One criticism which the religious make of atheists may have some merit to it. We’re not very big on self-discipline. A lot of YouTube atheists smoke, drink or are fat, and some perhaps all three. Is there a reason for this? Perhaps. One of the really powerful negative effects of the religious people’s war on atheism has been the idea that atheists should be moral degenerates. Atheists should take drugs, indulge in the pleasures of the flesh, drink and eat like there is no tomorrow and copulate like beasts. They want us to be bad examples to their children. They like it when we set a bad example.
What makes the religious really uncomfortable is moral behaviour from atheists. It really challenges their world view. Ask a devout Muslim what he thinks about the charitable activities of unbelievers such as Bill Gates or Warren Buffett and he’ll suddenly find the pattern on the carpet particularly fascinating. Others will say that they really are believers, but of course, they can offer no proof.
There is little mileage in a popular public figure who is popular for some other reason to make a big thing about their atheism. This, of course, is the opposite of the case for people who wish to appeal to mainstream America, they have a lot to gain by being seen to be Christians. A wholesome image helps a lot. Especially for politicians. And for some strange reason, Americans have come to associate belief in a book filled with violence, ignorance and bigotry with good behaviour and a sound moral grounding.
In reality, the majority of American Christians treat the Bible in exactly the same way they treat the terms and conditions of the software they download. Blah blah blah, whatever, I agree. CHECK!
On the basis that the majority of the clever people I know are atheists and agnostics I find it really difficult to believe that there are not dozens of open atheists on Capitol Hill. It is relatively easy for a man to fake being a Christian for public consumption. Many people suspect that Barack Obama has been faking his commitment to a black church solely for political advantage. There is little if anything in what he says or does which is in any way inconsistent with agnosticism.
I find the faking of belief for convenience to be the height of hypocrisy. When intelligent people pretend to believe in heaven and hell so that they get to be seen as moral people by the stupid the world is moved deeper into ignorance: it’s another turd in the fountain of truth.
Of course it is a very well known sentiment that the powerful find belief convenient, that is, when the poor believe in gods the powerful feel more comfortable. Gods give a narrative to society and justify obedience. Those belief systems which don’t support the things as they are used to be rigorously repressed. We have seen the powerful in America fight a war on communism using tactics which are sometimes hard to believe. I remember once finding a copy of Readers Digest from the late nineteen fifties and being amazed at the extent of the propaganda onslaught that it contained, if I didn’t know it was genuine I would have considered that it had been faked to make Americans look stupid and paranoid. In earlier times subversive belief systems were attacked physically; when the Catholic Church had the monopoly on legitimate violence it used it ruthlessly to ensure that it alone defined what actions and beliefs counted as moral.
At any time in the last three thousand years if you had landed an alien spaceship next to a peasant out working in a field (this works for ALL peasants, but not all hunters) and asked him to take you to his leader he would be able to do so. There would be a leader. The leader would be able to explain what the meaning of life was, or click his fingers and produce somebody significantly more educated who could explain it on his behalf, I guarantee it. I can also guarantee that the explanation would involve a code of social obligations set down by deities or wise elders whose judgement cannot be questioned. This is not to say that religions are invented by Machiavellian forces behind the throne for the purpose of keeping rules in place any more than the internet was invented as a masturbation aid for teenage boys, but that is what it is used for. Successful religions give something back to their believers. Usually, that something is cost-free, baseless hope, pie in the sky and keep-cheerful-it might-never-happen bollocks. God will provide; if they have faith. When things go well God gets the thanks, when things go wrong they wonder about the wisdom and mysterious ways of their god and whether they have done enough to honour him. If you have any quibbles with this analysis just read the book of Jeremiah, here God’s chosen people get conquered and enslaved and somehow Jeremiah still manages to make out that God was in the right and the people in the wrong. Just ask yourself what would have to happen to make a man like Jeremiah give up on his god, it is clear that the semi-mythical Jeremiah would be as unlikely to repudiate his god as the completely mythical Job. Indeed, there were many Jews who followed the ways of Jeremiah when Hitler took it upon himself to exterminate the Jews. They saw Hitler as a tool of their own god, punishing the people of Israel for various real and imaginary sins.
One extra negative consequence of the tendency of the religious to use a ratchet on the works of their god, discounting bad things and counting every good thing as direct evidence of their god’s special favours, is that it makes everything that happens, everything, good bad or indifferent, into proof of their God. Now for many Jews the holocaust, if it did not destroy their faith, is a major pillar of it. To question their god now is to spit in the faces of the victims. Heads God wins, tail man loses. To the religious everything they see is evidence for the existence of their god, and his wisdom. If they like something and understand it then this demonstrates the wisdom and beneficence of God. And if they don’t like something and can’t understand it this too is evidence that their God is wise and merciful but his ways of being wise are beyond human understanding. That hardship is a test, or it is a deserved punishment or it is less of a hardship than some unknown alternative which God in his wisdom saved them from. Either way, God must be thanked for snow or rain or the sunshine or for a dull day with an unfulfilled threat of drizzle. Praise the Lord, Allahu Akbar. Everything that happens is meant to be and the believer was made to believe it.
Just because we don’t accept their absurd supernatural explanations it does not follow that we should reject all their values and the culture we have inherited from them. Belief in an absolute ruler in the sky does not make for sound morals, it makes for blind uncomprehending obedience. The believer does good because it is the will of his god not because he knows it to be good. Making your own moral choices is bordering on hubris. You should follow orders. If he intended you to think and make moral judgements the almighty god wouldn’t have given you prophets and laws, would he? The believer should simply obey and do what is expected of him. Of course, those who invented the codes and laws used a good deal of common sense and came up with systems that worked reasonably well.
Other prophets have spoken and their words have not been preserved because they didn’t fit in with what had gone before or they made ridiculous impositions. But when faith is used it can be quite effective at getting people to swallow absurdities. With the help of faith Muslims can believe that proof of guilt can be worked out by a mathematical formula by counting up the number of witnesses, a system of absurdity which allows millions of rapists to get off with their crime and yet see their victim convicted for adultery. If you took away faith in the wisdom of the prophet that absurd situation would be changed at once across the Muslim world and there could be the beginning of justice. The absurd ruling came about because Muhammad didn’t want to believe an accusation of adultery brought against his wife Aisha and Muslim “scholars” have argued from this one bad case to make a criminally bad law.
Similarly religious taboos have grown up which don’t make sense, because either they never made any sense or people have forgotten the rational explanations, the scaffolding on which the taboo was built and now they follow the caricature of a rule. The classic religious taboo of this kind is the tenth commandment not to seethe a kid in its mother’s milk. Don’t cook a kid in milk from its mother. Why? Probably because this was the traditional feast meal of the Hebrews neighbours, if you can’t eat their feast meal you can’t spend much time with them, and so be corrupted by the more sensible rules of their religion. How does this relate to a Quarter Pounder with cheese? Clearly it shouldn’t. But the idea has grown up that to avoid eating kid seethed in its mothers milk the only sure way is to avoid eating any type of meat at the same time as any sort of dairy produce. Does the creator of the universe really suffer from obsessive compulsive disorder?
We really should not be talking modern laws from Bronze Age fables. We need better reasons for things to be illegal than “God said it was an abomination”. There really is no good reason to make homosexual acts illegal unless you believe the insanity of the Westboro Baptist Church and decide to persecute fags out of national self preservation. Clearly there is nothing inherently evil in cross dressing consensual oral or anal sex or having sex outside of a publicly affirmed lifelong commitment. Of course people can have their own personal opinions on the advisability of such actions, and I mean that, it is not wrong to say that something that isn’t illegal is wrong, but there is no sound reason to make them illegal. If you don’t want to engage in sodomy don’t do it. You can even preach about it. Just don’t try to stop anybody. You are entitled to your beliefs, and to express them. You are not entitled to impose them upon other people. That goes for Muslims too. You are free to say “Good Muslims don’t smoke during Ramadan!” But you are not right to dash a cigarette from a man’s lips in the street, and you are certainly not right to beat him up.