John Hodges, born 1952, was raised Episcopalian, went nuts over Ayn Rand at age 17, received a B.A. in Economics, followed a Guru for five years, returned to atheism at age 30, and since then has read a lot of philosophy, mostly philosophy of ethics. He also reads about history, nature and science, but does not own a TV. That he grew up reading science fiction and fantasy, and watching "B" movies, may explain much. His topic is the attitudes of atheists toward religion.
"Honesty will give you all the truth there is," John writes, "and no more."
Attitudes of Atheists Toward Religion
John B. Hodges
October 12, 1997.
Nonbelievers call themselves by a variety of names, and have formed a plentitude of organizations (despite their small numbers). I think this is due to the range of attitudes they have on crucial issues, foremost among them religion.
Recently, on an email discussion list, I read one man's comment that he preferred the American Humanist Association to the Council for Secular Humanism, because the AHA has a more friendly and tolerant attitude toward religious folk, while the CSH membership has more "militant atheists". I was bemused, because the CSH is a long way from being the most militant organization out there. The people in the American Atheists disdain the term "humanist", regarding it as a cowardly evasion. Neither is the AHA the most "religion-friendly" of all nonbeliever groups; I am not an expert on that end of the spectrum, but I get the impression that there are groups barely distinguishable from the Unitarian Universalists. The UU's, since they are totally noncreedal, are a church that an atheist can belong to, and some do. (Also, I have recently become aware of the Universal Pantheist Society, which technically makes no claims that an atheist would dispute.)
This spectrum of attitudes comes, I think, from the fact that religion itself is a very mixed bag, and people's knowledge of it, and personal experience of it, will cover the whole range of possibilities.
The religious approach to ethics is one of obedience to the will of God, where "God" or "the Spirit" is imagined, in greater or lesser degree, as a Cosmic Parent. Accepting the protection and guidance of a Cosmic Parent gives a certain kind of emotional relief, and it is not NECESSARILY a bad approach to ethics. Parents are genetically related in equal degree to all of their children, and their children are equally kin to each other. So, it would be natural and expected that a Parent Of All would want all of said children to treat each other well, not only maintaining peaceful and cooperative relations but showing benevolence and caring beyond the claims of simple equity. For a large number of "rank and file" believers, this is what religion is like. Besides providing an extended family, emotional comfort, and help in times of trouble, church is often a place of beautiful art and music. Where else do people sing? This is the "sweetness and light" of religion, and a lot of atheists, while rejecting the supernatural, still remember it and miss it, and respect those who practice it.
Obedience is not NECESSARILY a bad approach to ethics; it depends entirely on what (or who) you obey, and what your chosen authority orders you to do. But it is an immature and unreliable approach. It is easily hijacked by con artists and swindlers, power-seekers and demagogues.
Ethics is about maintaining peaceful and cooperative relations with your neighbors, practicing justice and promoting benevolence beyond the claims of equity. Clergy have often claimed to own the field, saying that religion is the only possible source for ethics. But this is only one more falsehood. Humans all are still kin to each other, even if all their ancestors were mortal. There are plenty of reasons in this world to do justice and love mercy. We do not need Santa Claus or the Bogeyman to give us morality.
Religion is built around obedience to the will of God. There are, broadly speaking, three kinds of religion, depending on where you get your news about what God wills. Orthodoxy, where your ultimate authority is one or another living prophet; Fundamentalism, where your ultimate authority is scripture, written by one or another dead prophet; and "liberal" religion, "take what you like and leave the rest", where your ultimate authority is your own conscience.
Prophets are those who are deluded enough, or boldly dishonest enough, to set themselves up as the local representatives of God. Being human, they may give out bad teachings, and may exploit their position. Understandably jealous and fearful, they suppress questioning and independent thinking among their followers and cast competing prophets as devils and servants of the Cosmic Enemy, the Great Satan. From this follows all the bloody history of religion. Instead of leading people to treat each other as kin, religion historically has led them to treat selected others as "enemies of God". Such enemies have been held to deserve whatever suffering you can inflict on them and more, until and unless they submit and obey.
Contrary to its claim to be the source of all morality, religion has sponsored and endorsed sectarian warfare, genocide, torture, persecutions of lesser sorts, slavery, male supremacy, inquisitions and thought control; even for the obedient, it has sponsored self- censorship, self-abnegation, self-mutilation, rejection of medical care, suppression of rational inquiry and scientific education. Priests have been allied with kings and dictators throughout history, using religion as a tool to keep exploited people quiet. Religion has perpetrated a wholesale swindle on the human race, diverting large amounts of time, thought, and wealth to appeasing a ghost, and the ghost's local representatives. It has perverted the field of ethics, severing it from any connection to the consequences for real people in this world, denouncing as sinful any attempt to apply human thought to moral questions.
The more you know, or have experienced, of this side of religion, the more militant an atheist you are likely to be. These evils are not securely in the past. Many continue today, and even the worst ones could return. They are potential in any "revealed" religion. The more seriously people take any particular "revelation", the more harm it is likely to do.
So, some atheists are aware mostly of all the well-meaning people in the churches, who would make fine neighbors and friends, even if they are a bit deluded about metaphysics. Others are aware mostly of the threat and the swindle that religion represents. What would a balanced and constructive attitude be?
Even the most bitter of atheists should be able to see that not all religions are equally bad. If a religion is without infallible prophets, without infallible texts, without devils, without excommunication, it is likely to avoid the worst kinds of harm. If it teaches that all people are kin and must be treated as kin, even if they are NOT nicely obedient, and allows, even encourages, people to use their minds to figure out what the cosmic Parent Of All WOULD want them to do in particular situations, it is even likely to be a positive influence. There are some such "good religions", for example the Society of Friends (Quakers). In the United States, we owe our freedom of religion to the influence of Deists like Franklin, Jefferson, and Paine, who worshiped a Creator-God deduced by reason, and who rejected "revealed religion" and "priestcraft" as vigorously as any atheist could wish.
At the same time, the empathic agnostic and the diplomatically silent should realize that religion is not a harmless game. In the U.S., the harm has been reduced by the separation of Church and State. But there have always been some who put the Bible above the Constitution, and sought to restore the old order of divinely anointed government, with themselves in charge. Today, the theocrats are on the march, keenly desiring to resume the persecutions of yesteryear. Anyone, believer or nonbeliever, who wants to keep their freedom of conscience, should understand that those who make claims of infallible revelation are aiming to rule the Earth. "Every knee shall bow, every tongue shall confess." To keep our freedom, our reply must be "If God wants me to do something, he should tell me, not you." Revelation must be criticized, de-sanctified, literally desecrated.
Freedom of conscience is what we must uphold, and the use of reason to solve conflicts and problems in this world. Those who claim to act by the Infinite Authority of God are the enemies of reason and of freedom. The American revolutionary Ethan Allen wrote a book, "Reason the Only Oracle of Man." Upholding the use of reason is a revolutionary act. Anyone willing to uphold freedom of conscience and the use of reason should be taken as an ally, whatever their particular beliefs may be.
"Honesty will give you all the truth there is, and no more."