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I suspect that many members of the clergy are in the closet in regards to believing in a god. That is the conclusion I drew from the many comments I received from pastors, etc from my photo essay, "Churches ad hoc: a divine comedy."

Herman Krieger

Eugene, OR

Jun 11 2007 - 5:28pm

Web Letter

How odd that the "atheist" is asked to prove that something doesn't exist when the burden of proof in any rational argument is on the asserter. If I told the reviewer that there were little purple men living on the dark side of the moon, he would doubtlessly ask me for proof, not have faith that I was correct. Of course I wouldn't burn him at the stake for disbelieving me either--but that's another story.

Like others here, I dislike the term "atheist"--largely because there is nothing to be against. Nevertheless, I'll accept the designation, rather than the clumsy "non-believer" or "secular humanist." This is precisely why the premise that atheists need replace religion is false. We are free of the burden of a retributional patriarch and free to experience the world unconstrained. Why superstition and thought control is preferable confounds me.

This is not to imply that we atheists feel free to be immoral. We can not. To insist on one's freedom must imply that you insist on that freedom for everyone or your own cannot be realized. We can't use "god's will" as an excuse for reprehensible actions and beliefs; we prefer to be judged on our own.

This is why the doctrine of separation of church and state is so critical and why it is so painful to see it desolved in these times. (Would that the reviewer had mentioned this.)

In fact, I would argue that the atheist is more likely to preserve religious freedom--he doesn't have a horse in the race--than the believer, especially one of a fundamentalist bent, since it is characteristic of the believer to believe in the superiority of his viewpoint and the legitimacy of imposing it on others. I, as I assume do most atheists, have no goal to convert others to atheism. I would, however, mandate that religion be kept private and removed from the public discourse--the freedom from religion interpretation. Along with this would be removal of governmental sponsorship of religion, including tax breaks and other benefits.

How do I get out of bed in the morning? Free! Free from superstition, control and fear. It's a good feeling!

Mark S. Jacobs

Severna Park, MD

Jun 1 2007 - 2:15pm

Web Letter

The Merry Atheist

Do you sometimes wonder if your good Christian neighbor ever gets fed up with constant expectations of being positive, strong, forgiving and loving amidst all of life's difficulties? I'm generally suspected of the opposite, and I'll tell you: I am fed up.

By chance, I first came across Daniel Lazare's recent article on atheism on AlterNet.org. (Although my wife and I subscribe to The Nation, where the article was first published, it takes some time for that magazine to find its way to Europe.) On the AlterNet website, Lazare's piece was headlined "What Makes An Atheist Get out of Bed?" Lazare never actually asks that question. Nevertheless, let us briefly look at it, since religious people, especially Christians, have turned it into a cliché and also use it as a sort of proof.

To ask what makes atheists get out of bed is, of course, completely irrelevant. (Probably the reason why Lazare avoids the question.) The answer could be derived from thousands of other questions such as: Why does grandma get out of bed? Or, why does the baker get out of bed?

Furthermore, the term atheist itself is only significant to people of religious faith. It is a negative term, pathetically trying to twist something positive. It is a term used and created by religious people eager to employ the branding iron on those who do not conform.

But why, then, is the question asked so often? I can see three main reasons. It is because asking it helps to keep alive a false stereotype: that of the miserable, pale, hedonistic, nihilistic and lost soul of the atheist and to try to conceal the truth: that a person free from religious faith is a thinking, confident person in no need of divine teddy bear-arms of comfort, or of dogmatic rules, to live righteously. The third reason for asking the question is chilling, quite clever and very sad. Again it has to do with concealment: that of the fact that in reality--the real reality, folks--it is the religious person who indeed is a lost person.

I am sure that a scientific experiment would show people of no religious faith to lead happier lives than people with. And hey, we still ask the big questions like what happens when I die? Why are we here? The difference is that, since we're genuinely curious, we've discarded some of the more ludicrous answers.

Lazare writes that atheism is a purely negative ideology. But atheism is no ideology, and people free of religion do not build their beliefs--oh, we do have beliefs--around opposition. I am not anti-religion--I couldn't care less about any deity. I am a pro kind of guy. I am pro minimal indoctrination, and it is my conviction that religion is a totalitarian system of the worst kind: one with no links to reality. To life.

I am not an atheist. I am a person who has spent considerable time freeing myself from religious bigotry. I have faith in doubt, the mother of creative thinking. I have faith in creative thinking, a blessing (or a curse on a bad day) that the universe has given us and which, by its very nature, we are obliged to try to understand. I believe there is no purpose to life but life itself. Does that make me want to go buy a couple of guns and out of sheer boredom massacre people? No. Does that make me gloomily sit around while waiting to die? No. I believe in life. I love life. I have the greatest respect for life. (Anything that takes a full six days to accomplish must be respected. Oh, sorry, the time thing is meant symbolically. So, perhaps God did spend billions of years to create the heavens and the earth? Although, if I were omnipotent, I would surely get bored with spending so much time on something I could finish in... well, six seconds. But who am I to try to understand the ways of the Supreme? There is actually a way of explaining God. Forget the all-powerful and in His place put a hardworking and for our standards unfathomably skilled scientist whose experiment we are part of. Or, speaking as expected of an atheist: We probably are nothing but a booger in that scientist's snotty nose.) By writing off atheism as a negative ideology, Lazare gives his support to the stereotype. Since he does not seem to have any illusions about religion, his position is disappointing and strange. In fact, I would say, it is an insult to all those people who have devoted their lives to, and died, fighting religion so that Lazare and I can voice our own thoughts.

Lazare's weakest argument against atheism is that anti-religious people, as he calls them, have given little thought to what to replace God with. Here, Lazarre misses the point. He is right in assuming that little thought is given to the issue, but there is a reason for this: The "problem of how to replace God" is quickly solved. It is not necessary to replace God with anything. Just as a 5-year-old, unless indoctrinated by a grown-up, will not see the need to replace Saint Nicholas after having seen through his red frock and white beard.

The claim that God has to be replaced with something is the undue proposition that religious belief is essential. Ultimately, it is intimidation, perhaps unintentional but nevertheless running the errands of sadistic clergymen taking comfort in other peoples' fears, suggesting that without God: brimstone, fire and doom awaits.

But let's ignore that crap and instead rejoice in knowing that everyone--hundreds of millions across the world--who is not tied down by religious faith is living proof that God does not need to be replaced at all. No one needs God, but we all need each other, our compassion and solidarity. Sadly, it seems God takes pleasure in coming between us and in creating hatred.

Lazare's text is a critique of the "reinvigorated atheist movement" and some of its more prolific characters, like Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens. The only interesting criticism, though, is the exposure of Hitchens's double standards. Lazare is right to point out that Hitchens's reasoning fails when he avoids mentioning George W. Bush while listing religious evil-doers. (The American president is, of course, one of the more dangerous religious leaders in the world.) It is quite easy, though, to understand Hitchens's weakness. It stems from the shock and anger culminating in 9/11, and although I do not share his support for Bush, it might be interesting to compare Hitchens's reaction with that following the publication of the Mohammed cartoons or with the record burnings after John Lennon said the Beatles were bigger than Jesus.

So, while Lazare's analysis is legitimate, we have to ask ourselves what he wants to prove. That scientists can be wrong? Well, that's kind of the whole idea, isn't it? Lazare spends a long paragraph making fun of Dawkins's attempts at explaining the reasons for religious belief. But should we not pay tribute to Dawkins for trying? Dawkins has a sincere interest in understanding, something that could not be said of St. Paul, no matter how much Lazare claims otherwise. The second Christian dogmatist had, we must assume, the same brain capacity as the Greek philosophers and scientists before him--like Dawkins, people genuinely interested in life--but was obviously poorly equipped with creative thinking. What other conclusion can be drawn from his pallid and lazy idea that everything be explained through a god? Unless, perhaps, we have to look at the fathers of monotheism as having taken the first brave step towards a theory of everything? I'm not willing to do so.

Lazare, on the other hand, seems eager to defend religious thinking (mainly Judaic and Christian). Is this what he wants to prove with his critique of atheism? That religion is as valid a system of thought as philosophy? That it therefore must be treated with respect? He's wrong. Religion should not be respected. One reason for its, I have to admit, remarkable endurance, is its clergy's success at convincing people that it holds pristine wisdom. Crazily, trying to sway the public is a daily struggle for scientists, constantly bothered by fussy people wanting proof.

Lazare, in his fervor to stand up for religion, contests Dawkins's view that it has stifled curiosity. Here, Lazare is kind of right. Religion, indeed, has stimulated curiosity. But only in the sense that it, like every oppressive force in a dominant position, more or less has a monopoly on the outlet of creative thinking. (The same can be seen in any dictatorship.) We need to ask ourselves what Michelangelo could have accomplished, had he not been forced to incorporate his individualism into motifs of Christian liturgy or into the building of cathedrals. Where would art be? Architecture? Science? Where would we be, if curiosity had been allowed to roam freely?

Religion, boiled down to its essence, is a waste of energy. It can be explained. It can even be comprehensible and accepted under certain circumstances, but it doesn't change what it is: the worst kind of superfluousness. A smug, ignorant, soup of self-indulgent, manmade stupidity, blind to and in disrespect of life and love. (When I speak of love, I refer to that natural, hard to understand, hard to control, sometimes untimely sexually charged and complex love which is one of the main reasons for me to get out of bed--or, often, stay a few more minutes under the sheets.)

Lazare also takes time to mock Nietzsche, whom he describes as every over-wrought 16-year-old's favorite philosopher. I'm pretty confident that it would take any 16-year-old some time, and some creative thinking, to rip Nietzsche's ideas to shreds (not unlikely with quite fascinating results), whereas the work of your typical religious thinker would be dismissed, by the same 16-year-old, with one word: bullshit. (A necessary but not very intriguing result.) At its most beautiful, this kind of dismissal comes as a rebellion against what Christians call confirmation. This perverse, ritualized act of indoctrination is popular in many religions and is fiendishly set around puberty: a time when children begin to test their thinking, individuality and personal freedom.

For the snake to bite its tail, we need to go back to the question about what makes people get out of bed. Contrary to the case of atheists, the question is relevant regarding people of religious faith. Why do religious people get out of bed? It makes no sense, when almost all of them feverishly await the blessing referred to as death--unfortunately exemplified a few years ago by a group of lost believers calling themselves Heaven's Gate. (Who, in the framework of this text, sardonically decided to die in bed.)

Death, after all, is the real beginning. Some will be freed from the agonies of life by becoming a non-being, forever floating around in Nirvana. (At least a fairly truthful view.) Others will be taken to a sort of paradise, where they will live eternal, great lives of plenty and preferably get a piece of heavenly real-estate close to the main man himself.

But cast aside the jokes and you'll see why religious people need to get out of bed. It is not a light read. It is actually a lot of work to prepare for death. You need to pray, light candles, eat wafers, stand with one arm over your head for fourteen years (quite a creative idea, which would have been interesting if done at MoMA without the absurd religious connotations), find ways of pretending to not do anything on a particular day while really being busy as a bee, self-loathingly flog yourself with a mental rod every time you want to masturbate or have sex with the neighbor's wife (let alone his ass), stone your wife to death because she had to go elsewhere for sexual fulfillment, contemplate simplistic questions of morals, read texts by writers whose ignorance--as opposed to the contemporary reader's--can be forgiven, roll your uncut hair into a piece of fabric, burn a goat alive, sweep the ground in front of your feet to avoid killing bugs while simultaneously causing a microbe genocide and begin every day convinced that you know what is right, refusing to look at the world around you.

It can't come as a complete surprise, but definitely with an immense ironic twist, that I find it my duty to try to convert people lost in religious faith. Alas, some might say, it is not out of pure selflessness that I feel the need to do this. No, rather egoistically, I simply want an end to the carnage my planet succumbs to through religious conviction. Yes, I am well aware there are other reasons for unnecessary bloodshed, prejudice and ignorance, but no other comes with a worse excuse.

As a person free of religious faith, I find myself in a battle defending everything that the universe has brought forth in that most inspiring sexual act--the union of particles. This includes defending peoples' right to test the limits of the human mind: with which even the most indoctrinated individual has the capacity to see through the web of lies fed him or her by religious zealots--parents, priests, teachers--who themselves, of course, are just lost people in need of help. Although their numbers are tragically large, I am positive. I believe a revival is possible. I believe that with education and love, the chain can be broken and people set free to marvel at and be exposed to the unfiltered beauty and tragedy of all things created.

Per Sander

Berlin, Germany

May 22 2007 - 1:26pm

Web Letter

Daniel Lazare's solipsism concluding that "humanity creates meaning for itself by liberating itself so that it can fulfill itself" is a dose of Walmartian, Bush-like ontology; it has nothing to do with atheists being right and believers wrong about God.

The anti-religion irritability of Hitchens and Dawkins is a discharge from meanings created by their own credal certainty. The gospel both have accepted into their hearts is that a physico-chemical process of evolution has produced the matrix for abstractions like "liberation" and "fulfilment."

That conviction is grounded, supposedly, in the testable, the rational, the visible and the natural. Accordingly, the impulse to reduce religion to a fool's errand can rest safely in the arms of science.

However, the astonishing success of operations science in revealing how the creation works has never been reflected in attempts to explain how the creation created itself.

The plain, hard fact beating beneath the testy certitude of evolutionary realists is that their zeal is built upon a slow- motion miracle occurring over incredibly vast eons of time.

Their core meaning encompasses a self-complexifying procedure which has assembled, with mindless, yet elegant concinnity, the phenomena of human consciousness. This is the sacred heart of Hitchen's and Dawkin's irreligious cult.

Evolutionist George Wald once preached, "Time is the hero of the plot. Given enough time the impossible becomes possible, the improbable becomes probable and the probable becomes virtually certain."

Time has since swallowed up Wald, but his evolutionist kindred continue to personify the powers of their belief-object. Evolution selects, rejects, adapts, tweaks, problem-solves and engineers. That's how the plot's hero, Time, was able to raise incredibly diverse living systems from the dead.

The presumption that mentality and intelligence arose "naturally" from an information-generating, micro-thaumaturgy operating covertly within matter is not science. It's time-worship.

At the end of a recent belief.net interview Christopher Hitchens claimed that the religious impulse is dangerous, and he included "the impulse to believe in miracles."

So much for his congenital devotion to eonic autotransformation.

Bruce Riddington

Victoria , British Columbia, Canada

May 18 2007 - 2:26pm

Web Letter

Uh-oh. Exasperated scientists have been trying to tell the Intelligent Design movement for years that real science doesn't do the supernatural, but now David Lazare informs us that it does ("Among the Disbelievers," May 28): the Templeton Foundation prayer study makes it clear that "praying for a quick recovery is on a par with crossing one's fingers and wishing for a Mercedes." Christian disavowals of the study are in bad faith: "People like" British theologian Richard Swinburne--you know, those people--would certainly have trumpeted positive results as proof of God's existence.

In fact, well-known Christian writers have been denigrating the possibility of such prayer experiments for a long time. George MacDonald wrote in 1885, "As to the so-called scientific challenge to prove the efficacy of prayer by the result of simultaneous petition, I am almost ashamed to allude to it.... That God should hang in the thought-atmosphere like a windmill, waiting till men enough should combine and send out prayer in sufficient force to turn his outspread arms, is an idea too absurd.... A man capable of proposing such a test, could have in his mind no worthy representative idea of a God, and might well disbelieve in any: it is better to disbelieve than believe in a God unworthy." (The book is still in print.) More recently, C.S. Lewis said that such a test would be impious and, even if apparently successful, would not "prove the Christian doctrine at all." He was right. Real science doesn't do the supernatural.

The sweeping, jocular ignorance with which Lazare, Hitchens and Dawkins handle theology closely resembles the stock Creationist style of dissing evolution. Intellectual bigotry often flatters itself as common sense.

Larry Gilman

Sharon, VT

May 18 2007 - 9:54am

Web Letter

For those interested in the reaction stirred up by Lazare's piece "Among the Disbelievers," it should be noted that his piece was also reproduced on AlterNet (under a different title, "What Makes an Atheist Get out of Bed in the Morning?"), where it has provoked many, many comments (over 300 as I write). Anyone interested in reading that further controversy (though much of it may be more in relation to the new, more provocative, title, than the entire piece) can see it at AlterNet.org.

C. E. Emmer

Emporia, KS

May 17 2007 - 11:36am

Web Letter

Lazare makes a few assertions I disagree with.

First, there is the implicit assertion that the only version of God is the dogmatic, dualistic version. That is hardly the case. When one considers the numerous indigenous views of reality across the globe, you have that many creations and creators.

Which eliminates the second assertion that not beliving in the forementioned version of a Higher Power is negative. Hardly the case. Dawkins may well rest on the case that NO God exists, as do Buddhists. But that doesn't make it negative.

Having spent thirteen years in the Christian charismatic fundamentalist camp, I have fortunately seen the light and emerged from it and recovered. I would argue that their version of God isn't worth believing in, and when one considers the evidence of the accuracy of their holy book, may not exist at all.

I am thankful that these books are emerging to finally put rationality and reason back where they belong in American discourse, and I see it as a necessary change if this planet is ever to gain any semblance of peace.

Rob Harrison

Langley, VA

May 16 2007 - 8:51am

Web Letter

I went to my local county library to borrow Christopher Hitchens's book, only to be placed number thirty-four in the waiting list. I have been reading the reviews and I, frankly, expected a lot more in a review from The Nation.

Religions are obsolete political ideologies that in the past were used to legitimize power structures and the leadership within those structures. God speaks to Moses from a burning bush, Saint Paul has a vision of the resurrected Jesus, Mohamed hears the voice of God in the dessert. It is the same political campaigg carried out for different constituencies at distinct times in history.

That political template was destroyed in recent centuries by the American Revolution, The French Revolution, Napoleon and, finally, the unification of Italy, which removed the economic base of the Catholic Church.

What passes now for religion are empty and parasitic structures that feed on the day-to-day alienation of human beings.

What non-believers have to find are views of existence that connect people and break their alienation without the need of supreme beings. Political movements do that sometimes, but their effect doesn't last.

Non-believers do not need to offer a replacement for religious beliefs. But they could offer processes of inquiry, speculation and ways of validating the findings. Rather than reading sacred books, non-believers should offer the reading of Socrates according to Plato as a starting point.

Nestor A. Arroyo

East Windsor, NJ

May 15 2007 - 9:13pm

Web Letter

While hardly as "educated" in the elite sense of the word as many of the others here, I too, however, have an opinion worth stating. (Bear with me, as I am the king of long sentences.) Having spent several of my earliest years growing up in a Mennonite Children's home, then a few years living with my non-"religious" mother, then in a Lutheran Children's Home in Topton PA, then becoming a born-again Christian at 12, then living in one foster home after another and experiencing Catholic, and Protestant versions of Christianity until graduating HS at 17, then having given religion and Jesus up by my second year in college, then having flirted with the idea of atheism, then having danced with Native Americans while preparing the Lakota Sundance in Piscataway Maryland, then having discovered Joseph Campbell, then having ignored God for years, then having my anger and sarcasm towards God surface, which is where I have been since 1993, I have earned the right to speak as if an intellectual on this subject. So here are a few of my thoughts.

In the early 1990’s, I figured out for myself that the story of Adam and Eve was ridiculous. My first clue was realizing that prior to eating from the “Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil” (our conscience), neither Adam nor Eve had a conscience and therefore, could not discern between a supposed good god giving them good advice and a supposed evil serpent (or devil if you will) giving them bad advice. Hence, how in the world could they be held responsible for disobeying God when they had no clue that’s what they were doing? Furthermore, they did not understand the consequences (death) of their actions because they did not know what death was. Remember the other tree? They had not eaten from the “Tree of Everlasting Life.” The significance of that being, had they understood what it meant to die, they would have rushed over to that tree first and after eating from it, gained immortality. Then they would have gone over to the tree holding the key to their conscience and eaten from it without fear of reprisal from God. But they were clueless, like monkeys or infants that have no moral or intellectual understanding of right from wrong. My conclusion from this revelation was that God tricked Adam and Eve. He set them up. I surmised then that if God tricked them, then God must be exactly what he says the devil is, the wolf in sheep’s clothing.

WOW! I said to my self. How more perfect could it get? Further down the line, some 4,000 years later, the devil concocts this incredible story about God sending His only begotten Son to die for the sins of man then Satan sends his only son claiming he is born of a “Virgin Mary,” calls him Jesus and the rest, as they say, is history. Satan sits back and watches a little television while we Christians, never realizing the plan, worship his son. Beautiful! Perfect! The perfect deception committed by the perfect deceiver.

That one crack in the Christian foundation led to my seeing many more cracks but instead of taking me to the world of atheism, it planted me firmly on the side of God haters. You see, you can’t hate God and be an atheist. The excitement around my discovery fueled my continued search for more proof of this sick sadistic God and His plan. Sure enough, I see the “evidence” of His madness everywhere I look.

I’ll accept the believer’s version, that there’s a god. Of course, there’s a god and yes, He is the one spoken about throughout the Bible. But now that I’ve accepted all that, you believers have to listen to my interpretation of the God from that Bible and with what I know, you can’t win an argument with me about whether or not your god is good or bad, for God is the great deceiver.

God pointed at His alter ego and called him the Devil or Satan. Lucifer, like Jesus, brought light to the world but the father, their evil father, is what their light exposes. Good luck with that, fellow believers.

John LeVan

Thorndale, PA

May 15 2007 - 2:19pm

Web Letter

Two Points:

First, Lazare was not entirely fair to the Dawkinsian anti-religious view. Where, except briefly at the beginning of his article, is any mention of Daniel Dennett's work? No evaluation of modern atheism can be a good one without a serious look at Dennett's work. This oversight cripples Lazare's writing: It's like an analysis of the Bush Administration that names Cheney, but otherwise fails to account for him. It just doesn't work, nor does it make any sense.

Second, Lazare's criticism of atheism, that even if it is right, that it has nothing to replace God with, is silly at worst and short-sighted at best. Is atheism a "negative" ideology? It seems that it might be, if we were to presuppose that it serves the same role as a religion. As an answer to the question, "What is your religion?", atheism is not a proper answer. Judaism, Islam, Christianity etc. are all good answers, because each of those things are religions. Atheism is not. Nor is it some kind of anti-religion. Atheism à la Dawkins, at its core, is the view that inquiry about religious questions will give us answers that have as much justification as any other answer. Absolutely no religious hypothesis like "You can fit 99 angels on the head of a pin," or, "Sinners go to hell; believers go to heaven," can be falsified. So, there is no way to make sure that the body of relgious beliefs we have are the right ones. That is, there is no religious knowledge. There is only religious belief, and these beliefs are entirely unjustified.

Is Dawkinsian atheism really just a college-educated tantrum that offers only criticism? Decide for yourself. Does this sound like a "negative ideology" to you?

Edward Wells

Bloomington, IN

May 15 2007 - 12:22pm