For one day, I was an atheist.
The rest of the time, I’m agnostic. The existence of God, of truth values and metaphysical/religious claims, are all ultimately unknown and probably unknowable. If God exists, He/She/It does not belong to a religion. I might even call myself ignotheistic, which, according to Wikipedia, is “the idea that every theological position assumes too much about the concept of God and other theological concepts.”
But several months ago, I had a rare case of the mischievous don’t-reach-into-the-cookie-jar-syndrome, and read an atheistic book that wasn’t fiction, my former Christian heritage having made me wary of such literature. I chose The End of Faith, by Sam Harris. For curiosity’s sake, I wanted to see what the most outspoken atheist had to say.
The author is in the mind of a particular strain of atheism known as New Atheism. It should probably be renamed anti-theism (hatred of theists), or misotheism (hatred of God or the gods) — because new atheism, instead of merely renouncing the existence of God through science and ethics, openly blames faith (not just religion, but faith in God or spirit) for all the ills of humanity. New atheists don’t just passively dismiss religion—they are activists holding rallies, signing petitions, and working in all methods to expose and decapitate religion’s influence from human thought. They wage war against superstition.
I’m intelligent, but I’m also impressionable. After I finished the book, I was atheism’s latest convert. My eyes were blank and swam with fervor not of my own soul. I was fueled with revolutionary rage against the stranglehold of Creationists and Evangelicals in the United States government, the support for suicide bombers in the Middle East, and at the complacency of all so-called “moderate” religious people who the book deemed simply less religious than their barbaric counterparts. I believed I saw evil for the first time. That evil was religion.
The next day, I had lunch with a friend from the office. Oh-so-conveniently, the topic of religion arose, and she took up fortifications as a religion sympathizer. So with Harris’ book fresh in my mind, I launched a verbal assault upon all her fronts. I battered down her rhetorical gates with statistics and polls. I even quoted verses from the Quran (“And kill them wherever you find them, and turn them out from where they have turned you out” 2:191). I’m even afraid to admit that, by the end, I was so zealous for the atheist cause that I declared for the utter decimation of religion (with Islam being the first priority) as the final solution to evil — whether that meant re-educating entire cultures and populations, or simply blowing them up. Yes, dear Heavens, I actually said that!
*Flees into bathroom… Brushes teeth and washes mouth out with soap.*
When our debate concluded, she said she was Catholic, reviled me as an Islamophobe, and promptly left. She does not speak to me in the office.
I won the debate, I knew that. Most of my arguments had left her gibbering. Nonetheless, I was wretched, hated, and ashamed. I had let myself become brainwashed, and by that very ideology which claims to free all people from religious brainwashing. I tried assuaging my guilt with self-assurance: “people don’t take the truth well, Adam, not at first” or “People are stupid; they believe what they want to, not what’s reality.” But I knew this was just arrogance, the same infernal sort that makes such bright minds succumb to the most heartless and pitiful of paradigms. I withdrew into research and returned to my old, friendly, fuzzy-around-the-edges agnosticism, and just tried to keep my nasty fling with atheism a dirty secret.
ATHEISM ISN’T A PROBLEM. ANTI-THEISM IS.
I attended a liberal arts college; even while I was still Christian, I got along with atheists without much friction, since I saw no point debating with them. If God exists, I think he judges people based on their character, and not on self-given labels concerned with whether or not said God is real. Challenging one’s existential musings is not as important to me as facing the flaws of human nature inherent in all people, both believers and nonbelievers. There is nothing intrinsically moral about being a believer or unbeliever. That is why I value the wisdom of Original Sin. I don’t worry about people who don’t believe in God. I am scared shitless of people who don’t believe in sin.
I make this disclaimer, because the allegations I present are definitely not aimed at the entire atheist community — the motley conglomeration of free thinkers and rebels that it is. But I encourage nonbelievers and my fellow agnostics to take Christianity’s example of self-searching and repentance, and be honest if I happen to be describing yourself.
No doubt, New Atheists have reached a testicular critical mass to state that the actions of people, for good and incredible ill, are in fact driven by what we believe about the universe, and not invisible demons on people’s shoulders. Like political ideology and philosophies, religion should not be exempt from criticism, nor for its role in acts of terrorism. We do not blame politics or economy for the violence of the Branch Davidians in Waco in 1993 —why exempt the Islamic State for its actions, passing its existence off as any reason besides religious? Good grief, it’s called the Islamic State.
Harris writes in his book:
“And so it is that when a Muslim suicide bomber obliterates himself along with a score of innocents on a Jerusalem street, the role that faith played in his actions is invariably discounted. His motives must have been political, economic, or entirely personal.”
Yet how is it that ancient books, full of myths about talking snakes and a paradise of dark-eyed virgins, can transform perfectly well-intentioned human beings into monsters? Clearly, both the Bible and the Quran are chock full of passages that are morally repulsive and insane. They are also full of wisdom, history, and valuable tradition, if the reader wields the conscience and common sense to interpret it properly. People, however, clearly have not interpreted them properly. But why? It is hereabouts where anti-theists make their dangerous mistake.
These New Atheists fall into the same errors as their religious opponents. They externalize an enemy, which is religion and religious people. They group together masses of the population into the intelligent and the ignorant, into “us” and “them.” They glorify themselves as progressive, while demonizing anyone who is not fervently atheist (yes, even agnostics like me!) as impediments to that progress. They believe in a salvation through science, reason, and technology. They believe humans can be perfected by way of ethics, education, and medical enhancement.
We see clearly that science and technology cannot save humanity, and like a tool, can be used for good or ill. World War II, the Communist purges, the atomic bombings threw away all the old prewar fantasies that science and secularism was making humanity progress to a utopia, when it merely allowed for unimaginable methods of human extermination. Anti-theists point at the ridiculous tenets of many religions, yet fail to understand — or else blatantly scoff — the circumstances of oppression that lead people to believe suicidally in them.
The real issue humanity faces is not religious delusion, but human nature. When a person is lost and miserable, when other human beings have reduced him to a pitiful wretch, when life has assured that none of his dreams will ever come true… religion appears before him. It carries him away, coddles him, whispers promises of salvation if he simply believe that the planet is 6,000 years old, or that a Jewish carpenter was the son of God. Religion takes advantage of our weakness. It is simply human nature that, if we reach a critical point of desperation, we can accept any lie or any certainty where there is no certainty to be found. As long as it makes the painful, unanswerable mysteries go away.
Atheists, according to my observation, attack the weird beast of religion, but ignore the nest called despair from where it hatches and broods. That old beast Religion is a hydra — every head you slash with the twin swords of science and philosophy will only make more heads grow back. Arguing with the fervently devout seems only to make them shout their mantras more loudly, because most atheists do not consider the cause.
And why are people miserable? Just turn on the television. Hell, take a walk down the street. The rich are driven by endless greed and nihilism, and exploit the lower classes. The middle class is bored, lonely, and selfish. And the lower classes, who make up the vast majority, are obviously exhausted, starving, and hopeless. And everywhere, there is an appalling, existential vacuum human nature needs to have filled. A human being’s despair is the fuse; religion and ideologies are the sparks that set off the explosion.
I’ve heard atheists claim that altruism, not superstition, is humanity’s default state of belief. If that is true, there is virtually no more point to argument. All of us must climb down from our rivaling towers of piety and intellectualism, and simply do what everyone agrees is right. Do what Jesus said was right. I’ll get up from the computer, and start right now.
Otherwise, atheism will transform into yet another weird beast, strengthened from having feasted upon the bones of religion, and usurp its throne. Its heads will have many names — Hedonism, Capitalism, Nihilism, Materialism, and Moral Relativism. And one day we’ll be waging war with it, too.
I think that war has already begun.