Thursday, July 19, 2007

What theists can't fathom

Last Friday, former speechwriter and general cheerleader for BushCo Michael Gerson wrote a truly jaw-dropping little bit of religious smuggery called What Atheists Can’t Answer for the Washington Post. And WaPo, whose standards these days are a bit unfathomable to me, deemed it fit for publication. I deem it fit for my own personal brand of passive-aggressive ridicule, and so…well, you know the drill:

British author G.K. Chesterton argued that every act of blasphemy is a kind of tribute to God, because it is based on belief. "If anyone doubts this," he wrote, "let him sit down seriously and try to think blasphemous thoughts about Thor."

Wow, let’s just dive right into the deep end of the pool of logical fallacy, shall we?

The problem with blasphemy is that, just like any of your garden variety of gods, it is defined by those who believe that it exists. Me, I don’t believe in God, therefore, I don’t believe that blasphemy is possible. I’m aware that other people believe that it is possible, and, when I’m in the room, even likely, and occasionally I do try to curb my language so as to try to keep from offending what in my experience are some overall pretty fucking touchy people.

And for the record, Thor’s so-called “mighty hammer”? It ain’t all that, sisters.

By the evidence of the New York Times bestseller list, God has recently been bathed in such tributes. An irreverent trinity -- Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins -- has sold a lot of books accusing theism of fostering hatred, repressing sexuality and mutilating children (Hitchens doesn't approve of male circumcision). Every miracle is a fraud. Every mystic is a madman. And this atheism is presented as a war of liberation against centuries of spiritual tyranny.

I suppose if you’re an uptight, defensive member of the my-way-or-the-lake-of-fire-way set, then yeah, I bet you do view works such as those written by the above authors as declarations of war. Me, I view them as an assertion of my right to exist on an equal basis with my more pious brethren, and also, perhaps more importantly, as an assertion that the religious emperor has, in fact, precious few bits of clothing. Like maybe a thong or a g-string, at the most.

I say that because although religious organizations and their collections of dogma and ideals are as deeply flawed as any secular group of yahoos and their respective precious scribblings, we are, as a society, forbidden to say so. Because the very nature of a religion means that it is above criticism. Because it is a RELIGION, it cannot be criticized. You cannot say, for example, that you oppose Christianity, or Islam, or the Jewish religion, because their theology requires that a woman’s status be beneath that of a man’s. If you do say so, you are a bigot. You can level that same criticism about the KKK, or Skull and Bones, or the Augusta National Golf Club, but you can’t say that you oppose a religion, no matter what fucked-up shit is written in their scrolls.

Proving God's existence in 750 words or fewer would daunt even Thomas Aquinas. And I suspect that a certain kind of skeptic would remain skeptical even after a squadron of angels landed on his front lawn. So I merely want to pose a question: If the atheists are right, what would be the effect on human morality?

Does anyone else get the feeling that having squadrons of angels landing on the lawns of atheists is some kind of wet dream for Mr. Gerson?

If God were dethroned as the arbiter of moral truth, it would not, of course, mean that everyone joins the Crips or reports to the Playboy mansion.

I believe Mr. Gerson means that not all atheists are like Snoop Dogg.

On evidence found in every culture, human beings can be good without God. And Hitchens is himself part of the proof. I know him to be intellectually courageous and unfailingly kind, when not ruthlessly flaying opponents for taking minor exception to his arguments. There is something innate about morality that is distinct from theological conviction. This instinct may result from evolutionary biology, early childhood socialization or the chemistry of the brain, but human nature is somehow constructed for sympathy and cooperative purpose.

Why the kid glove treatment from Gerson for the known godless heathen Hitchens? Is it because he still continues to publicly support the war in Iraq? Maybe the human brain is also constructed for ass-kissing, hm?

But there is a problem. Human nature, in other circumstances, is also clearly constructed for cruel exploitation, uncontrollable rage, icy selfishness and a range of other less desirable traits.

I understand Mr. Gerson worked closely with Vice President Cheney, so he should know.

So the dilemma is this: How do we choose between good and bad instincts? Theism, for several millennia, has given one answer: We should cultivate the better angels of our nature because the God we love and respect requires it. While many of us fall tragically short, the ideal remains.

And while many of those falling tragically short are also those who claim the highest levels of piety and communication with their respective gods, what is one to think of this so-called “ideal”? The truth is, that most mainstream religions are based on the carrot and the stick. Be good, go to heaven, be bad, go to hell.

And the trouble with that is, that just like prison, people who believe in hell never seem to believe that they themselves are going there, no matter what heinousness they perpetrate upon their loved ones or on society at large. It seems to me that most Christians, for example, believe that all that is required to stay in the good grace of their god is merely to proclaim oneself a Christian. Hating, killing, raping, stealing – everything else will come out in the theological wash.

Atheism provides no answer to this dilemma. It cannot reply: "Obey your evolutionary instincts" because those instincts are conflicted. "Respect your brain chemistry" or "follow your mental wiring" don't seem very compelling either. It would be perfectly rational for someone to respond: "To hell with my wiring and your socialization, I'm going to do whatever I please." C.S. Lewis put the argument this way: "When all that says 'it is good' has been debunked, what says 'I want' remains."

And yet, as Mr. Gerson has already admitted, there are plenty of moral atheists. So it seems that C.S. Lewis has an affinity not just for books that inspire boring, overrated film versions of themselves, but also for statements that sound all fancy-like but are actually quite obviously wrongity-wrong-wrong.

Some argue that a careful determination of our long-term interests -- a fear of bad consequences -- will constrain our selfishness. But this is particularly absurd. Some people are very good at the self-centered exploitation of others. Many get away with it their whole lives.

I’m not going to name any names…but the number 43 springs to mind.

By exercising the will to power, they are maximizing one element of their human nature. In a purely material universe, what possible moral basis could exist to condemn them? Atheists can be good people; they just have no objective way to judge the conduct of those who are not.

See, because, religious types judge people objectively.

The death of God has greater consequences than expanded golf time on Sunday mornings. And it is not simply religious fundamentalists who have recognized it. America's Founders embraced public neutrality on matters of religion, but they were not indifferent to the existence of religious faith. George Washington warned against the "supposition that morality can be maintained without religion." The Founders generally believed that the virtues necessary for self-government -- self-sacrifice, honesty, public spirit -- were strengthened by religious beliefs and institutions.

First of all, I got to call a huge, huge BULLSHIT on that last sentence. All the biggies in the Founders club were pretty fucking cynical about organized religion, especially Christianity. But let’s not quibble about what Jefferson meant when he said "History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance, of which their political as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purpose,” or what Madison meant by “A just government, instituted to secure and perpetuate liberty, does not need the clergy.” The larger point here is that Gerson is faulting a material universe, when in fact a material universe requires not just repentance, but actual good works as evidence of morality. And what is a moral act? Why, one that benefits humanity. It’s not rocket science, Mr. G, it’s evolution. Human beings have a stake in seeing ourselves prosper. Which is why, perhaps, it is difficult to view an actual human being suffering, but less difficult to know that human beings, somewhere outside of our own personal experience, are suffering. The former tends to trigger a primal response in us, perhaps, and the latter, as Mr. Gerson’s former bosses know so very well, does not.

None of this amounts to proof of God's existence. But it clarifies a point of agreement -- which reveals an even deeper division. Atheists and theists seem to agree that human beings have an innate desire for morality and purpose. For the theist, this is perfectly understandable: We long for love, harmony and sympathy because we are intended by a Creator to find them.

Wow, considering that theists aren’t any more successful at finding love, harmony and sympathy than atheists are, doesn’t that make the Creator kind of a dick? Or a serious underachiever?

In a world without God, however, this desire for love and purpose is a cruel joke of nature -- imprinted by evolution, but destined for disappointment, just as we are destined for oblivion, on a planet that will be consumed by fire before the sun grows dim and cold.

At last, a member of the Bush administration acknowledges global warming!

Seriously, though, I guess he means to make that point that humans are less disappointed by the vagaries of life when they know that there is some paternal being out there hurling those disappointments at their feet like emotional hand grenades, instead of the love and purpose that they are seeking (at the express wish of that same being)? Does that make any sense to you?

Yeah, me neither.

This form of "liberation" is like liberating a plant from the soil or a whale from the ocean. In this kind of freedom, something dies.

First of all, Mr. Gerson, let me tell you, sincerely, that my desire for love and purpose is not a cruel joke of nature. Believe it, if you can. I cherish this life that I have, and I find happiness everywhere, and in the most unusual places, and I wish the same for everyone on earth, and will assist them in finding it if I am able, and none of it is because of a god compelling me to do so. Let me tell you, it feels good to know that I am a moral person even though there is no after-life reward waiting for me for being one. I do not choose evil, even though no threat of eternal hellfire hangs over my head to prevent me.

How can you not understand how good that feels? And how can you not see that as sorry as you must feel for poor, doomed little me, that I also feel sorry for you, who cannot choose between good and evil without a superfluous being to justify your choice?

If what you want is a belief structure that enforces good behavior with the threat of reward, or punishment, may I suggest a belief in Santa Claus? Because, as I recall, that dude seemed like a whole lot more fun.


RandyLuvsPaiste said...

I just tell people I worship Satan.
It takes the discussion out of it.

'Bubbles' said...


Outstanding post.

The whole religion thing, the hypocricy and judgemental behaviors amaze me, no, sicken me.

What frightens me is how the world's religions, including the U.S. majority of Christains are all polarizing.

"True" Christianity, as I believe it - meaning, Christ was a man with outstanding ideas about what 'morality' means, says that we don't judge or condemn others. That is some other power's job, not ours.

Yet, Christains proclaim their superiority constantly. Is that not judgement?

Forgiveness? Die hard Christains don't seem to know the meaning of the word! I have lived it.

I have no evidence of a higher power. I have no blind faith in a religion. But I am not an athiest. I don't know what I am called, but I think that the universe is a big puzzle, and that things fit into place for reasons. The more 'moral' our choices, the 'better' our choices, the better off we will be over the long haul (long haul meaning our souls - that part of us that isn't matter on this earth, but our thoughts, dreams, feelings... touchy feeling stuff.

If we can learn from our choices, we will be better off in the VERY long run. If we don't learn, we can just keep beating our soul's head against a wall for eternity (sounds like hell, huh?)

If that is a religion, I don't know what it is called. It is the result of me analyzing my life's experiences and thinking about how interesting it is when lifes puzzle pieces fit into place.

Sorry, long comment. Maybe I should have posted on this, but I need to go a little lighter for a day or two.

I loved this post. Your intellect and logic are outstanding. Your passion behind that intellect and logic makes it great to read!!

hollaywood said...

Fantastic analysis. It was actually enlightening as I'd never thought of religion that way. I really enjoy your stuff.

Also, it would be great if you could contact me at Funny story...we're distantly related.

Johnny Yen said...

That is fucking brilliant Vikki. Thank you for writing it: from now on, when people question how I can sleep nights with my athiesm, I can send them to this post, rather than a futile half-hour explanation to them.

I think that true believers think that athiesm breeds a nihlism. Quite the opposite. Since I do not believe in anything after this life, I find it imperative that I do right in this life, the only one I'll have.

Anonymous said...

As passionate as I am in my personal belief of God, I really feel no more compelled to convince others of it than I feel compelled to convince them of my belief in and love for mayonnaise. Maybe I'm just lazy or unpersuasive. That was a guuuud post, vikki.

Grant Miller said...

If you believed in Satan you would totally go to Hell.

Jess said...

Would you believe that after I lost my baby, someone actually said to me: "God knows what he's doing!"

I sort of stared at her open-mouthed in shock as she then assured me that I'd probably have 10 more babies. Yeah, I shit you not.

Of course, afterwards I thought of all the things I wished I'd said like "You mean he DID this to me ON PURPOSE?! What an asshole!" but I was still reeling from the "10 babies" comment. It was like a one-two punch! I was almost impressed.

Personally, I feel very nervous around people who need the bible, church, confession, god, et all... to be "moral". I'd rather hang with someone who was moral for MORALITY's sake rather than someone who was moral because they're afraid of going to hell.

vikkitikkitavi said...

Randy: Sure, it's always funny until some virgin gets sacrificed.

Bubbles: As one of my favorite Woody Allen characters once said, "If Jesus ever came back and saw what was being done in his name, he would never stop throwing up."

Hollaywould: Distantly related to what?

JohnnyY: Yes, by all means steer every small-minded person you meet to my blog.

MissyBP: Yay, I'm glad. I was afraid I had kissed off all my Christian readers. Both of them.

Grant: If you say so, Grant, then I believe it.

Jess: Oh, sweetie. I really hate the thought of someone saying that to you.

A good friend of mine has gotten this fairly serious disease, and she told me her Bible-thumping mother told her that "God never gives you anything you can't handle." I find it hard to imagine a mother who would consider that an appropriate and loving thing to say to her daughter.

dad said...

Bravo, Vikki.

I'm enjoying Dawkins' book "The God Delusion".

Our nation was founded on secularism and many of the key founding patriots are considered to be agnostics, athesists, or deists (not thesists). Its a shame most people lack more understanding of our government and why it was formed the way it was.

Jefferson once wrote-"Christianity is the most perverted system that ever shone on man" And John Adams-"This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it."

hollaywood said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Chris said...

While I'm not really an atheist, I'm not religious and I certainly don't believe in worshipping a higher power (pretty sure we've discussed my rationale). I can't stand the idea that without this type of faith, I can't be a good person. I'd love for the religious-types that feel this way to explain how this isn't prejudicial.

GETkristiLOVE said...

Well-written, and brilliant, as always.

I've always wondered how many people in the White House are actually atheists, but are too afraid to admit it because it would cost them their career.

Frank Sirmarco said...

Great post!

vikkitikkitavi said...

Dad: Jefferson was a Unitarian, and while it appears he did believe in some kind of god, he was very critical of organized religions and their various dogmas. I purposefully avoided the Adams quote you used, because if you look at it in context, I believe that he is saying that while it is tempting to wish for a world without religion, that ultimately that is not what he would want. Again, a condemnation not of a belief in god but in organized religion. And thus, we see that these smart men modeled our government's view of religion after their own personal view: that organized religion corrupts the function of government. They were as suspicious of theocracy as they were of monarchy.

Which makes it particularly galling that Gerson would try to co-opt the founding fathers as cheerleaders for his cause.

Hollaywood: Nice to have you here. I deleted your comment because it contained personal information. If you'd like to email me, you can use the link in my profile.

Chris: I don't think they can explain that, and this goes to the very purpose of forming a religion in the first place, which I believe was to impose an order upon society. There is no civilization without order, and at one point in our history, to impose an order that you presented your particular god as personally invested in enforcing was a very efficient way to do things. Two birds with one stone, so to speak. But what happens when humans outgrow those kind of religions? What happens when we no longer need the threat of eternal hellfire to convince us that it's in everybody's interest that we enforce a "no killing" rule?

GKL: I wonder that, too. We've already seen what they do to Democrats...

Frank: Thank you. So are people always asking you when you're going to get that monkey off your back?

pezda said...

"...doesn’t that make the Creator kind of a dick? Or a serious underachiever?"

Amen and hallelujah to that sister.

Zealots frighten me. Anyone who, without a thought, places complete faith in an obviously overworked (and understaffed) Universal Caretaker scares the shit right out of me.