Having an open mind doesn’t mean thinking all possibilities are equally likely. It means being willing to consider new ideas if the evidence supports them…. and to give up old ideas if the evidence is against them. And that’s just as true for atheists as it is for anyone else. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.
No, really. It’s very, very pretty. If you view this movie purely as an example of the “rich, beautifully-filmed global travelogue of the astonishing variety of human experience” genre, a la Baraka, you may have a reasonably good time.
But if you actually pay attention to its content about religion, then… well, if you’re a regular reader of this blog, atheist or otherwise, I strongly suspect it will send you screaming into the night.
A documentary about religion by Peter Rodger, “Oh My God” is an attempt to display the vast, enormously diverse variety of religious beliefs and experiences around the world, as expressed by religious leaders and ordinary citizens and second-string celebrities (with an annoying emphasis on the celebrities): from tribal rituals to abstract modern theology, from gods that are the literal creators of all physical existence to gods that are “infinite energy,” from the divisive hatreds of different faiths to the ecumenical singing of “Kumbaya.” And it’s an attempt to make some sort of sense of it all: to answer the big questions about religion, or at least to explore them in a serious manner.
I recently saw Daniel Dennett give a talk at an atheist convention, where he introduced a concept he called “deepities”: thoughts that seem deep and profound, but on closer examination actually mean nothing. Specifically, Dennett defines a “deepity” as “a statement that has two meanings, one of which is true but superficial, the other which sounds profound but is meaningless.” (“Love is just a word” was the example he gave.) It’s like the mice said in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “Sounds good, but doesn’t tie you down to actually meaning anything.”
“Oh My God” could easily have been re-titled “Deepities On Parade.”
“God is in the open spaces between us.” “God is the essence of nature.” “God has something to do with the excitement of the unknown.” “We need to feel God, not to understand God.” “God is that which is bigger than we are.” “God is goodness.” “God is like an energy which gives love and happiness.” “God for me is more of a direction, an indication of a course, rather than a continent or a destination.” And, of course, “God is love.”
Woo. Deep. Sounds good, but doesn’t tie you down to actually meaning anything.
But that’s only the beginning of what frosted my cookies about this movie. More seriously:
But in virtually none of the answers do we get a reason for why the believers believe — or any evidence or reasons for why they think their beliefs are probably correct.
It’s all, “It’s written.” Or, “I feel it in my heart.” Or just nothing. Just, “This is what I believe,” with zero thought or explanation offered as to why. The epistemology is in the toilet. The closest approximation to an actual “Here’s why I think God exists” reason is a Catholic priest offering the First Cause argument. And he offers it in the most simplistic, half-assed, Theology for Dummies way imaginable: essentially saying, “Well, gee, all this had to come from something, didn’t it?” Any competent atheist could shoot it down in seconds. (“If things don’t just come out of nothing and everything has to have been created, then who created God? And if God always just existed or somehow came into being out of nothing, then why can’t that be true for the universe?” See how I did that?)
And that doesn’t just give the short end of the stick to atheists. It gives the short end to serious believers: believers who genuinely want to question their beliefs in order to better understand them. It’s not just atheists who are going to spend this movie tearing their hair out and screaming, “That’s such bullshit! That’s so vague! That’s so simplistic! Why do you believe that? Does that even make sense?” It’s also the kind of believers who read atheist blogs.
Maybe more to the point: Atheism is presented in this film as just another set of opinions about religion. There’s no exploration of why atheists don’t believe in God: no discussion of the lack of good evidence for religious belief, the positive arguments for atheism, the fact that every piece of “evidence” for religion comes from the insides of people’s heads, etc. You know — the actual reasons atheists are atheists. Atheism is presented as just another unsupported belief about God; just another thread in the great tapestry of human spirituality. (The black thread, I guess.)
Which leads me to what is probably my most serious complaint about this movie:
Nobody in this movie — absolutely nobody — makes a connection between this “We don’t have to prove anything” nature of religion… and the violence and war committed in its name.
A significant portion of this movie is devoted to why there’s so much hatred and conflict perpetrated in the name of religion. The ecumenical purveyors of vague deepities aren’t the only believers represented here. Also well-represented are the fervent believers that their religion, and only their religion, is the right one. The missionary to the African tribe, who’s convinced that every single person who hears about Jesus but doesn’t believe is going to Hell. The Muslim fundamentalist, who thinks that killing homosexuals is a good action in the sight of God. The “spirit-filled born-again Christian” gun seller in Texas, who doesn’t care whether people are Baptist or Methodist or non-denominational or Catholic or Jewish… as long as they believe in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, since he’s the only way. (And who also believes that God wants his followers to be well-armed.) The movie is very willing to be critical of religion when it’s bigoted or hateful or hostile. I’ll give it that.
But it’s almost entirely unwilling to look at the ways that the very nature of religion contributes to this hatred and violence. It pretends to examine the question of why there’s so much conflict in the name religion… but in fact, it totally punts it. It totally fails to connect the dots between how slippery and unverifiable religion is, and how hotly people defend it. There is no mention of the weird psychological paradox that when a belief is unsupported and unsupportable, people will rationalize and attach to it even more passionately… and there’s no mention of how this phenomenon is self-perpetuating, since people get more deeply attached to their beliefs the more they’ve committed to them. The film beats its breast in agony over the violence and war caused by religion… but in a maddening twisting of the brain, it’s entirely unwilling to see religion itself as even part of the cause.
Of course religious wars and hatreds are complex — multi-factorial, as the social scientists say — with lots of causes feeding into them. But to deny the role that religion plays in religious conflicts is a textbook example of ignoring the elephant in the room. It’s like looking at an enormous steaming pile of elephant shit in the room, and going, “My goodness, where could all this elephant shit have come from? It must have been brought here by a greedy, selfish, power-hungry elephant trainer. Elephant? No, I don’t see any elephant here.”
What’s more, the film has an annoying tendency that’s far too common among progressive believers. It happily points the finger of blame at religious extremists, saying, “Those violent believers cherrypick the texts of their faith and ignore their true meaning”… without acknowledging that the peaceful ecumenicalists have no more basis for thinking that their understanding of their religion is the “true” one than anybody else, and are cherrypicking just as badly as the extremists, and are just as willfully blind to the parts of their religion that they don’t personally like. Near the end of the film, the director/ narrator says, “If only we open our hearts to tolerance and peace and love, which is what every single religion preaches…” AAAAAH! No, they don’t! That is just flatly not true! I don’t care how much you want to believe that God is Love — not every single religion preaches that!
Which leads me to my final point.
No, no, no, no, no.
I reject this sentiment with all my being.
It fucking well matters what is real. It matters, probably more than anything. What people believe is interesting and important, sure. But the actual reality of the universe is far more important, and far more interesting, than anything we could make up about it. Pretty much by definition.
And this abdication of the responsibility to understand reality, this utter dismissal of reality in favor of pretty stories and profound-sounding deepities, this casual shrugging off of the question “What is real?” as if it were irrelevant trivia, is probably the thing I find most maddening about religious belief.
No matter how beautifully it’s filmed.
Oh My God. Documentary. Directed by Peter Rodger. Starring Ringo Starr, Hugh Jackman, Bob Geldof, Seal, David Copperfield (I wasn’t kidding about the celebrities), and dozens more. 93 minutes. Rodger Pictures. Unrated. Opens Friday, Nov. 27.
Is the very act of atheist activism (trying to persuade people that atheism is correct and working to change the world into one without religion) an act of attempted conformity? Are atheists trying to create a drab, gray, uniform world, where everyone else is just like them?
It’s probably pretty obvious that I think the answer is a big fat “No!” (Probably said in the Ted Stevens voice.) But it certainly is the case that many atheist activists, myself among them, are working very hard to persuade religious believers out of their beliefs. Not all atheists do this, of course; many have the more modest goals of separation of church and state and religious tolerance, including tolerance of atheists and recognition of us as equal citizens. But a good number of atheists are, in fact, trying to convince religious believers to become atheists. I’m one of them.
And since many believers see this as an intolerant attempt to enforce conformity — particularly believers of the progressive, ecumenical, “all religions perceive God in their own way and we have to respect them all” stripe — I want to take a moment to address it.
Thus begins my new blog post up at AlterNet, Atheism and Diversity: Is It Wrong For Atheists To Convert Believers? In it, I point out that religion is, above all else, a hypothesis about the world — and it’s not intolerant of diversity to try to persuade people that a hypothesis about the world is probably wrong. And I point out that our options for dealing with different religious beliefs aren’t limited to either intolerant evangelism and theocracy, or uncritical ecumenicalism. I point out that atheism is offering a third option: the option of respecting the important freedom of religious belief, while retaining the right to criticize those beliefs, and to treat them just like we’d treat any other idea we think is mistaken.
This is the third in a four-part series about atheism I’m writing for AlterNet. I’ll be reprinting all these pieces here on my own blog eventually; in the meantime, enjoy this one on AlterNet!
Atheists do not hate god, and we are not angry at God. Atheists don’t believe in God. We’re not angry at God, any more than we’re angry at Zeus or leprechauns or any other supernatural entities we don’t believe exist. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.
Atheists are not ungrateful. Most of us are deeply aware of our good fortune, including the astronomical good luck to have been born at all. Our gratitude just doesn’t go to God. It mostly goes to other people: people who have made life better, for us and everyone else. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across. And happy Thanksgiving!
This is the full-length version of the piece I wrote for AlterNet. I had to edit that piece somewhat for length; so I’m posting the full version here.
I’ve argued many times that religion is not only mistaken, but does more harm than good. But why do I think that is?
Sure, I can make a list of specific harms religion has done, from here to Texas. I’ve done exactly that. But that’s not enough to make my case. I could make long lists of harms done by plenty of human institutions: medicine, education, democracy. That doesn’t make them inherently malevolent.
Why is religion special — and specially troubling? What makes religion different from any other ideology, community, system of morality, hypothesis about how the world works? And why does that difference makes it uniquely prone to cause damage?
The debates about religion usually come in two types: “is religion accurate or mistaken,” and “is religion helpful or harmful.” And ever since I put together my best “mistaken” arguments, my Top Ten Reasons I Don’t Believe in God, I’ve been trying to wrap up my “harmful” arguments in a similar nutshell.
But I’m realizing that I don’t have ten arguments for why religion is harmful. I don’t even have 57,842 arguments.
I have one.
I’m realizing that everything I’ve ever written about religion’s harm boils down to one thing.
Religion is ultimately dependent on belief in invisible beings, inaudible voices, intangible entities, undetectable forces, and events and judgments that happen after we die.
It therefore has no reality check.
(I can hear the chorus already. “But not all religion is like that! Not all believers are crazy extremists! Some religions adapt to new evidence and changing social mores! It’s not fair to criticize all religion just because some believers do bad things!” I hear you. I’ll get to that at the end, after I make my case.)
The Proof Is Not in the Pudding
And with that belief, the capacity for religion to do harm gets cranked up to an alarmingly high level — because there’s no reality check.
Any other ideology or philosophy or hypothesis about the world is eventually expected to pony up. It’s expected to prove itself true and/or useful, or else correct itself, or else fall by the wayside. With religion, that is emphatically not the case. Because religion is a belief in the invisible and unknowable — and it’s therefore never expected to prove that it’s right, or even show good evidence for why it’s right — its capacity to do harm can spin into the stratosphere.
But even the most stubborn political ideology will eventually crumble in the face of it, you know, not working. People can only be told for so long that under Communism everyone will eat strawberries and cream, or that in an unrestricted free market the rising tide will lift all boats. A political ideology makes promises about this life, this world. If the strawberries and cream and rising boats aren’t forthcoming, eventually people notice. (The 2008 election was evidence of that.) People can excuse and rationalize a political ideology for a long time… but ultimately, the proof is in the pudding.
Religion is different.
So with religion, even if God’s rules and promises aren’t working out, followers still follow them… because the ultimate judge and judgment are invisible. There is no pudding, no proof — and no expectation that there should be any. And there is therefore no reality check, no self-correction, when religion starts to go to the bad place.
In fact, with many religions, that idea that you should expect to eat the pudding is blasphemy. A major part of many religious doctrines is that trusting the tenets of your faith without evidence is not only acceptable, but a positive virtue. (“Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” -John 20:29)
And religion builds on this armor with layer after layer. Among these insulating layers: The idea that letting go of religious doubts is a liberating act of love. The idea that skepticism and questioning are the same as cynicism, nihilism, and despair. The idea that religion operates in a different realm from the everyday world, and it’s unfair to hold it to normal standards of evidence. The idea that criticizing religion is inherently rude and intolerant. The “Shut up, that’s why” arguments so commonly marshaled against atheists: arguments meant not to address questions about religion, but to silence them. When coupled with the fact that the core belief is by definition unverifiable, these layers armor religion even more effectively against valid questions… thus undermining our ability to see when it’s become comically absurd, or wildly implausible, or grotesquely immoral. Or all three.
I want to give some specific examples of how this armor works. I want to talk about some of the most common — and most harmful — ways that religion causes harm. And I want to show how the invisible, unprovable, “don’t show me the money” nature of religion either causes that harm or makes it worse.
The Armor of God
Inspiring political oppression.
None of this matters to them. What matters is making God’s will happen. In their mind, God created everything that exists… and therefore, God’s will trumps everything.
And since God’s will is invisible, inaudible, and entirely unverifiable, there’s no reality check on this dreadful path. There’s no reality check saying that their actions are having a terrible effect in the world around them. The world around them is, quite literally, irrelevant. The next world is what matters. And since there’s no way to conclusively demonstrate what will and won’t get you a good place in that world, or whether that world even exists… the sky’s the limit. There’s no way to test the assertion that God wants women to wear burqas and have clitoridectomies… or that God wants us to ban same-sex marriage and teach children dangerous lies about sex. The reality check is absent. The brake lines of morality have been cut.
Perpetuating political oppression.
I want to give a specific example of this one. I want to talk about same-sex marriage.
In the United States, when same-sex marriage has been up for popular vote, it has, as of this writing, never, ever won. It has been consistently defeated at the ballot box, even when a well-organized, well-funded campaign has been behind it. It has been consistently defeated at the ballot box — largely because the full force of several organized religions, especially the Catholic and Mormon churches, have been marshaled against it. It has been defeated because these churches have been willing to tell grotesque, shameless lies about the effects of same-sex marriage — from “churches will be forced to perform weddings they oppose” to “kids will be taught explicit gay sex in public school.”
And it has been defeated because the followers of these churches implicitly trust their leaders. When faced with a newspaper editorial saying, “Same-sex marriage won’t affect public education” — and their beloved priest saying, “Same-sex marriage means your children will be taught about gay oral sex in third grade” — they believe their priest.
Even though their priest is lying through his teeth.
And because religion has no reality check, it is extraordinarily difficult to counter its flat-out lies… because ultimately, its claims rest on an unverifiable belief in an invisible God, who has yet to appear on CNN stating his political views. And when you combine this lack of reality check with the unquestioning trust in religious leaders, you have a recipe for religion to have grossly disproportionate power in the political arena. A power that is uniquely armored against questions about what really works to improve life and alleviate suffering and create justice in this world — the questions that politics are supposed to be about.
Succumbing to political oppression.
If people believe they’ll be rewarded with infinite bliss in the afterlife — and there’s no way to prove whether or not that’s true — people will let themselves be martyrs to their faith, to an appalling degree. More commonly, if people believe in infinite bliss in the afterlife, they’ll be more willing to accept an appalling degree of oppression and injustice in this life. From anybody. Oddly, this is often framed as a plus — “Religion gives people hope in hardship” — but I fail to see how encouraging oppressed people to suck it up until they get pie in the sky is a good thing. For the oppressed, anyway. Why it’s good for the oppressors is crystal clear.
Again: Because it’s a belief in invisible beings and events and judgments that happen after people die, religion short-circuits our reality checks. Including the reality check that looks at how we’re being treated and says, “This is bullshit.”
Individual abuses by religious leaders.
The same forces that give religious leaders disproportionate power in politics also give them disproportionate power in personal lives. When people are taught that religious leaders have a unique hotline to God’s morality, they’re more inclined to trust them without question. And that can lead to disaster.
Sexual abuse of children is the most obvious example. Children’s natural tendency to trust and obey adults, a tendency that can be abused by any authority figure, is multiplied a hundredfold when that authority seems to come from God himself.
But it’s not the only example. When the promise of infinite bliss in the next life is held out like a carrot dangled before a donkey’s nose — and there’s no way to know if the carrot is even there — people will let themselves be taken advantage of by religious leaders to an appalling degree.
And even if an individual believer decides, ‘Hey, wait a minute! It isn’t okay that the leader bilked me out of my savings/ used the hospital fund to buy a Bentley/ molested me at age seven”… who’s going to believe them? Religion’s armor against criticism means that even when someone begins to doubt, others in their belief community keep believing. And those others will reject any accusations made against the leader… no matter how credible or supported by evidence. The armor of God doesn’t just make believers vulnerable to religious leaders’ fraud and abuse. It ensures that even if they wise up to that fraud and abuse, their accusations won’t be believed.
Justification for bigotry.
But when bigotry is justified by religion, this reality check gets shot in the foot. When bigotry is justified by the inaudible voice of God — and the very audible voices of people claiming to speak for God — the reality check saying that bigotry isn’t right gets easily drowned out.
Again, because the voice of God is inaudible, and the proof of the pudding is in the afterlife where nobody can see it… well, if it’s God telling you that blacks were condemned by God to serve whites, or that women were designed by God to defer to men, or that homosexuals have abandoned morality and defied God’s will, who are you to say it isn’t true? Sure, you have the reality of good gays and independent women and brilliant black people with outstanding leadership skills… but balance that against the word of the creator of the universe, and what’s going to win?
Especially when it’s a bigotry you’re already inclined to believe, and one that works in your favor? When bigotry is justified by the untestable voice of religious faith, what chance does inconvenient reality have?
Justification for violence and war.
But more so.
In the same way that religion drowns out the reality check saying that bigotry and oppression is wrong, it drowns out the reality check saying that hurting and killing people is wrong.
And the untestable belief in the afterlife is the biggest obstacle to this reality check. If you believe in a perfect eternal afterlife… then who cares about pain and death in this world? Compared with the eternal bliss/ torture of Heaven or Hell, pain and death in this world is a stubbed toe. Isn’t carrying out God’s will more important than a stubbed toe?
Kill them all. Let God sort it out.
Vulnerability to fraud.
Not just from religious figures. Not just from phony faith healers and prosperity gospel preachers and authors of bestselling psychic self-help books. (Although them, too.)
From everybody. From every Ponzi schemer and Nigerian email scammer and shady purveyor of Florida real estate.
When people are taught to let go of difficult questions and trust whatever religious authorities tell them; that it’s better to trust their feelings than their critical thinking skills; that evidence and reason are less important than faith; that “doubter” is a synonym for “sinner”… they become vulnerable to every cheater, chiseler, swindler, con artist, and late night infomercial huckster who’s lucky enough to cross their gullible paths. The idea that belief without evidence is a virtue doesn’t just inspire people to trust their religious leaders blindly. It inspires people to trust anybody blindly. Including people who are trying to rob them blind.
Quashing science and education.
Not just in a general, “making people value science and education less” way — but in specific, practical, harmful ways? Hamstringing stem cell research? Forcing abstinence-only sex education on kids? Teaching creationism in public schools?
When religion teaches that believing in the invisible is more important than understanding the perceivable… that personal faith is more important than critical thinking… that letting go of questions is a liberating act of love and trust… that believing things with no evidence is not only okay but a positive virtue… that unfalsifiable hypotheses are just ducky… that what God supposedly says about the world is more real what’s in the world itself…
Do I need to explain this any further? Do I need to explain how the “Facts take a back seat to faith” trope hammers science and education into the ground?
Quashing medicine and public health.
Religion, and its unverifiability, actively promotes the idea that the invisible afterlife is more important than the life we know exists. And therefore, it promotes the idea that even if a medical treatment or health policy would lead to less disease and death, it doesn’t matter. Even though condom help prevent the spread of AIDS, even though immunizing girls against genital warts helps prevent cervical cancer, even though stem cell research could lead to great advances in medicine… it doesn’t matter. What matters isn’t disease and death in this life. What matters is the next life. What matters is God’s will.
Which, again, we have no way of verifying. And which therefore, by the horrible freakish paradox of the armor of God, gets priority.
If we prioritized this life, we would never terrorize children by telling them they’ll be tortured in fire forever if they don’t obey our rules. We would never tell them to imagine putting their hands in a fire, to imagine the crackling and burning and screaming pain… and then to imagine doing that for a minute. An hour. A day. A lifetime. Eternity.
Not unless we were horribly abusive.
But when people think the next life is more important than this one — when people think the infinite burning and torture is really going to happen if their children don’t obey God’s word — they’ll gladly give their children nightmarish visions of pain and torture, dispensed by the Fatherly God who supposedly created them and loves them. They’ll do it without a second thought. When people prioritize their belief in an afterlife that, by definition, is impossible to prove or disprove, they effectively cut the reality check begging them to not terrorize and emotionally abuse their own children.
Teaching children about hell is child abuse. Nothing but the unverifiable promise of permanent bliss or torture in the afterlife would make loving, decent, non-abusive parents inflict it on their children.
I could go on, and on, and on. But I think you get the idea.
Yes, Even Moderate Religion Still Does Harm
Many believers will argue that the harm done by religion isn’t religion’s fault. Many will point out all the wars, bigotry, fraud, oppression, quashing of science and medicine, and terrorizing of children done for reasons other than religion. And many will argue that, even when this stuff is done in the name of religion, it isn’t really inspired by religion at all. It’s inspired by greed, fear, selfishness, the hunger for power, the desire for control… all the things that lead people to do evil.
And they’ll have a point. I’m not saying that religion is the root of all evil. I’m not arguing that a world without religion would be a blissful Utopia where everyone holds hands and chocolate flows in the streets. (And then we all die, because the chocolate is drowning us and we can’t swim because we’re holding hands.) I don’t know of any atheist who’d argue that. I know that the impulses driving evil are deeply rooted in human nature, and religion is far from the only thing to inspire it.
Yes — even moderate religion. Not to nearly the same degree as extreme religion, of course. If all religion were moderate, ecumenical, separate from government, supportive of science, and accepting of non-belief… well, atheists would still disagree with it, but most of us wouldn’t much care.
But moderate religion still does harm. It still encourages people to believe in invisible beings, inaudible voices, intangible entities, undetectable forces, and events and judgments that happen after we die. And therefore, it still disables reality checks… making people more vulnerable to oppression, fraud, and abuse.
What’s more, moderate religion is in the minority. The oppressive, intolerant, reality-denying forms of religion are far more common, and far better at perpetuating themselves. And moderate religion gives these ugly forms credibility. It gives credibility to the idea that believing in things there’s no reason to believe is valid, and actually virtuous. It gives credibility to the idea that invisible worlds are real, more real and important than the visible one. It gives credibility to the idea that our seriously biased personal intuition is more trustworthy than logic or verifiable evidence. It gives credibility to the idea that religious beliefs, alone among all other ideas, should be beyond criticism; that the very act of questioning religion is inherently intolerant. (It also, I’ve found, has a distinct tendency to get hostile and decidedly un-moderate towards non-believers when questioned even a little.)
We don’t need religion to have any of these things.
And we’d be better off without it.
Two bottles of something cold and two shots with the beer — rear booth. No words. Not at first. Then, “Your father drank boilermakers.”
“He could put them away.” Parker fingered the lighter in his pocket. He could feel the belt around his waist. So when Clint touched the buckle under the table, he shivered.
To read more, read the rest of the story. (Not for anyone under 18.) Enjoy!
Atheists are not atheists because we want to be free of the restrictions of religion. We are just as moral as religious believers, and our codes of ethics are just as serious. And in any case, religion clearly doesn’t make a reliable foundation for restricting unethical behavior. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.
If it’s okay to say, “Your belief that the Sun orbits the Earth isn’t consistent with the evidence,” why isn’t it okay to say, “Your belief that consciousness is animated by an immaterial soul isn’t consistent with the evidence”? If the first is a valid criticism of an untenable hypothesis, why is the second disrespectful religious bigotry? Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.
There are atheists in foxholes. There are atheist soldiers, atheist police officers, atheist firefighters. Danger and impending death do not automatically make atheists convert to religious belief. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.