A video appeared in my Facebook feed recently by Brad Stein entitled: “Ricky Gervais Atheism Rebuttal (Part 1)“. And it got me thinking. I know I get in trouble when I think out loud, but I can’t help it. So I’ll throw my two cents out there, mostly to help me form my own understanding.
One of the main points of atheism that I understand the least is the desire to throw away all of man’s collected theological arguments, philosophies, and development. Just get rid of it, they say. All of it. Immediately. We don’t need it anymore. If the world could just “get over” God completely, they argue, we might actually start making sense to each other. After all, now that we have the scientific method, what do we need faith for?
The thing that gets me is that they speak as if a religion-less world would solve more problems than it would cause. You know the phrase, “throw the baby out with the bath water?” To get rid of all religion and God, you might as well be throwing the whole bathroom out of the house. Yes, the bathroom often smells bad, and yes, it needs cleaning more than most other rooms in the house. In fact, sometimes the sewage comes back up and explodes out of the toilet, and sometimes we have to call the plumber or even the disaster clean-up crew to come take care of things.
But no one would argue that building a house without a bathroom is a good idea, at least not in the modern world. Even if it’s an outhouse on the property, outside of the house of society, it is something man can’t do without, and to say that they can invites trouble.
But there’s more to this analogy than comparing religion to waste disposal, because the bathroom is used for much more than this. The bathroom is where man comes to become clean. It is the one place inside the home where man is renewed, when man begins and ends each day, mostly out of necessity, but sometimes… just because. (Apologies if this overstretches the analogy. But really, what parent hasn’t retreated to the bathroom for a moment of solace?) A home without a bathroom is a miserable place, and even if you’ve chosen to build your home without one, there is somewhere in your home that you wash yourself and do your business.
If not, well… I hope you use dry shampoo, at least.
Hopefully you’ve noticed by now that I’m not really talking about the optimal type of bathroom, whether you should have tile or hardwood floors, or whether a bidet is preferrable to toilet paper. Which religion is true isn’t the question here (although, due to my inexperience, my argument is from the Christian perspective, as it is the one I am most familiar with). It’s the question of, on a societal scale, whether religion is preferrable to none at all. And, like it or not, believe it or not, religion has been an absolute necessity in mankind’s development, and will continue to be, so long as man requires a source of moral integrity.
And I submit that he does.
(Yet another aspect of atheism I don’t quite grasp. They insist that man is capable of being a moral creature on his own, that left without restrictions of belief, he could make manifest a modern and moral society. All I ask is: moral to who, exactly? The greatest amount of us, or a select few? The society that accepts stories such as The Lord of the Flies, 1984, and hundreds of other godless dystopias as societal possibilities states this “fact” with a straight face, and that has always confused me.)
Let’s be fair: if it wasn’t for the very Christian founding of the United States that believes that speech is a sacred gift that ought to be protected, even if the speaker is factually or morally wrong, there are a lot of other discussions that we wouldn’t and couldn’t even be having right now (as an aside: you can, in fact, shout “fire!” in a crowded theater, especially if the theater is actually on fire, in which case you probably should, and remember to help everyone find the right exits. In fact, to expand on this analogy, in my opinion, it is the sole purpose of the religious to shout when they see fires, i.e. moral dangers, stamp them out when they can, and help the weak and downtrodden escape with their lives, sometimes quite literally.) I submit that the very site that hosts this blog and others like it would not exist without it (the fact that there are countries that block Wikipedia, of all things, or at least interfere with the free editing of its content, is astounding to me. But not unexpected, and telling of cultures and, yes, religions that do not agree that you can simply say things).
The scientific method and all the vaunted sciences which atheism loves so very much were developed by God-fearing men and women who sought to understand all the facets of creation, and might not have done so with such feverish dedication and curiosity had they not felt a moral obligation to do so (a moral obligation that arose, I might add, often because of their faith, and not in spite of it). From the ancient Greeks to the Islamic Golden Age, from Galileo to Sir Issac Newton, the search for knowledge and truth has never been separate from faith and belief until these most recent two centuries. The Renaissance, for instance, was financed and forwarded as a whole by men of faith; only now, in these days, would we question the worthiness of a scientist by his belief in a higher power. Even men like Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking would not have been able to perform their work without standing upon the moral foundations laid by men who at least publicly believed in God.
Yes, men and women are foolish, and very imperfect. Petty, often, and gullible. We always have been and we always will be. Man’s religions especially so. But we would not be as “advanced” as we are without them, and, in my humble opinion, we would be dramatically worse off without God and religon existing within our societal framework. Indeed, God and religion is the framework we build on, and to rip it out and start from nothing would be both ill-advised and (in my opinion) probably impossible anyway, so long as people exist in this world who seek to help and love others.
That’s not to say that atheists are incapable of love or giving to charity. But I am saying there is a correlation between goodness and religion that is undeniable.
An article entitled “Can societies abandon religion and continue to prosper?” was written for MercatorNet by Michael Kirke and lays out a few points of evidence for this. I’ll highlight this main point:
“In a world where people often lived near starvation, religion helped them cope with severe uncertainty and stress… as economic and technological development took place, people became increasingly able to escape starvation, cope with disease, and suppress violence. Does this, however, mean that their faith in a higher power was necessarily illusory?
“…if the overall thesis is that the only factors governing the future of mankind are those recognised by the materialist modern mind, then it is a very limited one. Uniting good political science and sociology with the entire corpus of theology and Christian doctrine as it has developed down through two millennia will give us a much more useful reading of what the future might look like than will a Babelesque go-it-alone mindset. The corpus of the Judean-Christian Scriptures — with their prophesies, parables and accounts of historical events — still gives us essential resources for interpreting and coping with the events, and follies, of our times.”
In my opinion, it couldn’t be less illusory if it tried. That starved, desperate, violent world is the world that our modern one was built on, and if popular media tells me anything, it’s the one we will return to if society should ever collapse under its own weight. And, in the end, you can’t get away from that. You accept the most good that you possibly can, remember it in the history books, and move on, else we go back to square one with nothing and repeat the suffering in ignorance.
Perhaps the most common argument for atheism I encountered was the argument that man is never more bloodthirsty, murderous, and trecherous than when serving a god. And yes, it’s true: under the banner of religion, man has murdered their fellow man in untold numbers, from the days of Babylon to the planes that struck the Twin Towers. But it wasn’t until we managed to get God out of the way that man made murder an industrialized endeavor. From the Holocaust to the Holodomor, from Mao’s glorious revolution to the killing fields of Cambodia, man gets awful good at killing other men and doing terrible things when they put God aside, often with the aspirations that life will be better once the undesirables are gone.
Because the first undesirable removed, inevitably, is God Himself. And that is hardly God’s fault.
The silliest argument I’ve ever got into with someone about the intrinsic value of religion was about the total death toll of the Crusades, how the conflict that spanned two centuries would not have happened had God and religion not been involved.
Such a simple theory of a simpler time, as if the greater religions of politics and desperation were not as active and far-reaching.
At the time, I didn’t have the numbers in front of me, but here they are. They’re rough, of course; anywhere from one million to nine million soldiers and civilians dead due to the 200-year, octuple-pronged conquest of the Holy Land. It’s impossible to be accurate these days, but even with rough estimates, and with all due respect for generations of people that died under terrible and barbaric circumstances, these are baby numbers.
The Third Reich was able to kill just as many people in a period of ten years. The Soviets’ five-year plan did it in a single year. Mao did four to eight times more, in only four years. And without a god to be found.
But, naturally, when you use the word “conquest”, it makes it sound so one-sided, when it was very much not. In fact, most of the “crusades” were failures, and overall they certainly were. Could I just submit the possibility that such a conflict was, in fact, not ordained of God? That, in fact, the majority of reasons the conflict began actually first conflicted with the very commandments God gave His followers, namely “thou shall not kill”? That it was men and power, not religion, that was the problem? Because, again, let’s be honest: even some Christians thought it wasn’t a good idea to continue sacking the East in 1114, and Christians were slaughtered for getting in the way. There’s a reason they started, though, that wasn’t “because God told them to”. The First Crusade began because Emperor Alexios of the Byzantines (who was not Catholic) no longer had control over the region and asked Pope Urban II to intervene, which they might have done anyway because of the massive military victories made by the Muslims in Spain in the mid 1000’s. There’s a board game about it, for Pete’s sake. Europe was in trouble, and needed to stand up for themselves. Too bad it took eight crusades to realize they didn’t need to take it that far; by then, it was just a thing to do to prove yourself a decent Catholic ruler.
Of the ten worst genocides in modern history, only the genocide that took place in Bangladesh in 1971 was committed solely on the grounds of state-sanctioned religous bigotry. All the other man-made cataclysms were performed with different primary motivations in mind, many of which were actually state-sanctioned genocides of specific religious groups, or became worse for those that followed a particular belief system.
Is that fair to say? Even as I write this, I know how complicated history is, and how uneducated I am. Even now, I have trouble believing that someone would care so much about the things I believe… that they wouldn’t merely prefer I didn’t exist, but would go out of their way to kill me, my family, and everyone who dared to share my worldview. That if I were Jewish in Poland in 1942, an SS officer’s first reaction to learning of my existence would be to reach for their gun and not shrug in indifference. That if I were Muslim and living in Cambodia in 1975, that the first reaction of an agent of Khmer Rouge to seeing me across the room would be a knee-jerk execution by machete and thrown in a mass grave with the bodies of my friends and loved ones. After all, I’ve been told so often that it’s the religious people that love killing people so much. Why would a non-believer act like this?
If this sounds naive, it’s because I’m being so on purpose. That’s my point: people are awful anyway, no matter what they profess to believe.
Yes, people are terrible. And people with power are even worse, especially when made desperate. But that does not mean the whole of the system of belief that a powerful man holds is a net evil, especially when the system is judged only by the actions of those in power.
So what is religion, then? Is it opium for the masses, like the Marxists say? Is it merely an allowance, a shield you can wield against all forms of criticism, especially if you’re able to fool enough of those terrible people? Is it an oppressive and unnecessary system of rules and regulations that forbid you from thinking for yourself? Is religion merely “the effect of a frenzied mind… [a] derangement of your minds [that] comes because of the traditions of your fathers, which lead you away into a belief of things which are not so”?
If that’s all it is, there’s great news. The philosophers have spoken: “God is dead, for we have killed Him.”
But what would you put in His place?
The haughty answer is: “nothing.” I think the honest answer is: “anything else.” I believe the more complicated answer is: “everything else.”
How long will that last, do you think? In this world of popularity contests and symbolism, how long can you hold together a world of people with “nothing”? With “anything”? I know from personal experience that “everything” can distract for a good couple of years, at least. But is that all I get in return? A distraction?
You’ve got to be able to make us all some promises with your “anything” and “everything else”.
If we dropped everything we believed, right now, would fewer of us die in the short-term if we followed your “everything”? And I do mean all of us, all people living right now, because that is the endless demand I hear. How about long-term? Would fewer of us encounter a broken heart, or heal from heartache and separation faster? Would fewer of us have to suffer from depression, sadness, and doubt? Would your “anything else” make us all less lonely? Would your noisy “everything” help us find meaning in our existence in this staggeringly uncaring universe? Could it protect us from hopelessness? Could it save us from sorrow? And if it could not, could it at least explain why we are destined to live in such conditions?
In my own life, I have felt abandoned by those who shared my faith. When I was at my lowest point, I did not know how to ask for help, and they did not know how to give it. But it is a commandment in my religion to “mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort”. Yes, those that share my faith may have failed to follow that commandment sometimes, due to inexperience or insecurity.
But they succeeded far more than they failed. Nothingness didn’t have an answer for me. Atheism doesn’t care if I attempt suicide again. My one small life means nothing to nothingness, and it means much less than that to “everything” and “anything”. But my faith tells me that my God does care. A lot, actually. And because of that, I am still here.
Does your belief system compel you to act the same towards others? Does it urge you to reach out the those you love, even when you don’t know how? Or even to reach out to those who mean nothing to you? It’s likely to. If so, where does the system you follow originate?
Just as the worth of a man’s thoughts are best judged by what he thinks when he is alone, so too is a man’s beliefs. Therein lies the difficulty, because although religion and faith affects the whole fabric of society, it is a very personal thing, a very individual thing. A difficult-to-control thing. A difficult-to-explain thing.
But none of these traits make religion wrong. Or even useless. Far from it, actually. It’s only a shame it has taken this long to reach a view of individualism that we can have honest and peaceful discussions about what makes our beliefs different. And it’s a greater shame that believers are often shamed for doing so (and I share these examples because of how easily I can see them being mocked on the social media cesspool that is Twitter; I have no desire to look up examples).
Whether you believe in God or not, you must acknowledge that everything we cling to, everything we love, and everything we consider beautiful stems from something: a system of belief, a tradition, a source of morality. Even if you don’t believe it, it’s likely someone you love does, and it’s likely they were taught by others that believed. If a man removes from himself a fundamental source of morality, he allows for his children to believe in anything.
And “anything” is one of the most terrifying things someone can believe in. This article, entitled: “Believing In Anything” by Dale Ahlquist, is a wonderful read, as is G. K. Chesterton as a whole, if you ever get the chance.
I’m not asking you to believe in the Tooth Fairy, or Santa Claus, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I’m not even asking you to believe in the god I believe in, really. I’m only asking you to watch your child’s actions and behaviors if they do believe in the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus, and ponder what use that belief serves. I’m only asking you to judge how the man who believes in the Flying Spaghetti Monster lives his life, and if he and those he associates with are all the better for his mockery.
I’m only asking you to judge our society and people the way my God did, and if any of it has value, to not discard the whole of it, and ask why:
Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?
Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit.
A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.
Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.
Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.Matthew 7:16-20
That’s why I can’t throw it all away, like the atheists tell me to: because there is goodness there. It is personal. It is difficult to explain. It’s also why I don’t blame those that have, if that is truly what they have experienced. But, as the Gipper once said, freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. And like it or not, believe it or not, faith is an inextricable virtue of freedom. Square one is not a place I want to raise my own children, no matter how flawed the people who stand on square forty-two might be. Because, for all I know, those strange people with strange thoughts on square forty-two might have something of real value.
If you’ve got a bridge you’d like to sell me, I’ve got a bathroom remodel I can offer you in return. All you need to do is ask.