Oh, Lord, It’s Hard to Be Atheist

I have just read Daniel Dennett’s book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. It’s a great book. Unfortunately, I doubt that it will be read by the people who really need it, though the author tries very hard to preach to them, rather than to the choir of convinced unbelievers such as myself.

Among others, Dennett makes the seemingly reasonable point that outsiders cannot expect to have much effect on religious extremism (Islamic or Christian or any other kind) – reform is likely to come only from moderates within the fold.

If that’s the case, what can an atheist like myself do to help a world that we see being wrecked by extreme believers? Nobody listens to us. The heads of most religions, when trying to behave well in public, make a show of treating each other with the utmost respect. (Which strikes me as odd: presumably, each believes that the other guy is following the wrong gospel and will spend eternity in some hell or other.)

We the godless, however, get no respect from anyone. According to a survey by the University of Minnesota, “‘Even though atheists are few in number, not formally organized and relatively hard to publicly identify, they are seen as a threat to the American way of life by a large portion of the American public.€

And another: “‘In a recent NEWSWEEK Poll, Americans said they believed in God by a margin of 92 to 6%”only 2 percent answered “don’t know””and only 37 percent said they’d be willing to vote for an atheist for president. (That’s down from 49 percent in a 1999 Gallup poll€”which also found that more Americans would vote for a homosexual than an atheist.)€

The discomfort of these believers seems to arise from the idea that people who don’t believe in any god don’t have any reason to be good (Dostoyevsky is frequently quoted). A survey that I saw mentioned a year or two ago (and cannot find now, I’m looking!) said that some large percentage of Americans (80%?) believe that you cannot be a moral person unless you believe in (some) god. This is like saying that a classroom full of children cannot be expected to behave unless they constantly feel the eye of the teacher upon them. Which may be true for small children, but is this what we should expect of adults?

If I believed that human beings could NOT be kind to each other without the constant presence of some authority to force them to do so, I would be very depressed indeed. That’s a sad and cynical view of human nature which I do not share. God as a stern father whose main role is to keep his errant children in line is also a very childish and simplistic view of religion. I know many wiser believers who do not agree with this view of god, but, sadly, the world appears to be filled with the more ignorant brand of believer.

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