Pat Tillman, an extraordinarily square-jawed football player who gave up a lucrative professional life to go and fight for his country, was at first hailed as a hero by a military eager for good publicity. When it was discovered Tillman died as a result of "friendly fire" -- he was shot at close range in the forehead, which seems a little too friendly -- his family pressed hard for a more thorough investigation.
Lt. Colonel Ralph Kauzlarich, an officer with responsibilities for Tillman's unit, complained that his relatives were being so insistent because, like Pat, they were atheists. They could not come to terms with his death. From their perspective, after all, Pat was merely "wormdirt". In other words, if they believed in God and an afterlife they would be more compliant.
An interesting point.
America, the most religious country among all the developed nations, does have a puzzling willingness to tolerate injustices which, particularly given the country's great wealth, should be considered intolerable. If God exists, he's doing a lousy job, so much so that one wonders if life might improve if we stopped believing in him and started doing some of the heavy lifting ourselves. Might Americans, for example, suddenly see that it is insane not to have a health care system that works, or that there is something wrong about a country wherein some people are billionaires while others can barely afford to eat? In short, might reality snap into focus?
You may argue that one thing has nothing to do with the other, but you can't have it both ways. You can't say that religious faith has a real effect and at the same time say that extracting it would have no effect.
Of course, people can and do have it both ways. When prayers are answered, God is credited and thanked. When God fails, the devotee questions his own faith not God's existence. Heads God wins, tails you lose. Exempt from this equation -- by definition, in my view -- is an accurate analysis of existence. To quote Voltaire, "Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities." If you want to read a compendium of religiously engendered "atrocities" read Christopher Hitchens's superb book, God Is Not Great, which reminds you of them in accumulatively shocking detail.
Because I have written on the subject of religion, I often talk to people about faith. I rarely meet anyone who thinks as I do. Even at the skeptical end, I usually find, if I probe a little, that people believe "there has to be something," some force, some supernatural meaning. Finally, and always, comes the fear of oblivion. There must be some kind of afterlife. "This can't just be it," is the final plaintive but insistent appeal.
Why not? What evidence exists for any of these ideas? Why this God as opposed to that one? If one is invented, why not all? But reason is no match for fear and never will be. Perhaps if it is fear itself that one must fear (and I do -- fear so often turns to violence), then maybe fear itself is what should be attacked. If attacking the idiocies of faith has no chance, perhaps an appeal to good, old-fashioned American machismo will do the trick instead.
Here I return to Pat Tillman. When Tillman went to war, he knew he was alone and finite. When he contemplated the possibility of getting killed, he did not see angels and fluffy clouds beyond that moment, but utter darkness. He required no guarantees of ultimate survival before he jumped in. In fact, according to credible reports, the very last words he spoke were to a nearby soldier who was lying on the ground crying out to God for help. "Would you shut your (expletive) mouth?" yelled Tillman. "God's not going to help you. You need to do something for yourself, you sniveling..."
With his comic-book good looks and dialogue to match, perhaps Tillman can provide a role model for young atheists. A real hero with real courage, he not only refutes forever the lie that there are no atheists in foxholes, but more than that provides an opening for a far more radical thought: atheism, in and of itself, is courageous, and faith, in and of itself, is cowardly.