It’s worth noting that the same ill will is not felt toward the unaffiliated, the “spiritual but not religious”, who are emerging as a growing if unorganized demographic who don’t put a religion down on their hospital forms. Their “live and let live” attitude is generally reciprocated - and they don’t like Atheists either.
What about atheists is so disturbing? The fantasy that they are likely to have no moral standards has been famously refuted by the data – European secular countries have lower crime rates than the United States and in the land of the free the committed unbelievers commit far fewer crimes than their believing brethren, making up only about 2% of the prison population. They don’t get into the papers for bizarre, cultish behavior - they don’t beat their children, practice polygamy or denigrate the status of women - and they have never once in history burnt a believer at the stake. So what’s the problem?
I believe there’s an obvious answer. If the Atheists are right, we all have to die - no God, no heaven, no hereafter to look forward to - just old age, arthritis and decay, with our kids next in line for the same. That’s enough to turn anybody off.
It’s easier to tolerate other religions, even those with whom we may have major disagreements on the specifics, than to tolerate a group whose position is that all the believers are wrong – and, by the way, doomed.
As if that wasn’t enough, Atheists, who have a strong historical case against religious intolerance, have wound up with an image of being intolerant themselves. These days, most mainstream faiths go out of their way to be nice to each other, to respect each other’s beliefs and even to allow that followers of other faiths have a shot at getting into heaven. Rabbi’s priests, imams and ministers like nothing better than to stand on the podium together at public events and take turns invoking the Lord’s blessings on all involved. The message is “Many paths to one truth” or to spell out it’s unspoken presupposition: “Maybe, just maybe, we can all be right”. The Atheists, who are starting to insist that they be allowed on the podiums too, are pushing the opposite message; “Sorry guys, but really, just really, based on the evidence, you’re all wrong”.
The problem, and what's keeping an unnecessary fight going, is that both sides are missing the big picture, the really big picture. Let me explain.
Let’s start with the believers. The believers by tolerating each other (a very good thing for all concerned) are, whether they mean to or not, introducing one or both of the following two ideas into the religious discussion. It’s either:
“We can respect each others’ religious beliefs because God is essentially beyond human comprehension, and all attempts to know his will are symbolic strivings toward something we can never hope to reach – but the striving itself makes us better and more fulfilled human beings”.
“We can respect each others’ religious beliefs because, under it all, we know that we’re really just kidding. We made all this stuff up and nobody’s stuff is more or less valid than anybody else’s – so I’ll tolerate yours if you’ll tolerate mine”.
While the second of these ideas leans more obviously toward the Atheists’ position, either or both have the effect of seriously undermining the representatives of religion’s credibility as spokespersons for the Almighty in matters of human behavior (or as entitled to collect money in his name). While the mainstream “tolerant” believers like to act as if this wasn’t so, the extremists in the various belief systems know damn well that it is, which is why they’re circling the wagons and, in many cases, getting downright dangerous.
The atheists for their part are mistaken to think they’re ever going to be welcome to the party until they show a willingness to compromise. Their presence at the table is a constant reminder to the rest of the partygoers that the food, drink and eternal party favors may just not be real – the ultimate case of the Emperor’s New Clothes. Right now it’s a stalemate. The believers can’t compromise with the atheists without questioning their faith in God and the atheists can’t compromise with the believers without questioning their faith in observable truth. And that’s that. Or is it?
Tempted as I am to stop this little piece right here, and at the risk of angering both sides, I suggest that there is a place where they do meet and where compromise is not only possible but inescapable. That place has been where in the human race has actually lived since we first became aware of ourselves and began to think symbolically. It’s right in our faces. It was there when we thought the few square miles around us was all there was of the earth, and that the sun and moon were up there specifically to provide us with light. If anything, it’s even more in our faces now that we’ve charted our planet’s position among billions of galaxies in an ever expanding universe. And the fact that a growing body of knowledge supports the idea that our universe is only one of possibly trillions confirms it even further.
So what am I talking about? What’s been in our face from the Stone Age to the space age, from cave paintings to e-mail?
What I’m talking about the OBVIOUS WILL OF GOD (capitals intended).
The OBVIOUS WILL OF GOD is that all things come into existence through a natural process, expend energy for a time, then diminish and burn out, returning the matter and energy they have had on loan to the larger process, which has gone on indefinitely and will continue to do so. That’s the will of God. The only change in the story when you move the picture beyond our planetary system is to confirm that this decision by the Almighty applies to everything. The eternal stars are no more eternal than houseflies, summertime, or us. And for all we know, neither is God. We’d like him to be eternal, it would make us feel better - but it’s really not our call.
The mistake the religious have made is in attempting to hold onto alleged revelations from the Almighty that contradict this basic truth. The mistake the atheists have made is in thinking that this basic truth is not religious.
One of the points I kept coming back to in “The Holy Bluff” is that the powerful myths that have remained meaningful to human beings for thousands of years despite seemingly contradictory technological advances have their roots in very firm and very real soil. Take, as a prime example, the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac. Westerners are familiar with the Jewish version which appears in the Bible, but the Islamic version, in which Isaac’s brother Ishmael is to be sacrificed, states the message even more strongly.
In the Bible version, God “tests” Abraham by demanding the sacrifice of his son Isaac. Isaac, if you remember the story, was himself a gift from God, a child born to Abraham’s wife Sara long after the usual age of childbirth. God was, in effect, demanding back what he had given. As the story goes on, Abraham travels to the mountain of sacrifice with his son Isaac, purposely keeping the boy in the dark about what is about to happen, telling him that “God will provide the sacrifice”. When they arrive at the mountain, Abraham builds an altar, “binds” his son Isaac on it and prepares to sacrifice him. Isaac is spared at the last moment by the intervention of an angel – God making it clear that it is not the sacrifice itself, but the willingness to make the sacrifice that is pleasing to the Lord.
In the Islamic tradition, the son to be sacrificed is Ishmael, Abraham’s first born, the son he conceived with his wife’s servant Hagar. In an all-important variation on the Bible version, Ishmael is made aware of the Lord’s command, not protected from his fate by parental deception. Instead of protesting, fleeing or begging for mercy, Ishmael accepts the will of God and urges his father to follow the Lord’s terrifying command. The story of Ishmael is central to the Islamic faith, tied to the very definition of a Muslim as “one who submits to God.”
These two variations on the same story speak to the basic truth of human existence: God demands the sacrifice of all our children. Every child born is born to die – mine, yours, everybody’s. Accepting the divine will means accepting this bitter truth, which Abraham does, and Ishmael as well. In both cases, it is important again to note that it is the attitude of acceptance, not the act of sacrifice itself that is pleasing to God.
The extreme example of this message is to be found in the central mythology of the Christian tradition, where God is portrayed as sacrificing his own son, thus affirming that there are NO exceptions to this hard and fast rule. Jesus, by being portrayed as accepting his own fate, is acting directly in the tradition of his ancient father Abraham (and his ancient brother Ishmael). Introducing the sparing of Isaac and the resurrection of Jesus into these stories waters down the impact of the message by introducing the source of all that is dangerous in religion: bargaining.
The idea that faith is meant to be given in exchange for eternal life, the health of your children, or the avoidance of divine punishment has hurt or possibly killed at least a dozen people somewhere in the world since I started writing this page. Neither Abraham nor Jesus bargained with the Lord. The fact that their followers and the followers of most creeds throughout history have tried and continue to try has caused more harm than any other single idea since the first Neanderthal picked up that first club. That the official spokespersons of religion have exploited this side of the religious coin for their own advantage is no secret. The fact that there is another side to the coin is the best kept secret in history - or at least it has been. Its day has come.
The growing group of courageous believers who are willing to believe without attempting to make deals with the Almighty have, to invoke an appropriate religious image, built their faith on solid rock. They have always been with us, but are just beginning to speak of their faith openly. To accept that human life is a temporary gift which can be recalled at any time, but a gift nonetheless, is a profoundly religious act regardless of how one chooses to identify the gift giver. The honest believers, those who prop up the official religions with their faith and their contributions, or operate outside the system with only their faith and the friendship of kindred souls to support them are, and have always been, the moral backbone of the human race. Their love for their God is unconditional, and spills over into for their love for their fellow creatures. The bargainers start the wars, the true believers care for the wounded. The bargainers hate and fear the infidel, because the infidel’s existence calls their bluff. The honest believers know there are no infidels.
Oddly enough, the most visible group of souls who have shown themselves capable of such a courageous act of faith are those who the mainstream have chosen to regard as faithless: the atheists.
It is my conviction that atheism has everything to do with rejecting the bargaining ploys of the official religions and nothing to do with rejecting God. To examine our brutal, beautiful and ever-changing world and declare with conscious choice, “I will take the universe as it is and act accordingly” is a massive act of faith. Whether the unbelievers know it or not, they are standing in company with Abraham, Ishmael and Jesus.
The OBVIOUS WILL OF GOD is true whether or not there is a God. It is, if anything, more true if there is than if there isn’t. Either way, we’re all in the same boat. Portraying the visible Atheists among us as faithless is an attempt to deny this truth. The attempt is understandable. It rises out of mankind’s oldest fear - the realization that death is the price of life, for us and for our children. Confronting this realization openly and bravely is the ultimate human task. The good news is that we may finally be up to it.
Once you get past the politics of the situation, the honest believers have much in common with their atheist brethren. They need to start talking to each other. It may harder for the atheists to accept than for the believers, but we are all kneeling in the same pew.