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Forget God: What's So Great About Atheism? (Part 1)

It seems incontestable to me that -- the powerful emotions they elicit notwithstanding -- atheisminvalidated by the atrocities atheists commit. Anymore than theism is invalidated by theist atrocities.
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The day God died, Stalin was born. Or close enough. Nietzsche was writing Die Fröhliche Wissenschaft in the very early 1880s, when the future monster was a toddler. The second edition (1887) appeared just two years before little Adolf, future monster #2, poked his bullet head from Mrs Hitler's apparatus. Mrs Zedong produced baby Mao, future monster #3, a mere four years later.

Nietzsche's most famous words were spoken by a fictional theist driven mad when he realizes that he must now become an atheist, because man has killed God. And that with God go all concepts of good and evil. Humankind now floats in a moral void. 'All values must be revalued' quoth Friedrich.

On cue in 1885, right in the middle of the God-is-Dead decade, one of the most horrific genocides in history got underway. As usual with colonialism it had a vaguely Christian pretext, but this was soon dumped in a God-free holocaust of greed and violence in which some 10 million (possibly 13 million) Congolese were murdered by thoroughly modern, constitutional monarch King Leopold II of Belgium. The carnage went on for quarter of a century until Leo croaked, unfortunately of natural causes.

But hey! What's a mere 10-13 million corpses? Here comes World War 1 which -- thanks to the staggering advances of free-thinking scientists (in say high explosives, manned flight, internal combustion, chemical weapons) -- puts an end to 20 million more lives; plus setting future monsters 1, 2 and 3 solidly in motion. And it's only 1918.

Welcome to the 20th century -- golden age of atheism.

From its earliest years, God was good and dead, across the cultural and political board and on every continent: Marxists, fascists, capitalists, socialists, nationalists, scientists and artists. The death of God also meant adieu to the afterlife, but humans seem addicted to the opiate of heaven, so heaven had to be achieved in this life: on one hand by class war, on the other by purification of the 'master race.'

Scarcely had the 'war to end all wars' ended, than people began to talk excitedly of the 'necessary' death of whole categories of humans and the 'necessary' regimentation, indoctrination and oppression of the survivors, if communism or fascism was to achieve their respective God-free utopias here below.

No point quibbling over the precise number of humans (40 million? 45?) Stalin murdered in his drive for a worker's paradise, either because they disagreed on how to get there or stupidly clung to the corpse of God. Even the 12 million or so murders his advocates were willing to concede, is beyond horror. Twice that of monster #2's benchmark, the Holocaust, itself perhaps 30% of those the Nazis murdered and caused to be murdered, so that an Aryan paradise might endure for 1000 years from Siberia to the Atlantic seaboard.

And let's not forget Mao, monster #3, World Champion Atheist Murderer Eastern Division, with at least another 45 mill (some say 70) for a grand total by the end of the second 'war to end all wars' of, oh, 120 million necessary dead. And we're only halfway through the bloodiest century in human history. South-Eastern Division Champ Pol Pot, hasn't even begun to develop those exciting ideas about 're-educating' his fellow Cambodians.

Three huge best-sellers are currently dedicated to the great ungod Atheos: Christopher Hitchens' God is Not Great; Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion; and Sam Harris' The End of Faith. Hitchens, the best of the bunch, is an irresistible read even when you disagree with most of his conclusions. Dawkins, the worst, is eminently resistible, sound-bitey and truculent, a world-class special-pleader with zero tolerance for tolerance. 'Ad' and 'Hominem' are his middle names. This testy flamboyance may be a result of his day-job: he's Oxford University's Professor Emeritus of Appearing on Television as Often as Humanly Possible. If Fox News started a cable channel for intellectual atheists (Fox Nous, perhaps?) Dawkins would be its Bill O'Reilly. Harris is the most 'scientific' but his whole thesis -- the future of reason -- is contradicted by a hatred of Islam and Muslims so vitriolic and irrational, it has a distinctly umm, religious whiff.

Diverse they may be but united on message: all religion bad, all atheism good. All contain the familiar piles of corpses murdered down the centuries in the name of one Theos or the other, a priori evidence of the invalidity of religion, the non-existence of a Supreme Artist formerly known as God and the moral necessity of atheism.

All three also argue that while it's logical to draw said conclusions from said piles of corpses, it doesn't follow that when an atheist murders or tortures comparable numbers of humans, those atrocities invalidate the moral necessity of atheism. Atheism is not responsible for murders committed by atheists. Hitchens even sets out to prove that atheism isn't invalidated by the atrocities committed in the name of atheistic communism because actually atheistic communism was a religion. Neat huh? Intellectual floor routines of which a 13th century scholastic gymnast would have been justly proud.

Alas, you can't have it both ways. When someone murders another because that person doesn't share his convictions, either the murder invalidates his convictions or it doesn't. It makes no difference whether it's an inquisitor or a commissar who's broiling the heretic.

It seems incontestable to me that -- the powerful emotions they elicit notwithstanding -- atheism isn't invalidated by the atrocities atheists commit. Anymore than theism is invalidated by theist atrocities. An atrocity and a belief system simply don't exist in the same dimension. It's like comparing someone's nose-hairs to his talent for story telling. (The nose-hairs might disgust you so much you can't stand his story, but that doesn't make the two comparable).

The horrors perpetrated in the name of atheism in the last century don't invalidate the achievements and convictions of atheists like Bertrand Russell, James Joyce, Margaret Sanger, William Empson, Luis Bunuel and Picasso to name just a few I admire, even though as an imperfectly practicing Catholic, I don't share their core convictions.

Nor do the horrific crimes of say, the first Crusaders to enter Jerusalem in 1099, outraged as I am by their greed and cynicism nine centuries later, invalidate the life-work and convictions of Peter Abelard, Hildegard von Bingen or Dante Alighieri. Or Theilard de Chardin or Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton or Graham Greene, other exemplars whose core convictions I (mostly) share.

There's a deadly literalism to these books that assumes because mass-murderers say they're Christian or Muslim -- or Communist -- that means they actually believe God -- or the proletariat -- is guiding their sword-arm or trigger-finger. In reality mass-murderers are almost always good old down-home hypocrites who exploit the beliefs that help people navigate their lives, to cover for their own homicidal compulsions and/or need for vast amounts of real-estate.

Apropos: the gang of liars, killers and thieves currently holed up in the White House. Should we hold Methodism, a fairly benign Protestant denomination, responsible for the death of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis because George Bush says he's a Methodist? No, because whether he is or not (and I don't believe for a second that Bush is any more born-again than Paris Hilton) we can be certain he's murdering Iraqis for a whole stew of motives: control of their oil, keeping the military-corporate axis profitable, pandering to his radical Christianist base (who certainly aren't Methodists) and the transparent racism that's second nature to his family.

Nationalism and its idiot twin patriotism, materialism, militarism, tribalism, colonialism, multinational corporate greed or any admixture of these deadly toxins, can just as easily be blamed for the horrific wars and intolerance of the last two centuries, as organized religion or organized atheism. One school of thought even places the blame, squarely and with considerable justice, on the fact that men have penises (I'm speaking of course of my old pal George Carlin).

These divisive and intolerant books do no more to further the urgent causes of global peace, justice and equality, than the neo-conservatives whose judgmental rage they seem to share. In fact given that the genocidal 19th-century laissez-faire-ism which neo-cons seek to revive was coeval with classic 19th-century atheism, you could plausibly call these authors and their devots, neo-atheists.

The larger historical point: we've been here before. The debate between religion and science raged throughout the second half of the 19th century, after Darwin's epochal breakthrough. For the first time in history significant numbers of influential minds concluded that atheism was inescapable; in turn persuading vast numbers of people of its truth and the need to eradicate all religions. Regardless of the philosophical distinction between atrocity and belief argued above, the emotional impact of the horrors that resulted - horrors beyond the wildest dreams of the most lunatic fundamentalist -- is still fresh in the planet's collective memory. Mightn't it be a bit premature to suggest that atheism deserves another shot? And that while we're at it we may as well have another go at eradicating all religions?

More urgent I'd say, for science to take a very long, very hard look at itself. And no, that doesn't mean I'm a creationist. Quite the opposite. Science has immeasurably deepened our understanding of the physical world and for some, vastly improved the quality of life. But as Terry Eagleton points out in his now classic takedown of Dawkins, it isn't religion that's brought humanity to the brink of self-extermination, either the quick way (nuclear extinction) or the slow (an uninhabitable planet). Before we can find any genuinely new paths to peace, equality and tolerance, our finger-pointing physicians need to heal themselves.

Next up: What's so Great About Atheism Part 2: Who reads the Bible more literally: Pat Robertson or Richard Dawkins?

PS: Check out what an ordinary guy from the Bronx (who happens to Christ Returned) has to say about all this, in my new satire, The Messiah of Morris Avenue