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How To Save Our Secular America!

Posted: 02/05/07 10:45 PM ET

This is the text of a talk I gave (in somewhat abridged form) last week at the Strand bookstore in Manhattan to promote my new book, The Quotable Atheist. The other speaker was Robin Morgan, whose new book is called Fighting Words: A Toolkit for Combating the Religious Right

What luck that tonight's topic is How to Save Our Secular America, because I happen to have, here in my hand, a plan for saving our sacred secular America.

I also have, here in my hand, irrefutable evidence that there are 57 known atheists in the United States Congress! (I wish...)

Let me start by saying, I don't just want to get religion out of our politics and government. I want to get it out of our churches and mosques and synagogues, out of our minds, and off our planet--for reasons that I'll come to, but that you've probably heard from other writers, especially lately. And by the way, it is very heartening to suddenly see an Atheism section appearing in the Religion section of bookstores. Now we just need to get it into the children's section...

I mean theistic religion, btw, and I'll come back to that.

But I'm saying, as long as 87 percent of Americans are unquestioning believers1, something like 69 percent believe in Satan, and a majority, 53 percent, believe God created the world some 6,000 years ago while just 12 percent believe life has evolved through natural processes--and as long as there are politicians eager to exploit these faith-based folks2--then we're going to see religion, meaning, for all practical purposes, Christianity, intruding on our politics and government and into every other area of life--with a view to ruling everything--as evangelical leaders have made quite clear:

Listen to RANDALL TERRY, former head of Operation Rescue: "Our goal is a Christian nation. We have a Biblical duty, we are called by God, to conquer this country. We don't want equal time. We don't want pluralism." And of course, his classic, "I want you to just let a wave of intolerance...a wave of hatred wash over you. Yes, hate is good...."

If Terry is too marginal to count, then hearken unto JERRY FALWELL: "The idea that religion and politics don't mix was invented by the devil to keep Christians from running their own country." And "If you're not a born-again Christian, you're a failure as a human being."

Or PAT ROBERTSON: "The great builders of our nation almost to a man have been Christians, because Christians have the desire to build something. ...The people who have come into (our) institutions (today) are primarily termites who are into destroying institutions that have been built by Christians...The termites are in charge now...and the time has arrived for a godly fumigation.".... I can tell you that remark has a certain resonance to children of Holocaust survivors. It also reminds me that another Godly man, Tom DeLay, used to be an exterminator.

These same people meanwhile go around shrieking about a war on Christianity, on Christmas, on God, being waged by the secularist forces of evil that dominate our country and the world. (Worldwide, according to a 1995 survey, atheists are 3.8 percent of the population; the "non-religious" are 14.7 percent. But I guess those 3.8 percent are the ones who control everything, especially the media. Most people think that's the Jews, but it's actually the atheists. Of course, one can be both. Believe me.)

If anyone is vilified for their religious views in America today, it's of course the nonbelieving minority. When was the last time a member of Congress, or a judge, declared publicly, I don't believe in God or the tooth fairy? And we all know the reason I could never be elected president of the United States, even if I weren't foreign-born and Jewish. And it's obviously not because I'm unqualified to lead this great nation of ours in these challenging times.

● In a number of U.S. states, atheists are barred by the state constitution from holding even the lowliest state office. Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee, Pennsylvania; Texas, of course... (United States Constitution: "No religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States." Anybody have the ACLU's phone number handy?) The Arkansas Constitution says: "No person who denies the being of a God shall hold any office in the civil departments of this State, nor be competent to testify as a witness in any court." (Well, it says "a God....I guess Odin or Moloch would satisfy them. I'm not kidding--wouldn't everyone then feel obligated to say, "Well, we must respect his religious beliefs?" As EMMA GOLDMAN wrote: "It is characteristic of theistic 'tolerance' that no one really cares what the people believe in, just so they believe or pretend to believe.")

● In 1988, then-presidential candidate George H.W. Bush said atheists cannot play a contributing role in American society and that it's impossible for an atheist to be a patriot (because this nation was formed under God).

● In 1996, NBC's Tom Brokaw introduced a jokey segment on MADALYN MURRAY O'HAIR, who had been missing for a year, by saying: "She had the dubious distinction of being known as America's most outspoken atheist." As FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting) noted: "It's impossible to imagine Brokaw making light of the disappearance of someone who has the 'dubious distinction' of being a leader of America's Catholics or Jews....NBC quoted a 'conservative Christian commentator' as saying of O'Hair: 'If she is indeed dead, then she's burning in the fires of hell.' Plenty of fundamentalist Christians believe that all Catholics burn in hell, but we doubt we'll see NBC quoting any of them the next time a pope dies.'"

● At the 2002 opening of the United States Congress, a Rabbi Latham mentioned "the evil doctrine of atheism." Not one member of Congress protested the bigoted remark.

As a blogger wrote recently in this context: "We do not hear anti-Jewish remarks any more in the public arena. Even anti-homosexual remarks are made behind closed doors."

Here's a comment left on my blog the other day: "Dear Jack, ... Just picked up a copy of The Quotable Atheist at Borders in Louisville, Kentucky. Excellent compilation! Had an interesting exchange with the cashier. He asked me if I needed a bag. I said, 'Yes, I better. In Louisville, being an atheist is worse than being homosexual.' The cashier replied (exact words), 'Yeah, tell me about it. I'm both.'"

I want to see atheism--the word and the thing--brought back out of the paper bag and made respectable, and to see beliefs for which there are no reasons and no evidence, and which encourage intolerance and bigotry and violence, made unrespectable. Let Bibles be hidden in plain paper wrappers...

And let kids believe in Santa Claus, but I believe adult citizens have a social responsibility to be reasonably rational adults. The continuing belief in ancient mythology, in the 21st century, is also an insult to the generations of scientists that have labored to add precious increments to the store of real human knowledge and to make our lives longer, healthier, safer...and all that stuff. I call it ingratitude and irresponsibility. Increasing people's respect for science needs to be part of the propaganda campaign in our war on Christmas--I mean, on God--I mean, in defense of our secular Constitution and of the Enlightenment values that produced this great country we call the United States of America.

THANKS TO PEOPLE LIKE Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and above all, us two sitting here, I think the message is getting out that adults who recognize the dominant religious beliefs for the claptrap they are should speak up. Conservatives have been right all along to attack the notion that all beliefs are somehow equal and have a right to be treated with equal respect. Too bad they won't acknowledge that a great many religious beliefs deserve to be treated with equal disrespect: beliefs that encourage discrimination against homosexuals and subjugation of women; that obstruct life-saving medical research; that increase teen pregnancy and abortion by preventing honest and realistic sex education; that discourage condom use in regions that have already lost millions of people to AIDS, because the Vatican and other "pro-life" churches, and the U.S. government, still regard opposing birth control and discouraging sex as more important than saving lives; beliefs that have led to persecutions, wars and massacres throughout history, and to us secularists' favorite recent example of religious madness, 9/11, 2001. The habit of faith itself leaves people vulnerable to the enticements of any political scoundrel who advertises himself as a man of God.

So, my secret plan. It's a simple, two-step plan. (1) Continue to work at ridiculing theism into extinction; and (2) at the same time, create a new, non-theistic religion that will fill people's apparent--no, real--"spiritual" needs.

As a wit, I have naturally been assigned by secular-conspiracy headquarters to the ridicule team; but I've also quietly taken it upon myself to come up with the new religion, which I hope to deliver in time for the 2007 holiday season. I can tell you this one will be equally--no, far more satisfying than the theisms, because its adherents (there will no longer be "believers") won't be troubled by the knowledge that even the most devout believer must have deep down that his or her beliefs are full of shit. (I've been advised to add, "Just kidding...I'm not really trying to found a new religion." Then again, the money is very good...)

This little red book of mine, The Quotable Atheist, contains much in the way of both reason and ridicule. I am however mindful of what JONATHAN SWIFT said on page 292 of his great book--I mean, my great book--The Quotable Atheist: "It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of what he was never reasoned into." People's religious beliefs are of course rarely arrived at through reason, but are inherited by birth or imposed and sustained through social and peer pressure.

So my book's claim to redeeming social value is that it might add a little counter-pressure by showing how many of the great and/or famous are or have been nonbelievers or at least strong skeptics--and in the case of some of our Framers, even violently anti-religious.

People like John Adams, Thomas Paine, Franklin, Jefferson, Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, Frederick Douglass, Frederick the Great, Napoleon, Simon Bolivar, Benjamin Disraeli, Winston Churchill....Locke, Hume, Bentham, Byron, Coleridge, Carlyle, George Eliot, Emily Dickinson, Emerson, Twain, James Joyce, E.M. Forster, Hemingway, Beckett, Borges, James Baldwin, William S. Burroughs, Margaret Atwood, Martin Amis, Umberto Eco...Aristotle, Hippocrates, Galileo, Giordano Bruno...Charles Darwin, Huxley, Huxley & Huxley, Freud, William James, John Dewey....Einstein, Born, Feynman, Hawking, Francis Crick, Carl Sagan...

And the really great minds: Lenny Bruce, Phyllis Diller, George Carlin, Al Franken, Lewis Black....Bono, Björk, Bowie, Buffet, Billy (Joel), Hugh Hefner, Noam Chomsky, Larry Flynt....Lance Armstrong...(Athletes are harder to find because their coaches are always leading them in prayer for victory before a game. This does work, but only if you pray longer and harder than the other team. But as BILL MAHER said: "I've never heard a team blame Jesus when they lose.")

My book also shows how surprisingly Christian someone like ADOLF HITLER actually was, or at least said he was. (I'm not quite sure what I mean by "someone like Adolf Hitler.") And how frightful and immoral some religious leaders, popes included, turn out to be on closer examination--like the 11th century pope Gregory VI, who purchased the papacy from his 20-year-old godson, and who said "the worst plague of all" was liberty of opinions and free speech.

I'VE BEEN AT LEAST a skeptic as far back as I can remember, but it was the only with the advent of the George W. Bush administration and the rise of the religious right to executive-branch power that I began to call myself a militant atheist.

Thenceforth, religion for me represented everything that was backward and stupid about America; now it could be blamed for giving rise to the worst presidency in modern times. It was blind, stupid faith in George Bush as a man of God and a champion of all that is good, wholesome and righteous that nearly got him elected in 2000, and that sustained his and his party's popularity even as they systematically violated Jesus' teachings by robbing the have-nots to further enrich the rich and by doing unto others what others didn't even have the WMDs to do unto us.

And yet...I identify with this remark by the socialist leader MICHAEL HARRINGTON: "I consider myself to be--in Max Weber's phrase--'religiously musical' even though I do not believe in God....I am, then, what [sociologist] Georg Simmel called a 'religious nature without religion,' a pious man of deep faith, but not in the supernatural."

What I mean when I say I'm an atheist is that I don't believe in the existence of anything similar enough to any traditional conception of God or gods to warrant it calling it God. No Big Guy in the Sky. No supernatural, purposive, intentional, and therefore necessarily conscious or superconscious being, generally held to have other humanlike attributes and emotions, such as love, compassion, jealousy, anger...the ability to speak and understand Hebrew, Aramaic, Latin and English (but probably not Yakutsk, Zapotec or American Sign Language)....

I don't mean that I think everything can ultimately be reduced to particles of matter and energy and their interactions according to the laws of physics... Nor will any narrowly materialistic atheism ever answer the mother of all questions--why anything exists at all. (Not that anything else necessarily will; and not that there necessarily has to be any "why.") Nonetheless, we atheists need to beware of narrow, dogmatic materialism or scientism. It won't attract many converts, for one thing.

I have no trouble saying that something is behind the existence of the universe. On the other hand, there may be nothing behind it. Or--like the word "why"--the words "something" and "nothing" may mean, well, nothing when it comes to whatever lies behind or outside of the existence of this universe--as would, of course, the words "behind" and "outside."

So if there is a God, nothing can really be said about him/her/it, and all you've really done is attach a three-letter name to something--or nothing--about which nothing meaningful can be said. At the same time, however, you've implied the existence of a being that cares especially about us humans, and especially about our sexual behavior; that wants us to worship it; and that apparently created the world for our sake--all 100 billion plus galaxies and thousand trillion trillion trillion cubic miles of it. Just to impress us with his grandeur, presumably. (God may be a conservative, but He's evidently no conserver of natural resources.)

I feel at my most religious (I actually prefer that word to "spiritual")--and at the same time my atheist sentiments are most inflamed--whenever I read any science. It's there that I see real piety and humility, and respect for, if you will, God's creation--in the determination to learn how things really are. I think that's the meaning of a quote on my opening page--from THOREAU: "There is more religion in man's science than there is science in his religion."

There is obviously some incomprehensibly vast ...incomprehensibility out there.... But we atheists are the ones who are really open and alive to it, or should be. We're not the ones who try to impose on this vast...whatever a whole schema of creation, purpose, good and evil, salvation, redemption, and so on, or who claim that one book tells us everything we need to know. As TENNYSON wrote: "There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds."

I think the current worldwide religious resurgence is a generational thing, and that it has already peaked. But we secularists still need to understand the current sources of religion's power and appeal, which are not the same as they used to be. Religion may be a more formidable, durable, reason-resistant, stain-resistant affair than we realize because it doesn't rest only or even mainly on irrational beliefs, which might be relatively easy to dispel.

Ever since Sept. 11, 2001, it has often been remarked that the world can no longer afford the irrationalism and the divisive tribalism associated with most religions. Actually, tribalism, divisiveness, exclusiveness in the most literal sense--rejection and exclusion of the foreign--meaning, usually, the Western and the modern--are not merely corollaries of religion--they have become more than ever its very point and driving force. I think religion today is about identity more than about actual belief.

In fact, I just can't believe that deep down, fundamentalist Christians, Muslims or Orthodox Jews really don't believe that the world is billions of years old, that animals and plants are the products of evolution, and that we're descended from apelike creatures. In fact, I find it hard to believe that many people today can really believe in God. There's a big difference in believing in God and believing in religion--between believing and wanting to believe. As DANIEL DENNETT says, "Most people in the West who say they believe in God actually believe in belief in God." A century or so ago, the Spanish writer and philosopher MIGUEL DE UNAMUNO wrote, "Faith is in its essence simply a matter of will, not of reason...and to believe in God is, before all and above all, to wish that there may be a God." Even earlier, an American Roman Catholic bishop, JOHN LANCASTER SPALDING, said: "Few really believe. The most only believe that they believe or even make believe [that they believe]."

Religious life today is perhaps above all a declaration that "we will not assimilate, we will not submit to secular, materialistic, globalized, homogenized, consumer-commercial culture." (As regards many Muslims, the word "American" or "Western" should probably be somewhere in there as well.)

All this ironically owes a lot to the 1960s counterculture, which in its various spiritual aspects was a reaction to the deadening mechanization of modern Western life. The "Jesus freaks" may be seen as the forerunners of today's Christian Right. The playboy hedonist Osama bin Laden got religion in, I think, 1979. It was the same year in which someone I'm close to, and who's the same age as bin Laden, had a similar and lasting Augustinian conversion--albeit to a different religion, but also involving growing a beard. I've been struck by that coincidence.

I actually have a lot of sympathy with such conservative feelings--with the refusal to have one's own culture and traditions steamrolled--paved over to make way for a Wal-Mart, as it were. The global disappearance of cultural diversity that began five hundred years ago but has become all but complete only in the past few decades may even come to be viewed as the greatest disaster in human history.

But--but--none of this makes the religious beliefs that tens of millions of people have embraced during the past two or three decades true/ As GEORGE B. SHAW said: "The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one." Or as the naturalist EDWIN WAY TEALE put it: "It is morally as bad not to care whether a thing is true or not, so long as it makes you feel good, as it is not to care how you got your money as long as you have got it."

Dubious, false and absurd beliefs also make for a dangerously shaky foundation on which to build a culture or movement, no matter how much social cohesiveness and moral fiber and other binding agents it may appear to provide. I don't see religion continuing indefinitely to be a strong social and political force, even in the Middle East. Religion has after all been on the decline, at least in the West, for 500 years. I really think what we've been seeing is one of the last throes. I know, I know--that's what Dick Cheney said about a certain "insurgence" two or three years ago....But as the a radical theologist MARY JEAN IRION wrote in the 1960s: "Christianity...has been over for a hundred years now....When something even so small as a lightbulb goes out, the eyes for a moment still see it." In fact, she might have added, it may flare up brightly just before the end. "So," she continued, "it is not at all strange that when something so huge as a world religion goes out, there remains for a century or more in certain places some notion that it is still there."

A formidable obstacle that still confronts atheism is that, in contrast with it, theism continues to be viewed as positive, open, joyful, hopeful: "We do believe, we have faith, you don't....We are pro-life. You are obviously, conversely, pro-death....We say yes, you say no, you say stop, we say go go go."

Atheism and secularism ignore spiritual needs at their peril. We need to reposition atheism as something positive, not just as a rejection of God and faith and so on. I see my atheism as the doorway to my religious life, such as it is or as I hope it will be.

As the literary scholar and critic CARL VAN DOREN wrote in his 1926 essay "Why I Am an Unbeliever": "Belief, being first in the field, naturally took a positive term for itself and gave a negative term to unbelief....But what they call unbelief, I call belief."

According to philosopher QUENTIN SMITH: "God does not exist if Big Bang cosmology, or some relevantly similar theory, is true....Now the theistically alleged human need for a reason for existence [is] unsatisfied." But, he suggests, instead of "such anthropocentric despairs," "[w]e can forget about ourselves for a moment and open ourselves up to the startling impingement of reality itself. We can let ourselves become profoundly astonished by the fact that this universe exists at all." (A fact which Smith doesn't take for granted, by the way.) Anyway, that's not a bad starting point for a new religion.

Anyway, the religious tide may already be turning--God willing--so to speak--much as it seems to be turning politically. This development, if real, may even, ironically, be getting help from George W. Bush. Every faith-proclaiming, God-invoking scoundrel of a public figure--politician, preacher or priest--who gets caught with his pants down (sometimes quite literally) helps! At any rate, I really hope that in the not too distant future, the title of my book will seem quaint, and strange: as though it was a collection of quotes from people who don't believe in alchemy.

Meanwhile--lest anyone complain that I'm not offering enough in the way of practical ideas for activism: I'm petitioning the City of New York to permit an annual Atheist Pride parade.

Notes:
1In European countries, the percentage of believers ranges from 62% in Italy, home of the Vatican, down to 27% in Godless, hell-bound France.
2According to a study by Paul Bell, published in the Mensa Magazine in 2002, there is an inverse correlation between religiosity and intelligence. Analyzing 43 studies carried out since 1927, Bell finds that all but four reported such a connection, and concludes that "the higher one's intelligence or education level, the less one is likely to be religious or hold 'beliefs' of any kind." A survey published in Nature confirms that belief in a personal god or afterlife is at an all time low among the members of the National Academy of Science, only 7% of which believed in a personal god as compared to more than 85% of the US general population.