The Joy of Atheism

thank you god

I would normally never use such a clichéd title, but this is actually a response of sorts to Pastor Alin and his blog post, “The Misery of Atheism.”

It’s also a motivation to write something new here, which I need to do more often.

The Cliff Notes version of his post is “Atheist lives are miserable because they do not have God to thank for everything.” (Do please read the post, I don’t want to be accused of misrepresentation.) Having been a fundamentalist Christian for over a decade, I am familiar with his thought process in this regard. “Giving thanks to God” is a consistent theme in the Bible, wherein the writers make it abundantly clear that Yahweh loves to be praised and thanked on a continual basis.

So let’s consider the things that he thanks God for and see if his thanksgiving is properly directed. For reasons of simplicity, I am going to respond as though directly to Pastor Alin:

I have a wife.

I’m presuming that your wife, at some point, decided that you were the kind of guy that she wanted to marry. So, I’m guessing that you should be thanking her for being your wife – rather than thanking God that you “have a wife”. (Also, she might not be too thrilled at being included among a list of personal possessions.)

I have a house. I have food and a computer.

I’m guessing that your steady employment and reasonably good credit are the reason why you are able to own a house. Similarly, having food and a computer are a result of your ability to secure a job that provides a salary that permits you to have both.

I have a bed

See above.

and clean water.

Courtesy of your local water treatment plant.

Sure, you can thank a god for all of these things. From a rational standpoint, though, it all seems ill-directed and frankly a bit silly. No god swung down from heaven and poofed all of these things into your life. You met your wife, you courted her, won her affection, and she decided you were suitable husband material. You found your job, you earn your salary, you buy the things you need and want from that income. You’re fortunate enough to have been born in a country with government infrastructure that makes sanitary living possible.

This is all fine – people are free to thank whatever they wish for anything, really. However, this is just the jumping-off point for his main thrust:

But who does the atheist thank? In a world without God, is there even room for thankfulness? Is being thankful even rational if there is no God?

If he seriously wanted an answer to this, there are plenty of atheists on the internet that he could have asked. But since he didn’t, I volunteer.

Whatever we have to be grateful for, there is going to be an actual, physical, tangible, real person to whom that gratitude can be expressed. I thank my daughter on a daily basis for being a wonderful human being. I thank my employer for providing the job that keeps this roof over our heads. I thank the person who lets me cut ahead of them in line when I only have three or four items. I thank the server who brings me the food that I order on those nights when I choose to eat at a restaurant. I thank the doctor who took out loans to go to school and spent untold sleepless days to learn how to effectively disagnose and treat my illness. I thank my friends for being caring, loving people.

In short, I thank those people who fill my life with reasons to be thankful – and those people, in return, express genuine appreciation for that gratitude.

I do find it telling that “thanking each other” is completely absent from Pastor Alin’s list. I’m quite certain that he expresses gratitude to others on a daily basis, which is why this stands out like a sore thumb by its absence. Perhaps it’s because its easier to make your case when you exclude the one thing which could tend to make your whole argument fall flat. (I actually hope that this was a deliberate omission on his part, as I’d hate to think that Pastor Alin is missing out on the genuine joy that comes from giving and receiving thanks from others.)

As a Christian, I used to “thank God” for everything as well. Upon reflection, I can honestly say that my life is certainly no misery because I no longer do so. There’s no point in thanking someone I’ve never seen nor heard, apart from a book written by ancient tribal people thousands of years ago. Any number of reasons can be given to thank a “god” for any one of a number of potential outcomes to a situation:

  1. Wanda’s son left for work late and avoided a roadside shootout on his way to work that left seven people dead. Wanda praises God for protecting him by delaying his commute.
  2. Wanda’s son left for work on time, and was grazed by a shooter’s bullet but not seriously injured. Wanda praises God for sending a guardian angel to watch over her precious boy.
  3. Wanda’s son left for work on time, and was struck in the chest by a shooter’s bullet and is hospitalized but makes a full recovery. Wanda praises God for directing the doctor’s hands.
  4. Wanda’s son left for work on time, and was struck in the chest by a shooter’s bullet, causing him to veer off the road and crumple his car into a wall, severing his leg. He spends time in the hospital, followed by hours of grueling physical therapy. Wanda praises God for saving his life and for keeping his injuries from being far worse.
  5. Wanda’s son left for work on time, and was shot in the head by a shooter’s bullet, causing him to die instantly. Wanda praises God for sparing him the pain of a prolonged death.
  6. Wanda’s son left for work on time, and was stopped on the road by a gun-wielding madman. The gunman gets in the car, holds a gun to the boy’s head and forces him to drive to an abandoned spot where he shoots the boy in the chest and takes off with his car. He bleeds out slowly, in excruciating pain, miles away from anyone who can help him. His body is eventually discovered by a passing traffic helicopter several days later. Wanda, through her tears, praises God that her son isn’t suffering any longer.

So in every possible scenario, “God” receives the praise – no matter what happened. In fact, if there was a god, he’d never have to lift a finger to do anything – seeing as no matter what happens, he gets thanked for it. He wouldn’t even have to exist

… and that’s the point – the point that never gets raised in churches.

At least not out loud.

But I digress. Living as an atheist, I can say without hesitation that my life is full of joy and so many reasons to be thankful, and so many people to thank … and hug … and hold.

Yeah, I’m pretty happy.

Let’s Talk About This Whole IRS Thing, Shall We?

pulpit freedom

Dear Concerned Christians:

I’ve been watching your tweets over the past few days. As a former Christian who knows his Bible extremely well, I am having a problem squaring your sentiments with the Bible you claim to be the divinely-inspired, inerrant, word of Almighty God Himself.

In particular, I’ve been watching your responses to the IRS decision to review the preaching of certain churches that participate in something called “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.” I can’t say that I’m surprised by your responses, but I am dismayed by the fact that some of you have taken to using words like “fascism,” “Nazi”, “totalitarianism”, and others. So, let’s please put those epithets aside for a moment and discuss the topic at hand.

Churches and non-profit religious organizations may avail themselves of a special tax-exempt status that is enjoyed by no other non-profit organization in the United States. This special tax-exempt status comes with restrictions. A church or religious non-profit claiming this special exemption may not engage in partisan political activities. The church may not endorse candidates, contribute to political campaigns, or make any public statements of opinion for or against any candidate.

So why would a church accept these restrictions? Well, members of this special class of tax-exempt status are not required to file a Form 990. This means the church does not need to disclose its income or expenditures to the IRS – something that all other non-profits must do. In order to receive this special exemption, they must agree not to engage in the partisan political activities mentioned above. They can orchestrate “get-out-the-vote” drives and distribute voter education guides, provided that they do not endorse a candidate or a political party.

Any church or religious organization applying for this special tax-exempt class agrees to abide by these restrictions. However, many churches that hold this special exemption have made a conscious decision to violate this agreement by engaging in blatantly partisan political activities.

In short, they are choosing to willfully violate the law in order to have their cake and eat it, too – and this, quite simply, is tax fraud.

The lawsuit filed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation was in response to the fact that many churches have been flagrantly violating the conditions of their special tax-exempt status, with no actions being taken by the IRS in response to complaints by citizens who have witnessed such violations in these churches. So what does this mean? Nothing more than the fact that the IRS will actually start doing something about these violations.

Again, churches are not required to be under this special tax umbrella. Any church, or mosque, or synagogue in this country can choose to be as political as it wishes – it just can’t expect the government to give it the same preferential treatment enjoyed by religious bodies that abide by the rules and focus on spiritual instruction rather than politicking. And let’s not misunderstand, this doesn’t mean that churches are prohibited from preaching against abortion, homosexuality, gambling, premarital sex, or whatever – they just can’t say “Candidate So-and-So shares our values, so a vote for him is a vote for Jesus.” This is something that the “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” movement has been doing – and participating churches have been daring the IRS to do something about it – even mailing videos of said politicking to the agency.

It looks like the IRS will be doing just that. When you beat on a hornet’s nest, expect a result.

Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not? Should we pay or shouldn’t we?”

But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. “Why are you trying to trap me?” he asked. “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”

“Caesar’s,” they replied.

Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” – Mark 12:13-17

“What is Your Authority?”

abraham-and-isaac-on-mount-moriah

Question the morality of much of the Bible with a believer, and you’re almost guaranteed to be asked this question. “By what authority do you claim your morality to be valid?” Of course, the person asking the question considers the Bible (or Qur’an) to be the ultimate authority because they believe it is their god’s direct communication to humanity. Since atheists do not rely upon a “holy book” to tell them what’s right and what’s wrong, the question asked is an attempt to “trip up” non-believers by insinuating that their morality is not morality because it does not come from a Supreme Source, but rather from personal opinion.

The fact is that the Bible and the Qur’an only have “authority” because some people choose to believe that they do. They have no intrinsic authority on their own. Further, if a book tells you to do something, and you do that thing because the book tells you to do so, without questioning – that is not “morality”. Morality is distinguishing between right and wrong. When you ascribe moral superiority to a book, and refer to it exclusively to determine a course of action, that is “blind obedience.” A holy book can never teach one how to be moral. It can only teach one to obey. Worse, it can condition one to justify obscene, inhumane actions with the defense that “it’s God’s will.”

This is not to say that the Bible (or Qur’an) do not state the obvious from time to time. Every religion has a variation of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” and “love thy neighbor as thyself.” It’s the simplest of ethical statements, so obvious that one easily comes to this conclusion without need of any holy book. At the risk of sounding cliche, it’s a “no-brainer”. (“Be excellent to each other,” saith the Gospel of Bill and Ted.)

When you point out the immorality that is found throughout both the Bible and the Qur’an, the response is almost always, “God created everything, he can do as he pleases with his creation. Our only response should be to trust and obey him in all things.” Now, I won’t say that I’m any kind of expert on the Qur’an – it’s on my list of things to read, however. My religious past, though, has made me very knowledgeable about the Bible.

Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. – Proverbs 3:5-6.

“Obey. Do not trust your own judgment. Switch off your reasoning, and trust that he will lead you to do the right thing.” A flowery way of saying that which every parent has said to a child: “Because I say so, that’s why.” So what happens when this god tells a believer to do something that clearly goes against common decency?

After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac. And he cut the wood for the burnt offering and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. – Genesis 22:1-3

If you heard a voice telling you to ritually slaughter your own beloved child, would you obey, or would you question your own sanity? Abraham did not question, but did what he was told – to the point of having the knife raised to execute his son at Yahweh’s command. Yahweh stops him before he commits the act, and blesses Abraham for his unquestioning obedience:

He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” – Genesis 22:12

But according to the Bible, Yahweh is omnipresent and all-knowing:

O Lord, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O Lord, you know it altogether. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. – Psalm 139:1-5.

So such a test would clearly be completely unnecessary for Yahweh of the Bible. There was no reason for Yahweh to question Abraham’s faithfulness, if Yahweh was “acquainted with all” of Abraham’s ways. Had Abraham not been stopped, according to the story, he would have butchered his son to death – because Yahweh commanded it.

Were Abraham’s actions, therefore, moral? Or simply “following orders?”

If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, he shall pay her father fifty shekels of silver. He must marry the young woman, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives. – Deuteronomy 22:28-30

I recently hashed this verse out online with a presuppositionalist. He, of course, responded with “What’s your authority for morality?” Clearly, he was no longer able to see this act as an extremely unjust response to rape – buying the victim from the father and remaining married to her for life – because he insisted that the Bible was the ultimate authority on morality, and if God said it, then it must be moral. No human being with a shred of empathy would consider this to be any form of moral justice whatsoever – to imprison a rape victim in a “relationship” with her rapist for the rest of her life, after being sold to the rapist by her father. One can only imagine that the “husband” would continue to rape and abuse the woman – and why not? He bought her fair and square. This is part of the “absolute moral authority” of the Bible.

Here’s an experiment – tell a Christian that the above-quoted verse is from the Qur’an. Tell them it’s ‘Surah 4:24′. Then ask them what they think about the verse. I can almost guarantee that they will register disgust with the passage and declare it proof of why Islam is not moral. Then, take out your Bible and point the passage out to them.

What happens if God tells you to commit genocide?

Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys. – 1 Samuel 15:3

“Put to death men and women, children and infants.” A direct command from Yahweh himself, according to the Bible – from the alleged Mouth of the Supreme Author of Morality.

Children and infants. Every single one.

The people of Samaria must bear their guilt, because they have rebelled against their God. They will fall by the sword; their little ones will be dashed to the ground, their pregnant women ripped open. – Hosea 13:16

Hear the voice of the “Ultimate Moral Authority”. Does this sicken you? It should. If it doesn’t – if you can accept this because it’s “God’s Will”, then you have no basis by which to claim any standard of morality – particularly if you claim that the Bible is “pro-life”. It’s not. It’s a record of immoral human atrocities – murder, mutilation, plundering, rape, slavery, sexual slavery, and destruction. Atrocities committed by men under the claimed authority of the Creator of the Universe, and allegedly by his command.

Now, lest this be mistaken to be the rantings of an angry theist, and not an atheist, let me clarify – I assert that the Bible is a collection of human writings and nothing more. But this Bible is declared by many to be the most moral, most ethical, most trustworthy guide to life on earth ever to exist. Yet no one who truly believes it to be an inspired, inerrant document can allow themselves to question its authenticity or render personal judgment on any of the barbaric acts committed, therein, attributed to the command of Yahweh.

The Bible itself carries no authority on its own. By itself, it is merely a book. Some people choose to believe that it does, and no matter what you care to call it, that is personal opinion and nothing else. There is no “ultimate, unquestionable moral authority”.

If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters – yes, even their own life – such a person cannot be my disciple.  – Jesus, Luke 14:26

Freedom

mubarak

I learned yesterday that Nigerian Mubarak Bala was released from a mental institution after being placed there by his Muslim family for renouncing faith in Islam. Even living myself in a nation that mistrusts atheists as much as rapists, I still find it difficult to fathom being institutionalized for being an atheist. Since being released, however, he is still laying low, as his life is most certainly still in danger.

I keep him in my mind today, my country’s Independence Day.  Freedom of Conscience is the most fundamental human right. Freedom to inquire, freedom to question, to doubt, to believe or not, to agree or not.

Thomas Jefferson himself said, “Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blind-folded fear.”

I can’t agree more. Question everything. It’s what our Founding Fathers would have expected us to do. This nation was not built by unquestioning dogmatists, no matter what religious extremists would have you believe.

Americans, celebrate your freedoms today – for those in the world who are deprived of similar freedoms.

freedom

Sunday Go to … Heathen Time?

sundayassembly

Sunday Assembly is a new “atheist church” movement that’s catching fire in various places around the world – receiving accolades as well as criticism from both believers and the godless. “Fellowship, belonging and a sense of community” are three of the things that many ex-believers miss most about their former religious lives, so it’s not difficult to see why Sunday Assembly has become so popular so quickly.

Still, it’s an odd concept for some to wrap their heads around – how can you have a church without the Most Important Ingredient? Isn’t it just “playing church” at this point? Well, to a non-believer, traditional church is pretty much a very old, communal game of “let’s pretend”. All of the bells and whistles employed by mega-churches are a means to an end – freshening up the “game” to keep people from leaving in pursuit of the myriad of other distractions that modern life has to offer.

The problem is that you can only change so much of it – the programming and the rule-book for the game were last updated about 1,600 years ago. Before Twitter and Facebook, before the internet and cable television, before color television, before black and white television or even radio, before space travel and airplanes and buses and cars, before films, before silent films, before buses and cars, and before the telegraph or printing press, modern science or modern medicine. And even before that. In fact, before practically everything that surrounds us today – plus a millenium. In a world where the earth was considered flat, people believed the sun orbited the earth and the moon gave off its own light, and what we know today as mental illness was believed to be infestations of demonic beings from a fiery netherworld. Tack on the assertion that the rule-book was allegedly handed down by a heavenly being, is without error and cannot be updated or changed, and you’re not left with a whole lot that you can really update to keep up with a rapidly-changing world but eye candy. Flashing lights, a booming audiovisual system, a contemporary worship band, and lots and lots of emotion. A few little bits might be creatively reinterpreted here and there by one congregation or another, but it’s still a game played by modern people employing rules created by ancient tribes of generally-illiterate individuals who seldom, if ever, explored the world outside their own borders.

A number of atheists have rolled their eyes at the Sunday Assembly concept, but I’m not as willing to write it off. Of course, it’s not for everyone – but there’s certainly enough interest in the idea that it’s for some people. Also, what about those who, for lack of anything to replace it, continue to go through the motions at church every Sunday despite their diminished faith? It might be for them, as well. There’s the Unitarian-Universalist churches, of course, but there’s still quite a bit of emphasis of the “god-concept” there, even if in a more nebulous sense than in mainstream churches, mosques or synagogues.

I think that, if it can provide greater positive visibility for atheism in society as a whole, Sunday Assembly could be potentially a very good thing – especially in places like the United States, where non-believers are considered to be among the least trustworthy members of society. There probably could not be a better time for it, either – as Christianity in America continues to ride off the rails, with “Christ the Gentle Servant” being replaced with “Christ the Weaponized Republican Capitalist”.

Sunday Assembly is planning a first meeting in Oklahoma City this fall. I’ve submitted my RSVP, and I’ll be there to check it out.

Their official website can be found at sundayassembly.com.

God’s Trap: A Critique of the Garden of Eden Narrative

eden

I do not believe that the Book of Genesis (or any book or books of the Bible, separately or as a whole) is a divinely-authored historical record. However, for the sake of this discussion, I will argue from the point of view that Genesis – and particularly the Garden of Eden story – is a literal record of an actual event.

A pastor recently tried to explain to me that what transpired in the Garden of Eden was not a test at all, but a moral command. While I disagree that it’s ‘moral’, I will agree that it is a command, but also assert that it is a test.

Let’s use some common sense here: What purpose would a “Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil” serve in the created world? I assert that it serves two possible purposes: to be eaten from, or not to be eaten from. If the latter, then what purpose could it possibly serve but to act as a test of obedience? Yahweh himself does not need to create such a tree to replenish his own knowledge of good and evil. While one could argue that Yahweh does not need a reason to create anything, it stands to reason that the whole purpose of the creation narrative is to point out just how everything created interrelates with everything else. A “Tree of Knowledge”, created specifically not to have its fruit utilized, sticks out pretty much like a sore thumb. To place it in the middle of the Garden, where it could hardly be missed – then announce to the only two people existing that it not be eaten from under pain of death, makes no sense at all – not unless the purpose was to test Adam and Eve. This is underscored by the introduction of a talking (!) snake, appearing to freely wander about, introducing temptation into the narrative. (See also the Book of Job, where Satan is introduced as a free-wandering being.) In both the Eden and the Job narratives, Yahweh seems pretty much unconcerned about Satan’s whereabouts or his motives – despite being omniscient and omnipresent. It appears obviously in these two accounts that the serpent/Satan is used by Yahweh to indirectly achieve his results.

Adam and Eve were obviously ignorant of the distinction between good and evil, and Yahweh’s directive not to eat from the tree indicates his desire that they continue in their ignorance – or does it?

Let me employ an example: Say a parent decides to test his child by filling a skillet with oil on the stovetop, turning the burner to high, letting it bubble and boil, leaving the handle facing outwards, and then announcing to a child in the room that they had better not touch that handle over there, that’s right over there, where I’m pointing, right there. And then, standing to rise, walking into the other room, leaving the child alone to ponder the mystery that is the shiny handle. If we were to discover that a child was burned across its body by such an act, we could weep bitterly, and then demand the harshest punishment on the perpetrator. What if the father were to say, “I told him not to touch it! It’s his fault! And he’ll never touch another skillet again, now, will he?” – as he’s being pushed into the back of the police car – his own motives do not absolve him of being a monster, but perhaps of being unspeakably insane. Unlike the skillet burn, which will scar the body permanently, the “Tree of Knowledge” poisons from the inside out, and introduces sin and death into the world. Further, that one act poisons everyone from that moment on – to take the word of those who wrote what we now call The Bible.

Yahweh’s reaction to Adam and Eve’s eating from the tree is not one of empathy or concern. His reaction is to scold, and then to condemn, and then to curse, and then to expel. Despite the fact that an omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent god would have seen all of this occurring before any of this took place, he does not take any pity on man for weakness. And why should he? He knew what was going to happen if he put the tree there. He knew that the serpent would then tempt them, and did nothing to dissuade or dispel said serpent. Unlike the human father, who could only presume that his child would disobey and burn himself, Yahweh knew as a fact that this would be the outcome. So for the human creatures, it was indeed a test. For Yahweh, however, it was a fait accompli. I contend that the Garden of Eden story, if taken as an actual historical event, was Yahweh setting up the first two humans for a fall (no pun intended), making all of humanity dependent upon him for a cure – and ultimately, absolutely dependent upon him.

I, of course, believe it all to be ancient mythology, just like every other religion’s creation narrative. So I do not believe that any of it actually happened, and I do not point a finger at a god that does not exist – with the exception of discussions such as this – with someone who does, in fact, believe it to be a literal historic event.

But this is not about taking away a human being’s free will. This is about placing a danger front and center with no apparent purpose except to test – or in the case of an omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent God – to trap.

The person I mentioned earlier asserted that the Fall would have happened, tree or not. This would seem to counter the Bible, which (that I’m aware of, and I’ve read the Bible extensively, but if someone can correct me with a reference, please do) does not state this presumption anywhere. This must, therefore, be acknowledged as speculation. And if humans would have chosen rebellion over obedience eventually, then Yahweh intended for this to occur before the start of creation. To assert otherwise is to bring Yahweh’s omnipotence into question.

To give a child (or an adult with a child’s self-awareness) a choice of obedience or third-degree burns (either in a kitchen or in hell) and call it “free will” is an absurdity.

To call it “love” is to insult the word.