Other than the possibility of going to Hell for being a non-believer, what is the single largest disadvantage to being an atheist? Answer: atheists lack the type of group cohesiveness that is typical of religion. There is no deity to worship, so atheists (for the most part) feel no need to gather and revel in their beliefs. Or is it non-beliefs? There are organizations that cater to the atheistic point of view, but honestly, what is the point in showing solidarity in not believing in an omnipotent creator? I see none, as do most atheists.
I choose to go through the day not believing anything other than the all-encompassing mastery of human nature over common sense. Frank Zappa has a song entitled Dumb All Over where he posited that not only are human beings dumb, but also “...a little ugly on the side.” Frank Zappa was a smart man, but he was a flake. Anybody who has ever read his testimony before Congress regarding the First Amendment, while not agreeing with me, would have to at least recognize how such a judgment could be made. But that’s neither here nor there. Flake or not, he was right about people being dumb all over. The amount of stupidity displayed by mankind is more than enough to send my senses into a tailspin.
I am a very opinionated man. I am not alone. I do not believe that there is a single person in all the world who does not believe strongly in their convictions. It follows that I also believe everyone who disagrees with me is wrong. This is not an entirely arrogant point of view. To me it is common sense. I believe what I believe because I think it is the truth. If I were to believe in anything that I have doubts about, or that is untrue, I would only be deluding myself. That is the bald nature of belief that not very many people acknowledge, for fear of offending others, or for fear of appearing nothing more than a pulsating ball of human egoism. Any person who disagrees with you, unless they are able to sway your opinion, is wrong as far as you are concerned. It’s okay to admit that. It is one of many very early steps towards making yourself understood.
So let me be clear. I do not believe in any power greater than human stupidity. I do not believe there is a God. If there is, and we are His crowning achievement, then God must be a sadistic son of a bitch. But observations of human nature are no evidence towards disproving the existence of a deity. As a matter of fact, there are no observations to be made in all of the known universe that could disprove the existence of God. Conversely, there are no proofs of a supreme deity’s influence or existence. Neither side has any empirical evidence that proves or disproves the grandest idea of them all: our Father. With this lack of evidence, how could I have possibly made such a drastic choice, or any choice at all, what with the implications for my eternal soul should I choose unwisely?
It was not easy. I don’t know of any person who doesn’t go through a crisis of faith. I came at the problem from a different angle than most. I was not raised to believe in God. I am the typical offspring of a generation of mothers and fathers who were systematically rebelling against everything their parents believed in. I come from a part of the country where a person’s role in religion seems to amount to naught more than paying occasional lip service to the church — a sort of “just in case” insurance policy designed to keep a person’s soul out of hell with a minimum of effort. My parents, whether or not they believed in God, surely couldn’t be expected to keep this farce going any longer. The gap between the baby boomers and their parents was truly an enormous expanse that swallowed up all sorts of ideology, including religion, so there went my family’s faith on both sides. I was never baptized, never attended Sunday service, and to this day, I have been to only three masses: one funeral and two weddings.
It is common for a person having a crisis of faith to be in the position of feeling their faith is waning, if not disappearing altogether. They struggle between their conscience, faith, and common sense — which can all be pulling in widely scattered directions. Some people have been known to spiral down into complete emotional collapse because they have left these questions of faith unresolved. It must be terrible, to believe that at one time you had the answer, and without warning, all the security you had about your place in the universe and your fate for all eternity just disappears because the words “what if?” entered into your thoughts about God.
But for me, questioning my beliefs entailed wondering whether the movement of the stars, the evolution of life, the spiraling traces of particles on a photo plate, all the elements of the cosmic dance that has gone on for billions of years, was all by design or by chance. Such a complicated natural mess as the universe could not have happened by chance, could it? Maybe it did, maybe it didn’t. After all, the universe is at least fourteen billion years old by most scientific estimates. That is quite a long time for randomness to begin to appear as if it were orchestrated. The universe has had fourteen billion years to work its way through iterations that could not work. This may be the result. It is just as easy to apply natural selection to the universe as a whole as it is to life on earth. The more the universe is studied, and consequently, the more it is understood, the more incredible it becomes in its expanse and its many moving parts, but it also is brought down to earth, so to speak. Once scientists figured out how to stop a beam of light dead in its tracks, if only for a split second, all light seemed to lose some of its mystical luster. Understanding the universe also means being able to manipulate our small slice of it. After that type of godliness is within our grasps, God just seems to be another invention of mankind’s imagination. But there’s more.
Beyond anything else, it is mankind’s yearning for a deity, and his treatment of his fellows, that has convinced me that humans created God, and not the other way around.
What a world this must have been thousands of years ago. Man’s understanding of the world was limited to not much more than the horizon. But just like today, people searched for answers. Those people way back then may not have known as much as we, but their brains were the same. They had the same thirst for knowledge that is an inherent aspect of human nature. They were beginning to master their surroundings, much like us, though in smaller ways, as all beginnings are made. It couldn’t have taken long for primitive man to gaze upwards and wonder, again much like us, why? Deep emotional and philosophical questions require a focused will to resolve them. Lacking the means to understand the world around them, these answers surely had to come from within. Along came society.
Religion had to have been a natural offshoot of mankind’s growing dependency on each other. The more a society grows, the more complicated are the questions which arise. Religion, if taken at face value, conveniently answers all questions. Not just some, but every question man could ever ask can be instantaneously answered by a religious analogy.
“Where did the stars come from?” God made them.
“What made the ground we walk on?” God did.
“Why is the sun so bright?” God made it that way.
Religion’s answers to these questions showed the limits of man’s knowledge about himself and the universe. The best mankind could come up with in religion’s infancy was a moral code. A code that should be plainly obvious, but still could not find an effective vehicle until guilt was enslaved by religion.
And finally, the question that made religion really take off: “What happens when you die?” God has a place for you. We speak for God. Do what we say.
Heaven and hell are full of personified beings that represent dual aspects of human nature in good and evil. The most horrific punishment for a lifetime of sin is burning in hellfire for all eternity. The stories of religion seem like clichéd literature, a philosophy of simplicity for the masses at large.
Admittedly, this is an encapsulated view of the origins of religion. But I doubt it was that far of a step between believing in a God or gods before those ruling a religion, or those ruling a particular society, recognized that religion could be used to manipulate mankind. Humans have a nasty nature. They lie, cheat, steal, murder. When they are not engaged in these atrocities they have unsavory tendencies. They are selfish, greedy, egotistical. And when they are not unsavory, they are just plain restless. This is a group that needs direction and discipline. There has never been a religion on the face of this planet that does not require discipline.
As far as I am concerned, this is the insidious nature of religion. It is a means of control. Beyond that, it is also yet another way for mankind to separate itself into group identities. And these group identities, while espousing religion’s peaceful nature, have spent the past thousands of years slaughtering those who do not agree with them. Most religions are peaceful in nature. All of the major religions are. But under the banner of these religions the dark side of human nature once again takes hold, and a trail of the dead invariably follows. To be sure, religion is not entirely to blame. Evil, when it has a will to succeed, will find a vehicle for its actions, religion or no. But there is something despicable about turning a philosophy of peace and brotherhood into a siege on those who don’t believe. The last thing that the people of this planet need is for these divisions to continue to be enforced. Religion is the center point of the continuing spiral of hate that, it seems, has always attempted to swallow mankind whole. We have no enemy greater than ourselves. I just cannot subscribe to any institution that accentuates the differences between us as much as religion does. I can’t deny that organized religion has played roles in furthering human society. Whole nations have come together under a singular purpose to create art, literature, and science that is still the foundation for much of the world’s foremost thought today.
But then the state of this world comes crashing through all of religion’s accomplishments. There is a war being fought today whose lines are drawn through scripture. As much as this war is about freedom, or oil, it is also about religion. The extremists currently bombing their way through western civilization are more concerned with the infidels’ mere presence among them than they are about the pillage of their oil wells. Our president regularly invokes the will of God as he prays for our service members’ deliverance from harm’s way. We are a country that believes it has God on its side, fighting a culture that believes it also has the blessings of angels. The adage “Kill them all and let God sort them out,” comes to mind.
This is the world I see. I see a world that has accomplished so much, with or without the fervor of religion, but I also see religion being used as justification for mass murder. When will it stop?
Finally, religion affects me on a personal level as well. The death I see on TV, except for one day two and a half years ago, is distant enough to affect me only as much as I want it to. But religion is a growing force in the daily lives of Americans. It is getting harder and harder everyday to continue to refer to this as a secular society. Religion has always played a large role in the lives of the citizens of this country, but religion has a much more public face in the nation today than it did even ten years ago. Evangelical churches from the south are the origin of this new nature of Christianity (for it is Christianity which is the dominant religion in the United States). From shopping at Wal-Mart to watching the Simpsons, religious morality is being shoved down the citizenry’s throat whether they like it or not. As a person who is not only without religion, but without faith, I am finding myself increasingly isolated in a society that fails to recognize that you can lack faith and still be a good person. I used to find that my personal tastes were what separated me from my neighbors. I tend to listen to different music, watch different movies and different TV shows than the majority demographic of this country, but I am fine with that. Now, in what is supposed to be one of the great free societies in the history of man, I find myself in the role of the outsider.
Michael Newdow, in his recent argument before the Supreme Court against the use of the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, pointed out how unlikely it would be that an atheist would ever be elected to public office. This may seem a small price to pay for one’s beliefs, but it is indicative of America’s stance as a whole in regards to atheism. Indeed, Senator Joseph Lieberman once said, “You cannot have morality without religion.” Needless to say, I resent the implication.
I am far from those in the world who have been persecuted for their beliefs. In this country, religious differences tend to amount to not much more than a difference of opinion (Depending on where you live, of course. My views have a much more receptive audience here in New York, but that is the nature of cities, as most pride themselves on the independent nature of their inhabitants.). But the pendulum continues to swing away from acceptance. This is a disturbing trend in the history of our country. The great melting pot is now overflowing with Christian morality that displays all the hallmarks of a burgeoning intolerance, similar to that which we struggle against overseas.