Coming Out as Atheists
Re Greta Christina’s “What Would Happen If We All Came Out” (FI, April/May 2014): there is one event that we can use to maximize our visibility to many people. I recommend that all atheists write their own obituary and state somewhere in it that they were atheist. I’ve included “secular humanist” in mine. It is also important to have your obituary in the hands of someone who can be trusted to submit it as written.
Sharing vs. Forcing
Ophelia Benson will get no argument from secular humanists on championing freedom from those who would impose religious practices or censorship on society (“Share, Yes; Force, No,” FI, April/May 2014). Her insensitivity to how people feel offended from diverse viewpoints, however, is problematic. Advising Muslims from an atheist perspective to adopt Maajid Nawaz’s sanguine attitude toward demeaning caricatures of Muhammad, like those displayed on the Jesus and Mo T-shirts, is disingenuous. Pointing out that “Mo” references some “historical figure” dead for 1,400 years only exacerbates the offending ridicule of the cartoons. For believers, Islam is a living faith. Muhammad is God’s chosen prophet whose perfect life becomes the model for every life.
Woodland Hills, California
Re Shadia B. Drury’s “Is Democracy a Threat to Liberty?,” (FI, April/May 2014): I wish she would rephrase her question to: “Is democracy and liberty a threat to our planet?” The vast majority of scientists now agree that we are destroying our environment. How can we continue on the path of the capitalist system of unhampered individual competition?
Gig Harbor, Washington
The Case against the Resurrection
Re: “Betting on Jesus: The Vanishing of the Christ” by David K. Clark (FI, April/May 2014): To us nonbelievers many stories in the Bible are absurd—and the narrative of Jesus’s resurrection is among the most ludicrous. Nevertheless, Matthew 27:62–65 and 28:2–15 have convinced the credulous that an angel descended from heaven, came to Jesus’s tomb, and rolled away the stone—frightening the guards to the point where they became “as dead men.” Why were the soldiers afraid of an angel? Haven’t we always been told that angels are not only benevolent but attractive? And why couldn’t that angel have allowed the soldiers to witness the resurrection of Jesus so they could attest to the people that Jesus was indeed a god?
That silly story also says that the chief priests gave money to the guards and ordered them to say to their superiors that Jesus’s disciples came during the night and stole his body while they were asleep. Well, whoever wrote the Gospel of Matthew must have banked on the naiveté of his readers. Would the guard soldiers be so stupid as to report what they saw . . . while they were asleep?! It’s no wonder that so many people say they became atheists after reading the Bible!
This is an eloquent and creative article that should have an impact on die-hard Christians. Unfortunately, I am afraid that its impact is certain to take the form of converting a diamond into unvulcanized rubber. I can see the theologians exclaiming that a crowd could not form at the burial site of Jesus because the nasty Romans would not allow it! Or that Mark did initially report such a crowd, but this fact was lost early on through inevitable copying errors. As much as we might like to penetrate the skulls of the faithful, the process is destined not to be one of revolution, but rather—excuse the expression—evolution.
Robert J. Stahl
New York, New York
David K. Clark gives us an internal critique of the Gospel writers, saying that they “were intent on presenting Jesus as the literal son of God, even if they had to fabricate stories to do so.” But Clark nowhere shows that the authors of the synoptic Gospels presented Jesus as the “literal son of God,” by which he means “God himself.” Instead, by “son of God” they meant what the Jewish tradition meant—a great prophet sent by God, but not himself God (e.g., in Psalms 2:7, David says of himself, “the Lord hath said unto me, Thou art my son; this day I have begotten thee”). Likewise, Clark provides no textual support for his claim that “Paul knew that Jesus was the literal son of God.” As Karen Armstrong says, “Paul never called Jesus God . . . [Jesus] had simply possessed God’s ‘powers’ and ‘spirit,’ which manifested God’s activity on earth and were not to be identified with the inaccessible divine essence” (A History of God). In other words, Jesus’s earliest followers never believed that Jesus was God. It was many years later, perhaps starting with the Gospel of John and culminating at the Council of Nicea in 4 CE, that the doctrine of the trinity gained theological currency.
Clark is likely right that Jesus was never resurrected, anymore than Lazarus was, as in another scriptural fable. But contrary to Clark, in neither case did the Gospel writers and the early Jewish followers of Jesus believe that a person’s resurrection was proof that he was God. As Peter said in Acts, 1:2, “[Jesus] was a man commended to you by God . . . who was raised [by God] to life” and then exalted to special status “by God’s right hand.” Upshot: a human resurrection, however improbable its occurrence, does not prove divinity.
Persistent Creationism Beliefs
Re “Why Is Creationism So Persistent?” by Lawrence Wood (FI, April/May 2014): to believers in dogmatic religion, the idea of randomness in cosmic and human origins is simply unthinkable. Such a notion runs radically counter to their sense of purpose and meaning to life which apparently they are unable to posit without alleging some form of divine sanction. It is disgusting to me that the nation that first put a man on the moon must still put up with such medieval stupidity. We just have to keep fighting creationism by any legitimate means at our disposal.
In debating creationists on the academic scene, I have used a simple argument that while not defeating their obdurate reasoning, does ease their existential dread of randomness somewhat. If they are going to believe in an infinite god, then they must also deduce logically that within the mind of that infinite god there can be no logical difference between randomness and conscious determination. All events and phenomena are simply one. This argument, of course, does not win the day, but it might make them think a little deeper and more critically about their trivial notions about purpose and meaning to life. Purpose and meaning to life are human constructs. They do not exist a priori in a seemingly indifferent universe. We have to muster the courage to find purpose and meaning ourselves. Fundamentalist Christians should smile on this idea since it makes them morally responsible for themselves. But, unfortunately, the idea frequently doesn’t register with them. They just accuse me of being incapable of appreciating “revealed biblical truth.” All we can do is light the proverbial candle in the darkness.
John L. Indo
The long history of opposition to science is inconsistent with creation stories functioning as proto-science. This conflict suggests a different purpose—not to encourage exploration and hypothesizing but to shut it down. “We already know why planets move. Stop daydreaming and finish grinding the grain.” Texts that don’t just dryly explicate facts but encompass thrilling plots and unknown beings strengthen group cohesion, regulate opinions and behavior, and discourage members from “going off the reservation.”
Many creation stories overtly depict curiosity, exploration, and new knowledge as dangerous. Think of Eve, Prometheus, and Pandora. Unknown beings—from shades in Ancient Greece to Bigfoot today—are associated with often extraordinary efforts to get members of the community to believe. Think of ancient oracle temples using machines to lower humans into the view of hallucinogen-drinking crowds. Photos of Nessie and the Cottingly Fairies. Who knows how many people are stomping wooden footprint-makers in North American forests?
So why does creationism persist? Because it’s a powerful tool for creating a strongly-bonded, multi-generational group by focusing the attention of the individual member toward fitting into one’s place in the group and away from seeking new ideas or information that are not introduced to the individual by the group.
Re “Faith: A Disappearing Concept” by Mark Rubinstein (FI April/May 2014): faith is not necessarily a bad word. It is reasonable to have faith in a proven friend’s support, or in one’s own practiced abilities, or even in the actions of an elected official whose career you have studied closely and whose motivations you think you understand. This is rational faith. By contrast, the blind faith that religions promote is almost always bad and certainly becomes a roadblock in discussions and understanding. This is the author’s very valid point, but it gets somewhat overshadowed when forcing a particular connotation on the word faith becomes an end in itself.
A simple solution—use something like “blind faith” (my favorite) or “religious faith” (which the author does use initially) whenever there is any question that it needs to be distinguished from a rational type of faith. There’s no point trying to denigrate the word faith itself; everyone has perfectly reasonable nonreligious meanings, as well as religious meanings, associated with it in their minds. This is not like physics, where a word such as energy or work can be stripped of all but one very well-defined and unambiguous meaning. But, on the other hand, if we all thought like physicists (at least during their working hours) there would be no need to worry about faith!
Mark Rubinstein quotes the 1997 Catholic Catechism as declaring that “faith is certain.” Of course, this refers solely to the faith espoused by the Catholic Church, which I am sure does not feel that way about the equally certain faith of the Hasidim, the Amish, Muslims, evangelical Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, etc. In addition to being “certain” only to their adherents, these various faiths are mutually exclusive (in addition to being certainly wrong). As for physicist Paul Davies’s inane claim that “both religion and science are founded on faith,” if he really believed this he would never set foot in an airplane, a car, or an elevator, all of which operate on numerous scientific principles that as per Davies must be accepted not on compelling evidence of consistency and performance but on “faith.” I somehow doubt that when Davies pushes the power button for his television set, he feels that whether it actually operates is contingent on his faith on “something outside of the universe.” His contention that the laws of nature are not part of the cosmos is truly bizarre.
Brooklyn, New York
I had to reply to Tom Flynn’s review of Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It by Jennifer Michael Hecht (“Less Secular Than It Seems,” FI, April/May 2014) after finding it dogmatic and simplistic. One often sees this accusation directed at religious fanatics by your fine magazine—but now I see it on the other side. It cannot go unchallenged.
The issues are simple: is suicide always to be condemned, or is it a protected right of rational people? That’s the simple-minded dichotomy of Flynn’s review. Hecht thinks suicide should be discouraged except in cases of terminal illness and the like: it is never appropriate for a healthy individual. Flynn thinks a rational person has the right, and leave him alone if he chooses it.
What Flynn misses is the complexity of human nature. Our reason and our emotions are all tangled up. None of us is totally rational, ever. Everyone has inside his head a neural circuit, the purpose of which is to cause depression and suicide, put there by evolution for a very good reason. How do I know?
An article some years ago by a primatologist described an alpha male orangutan that was defeated by a younger rival. He was not seriously injured, but he would never breed again. He quickly became listless and soon died. I would say he was depressed—and it makes sense. He likely had surviving offspring, and any resources he consumed meant less food for them. Since he could not produce more offspring, the best way for nature to promote his genes is for him to die. Leave the fruit for the kids and check out. We still have those neural circuits, whether Flynn likes it or not.
Consider the way an electronics engineer would fix a circuit that was oscillating. One adds damping to that part of the wiring or removes power. When Hecht argues against suicide, she is adding damping to those pesky depressive notions that are in the heads of most of us some of the time, and some of us most of the time. Those people need that damping. Reducing power, often with a bottle, does not work as well. Pulling the plug does.
So Flynn’s dogmatic notion is saying, “If your suicide circuit is oscillating, check out.” Hecht is saying, “Consider all these reasons for not checking out.” Damping for sure. I think Hecht is right.
East Boothbay, Maine
If Jennifer Michael Hecht’s book Stay is as black and white on suicide as Tom Flynn’s review/essay on the subject, then they have both missed the real point which is: How and when should society intervene against attempts at suicide and those who help them? For example, other than reasonable regulation of time, place, and manner, the overwhelming public view is that government should have no power to stop a doctor from assisting in the end of life for a person with late-stage ALS. At the other extreme, we would have no problem prosecuting a doctor who knowingly gave a fatal dose of sedatives to an eighteen-year-old who was seeking to end his life because his girlfriend dumped him or to a gay teenager who was sick of the taunting. Unlike the ALS sufferer, we can feel confident that these persons will one day be grateful for the intervention. We should have no problem with using the coercive powers of the state to remove a potential jumper from the bridge while we sort out the facts. Society has already moved past the “always” or “never” debate. Someone forgot to tell Flynn and Hecht.
Tom Flynn replies:
Don Dilworth’s oscillating-circuit analogy misses a key point. Unlike circuits, persons possess auton- omy, which society (when at its best) recognizes as a right. If every would-be suicide is mentally ill, as Jennifer Hecht contends, then assertive intervention to “damp” the “suicide circuit” might be unobjectionable. If at least some of those would-be suicides are rational (my view), that intervention is impermissible. From there it’s a matter of how highly you value self-determination: my view is that the right of rational would-be suicides to be left alone is so important that a higher rate of successful (pardon me, “completed”) suicide among the mentally ill is the price we must pay.
More on Ending Life
Arthur Caplan makes a profound and important point in his article “Where the Slope Slips” (February/March 2014). The ethics are crystal clear that mentally competent adults, with intolerable physical suffering, should have the basic human right to hasten their deaths. As soon as you remove one of these factors—mentally competent, adult, intolerable physical suffering—things get murkier. For anybody with a terminal illness who’s lucky enough to live in states such as Oregon, Washington, and Vermont, which have death-with-dignity laws: at the earliest moment that you qualify, start the process. It takes time to get through it, and if you wait too long, you may no longer qualify to self-administer the medications. And no matter where you live, join Final Exit Network. Although its volunteers never physically assist, they can advise you how to have a peaceful end, and provide a compassionate presence.
President, Hemlock of Illinois