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Tuesday, 19 October 2010

REFLECTIONS: On Atheism

SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the twice-monthly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. His other column, Gray Matters, formerly published in Newsday, appears each Saturday.


Category_bug_reflections Most of us have been taught to stay away from discussing politics and religion so as not to disturb the dinner guests. Well, as most of you know, I’ve been covering politics for so long I can barely discuss anything else.

And the freedom TGB gives me in writing these little essays compels me to confess that I do not recall when it was that I came out of the closet. That’s when I acknowledged that I’m an atheist, that I do not believe there is a God.

In fact, I don’t know why I capitalized the “G.” Although it may be blasphemous, I have had a bumper sticker that says, “I believe in Dog.” That’s because I have a love affair with my two Corgies and I generally have a higher regard for animals than many of the humans I’ve covered in high positions. I have wondered if the Bibles got it wrong and meant to spell it “Dog.”

Seriously, coming out of the closet happened slowly. At first I suppose I was an agnostic, telling myself and others that there may be a higher power, that I could not define, for all things alive have in common a compulsion to live, survive and grow.

Where does that come from? I didn’t know. I studied philosophy in university and read Aquinas’ proofs for the existence of god and understood Aristotle’s idea of the “prime” or “unmoved mover.”

I did not know whether or not I believed in the god that hung around guiding our lives. But I could not bring myself to believe in a personal being who played magic tricks like George Burns. If man was made in his image, what must he look like? Or she?

I am told by friends that something or some one must have caused the “big bang” and that somebody or some thing or power had to be there to start things off in evolution. But I can’t even imagine that possibility. Some giant hand cranking the universe into motion?

I remember arguing in a philosophy class that if the universe was infinite, why did it have to have a beginning? I did not know, and neither does anyone else. But that was an agnostic copout. Now I know. As Stephen Hawking now asserts, if there was a beginning, there is an explanation that did not need a god.

But isn’t the spirituality that we all feel evidence of god? Experiencing the sublime is spiritual, but it’s no proof of a god. All of us have experienced spiritual moments when we wonder what moves us to think, probe and overcome. Music moves me. Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” is spiritual and beautiful. Beethoven’s Ode to Joy can make me cry.

All men are brothers came from the Judaic concept that there is but one god. I am a Jew who takes pride in that heritage. But I cannot believe that god, looking like Charlton Heston’s Moses, exists.

It is true that there is some sort of order in our universe; we can predict the movements in the solar system. But there is also chaos (see Haiti). Our bodies, the results of millions of years of evolution, are indeed wondrous, but they tend to get sick and even die from little bugs and terrible afflictions.

The believers’ god works in strange and mysterious ways, but what sort of omnipotent, omniscient god tolerates a child with terminal leukemia or the holocaust of six million “chosen people” or the genocides in Bosnia and the Congo and the Sudan?

Believers praise god for sparing them from the tornado’s wrath (as if the tornado was anthropomorphic), but do they blame god for the deaths of those who were not spared?

But I have digressed. I have been comforted in coming out as an atheist by the September 28 Pew Research Center’s survey of religious knowledge in the U.S. It turns out that atheists or agnostics scored highest on a test consisting of questions about various religions. I should note here that 95 percent of Americans believe in god; just five percent of us are nonbelievers.

Jews and Mormons came in a close second or third. Indeed, the most observant or fundamentalist among us tended to know the least.

Half the respondents did not know that Martin Luther inspired the Protestant reformation or that the Golden Rule (“Do unto others...”) is not one of the Ten Commandments. Atheists/agnostics knew most about religion, the survey concluded, because they tend to have more education.

I would add that atheists are unencumbered by dogma. Atheists generally are more free to think of things that no one had thought of.

Copernicus, Galileo, Darwin and Einstein broke free from god and religion and some suffered for it. Only recently has the Catholic Church recognized that the earth revolves around the sun; and Judaism forgave the philosopher Spinoza, who was excommunicated from the Jewish community in Amsterdam because he believed that god was everywhere in nature; indeed god was nature and vice versa.

I should point out here that I draw a distinction – a sharp one at that – between those who worship and hope there is a god, and organized religion. That’s because the average believer in god stands in awe of the possibility there is a supreme being that he or she cannot know or fathom. But most organized religions have the temerity to define, limit and tell us what god thinks, and which country he/she will bless in war.

Organized religions, on a personal level, use books written eons ago by uneducated (by our standards), mostly superstitious and primitive minds to tell us how to behave. And as we know, some people believe these are literal truths.

I can’t quarrel with the Ten Commandments, but they are honored in the breach - that is, they are broken so often by god-fearing men and women, they are not to be taken seriously.

If they were truly observed as the bibles and koran admonish, The New York Times' Nicholas Kristoff told us in his own test of religious knowledge that the Old Testament stipulates that a girl who does not bleed on her wedding night should be stoned to death. Kristoff notes that Jesus made no comment on homosexuality, but the Old Testament says, “if a man also lies with mankind as he lieth with a woman” both shall be put to death.

All this is silly and outdated for most of us, even those who believe in god. But about 20-25 percent who are fundamentalist Christians and ultra-orthodox Jews and Muslims believe their scriptures are literally true and the word of god. But, alas, they also believe literally that non-believers are infidels and therefore a threat. And if there is no wall of separation between the religion and the state, then a threat against the religion becomes a threat against the state.

When I visited Israel as a journalist with U.S. secretaries of state who were there for the first time, Israeli officials took us on a tour of Yad Vashem, the somber and heart-wrenching memorial to the holocaust that cost the lives of six million Jews, not to mention Gypsies, Russians, Poles and anti-Nazi Germans.

In Damascus, we were taken to the Mosque where Saladin is buried and there we learned that the crusaders who came from England were not the heroes of Christendom who we studied in school or saw in romantic movies, but bloodthirsty rapists and conquerors wielding the cross as a reason to slaughter Muslims and Jews.

Saladin, a moderate and even chivalrous ruler who treated his captives well, at last defeated the Third Crusade in the 12th century. But the memory of the crusades among Muslims lingers and has been seen in the reaction to American aggression in the Middle East.

Indeed, as I think on it, much of my reporting has been about religious-based conflicts:

Between Hindus and Muslims in India and Pakistan

The semi-secular state of Afghanistan and the Taliban, which would resurrect the 10th century

The Shiites of Iran and the Sunnis of Iraq

Israel and its Muslim neighbors, some of them secular like the Palestinians, some deeply religious like Hamas

The Protestants and Catholics of Northern Ireland

The Serbian war against Bosnia pitted Catholics against Muslims

Hitler was Catholic, raised in an anti-Semitic environment

Stalin was raised in the Russian Orthodox tradition and he attended seminary, from which he was expelled, in backward Georgia.

It seems the more devout the religion, the more violent its actions against its perceived enemies. Kristoff points out that using suicide vests and women for terror bombings began not with the Jihadists, but with the Tamil Hindus in Sri Lanka.

I think it can be said that more people have been killed or subjugated in the name of an organized religion than in the name of atheism.

When the state religion or church has been attacked, the motives of the opposition were generally political as when Henry VIII and his daughter Elizabeth replaced the Catholic Church with the Church of England, and when the Bolsheviks, who overthrew the Czar and all but outlawed the Russian Orthodox Church that supported the monarchy.

Similarly, the reactionary and corrupt Catholic Church in Latin America became a target of revolutionaries. Wasn’t the attack on the World Trade Center and the deaths of thousands a religion-based initiative?

I do not believe, however, that any nation has gone to war or committed atrocities in the name of atheism.

Yet even now, in this country, the legal wall of separation between church and state is hacked at by religionists who hold atheism almost a crime. We are told by the rabid right that liberals and other nonbelievers are trying to kill Christmas, as if the merchandisers have no responsibility.

These Christian fundamentalists, the American Taliban, would figuratively stone the homosexual or the kill the doctor who performs abortions. One Pew poll in 2006 found that more than 40 percent of Americans don’t believe in evolution and that included prominent Republicans running for president two years ago.

These fundamentalists, according to the poll, deny the science that tells us the earth is millions of years old. In lockstep with the Republican Party, they deny climate change and man’s role in global warming. I suppose god has decided to kill the polar bears.

So it was a comfort to see that I had admirable company when I came out as an atheist: Woody Allen, Kurt Vonnegut, Richard Dawkins, Katharine Hepburn, Warren Buffett, Salman Rushdie, Diane Keaton, Bill Gates, Gene Roddenberry, among dozens of celebrities whom you can find at Celebrity Atheist List.

Finally, there are many quotes from prominent writers artists and statesmen proclaiming their atheism, but my favorite came recently from the great novelist Philip Roth during an interview on CBS’s Sunday Morning. Roth, who grew up in New Jersey, said, “I don’t have a religious bone in my body.”

“So do you feel like there’s a god out there?” he was asked.

“I’m afraid there isn’t, no...When the whole world doesn’t believe in god, it’ll be a great place.”


At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Ralph Lymburner: Munjoy Hill


Posted by Ronni Bennett at 05:31 AM | Permalink | Email this post

Comments

A lot of today's self-styled "conservatives" seem to think that any belief is valid if you can work up some ardor for it. By this reasoning (if we can call it that) evolution, global warming, the natural occurrence GLBT people, etc., can all be summarily dismissed by anyone who decides not to believe in them.

In terms of religion, I have to say I'm with you all the way, although, like you, I've been hesitant to admit it for much of my life. I guess I was a contrary child, however, because the first time I heard the story of Abraham and Isaac it scared me to death. As a child, I looked at the story from Isaac's point of view. His father was suddenly trying to kill him! After that, Isaac could ignore all that gauzy God talk so long as he NEVER turned his back on the old man again. In fact, not turning your back on the old man seemed to me to be the point of the story. This view, as I recall, was not well-received in Sunday school.

I actually stopped going to church/Sunday School when I was age 10. I asked too many "awkward" questions and was always told, "We're not supposed to know that." Even at that age, I knew there was something downright wrong with that answer.

I live in the Deep South, and while I am not religious/spiritual, I keep my views to myself. Fanatical religious folks here can get very "unchristian" is you question their beliefs. I have to say our area has massively huge churches taking whole blocks, with more being built all the time. I just wish churches could be taxed, even at a small percentage of the regular rate -- they stick their noses into everything, dictating how members vote, so they should pay taxes IMO.


Thank you for a courageous post, Saul. I have come to the same conclusions that you have and know that when I die that's it. There is no hereafter.

The worst wars and atrocities have all been, and are being, waged in the name of some religion. What kind of justification is that for believing?

Being an athiest is hard in this country of believers. It is especially hard when some of your relatives are fundamentalists with minds tightly closed to logic.

Thanks for a thoughtful piece, Saul. I never fully came out as an aetheist until my mother died.

I don't find being an aetheist hard, but it is sometimes hard to keep my mouth shut among religious zealots.

I don't believe or disbelieve in god but what I do believe is that if there is a spiritual power behind all of this, if there is some kind of life for the spirit after death, it's not as it's taught in any religion. Religion is man's attempt to make sense of it all and it usually is to gain power for a certain group. I have come to be very intolerant of all religions although if they don't try to push their ways onto me, I handle it better.

I took that test and actually have two blogs set to go on this topic. one fraud in religion and that one comes first and then the results when I took the test. Even more coincidentally, my political blog today is on religion and politics. I tend to agree with the quote that we'd be better off on this planet without these man made religions who often kill others to show how religious they are. (It doesn't help my tolerance that right now I am reading 'American Taliban' by Markos Moulitsas about the growth of this political christian type religion in our country today.)

Buddhism is nontheistic. It does not posit the existence of a creator God, but it is certainly spiritual. I embrace the notion that consciousness continues after death, and that human life is a process of refinement and spiritual evolution. As a Buddhist for over 30 years, Tolerance is an important part of Buddhist practice. Even so, I find it challenging to be in a country with such large contingents of wacky religious fanatics and atheists, and an era that is so relentlessly reductionist and materially-oriented.

well you get the general drift, even though my earlier comment is a bit disjointed cause i didn't really edit it very carefully. thanks for the post.

I do wish that there was some way for Philip Roth and yourself to experience first hand how great this world would actually be if there was no god or religion. I'm sorry ... but I cannot agree with you or him. I fear that mankind without any restrictions or fear of being punished for the evil deeds men so freely commit, would be a creature no one could abide. Could you paint us a verbal picture of what your godless world's civilizations or cultures might look like? Are there laws at all? Upon what would they be based? Is the golden rule all that the human race needs to have a peaceful relationship with all others around them? Just a few questions I would like answers for.

Cluck cluck. This is my chicken sound. I just now got up enough nerve to talk about gay rights on my blog. I'm not touching this one!

I can't answer for Saul, Clarence, but it is pretty evident to me that religion isn't why people treat each other badly or well. Too many 'believers' commit atrocities. It's taught by parenting and community through loving behavior that works to make life better.

I see such behavior taught in our sheep and cattle. They have ways that work for the herd, and they teach that to the young without any religion behind it. Religion, especially one that teaches forgiveness just for asking, doesn't really demand people behave properly toward others (especially since many only expect someone to behave that way toward fellow believers not heathens).

I think if men expected what they do is what will make life good or bad and no promise of hell or heaven for either, that has more of a shot at teaching behavior that works for this earth. Fear of hell won't do it as all the 'believer' has to do is ask forgiveness and it's done away with even if earthly consequences still linger. I have never believed fear is a very good way of teaching quality living for the religious or irreligious.

It's great to hear from another open atheist. I was raised Catholic, but grew to doubt their ridiculous dogma by the time I was in my early teens.

To keep the peace at home I kept up the pretense until I left at 18, else my parents would have made life hell on earth. By my early twenties I'd moved from agnostic to atheist, and there I've stayed with nary a quiver of doubt.

I don't make a public issue of my non-belief, don't agitate on its behalf, but I'm completely open about it should the subject come up. I'm with you all the way on the evil perpetuated in the name of this or that religious dogma.

People like to point out that the USSR was atheist (they often equate atheist with communist), as though that by definition makes atheists suspect. But what about the established religions that have and do back dictatorial regimes? Apparently that's OK. Oh, unless they're Muslim.

Being part of what is apparently a small minority (though I do wonder how many are closeted), I generally keep my mouth shut, just cringe inwardly at the ostentatious displays of supposed piety by every politician, the pledge of allegiance at public meetings, the words stamped on our currency, and so forth.

Even the inauguration of our current president was hard to bear, with its back-to-back invocations by ministers of every stripe, the constant references to god. At least this president has on occasion included atheists in his comments about right to belief.

Oh yeah, I did very well on the test of religious knowledge. And Clarence, I don't require fear of a god's punishment to behave decently to my fellow humans.

I grew up Roman Catholic--if you questioned God's existance, you went to hell. That didn't stop me, but it worried me and, from the time I was sixteen, I studied religion from several view points including philosophy, history, and psychology. It is after all a rather important question.

Later, I studied biology--I wanted to understand life at the molecular level--rather than through a "leap of faith." Now I work in the Biology Department of a large University. If you walked up and down the halls interviewing the Ph.D's who work here, you would find that the great majority are non believers. So now I'm in my comfort zone, as far as religion is concerned. The only Christians I know these days are Chinese immigrants.

Clarence--Just google "Evolution and Morality." There are many thoughtful people who believe that morality has evolved because it is a benefit to mankind.

Thanks Saul for revealing yourself as an atheist. I certainly don't believe in a god. The idea of an all knowing god or person seems ludicrous to me. Nature provides my spirituality. To me religions are just a form of social engineering. And given the present environmental situation -- guess who is really in control.-- barbara

Thanks Saul for baring your 'soul'. I too came out after wrestling for years.

It was recognizing what a mind control book the catechism was. Always something small that can tip one over the edge.

And it is always the religious 'leaders' who are the hatemongers and shamers.

I live to see the day they no longer infest our governments.

XO
WWW

Although I deeply agree with and honor this post, in the face of the great beauty and complexity of the universe, the goodness of many people I encounter AND the relentless evil we witness, I hold open the possibility of some "mystery" we do not image.

Karen Armstrong, "The Force" behind the Charter for Compassion (google it if you're not familiar with it) has written a number of books on the world's religions as well two autobiographical works. This has provided me with an opportunity to follow her progress from her early days as nun in a Roman Catholic convent, to almost militant atheism and finally quite recently to a position of unattached deism. She has stated clearly in a recent work that she can no longer deny the possibility, perhaps the probability of the existence of a divine force in the universe but she would be hard-pressed to even attempt to describe its form or works.
We really can't describe god and attempts to do so are presumptuous and absurd. I share Ms. Armstrong's beliefs as well as her background. When I read her "credo" I found my eyes filled with tears - I had finally found someone who shared my beliefs.
Namaste!
Translation:" I salute the divine spirit that is within you and me" (from the ancient Sanskrit)

Absolutely one of your very best posts, Saul, and that's saying a lot since they're all excellent. I, too, have finally started coming out of the closet on the subject of religion. I think I've been leaning towards atheism for a long time. Perhaps with age one becomes less hesitant to offend or express what seems to be such a seriously controversial opinion.

The wingnuts of the Far Right and the tea party have actually helped me to come out with my decision, and I'm sure that's not the result they're hoping for. Hooray, I say! Three cheers for you and our fellow atheists.

After I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, I essentially began to say goodbye to all friends and family. I began the initial stages of emotional death by going through denial, bargaining, then acceptance. But what surprised me the most, was that any shred of spirituality left me in the process. - quite unexpected. The daily walks past the children's wing after surgery then chemo, further crystallized my lack of belief. I no longer fear death, but feel an abandonment of life's purpose - perhaps that is why we invented religion. I now feel reborn into an examined life and feel blessed by cancer. I am coming to terms with the reality that there are no real answers. Thanks for your thoughtful piece.

Count me among your kindred, Saul. Raised Catholic, it took me until the forced reflection of a divorce and the hypocrisy of the Church's easy annulment policy to leave it. I subsequently found Unitarian Universalists, a caring community where I'm free to be atheist -- or not, and where I find like minded intelligent friends for mutual support. It's an organized religion (don't laugh), but without dogma.

I "came out" to my fundamentalist 7 year old grandson in front of all his family when he surprised me with THE QUESTION: "Grandma, do you believe in god?" I had to be honest and say "no". I know I'm heavily prayed for daily in that household. If I could pray for them it would be for minds to open and brains to question.

I stopped believing as a teenager. I was one of those"hippiecommiequeer" kids and I just did not see the point.

Over the years I looked at Buddhism and Wicca and all that.

In the end I settled for no god but the Gaia principle of science and the enormity of the universe.

The whole idea of god seems to me to be like Santa Claus for adults and I stopped believing in Santa when I was 6 or 7.

I think religious belief is like a sludge that gums up the brain, making rational thought impossible.
But that's just me.

It would be helpful for more atheists to come out. Many non-believers are afraid to express their opinions publicly because of the intolerance of religious people (I think we stir up their doubts). There are far many more of us than the polls indicate.

thank you, Saul. Excellent post.

I wonder where athiests would be without formal religion? When I think about it there is a nn oppozitional relationship between the 2

THANK YOU! One of the better blogs about so-called "religions". And because of the centuries of hypocrisy so blatantly practiced by organized religions, both on the whole and by their members individually, I became more of an Agnostic than Atheist at a very young age. Love the Eastern concept of there being "the known, the unknown and the unknowable", a concept I heartily agree with. And any person that tells me that they personally know that any god is real or that "Jesus is coming" is either delusional or very gullibles, in my opinion.
Again, thank you!

Thank you for putting into words what I have been thinking and feeling most of my life.

An outstanding post, Saul! While I am still, what I've long-called myself, a renegade Catholic (I was the one who raised her hand and said, "But Sister, that doesn't make sense . . .") because I don't buy the whole enchilada and probably never will.

I have seen and experienced things in my life that tell me there is a God and I have also seen and experienced things that tell me there isn't a God.

Lately, I've been quoting Gandhi a lot because there are a lot of people in the limelight these days who personify it: "I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians; they are so unlike your Christ."

Thank you for a really excellent, thought-provoking post!!!!

I'm noting all the "closet Unitarians" out there. I've been Unitarian for years--they embrace atheists, agnostics, wiccans, buddhists, jews, etc,--and believe that "we do not have to think alike to love alike". My local fellowship has become my extended family, a place where I feel accepted, warts and all!

I've read all these posts and am surprised that no believing person has commented. Believing in God, that is. So I will. I am a Catholic, educated in parochial school, and my faith is as strong today as it ever was, in fact, probably much stronger as I approach, no doubt in a few years, the end of my life. I know I will be with God, His Blessed Mother, all the angels and saints, and all my dear ones who've died before me. My faith is steafast, sometimes flaring brightly, sometimes like a small, guttering candle. I know faith is a gift, and I am grateful for it. Like many things in life, it's somewhat of a mystery why some people possess faith in God and others do not. People look for God in many places, and like you, Saul, often in the writings and philosophies of "learned people." And you do not find Him there. It is like a fish looking for the ocean or a bird the air. We are awash in a sea of God! If we would only open our eyes to see! But many people are blind.

I find just as much offence in the assumption by theists that morality cannot exist without god, as they no doubt do in my atheism. Religious belief has been the explicit source of so much evil - think of the obsessive pursuit of heresy in most faiths. I don't 'look for a god' anywhere. I have in the past and only found pain and suffering perpetuated in his name.

Morality springs from our own humanity - from simply being who we are. For that reason Man made god in His own image - not the other way around.

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