The God of No God

Thu, 6 Sep, 2000

Atheism is an active, knowing rejection of most, if not all, of the tenets of religion that have (more in the breach than the observance) directed human intercourse since we first lifted our eyes heavenward and realized that we were definitely going to die.

Gods fall into two broad categories: the oldest is likely the malevolent entity which unless constantly propitiated visits indiscriminate unpleasantness on everyone within reach; essentially an extortionist that can be bribed with protection money. The second is a sort of genie that grants wishes, up to and including eternal life. The genie, too needs to be bribed, or equally dreadful things will come to pass. The genie is not, however, in a constantly bad mood, and can occasionally be wheedled into doing favors. Christianity accepts both, believing that the genie is stronger than the extortionist, and that the best course is to supplicate the genie and trust that he will stave off the power of evil. The Christian helps by resisting, so far as he is able, the blandishments of the devil, and hopes that, whatever may come to him in this vale of tears, he will attain a sort of divinity of his own when he dies. The devil has all the best tunes, however, and it is the rare and fortunate man who dies in a state of grace. But it's always the other guy who goes to hell.

Faith requires a friendly environment. People recoil from the person who openly disagrees with their opinions, who dresses differently or who eats unfamiliar food. Faith is a soap bubble, whose integrity is threatened by even a pinprick. To the godly, there is nothing more abhorrent than the godless, because he threatens, by his very disbelief, the foundation stone of their own faith. When the godless man mows his lawn on Sunday morning instead of going to church, the whole fabric of society is threatened. You can either kill him or accept that you may be wrong, and for most of human history the choice was simple and straightforward: kill the infidel. In the more conformist societies, such as Japan, this is even encapsulated in a common aphorism: the nail that sticks up gets hammered down.

"History indicates how readily the term (atheism) has been used in the most haphazard manner to describe even trivial divergence of opinion concerning points of dogma. . . . When the psalmist declares that 'the fool hath said in his heart, there is no God,'* he probably does not refer to theoretical denial, but to a practical disbelief in God's government of human affairs shown in disobedience to moral laws. Socrates was charged with 'not believing in the gods the city believes in.' The cry of the heathen populace in the Roman empire against the Christians was 'Away with the atheists! To the lions with the Christians!'

. . . Spinoza, for whom God alone existed, was persecuted as an atheist."
(Encyclopedia Brittanica, 11th Edition, 1910)

Lucius: Tell on thy mind; I say the child shall live.
Aaron: Swear that he shall, and then I will begin.
Lucius: Who should I swear by? thou beliv'st no god: That granted, how canst thou believe an oath?
Aaron: What if I do not? as, indeed, I do not; Yet, for I know thou art religious, And hast a thing within thee called conscience, With twenty popish tricks and ceremonies Which I have seen thee careful to observe Therefore I urge this oath; -- for that I know An idiot holds his bauble for a god, And keeps the oath which by that god he swears; To that I'll urge him: -- therefore thou shalt vow By that same god, -- what god so'er it be That thou ador'st and hast in reverence. -- To save my boy, to nourish and bring him up; Or else I will discover naught to thee.
Lucius: Even by my god I swear to thee I will.

-- Willliam Shakespeare, "Titus Andronicus," Act V, Scene I

An old objection to the atheist was, since he acknowledged neither a divine being nor divine retribution, how could he dependably swear to tell the truth in a court of law? Clearly, this is a serious matter. When a god-fearing man takes an oath, he is putting earthly motives in one balance and his immortal soul in the other. You may be sure that he is telling the truth, or you will, at least, have the satisfaction of seeing him caper in eternal hellfire if he isn't. The atheist may also be lying, but his oath has no teeth.

This brings us to the point of my musings: how and why can a person who has no belief in a divine being, and no enduring faith is any sort of afterlife, live in harmony with his fellows? The answer is simple: religion doesn't make a whit of difference to anything. Whatever people may say, what they do is entirely a function of their day-to-day intercourse with their fellows. Some people obey the law out of fear; some people obey the law because they agree with it; some people break the law because it suits them or because they think they can get away with it. Some people are just plain cuckoo, and the law doesn't mean a thing to them. Everybody lives in the real world and nobody lives in the afterlife. The policeman, judge and jury are real forces to be reckoned with, whereas God and the Devil exist only in church, and have no demonstrable temporal powers, no armies and no estates. The opinions of one's fellows, the desire for a good reputation and a decent credit report have more force on ordinary behavior than any amount of professed belief in an afterlife.

Morality is dictated by the society, the times and the circumstances. We do not need a god or a morality enforced by a belief in god. The kingdom of God is within us, which is where it always has been. **

* Psalms 14:1

**Luke 17:21

August 18, 2000

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