Thursday, February 17, 2011

THE EMPTY BOX and THE ACCIDENTAL VOICE: What the words of a nonbeliever can do

I wrote the original version of the following essay in 2002, as a column for the web site of The Memphis Flyer, an alternative weekly newspaper. Back then the web site probably had fewer than 1,000 readers. The response to the essay stunned me. After you read this, you can read what happened after it was first published.

It has to be said: Religion is a dangerous thing

           Religion is the root of much evil.
        It has to be said.
        Here is what I believe: There is no god, there is no messiah, there are no prophets plugged in to some divine will. There are no saints or holy men. If there is a heaven or a hell or any other kind of afterlife, we can’t know anything about it while we’re in this life, so it’s useless to speculate and foolish to believe. Faith is an empty box. To believe in Christ's divinity is to believe in a rabbit’s foot. To believe in the Buddha's enlightenment is to believe that pro wrestling is real. To believe in Mohammed's pipeline to a god is to believe that the groundhog can predict spring. To believe that the Ten Commandments came from some deity on a mountaintop is to believe that television psychics can talk to your dead grandmother. Allah, Jehovah and the Trinity are elves and Tinkerbells. They are no more than desperate hope given a name and anthropomorphic shape by the imaginations of frightened human beings.
        It has to be said.
        Religion is superstition. It is mankind crossing its fingers. Its sole functions are 1) to comfort and console those who cannot bear the suffering and death that are ultimately the lot of every human being, and 2) to offer meaning in a world where meaning can never be established. Religion, in other words, is a fortress of lies built to keep out the terrors of existence and nonexistence. For those in power, it is useful in still another way: Since time immemorial, the powerful have used religion to distract the oppressed, to encourage them to focus on the next world so that they will acquiesce to the injustices of this world. If you would have your slaves remain docile, teach them hymns.
        This is not saying anything new, but it has to be said again.
        On balance, religion has made the world a worse place. It has generated magnificent art and wonderful music and spectacular architecture, and millions of people have, over the centuries, done good and beautiful things in its name, but on balance it has not been good for the world. Those millions of good people would have done just as much good without it. Mother Teresa would have been saintly without the New Testament. Martin Luther King would have been a paragon of eloquent courage without having been baptized. Gandhi would have overturned an empire leaning only on his walking stick. Virtue would exist without Christianity or Judaism or Islam or Hinduism, which, in their vanity and vaporishness, are no different from the Roman’s belief in household gods or the Druid’s belief in tree spirits. A magic act is a magic act, whatever robes we clothe it in. But because of religions like these, the world has experienced centuries and centuries of backwardness and unnecessary suffering. Throats have been slit in their name, hearts exploded, the best minds distracted or destroyed, sweet people tortured, millions of children sent horribly to oblivion.
        It has to be said.
        Today is a good day to say it. Perhaps the worst of religion’s dangerous superstitions is the notion of  the “holy” place. The idea that this patch of earth or that building or that city or nation is somehow sanctified by some god has left us with the bombs and guns and bodies of Kashmir and Belfast, of Baghdad and Jerusalem. “Next year in Jerusalem.” Oh, the lives such words have cost! Why not “Next year in Memphis” or “Next year in Singapore” or “Next year on the banks of the Platte”? What is land but land? What is a building but a building?
       There are wars enough when what is “holy” is not part of the picture. Communism and fascism and capitalism and totalitarianism in all its many guises would have had their wars even with all gods standing on the sidelines. There are land wars and economic wars and grudge wars and wars for no reason that anyone can understand at all. But religious wars are the most tragic, because they are built so deeply on a deluded sense of righteousness. Have nonbelievers started wars? Of course. They have started wars for land or politics or pure villainy. But I don’t know of a single nonbeliever who has killed simply to make others stop believing. (Stalin, you would say? Mao? No, they killed for power.) On the other hand, the world has thousands, millions, who will kill, and have killed, in order to make someone else believe as they believe.
         You won’t read this in The New York Times, but it has to be said: Religion does more harm than good. I wish our politicians in Washington would stop talking to, or about, their god. I wish the Near and Middle East would suddenly be flooded by a sea of atheism. I wish Northern Ireland and the Balkans would overnight experience mass religious amnesia. How much more at peace the world would be.
          A man truly awake does not need religion. He doesn’t need gods. He doesn’t need miracles. He doesn’t need holy lands here below or heavens up above. For him, life in this universe is itself holy, as is every patch of ground and every path he walks. Life itself is enough of a miracle. To believe in a god who made this life is to believe in a miracle even greater than this miracle. Who needs more than one unfathomable miracle? Existence is a fluke, a freak, a wonder, a dream, a bizarre uncanny thing. Our own consciousness of this existence is so incredible a phenomenon that I don’t understand why anyone feels the need to believe in anything else more “spiritual.” It’s all spiritual. It’s all true magic. Why add imagined magic to explain the magic that is right before us?
         Religion is dangerous. It needs to be said, and no one is saying it, except on the nonbelievers’ web sites and in their magazines, where they speak only to each other. Our politicians won’t say it. Our commentators won’t say it. The power of self-censorship in this God-fearing country is too strong, freedom of speech be damned. I can say it here only because this audience is so small, and I have little to risk. (Will fifty of you read this? Will 500? I have no business you can boycott. I have no office you can vote me out of. All I can lose is my job.)
         Nearly all my friends are believers. Nearly all of those I love are believers. Most of them are generous and kind, and their religion gives them hope and comfort and pleasant society. Last night, I went to a Passover seder at the home of Jewish friends. They are wonderful people. It was a lovely evening. My own widowed mother was sustained after my father’s death by the amazing kindness of the women in her church. Yes, I have seen many good works born in synagogues, mosques, and church pews. But the nonbelievers I know are just as kind, just as loving, just as hopeful, and they have given just as much comfort to those in need.
         And I too hope. I hope, for example, that I will see my dead parents and my dead brother and my dead friends in some next life, and that we will all be free from worry and pain forever. But it’s just hope, and it’s awake and open-eyed. It’s not faith, which is sleepy and blind. I don’t depend on my hope, and I wouldn’t base my living actions on it. It’s a hope that does not grow out of dogma, and I would never try to impose my hope on someone else. Pure hope never yet has led to war. The same cannot be said of dogma. If I were to found a religion, I would call it “The Church of the Hopeful Few.” Hope would be its only doctrine, and I think it would be a peaceful church.
         I know it does little good to tell believers that they should stop believing. I don’t really care if they believe, as long as they remain in their closets when they pray, and leave their gods there when they emerge. Their self-delusion saddens me a bit, but it is usually harmless. When it does harm is when it drives them against the self-delusion of those who believe otherwise. Then is the time of enmity and war.
         If our representatives in Washington must believe, then, let them believe. But let them remember that the White House is not a cathedral, and that the capitol building is a place of men, not gods.
So remarkable was the response to the essay above that a month later I was compelled to write the following:

How I learned that an unpopular opinion can speak for multitudes
     I recently declared in this space that I don’t believe in any god, messiah, prophet, or afterlife. I further declared that I believe religion does more harm than good, and that presidents, prime ministers, and judges who promote religious ideas are dangerous to the world at large. Religion, I asserted, maims, tortures, kills and demoralizes. Religion is the root of much evil, I wrote, and it should be kept out of government. 
     I had hoped that my Declaration of Disbelief would be read by the fundamentalists and evangelicals in Memphis and maybe elsewhere. I had hoped to push the preachers, smug as they are, up against a wall of questions and into the rare position of having to defend their beliefs against two-fisted skepticism. I had expected—let’s be honest, I had even hoped for—angry emails from the Bible-thumpers consigning me to hell for denying God.
     But that’s not what happened. The audience I had wanted to reach simply ignored me. I received only one email consigning me to hell and telling me I’d better start praying to Jesus today if I want to save my soul. Either the old-time religionists were cowed by the brilliance of my arguments or they never read what I wrote. I don’t think they were cowed.
     Instead of hate mail, though, I began receiving something else: hundreds upon hundreds of emails praising me for what I had written! I got emails not just from Memphis, but from almost every state in the union, not to mention Canada, Brazil, England and Scotland. Somehow my column had made its way through the Internet to sites with names like “Internet Infidels,” “Atheist Parents,” “The Secular Web” “The Heathen Handbook,” “Freedom from Religion” and “The Freethinkers Forum.” Thousands of nonbelievers were reading my little screed, drinking it in, they said, as if it were the purest spring water, and many of them felt compelled to write to me. Their emails contained the same message over and over: “Thank you for saying what needed to be said.” “You are so brave to write what you wrote.” “You have written what I have always believed and could never say.” “I’m sending your column to everyone I know.” “May I reprint your column for our local atheist group?” “I wish I could speak out as you have.” “When I told my [family/friends/coworkers] that I didn’t believe in God, I was [ostracized/cursed/ fired]. I admire your courage.” “I hope you don’t lose your job for writing what you wrote.” “I hope our support will serve as a small antidote to those heaps of ignorant derision you’ll get from the church-goers."
     This has been an experience both heartening and discouraging. I had failed to reach the knee-jerk believers I wanted to challenge, which was disappointing. But I had somehow succeeded in speaking for thousands of nonbelievers who are desperate for a public voice, which was rewarding. Yet in a way, that very success was also disheartening. Why didn’t those thousands of nonbelievers feel they had a voice of their own? What does it say about America today that, in a supposedly secular nation, there are millions of people who are afraid to say that they don’t believe in any god or in any life after death? What does it say that they can’t speak out lest their families and friends disown them?
     It says, I think, that the tyranny of the majority, as de Toqueville called it, is still a mighty restraint on free speech in this supposedly free society.
     I’ve learned some lessons from all this:
     I’ve learned that sometimes it doesn’t matter if you miss the audience you’re trying to reach. Sometimes all that matters is that you declare what you believe, as honestly and articulately as you can, because you might find another audience that needs to hear what you have to say.
     I’ve learned that when you speak frankly for yourself, you almost inevitably speak for thousands of others who need a voice.
     I’ve learned that even if you can’t change the world--just as I can’t unelect a governor who blurs the distinction between church and state--it is useful to express your opinion, if only to give a sense of community to the like-minded who think they’re alone.
     I’ve learned that if you would find alternative ideas, you would do best to look in alternative media, like the Internet and the weekly newspapers.
     I’ve learned that strangers will worry about you (“I hope you don’t lose your job”) and wish you well just because they like your words.
     I’ve learned that what’s compulsion for one person is courage for another. It took no bravery for me to write what I wrote; I’m driven to write what I believe, come what may. But I understand better now the strength it takes for others to express unpopular opinions when job, family, friendship, or simple social acceptance is on the line.
     And I’ve been reminded once more that such strength is the muscle of democracy.
     So whoever you are, whatever your opinions, I hope that you think hard, stake out your corner, then climb your platform in the bright light of full noon and shout your policies to anyone who stops to listen. So what if you’re greeted with catcalls and rotten fruit? If you believe that France was right and the U.S. was wrong about starting a war in Iraq, say so aloud, though the mass of jingoists call you traitor. If you believe that the rich should be made to share more with the poor, and not vice versa, let everybody know it, though bleeding-heart liberals may be out of fashion this year. And if you have no god, proclaim your godlessness to the world, though you fear the mob will damn you forever to hell.
     Speak out, speak out, speak out. With the world as it is, silence is a sin.


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