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Thursday, September 27, 2007                                                                                       View Comments


By Susan Jacoby, on the Washington Post blog

God Is Not...Well, He's Just Not

I am not too fond of absolutist ex cathedra statements, even when they come from someone who is definitely not the pope and with whom I am in total agreement about the irrationality of all faith in the supernatural. Modify the noun "religion" with the adjective "fundamentalist," and I'll sign on to that sentiment.

All belief in the supernatural; ie., that which contradicts the laws of nature, is irrational by definition. But there are many religious denominations that are no longer violent, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children. You know which ones they are. These are all, as Sam Harris has pointed out, religions that have allowed themselves to be modified by secular knowledge. But I respectfully disagree with Harris, Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins, who have all suggested that "moderate" religion is even more dangerous than fundamentalist religion because moderate religion is the stalking horse for the worst forms of religious fanaticism.

Nonsense. It is fair to say that all religion originated in ignorance and tribalism, but I don't think this has much to do with all of the peaceful Unitarians and Reform Jews who invite me to lecture to their congregations today. However, one of the most disturbing religious developments throughout the world today is that the most literal, anti-rational, and anti-intellectual forms of religion are gaining converts at the expense of faiths that have been open to secular knowledge.

Nevertheless, making a sweeping generalization about all religion is the equivalent of saying the same sort of thing about Communism -- which, in fact, American ignoramuses regularly do. (I wonder if Hitchens's generalizations have become broader as a result of his having become an American citizen. Inflammatory generalization is an American disease, although the Brits do it in more witty fashion.) "Communism is violent, irrational, intolerant...." Well, Stalinist Communism and Mao's Communism certainly were. But that doesn't mean that all communist and socialist (small "c," small "s") ideas are without merit, in spite of the fact that our dim-witted president regards universal children's health insurance as the first step toward a
Kremlin-run health care system.

The outrage among many religious people at the success of Hitchen's book, however, is a manifestation of a widespread American phenomenon of which I was not fully aware until the publication of my own book, Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. That phenomenon is a near-pathological hatred of both atheism and atheists.

I continue to be dismayed, although I am no longer shocked, by the intense and often highly personal hostility, expressed by many bloggers on this site, toward atheists. I have never been exposed to this sort of venom in the past, because I almost never wrote about atheism until I was asked to participate in the On Faith panel. Freethinkers was an attempt to restore historical knowledge of the undervalued secular contribution to the American nation. There is almost no discussion of atheism in this book, because the most prominent 18th and 19th century advocates of secular government, and of separation between church and state, were not atheists but deists--believers in a disinterested Providence that set the universe in motion and subsequently took no active part in the affairs of men. Moreover, some supporters of America's secular government were deeply religious people who believed that entanglement between church and state was as bad for religion as for government.

Some bloggers imagine that I make a sumptuous living by "promoting" atheism. Sorry. Over the years, I have written about Russian culture, women's issues, education, Renaissance art, American history, and aging. That's how I pay my bills. On the other hand, one blogger mocked me last week for not having written a "bestseller" about atheism and suggested that I must be excluded from the "boys' club" represented by Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens. How sharper than a serpent's tooth to have an ungrateful reader trying to tweak one's feminist pride....

Promoting religion, however, is much more profitable than writing about either atheism or American history. Harris's and Hitchens's books have sold several hundred thousand copies, while books about religion -- ranging from inane faith-based self-help books to the Left Behind series predicting the end of the world, sell in the millions. The atheist-bashers don't seem disturbed that the hucksters of religion make millions of out selling their beliefs in the supernatural and the anti-rational. In the marketplace of ideas, everyone has a right to speak--and to make money if enough people what to read what they have to say. In February, my forthcoming book The Age of American Unreason will examine the anti-rationalist and anti-intellectual American trends of the past four decades, and fundamentalist religion is one--but only one--of the many subjects I discuss. If the book does make money, it would indeed be nice to know that my bank account was fatter because I spoke out against anti-rationalism.

The real question is why so many religion fanatics are threatened by the fact that some Americans, albeit a minority, are paying attention to what secularists and atheists have to say.

The chief insulting comment about atheists, repeated ad nauseam on this thread and elsewhere, is that they are amoral or immoral. To be an atheist, in this view, is to be a member of the devil's party. Without a God to strike us dead, we must all be potential murderers. This strikes me as a form of projection, in the clinical psychological sense of the term, on the part of religious fanatics who are so terrified about what is inside them that they cannot imagine behaving decently without a vengeful God to keep them in line. While I reject the theology of all religions, I would never claim that goodness or evil has anything to do with whether people agree with my own views. There are good people who believe in all sorts of gods or no god. Why are atheists so threatening to so many Americans that the only way to deal with -- or, more precisely, to not deal with -- our arguments is to demonize us as human beings?

Finally, I have absolutely no wish to "convert" religious believers to atheism. How would I do that anyway? I can't threaten you with a hell or promise you a heaven in which I don't believe. Only religious believers have made a business out of converting people by threatening them with damnation or promising them eternal rewards (and, oh yes, by killing them if all else fails).

For all of Hitchens's mean words about religion, he doesn't promise that the faithful will be devoured by flesh-eating locusts and thrown into a fiery pit for their beliefs.

The atheist-bashers really hate freedom of speech. They would have preferred a Constitution that guaranteed freedom of religion but not the freedom to speak out against religion. They lost that battle when the Constitution was written in 1787, and they have never gotten over it.