Wednesday 2 October 2013

Albie : Why I Am an Atheist, Part II (Disbelief)

Dear Albie,
It seems the envelope was too thin for so many pages.  I hope you got yourself through my trials and errors of part one.  As promised, here's part two.


I finished high school a couple years after the God of the Mountains came down to jealously steal the temple from all the other gods, who were rightfully pissed, and went straight into university.  The greater-spirit, god-is-love, organized-religion-is-what’s-bad thing continued to evolve, probably because it made sense to most of the people I spoke to about religion (I wasn’t afraid of speaking about religion), and who seemed on the same page as me.  I have to say, it probably helped a great deal not being part of any religious group to depart from religion: it was a totally personal conviction and choice, and when I figured it out for myself (thanks, Mom) there was absolutely no one to shame me back in, or to make me feel guilty for questioning their own faith, or to make me choose between belonging and (non-)belief.  Likewise, there was nobody welcoming me into the Baha’i Faith, Agnostics Club or Atheist Association either – I had to go on figuring it out.  So, when I met my first serious girlfriend, who was a raised and practicing Buddhist, my feelings on religion lay somewhere between George Carlin’s excellent “Invisible Man” routine and a hangover-from-Revelations gut instinct for a universal, transcendent power not unlike the Force from Star Wars.

In other words, I loved the idea of dating a Buddhist.

Now, the best thing a Buddhist can say to someone like me (and she did) is that their practice is not really a religion, but a philosophy of living.  For many Buddhists, this is true.  It may even be true for some Muslims, Jews and Christians: those who couldn’t give a hoot for the pyrotechnics and who laugh at the idea of believing in the stuff, but they like the idea and ascribe to the philosophy.  I think that to make such a choice is often reckless, but it’s better than the supernatural, and in any case, my girlfriend was a cut above these guys: she practiced it, she researched it, she lived it.  Unfortunately, hers was not a philosophy of living or a mere practice, like yoga; it was, and is, a religion.  And sadly, it is a belligerent, hostile, exclusive, superstitious, mystically-inclined religion quixotically bent on world domination like all the others.  Perhaps not all the followers, practitioners and priests of the Japanese-originated Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism could be called religious in these terms.  Perhaps there are the “philosophy of lifers” mixed up in the ranks, who chant the words with feeling and community and even hope, but deny or at least ignore the supernatural hogwash.  But the ones I came to meet invested in the deluxe package.  At first, though, I had no idea.  I was enchanted.

Bigger than doctrine for Nichirens is practice.  The absolute, unquestionable core of Nichiren Shoshu are the words, Nam myoho renge kyo.  Though many non-Japanese Nichirens don’t actually know what they mean, they roughly translate to, “Devotion to the Mystic Law of Cause and Effect”.  Typically, a Nichiren Buddhist practices twice a day: once in the morning (about 15 minutes), and once in the evening (about 40 minutes).  They chant the syllables in steady, unaccented succession (…-nam-myo-ho-ren-ge-kyo-nam-myo-ho-ren-ge-kyo-…) in what is called gongyo.  This section can be as long or short as the practitioner wishes: a few minutes, or hours or even days.  Laced in with the core words for the morning and evening are recitations of five sections of the Lotus Sutra (the Buddhist text used by Nichirens), all in old Japanese.  Again, most non-Japanese Nichirens have not translated what they chant.  These morning and evening rituals are usually done with beads around the fingers and a small book in hand (if the words aren’t memorized), before a shrine called a Gohonzon, which opens to reveal a small scroll with Japanese characters at the centre, with a bell and perhaps some incense.  The unit is consecrated by a priest, and can be as small (a traveling Gohonzon) or as large (a Gohonzon at the front of a temple, for hundreds of chanters at a time) as desired.  My girlfriend had her own, but always preferred chanting with her family at their larger unit, where all could gather.

Many Nichirens (as well as members of their “breakaway sect”, the Soka Gakkai) commit to the practice and leave it at that.  They love the discipline, the act of chanting alone and with others, and the sense of community.  When I met her, my girlfriend was more or less a practitioner rather than an ideologue: there was no right, wrong, truth, falsehood, good, evil, war or bad guys.  There were just these beautiful words spoken in beautiful chants and in line with a few beautiful ideas: cause and effect, or karma.  How could you get more common sense and yet scientific, more fundamental and yet all-applicable, and more rational, than trying to understand cause and effect?  And when it comes down to it, the idea of karma doesn’t have to be superstitious, mystical or beyond human understanding.  It’s just the plain old idea that what goes around comes around; if you think like  mouse, you’ll act like a mouse; if you practice violence, you can expect violence.  Karma, in this fundamental sense, as a euphemism for, cause and effect, has ramifications that are personal, social, political, universal, and all of those together.  The spiritual doesn’t have to enter into the equation.  It’s just a idea, just a metaphor, and just as that it makes practical sense.  Yes, for my young, budding, progressive mind, this felt like what Buddhism should be.

Add to all that, there was no pressure.  I was not wrong for not being a Buddhist.  I was not assumed to be challenging anyone’s beliefs or principles by not wanting to chant.  I was doing nothing but enjoying my peanut butter and jam instead of their Marmite.  So, because I’d never tried this Marmite before, I was asked if I wanted to.  My girlfriend’s father would poke his head down the stairs and ask, “Hey, you wanna come chant?”  Because, I might like it, I might not – who cares.  So I tried it a few times, and it was alright.  I never got into the daily habit of chanting, but I joined the family once in a while, and then when they rejoined and became involved with the larger Nicheren Shoshu organization, I tagged along.  And this is where things got iffy.

I liked to ask questions about Buddhism, about chanting, and I didn’t like all the answers I got.  Nichiren Shoshu is based on the writings of the 13th century AD Japanese mystic, Nicheren (the Daishonin), who was in turn influenced by the writings, or sutras, of the ‘original’ Buddha (or Shakyamuni, as he is known to Nichirens) from 7th century BC India.  Nichiren declared that the power and teachings of the old Buddha were now defunct, and that people could only transcend cause and effect, or karma, through him, his teachings, and his words: Nam myoho renge kyo.  He translated and taught the (Shakyamuni) Buddha’s Lotus Sutra, and focused on epiphinal, humbling concepts such as “if you stacked up all the particles of dust in all the worlds of all the universe you would still have accumulated only one speck of dust.”  So, my girlfriend and her family believed in reincarnation, in the “mystic law of cause and effect”, and that their chanting had a power beyond the physical, vocal and communal act of chanting itself – in other words, because they had no evidence for their claims beyond revelation and scripture (and “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” – Carl Sagan), they believed in the supernatural.  I could chant, but I couldn’t go there.  This was fine; it was an accepted, respected divide over what sort of bread on which we like to spread our Marmite.

When I met the visiting priest (all the priests were Japanese men), and when I spoke to other Nichirens and asked about their opinions, and when I started up debates about doctrine and evidence, I encountered things that not only I didn’t like, but that downright scared me.  When I wondered why Nam myoho renge kyo couldn’t be replaced by another set of words, say devised by linguists searching for the perfect sonic balance, or when I asked if it was alright to chant to a map of the moon instead of to a scroll, I was told that it was written this way hundreds of years ago, it has been practiced this way for hundreds of years – who am I to arrogantly think it should be any different?  Can I come up with something better, like inventing a whole new language?  When I asked for proof about reincarnation or the power of chanting beyond the act of chanting itself, I got answers that reminded me of teachers scrambling to prove the existence of god by saying they didn’t have to prove the existence of god.  When I heard or read the phrase, “One True Faith” from the priest and in the Nichiren texts, I had flashbacks to the Crusades, the Inquisition, and 9/11.  I was told by a layman that it was a bad translation, I should forget it; and then by a priest that, yes, Nichiren Buddhism is the one true faith, it is the Only Way to enlightenment and the transcendence of karma – and then I got a lecture about God because he assumed that my hangups were not those of an atheist, but of a Christian.

The big break came at a visit to the temple.  Chanting in a living room with several others is a pleasant experience, but chanting with hundreds of others in an elegant hall while a man keeps the beat on a massive drum – that is awesome, in the true sense of the word.  Like any religious service, there was a stage and there was oration.  After a warm welcome and polite Japanese smiles, we chanted.  There was talk about karma, transcendence, specks of dust and how to better live our lives.  More chanting, more drumming, more beads rubbing.  Then there was the usual bit about us Bodhishattvas converting the whole world to Nichiren Buddhism, which I still assumed people took half-seriously.  And then, after a few more chants, a line of lay persons (not priests) came up onto the stage.  The first one could just as well have given a sermon on eternal punishment when she spoke about the others.  She actually used the words traitors, and damnation.  I couldn’t believe it, but it went on.  The others announced that they had “returned” to the “one true faith” from the “evil” Soka Gakkai, which they now “renounced” along with its universally detested leader, Daisaku Ikeda.  They apologized for having done wrong, said something about “forgiveness”, and then gave an account of the “blasphemy” of their wayward years.  Yes, they used those words: evil, forgiveness, blasphemy.  Following them and a few more chants was a priest, who thanked the new loyalists, and then gave the big sermon – the be scared-for-your-souls sermon – which denounced the blasphemers, especially Mr. Ikeda, praised the true believers, and ended with a message of hope for people to find the one and only path.

I don’t need to tell you what was wrong with this picture, do I?  But I will tell you what was meant by those evil Soka Gakkai.  Back in the early 1990s, Nichiren Shoshu was a united Japanese religion which had survived the Second World War and had spread around the world, especially to Indonesia.  There were priests from Japan, and there was a comprehensive lay organization, the Soka Gakkai.  At some point, the Soka Gakkai and the Church had a falling out and split up: in 1991 the church "excommunicated" (yes, yes) the Soka Gakkai leadership, followed by its membership in 1997.  The Soka Gakkai renounced the need for a priesthood and went out on their own, under the leadership of Daisaku Ikeda, calling themselves Soka Gakkai International (SGI).  The new organization grew quickly, in large part because of their grassroots, anti-clerical, enlightenment-is-for-everybody appeal (sound familiar?).  The priesthood maintained that the SGI were heretics, not just for breaking away, but for changing the practice (SGI members don’t need to recite as much of the Lotus Sutra as Nichirens do).  And so, unable to reconcile or share the cake, they made war.  In Japan each side has resorted to escalating violence against the other: from vandalism of temples and meeting halls, to street thuggery and murder, to outright terrorism.  So what were people in that temple supposed to think when this kind of nonsense occurs?  Be happy you’re on the right side.  Join the fight.  Or maybe even, turn the other cheek.  What a joke.

I had to wonder if a Nichiren follower or an SGI follower would be any different if Nichirens or the Soka Gakkai numbered in the hundreds of millions or billions.  I had to wonder why these people – why any participant, in any religion, anywhere – had not learned anything after all these years.  I had to wonder why no one else saw what I saw – or if they did, why they didn’t think it was a big deal.

It so happened that I was studying theatre and acting at this time, and had really taken to the idea of suspending disbelief.  I’m still a believer in suspending disbelief.  If someone tells me that the devil possesses people, or that extraterrestrials abduct people, or that the world will end on 18 February 2017, I’ll give it a go – I’ve got the imagination.  It’s the basic premise of all storytelling, however fantastic: “no, of course this stuff isn’t happening here and now, of course it’s totally improbable,” the actor says, “I’m pretending; but pretend with me, bear with me, and let’s have some fun.”  I tried the same thing, while chanting, while discussing, while sitting in the temple.  Let’s just pretend they’re right, let’s just pretend it all makes sense, let’s just enjoy the words and the drumbeat and the sense of community.  But I suddenly realised where the drumbeat would lead if I followed it to its logical, inevitable conclusion.  When push comes to shove, some childplay gets dangerous, pretend becomes pretence, and you either grow up or join the crusade.

Most likely, there is no devil, people aren’t getting abducted by flying saucers, and the world won’t end on that date.  Most likely, Nichiren Buddhists won’t be reincarnated and are not transcending anything but their own selves and in their own minds.  After a sweaty, full-out, applause-worthy performance, the mask came off, the actor bowed, and the story ended.  For most, I’m sure, the act carried on beyond the temple doors, if to them it was an act at all.  But my ticket was expired, and I didn’t need to see the sequel.  I was an atheist, and I knew it.

More Than Just Faith

Being or becoming an atheist has nothing to do with subscribing to a set of rules or precepts. It’s a little bizarre when some try to define what kind of atheist someone is (agnostic, agnostic atheist, indifferent atheist, active atheist, evangelical atheist).  Choosing to follow a religion, in whole or in part, is the same thing as choosing to join a club, and what degree you want to partake, or choosing what beer to drink, and how much.  Not being a member and not drinking requires no justification whatsoever – in fact, that burden lays with the other side, if with anyone.  I believe that non-belief, non-identification, and presumed atheism should be the default approach when you meet someone new, and the default position on all forms: a Census should never ask, “what are your religious beliefs?” but instead, “Do you have any religious beliefs, and if so, what are they?”  And then, are religious beliefs even relevant to a Census, to government, statistics, demography?  Why aren’t we asking people what their favourite chocolate bar is, if they have one?  Or their most beloved play, if they like plays?  When it comes to politics, law, and international relations, we should be following George Carlin’s Third Commandment: Thou Shalt Keep Thy Religion To Thyself.

However, as literature, culture, mass psychology, architecture, art, history and as a subject unto itself, religion still fascinates me, and that’s okay.  I don’t have to be a Catholic to enjoy the Notre Dame, or a Hindu to immerse myself in the Bhagavad Gita – no more than one should praise Jupiter to admire a Roman temple or bow down to Athena before picking up The Iliad.  And what’s more, I get the impression that the creators of these things didn’t have to be religious to create them, even if created in what we now see as a religious context.  Did the Romans place their gods, rituals and temples in a religion, as we define the word?  Maybe, but maybe not.  I’ll tell you what I mean.

I once stayed for a week in Winnipeg to direct a play at the summer Fringe festival.  The generous and friendly family who put me up were Jewish, and their faith was more than just a label as it played a small part in their lives.  They called themselves Jewish, first and foremost.  While I was there, one of the children had a dance recital at the Jewish Community Centre.  The family placed candles in the kitchen through the night in memory of the grandmother, who had died a year before, in what they called a Jewish tradition.

I asked about these candles and about their practices, and the father told me that he was culturally Jewish, but not spiritually or religiously Jewish.  What did that mean?  He explained that he didn’t believe in god, and hadn’t believed in any of the superstitions for most of his life, but he wanted to perpetuate the culture, and that Judaism as faith and Judaism as tradition are not so easily separated.  You can take the Torah away from the god but you can’t take the god away of the Torah: it is a metaphor, a story, and that story, along with the candles, the bar mitzvahs, the language, and the Jewish label itself were integral parts of the culture.  I had a hard time understanding this: what did any of the stories, traditions and practices mean if they were all founded on a falsehood?  He said that they were moral code (a philosophy of life?) and a history; and not only that, but the people who came up with these things weren’t necessarily any more religious than he was.  “God” was a unifying metaphor, and the scripture’s approach to the supernatural was more accurately an analogy for humanity’s coming to terms with death. 

What I learned from him made a lot of sense to me, and cooled my heels when it came to criticising religion and culture as a single, false and dangerous entity.  When I later visited Auschwitz in Poland, I knew that the grounds I walked on were the site of a unprecedented, preposterous crime against humanity, but that humanity was represented (mostly) by one group: Jews.  Jews don’t have to believe in the supernatural to remember the Holocaust, but the only way to remember it as something that happened to them, as opposed to all, is to be Jewish.  In retrospect, I wonder if it’s such a good idea for any one group to take on exclusive claim to victimhood, or if an atrocity should be put on someone else.  Shouldn’t I feel that the Holocaust happened to my people, my kind, my species, regardless of my culture or ethnicity?  Shouldn’t I be able to say, at one and the same time, look what we did, and look what happened to us?  Or would I be overstepping some boundary?

The other experience which informed my understanding of religion was a four-month trip to New Zealand, and specifically to the Franz Josef Glacier (called by the Maori, Te Moeka o Tuawe).  The Maori people descend from the Polynesian explorers who settled the islands in the 13th century.  They came with their own traditions, culture, language, social structure and beliefs, and all of these evolved, shifted and adapted to the new enviroment in the proceeding thousand years, up until British colonisation in the 19th century.  The Franz Josef Glacier on New Zealand’s South Island was formed like any other glacier, but the Maori have their own legend.  Long ago, there was a woman named Hinehukatere who was a great hiker, and she wanted to show her lover, Wawe, how to climb the nearby mountain.  One day, he finally faced his fear and decided to join her, and then fell to his death.  She cried, and her many tears froze on the mountainside and formed the glacier.

That’s it.  Simple, beautiful, and requisite of a certain suspension of disbelief in order to enjoy the story.  I encountered many other such Maori stories in and from New Zealand.  They’re fantasies, fairy-tales, anecdotes – some refer to the creators of the world (the Sky Father and Earth Mother) and some don’t, but those that do are no different in their whimsy, joy and imagination.  And here’s what I realised: nobody – nobody – is taking these stories literally, and perhaps nobody has.  The Sky Father is a metaphor, an idea, a character from a story who may be a god, but is in no way a personal or modern or present or active or real god.  And yet, the Europeans decided that these stories (the components of Maori mythology) were the foundation of a Maori religion, as if it was the same thing as Islam or Lutheranism.  The Victorian colonisers believed that their religious development was far more advanced (imagine that!) than that of the poor Maori, and so felt right, even altruistic, to impose the superior structure from above.  Today, Maori tour guides tell the two stories of the Franz Josef Glacier: one geological, one mythological.  They’re both good stories, and presumably most people can separate fact from fiction, science from fantasy.  And yet, the tour guides start with, “We believe…” when they speak their tales.  Do you?  Do they?  Did they?

The Maori stories indicate to me that the Maori people who originated the tales didn’t take themselves, their stories or their beliefs too seriously.  In other words, we can indeed separate religion from culture, and faith from mythology, and we’re left with the same thing we had when we started: good stories.  The same is true with any religion: take away the beliefs, and you’ve still got the literature, the traditions, the art, and the metaphor.  We don’t even have to go as far as Thomas Jefferson, who spent a good deal of time removing all supernatural elements from the Bible.  We can keep them.  We’re smart enough to tell the difference between a story and a fact, between a fairy-tale and a tradition, between god the metaphor and God the Almighty Personal Invisible Very-Real Saviour.  Aren’t we?

Why, and How, Religion is a Danger

You know the answer to this question.  And if you don’t, there are those who can speak far more eloquently than I.  Listen to the late George Carlin.  Watch the electric, broad and embarrassingly definitive Intelligence Squared debate on whether or not the Catholic Church is a force for good in the world.  Read Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion and Christopher Hitchens’ God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, two terrific books in the so-called “New Atheist” tradition, whose primary revolution, taken together, is that it is okay to question faith in the same way we question science; it’s okay to hold religion to account in the same way we hold other businesses, charities, not-for-profits and even celebrities.  And it is not okay to merely cower down in an argument when someone says, “well, I have faith.”  So instead of going on, I’ll tell you how it became obvious to me that religion is not just the bad guy of history, but rather a very real, very frigthening, and very sophisticated present threat to our species.

In 2004 Ronald Wright delivered the five-part CBC Massey Lectures, which he called “A Short History of Progress”.  Wright’s brilliant account of human history and where it has led resembles a series of successful voyages and horrible shipwrecks of human civilisation.  We can see with the hindsight of our century where, when, how and why things went wrong each time we crashed into the rocks.  And we can turn that same vision forward, and see very clearly that we now approach an exceedingly dangerous patch of water.  We have the power, for the first time in our history, to look back and to look forward, and we can apply the lessons of the past on our circumstance in the present.  It is also the first time in our history that we have the capacity to totally destroy ourselves, not just a single civilisation, like Rome or Egypt, but as homo sapiens.  Nuclear weapons is one way, and catastrophic climate change the other.  Our modern predicament is palpable.

Wright’s most riveting section concerns Easter Island.  To paraphrase and put it in gist, I’ll tell you what he said: The Easter Islanders were Polynesians, much like the original Maori settlers of New Zealand.  They arrived on Easter Island as early as 300 AD and within a few generations, all contact and knowledge of their origin was lost, or relegated to myth – they were isolated, on their own small island in the vast open stretches of the Pacific.  The civilisation boomed, however, and began consuming its resources at an increasing and alarming rate.  One of the most basic material supports of the Easter Island society was trees: the island was well-covered upon their arrival, but subsequent deforestation was rapid.  The main uses of wood on the island were for fires, construction of dwellings and, above all, for building sledges.  These sledges were used to transport giant carved stone heads – the famous moai which many tourists go to Easter Island today to see.  These tall, austere relics were carved at the quarries inland, then hauled by sledge out to a ring around the island.  They had apparent cultural and religious significance, which would have been exacerbated and perpetuated as more heads were carved and placed, leading to more and bigger heads in a upward spiral of size, grandeur and oneupmanship.

Now, there is a high point of land on Easter Island from which the whole island can be seen; and from this spot, the Islanders would have been able to see in a single panorama that their forests were being depleted.  They would have known that once there were no more trees, no more trees would be coming.  And yet, we know that they kept cutting, and building, and hacking, and sledging, until there was no more forest left.  And when that happened, the outcome was predictable.  Without forests to soak up the rains, unprecedented floods washed through.  Without diversity, agriculture and food production dropped.  Without a habitat, animals died off.  Without wood for building, houses fell apart, and shelter became first precious, then rare, then non-existent.  In a word, the entire prosperous island civilisation collapsed.  By the time a Dutch ship came by in 1722, the few remaining descendants were naked, poor, starving and totally bereft of the treasures of their ancestors.

Why did they allow it to happen, when they could see their doom approach?  Quite simply, because the Islanders believed that the moai would come to life and save them.  They believed the stone heads would magically alter fortune and bring them paradise, if only their worship was ardent enough, their prayers true enough, and their stonework perfect enough.  So when the last tree was cut down (imagine that moment, the cutting down of the last tree.  Was there a ritual?) or died, the Islanders resorted to making their stone heads even bigger.  Because they didn’t have to be transported, they could cut them as large as the quarry – and they did.  These final moai, which were never moved, are still in their quarries today; only half-finished, of course, because it didn’t take long after that last tree was gone.

The relation to today is clear, and I don’t need to chisel it in.  But Wright brought up something else in another of the five lectures that makes this story, and the many more just like it, all the more terrifying.  Back in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior, responsible for the environment, is reported to have said that it didn’t matter what was done about preserving resources: Jesus was going to come soon anyway.  Apocryphal or not, people in power actually believe this stuff.

Oh, and as an aside: al-Qaeda, al-Shabbab, Hezbollah, Boko Haram and all the other pinprick, pinhead bastards who murder whoever they can find for airtime or for kicks or both: they are religious.  They are not perverting a religion.  They are not corrupting a religion.  They are as fervent and dogmatic and brainwashed as your average Sunday zealot who doesn’t go on homicidal rampages.  Religion, moderate or not, enables this behaviour, it births it.  There is very little cognitive difference between the suicide bomber who thinks he’s going to a harem of celestial virgins and the fighter pilot who self-justifies his napalm by calling his enemy infidels.  As Voltaire said, “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.”  Try the absurdity of racial superiority and all the atrocities it led to: slavery and the slave trade, pogroms and the Holocaust, Armenia and Bosnia, smallpox-blankets and the KKK.  Do I need to mention the thread which links sharia law, priests who rape children, female genital mutilation, a ban on promoting condoms to stop AIDS, and the “abomination” of homosexuality?  I hope not.

A Caveat

Voltaire also said, “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”  I agree, and I think religion is a form of expression.  I, nor any other person or government or organisation, has the right to prohibit the expression of belief or non-belief, to inhibit the peaceful gathering of believers or non-believers, or to discriminate according to belief or non-belief.  This is not just a principle which is one of the foundations for modern civilisation – it is the reasonable approach to any subject by any thinking person.

Because the existence of god, or the concept of the transmigration of the soul, or the life-determining effect of the location of the planets at the moment of birth, is so titanically improbable, atheism should not only be the default mode of human relations, it should be considered the received orthodoxy – like, say, the Table of Elements.  I think, as most do, that the Table of Elements is an accurate representation of the atomic universe, and if someone said to me that the whole thing is a lie invented by pseudo-scientists who wanted to subvert true chemistry and get their names in the history books, I’d laugh.  Would I ask for proof?  Of course.  Would I disagree in lieu of proof?  Absolutely.  Would I try to have him locked up?  Absolutely not.  If the Table of Contents Skeptic started to threaten death to chemists or began a bombing campaign of laboratories, then should be stopped.  As we would stop any murderer or bomber.  However, so long as he keeps it to what he believes and what he says he believes, then I have the right and the responsibility to challenge it, but that’s it.  Because, not only is this liberal principle the foundation of our society, but what if, however improbable, he’s onto something?  What if his skepticism leads someone else to find something?  The Table of Elements is not the be-all and end-all of the universe; it’s a layer of understanding against which we have nothing better, but it is far from the essential truth.  What if he or his disciple or someone way down the line finds the Theory of Everything, all because of a little seed of skepticism of received wisdom?  This is the nature of science and discovery.

So how do I propose combating the clear and present danger of religion?  By fighting it in the open.  I don’t agree with it and it’s influence in the same way that I don’t agree with capital punishment.  And we debate that one just fine.  I will resist, and we should resist, any organised religious interference in the public sphere, and I certainly won’t be voting for someone who believes the alignment of Venus will determine how he acts on legislation (would anyone?).  I believe churches, mosques, synagogues and temples should pay taxes like everyone else, that priests, imams, rabbis and monks should held to account as citizens like everybody else, and that no government anywhere should be giving a cent to religious education.  I also believe that no government has the right, ever, to tell someone they can’t walk around with a piece of fabric over their face.  Should a head-covered woman have to show her face to prove her identity, say when voting or when pulled over for a speeding ticket?  If there is no other means available (fingerprints, retinal scans, etc.), then of course, yes, and sensitively.  But should she have to remove her garments just because I think she’s being oppressed by an idiotic, chauvinistic, inhuman religious code?  No, of course not.  As an adult she has every right to wear something if it affects no one else, for religious purposes or otherwise.  If I want to walk around with a plastic yellow bag over my head because I just feel like it, who the hell are you to tell me to stop?  The impetus for my choice is irrelevant.

The Rob Anders Phone Call

It would take a much longer letter (and this is already long enough) in order to discuss how, case-by-case, subject-by-subject, atheism beats religion as a global and as a personal choice.  Many religionists and apologists love to point to statistics which say that religious people are on average more charitible, more concerned about the world, and more caring than those who are non-religious (even though there are as many if not more statistics pointing the other way, and the debate is ongoing).  But even if this was provably true, and universal, and came with any other such baggage you want to attach (religious societies are better off than non-religious ones, religious law is better than secular law, religious people are smarter than atheists, etc.), still you have no proof for the existence of gods or the truth of scripture. 

This is what I said to Canadian MP Rob Anders in a phone call some years back.  His response was that it didn’t matter if religion was true or false – what mattered was that it had and gave moral authority.  It didn’t matter if the whole story was bullshit; what mattered is that people believed in it, and thus were better citizens.  In other words, what matters with religion is not its virtue in and of itself, but its use as a tool.  He asked if everyone should have their own church, their own commandments, their own laws?  Where would the moral order come from?  Why would anyone obey the law?

I thought this tidbit would be noteworthy here, because the classic argument against religion is that its just about mind control – to which comes the according backlash: that’s just a conspiracy theory, there’s no evidence for that claim, etc.  Well, what about Rob Anders, MP?  He may not be in on a conspiracy of religious propaganda, but if religion is false but keeps people in line, that’s perfectly fine by him.  I can imagine a similar exchange with many politicians.

But why is religion the only arbiter of moral authority?  Is it a fear that, without religion, moral relativism will reign supreme?  Doesn’t the cornucopia of religious choice create an essential moral relativism in the first place, at least for those who choose religion?  Why are our courts, judges, juries, and public forums all so bankrupt, why is collective citizen participation in moulding our own world so impossible, so immoral, according to Rob Anders, MP?  Could it be a religious assumption that we mortals are too stupid, infantine and distant from the gods to have such a right or talent?  Surely, if religion provided the laws, and religion is false, and thus religion is created by humans, then humans can just create something else, and then that will provide the laws?  Or, we can just skip that step, and provide our own laws based on circumstance and consensus.  Or are we all so bloody braindead that we need a childish illusion to keep us in line?

Okay, let’s assume that Rob Anders, MP, is right – maybe we do need illusions.  Maybe we evolved to be susceptible to superstitious belief and spiritual leadership for these to act as social glues, sort of like how grooming is an inherited trait among primates that promotes social cohesion and, thus, genetic success.  By these human illusions we can mean, that which appeals to our imagination.  Maybe we do need our imagination, to hold us together, to keep us behaving.  Maybe, with religion gone, we have no all-encompassing replacement for the imagination.  Maybe science and the cosmos and literature and history and theatre and television just isn’t good enough for each of us, it just isn’t… moral enough.  Yes?  Well, why can’t we go on creating secular institutions which replace the religious ones: schools, universities, community halls, even temples, if you will, where people can have weddings, funerals, and coming-of-age parties.  Hell, we can make up a few rituals the Methodists and Hindus and Scientologists haven’t even thought of yet!  We’ve been around long enough to figure out a few moral codes.  I don’t think we’ll start allowing murder, rape, terrorism and piracy just because the majority no longer believe in angels, do you?  And if people want advice, what’s wrong with turning to, say, Shakespeare?  It seems to me that randomly flipping a page in the Complete Works is more likely to provide a nugget of wisdom and guidance than any religious text I can think of.  And yes, there are a lot of religious references in there.  So go ahead and turn to the Bible, or the Koran, or the Talmud – but do you really have to believe in the supernatural truth of the damn thing?


I’ve been glad to write this letter, more than anything because it’s been way too long since someone carrying a Bible came to my door.  I used to get so excited about those exchanges, and I cherish them still.  They made me better, sharper, quicker: all their training and rhetoric were bent on trapping me in my own words, and getting me to doubt my obstinance.  The problem was, I was too nice; I entered their wardrobe, tried on some garments for a while, and then nobody could tell me the clothes didn’t fit.  Still, they never admitted what I knew, that there are no clothes.  I don’t think I got any converts.  I hope I sewed a few seeds of doubt, and I never did it maliciously.  For lack of a better phrase, I just wanted them to know that there’s something else out there, and I didn’t want them to lose out.  I wish the same thing for my landlord, despite him thinking likewise of me. 

I’ve told this story in such a way that you’ll probably think my transition was one of pivotal moments, epiphanies and turning points.  But this betrays the gradual, cumulative nature of my understanding of religion – it was, and is, a form of evolution.  This means that when I left the Nicheren Shoshu temple an atheist, I was also an atheist upon entering; just a slightly more skeptical one.  And though my last vestiges of faith are gone, I am certainly not left empty – I don’t have a Jesus-shaped hole in my heart, a Zeus-shaped cavity in my spleen, or a Buddha-shaped crater in my next life. 
I am, as all human beings, curious, imaginative, thoughtful, unsatisfied and needy of community.  The world and all the things in it are indeed “greater than myself”: pick a subject, any subject, and it can wow me.  Astronomy, psychology, biology, geology – yes, even theology, can each or altogether give me that jolt of understanding, that sense of Wow!  The universe is too vast to yet comprehend it, and the atom too small to yet understand it, if ever we can.  These things are weird, counterintuitive, and beyond the pale – but they aren’t supernatural, they are observed, and while we may never get ‘there’, our understanding and appreciation can only grow.  We don’t need a god or a string of magic syllables or a fairy-tale to get there.  They are the world, which itself fascinates, and we are damn lucky to participate in it.  I am an atheist because I tried on the invisible clothes and saw that, yes, I am still naked undearneath, and knew that it was okay.  I am an atheist because both of me have thought about it (Does that mean that God is an atheist?  What, are you God again?  Sure.  Okay, yes, God is an atheist.  Boom!) and continue to think about it.  I am an atheist because I don’t like Marmite.