We Need To Be Patient
With Theists Right Now
Christine Lehman

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From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Christine Lehman"
Subject: Re: Need to be patient with theists right now ...
Date: September 17, 2001 8:32 PM

As I have tried to explain several times over the past several years, I have no problem with religion itself, particularly private expressions of religion that are not intrusive or exploitative or dangerous.

Yes, I will criticize the ideas being put forth to explain how this could happen and there simultaneously exist a loving god (known as a "theodicy").

Particularly, I will not remain silent about Bush's exploiting of this tragedy to further his agenda of trouncing the First Amendment of the Constitution.

But nowhere do I remark about individuals turning to their religion in these times (have I?). I've quietly reminded atheists of my suspicions that many Americans will end up finding faith to be inadequate for them in the wake of this very painful and trying series of events.

In case I have not made this clear (being very muddy-headed, this is likely), I hereby strongly urge atheists to use ideas such as these for their own comfort and strength only, and not to use these as tools to try to spread any message of atheism. This is not the time to spread atheism, but is rather the time for us, as atheists, to deal with the unique problems that being atheists poses for us in these times.

What we have to say ought not go any further than this. I will respond to questions and challenges (such as Mr. PC), but I really have no statement to make to the religious among us. As wrong as it is for President Bush to try to explain to the public his god's role in this tragedy, it would be monumentally wrong for us to make much of the problems people are having coming to grips with the inadequacies of religion to explain this tragedy (beyond our own culture and our own need to cope and find solace).

We do well to limit our comments to the scope of reminding all that religious fundamentalism played an important role in the acts themselves, and suggesting that religious fundamentalism on our part could escalate the problems we already have. I have nothing to say (beyond our atheistic communities) about how Americans are using religion to cope with their own fears, and I hope many of our readers will follow through with this one.

I will remind atheists that I found faith to be inadequate in times of tragedy in my own past, and I will predict amongst my fellow atheists that many Americans will end up losing their faith over this tragedy: we need to be ready should such people come to us with questions. But I will keep these comments in the context of trying to give my fellow atheists a few ideas that they may or may not be able to use in coping with the pronounced religiosity we are experiencing in public life today.

Bush is doing this, though, in a (stated) attempt to unify the nation! If that is his statement, then what is he actually saying?

The damage from his having done this will follow him -- and the American citizens -- for some time.

Falwell's language was too overt for them, but many of them agree with him in principle (using drastically toned-down language): "we need to get back with God," I keep hearing. What does that imply? that God allowed this because of our unbelief (or whatever).

This is the same problem I pointed out in my piece called "The Gospel Spin Doctors." The problem happening then was that the mainstream was condemning Rev. Fred Phelps of Topeka, Kansas, who teaches that "God hates fags." Meanwhile, the Christian anti-abortion movement was coping with its own problem child, Fr. David Trosch of Mobile, Alabama, who advocates killing abortion providers. Nevertheless, the critics of these two extremists ended up believing what they were condemning in these two wayward preachers: homosexuality is an abomination and abortion is murder. Trosch's most vocal critic even agreed with him that the anti-abortion movement is a "war," but urged Trosch to "fight to win" by being sneaky about it rather than overt and up-front. Falwell and Robertson are, today, what Phelps and Trosch were in 1998.

The point is that in their theodicies, they are saying basically the same thing as Falwell, only they are not being so vivid in their language. I'd even go so far as to say they are being sneaky about it whereas Falwell is at least being honest with his opinions (as horrifying as they are). What I'm suggesting is that many who would publicly condemn him are, for the most part, doing the very same thing, except not before the public.

What is the theodicy? what is the main question going around? "Why did God allow this? Where was God on Tuesday?" In order to salvage God's reputation amidst all this, they are scrambling for answers. I will admit that from a theist's viewpoint, the Falwell-esque answer (toned down from Falwell's brazen language, of course), is the easiest to swallow. It's the easiest to cope with and the easiest to deal with.

First, it is the simplest concept of God going: the "Oriental Despot, only Bigger and Invisible" (Robert Anton Wilson). Unfortunately for this viewpoint, even the Bible admits that God creates evil:

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I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things.
    -- Isaiah 45:7

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This does a real number on the enigma of Epicurus, which is the biggest problem I've seen for apologists of a good God, because, as Epicurus points out, a God who creates evil is not worthy of worship but rather of condemnation:

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Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?
    -- Epicurus

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So it behooves those who are going after the lucre of the lowest common denominator (namely, Falwell, Robertson, and the other Fundamentalists) to portray God as judging the enemies of Christianity.

Secondly, it's the simplest to deal with in that it takes all the heat off the Christian: God is judging the nation because of the sins of the non-Christians. Now, this was too simplistic even for the author of the Sodom and Gomorrah story, whose God would not destroy those cities if there were a certain number of "righteous" people there:

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[20] And the LORD said, Because the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and because their sin is very grievous;
[21] I will go down now, and see whether they have done altogether according to the cry of it, which is come unto me; and if not, I will know.
[22] And the men turned their faces from thence, and went toward Sodom: but Abraham stood yet before the LORD.
[23] And Abraham drew near, and said, Wilt thou also destroy the righteous with the wicked?
[24] Peradventure there be fifty righteous within the city: wilt thou also destroy and not spare the place for the fifty righteous that are therein?
[25] That be far from thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked: and that the righteous should be as the wicked, that be far from thee: Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?
[26] And the LORD said, If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare all the place for their sakes.
[27] And Abraham answered and said, Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord, which am but dust and ashes:
[28] Peradventure there shall lack five of the fifty righteous: wilt thou destroy all the city for lack of five? ...
    -- Genesis 18

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This "rug merchant haggle" continues until, as a preacher once told me, Abraham stopped pressing his luck:

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[32] And he said, Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak yet but this once: Peradventure ten shall be found there. And he said, I will not destroy it for ten's sake.
[33] And the LORD went his way, as soon as he had left communing with Abraham: and Abraham returned unto his place.
    -- Genesis 18

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Abraham, I guess, was unwilling to go lower than ten people. But the Christians who say that God will judge the United States while there are yet righteous Christians living there are deliberately ignoring this tale. We know that they know about this little ditty because the Sodom and Gomorrah story is one of the key passages justifying to their homophobic ranting. Besides, the two have always gone together: we seldom if ever see Christians lashing out with God's judgement who are not homophobic, and vice versa.

So Falwell and Robertson must ignore this passage if they wish to portray the Christian deity as being willing to destroy seemingly innocent people just to "get" a few guilty ones -- or even to send a message.

And as I explained in my response to Gil Gaudia's question about the alleged Book of Daniel prediction, the Bible deity never judges without first clearly warning the objects of His wrath and giving them opportunity to repent! and He is always very specific in His detailed descriptions of precisely what is about to occur! Were it not for this one detail, I'd call Falwell's position the most realistic theodicy I've heard -- except for the fact that the Bible God does not act the way Falwell describes! (But then, I've already told you why I think Fundamentalism is not the only viable form of Christianity!)

Robert Anton Wilson most eloquently handles this particular theodicy in his book Right Where You Are Sitting Now, in a piece I've had posted for years, called, "Is God a Dope? or Just Plain Clumsy?" I will repeat it here because, besides being quite short, it's just so utterly cool (and because simply linking to it would seem lazy on my part):

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In the writings of many contemporary psychics and mystics (e.g., Gopi Krishna, Shri Rajneesh, Frannie Steiger, John White, Hal Lindsay, and several dozen others whose names I have mercifully forgotten) there is a repeated prediction that the Earth is about to be afflicted with unprecedented calamities, including every possible type of natural catastrophe from Earthquakes to pole shifts. Most of humanity will be destroyed, these seers inform us cheerfully. This cataclysm is referred to, by many of them, as "the Great Purification" or "the Great Cleansing," and is supposed to be a punishment for our sins.

I find the morality and theology of this Doomsday Brigade highly questionable. A large part of the Native American population was exterminated in the 19th century; I cannot regard that as a "Great Cleansing" or believe that the Indians were being punished for their sins. Nor can I think of Hitler's death camps, or Hiroshima or Nagasaki, as "Great Purifications." And I can't make myself believe that the millions killed by plagues, cancers, natural catastrophes, etc., throughout history were all singled out by some Cosmic Intelligence for punishment, while the survivors were preserved due to their virtues. To accept the idea of "God" implicit in such views is logically to hold that everybody hit by a car deserved it, and we should not try to get him to a hospital and save his life, since "God" wants him dead.

I don't know who are the worst sinners on this planet, but I am quite sure that if a Higher Intelligence wanted to exterminate them, It would find a very precise method of locating each one separately. After all, even Lee Harvey Oswald -- assuming the official version of the Kennedy assassination -- only hit one innocent bystander while aiming at JFK. To assume that Divinity would employ earthquakes and pole shifts to "get" (say) Richard Nixon, carelessly murdering millions of innocent children and harmless old ladies and dogs and cats in the process, is absolutely and ineluctably to state that your idea of God is of a cosmic imbecile.

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many of the Christian churches made a real effort to include Moslems in their services over the weekend, something that has not happened very often.

In the hope of evangelizing the Muslims, perhaps? How many Christians were willing to go to Moslem services on Friday? If I saw large numbers of Christians filling up Muslim services, I'd start to believe this rhetoric.

Those of us who don't follow any religion at all may think, "Big deal," but I give them credit for at least trying to reach out and defuse the very real bigotry that Arab-Americans are experiencing right now.

Yes, in the interest of quenching the anti-Arab bigotry that abounds, I'd agree, this is a good start. However, the solution is not tolerance (or, rather, exposing the Muslims to the Gospel message in hopes that they see the light), but to actually accept Islam as a full-fledged and legitimate expression of faith.

We don't see hardly any Christians doing this. Those who would will be called "false Christians" by almost all Fundamentalists.

This becomes easier for me as an atheist because all I've got to do is acknowledge that most theists have or think they have valid reasons for believing the way they do, and rest on the inherent freedom of every human to believe and practice what she or he thinks is the right way. All I need to add to this is that most of us end up following the religion into which we were born. Thus, as faith goes, Islam is as legitimate as any other. I can even go so far as to acknowledge that Islam, like Christianity, Hinduism, and even Buddhism, has its problem children, its fundamentalists and ultra-exclusivists, it's "hypocrites," if you will. As an atheist, I can recognize healthy and unhealthy expressions of religion though I cannot go so far as to recognize "true" and "false" expressions of any faith.

But for a Christian this becomes next to impossible because inherent in the Christian religion is the message of exclusivism: Christ died so that those who believe in him might be saved. This implies (actually, it means) that those who do not believe in Christ are still damned -- still the enemy (or, at best, part of the "mission field," that group of humans still targeted for conversion to the Christian faith). Thus, the best that a traditional Christian can hope for is for a Muslim to be converted: it's almost impossible for traditional Christians to accept Islam as a legitimate expression of faith.

Bush's Christianized memorial service has contributed much to the bigotry we see.

I do know some people who have been directly affected by this, and for some of them, the only thing keeping them going is their religion.

And I'm all for letting them try to cope using their religion.

This will not, however, stop me from predicting that many Americans will wake up and realize that their faith does not have the answers to problems of this scale. I will say this to an atheistic audience for the purpose of helping atheists cope with Bush's and America's religiosity, and will refrain from sending this message directly to a theist for the purpose of trying to see them deconverted or even to say "I told you so." I do not want this message going to theists at the hands of atheists. Any who do end up realizing the limitations of religious faith can only come to this realization alone, in the privacy of their own hearts.

To put it bluntly, I do not want to see our readers (or any atheists) overtly pointing out to theists the limitations of religion when it comes to comforting people in times of great loss. Let them try to be comforted. Let them be comforted if it works for some (and several atheists have written wishing they still had this option, but realizing that it doesn't really work in the long run).

The fact that we atheists are coping shows false any claim that religion is the only way to be comforted. That would be like me, on Tuesday, unable to cope, finally resorting to a nip of Guinness and then telling everybody that Guinness is the answer, or an Alcoholics Anonymous member telling me that my Guinness was false comfort and that I should have just endured (or "suffered") instead of trying to relieve my pain. But the fact that we atheists are coping needs only to be pointed out amongst we atheists, and does not need to become an argument against theism directed toward theists. Let them have their religion.

My only argument has been Bush's exploitation of the situation to further his own views. What he did will cause a great deal of harm in the long run, and we're seeing it already in the form of bigotry and hate crimes leveled against Muslims (and a few -- very few, thus far, thankfully -- against atheists).

Cliff Walker
Positive Atheism Magazine
Six years of service to
    people with no reason to believe

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