It’s a curious and depressing fact that while religious people very generally expect that their beliefs will be respected, they seldom show much inclination to respect the views of others.

It sometimes happens that someone makes a statement about “God.” This happens from time to time on Facebook, for example. After making such a statement, the person who made it may become quite upset if anyone expresses disagreement. They feel they should be entitled to make statements about “God” in a public forum, and they also feel that no one should disagree — or that if one disagrees, one ought politely to remain silent, out of respect.

The notion that atheists are entitled to the same respect seems not to occur to them.

Let’s be clear about this: If you so much as mention “God” in a way that indicates you believe in such a thing, you are guilty of the same faux pas that you’re happy to accuse others of. You are directly disputing the understanding of the universe that is held (with, I might add, a great deal more supporting evidence than you can marshal) by atheists. Merely by mentioning “God” as anything more than a ridiculous and unsupported hypothesis, you are stating categorically that atheists are wrong.

Now, either it is disrespectful to suggest that someone’s understanding of the world is wrong, or it isn’t. If it isn’t wrong to do that, then you have no business whatever whining when I point out that your statements about “God” are entirely unsupported by a shred of evidence, and on that basis are not to be taken seriously. If, on the other hand, it is wrong to make such a suggestion, then you simply cannot mention “God” or your notions about “God” in any public forum, because to do so would violate your own standard of conduct.

In general, I approve of the idea that when one sees or hears somebody making a possibly dangerous mistake in their thinking about the world, one ought to correct them. That’s the friendly thing to do. If your friend thinks that the way to back a car out of the garage is to put it in low rather than reverse, you need to explain to them that they’re about to put a hole in the wall of the garage. If your friend thinks that children shouldn’t be vaccinated because vaccines cause autism, the friendly thing is to explain to them that they’re entirely wrong, that they’re putting their children at risk. If your friend thinks they can safely handle a pistol without checking to see whether it’s loaded — well, in that case, you need new friends, because the ones you have are dangerous and probably won’t last long.

But when your friend has a wrong idea not about automobiles, vaccines, or firearms, but about the whole entire universe, somehow you’re expected to remain silent, because that’s the polite, friendly thing to do.

I don’t get it.


In his longish introduction to The Princess Bride, William Goldman sets up the pretense that he didn’t write the novel, that it’s a condensation of a much longer (and really boring) novel by someone named Morgenstern. The book we’re about to read, Goldman assures us, is the thoroughly edited “good parts” version.

Today I’ve been trying to understand the root of my hostility toward Christianity. I generally try to be tolerant, but when I’m in a sour mood I can be quite nasty. Now, I know that many Christians are nice people and have very progressive social views. I applaud their niceness and their progressive views! I’m also aware that many of them would insist that their character and their views arise directly from their religion.

I suppose that’s possible. I suspect that they would be nice people even if they weren’t religious, but I can’t prove it one way or the other.

Be that as it may, I can’t help feeling that their version of Christianity is the “good parts” version. They’re leaving out quite a lot — and not just those vile verses in Leviticus. They’re leaving out the part where people were burned at the stake by the Inquisition, or after being accused of witchcraft. They’re leaving out the part where Christians by the thousands marched off to the eastern end of the Mediterranean and butchered thousands of non-Christians during the Crusades. They’re leaving out the robust support for slavery that was provided by Protestant ministers well into the 19th century. They’re leaving out the way in which the cultures of Native Americans were systematically destroyed because it was felt that the First Nations people had to be forced to become Christian. They’re leaving out the misery of gay teens who are sent off to “reprogramming” camps or simply thrown out of the house and left to live on the street. And probably a few other things too.

The standard response of the modern liberal Christian, when presented with this list of evils, would be something like this: “Oh, but that’s not Christianity! Those atrocities were committed by people who didn’t understand true Christianity at all!” Christ had not entered into their hearts, blah blah blah.

If that’s the case, we’re left to wonder whether Christ is lazy or just hopelessly inept. But I don’t propose to dissect that particular bit of nonsense today. I want to confront the larger proposition.

I’m here to say, no. You don’t get to use the good parts version and ignore the rest of your religion, not when I’m in the room. Those atrocities were committed, in each case, by people who deeply felt that they were motivated by Christian belief — and they were. That’s exactly what motivated them, in each and every case. Their evil is not a separate thing from Christianity; it’s inextricably part of Christianity.

You don’t get to drop your baggage, or cherry-pick. You don’t get to sweep those mountains of evil under the rug. It’s Christianity, every bit of it. If it makes you hideously uncomfortable to recognize that, good! Maybe you’ll learn something.

If I am nothing else, I try to be intellectually honest. I try never to ignore inconvenient facts. The history of Christianity is a fact. You cannot shut the door on it. If you consider yourself a Christian, you own that history.

It might be objected that Christianity in the 21st century is not at all the same religion that it was in the 15th century, or even in the 19th. To a considerable extent that’s true, although festering pockets of Medieval thinking remain. However, this argument utterly fails. Why? Because Christianity began 2,000 years ago. If you’re going to look to an inspiring or supposedly miraculous series of events that took place 2,000 years ago as the fountainhead of the religion that you enjoy today, you can hardly pole-vault over the intervening centuries. Those same events, whatever they were, likewise inspired all of the carnage that spills across the history books.

In a song called “On the Road Again,” Bob Dylan said, “You ask why I don’t live here? Honey, how come you don’t move?” That’s my question for today’s liberal Christians: Why are you still in the church? Why haven’t you turned around and walked out the door? Why haven’t you started looking around for a different religion, a religion for adults? Why haven’t you tossed that dusty old book with the stories about how God commanded the Jews to commit mass murder onto the trash heap, where it belongs?

There are a lot of Christians today — the most vocal members of the fraternity, in fact — who are monstrously evil. We all know it. They promote suffering. They hate people who know how to think. And those are your fellow travelers. They read the same Bible you read. They have the same symbol hanging on the wall (a device the Romans used for capital punishment) that you do. They sing the same songs you sing.

If you hang around with zombies, you’re going to get your brains eaten. Or maybe it’s too late. Have you checked your brains lately?

A Very Old Story

Interesting discussion yesterday with a friend who is a Christian but also scientifically literate and living in the modern world. The business of reconciling religion with science set me thinking — and since I’m repurposing the Oblong Blob as a writing blog, it’s handy that what I’ve been thinking about is a story. The story of Adam and Eve.

Christians who are mired in Medieval stupidity tend, with distressing tenacity, to insist that this story is literal truth. We need not debate them, as they’re incapable of reasoned discourse. Nonetheless, the story is worth looking at, because it encapsulates some important themes.

A great deal is known about human evolution. A Christian who is prepared to embrace science really has no alternative but to accept and work with the current state of scientific findings on the subject of evolution, including the evolution of our own species. What then, is the Christian to make of the story of Adam and Eve?

Genetically modern humans, homo sapiens, have existed for at least 100,000 years, perhaps 150,000. For most of that time, up to about 12,000 years ago (or somewhat more recently in Northern Asia, Africa, and the New World), we were hunter-gatherers. And prior to that time, up to perhaps as much as 3 million years ago, proto-humans lived pretty much the same way. We roved the grassland in East Africa, hanging out with our friends and finding stuff to eat. There were no villages. There were no laws.

That’s the science.

About 12,000 years ago, possibly due to a climate change, people in the Middle East invented farming. The archaeology really leaves no room for doubt. And it was a radical development. The food supply was now more secure, but we had to live in villages. We had to do more repetitive tasks. We had to plan ahead, storing grain and then protecting it against thieves. We had to dig and maintain irrigation ditches, and pretty soon there were guys with spears standing around to make sure we dug the ditches and didn’t harvest our neighbor’s grain. All of a sudden there were laws, and guys whose job was to enforce the laws.

As much sense as this made economically, it was a shock. Our genes were well adapted to a hunter-gatherer way of life. A farming way of life was not comfortable or natural for us. And of course evolution works very slowly. A settled way of life in a modern city still doesn’t feel natural.

On some level, this is what the story of Adam and Eve is about. There was a time when we roamed freely in a garden, but now we’re condemned to live by the sweat of our brow. And we can’t go back. However distorted the myth of Adam and Eve may be, it expresses that essential conflict. If you’re a Christian and hope to guide your life by the stories in the Bible, I suppose the take-away might be, “I’m going to have to be responsible for making a living, whether I like it or not.”

Other interpretations are possible. The myth also tells us that we’re not perfect. We would like to be perfect, but inevitably we screw it up. And when we screw up, there are consequences. It’s a useful reminder.

Ideally, fiction should at least touch on basic themes of this sort — themes that tell us about our shared humanity. Sadly, a lot of plotted genre fiction falls short of this ideal. A distressing amount of genre fiction boils down to, “I’m good, you’re bad, so I’m going to kill you.” If that’s as deep as you can dig as a writer, pardon me while I don’t read your book.

Theological Rant #739

Sometimes I have the dubious pleasure of sitting in a room (in a church basement, not uncommonly, or what passes for a basement in sunny California) listening to a bunch of recovering alcoholics talk about how God is working in their lives. Sometimes the evening’s reading is drawn from a chapter euphemistically mis-named “We Agnostics,” in a certain large book.

I no longer care very much about anonymity, but to preserve appearances, I’m not going to mention the name of the book.

Tonight, while I was patiently listening, a couple of things occurred to me. First, if there were an incredibly cosmic, powerful, benign, sentient, aware being called “God,” why would that being care a fig whether you or I believed in Him or acknowledged His wonderfulness? What kind of insecure, penny-ante deity would actually place a shred of value on our belief? This notion makes no sense at all. If there is a God, we’re certainly entitled to hope that God is both secure enough emotionally and benign enough not to put the slightest importance on our beliefs.

The obvious conclusion is that when good things happen in our lives (doled out to us, presumably, by this benign spirit), our belief or lack of belief has nothing whatever to do with it. God does whatever God feels like. You’re just a pawn. If God sends you cancer or a terrible auto accident, or miraculously rescues you from same, it can have nothing to do with whether you believe or how you pray.

The corollary is an observation that’s certainly not original with me, but perhaps it’s worth repeating. If this “God” actually did care, for some reason, about having humans acknowledge Him as the ruler of the universe, how inept would He have to be to allow so many different religions to propagate themselves across the world? Their various views of this God fellow and what He wants and expects of us can’t all be right; logically, most of them must be wrong.

Yet this is the popular view of “God,” at least in the part of the world that I inhabit: a being who is both insecure, in that He hopes and expects to be explicitly acknowledged in exchange for bringing good things into our lives, and very inept about explaining Himself and His urgent admonitions with respect to human comportment.

The “We Agnostics” chapter (which should have been called “You Agnostics,” because it certainly wasn’t written by an agnostic) makes a number of bizarre and easily shredded assertions. One of my favorites is the sentence, “Either God is everything, or He is nothing.” This idea is deployed, of course, in the sincere hope of convincing you agnostics to fall on your knees and worship Him, that being (in the view of the authors of the book) the only means of distancing oneself from the temptation to indulge in strong drink. The subtext, which can easily be unpacked, is, “If you’re not a complete 100% dogmatic atheist, and we’re sure you’re not, you must believe in God.”

Unfortunately, the sentence as stated doesn’t even begin to cover the possibilities. There might, for instance, be many Gods, none of them supreme. That is, none of them “everything.” Some of them might be evil. There’s an interesting strain of religious thought in gnosticism that holds that the God who created the Earth and human beings is not the Eternal God. Clearly the God described in the Old Testament is a sadistic monster, and the gnostics seem at least dimly to have sensed that. If the Old Testament God is the one that created the Earth, we’re going to have to dig deeper to find a God that we’ll actually want to hang out with.

There’s lots of other ridiculous stuff in that chapter, but I’ll save it for another time.

…Because God Told Me To

In the course of one of those pointless wrangles on Facebook, my interlocutor posted a link to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s page on the requirement that employers provide religious accommodation. This individual seems to be of the opinion that more accommodations are made in the workplace for Muslims than for Christians, though he offered no evidence, anecdotal or otherwise, to support this fairly silly idea.

On that page, the EEOC states, “A religious practice may be sincerely held by an individual even if newly adopted, not consistently observed, or different from the commonly followed tenets of the individual’s religion.” And then we get to this: “Social, political, or economic philosophies, or personal preferences, are not ‘religious’ beliefs under Title VII.”

In any legal sense, this is complete gibberish. It’s the law of the land, but it makes not a lick of sense. The first sentence is bad enough — I can eat meat on Monday and on Tuesday expect my employer to accommodate my sincerely held religious beliefs as a vegetarian. What evidence I would need to supply to prove that my sincere religious beliefs demand a vegetarian diet is not specified. Evidently, I don’t have to belong to a vegetarian church. I don’t even have to be a practicing vegetarian! So how is my employer to gauge whether my belief is “sincerely held”?

But that difficulty, vexing as it is, pales into insignificance beside the real problem. The real problem is this: A religion — any religion — is nothing BUT a social philosophy and personal preference. There is nothing of any substance in religion ASIDE from social philosophy and personal preference!

Naturally, believers don’t see it that way. They seem to have the idea that their religion creates some sort of special relationship between the individual believer and Thor, Poseidon, the Magic Unicorn of Zenda, or some other equally imaginary being. Unfortunately for them, the U.S. Constitution expressly prohibits any legal recognition of their belief in the Magic Unicorn of Zenda. Can’t go there. So if a law attempts to put a religion — any religion — in a special category that is DIFFERENT from a mere social philosophy or personal preference, then the law is in violation of the establishment clause of the Constitution. It’s an unconstitutional law.

As a result, employers CANNOT legally be required to provide any religious accommodation. Want some time off on Good Friday? Tough. Want to wear a headscarf? Too bad. That turban? Sorry, dude.

Now, I’m all for being polite to people whose personal styles are divergent. We should all try earnestly to make the kind of reasonable accommodations that are spelled out in Title VII. I happen to think the managers at Abercrombie & Fitch were being absolute dicks to try to fire that woman for wearing a headscarf. But as a legal matter, once they’ve set up a dress code for their employees, the fact that an employee happens to sincerely believe that the Magic Unicorn of Zenda wants her to wear her hair in a purple Mohawk should not be her manager’s problem, because there is NO legally cognizable difference between a Muslim headscarf and the purple Mohawk demanded by the Magic Unicorn.

Lay That Burden Down

I’ve always had a vague interest in the Tarot. Over the past year or two it has blossomed into a definite interest. I’ve been buying Tarot decks and Tarot books.

I’m not sure where the interest comes from. As a card-carrying atheist, I’m certainly not keen to wallow in the ideas of mystical transcendence that are prevalent in the ruminations of people who write about Tarot. On the other hand, as I get older, it’s entirely possible that I’m harboring some sort of wish for the comforts of religion.

For someone who cordially detests conventional religion, the Tarot has some definite advantages. Primarily, it’s a do-it-yourself approach to spirituality. There’s no creed, no doctrine, no authority figures. Or rather, there have been quite a number of creeds, doctrines, and authority figures over the course of the past 200 years, and they all disagree with one another in various ways. This leaves the individual seeker entirely free to choose whatever ideas he or she finds most appealing.

The older ideas and images in the Tarot date back to Plato and the Greek, Roman, and Egyptian pantheons. This is comforting first because it’s all plainly symbolic, not real; and second because it makes free use of sources that are quite outside the ambit of today’s dominant religions.

As to whether there is actually any occult force at work when a Tarot spread is laid out — on that question, I’m agnostic. Of course the scientific view is quite clear. There are no such things as occult forces. That’s all a silly fantasy. On the other hand, when I ask the Tarot for guidance about a serious life question, shuffle the cards, and lay out a spread that amounts to a perfect diagram of my situation, it’s a bit of a stretch to think that the cards are no more intrinsically meaningful than a Rorschach inkblot, a meaningless jumble into which I’m projecting my own perceptions. So who knows?

But that’s not what I wanted to write about.

The problem I encounter, in reading about the Tarot, is that many of the writers, and many of the people who design Tarot decks, lean so heavily on Christian ideas. The man who commissioned the most famous Tarot deck, Arthur Edward Waite, was a lifelong Catholic, but he wasn’t the first to weld Christian ideas into the images on the cards. Those ideas have been there from the 15th century onward.

And I absolutely loathe Christianity. I despise it. The odor of sanctity is putrid and disgusting. Yet it’s all but inescapable when you delve into the Tarot. And not just Christianity. What stopped me dead last night was reading a description of the Wheel of Fortune card that refers to “the four letters of the Hebrew name of God.” Who the fuck cares about the Hebrew name of God?

If you want to learn the meanings of the Tarot cards, there’s no escaping this stuff. The meanings of the ten numbered cards in each suit depend heavily on the Qabalah, a Jewish mystical tradition. Without the Qabalah, the numbered cards just have pretty pictures on them.

I like the idea that someday the Tarot might become the foundation of a new, secular religion — a religion that is acknowledged to be based entirely on symbolism, not on any sort of objective fact, a religion in which everyone is free to have their own understandings of the symbols. I think people probably need religion. They would certainly be better off without the crop of religions that are currently prevalent, and the Tarot offers a nice possibility for something new.

If only we could get rid of the putrid Christian goop with which it’s infected.

Revelation du jour

There is a God. And God does respond to prayers.

God is a giant armadillo named Murgatroyd. And by “giant” I do mean giant. Murgatroyd is about 75 feet from stem to stern, not including His tail. He lives in an air-conditioned barn near Peoria, Illinois, and seldom leaves, except once a year, when he hovers over the Superbowl like an invisible blimp. But He is able to respond to prayers without leaving the comfort of his barn, so His reclusiveness is not an issue.

However, you may want to know that Murgatroyd speaks (and understands) only Latvian. Prayers in Latvian will be answered promptly (“promptly” meaning, sometime within the next five or ten thousand years). Prayers not in Latvian will not attract Murgatroyd’s attention.

But there’s some good news. Murgatroyd’s only begotten daughter, Betty, is bilingual in Latvian and English. You can pray to Betty, and she will cheerfully pass your requests on to Murgatroyd. Murgatroyd is not really too fond of Betty, so the results of her intercession cannot be guaranteed — but for most worshipers, praying to Betty will be easier than learning Latvian.

Betty is quite hard of hearing, unfortunately. Shouting loudly to her is recommended. And doing this outdoors will be most efficacious, as Betty is claustrophobic. She seldom ventures indoors.

Betty is very fond of yellow rubber rain boots. (Vinyl boots are acceptable.) If you stand in the street wearing yellow rubber rain boots and shout loudly to Betty, your prayers to Murgatroyd will have the best possible chance of being granted. Either that, or you could learn Latvian.

There has been a schism, regrettably, within the Church of Murgatroyd & His Divine Daughter Betty. The M&Mites hold that Betty is favorably impressed by an offering of burning M&Ms, whose smoke She inhales. Now, you may think it would be difficult to burn a bowl of M&Ms, but you’ll find that dousing them with gasoline or lighter fluid works very well.

The M&Mites are opposed by the Anti-Scissorites, who hold that touching or owning scissors, or even witnessing the use of scissors by a heretic, will infallibly incur the wrath of Betty. The wrath of Betty is not a pleasant prospect. It involves being forced to listen to the entire song catalog of the Eagles, played on a ukulele by a drunken auto mechanic.

On the whole, avoiding scissors seems like a very good idea. Either that, or you could always learn Latvian.


What did Jesus say? After uploading my previous blog entry, I decided I was curious about that. People who say they’re following the teachings of Jesus usually have in mind the first four books of the New Testament. But there are other sources.

A trove of manuscripts was uncovered in Egypt, not too many years ago — parchment books dating back to the 4th century. Until they were found, we knew little about the Gnostics, other than from the diatribes the orthodox church fathers wrote denouncing what they felt were the gnostic heresies. These recovered documents included a number of stories about Jesus and his apostles that differ, sometimes sharply, from what was previously known.

A scholar named Elaine Pagels wrote a wonderful book called The Gnostic Gospels about these newly discovered documents, and about what we can learn from them. I had read the book 25 or 30 years ago, but didn’t remember much. This week I’m reading it again.

The most important point, I think, is that the early church fathers were solidifying a rigid hierarchical and authoritarian social structure (bishops at the top, then priests, then deacons, then the ordinary worshipers). The gnostics were much more egalitarian in outlook. The gnostics allowed women to serve as priests, something the Catholic Church is still having fits about, 1,600 years later.

The gnostics were creative. They were interested in discovering spiritual truths for themselves. The orthodox church, on the contrary, was bound and determined that there was only one source of truth — a bishop who had received the mandate passed down directly from one of the apostles.

If anything, this view of the historical situation solidifies my contempt for organized Christianity, quite apart from any specific questions of doctrine.

Another thing that I’m reminded of by reading about these early struggles over the meanings of various events (such as the crucifixion and the resurrection) is that none of the people involved had the least idea about the nature of the world they were living in. Science simply didn’t exist. They certainly knew that it was unilkely for someone who had been crucified and was dead to come back to life — but they had no reason at all to assume that it could never happen. People whom they were inclined to trust told them it had happened; therefore, it had happened.

Only during the past 200 years have we been in any position to deconstruct the entire foundation of religious doctrine, using the tools of science. You might think this would be a great relief to everybody, but no. People care about their religion, whatever it happens to be.

And that’s the third point: memes. A meme is an idea that survives or evaporates in what we might call a virtual ecosystem, the system of human brains and human culture. Memes that resonate well with human instinct tend to spread. They lock in with our deepest feelings and are difficult to eradicate. An idea that seems grotesque to us (say, the divinity of the Flying Spaghetti Monster) is unlikely to propagate through the meme-sphere.

Religion is deeply entrenched because its characteristics have been finely honed through thousands of years to resonate with humans’ instinctive perceptions and needs. Trying to debate the truth or falsity of religious doctrines is very nearly useless. Memes are stubborn. You might as well try to cure cancer with aspirin tablets as try to explain scientific truth to someone whose mind has been taken over by religious memes.

The Gnostic Gospels illustrates this process in a clear and convincing way because the only thing the early Christians could do was ask themselves which set of ideas resonated best with their unconscious and intuitive sense of what was good or right. They were in no position whatever to do any reality-testing — it was all free-floating memes.

Ruminations on Religion

Today I got into a low-key wrangle with a woman on Facebook who feels that her moderate, enlightened version of Christianity is superior to the version espoused by the right-wing zealots who are currently spewing their toxic garbage across our national discourse. She said she simply follows the teachings of Jesus, which she finds not very ambiguous.

I asked her whether she opposes divorce; Jesus was quite specific about that, if the Bible is to be believed. Of course, the Bible is a farrago of fantasy, we all understand that — but if she’s trying to follow the teachings of Jesus, she has to use it.

She wouldn’t answer the question. But she got me curious, so I hauled out the King James Version and had a look at Matthew. The sayings of Jesus turn out to be more peculiar than I remembered — and a lot harder to use as teachings or moral precepts, I’d say. Here’s Matthew 8:21-22: “And another of his disciples said unto him, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father. But Jesus said unto him, Follow me; and let the dead bury their dead.”

Okay, so one of Jesus’s teachings was that corpses were to be allowed to rot unburied. Have I got that right?

Earlier in the same chapter, a centurion comes to Jesus requesting that Jesus heal his servant, who is “grievously tormented” by the palsy. But the centurion doesn’t want Jesus to be seen entering his house! “For I am a man under authority,” he explains. He wants Jesus to heal the servant remotely. Jesus does so — but what’s remarkable about this incident is that Jesus goes out of his way to praise the centurion’s great faith. “Verily I say unto you,” he says to his disciples, “I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel.”

The centurion is worried about losing his job if he’s known to be hanging out with Jesus, and Jesus praises his faith. That’s enough to set my head spinning. Jesus is unabashedly praising fear and hypocrisy. He’s praising a man for not wanting to lose his job.

And yet he also says, “Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on.” Yes, that does seem to be fairly unambiguous, though it’s precisely the opposite of what he praised the centurion for.

Can we safely assume that the woman who is following the teachings of Jesus has no interest in dieting and nutrition? Can we safely assume that she doesn’t bother to wash her clothes or make sure that her socks match?

Or, as is much more likely, shall we assume that she is picking and choosing among the teachings of Jesus, embracing the teachings that she likes and ignoring those that would be embarrassing, inconvenient, or dangerous?

I’m not too concerned, at the moment, about hypocrisy. That’s not what I’m driving at. What I want to suggest is that not even the most scrupulously religious can dodge personal responsibility for their moral and behavioral choices. If you try to follow every single thing in your favorite holy book, of course you’ll go mad, because holy books are full of contradictions. But even if you did try to do that, it would still be your personal choice. You can’t evade responsibility for your actions by trying to blame it on Jesus. In practice, people do pick and choose the verses they will admire and embrace. And that’s as it should be.

But if you do it that way, and if you have even a scrap of honesty, you really have to admit to yourself that the Bible is not a reliable guide to anything. The only reliable guide to morality or life’s difficult choices is your own personal sense of right and wrong. Jesus got nothin’ to do with it.

“The New Atheists”

One occasionally sees references to “the new atheists.” It’s not a term of flattery or respect. The people who use this phrase seem, almost without exception, to be trying to discredit the writings of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and perhaps one or two others.

Their attempts are usually irritating. Bad reasoning, ad hominem attacks, and sweeping ignorant generalizations are not in short supply. Tonight, while doing the dishes, I think I figured out what the problem is.

At a fundamental level, atheism is one thing, and criticism of organized religion is a different thing. One can be scathingly critical of organized religion (some of it or perhaps all of it) without being an atheist. Conversely, one can be an atheist purely as a personal matter, while possibly retaining great respect for religious values, religious communities, and religious symbols.

It seems to me that people who use the phrase “the new atheists” are not, for the most part, upset with the atheistic reasoning (call it a credo if you like; I won’t) of atheists new or old. Lack of belief in a deity is not the issue. The issue is that these people think you shouldn’t criticize organized religion. They think religion is entitled to be accorded some sort of unique respect — that religion is deserving of a special social standing that lifts it into a region where criticism ought not to penetrate. What they’re disturbed about is that Dawkins, Hitchens, and their allies. not content merely to profess or promote atheism, also insist on leveling devastating and well-reasoned critiques at the institutions of organized religion. And from time to time at the mental processes of religious believers.

This is, I suppose, a new trend. There have always been atheists. We have a few writings from pre-Christian Rome that suggest that at least a few upper-class Romans were atheists. It seems quite likely that several of the Founding Fathers of the United States were also atheists, though they cloaked their opinions very carefully in their writings in order to avoid disturbing the status quo. But until quite recently, religion was sacrosanct. Protestants could criticize Catholics in vicious terms; Catholics could retaliate by lambasting Protestants. But very few people were willing to stand up and say out loud, “Hey, the whole thing is a crock of shit.”

It should have happened 2,000 years ago. But until the invention of the telescope and the microscope, until the theory of evolution was developed, the criticism of religion could only be of specific practices that might be considered objectionable. The foundations of the whole enterprise could only be revealed as deeply and horribly flawed when science had progressed to the point at which religious belief of any sort was no longer intellectually defensible. Those who are still trying to defend it have to resort to more and more arcane and convoluted pretexts.

As far as I’m concerned, religion — any religion, or the whole enchilada wrapped up in greasy paper to go — is entitled to no more respect than the Shriners, the Odd Fellows, Monsanto, or the NRA. All of them are human institutions, and all can be, and indeed must be, criticized using the same intellectual tools and the same criteria. For starters, do the leaders of these institutions tell lies? I don’t know whether the Odd Fellows tell lies, but I’m damn sure bald-faced lies are being told by most Christian ministers, most Sundays.

I think it may have been in Dawkins’s The God Delusion that he, or somebody, remarks that there is really no basis on which Oxford or any other university could grant a degree in theology, because there’s nothing to study. That pretty much sums it up.