Welcome to the latest installment of Further Than Atheism, a weekly column that explores the vast territory that lies beyond the mere disavowal of religion. As atheists, we share little but our disbelief. We often devote so much effort to defending this disbelief that we don't take the time to articulate what we do believe in. Further Than Atheism explores some of the many possibilities for positive belief that remain when gods are pushed out of the picture.
A couple weeks ago my wife and I were driving through a particularly empty stretch of Tennessee road where the public radio that we usually listen to was far out of range. We were getting bored, and so, in desperation we turned to the AM dial. The first station we found carried the voice of Laura Schlessinger.
Dr. Laura, as she likes to be called, gives advice to people who call up with difficult situations and ask her for solutions. Her modus operandi is to belittle the caller, propose a solution which she believes to be so simple that its wisdom should be immediately apparent, then bully the caller into promising to follow her advice. Dr. Laura, who claims to be a licensed counselor, only listens to her callers for an average of ten seconds before telling them what they should do.
I could only take so much. After listening to Dr. Laura's tirades for 20 minutes, I switched the radio off. To me, tedious silence was preferable to the stimulating self-righteous zeal of her radio show.
My wife felt otherwise. Now understand, my wife is no right-wing zealot. In fact, she's a liberal who has even considered voting for Ralph Nader this year. She is well aware of Dr. Laura's long history of bigoted statements against all sorts of groups, including atheists. She finds Dr. Laura to be rude, obnoxious and simple-minded. On the other hand, my wife also finds Dr. Laura to be entertaining. She explained to me her belief that the people who call up to her show know that she'll be rude to them and give them simplistic solutions. She argued that simplistic solutions are what some people are looking for and that Dr. Laura's brusque tone angers people enough to get them to think about why they disagree with her.
Although I hate to admit it, my wife is in some respects correct. How else can we account for the popularity of Dr. Laura's radio show? Still, I disagree that the desire of some of Dr. Laura's listeners for easy answers makes her show acceptable entertainment. In fact, I believe that the manner in which she expresses her opinions sets an example that threatens the tradition of independent thinking which underlies our democracy. In my mind, authoritarian radio show hosts like Laura Schlessinger create an expectation among their listeners that the answers to life's questions are easy and obvious. The lesson that they teach through their broadcast sermons is that courage is found not in thinking for oneself, but in steadfastly adhering to simple rules of right and wrong.
For conservative pundits like Dr. Laura, one of these simple rules of right and wrong is that religion is an essential part of life. In a way, this rule is based on circular logic. One of the things that sets religion apart from other systems of thought is its reliance upon faith. Faith, of course, is nothing but the idea that one should believe in some things without evidence to support the belief. Therefore, the rule that one must be religious is merely a rule that one should live by unquestionable rules. Dr. Laura and her ilk follow in the footsteps of generations of religious leaders when they use this sort of misty thinking to build a following among the weak-minded.
Of course, religious conservatives are not the only ones who fall into the trap of the easy answer. Many atheists react to the extremism of religion with an extremism of their own, insisting that the non-existence of God is so obvious that those who remain religious must be idiots. Such atheists enjoy lording it over the religious, describing over and over again the countless reasons that the idea of God is an obvious lie.
As an atheist, I clearly don't believe in God. However, I'm willing to take my disbelief further: I don't believe in any gods at all. To me, gods are ideas which one is supposed to worship as if they were things. Gods are never to be questioned. Gods give easy answers. In this larger sense, dogmatic missionary atheism is itself a god to be denied.
In the place of such simplistic atheism, I propose that each individual atheist construct a complex, flexible net of ideas upon which to make decisions. This net can be viewed as an ongoing project, always open to the addition of new concepts that alter the relationships between the concepts already present. Because each atheist has different experiences and influences, each atheist will have a different net. The denial of gods may be the initial knot upon which the net is constructed, but other knots be tied around insights on any subject at all.
One such subject is politics. Political thought may be likened to the Gordian Knot, a length of rope tied into an bewilderingly complicated tangle. Legend had it that the person who could undo the Gordian Knot would become king of Asia. Alexander the Great came along and unraveled it by cutting it in two with his sword. Such a solution is reminiscent of the thinking of the likes of Laura Schlessinger. When confronted by a complex dilemma, they simply divide the problem into two separate parts: right and wrong. Their goal is not to waste time solving problems, but to quickly dispose of them so that they no longer obstruct the road to power.
Politicians can be accused of the same tendency to simplify complex problems in order to come up with solutions that have a deceptive appeal to voters. In fact, one way to evaluate the trustworthiness of politicians is to assess the degree to which they invent simplistic dichotomies to portray political issues in terms of right and wrong. Those candidates who use such tactics may be interpreted as authoritarian, attempting to persuade voters with the circular reasoning of extremist morality and preparing the nation for a righteous crusade against evil.
None of this year's candidates for President come clean in such and evaluation, but some invoke extremist ideas more than others. George W. Bush, for example, invokes Jesus Christ as his model for political philosophy. He is unwilling or unable to examine issues in anything but broad strokes, and appeals to the base instincts of Americans in his proposals to reward votes with returned tax money. He belittles the attempts of Al Gore to examine issues in detail, equating complexity with deception. His only rebuttal to Gore's critiques is to play dumb and make jokes about Gore using calculator to figure out the national budget, as if mathematics itself were unreliable. His Republican allies seem to suggest that to debate intelligently is unfair and mean.
On the other extreme, Ralph Nader casts himself as a valiant knight who takes a courageous stand against the corrupt and powerful. Although he is a millionaire himself, Nader portrays himself as a friend of the little guy. Refusing to compromise or act pragmatically, Nader and his Green Party argue for their policies without subtlety, claiming that all others are impure and unworthy of consideration. Like a Dr. Laura of the Left, Nader holds megarallies in which he whips up the fervor of followers who believe that a vote must be for all or nothing, that the left-wing must be supported in its purest form or not at all.
Gore stands in the middle, cut and bleeding on both sides. The extremism of Bush and Nader attract the attention of the American people, while Gore patiently plods along, arguing for a complex set of well-studied policies that nonetheless lacks in visceral appeal. As Nader and Bush argue for liberals and conservatives to adhere to their political faiths, Gore proposes a pragmatic approach. His ideas may offer the most reliable course for our country to follow, but they are compelling to almost no one. Gore's standing in the polls reflects the power of absolute ideology: the worship of political gods is alive and well.
In the meantime, the atheist stands confused, unable to decide who to vote for. It's hard to tell whether the complexity of Gore's arguments are due to integrity, or mere confusion. Nader is the only candidate that stands for a strong government to protect the rights of non-believers, but he offers a brand new faith of his own.
As a part of this column, I've tried to argue for a clear set of principles upon which atheists can rely in their choice of presidential candidate. Nonetheless, the choices remain unclear. From a certain perspective, Nader seems to be the best choice. From another, a vote for Al Gore appears to make the most sense.
In the end, the Gordian Knot of politics remains intact. Issues tangle with issues until the solution is all but completely obscured. It would be dishonest to say that the choice is clear. To cut the knot open would be to ignore the complexity of the issues which face our nation.
When faced with decisions, be they political or personal, thoughtful atheists can do nothing but acknowledge the puzzle of the Gordian Knot and make the best choice possible. To unravel the Knot is the task of generations. The only obvious position to be taken is to acknowledge that obvious solutions to the dilemmas that face us do not exist. Moving methodically through a mist that others see as a clear sky, we can but slowly map the territory that lies further than mere atheism.
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