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My dear fellow Brights, Beamers, Blazers, Brilliants, Gleamers, Incandescents, Resplendents, Radiants, Shimmerers, and Sparklers: Thank you all for being here tonight, and a special thanks to the Dixie Chicks for that heartwarming cover of “Imagine.” I choke up every time I hear those immortal words—“Imagine there’s no heaven.” Ladies, you are a credit to the cause, and . . .
(What’s that? Well, of course they are. Why else would they be here? Listen; if Hitchens can argue with a straight face that Martin Luther King, Jr., did his work “as a profound humanist” and that his “legacy has very little to do with his professed theology,” then we can certainly draft the Dixie Chicks.)
We’re here, as you know, to celebrate the two-year anniversary, give or take, of the rise of the New Atheists. We particularly honor Sam Harris for Letter to a Christian Nation, Christopher Hitchens for god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (by the way, Chris, you have a typo in there), and the always penetrating Richard Dawkins for his latest evisceration of idiocy, The God Delusion. Guys, outstanding work. America is the most oppressively theistic nation on earth, so you wrote books mocking and belittling the faith of millions—Christians, Jews, and Muslims—that became bestsellers and generated a ton of fawning media coverage. And you weren’t just preaching to the choir, no sir. Real atheists are as rare as transitional species, but your books dominated bestseller lists for months. You offered to slap the faith-heads upside their empty little noggins, and they lined up to pay for the privilege.
Nothing has been more harmful to humanity than religion, as you have pointed out, and you framed the question so effectively. Even between the different monotheisms—let alone between religions—there are huge disagreements about everything from the nature of “God” to the nature of reality to what it means to be human. They’re mutually contradictory, in fact, and the failings of one say nothing about the truth of any other, and yet you brilliantly combined your attacks into an all-encompassing tirade against “religion.” “I am attacking God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented,” writes Dawkins. Well said.
Hence, you guys can lump together Aztec human sacrifices, the jingoism of Judaism’s Yahweh, Islamic female circumcision, those absurd Christian teachings about hell, never mind the religious wars, and the only sane conclusion is that all those people are all crazy together. Assert that faith gives divine endorsement to any atrocity you can name, and you’ve tarred them all with the same brush. Practically everything bad that anybody anywhere has done can be tied, somehow, to religion, because most people in human history have been theists of one variety or another. It’s like taking target practice at the ground; you can’t miss.
However, on this point, Hitchens, you nearly gave the game away when you wrote that “when we consider whether religion has ‘done more harm than good’—not that this would say anything at all about its truth or authenticity—we are faced with an imponderably large question.” That was an imponderably large gaffe. We’re trying to kill faith here, and we do that by explaining that religion is false because it’s bad. (What? No, there’s no logical connection—keep it to yourself.) The point is to discredit religion as a whole.
Let’s just keep the focus on the evil that religion causes, and we’ll be okay. I’m pleased to see that none of you honored guests bothered to seriously address any of the good or charitable acts that supposedly arise from religion. Those aren’t worth considering, and besides, atheists could do the same—if we wanted to. So if you’re ever tempted to discuss how religious people give so much money, time, and effort to so many homeless shelters, orphanages, relief organizations, medical missions, and so on, just drop it. And please, let none of us be like British politician Roy Hattersley, who conceded in a 2005 column in The Guardian that
the only possible conclusion is that faith comes with a packet of moral imperatives that, while they do not condition the attitude of all believers, influence enough of them to make them morally superior to atheists like me. The truth may make us free. But it has not made us as admirable as the average captain in the Salvation Army.
There’s no excuse for that sort of candor.
The Political Angle
I’d like now to recommend to all of us some of the really useful themes that our honored guests have used to show “how religion poisons everything.” Our first and perhaps most effective gambit is the political angle: namely, the number of people killed in the name of religion. Start with the obvious: the Crusades, the Inquisitions, the Salem witch hunts, and the religious wars of the last century, from Bosnia to Rwanda. People are familiar with those. And don’t forget Islamic terrorism itself and the people killed recently in riots in Muslim countries. Then, following Dawkins, assert that no wars have been fought for atheism.
This is a bit risky, because even the dullest faith-head might know that Nazism and Communism together killed far more people in the twentieth century alone—perhaps 90 million—than have died in all the religious wars throughout history. Even the pettiest Communist dictator killed more people than an average crusade (40 million for Mao alone), and the witch hunts killed only dozens. So, if religion is harmful because of all the people it has killed, what does that make atheism?
All is not lost, however. Hitler might have been religious at some point, and Dawkins insists that most of the Nazi soldiers who actually committed the atrocities “were surely Christian.” That answers that. No doubt the Nazis were just continuing the Lutheran tradition of anti-Semitism, as Harris notes. All that research connecting Nazi ideology with Nietzsche, atheism, and Darwinism, such as Richard Weikart’s From Darwin to Hitler, is just so much propaganda. Ignore it. As for Stalin? Okay, he was an atheist, but Dawkins rightly points out that he didn’t order all those deaths because he was an atheist. He was irrational, says Harris. Problem solved.
If somebody should suggest that Communism is an explicitly atheistic ideology and that murders were committed to further it, then move the discussion along, like Hitchens does, and suggest that a monster such as Stalin could rule because religion prepares people for dictatorship. The “solemn elevation of infallible leaders,” the “permanent search for heretics,” the “lurid show trials” with confessions extracted by torture, the attempts at Orwellian surveillance—“none of this was very difficult to interpret in traditional terms,” he writes. “All that the totalitarians have demonstrated is that the religious impulse—the need to worship—can take even more monstrous forms if it is repressed.” Brilliant. Hitchens blames religion not only for the things that it does, but for the things that it doesn’t do. None of this separates the atrocities from Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, or atheism itself, nor does it accurately characterize most religions or religious people, but if you focus on how churches sometimes cooperated with dictators, nobody will notice.
Similarly, the slavery argument works well; religious people throughout history have justified slavery and oppression of all kinds. Even the Bible doesn’t condemn slavery in so many words. But I’ll warn you that people such as Dinesh D’Souza, author of a reprehensible tract called What’s So Great About Christianity (the very title makes me gag), are not going to fight fair if you bring this up in a debate. They will argue that concepts such as the right to dissent, the personal dignity of the individual, the equality of all humans (including the equal dignity of men and women), and antipathy to oppression and slavery all have Christian origins. That’s such garbage. Those are our Enlightenment ideas. Unfortunately, people such as historian Rodney Stark in The Victory of Reason argue that those who first articulated these ideas were, in fact, devoutly Christian, and they based many of their arguments on the Scriptures. We’re still working on a response to the fact that these ideas flourished, historically speaking, only in western, Christianized societies.
The Science Angle
The second thing to keep in the foreground is that religion impedes scientific progress. Science and religion are enemies. Pay no attention to religious scientists who say they’ve reconciled the two. They’re deluded. Rant on, like Harris if necessary, about the irrational, doctor-murdering pro-lifers (only a handful of abortionists have been murdered, but you only need one) who would ban life-saving research on embryonic stem cells. Don’t worry about the fact that research using stem cells from umbilical cords (which pro-lifers support) has produced promising results, and the embryonic kind (which requires the, ahem, use of an embryo) hasn’t. That’s not the point.
Complain that creationist morons (as Dawkins rightly calls people who reject evolution: “ignorant, stupid, or insane”) are trying to force creationist myths such as “Intelligent Design” on unsuspecting schoolchildren. And never admit that evolution has any holes or weaknesses. There are just a few details we haven’t discovered yet, such as how one species evolved into another—and how life originated—but the basic outline is undeniable.
The important point that you must drive home is that science has explained or will explain the world—the whole world—so there’s no need for religion. People believed religious myths for so long only because they didn’t know how the clouds cause lightning, for example, or where babies come from. Now we know better, and science will eventually explain everything, including this weirdly persistent “God delusion.”
D’Souza, that stinker, would reply that Christianity made science possible in the first place. Most early scientists were Christians, he will say, and the whole western scientific enterprise at its beginning presumed that a rational God created a rational, predictable universe, governed by laws comprehensible in the language of mathematics. Without that foundation, empirical science—the idea that we know things because they are testable, measurable, and repeatable—would collapse. What hooey. Look for a detailed response in our next newsletter.
The Sex Angle
The third critical point is that religion represses healthy sexuality—to a dangerous degree. Sex is not sacred (because, obviously, there is no “God”), so people should live naturally, the way they want to. Harris is right—the only ground for morality is what causes happiness or suffering.
So get into the details of female circumcision, and how religion makes schoolboys feel guilty for—well, you know—self-gratification. Many people will relate to this. Blame religion, particularly Christianity, for high rates in the U.S. (compared to Europe) of sexually transmitted diseases, abortion, and so on. Not that abortion is bad. And never mind that it seems odd to blame those who oppose promiscuity and support monogamy for the problems caused by promiscuity. Prudes are the problem.
And don’t let them pull any of that “pro-family” garbage about how research shows that heterosexual married people are happier, live longer, have better sex lives, and so on. The point is that people are naturally inclined to do what is good and right for them. So if left to themselves to do whatever they want, they will be happy. Religion imposes restrictions, so if some people self-express themselves, sexually speaking, in anti-social ways, it’s because the restrictions made them unhappy, not because of innate “sinfulness” or any of that nonsense.
And that brings us to the key problem with religion: It teaches things that are not true. Religion offers an answer to the problem of death, and as Hitchens so eloquently said in a recent debate, “it is the height of immorality to lie to people like that.” Few things are so repellant as the doctrines, particularly in their Christian form, of blood sacrifice, atonement, and heaven and hell. No thinking person could believe them. And if some smart aleck should say that lots of thinking people have believed them, get back to the evidence, because there is no evidence for God; therefore, there is no afterlife or spiritual reality beyond this life. Repeat that, loudly and often. (Eh? What do you mean, what if it is true? Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence? What’s your point? Why shouldn’t we demand empirical evidence for something beyond the natural world? How’d you get in here, anyway? Security!)
Where was I? Ah, yes.
Hitchens and Dawkins devote whole chapters to the idea that teaching such abominations to children is child abuse. Look at the clergy abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, for starters. Countless millions of young lives have been ruined by the threat of an eternal roasting, among other disgusting ideas. Dawkins, who unfavorably compares childhood religious education with childhood sexual abuse, thinks it’s high time we considered taking children away from religious parents. Amen to that.
A Toast to Us
So let us raise our glasses to us, the New Atheists, the Luminiferous who bravely light the way to the future. To the elimination of superstition, and the only sound basis for truth, morality, and happiness—altogether now—Natural Selection! •
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