Welcome to Further Than Atheism, an ongoing exploration of the wide open range of ideas that lies beyond the only idea that all atheists share: that life is best lived without gods. Atheism can be a beginning, more than just an end in itself. When they confine their attention to what they do not believe, atheists restrict themselves to mere reaction to the ideas of the religious. Standing alone, atheism consists of mere refusal. Held along with compatible philosophies, however, atheism allows for an infinite variety of positive possibilities. The search for such possibilities is what Further Than Atheism is all about.
In reaction to a recent Further Than Atheism article, a Christian reader wrote the following response:
While having tea crammed at a table with several other adults in St Petersburg, Russia in 1992, a former Professor of Atheism looked at me and said, "We always knew Jesus was real. We could tell because the Communists fought so hard against Him." Your articles are well-written exercises seeking to do the same; eradicate God and particularly Jesus from the public psyche. Would you care to visit Russia with me and see the violently corrupt results of 70 years of atheism? A broken economy, broad-based corruption, rampant alcoholism, pervasive hopelessness, a declining birthrate and everywhere despair. Atheism is a failed idea. Stalin, Lenin and a long line of successors formulated the hypothesis, tested the hypothesis and today we observe the results of that experiment.
Wow! That sounds like a pretty convincing argument against atheism, doesn't it? How can I hold on to my atheism in the face of such a stunning critique? Actually, it's not that difficult. Although this reader's vehemence carries a potent sting, upon quick examination it becomes clear that his rant is fatally fallacious.
Before addressing the most serious problems with this critique, I'll quickly go over the more obvious flaws in its logic. First of all, if the so-called Professor of Atheism "always knew Jesus was real", then he never was a real atheist. By definition, atheists don't believe in the existence of an immortal divine Jesus who's stuck around for over two thousand years after being crucified. It sounds like this ex-professor was actually an underground Christian who pretended to be an atheist in order to get a job in the Soviet bureaucracy.
Second, enthusiasm of the defense of an idea does not amoubnt to evidence of the idea's weakness. Would it be fair to say that Christianity's history of vigorous persecution of atheists and other heretics proves that Christians have always known that the Bible is nothing more than a pack of lies? Of course it wouldn't. Soviet enthusiasm for atheism can much better be explained by the historical cooperation of the Russian Orthodox Church with the Russian nobility in the systematic oppression of Russian serfs and workers than by secret guilt about the rejection of Christianity.
Third, Communism cannot be blamed for the Russian social ills that my critic describes. Russia was plagued by a broken economy, broad-based corruption, rampant alcoholism, pervasive hoplessness and despair before the Communist Revolution and there's a great deal of evidence that these problems have actually gotten worse in Russia since the end of the Soviet Union. Personally, I don't consider a declining birthrate to be a problem in a world with 6 Billion people and a projected population of 10 Billion people in less than 50 years. I wonder if my critic meant to imply that having lots of babies without regard for the ability to support them is regarded as a Christian virtue. I'll forgive the Russian people if they decide to discipline the urge to go forth and multiply.
Fourth, although my vanity prevents me from disputing that my articles are well-written, I can't agree that the Further Than Atheism series seeks to eradicate God and Jesus from the public psyche. None of this column's articles argue for Christianity or any other religion to be wiped out. I challenge my critics to find any such argument in any of the Further Than Atheism articles. As a matter of fact, I've pointed out in many of this column's articles that I'm not interested in trying to convince religious people to become atheists. Anyone who actually reads my articles understands that the column is intended to be read by atheists. Of course, if anyone else wants to read Further Than Atheism, they're welome to. My point is that if I really wanted to mount a campaign to eradicate God and Jesus from the public psyche, I wouldn't do it by writing a series of articles for people who don't believe in God and Jesus anyway. That would be like trying to convince people to move to our nation's capital with an advertisement in the Washington Post.
I've seen plenty of Christian rants about atheist conspiracies to take over the world before. I actually saw one televangelist give a sermon about how atheists were marching across the country to take religious freedom away from Christians. Give me a break! When was the last time anyone saw an atheist march? Anyone who's familiar with atheists knows that we're not the types to form organizations, much less conspiracies. You see, atheists don't have a single creed or agenda to unite them. Atheists often disagree with each other as much as they do with the religious. Drive through any American city and you'll see hundreds of churches but not one single atheist meeting hall. Atheist conspiracy, my foot.
Was the Soviet Union nasty? Sure it was, but no more nasty than the hundreds and thousands of theocracies that have committed warfare, genocide, terrorism, mass torture, religious indoctrination and countless other unspeakable acts in the name of religion. For a Christian to criticize an American atheist for the problems of the Soviet Union is worse than hypocrisy. It's blindness.
Our new president, George W. Bush, encourages this sort of blindness on an almost daily basis. Having established a publicly-funded office in the White House with the mission of replacing government-run social services with private sectarian religious programs, President Bush takes advantage of the common bigoted assumption that religious individuals and organizations are superior to secular individuals and organizations. While he criticizes and cuts the funding of government bureaucracies, he sees no problem with providing church bureaucracies with huge amounts of taxpayers' money. Even as he insists upon defunding and regulating public secular schools, he offers new money to private religious schools without requiring them to follow the same regulations. Bush makes no attempt to cover up his attempts to establish official government preferences for religious organizations, saying, "In every instance when my administration sees a responsibility to help people, we will look first to faith-based institutions, to charities and to community groups that have shown their ability to save and change lives."
Are "faith-based" religious organizations really any better than secular organizations? No church organizations have been able to create anything anywhere close to the secular Social Security system that has provided for millions of elderly, ill, disabled, orphaned and widowed Americans for generations. No private religious school group could ever hope to construct an infrastructure to serve as many children as comprehensively as the public school system does. Secular government programs to fund the arts and sciences have far more impact than religious programs designed to create arts and sciences that are forced to comply with spiritual themes.
We all know the stories of government heavy-handedness. What President Bush and his faithful cheerleaders don't mention is that the religious organizations they seek to fund are far more prone to ethics scandals and bureaucratic entanglements than the government. The Republican Party got all self-righteous about Bill Clinton's extramarital affair, going so far as to impeach him, but not a week goes by without a new story about a religious leader embezzling church funds or having an affair with a church secretary. Christian organizations like the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts of America are plagued with sex abuse scandals that involve cover-ups and secret pay-offs to abuse victims. Private schools are havens of physical punishment, where children are still beaten when they fail to follow orders.
Atheist and otherwise secular organizations are not faultless. Neither, on the other hand, are religious organizations. There is no reason to replace government programs with private religious ones because there is no reason to believe that private religious programs can ably perform government tasks, much less perform a superior job. Secular government programs aren't perfect, but at least they're established through democratic processes. We, the people, have the ability to elect the officials that establish and execute government programs. Private religious organizations are almost completely protected from democratic oversight. Before our country gets caught up in President Bush's anti-secular, anti-government crusade, we would do well to examine the human rights records of theocratic regimes such as the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Holy Roman Empire of the European Dark Ages.
Only a few extremely radical atheists favor the eradication of religious beliefs and practices. By and large, all that atheists want is to be given equal rights and protection under the law. We only want to defend ourselves against attempts to legislate religious belief and practice, remaining free to live as citizens on equal legal footing with our religious neighbors. Live and let live: is that too much to ask from the American religious majority?
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Got irregular thoughts of your own?