Just when I was about to end my "war on religion"...

...I got the following email from my friend, Christine, regarding my last post, and knew I would have to fire a final salvo. I will first share her letter, and then I will share my comments, which, like my last post, primarily concern Christianity.

"You know, Snow, you take a rather cynical AND egotistical stance against those of us who practice spirituality. Yes, of course there are the loudmouth religious rights who preach fire and brimstone. But you don’t seem to consider that the problem isn't the religion(s), it's the people who have opinions on religion - for AND against. That’s all. Philosophers write about their philosophical views and how those views can guide your life, your actions. Perhaps you wouldn’t be as offended by religion if you could take the ‘god aspect’ out of it. Many feel that god-is-love / love-is-universal / we-are-the-universe. When I say to you, ‘I will pray for you,’ I mean that I’m extending my own positive energy toward you. You KNOW without a doubt that you get something from that, from moral support. That’s all prayer is.

"To paint god and believers with such a broad-brush stroke is arrogant and narrow, in my opinion. It’s not god I’m defending here. What I’m defending is the right of individuals to practice philosophy. You’re all for religious freedom, but when you criticize and condemn those beliefs, you’re no better than the embittered evangelicals who give organized religion such a bad name.

"Might you consider using your talent and energy on reading up about philosophies that are more suited to your situation/personality/etc? Might you consider letting go your debate and contention with god/religion, so that you can find a philosophical relationship that works FOR you?"

To begin, I don’t think Christine meant to insult me even though I found some of what she said insulting. Likewise, I have no desire to insult her. As far as I am aware, she and I are, and will remain, on the best of terms despite our differences.

I was struck by the fact that Christine didn’t address any of the points I raised; she simply labeled me as “arrogant and narrow” for making them. In fact, NONE of the supporters of religion who read my post addressed any of the points I made, so let me make myself clear: if you think I made a rational or factual error, show me my error. However, I cannot accept your personal experience of answered prayer as proof of anything.

If you think this is unfair, please consider how you would feel if I told you I had seen the Loch Ness monster. Would you believe that the Loch Ness monster existed based upon my testimony, or even the testimonies of a thousand other people? Why not? Because for a thousand people to see something that extraordinary is a different matter from a thousand people seeing something relatively commonplace. As Carl Sagan said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” The corollary to this is that ordinary claims—like a report of a squirrel eating a nut—can be held to a lower standard of proof than claims about preternatural entities acting in defiance of scientific laws.

“... the problem isn’t the religion(s), it’s the people who have opinions on religion—for AND against.”

Show me the charred bodies of Christians who were murdered in the name of atheism; tell me of the Christians you know who were fired from their jobs, chased from their communities, expelled from their schools, threatened with violence, or otherwise persecuted in the name of non-belief. Then I will tell you of the times I have been cursed, threatened, ridiculed, stared at hatefully, subjected to obscene gestures, dismissed from jury duty, and even struck on the back of the head by Christians. Why? Because I wrote letters to newspapers, attended atheist conventions, rode with friends who had atheist bumper stickers on their cars, and refused to stand while a government employee led a Christian prayer inside a government building.

Thirty years ago, I was non-resident editor of American Atheist, and I had the honor of its president, Madalyn Murray O’Hair (see photo), asking that I call her Grandma. I mention this to demonstrate that I have been on the inside of the most militant atheist organization in America without ever once hearing any member of that organization—or any similar organization—propose that any law should be made that would limit the private exercise of religion, yet I have heard Christians say that atheists are “too dangerous to the American way of life to be permitted to spout their vile heresies,” and I have heard President George H. Bush say: “I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.” So, I ask you again—when you equate those who criticize religion with those who support religion, show me the evidence.

“You’re all for religious freedom, but when you criticize and condemn those beliefs, you’re no better than the embittered evangelicals.”

You might as well compare a gnat to a cobra. Can you point to a single place or period in the history of Christianity (modern day evangelicals included) in which religious people hesitated to pass laws to oppress nonbelievers? By contrast, what oppressive laws do you see me promoting—or fear I will promote? My sole desire in writing my last post was to offer a rational critique of prayer. However, I must confess that I would also like to see churches taxed, and for any and all observances of religion to be removed from taxpayer funded schools, ceremonies, and institutions. This is ALL I would like to see happen. I would NEVER tear down a church, deny a believer a job, throw a person in jail for professing his faith, forbid a preacher access to the media, or give anyone a religious test for public office. I don’t even care if the Boy Scouts expel atheists just so long as the Boy Scouts are not endorsed or supported by the government.

I object to religion because it is an oppressive and irrational influence in society. Yet, I acknowledge the right of religious people to be religious just as I acknowledge the right of those who believe in UFOs to believe in UFOs. BUT, if people who believe in UFOs should attempt to legally force the recognition of UFOs—or the beliefs that stem from their belief in UFOs—on other people, I would oppose them. Religious people in general believe that God should be on our coins, in our Pledge of Allegiance, in our public ceremonies, on our public buildings, in our public schools (and even our public textbooks), at our public sporting events, and in our moral laws. Theirs is not a live and let live policy. Theirs is a policy of forcing their religion-based values on everyone else and then accusing anyone who objects of being intolerant and unpatriotic. As you will no doubt point out, I generalize, but I believe that mine is a fair characterization of the majority of American Christians.

“Might you consider letting go your debate and contention with god/religion…”

Aside from an occasional blogpost, I do not spend a moment of my time opposing religion, yet I see it as a force worthy of opposition. You believe Christianity, for the most part, is a harmless, if not a benevolent, “philosophy.” I would argue that the fact that Christians haven’t killed or imprisoned anybody lately (aside from an occasional abortion provider) in no way convinces me that millions of them wouldn’t gladly do so again. It is not Christianity’s innate goodness that is responsible for its relative innocuousness but its political weakness. And that could change. There was a time, after all, when Islam was known for its peaceful coexistence and Christianity for its intolerant cruelty. Having swung once, who can say that the pendulum won’t swing again?

Pat Robertson said of Haiti after last week’s earthquake that the country, “had been cursed by one thing after another” since they “swore a pact to the devil.” If America’s foremost religious leader can scarcely contain his glee following natural disasters, which he invariably sees as God’s punishment of sinners and nonbelievers (along with millions of innocent bystanders), is it inconceivable that he might entertain a desire to act as God’s right hand in meting out the torment? Now, multiply that one hate-monger by millions, and tell me that they are the moral equals of those who goal it is to minimize the impact of just such thinking in the political life of this country.

About prayer

I’m going to start off here with a bit of a disclaimer. I don’t believe in prayer—or in the supernatural for that matter—but many of you do, and many of you have even told me that you are praying for me. I thank you for your prayers. Really, I do. It’s your way of saying that you care, and I am touched by your caring.

I originally intended the following “dialogue with God” to be funny, but after many hours of editing, I gave up because I realized I couldn’t cut or soften it enough to keep a great many of you from becoming so offended that you would stop reading by the end of the first paragraph. I then rewrote the piece as a straight-up fictional dialogue in which I challenge my childhood church’s teachings about God. It will still offend many, but I have done all I can do to present myself honestly without causing what might be considered gratuitous offense.

Me: Today, I would like to ask a few questions about prayer. You, being God and all, know everything, right, so you know what a person is going to pray for before he prays for it. Why then, does he have to pray?

God: To humble his heart so that he will look to me as the source of all goodness and mercy, and so he will glorify my name forever.

Me: Let’s say that he prays for another person though. Are you more likely to help that person because of his prayer, and are you more likely still to help that person if a dozen or even a million other people pray for him?

God: Prayer is not primarily a tool for getting things done; prayer is primarily a means of instilling dependence upon, and glorification of, the Creator. Therefore, the prayers of the many are more likely to be heard than the prayers of the few simply because dependence and glorification are more effectively instilled when they are answered.

Me: Millions of people pray for kings, presidents, world peace, an end to hunger, and so forth everyday, yet I can’t see that it helps any. Besides, if it is just and merciful for you to do something, aren’t you (being perfect in justice, mercy and every other virtue) obligated to do it regardless of whether anyone prays?

God: That which is just and merciful is no more and no less than what I say is just and merciful. As the creator of all things, I also create morality.

Me: So, when you told the early Jews to invade other countries and to murder everyone who lived there except for the young virgins—who they were free to rape—it was moral?

God: It was more than moral; it was obligatory. You will remember that I had King Saul killed because he failed to destroy enough people and livestock.

Me: Yes, I do remember, and it always bothered me. The way you describe morality, it can mean rape, robbery, and murder one day, and compassion and fair play the next. You throw out all standards except for your say-so.

Him: Yes, for I am The Lord.

Me: I have edited out what I think you are.

God: Your blasphemy will earn you a place in Gehenna.

Me: That’s really your trump card, isn’t it? If I, in good conscience and intellectual honesty, doubt you or question you because I dare to use the brain which you yourself gave me, then you say, “I’m sending you to hell.” And I’m supposed to, not just love and respect you; I’m supposed to worship you?

God: Who are you to question the ways of the Eternal God who out of emptiness laid the foundations of the world and set the stars in the firmament of the heavens?

Me: Uh, that’s pretty much what you told Job after he got upset that you allowed Satan to torture him so you could win a bet; but could we get back to the subject of prayer? As you know, I’ve spent a lot of time in church, and this means I’ve heard many prayers. Those prayers were for sundry things, for example, rain, money, healing, guidance, forgiveness, a safe journey, courage or some other virtue, etc. What I’m getting at is that I never, ever, even once heard a prayer for something so miraculous that it couldn’t have happened unless you did it, something like an amputee growing a new leg or a wrecked airplane being put back in the air. Yet, the Bible does say: “You can pray for anything, and if you have faith, you will receive it.” It would appear that your followers don’t want to hold the bar too high lest you be proven a fraud.

God: Your desire for showy miracles comes from your failure to believe. I will but say to you as it is said in Scripture: “…some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, ‘Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.’ But he answered them, ‘An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it…’”

Me: Uh, tell me if I’m wrong, but are you saying that you won’t answer a prayer if the answer might influence evil and adulterous people to believe in you? Don’t you want evil and adulterous people to believe in you?

God: As Jesus said to Thomas: “…blessed are those who have no proof, and yet have believed.”

Me: But isn’t belief without proof credulity? Honestly, if insistence upon proof is a shortcoming, doesn’t this leave the door open for anyone to believe anything--Christian or otherwise--no matter how absurd? Furthermore, if unsubstantiated belief is a virtue, does that virtue increase when someone believes things that are so totally absurd that no prudent person could believe them—things like a resurrected Jesus eating fish and walking through walls?

God: Verily, I say unto thee as it was said of old, “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness before God.”

Me: My Sunday school teacher used to quote that verse when I asked hard questions, but it’s not really an answer, now is it? It’s really just a way to shut people up when you don’t have an answer. In this instance, it enables worshippers to claim that your “power and mercy” is demonstrated when someone finds a new job despite the fact that your “power and mercy” allowed 35,000 children to starve to death that same day and thousands more to be abused and murdered. Your believers even pray for help in finding their car keys despite the fact that someone dies from hunger every two seconds while they’re looking for them.

I am confounded by such a hell-bent determination to believe that which is not only patently absurd but portrays you as a whimsical monster who is desperate for worship and who, if they are lucky, just might reward prayer givers with favors that are small at best and trivial at worst. Every time someone says he is praying for me, I think of the countless millions of humans and other creatures that you are allowing to suffer and die in excruciating misery and indescribable agony at that very moment, and I wonder why my well-wisher thinks you are going to answer her prayer. The difference between believing in prayer and believing in the sweepstakes is that some people actually win the sweepstakes.

Of course, the believers among them give you credit for even that. For example, let’s say Jane loses her job and gets it into her head that a “prayer of faith” will win her the lottery. Jane falls to her knees, prays her heart out, and goes off to choose her nine-digit lottery number. “Which numbers would Jesus choose?” she wonders, and 111222333 pops into her head. Voila! Jane wins the lottery. “It had to be a miracle,” she testifies, “because the odds of that precise number coming up were miniscule.

As I see it, Jane has two problems. One is explaining why, out of all the thousands of people—many more needy than she—who prayed to win the same lottery, God chose her. She will no doubt claim ignorance here (your ways being mysterious and all), but the second problem is more substantial. To wit, the chance of her number being drawn was exactly the same as the chance of any number being drawn. Our species has survived largely because of our ability to recognize patterns. The downside is that we also imagine patterns where none exist. The odds of a coin toss coming up heads ten times in a row is the same as any other combination, yet ten heads LOOKS impressive whereas two heads, three tails, one head, two tails, one head, and one tail, doesn’t. When people tell me how God has intervened in their lives, it is nearly always a case of them having mistaken a coincidence for a purposeful event.

I have yet another problem with prayer. It is very common for the faithful to develop a “crisis of faith” following a tragic event such as the death of their child. My problem is that millions of children die everyday, so how is it that those deaths didn’t cause a “crisis of faith”? Whatever believers might claim, I view prayer as being primarily an attempt to keep God on their side. This means that, when someone close to them—especially someone who was good and harmless and should have had her whole life ahead of her—dies, they feel betrayed. They can maintain their belief in an all-powerful and all-merciful God when he lets horrible things happen to other people, but when horrible things happen to them, it challenges their faith.

Here’s how I see it. If people want to believe in prayer, reincarnation, divine revelation, L. Ron Hubbard, the atoning blood of Jesus, or the Norse pantheon, it’s their right, and I wouldn’t stop them if I could. But neither do I respect a belief that seems silly to me simply because it falls under the heading of religion.

For a long time, I figured that my failure to believe was somehow my fault. The Bible spoke of faith as a gift that would be given to those who asked for it, so I asked, and asked, and asked, but I never felt it for more than a few minutes at a time and only then when I got myself worked into a lather at a revival meeting. Since everyone else I knew in fundamentalist Mississippi seemed to have no trouble believing, I grilled them every chance I got, trying to find a reason for my failure. Their answers were either non-existent or shallow. I finally concluded that I must have committed the vaguely defined “unpardonable sin” spoken of in the New Testament. My best guess was that I had done it one summer afternoon during my twelfth year when I got so mad at God for not answering my questions that I cursed him. This sent me into years of absolute terror about which, at the time, I was too ashamed to speak. I dealt with those years by trying to think of other things, but the terror stayed with me through many a sleepless night.

Then I let it go. Simple as that, although hardly so fast as that. I realized that I didn’t believe because there was no evidence to substantiate belief. This alleviated my terror, but it left me with another problem, namely, if there is no evidence for belief, why then do so many people believe—is it simply a matter of honest disagreement? I thought this unlikely because no evidence means no evidence. It doesn’t mean that different people can examine the same evidence and come to different conclusions. This reduced, in my mind, religious faith to wishful thinking or the blind acceptance of authority. It also explained why religious people are often so petty, vindictive, and mean-spirited. Because their faith lacks evidence, they can only sustain the illusion of faith—even to themselves—by coercion. Remember the fable entitled “The Emperor’s New Clothes”? Everyone knew in their heart of hearts that the emperor was naked, but as long as they were afraid to say so, they halfway fooled themselves into thinking that their eyes deceived them. It’s called group-think. Secretly pay a hundred people to say they see three ducks walking by when there are only two, and the hundred and first person will nearly always say that he sees three ducks.

“But,” you might say, “there is evidence to substantiate belief. For example, the universe is too complex to have come out of nothing, so some immensely powerful entity must have created it.”

If the complexity of the universe proves that an outside force created it, then that outside force, being infinitely more complex than the universe, would also require a creator. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t say that one complex entity, like the universe, requires a creator because it is complex, but that another—and infinitely more complex—entity doesn’t require a creator. Instead of offering a solution, such “proofs” of God are self-defeating due to internal contradictions and do not, therefore, constitute rationally coherent evidence.

If a person wants to believe despite the absence of evidence, and if he doesn’t use his religion to harm other people, I have no particular problem with it; but more often than not, religion creates barriers rather than bridges. When I walked away from the church I grew up in, everyone in that church who had been important in my life walked away from me. This is what religion is about, people dividing themselves off into groups that think they are more special to God than other groups. They build their little churches and look askance at the people in the church across the street. I quite literally see no good in religion that can only be attributed to religion, but even if I am wrong, I can’t begin to imagine that the good comes anywhere close to the harm. As my mother used to say, “Don’t discuss religion or politics in polite company.” Indeed, one or the other—or both—is behind every war, and neither is safe to talk about except among those who agree with you. Yet, religion, at least, claims to be about love.