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Monday, January 30, 2006

The War on Atheism

A few weeks ago on this very blog, congressional candidate Bryan Kennedy created a bit of a stir with the line, "How is it that conservative religious zealots have seized my Savior and determined His values?" Critics jumped all over him, prompting defenses from me and from Bryan himself, with the furor even garnering notice in the inaugural moments of Spivak and Bice's SpiceBlog. The critics accused Bryan of slandering all religious conservatives, when he was really just talking about the unfortunate fringe who dominate the religious debate on the right.

So I checked in with the usual suspects--those quick to judge Bryan--and found nary a peep from them about the way Dale Reich slanders non-religious people in this morning's Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He writes:
Friends, if you're going to be atheists, start thinking and acting like it. Get rid of your own irrational beliefs and embrace the world as you say it is: a purely physical and random place where goodness and evil don't really exist and where the rules set down by organized religion and thousands of years of human history are no more meaningful than two rocks colliding at the bottom of a mountain after an avalanche.

What I learned from my foray into disbelief was that most atheists have it all wrong. They've merely substituted their own irrational belief system for the one I was given from 2,000 years ago. [. . .]

God is the basis for good and evil, and once you reject him and his rules, you're left with nothing but self-serving and self-preservation. In short, you're left with being your own god.

[. . . V]irtually all of my non-believing friends [have come] up with a set of beliefs on their own. They find them in tradition, in rational thought, in politics, in philosophy, in the moon and the stars, in Tarot cards and even in the cookies where they get their Chinese takeout. [. . .] It seems to me, as a rational man as well as a Christian, that those thoughts are irrational and should be discarded immediately by any right-thinking atheist. I'm puzzled why they cling to something so silly. For them, life should be merely an exercise in seeking personal pleasure, procreating and then dying.
I'm not going to pretend to understand everything there is to understand about the devoutly religious. I did, however, grow up among them; they are my people. I went to church three or more times a week until I was 18, and I think I have a pretty good handle on at least some of it all. What Reich has done here is not uncommon in my experience.

By writing that "God is the basis for good and evil," he dismisses any notion that there may be a source of morality and ethics derived from the non-divine. This is one of the most common fallacies presented by those who, for example, do not want evolution taught in schools. Somehow, they believe, knowing that life's development was due to a fortuitous confluence of physics, chemistry, and biology--rather than due to divine intervention--somehow makes life meaningless. It does not. The prisons are not stocked full of the irreligious (despite Reich's clumsy attempt to equate atheists and sociopaths); the atheists are not the ones committing suicide en masse; the non-believers did not fly the planes into the World Trade Center.

Reich wonders why we irreligious would bother to help stranded motorists, for example, since helping others is not "seeking personal pleasure, procreating [or] dying." He neglects that many of us find being nice, kind, generous, or charitable in itself a pleasurable activity, even if we believe the good works bring little more than temporary satisfaction. In fact, a key principal of evolutionary biology is the idea of altruism; helping other members of the species ultimately benefits our own chances of survival, and those of our offspring. I look at it more from the angle of Peter Parker's Uncle Ben: "With great power comes great responsibility." This giant frontal lobe of mine--and the attendant consciousness and reason--endows me and all of the rest of us with a responsibility to take care of each other and the world we live in. There's a reason why those noted non-Christians, Native Americans, practiced a "seventh-generation" philosophy; it's not that they wanted to do and be good to please God, but rather to ensure that their descendants would survive and inherit a society worth living in.

In fact, it is depressingly cynical to consider that, in Reich's worldview, the only reason to do good is to earn a better seat in the afterlife. One would think we've evolved beyond that by now.

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