A veteran journalist's take on such diverse subjects as religion and religious violence, democracy, freedom of expression, sociology, journalism, criticism, travel, philosophy, Southeast Asia, politics,economics, and even parenthood, the supernatural, film criticism, and cooking. Please don't hesitate to participate by starting a comment thread if you have an interest in any of these subjects...or anything else, for that matter...

A handbook for atheists

I have been writing a book on the subject of religion, its incursions into what should be secular territory, and the awkward position in which rational people find themselves in this Zeitgeist. My editors have suggested that I post this, a draft of the introduction to the book I’m working on, to give an idea of where the book is going. On that advice, I offer the following.

I should just mention that only the text forms part of the book; the illustrations are just whimsical additions I threw in for the blog.

The Eighteenth Century is often referred toas the Age of Reason or The Enlightenment. In the 1700s, the western world saw many examples of courageous breaks with stultifying tradition, of iconic concepts being questioned or even tossed aside, rigid belief systems being overturned, sometimes violently. Moreover it saw those institutions being replaced by new paradigms, based this time on reason, rather than tradition.
It was a liberal period rather than a conservative one. During The Age of Reason, a liberal perspective was a virtue…questioning, challenging beliefs, institutions, and ways of life that had no justification, other than the conservative justifications of tradition and tenure, was the work of the educated classes and the rational thinkers. The grip of unthinking adherence to that which had been good enough for one’s parents, and their parents, was being pried open.
The American Revolution during this period was a great experiment in democracy, a hitherto untried and profoundly radical idea. Certainly there had been limited forms of democratic rule in the past, notably in ancient Greece; the American Revolution took the basic idea of government by the governed and expanded it exponentially. It created a legal and constitutional architecture based on, above all, reason. Hard on its heels was the French Revolution, an even more radical departure from tradition with an even more intransigent insistence upon the principles of modern rational thinking.
Not surprisingly, neither France nor the United States of America looks today very much like the rational paradise envisioned by their constitutional architects, midwives at the birth of modern democracy.Nevertheless, two and a half centuries later, the notion of democracy is one that is so ingrained in the thinking of most westerners that living under any other system would be unthinkable; political discussion is almost never about whether democracy is an appropriate form of government, but almost always about the manner and form that a democratic government should take.
Before the Enlightenment, the notion that a head ofgovernment, never mind a head of state, could be elected by the people of that state would have been dismissed as the ravings of a lunatic. That a government could and should be created by the will of the governed, and run by the people of that state for their benefit, would have been considered delusional. The hereditary right of kings, the aristocratic social structure, the absence of upward social mobility; all these were facts of life and as immutable as the laws of nature.
Political revolution was dangerous; it resulted in bloodshed and brother against brother combat. Whenever people are asked to accept a paradigm shift, those who feel comfortable with the old ways always initially outnumber the advocates of change. Some elements of the conservative view will cling tenaciously to the old ways in the face of momentous and sweeping movements; some are so determined to retain their comfortable way of life that killing those with opposing views is a small price to pay. In some cases, even dying for a truth that may never even have existed isn’t unreasonable.
But radical and sweeping as the political changes were in the Enlightenment, one revolution that did not take place was the religious revolution; the revolution of atheism. To be sure there were strong elements of atheism around. The American Founding Fathers, although their language still reflected the traditionally religious manner of expression, were explicitly atheist, or at least agnostic. The French Revolution also and even more explicitly espoused atheism. But both of these instances were byproducts of rational thinking…neither atheism nor a desire to eradicate religion were the casus belli of the conflicts, and they were not the underlying principles at stake.
At the same time as reason was entering the lives of the people, along with a desire to be free from the constraints of traditional politics, atheism, or at least an inclination to question traditional religion,was also sweeping western society. The atheistic viewpoint however didn’t carryas much urgency as did the political reform movements; it didn’t need to. Although religion was coming to be recognised as a pernicious influence, a vampire that devours the lifeblood of the people, political revolutionary change would address the problem. With democracy would come autonomy of thought.
Far from being a personal matter of conscience and private belief, religion, in the pre-Enlightenment era, was very much a public matter.It was enforced by the government, monitored by the clergy, and its rites were performed under the scrutiny of neighbours and the rest of society. As, or more, important than internal belief were the external words and actions of the individual. Before the Age of Reason, one could be arrested, tried and punished, even by execution in any of a number of unspeakably brutal ways, for deviation from the accepted doctrinal norms.
But all this would end with the ascension of democracy, it was presumed. The American Founding Fathers explicitly and deliberately created a state that was prohibited from the establishment or even the legal adherence to any religion. The idea was that those who wished to worship could do so; theycould espouse a belief in anything they chose, no matter how silly, just so long as they didn’t try to impose their beliefs and practices on others. The religious revolution, the paradigm shift that would see reason extend to matters of religious doctrine, was expected to occur as a subset or byproduct of the political paradigm shift that would embrace democracy in place of monarchies.
This unfortunately never really worked in North America. For although the overt and explicit intent of the constitution of the United States was to diminish, ideally eliminate, the role of religion in political life, too many of a religious bent held on ferociously to religion. It didn’t stop there, however. While the hardest core atheist would have no problem with some adherents maintaining a private belief system in the face of overwhelming rational counterarguments, those religious adherents weren’t satisfied with believing in the unbelievable and worshipping their imaginary friends, they insisted on imposing what amounts to idiocy on the rest of us.
As goes America, so goes the rest of the world. And in the United States in the first quarter of the 21st Century, we are subjected to the sorry spectacle of a presidential race with the contestants falling over themselves and each other to persuade the electorate that they are more religious than their opponents. Rational people would suspect that the candidates (most of them, anyway) have more intelligence than they are tryingto convince the voters they have. The rational voters are in the awkward position of having to credit their favourite candidate with hypocrisy if they are to credit him or her with any functional intelligence.
This intellectual two-step is a necessary evil as long as religion carries the political clout it does; a political candidate with any brains has to choose between the hypocrisy of espousing religion and the political oblivion that intellectual integrity would bring. If it ended there,we wouldn’t have a big problem; claiming to be religious when one is actually a rational person would be no more hypocritical than we are when we say “How areyou?” when we really couldn’t care less, or the cashier is when she says, “Have a nice day”. It would be a social nicety with little or no content.
But it doesn’t stop there. The powerful minority for whomreligion is a weapon and a means of social control insists on much more than a simple gesture. They make it necessary that a candidate and an elected representative continue to toe their line. Attending church services, quoting scripture, publically praising their god; all these are required. And because the politicians and elected officials fall into line, the lie of their mythology’s universal acceptance is perpetuated.
But it doesn’t stop there, either. Once the theists hold the position that their beliefs are shared by an overwhelming majority of their fellow citizens, they start to wield that putative, but in fact non-existent majorityas a weapon. Politicians and even their neighbours are no longer in a position to disagree, let alone stop them; to do so would be to admit to the hypocrisy that got them elected in the first place.
So now the theists’ next step is to enact legislation.
The list of anti-democratic legislation supported and driven by the theological factions is quite frightening when dispassionately examined in its entirety. Even a cursory look is enough to worry any rationalist.
Purely, unequivocally, undisputedly religion-inspired is the anti-intellectual tendency in the education systems of the western world. The theists are pushing an agenda that includes eliminating genuine science from school curricula when it contradicts the collected mythologies of some MiddleEastern, early Bronze Age, violent, genocidal, nomadic shepherds. The thin edge of the wedge is the vociferous insistence that these myths be taught as being on an equal scientific footing with modern genetics, evolution, physics, biology, and chemistry.
Women throughout the United States are being denied basic medical care by religious zealots. Why? Because many poor women get their basic medical care at Planned Parenthood clinics, and the religious right has decreed that because family planning is part of that organisation’s agenda, it should no longer receive government funding. These are the same zealots who demand that secular clinics in foreign countries supported by foreign aid be closed if they are found to distribute condoms. Any family planning or AIDS prevention other than abstinence offends these people’s religious sensibilities to the extent that they would prefer people, even their own children, to die than to have protected sex. Their justification for such an extreme, even radical position is purely religious.
One could continue to enumerate the egregious intrusions into the lives of ordinary people that the religious minority encourages, but we are familiar…overly familiar… with most of them.. Besides the big-ticket items like the ones touched upon, there are the everyday, smaller ones.
That religious businesses pay no taxes is an affront to the notion that religion is a private matter. That the default course of action before testifying in court is to swear on a bible grants a set of superstitions an exalted place in a democracy. Even the knee-jerk “god bless you” after a sneeze is an irritant to those who find religion offensive.
This book was written not to undermine anyone’s beliefsystem or to take away their religion; if it does, so much the better, andyou’re welcome, but that isn’t the main purpose of this book. What follows is intended as a sort of handbook for those who are tired of apologising for, or worse still, hiding and denying their atheism. And that group of people includes anyone who calls himself an agnostic. Because if you call yourself anagnostic, in fact, odds are that you are really an atheist, but disinclined to say so explicitly.
To be an agnostic is to hold that the truth of any claims about religious reality are not, and perhaps even cannot, be proven. To be agnostic is to say, “I don’t know.” It suggests, even in its weakest formulation, that one is open to being persuaded, should sufficient evidence be presented. If this is your view, I submit that you are an atheist and that it’s high time you started saying so and saying so without hesitation or fear.
An atheist says “I don’t believe in god”. So do you. Consider,as an example, that when saying, “I don’t know” you are saying that you don’tknow whether there is life on other planets. Certainly that’s a reasonable position to take. Now if someone were to ask you if you believe that there is life on those other planets, you would haveto say, “No, I don’t”. Note that to ‘believe’ doesn’t mean to ‘suspect’, or to‘hope’, or to ‘imagine’; it means to be convinced. So, as an agnostic, by definition, you don’t believe in god. You can’t believe in something that hasn’t and probably cannot be proven. Fair enough, you might say, but I am willing to be persuaded by valid evidence or argumentation; I just haven’t seen any yet.
That, I submit, is an atheist’s position. No rational atheist (and atheism is, if nothing else, a rational position) would continue to deny the existence of god or any other religious precept in the face of compelling evidence. So let’s dispense with the notion of agnosticism and its wishy-washyattempt to soften an atheistic position.
That’s why this book was written; there are far too many of us out there who are atheists and reluctant to admit it; it’s time to come outof the closet. This book is intended as a sort of guide or handbook to bravingthe religious world with a secular viewpoint. It is intended to help rational people who daily have to do battle with the deluded. It is intended to provide support and a reference point for those rationalists who feel that they are surrounded and overwhelmed by the strident, pushy, insistent adherents to a fantasy that we have rejected.
Patrick Guntensperger

Hire Patrick

Want to hire Patrick for a speaking engagement, as a teacher or for a writing project? Send him a message here:



Your Message

To use CAPTCHA, you need Really Simple CAPTCHA plugin installed.

Speak Your Mind