I began the Further Than Atheism column last year because I wanted to show that living as an atheist is about more than just rejecting belief in gods. In the column, I've discussed many ideas that atheists can embrace as a result of their atheism even though the ideas go beyond mere refusal of religion. Tolerance, critical thinking, independence, literacy, charity, social justice, environmentalism, democratic government and citizenship, rationality, metaphor and love are just some of the ideals that atheists can pursue in their quests for significance without the sacred.
For this, the last installment of the Further Than Atheism column, I want to talk about a subject that is more urgent for atheists than it has been for a very long time: honesty. Now that George W. Bush has brought old-time religion into the federal government, the rights of atheists are under stronger attack than ever. Almost every day, Bush and his advisors seek new ways to push religion on Americans, giving the religious special privileges and forcing the non-religious to lend support to suspicious spiritual schemes.
The honest atheist reaction to Bush's plans is an acknowledgement of the threat that they pose and a commitment to speak out against them. However, the first reaction of many atheists is to avoid confronting Bush's reactionary religious agenda, hiding out and staying silent in the hopes that the whole thing will just blow over. Most atheists are not inclined to raise a ruckus, even when our rights to freedom of thought, assembly and expression as well as our entitlement to equal consideration under the law are threatened. Just last week, a secretly atheist friend said to me, "It's not smart to let other people know that you're not a believer. You know as well as I do that religious people are in the majority, and that they hold power over the rest of us. If you speak up, you'll just make people angry at you and make yourself vulnerable to social isolation and physical attack."
Was my friend right? Yes, she's right that whenever we atheists come out of the shadows and actually talk openly about our faithlessness, we put ourselves at risk. In spite of the protection we're supposed to receive under the Constitution, there are plenty of religious people inside government and among the public at large who openly discriminate against the non-religious. Religious neighbors, teachers, police, judges and elected officials often try to use their power to make life hard for those of us who don't agree with their own narrow views. The most powerful man in the world, the President of the United States, is just one such person. It's true that atheists who don't try to hide their lack of belief expose themselves to the small-minded bigotry of these zealots.
On the other hand, my friend is wrong. When atheists keep their atheism secret, they contribute to the power of bigots like President Bush. It doesn't have to be that way. We atheists may be in the minority, but we're a substantial minority. A survey by Gallup last year found that between 25 and 50 percent of Americans, depending on age group, consider religion to be not very important. Other surveys suggest that somewhere between 5 and 10 of Americans don't believe in God at all. Given that there are over 280 million Americans, that's a lot of atheists. Nonetheless, so many atheists hide their rejection of religion that it often seems that there are hardly any atheists left at all. Religious bullies like Bush are able to gain power only because so many atheists are afraid to speak against his outdated ideas.
Atheist honesty also requires that we stop telling those little white lies to make religious people feel better when they find out that we don't believe in their way of thinking. We've all done it, saying things like, "I wish I could believe in God, but I just can't." or "I'm just not religious." Bull. I haven't met a single real atheist who wishes he or she believed in God. The only ones I know of who pine for God are the disgruntled religious who tell their families they don't believe in God just to make them angry. Atheism is about more than rebelling against a church, more than just not being religious. When we tell others that we're "not religious", it makes it sound like we're just too tired or distracted to go to church or read the required holy books.
Even worse are the tired old apologies of respect for religion in spite of one's atheism. The one I've heard most often is "Jesus was a great man with great teachings. I just don't believe that he was a representative of God." Think about it now: do you really believe this? Could any sane atheist believe that the teachings of Jesus are great?
Jesus is the man who said that a woman who gets divorced for any reason other than "sexual immorality" is an adulterer and that anyone who gets married to a divorced woman is also an adulterer. I didn't make it up: it's in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 5. Jesus opposed divorce and remarriage. Sounds like a pretty dumb teaching if you ask me.
Jesus taught, again in the Gospel of Matthew, that people ought to abandon their duties to family members -- even their children -- in order become his followers and to do whatever he says, devoting themselves to some sort of eternal ponzi scheme "And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for my name's sake, shall receive a hundredfold and inherit eternal life." This sounds like a really irresponsible, self-centered, hedonistic teaching, not a great teaching.
If the ideas of Jesus are so great, are we supposed agree with him when he teaches that it's all right to destroy the property of others if what they're doing offends one's religious sensibilities? It sounds like this supposed great teacher actually supports the kind of religious-based violence and destruction that has plagued the world over the last two thousand years. Thanks, but I'll abstain.
Jesus is the guy who teaches that there's a devil who goes around causing everything to go wrong, and that the creator of the universe wanted it that way. Is this a great teaching, or a hallucinogenic one?
Above all else, Jesus is the guy who teaches that anyone who disagrees with his religion deserves to be punished with eternal and infinite pain. It was Jesus who said "He who is not with me is against me." If you're an atheist and you say that you admire Jesus, you're saying that you admire the idea of religious intolerance. I don't agree with this idea, or the other hare-brained notions he came up with. To be honest, I think that Jesus was a petty, self-absorbed, delusional, and bigoted man. I don't respect him one bit.
Even more ridiculous is the apologetic atheist stance that the Bible is great literature. Oh, I'll admit that the Bible has its moments, but so does Buffy the Vampire Slayer. A few nice touches do not great literature make. It's time that we atheists admit it: the Bible is a slapped together work of a bunch of self-referrent hacks.
The Bible can't even get basic grammar right. The translation that most people are familiar with, the King James Version, has a huge number of sentences that begin words like "and" and "but". I learned in elementary school not to make that mistake.
Then there are the pointless passages that go on and on and on and on. Give me a break with the lists of begats, please! How about the page upon page in Exodus where the writer describes how to properly create an altar: how to cut a stone properly, what kinds of pegs to use, how many boards to use in different places, and how to have one ring, not two or three or twenty, but one ring to couple the two back corners of a tabernacle. Yawn. This isn't great literature, it's a how-to manual.
I've read great literature. I know great literature when I see it. The Bible is not great literature. It's big, and it's old, but that doesn't make it great.
Let me be honest. Writing the Further Than Atheism column has made me realize that I'm proud to be an atheist. I don't owe anyone any apologies for disagreeing with them. I don't believe in gods. I don't believe in spirits. I don't believe in the supernatural. I disagree with religion of any kind. Like it or not, that's the way it is, and I know I'm not the only one.
Riled up? Don't let it bottle up. Talk back!
Got irregular thoughts of your own?