In discussion a few days ago I made an offhand remark about my “enthusiastic atheism.” It occurred to me later that the term, though an accurate description, is an uncommon one. What on earth could even be important, much less passion-inspiring about simply, innocuously, and even blandly having no belief in a god or gods? It entails no warpath, no threatening of others’ rights, no foreign or domestic missions, no zeal.
To be sure, whether the still hidden mysteries of the universe include a powerful, knowledgeable deity does warrant inquiry. (For brevity, I’ll use the singular god but I mean god or gods.) Like relativity, quantum mechanics, and the expanding universe, it’s a big question in terms of potential cosmic significance (though not necessarily important in our quotidian existence).
But what most people miss is that whether there is such a supernatural reality is not ipso facto a religious question. It is either open to human inquiry or it is not, and by far the most successful, most incisive way to carry out inquiry while minimizing fooling ourselves is the scientific method. Whether there is a god is a scientific question.
Compounding the muddle, even if there is a god, we cannot intelligently make the unwarranted leap from that “fact” to the complex set of fantastic characteristics invented by ancient peoples that yet linger in the modern world—splintered in a plethora of fungible sects. We are told that having a god means, QED, that the god is an entity with personal interest in humans, with total power, total goodness, total awareness, and a host of other requirements for the job, including a fondness for cruelty, and having authoritative positions on homosexuality and American exceptionalism.
The range of possible characteristics of this still mythical character is so vast, that it’s a total shot in the dark to suppose that worship, prayer, and supplication make any sense at all. Even my choice of the word “character” has gone too far; only “entity” fits. But even if one’s “theory of god” passes all the tests in assessing a scientific theory, reaching the conclusion that religion will thereby have been suggested, much less endorsed, boggles the mind with its childish simplicity.
But that is what religions do, construct castles in the air out of nothing but feelings, ancient guesses, and a 1984-like papering over of any offending reality. Such bizarre anti-intellectualism is hard to carry off unless motivated by passion, but it is not a passion for truth—for a search for truth is not what fuels the faithful no matter their rhetoric about it and symbolic capitalization (Truth!). It is a passion maintained by constant repetition, force, shaming, scaring, and bullying. Without those things religion as a force in human sociopolitical life could not survive.
Against that backdrop, atheism as a position is but a pleasant, possibly boring philosophical consideration, much like one’s thoughts about dark matter. It prompts neither parades, sermons, flag-waving, hymns, witch-burning, shouts, beheadings, nor dramatic intonement. Nothing so exciting, just a topic of study and hypothesizing. A committed geek might find enthusiasm in that, but no one else would.
Atheism commands enthusiasm only as a reaction. Without religion, we’d scarcely notice atheism. As a pressure group, faction, or crusade around which to rally—atheism exists only because of religion.
When religion causes voters to spurn atheists for public office (only the god-fearing can be trusted), atheists become enthusiastic. When religion conspires for civil government to teach its beliefs to children in public schools, atheists become enthusiastic. When religion in the U.S. demands that courthouses and public spaces support and evangelize dogma, atheists become enthusiastic. When religion demands special tax treatment, thereby requiring atheists and others to help finance religious practices, atheists become enthusiastic. An enraging list like this could go on much longer; incidences occur far more frequently and blatantly than is generally known. I’ll spare you further examples.
The United States was at its inception a bold experiment in religious/philosophical liberty. Our Constitution guaranteed freedom of religion and its necessary complement, freedom from religion (the former impossible without the latter). Despite the gravitas and credibility of founders like Roger Williams, Tom Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, keeping it that way has been a constant struggle for two centuries.
The current iteration features Christian revisionists (foremost, the discredited David Barton) arguing that the country was and should now be a “Christian nation;” that government should help Christians spread their religion; and, that challenges to Christianity’s hegemony over other religions and non-religion in social and political affairs is, in the twisted logic of religion, an attack on Christians’ freedom of religion! (Borrowing the subtitle from Robert Boston’s book Taking Liberties, “religious freedom doesn’t give you the right to tell other people what to do,” a consideration the faithful have long had difficulty grasping.)
To be other than passionate as an atheist under these circumstances is to underestimate the perfidy of religious sects’ mission to control others. That is why my offhand comment was accurate; I am a happy, ethics-valuing, life-loving, enthusiastic atheist.
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