Response to an argument against atheism

(Eboo Patel)

I was listening to the NPR program called "Speaking of Faith" on the station KNOW, and a man named Eboo Patel, who heads this youth interfaith nonprofit, argued that "religion isn't going anywhere, so atheists should give up" (I paraphrase), and that people that argue, like Lewis Lapham in Harper's, that religious zealotry, or at least religious "revivals", are essentially bad are "offending wide swaths of the country and the world, except for maybe New York's Upper East Side" (again, a paraphrase).

I disagree with both arguments. Saying that "religion isn't going anywhere" is an argument for the status quo. Is it moral to say, "Well, we've always had war, so we'd better continue it"? No, that is immoral -- it ensures the continued suffering of war, instead of keeping us safe or secure.

War and religion are not the same thing, of course. Both continue human suffering, however.

I commend Patel's efforts to turn religious people of differing faiths onto their similarities instead of differences, and Patel's fervid Islamic beliefs are attractive because he enunciates them with the skill of an Oxford PhD.

But one must ask: is the status quo of religion good? No, it is not, with religious violence continuing on, as it has for centuries. I must ask: what religion-based genocides lie ahead?

So, Patel proposes changing the current mode of religion, from the inside out -- using each major religion's message of peace to foster cooperation. While this is a good step, from an atheist's point of view, the more zealous one's belief in God or Allah, the more wrong the "other side" is, and the more imperative it is to forcefully change the unbeliever or infidel's belief system.

One can imagine an Oxford-educated person studying the different religious traditions, and choosing one's inherited tradition, and tolerating Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, etc. and their different beliefs. But this is not how religion works, nor has it ever worked this way.

The end result of the traditional fervid or zealous religious belief is violence and difference. Playing with religion is like playing with fire. Being in one group, saying, "I'm a Christian" or "I'm a Muslim" necessarily creates division. It's like a sport where one team, under one name, plays or fights another team. The "Christians" versus the "Muslims."

As for Patel's second argument, that talking against religion "offends wide swaths of the country", I must tell my "religious conversion" to atheism when I was fourteen years old.

I'd been raised going to Christian church. I hadn't questioned Christianity in any real manner up to that point. I prayed and prayed for my knee to heal so I could be active in sports again, after tearing my anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). I prayed in church, in fact.

Then my new ACL graft broke, and I had to have the same surgery again. I knelt down to pray in church, but I realized the prayers were foolish, that of course God does not intervene on such matters. And that the "God" I was praying to didn't hear my "prayers," and even that my prayers were self-involved and kind of greedy -- all I wanted was for me to play sports again.

When I came to these realizations, I felt free, and, yes, thank God there were atheist sentiments and resources out there for me at the time. Instead of atheism being "offensive" to me -- and I must note that this was in rural America, directly in the middle of the country in Iowa, not exactly the Upper East Side -- atheism gave me hope, helped me see my life much more clearly, and helped me believe in myself, instead of acting like my "strength" came from some imagined Being out there, or even a Being supposedly Everywhere.

Now I believe in secular humanism, a belief system that doesn't offer a "God" or "Allah" to get wild and crazy about. There's really nothing to kill about with secular humanism, while one need look no further than the Bible for scenes of God smiting the non-elect, and one need merely recall that the historical Mohammed was both religious warrior and a warrior that killed other people.

Secular humanism infuses nearly all modern-day constitutional democracies, which are based on the idea that one may believe what one wants, as long as that belief does not harm others. This premise is relativistic and secular.

As Thomas Jefferson wrote:

But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.

--Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Virginia, 1782

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between church and State.
--Thomas Jefferson, letter to Danbury Baptist Association, CT., Jan. 1, 1802
Traditional religious belief is at odds with the secular humanist tradition exemplified by Thomas Jefferson. And freeing people from the received "wisdom" of all kinds of mystical beliefs -- angels, demons, devils, heavens, hells, Gods, Allahs, and Judgments -- getting away from these beliefs does more good, helps people see more clearly, than engendering traditional religion. Simple as that.

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