Tag Archives: atheism

Atheists in Foxholes

As it turns out, there are atheists in foxholes.  As reported in an AP story that ran in the Philadelphia Inquirer, the U.S. Army has 2,500 soldiers who describe themselves as atheist, and 101,000 who report no affiliation, out of approximately 548,000 (11/8/2009 “Faith and furor: Muslims say Ft. Hood gunman does not define Islam”).

When I mentioned to someone that I was reading a book about atheism she said, “Oh, it’s good to know the enemy.”  I admit it was my mistake for trying to have a sensible conversation with a Christian fundamentalist, but calling someone with different religious views an “enemy” is simply not very Christian.  I will return to the vitriol later, but I want to address what I believe are the essential issues first.

I finished reading the late Christopher Hitchens’ book god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.  I am struggling to finish The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins.  Both of these books were New York Times best sellers. Since I am a person with a life-long interest in religion, I never felt compelled to study atheism before now and reading both of these books was both challenging and disturbing, as I believe both authors intended.

Hitchens’ book was a brilliantly written page-turner while Dawkins’ book is occasionally amusing but primarily tedious.  For people of faith, or those even mildly interested in religion, it doesn’t make sense to be afraid of, or worse – hate, atheists.  Faith is the opposite of fear, so how intelligent, well-read atheists think should provoke consideration not anger.

The Hitchens’ book builds a convincing case for the negative impact of religion on social history and individual experience, especially in the treatment of children and when connected with politics.  Ordinarily I enjoy sarcasm, but the Dawkins’ book is so relentlessly facetious it was nearly impossible for me to appreciate his perspective.  While Hitchens hoped to influence readers, Dawkins’ was shameless in attempting to convert the faithful into godless.  I found Dawkins’ attempt at proselytizing no more or less offensive coming from an atheist than a born-again Christian.  (See my blog column “Missionary Go Home” 8/25/2010.)

I don’t see value in arguing over the existence of God.  That is ultimately an individual question.  No panel of theologians can prove the existence – nor can a panel of atheists disprove it.  I see theologians denying science or atheists disavowing the possibility of anything mystical equally non-productive.  The intersections that matter are when theologians try to dictate to science or atheists want sanitize culture of any presence of religion.  That time would be better spent by theologians speaking to their own followers and leaving the rest of us alone, and atheists limiting their arguments to the inappropriate influence of religion in this secular society.

Atheists make an important contribution to our culture by being the conscience of religion.  Religion does enjoy too much societal protection legally, financially, publicly, and tacitly.  For example, in a capitalistic country, tax breaks are an enormous practical advantage as well as a demonstration of governmental approval.  There is no real reason why churches should be tax-exempt any more than social clubs.  This will be a future column, but my short answer is that if churches or religious organizations are not contributing social services to those outside of their own group, there is no reason for exemption from taxes.  Locally, I see very little difference between the YMCA and LA Fitness, except that the Y has a better swimming pool and is tax-exempt.

I would distill these issues to a few basic questions.  Primarily, the pivotal question is: Do you believe in the supernatural?  If not, then any god arguments are irrelevant, as well as any discussion on humans having a soul or spirit.  Dead is dead.  That is not a subject that is possible to debate.  As impossible as it is to debate, it is pointless to be angry because that is someone’s point of view.  Both books had stories of hate mail and death threats.  There’s no excuse for any person of any religion to stoop to bullying atheists.  You discredit your own religion.  If someone else’s view is that threatening, then your faith doesn’t really amount to much, does it?

Often I conclude these columns with what I personally believe, and I am tempted to do so this time, but I resist that temptation because it is irrelevant.  I read an amazing book by Hitchens that deeply disturbed me in many appropriate ways.  He influenced my thinking but did not change my point of view.  I am grateful such a great thinker lived among us and was unafraid to ask difficult questions that make us uncomfortable.  I would like to say, rest in peace, but that would be disrespectful.  So, Mr. Hitchens, I celebrate your life and contribution to this planet by encouraging tolerance of atheists and promising to read more of what you wrote.

To the religious, I would say that a faith unquestioned is just stupidity.

-J.B.

Advertisements

Newt the Nightmare

Newt Gingrich was not morally inspiring the last time he held office.  His situation ethics – which in his case meant he was exempt from the many values he purported – makes his recent pandering to the ‘religious right’ all the more offensive.  So now Newt is back, with a threat to run for president.  Do we really need another ignorant, embarrassing president?

With all due respect to the Texans I like, and there are some, Newt made an appearance at a San Antonia church from which even John McCain rejected an endorsement in the last presidential race.  To put the Cornerstone Church in perspective, their clergy John Hagee, described the Holocaust as fulfilling God’s prophecy.  (For the full CNN story written by Dan Gilgoff, from which the photo here is posted, see the link below.)

http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2011/03/28/gingrich-fears-atheist-country-dominated-by-radical-islamists/?iref=allsearch

Here’s what Gingrich said about religion in the United States: “I have two grandchildren: Maggie is 11; Robert is 9.  I am convinced that if we do not decisively win the struggle over the nature of America, by the time they’re my age they will be in a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists and with no understanding of what it once meant to be an American.”

If Maggie and Robert are in a half-decent school, then they probably know more about American history and civics than their bigoted grandfather.  This is someone who used to be Speaker of the House who clearly doesn’t understand the separation of church and state.  The separation is not an atheist conspiracy.  The United States has a secular government by design.

My abridged description of the origin of separation of church and state is that it was largely a result of squabbling between different Protestant Christian denominations that didn’t want any of the others becoming the official church of the new country, e.g. the Baptists didn’t want to be forced to be Puritans.  The way to protect each other from having an official religion forced on them was to have no state or federal religion.  That also means that the Constitution protects us from Islam becoming the official religion, though I for one am more worried about the Christian extremists.

Howard Fineman put it well in The Thirteen American Arguments (p.61).  “The land we live on was claimed in God’s name, but the world’s first officially secular government sits on it.  We invoked God in making our Declaration of Independence, but not in our governing authority, the Constitution.”

Fineman is not some crazy, liberal journalist spouting off.  His reference is to the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the government for redress of grievances.”  This is the amendment that protects all of us from a totalitarian government.  Now that’s what it means to be an American.

The Gilgoff story reported that Gingrich converted to Catholicism two years ago.  (I guess he had his annulment fast-tracked.)  Ironically, the early Americans were not too kind to Roman Catholics.  As an example, Philadelphia’s cathedral was completed in 1864 with minimal stained glass windows to discourage the vandalism like had taken place two years earlier in anti-Catholic riots (this information is from a tour I took in 1998).  That’s what it once meant to be an American, Newt.

There are more moderate than “radical” Muslims, just like there are more moderate Christians than extremists.  Those moderates are not suicide bombers any more than most Christians go around bombing women’s clinics.  I just completed research on news coverage of religion.  For the perception of radical Muslims, I do place some blame on the media and the politicians.  Those participating in radical Islam do not represent the majority of Muslims and are usually politicians who have hijacked the religion to serve their own ambitions.  News stories that were better researched and better written would make this clear.  I also remind you than when there was a shooting in Arizona by a crazy white guy, no one talked about his religion.

When it comes to Newt Gingrich, it’s hard to know where to stop, but I will.  Thinking of people like him ranting ignorantly about religion just ruins my day.  If Gingrich runs for anything anywhere, it ought to be back to school because he could really do with some education. -J.B.