Wednesday, September 26, 2007

UPDATED: The "Passion" of the Atheist

I came across this column by way of Pharyngula.

It seems that John Terry, an economist, veteran, minister, and columnist for the Northwest Arkansas Times did not take kindly to a recent article in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette titled "Passionate Atheists".

While you can read Mr. Terry's column in its complete and original form by clicking the link above, I will reproduce it below in italics with my own running commentary in bold. Here it goes.

Not long ago the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette published an interesting article entitled “ Passionate Atheists. ” This caught my attention immediately.

My first thought was, “ How do you get passionate about nothing ? ” If no God exists, what is there to get passionate about ? Why do professed atheists find it necessary to convert other people to their unbelief, since there is nothing of substance there to convince them of ?

Gee, Mr. Terry, you seem to have your syntax all wrong. We are not people who are passionate about atheism. We are atheists who are passionate about our beliefs.

Must one believe in the existence of a god in order to be passionate about whatever it is that inspires or challenges us, whether it be creating music, art or literature, or doing well in athletics, or fighting for worthy causes, or simply engaging in a hobby that provides enjoyment and self fulfillment?

And while I cannot claim to speak for all atheists, I don't find it necessary to convert people to unbelief. Rather, what we feel compelled to do is to challenge the beliefs of those who would use their religion as a justification to support legal discrimination against gays, to erode the reproductive freedoms of women, and to eliminate from school curriculums all scientific knowledge that does not comport with a literal reading of the book of Genesis, to name just a few examples.

My second thought was, “ Isn’t this statement, passionate atheists, close to being an oxymoron ?”

What is oxymoronic about being a passionate atheist? See my comments above.

I have been in the ministry many years, and in every one of them the subject of atheism has reared its head. However, periodically (usually about every decade ) there is a push to convince people that there is no God. In the United States, as it has become more liberal in theology, more people have, as the article stated, “ come out of the closet” and admitted their unbelief, much in the same way as homosexuals have admitted their sexual preferences.

Both of these are symbols of the moral and spiritual decline of a nation, and this is happening in the United States with disturbing rapidity.

I do not doubt that there are scientists who would say "I have been in the field of [biology, astronomy, geology etc.] many years, and periodically there is a push to convince people that the Earth is only 6,000 years old, that there were was a worldwide flood and that Noah had dinosaurs on his ark, and that evolution is 'just a theory'. In the United States, as the Religious Right has become increasingly influential, more people have responded to pollsters by professing their disbelief in evolution and natural selection and have admitted their belief in the Biblical story of creation."

Tell me Mr. Terry, how is it that atheist Americans and gay Americans exercising their rights as citizens of this great country are symbols of a moral and spiritual decline?

Contrary to the apparent belief of atheists, their nonbelief is not a danger to Christianity, nor to individual Christians. Nor does it change the existence of God. It does pose dangers, however, and the dangers are these:

The first danger is the unbeliever himself. He is left with no god but himself, no wisdom but his own (except the wisdom of men ) and no hope of a life beyond this one. Worst of all, he is in danger of facing an eternity devoid of the God he denied. In short, he wanted it that way, and that is the way he got it. A solemn and sad situation.

I don't consider my atheism to be a danger to Christians. Apparently, Christians believe that atheists represent a danger to Christianity simply because we exist. Because the fact is that most of us atheists are ordinary people who go to work, pay our taxes, raise our families, and go on about our lives pretty much the same as everybody else. It would be all too easy for Christians if atheists were pedophiles, rapists, thieves and murders. Since we aren't, we represent a challenge to Christians because we are living proof that people can lead basically decent lives without believing in a supreme being.

And as for being left with no wisdom but our own,"except the wisdom of men", my knee-jerk response is "so what?" We rely on the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of our peers and forebears for just about everything. Our knowledge of medicine, engineering, mathematics, and agriculture, to name just a few fields of endeavor, is built on the work of those who came before us. One does not need to believe in the existence of god to improve upon existing construction techniques to erect buildings that can withstand earthquakes or to invent new medicines to help cure diseases. Why then must belief in god be paramount for a person to have a code of morals and ethics to live by?

Interestingly, it does not surprise me that a conservative Christian like you would refer to the "wisdom of men" instead of the "wisdom of humanity". Women should just keep their mouths shut and let men do the thinking, right Mr. Terry?

And so far as I know, when my human body expires, I am dead and that is it. I do not face an "eternity" because there will be nothing left for me to experience an eternity.

The second danger is that the atheist may be able to persuade others (I knew of one situation like this where an older man concentrated on young people ) that his unbelief is really true. This might consign those he persuaded to the same fate that is in store for him.

Oh, if I could be so lucky! No one persuaded me to become an atheist. Atheism was the conclusion I arrived at after a long period of examination of the evidence and personal reflection. And to reiterate, the fate in store for an atheist is no different than that of a Christian when he or she dies. Our bodies cease to function and our conscious selves come to an end. It may not be poetic or pretty, but that does not make it any less true.

The third danger lies in what kind of person the atheist may become when he becomes his own god. If he does not recognize God, he may not recognize any of the restraints that a belief in God generates. Thus, without restraint, he may become a pedophile, a murderer, a thief, or any other kind of a deviant you can think of. Or he might just become one who lives inward, with no concern for the people or things around him. There are tragic examples of such people.

Here we go again, another theist who just cannot seem to grasp that morality without belief in god is not only possible, IT'S EASY! Let me see if I can spell it out for you in very simple terms Mr. Terry. True wisdom comes not from believing in the existence of god, but in recognizing the basic fact that our lives are intertwined with each other and that our actions have consequences. People do not want to be murdered, raped, assaulted, or robbed, so we have laws to punish those who engage in such activities and we fund with our taxes police forces, courts of law, and prisons.

True wisdom is recognizing that we benefit not only from restraining our lusts and desires, but in actively promoting altruism and a civil society that respects life and property. We understand that we are not islands unto ourselves.

My wife, whom I love dearly and who I consider also to be my best friend in the world, believes in god, albeit as a lapsed Catholic. However, whether it is because of her own personality or her cultural background (she's from the Philippines), she frequently exhibits her disapproval whenever I engage in any altruistic activity. Several years ago, when I was heading to a local supermarket, I found a woman's wallet in one of the shopping carts in the parking lot. Because the lady's drivers license was in the wallet, I was able to find out where she lived and I drove to her house to return it to her. Feeling good about myself, I told my wife about it when I got home. Bur rather than praising me for being a good Samaritan, she actually chided me for going out of my way to help a stranger. She also complains when I donate blood!

It is not my intention in sharing these examples of altruism on my part just to say "See what a wonderful guy I am!", but rather to refute the tired arguments of the likes of Mr. Terry that the absence of belief in a god makes people either amoral hedonists or self-absorbed loners indifferent to the world around them.

Now if you will excuse me, there are some neighborhood children I have to go out and molest now.

In the long years of being a minister I think I have known no more than two dozen people who loudly declared that there is no God. I did not believe in any of them. I have found that the man who so professes may be just “ whistling past the graveyard. ” In short, because of the life he has lived, he may just be hoping against hope that there is no God to whom he might someday have to answer.

Do you have any evidence that these self-proclaimed atheists were just "whistling past the graveyard" Mr. Terry? And funny how I always thought it was the other way around, that people suddenly find religion as their sense of their own mortality grows, and they are afraid of the prospect of dying without being "saved".

I was not raised in a “ church-going” family, yet the name of God was revered in our home. My parents never used the name of God in vain, nor any of the by-words popular in those days. So I always believed in a God; I just wanted him to leave me alone and let me live my life the way I wanted to. In fact, at an early age I had planned my life, and no god was included in it.

However, my father died of a heart attack when he was 43, and I was 18. I had just returned home after spending a year-and-a-half in a tuberculosis sanitarium in Colorado Springs. When my father died he left my mother and me with six little brothers and sisters to raise.

And, though I did not know God, I became terribly angry with him. In the “ old days” nearly everything was ascribed to God. If there was a tragedy in the home, old preachers would declare that it was “ God’s will. ” I came to hate that expression, and have refused to use it throughout my ministry, as it related to things I just could not understand. I look askance at any preacher who always seems to know what “ the will of God is. ”

I was raised in a family that had a church-going father, and when I was around 5 years old, my mom had a "born again" phase. And during my late teens I was church-going and Bible reading Catholic. I did not want god to leave me alone. Rather, I wanted god to be my personal friend and to be ever present in my life just as the god of the Bible was Abraham's BFF. And yet here I am today an atheist.

I'm sorry your father died so young, Mr. Terry. And I do agree with you about one thing, tragic circumstances are not a result of "God's will". In fact, the world functions just as we should expect that it would in the absence of a supreme being.

Why are atheists coming out of the “ closet” now ? Simple. The country has become so secularized, and has adopted an “ anything goes” attitude, so deviants of any nature now feel it is safe to declare themselves. Also, led by many prominent universities, it has now become “ politically correct” for people to try to be “ different. ” Factually, it does not brand people as intellectual or brave, but contemptuous of centuries of solid beliefs and traditions.

Wrong, Mr. Terry. If atheists are coming out of the closet now, it is because we believe we cannot remain silent as the Religious Right, via the Republican Party, tries to nudge this country closer and closer to a Christian theocracy. And I find it a little disturbing that you believe there is something wrong with atheists such as myself feeling safe to declare ourselves. Would you prefer that I do not feel safe, Mr. Terry? Was it brave of Jerry Falwell to declare on a national cable television program that atheists, gays, and feminists were responsible for 9/11, or was Falwell being contemptuous of a tolerant and pluralistic democracy?

In the Bible, few people are so chastised as are avowed atheists. In Proverbs 1: 7 are these words: “ The fear (awe ) of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction. ”

And the Bible is proof of what, Mr. Terry?

So, unless the avowed atheist is prepared to account for the universe, for man in all of his complexities, and life in general, he certainly is not prepared to declare that “ there is no God. ”

Wrong again Mr. Terry. I don't have to account for the existence of the universe to declare that "there is no God." The only thing the existence of the universe proves is that the universe exists.

But let us suppose that perhaps there is some higher intelligence that created the universe in which we live. It does not mean that therefore the god described in the Bible is real. Maybe the universe was created by a collection of highly advanced beings. Or, maybe god, if there is one, is really just an idiot savant. It creates universes and that's all it does. It is quite a leap to say that because the complexity of the universe is plausible evidence of an intelligent designer that therefore a virgin woman in Judea some 2,000 years ago conceived a child who grew up to be an itinerant preacher, healed sick people, cast out demons, performed miracles, was killed and then rose from the dead.

He is revealed, not as an intellectual, but as a gadfly with no answers to anything. It is even more plain in Psalms 14: 1: “ The fool has said in his heart, there is no God. ”

Again, this proves what?

Ted Turner once said, in speaking of the Lord, “ I do not need anyone to die for me. ” Well, perhaps he doesn’t know all of the truth. Personally, I need a Savior, and I am happy I found out the truth as young as I did. The sad thing about the atheist is that he may find out the truth after it is too late.

Ah yes, the appeal to fear. Believe as Mr. Terry does, or face an eternity of suffering in the after life. Oooh! I'm so scared!

So please don’t feel sorry for those of us who believe in God, who build churches, attend churches, send missionaries, and do every kind of charitable work known to man. Even if we were wrong in all this, we would still be better off than the atheist. At least we would have lived lives that helped us, and more importantly, helped others.

I don't feel sorry for people who believe in god, Mr. Terry. I feel sorry for people like you who believe that those of us who do not share your beliefs are lesser human beings than you who are fated to damnation in the afterlife.

Religious people are no better or worse than atheists, Mr. Terry. We are all capable of doing good works and bad works, and it is quite often the case that we can exhibit both the best of ourselves and the worst of ourselves in the same day. I have no problem with acknowledging the many wonderful acts of charity that are performed by religious people. But it is rather disingenuous when religious people on the one hand belittle atheists as being so small in number and then on the other hand boast that religious people and organizations contribute more to society than atheists do. And if you want to compare the quality of life of a Christian to an atheist, I guarantee you that by any measure my life is infinitely better than Ted Haggard's life.

I know that most atheists are probably not bad people. But they are sadly misguided in their thinking, and in their hearts many of them probably know it. One should not live his life as a fool when he can live it as a child of God, and have the promise of everlasting life.

Gee, thanks for conceding that most atheists are not bad people, Mr. Terry. Most Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists are not bad people either. You know why? Because most human beings are not bad people. If the majority of us were evil, the human race would not have advanced from roving bands of illiterate hunter-gatherers to build civilizations capable of sending space probes to the farthest reaches of our solar system. The fact is, most of the good people who lived and died on this planet did so without ever having heard of your god and your Bible. I submit that you are the one who is misguided.


The Northwest Arkansas Times published a well written letter-to-the-editor by an Arkanasa atheist in response to Mr. Terry's column.

Here is another letter published in the Northwest Arkansas Times.

Also, Martin Wagner at The Atheist Experience puts in his own two cents worth, or make that twenty cents worth, here.


Tommykey said...

BTW, I e-mailed Mr. Terry with a link to this post. I will let you know if I get a response from him, or perhaps he will even be so kind as to post his response in the comments section here.

Stardust said...

Mr Terry said "“Why do professed atheists find it necessary to convert other people to their unbelief, since there is nothing of substance there to convince them of?”

I would like Mr Terry to tell me when the last time an atheist knocked upon his door on a Saturday morning and told him there was no god and if he had any god beliefs he was wrong and should give them up? When was the last time any of us were invited to join the "church of atheism"? Do atheists hire buses of people to go out into neighborhoods and "evangelize"? Do they bribe young children to go to "atheist school" with promises of McDonalds and hot dogs and candy like a mega-Baptist church does in our area? Do we put signs out in front of our homes that say "come join us"?

Stardust said...

And has anyone ever seen random atheist "street preachers" telling all that their religions are a bunch of baloney and to join the world of reason? I have never seen this, except maybe at rallies where atheists are protesting against theocracy being imposed in our secular schools and government.

Anonymous said...

Excellent response. Have you considered submitting a letter to the editor? It’s been my experience that most papers, especially those in less populated areas are very good about printing them. I’ve had a few in my local paper here in Mississippi even.

Tommykey said...

Thanks Butch!

The thing is, letters to the editor generally have to be very brief, and Mr. Terry raised so many points that a letter to the editor in response could only address a narrow portion of it.