Hell Bent on a Holy Mission
Everyone’s an Atheist
We are all atheists.
That’s right. Every single person on earth is an atheist.
Should you doubt this, allow me to prove it to you. Let’s conduct a short trial.
Since mankind first began walking upright, thousands of different gods have been worshiped. From cavemen to astronauts, we’ve prayed to every conceivable object we fail to fully understand — from the sun and stars to animals and ancient myths. Most religions faded away a long time ago. Some belief systems were never even documented. But somehow, hundreds of religions still survive to this day — each with a different concept of what “god” means to its followers.
For the sake of argument, let’s agree on a conservative estimate. Let’s say that 1,000 different gods have existed since the origin of man. The actual number is likely far greater. But we’ll keep this simple.
Here’s my question: Of the 1,000 gods that have been around since history began, how many were truly divine? Go ahead. Take your best guess.
If forced to answer, most people would likely reply — just one. Most people believe in one god. Not two. Not five. Not one hundred. You not only reject 999 alternative gods, you perceive most religions other than your own to be ludicrous. You might even be appalled by the practices of many of these other belief systems.
Well, welcome to the club. By definition, you are an atheist. You thoroughly dismiss the vast majority of mankind’s fictional gods. Accordingly, this now makes the difference between us purely numerical. You reject 999 gods. I reject 1,000.
Wouldn’t this make us far more in agreement than the sum of our differences?
Despite the obvious preponderance of facts in support, “atheism” doesn’t quite accurately reflect what many of us profess to believe. I prefer to think of it as a near miss. Atheists surely do reject the tenets of most of the world’s religions, that we’re all here as part of some grand design to live our lives as serfs in a slave camp purely at the pleasure of some imaginary sky daddy. We think that would be an abhorrent world to live in. We want no part of it. The problem is — atheism goes a step beyond this and declares — not just as a preference but as a scientific conclusion — that no god exists.
By its deep-seeded entrenchment, atheism begets a sense of philosophical intolerance — some might argue an anti-Socratic arrogance. After all, no evidence actually exists which disproves the existence divine intervention. Yes, we should all agree that the burden of proof of any extraordinary concept (such as the existence of god) rests entirely upon the believers. They should be the ones required to present some tangible evidence of this divine superintendent they profess to know and see and even talk to on a regular basis. But in the incalculable vastness of outer space, we who were now living early in the 21st Century on this tiny planet in a vast galaxy on the edge of the galactic universe would have to be credulously arrogant to insist that we currently know everything about what’s out there beyond the horizons of our understanding.
And so, pure atheism doesn’t quite fit the paradigm of the inherent human curiosity combined with scientific knowledge which is still in its relative infancy. Does anyone doubt that we will know a lot more about science and the universe in ten years, a hundred years, or a thousand years from now? We may very still be living in the year 1620, scientifically speaking, when compared to the knowledge later to come.
Atheism essentially closes a very interesting book on a subject which demands being left open. Hence, it’s not only too dogmatic in its uncompromising view, it’s ironically — anti-science.
Anti-theism versus Atheism and Agnosticism
The far more appropriate term for the belief system which rejects all varieties of religion is “anti-theism.”
Indeed, I profess to be anti-theist, which is not the same at all as either agnosticism or atheism. Yet these three unique terms are very often misused, widely misunderstood, and frequently employed interchangeably, even though they mean quite different things.
Agnosticism properly defined is the declaration not to know. It’s based on reasonable doubt. Agnostics see no evidence of the supernatural and therefore cannot justify having blind faith.
Atheism takes doubt one step further by declaring that no divine superintendent exists. There’s an unwavering certitude with atheists making it a far more assertive position than the milder (and more ambivalent) agnosticism, which makes it utterly abhorrent to religious believers. Moreover, given the historical damnation of non-believers/non-conformists, atheists tend to be more astringent in their beliefs. They must be, having successfully weathered and overcome society’s pressures to believe and conform. In short, it’s far tougher to be an atheist than a believer in society. This was true even more so a few decades ago, and was all but mandatory just a few centuries ago. We’re now just beginning to finally remove the shackles of religiosity in favor of free thought and open discussion. We are lucky to live in an era of enlightenment that has never existed before in the history of mankind. Of course, free discussion also scares a lot of people.
However, agnosticism and atheism both share one sentiment which is detestable to anti-theists. They aphorism goes that agnostics and even many atheists would very much like to “believe in god” if sufficient evidence existed to do so. Some go much further by making the baffling assertion that the world would be better off with some form of divine intervention.
Anti-theists hold a far more controversial belief. We absolutely and positively do not want religion to exist. None of it. We view the practice of religion as de facto captivity inside a “celestial dictatorship,” as the late Christopher Hitchens so amusingly articulated in his countless writings and speeches. We have no interest whatsoever in living in some divinely manipulated world, and what’s presumed to be an eternal afterlife, where every action we take, every thought we have, every idea we explore, and every single concept in our conscious and even unconscious is known and monitored by our great leader.
Hitchens aptly compared this notion, which comprises the essential beliefs and practices of most religions — where god sees and hears and knows absolutely everything — to living a nightmare, the manifestation of what it must be like to exist in North Korea, where all the minions have but one single purpose — to worship a maniacal narcissist.
“No thanks,” we anti-theists say. Worship the great leader and his son on your own. Don’t expect us to join the tyranny.
Summarizing now, believers want to believe. Agnostics may want to believe, but aren’t sure — so they can’t. And atheists might be willing to believe if shown compelling evidence — but won’t. By contrast, anti-theists have no desire whatsoever to believe (in god).
The Abdication of Spirituality
Practicing anti-theism doesn’t necessarily reject all belief. In fact, since we dismiss divine intervention, there’s an even greater reliance on the virtuality of mankind.
In fact, we are ardent believers in idealistic principles, albeit tempered with a dose of realism. The many things we anti-thesists agree on include — humanity, science, logic, reason, ethics, nature, and our own ability to exist within the context of what’s known to be true rather than blind faith and fantasy.
Anti-theism also encompasses a far more positive outlook on mankind than do contemporary religions. Most religions desire to control human behavior. That’s priority number one. Basic human instincts (presumably created by god, according to religious believers) are evil and must be contained even eradicated. We’re also said to be born of sin. Not exactly a positive overview of mankind. Curtailing instincts? Eradicating desires? Born into sin? How negative is that?
Anti-theism is arguably the most positive of all belief systems. It must by its very essence. Rejecting divine control and trusting entirely in humanity carries weighty obligations. It begs, even inspires mankind to continue to evolve and improve (the fundamental precept of secular humanism).
Critics view this as not only unrealistic, but dangerous. And it’s easy to see why. Based on world events, both historical and current, one can make a convincing case that humanity is inherently evil and does very bad things. This is undoubtedly true. But mankind’s evolution has also brought about unprecedented understanding and harmony. We’re clearly headed in the right direction. And when one adds the toxicity of religions’ deleterious impact on civilization over the years (manifested in wars, terrorism, hate, intolerance, segregation), a much stronger case can be made that it’s religion which is inherently evil, rather than mankind. At the very least, religion causes otherwise good people to do some very bad things.
And yet for all of anti-theism’s many attributes, which seek to maximize the experience of life on earth (particularly since no afterlife exists), we must also spend some of our free time exploring matter of spirituality.
That seems to be a contradictory statement. It is not. While anti-theists have no desire for religion, we should freely engage in discussion about matters we do not fully understand. We must keep open minds on subjects which merit investigation. We must explore the possibilities beyond our current knowledge and capacity to understand the universe with limited technology.
As neurophysicist and author Sam Harris points out, the mistake we anti-theists (and atheists) have made is abdicating all discussion and exploration of spiritual possibilities. We have simply walked away from the conference table, when instead we should be sitting there to provide anchors of logic and reality.
Anti-theism should never mean absolutism. Rather, it should stand for opposing all the horrible things religion has done to impede humanity’s advancement — for past centuries and to this very day. It means demanding that religious people produce some tangible evidence that warrants warping all sense of reality and upending the fundamentals of scientific understanding.
We do not believe. But we will always be here to listen, and perhaps even help to gain greater understanding.
Coming Next: This week, I’ll be engaging in what I hope will be a lively discussion and debate with Dr. Arthur Reber, Professor of Psychology at Brooklyn College (now retired). While we do share many ideas and beliefs, we also discovered some vital differences during an e-mail exchange last week.
Following a two-part series on religion I wrote which can be read here (Why Won’t Religion Leave Us Alone?) Dr. Reber contacted me with an intriguing argument that I hadn’t considered, or even heard. He’s a cognitive psychologist with a near half-century of research in his field and a long-standing interest in the psychology of religion. I’m academically outclassed by both volumes and decades here. His view on how religions came about and why they’re still nearly universal despite their horrific track record was an entirely new concept to me.
If you click here (ArthurReber.com), it’ll take you to his web site where, among other things, you’ll see how he responded to my initial two essays. I will most certainly be responding to his arguments, when appropriate. My thoughts will be posted here during the rest of this week.
We’ll see how long this goes. Please feel free to jump in and comment on any aspect and on either of our pages. We’ll try to respond to sensible retorts or arguments.