran or ask an Imam to receive the opinion that the Paris attacks were a holy jihad and therefore good. I am a human being, so I know that the slaying of other innocent human beings is wrong. If some religion tells me that I need to read their book to understand that truth, then the religion is wrong - dangerously wrong.
No God either promoted, or stood by and watched the Holocaust, the Cambodian genocide, the endless African genocides, the atrocities in the former Yugoslavia, the attacks on 9/11, last night’s terror attack in Paris, nor wars, atrocities, and inquisitions going back to antiquity. By sitting back quietly, secure in my blameless atheism, I am indirectly complicit in the terrible acts committed in the name of religion – be they horrors like terrorism, war, and genocide, or simply suppression of freedoms such as an individual’s decisions about how to treat their own body.
Thus, not only am I coming out as an atheist, but as a militant atheist. Sign me up.