My own mind is my own church.
When I was a boy growing up in a Lutheran home I was a fervent believer. I prayed on my knees at bedtime and went to sleep with a small silver cross dangling from my neck.
My dad was a soldier in England and North Africa during World War II so I followed the battles intently every day in the Philadelphia Bulletin. The war ended in triumph for the Allies in 1945.
Although I had no idea then how horrible war was, I was certain the monumental struggle had been “a war to end all wars.” Imagine my disillusionment then when the Cold War soon set in.
I was seized by a sudden truth: God doesn’t exist.
At college I read The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine, one of the most important intellectual books ever written. It confirmed my atheism, an atheism that only deepened over the next 60 years.
No reasoning person can believe in God although fine minds did, like writer Bill Buckley in America, Cardinal Newman in England and philosopher Pascal in France.
Nor can it be argued “nearly everybody believes in God so you should too.” As the French philosopher Bayle has observed, “the unanimous consent of mankind is no criterion of truth.”
Even the great deists of the 18th century dared not disbelieve, arguing for a rational God rather than accepting the deity on blind faith. They believed in Christ’s message but not in his divinity.
Deists are like Hamlet in his suicide soliloquy: “Who would fardels bear / To grunt and sweat under a weary life / But that the dread of something after death …/ The undiscover’d country from whose bourn / No traveler returns.”
People who believe in God believe in a lie. Or, perhaps they have a failure of nerve and intellect.
German-born Frenchman Baron d’Holbach, with a deeper insight than Paine, published the atheist’s bible, The System of Nature, in 1770. To escape persecution in France, he published the work anonymously in Amsterdam.
The baron’s book was heretical, flying in the face of almost universal belief in God. But they solidified his place as one of the luminaries of the Age of Enlightenment.
D’Holbach called religion “a mere castle in the air,” a phantom. Theology is “a tissue of fallacies and contradictions,” he pointed out. “Fanatics have cut each other’s throats, publicly burnt each other, committed, without a scruple and even as a duty, the greatest crimes and shed torrents of blood.”
These barbarities were committed in the name of God, a figment, a creation of the imagination.
D’Holbach noted that mankind is bound “in the chains of religious fiction, improbable tales, ridiculous fables, impenetrable mysteries and puerile ceremonies” … “Liberty of thinking alone can give men humanity and greatness of soul.”
All religions are inventions of mankind. Belief in God is an absurdity. Nature has wonders but a so-called God had nothing to do with them.
Yet belief is comforting and consoling. Most people need those chimeras and miracles. As Vonnegut says in Cat’s Cradle: Live by untruth and be happy.
As d’Holbach wrote, “Every revealed religion is filled with mysterious dogmas, unintelligible principles, incredible wonders and astonishing recitals.”
Academia extols critical thinking. But if the professoriate, maybe the most intelligent group in society, really believed in critical thinking all professors would be atheists.
A survey in Nature magazine reported that 40 percent of biologists, physicists and mathematicians believed in God, a God they could pray to “in expectation of an answer.”
So it is not surprising that 99 percent of Americans believe in God or some “higher power.” Nor is it surprising that 100 million Americans identify themselves as evangelicals, the least educated and most rural-dwelling.
D’Holbach said, “The more men are deficient in knowledge and reason, the more zealous they are in religion.”
Four in 10 Americans believe in creationism, most of them evangelicals. Four in 10 evangelicals believe Jesus will return in 2050. It is impossible to give credence to such primitive thinking.
The majority of scientists say that science is compatible with religion. Untrue. Science and religion are incompatible. Science is rational, religion is mere faith.
Example: The great scientist Galileo was hauled before the Inquisition for “irreconcilable difference with sacred texts” because he espoused the Copernican truth that the sun is the center of the solar system.
Pastors, priests, rabbis and imams and their flocks live an untruth. But it is amazing the number of people who suspend reason when it comes to religion in this God-drenched nation.
Epicurus, third century B.C. Greek philosopher, insisted rightly that nothing should be believed except that which was tested through observation and logical deduction. Quod erat demonstrandum.
The intellectual struggle over God has preoccupied people over the ages: reason vs. faith, science vs. religion, rationalism vs. superstition, evolution vs. creationism, enlightenment vs. the supernatural, truth vs. delusion, the mind vs. fantasy, intelligence vs. the preposterous, reality vs. ignorance, wisdom vs. dogma.
Where was God?
Six million Jews were exterminated in the Holocaust. “Where was God?” broadcaster Edward R. Murrow asked on seeing the horror of Buchenwald. Murrow did not answer his anguished question.
But the truth is God does not exist. Despite the Holocaust, too many Jews—maybe the most intelligent people on earth—cling to God and religion.
Slavery in America? Where was God? Apartheid in South Africa? Where was God? Apartheid in America? Where was God? Millions died in the orgy of religious killing that attended the partitioning of India and Pakistan in 1947. Where was God?
The Inquisition? The crusades, an effort to wrest the Holy Land from Muslims? The Albigensian crusade against good Christians with doctrinal differences? The killing of so-called heretics?
Calvin’s order to burn Servetus for his denial of the trinity, an unbelievable doctrine? Selling of indulgences? Joshua’s call for God to destroy Jericho?
The Borgia popes with mistresses, illegitimate children, piles of money and private armies? Women degraded today under Sharia, strict Islamic law? Wars, wars, wars, endless, senseless U.S. wars?
Where was God when Southern Baptists adopted two heavens, one for whites and one for blacks? As Faulkner wrote: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
The recent volleying against God has been withering. Two books are provocative and intellectually challenging, The End of Faith by Sam Harris, and The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins.
Dawkins calls God “the most unpleasant character in fiction.” And you can almost hear Dawkins laugh when he notes that the Catholic Church divides angels into nine categories: seraphim, cherubim, thrones, dominions, virtues, powers, principalities, archangels and common angel.
Most Catholics, more sophisticated than evangelicals, refuse to accept such balderdash.
But even the 99.44 percent pure atheist Dawkins had a failure of intellect. Dawkins, dubbed “Darwin’s Rottweiler,” admitted: “I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable.”
Paine rightly assaulted organized religion and the Bible in The Age of Reason. But he refused to go beyond the deism that most Enlightenment notables and the U.S. founders espoused. Paine had a failure of intellect.
Paine believed in “a God of moral truth and not a God of mystery or obscurity.” But atheists need no God to be moral. They don’t need a biblical Sixth Commandment to tell them that murder is wrong. Atheists just believe with the protagonist of the Camus novel, The Stranger, who angrily tells a shriving priest that “none of his certainties was worth one hair of a woman’s head.”
Atheists are not the devil incarnate. Indeed, atheists are more Christian than Christians in their behavior. The so-called Christians often do not practice what the synoptic gospels preach. Atheists do.
“God’s quarterback,” Tim Tebow, former star of the Denver Broncos, used to kneel by the playing field to pray before games. He wore patches under the eyes citing biblical verses like Ephesians 4:8 (“by grace are ye saved through faith”) or Philippians 4:7 (“the peace of God which passeth all understanding”). (All Bible quotations are from the King James Version.)
Tebow’s display of faith was offensive ostentation. He ignored the injunction of Matthew 6:5-6: “When thou prayest thou shalt not be as hypocrites are. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets that they may be seen of men. … But thou when thou prayest enter into thy closet and when thou has shut thy door pray in secret.”
A story in the New York Times recently revealed that a Russian Orthodox Church leader wore a $30,000 watch. Perhaps he did nor read nor heed Mark 10:21: “Sell whatsoever thou hast and give to the poor and thou shalt have treasure in heaven.”
Dawkins remarks that the nastiest letters he got were from readers who call themselves Christian.
Justice Harry Blackmun can attest to that. After writing the decision for the Supreme Court in 1973 legalizing abortion, he was inundated with letters invoking “God’s wrath” against him and denouncing him as a baby killer.
“I do not understand the vilification and personal abuse that has come to me,” Blackmun said. “It is hard to believe that some clergymen and sisters can indulge in such abuse and still profess to be workers in the vineyard.”
And then there are Christian zealots who blow up abortion clinics, Episcopalians outraged by gay bishops, the United Methodist Church defrocking lesbian ministers, crucifixion of Matthew Shepard on a fence in Wyoming “to save the soul” of a homosexual and Vatican rejection of woman priests and denunciation of gays and lesbians.
Pope Benedict endorsed an Austrian priest who believed that Hurricane Katrina was God’s revenge for America having gays and allowing abortions.
And surely not even honest Mormons can accept the mumbo-jumbo propounded about founder Joseph Smith: an angel led him to buried golden plates “revealing” that Native Americans are of Jewish origin, was visited by Jesus after his resurrection, that the plates were written in an unknown language, “reformed Egyptian,” and translated into the Book of Mormon using supernatural seer stones.
It is also impossible to believe Mormon doctrine about the resurrection of the body and immortality through Christ’s atonement. Similarly, no one can believe in Muslims “living this life” to prepare for “the next realm of existence” in heaven. And it is certainly excessive when Muslims must pray five times a day while bowing in the direction of Mecca.
The true followers of Christ have compassion, understanding and love. Yet fundamentalists are against gay marriage, abortion and homosexuality. (See Leviticus 20:13: “If a man lie with mankind as he lieth with a woman both of them have committed an abomination. They shall surely be put to death.”)
Perhaps the finest “sermon” in the Bible concerns “a woman taken in adultery.” Jesus declares in John 8:7: “He that is without sin among you let him first cast a stone at her.”
Nor is this a Christian nation as so many insist. It is deeply multi-religious—Christianity, Judaism and Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Sikhism, Quakerism, Baha’i, Wicca, Jehovah’s Witnesses et al.
Katha Pollitt, Nation columnist, speaks of the unbounded credulity people have of historic religious figures: “I don’t accept the idea that a man was born of a virgin, walked on water and rose from the dead. I don’t accept the idea that we should follow the Muslim ‘prophet’ who at the age of 53 had sex with a 9-year-old girl and ordered the murder of whole villages of Jews because they wouldn’t follow him.”
God in America
America is a secular nation although many fundamentalists would have it otherwise. The Constitution makes no mention of God, has no religious test for office.
Yet America still offers stunning examples of undermining the inviolable wall of separation between church and state.
A brave student in a Rhode Island high school was called “an evil little thing” because as an atheist she objected to a school prayer hanging on the wall of her school auditorium. For 30 years, Alaska Airlines distributed prayer cards to passengers.
The U.S. Forest Service renewed a permit to maintain a statue of Jesus in Flathead National Forest in Montana. Players and coaches bowed their heads and kneeled in prayer before football games at Bowie High School in El Paso, Texas.
Two of America’s greatest heroes, Eugene Debs and Emma Goldman, were political prisoners. Debs, lion of socialism, and Goldman, lioness of anarchism, were atheists who proved that you don’t have to believe in God to be a magnificent human being.
Their lives rebuke the eminent theologians who argue that the only basis for morality is religion. Debs and Goldman lived the Golden Rule: “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them” (Matthew 7:12).
Kant’s categorical imperative says the same thing although put in more philosophical terms: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can … will that it should become a universal law.”
Goldman was beloved by inmates in New York and Missouri prisons. Debs was so highly esteemed by federal prisoners in Atlanta that he was called “little Jesus.”
A woman once asked me why I could not tell a harmless lie. “You’re an atheist,” she said. “Why do you care?” The question showed a vast misunderstanding of atheists.
They do not need a “higher authority” to be ethical, moral, decent and honest. They do not need a God to tell them that child abuse is wrong, although some Catholic priests believe it is all right.
Theists struggle to prove the existence of God but they cannot do so. That’s why their arguments are jesuitical and casuistical: prime mover, first cause, a priori, a posterioi, the celestial watchmaker, intelligent design, Pascal’s wager, scripture, teleological, ontological, cosmological and eschatological.
Theologians are masters of such solemn hocus-pocus. Their thinking is theological prestidigitation.
No critical thinker can believe in miracles, resurrection and original sin. No critical thinker can believe in the trinity, the incarnation, transubstantiation, the divinity of Jesus, immortality, reincarnation, sacraments and an embryo “ensouled by God.” Nor is it possible to believe in heaven and hell, the devil and an afterlife. No one can give credence to the sun standing still for Joshua.
No critical thinker can believe in 72 virgins waiting in paradise for Muslim martyrs. No critical thinker can believe in the efficacy of prayer. No one can take seriously “God the Father, God the son and God the holy spirit.”
Yet religion seems immune from rational attack. The Establishment press refuses to run articles exposing religious delusion. As author Harris writes, religion “is still sheltered from criticism in every corner of our culture.”
This article would never appear in the New York Times or any other Establishment newspaper. It is “not suitable discourse,” “too personal” for debate and it is wrong “to destroy people’s faith.”
Nation columnist Pollitt asks unarguable questions: “What’s so special about religion that it should be uniquely cocooned? Women, gays, leftists and atheists are constant targets of the faithful.
“How can it be logical that women can’t point out sexism in the Bible or the Koran but clerics can use those texts to declare women inferior, unclean and in need of male control?”
Pope Benedict, appearing recently in a Mexico wracked by drug wars, spoke soothing words at an outdoor mass to half a million believers: “seek a humble and pure heart and trust in God in the face of evil and sin.”
That’s “theology speak” doled out to the masses.
The Old Testament sows seeds of atheism. It is full of god-hurled death and destruction, violence and slaughter. Typical is Exodus 11:5: “All the first-born in the land of Egypt shall die.” Or Exodus 15:3: “The Lord is a man of war.”
Wildest fabrications abound in the Bible. For instance: Genesis: 19:26: Lot’s wife “looked back” so she was turned into “a pillar of salt.”
And how about Pentecostals in Tennessee who celebrate Easter with “shouting, dancing, speaking in tongues and snake- and fire-handling”? These are “gifts of the Holy Spirit”? Yet the movement has 15 million adherents in America.
Tennessee! Eighty-seven years after its embarrassing trial of biology teacher Scopes because he taught evolution, Tennessee has just enacted a law protecting teachers who invite challenges to evolution and global warming.
The press sometimes supports “God’s presence.” Columnist David Brooks of the New York Times says great presidents have felt “the presence of God’s hand on their every move.” Presumably presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Kennedy were guided to adultery by the hand of God.
Some bankers argue that they are doing “God’s work” by sustaining the free-market system. Yet Matthew 6:24 is anti-capitalist to the core: “Ye cannot serve God and mammon.”
In sharp contrast to American religiosity and piety, Denmark and Sweden are extremely secular.
Author Phil Zuckerman notes that in those countries “the belief in God is muted, minimal and marginal.” Yet as he points out, most Danes and Swedes live decent lives without God and without religion.
Nevertheless, most of the world’s people look at God and religion from the point of view of Hebrews 11:1: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
Precisely. The hoping begs the question. Reason should always trump faith.