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I was quite surprised to hear the words ‘militant atheist’ spill from the mouths of some people yesterday. I thought that sort of silliness had been quite done away with. Still, I think the below video shows what they’re on about. Look at that angry, vicious militant propoganda.
The northern half of my country seems to be under water. For the first few days of the crisis, I thought it was fairly minor- maybe the basement of the house my mother and step-father own was under water, or a friend couldn’t get to the airport to get home from his holiday. Annoying and expensive, but nothing that concerned me.
Then I found out that towns I knew as a kid were under water. That the area in which my friend was had less fresh food daily.
Then yesterday, the city in which I spent six and a half years was flooding- worse than it had for a very, very long time. Friends of mine were mostly alright, although a woman I love dearly has been evacuated and other friends are isolated in their homes or have their suburbs cut off from the rest of Brisbane. That sort of thing is damn painful to deal with, even if everyone seems to be fine.
But it’s all okay! Because Justin Bieber is on the case- he mentioned Queensland in passing to the Almighty. ‘Sall gonna be good, now!
Dozens are dead, more are missing, and there are millions of dollars in damages and shattered lives- but some pre-teen kid has told his invisible friend about it. Awesome.
A few days ago, I finished Elspeth Huxley’s Red Strangers. It is an incredible book, powerful and eye-opening in the ways that only words have to power to do. It is the story of the British colonisation of Kenya in the early twentieth century- told from the perspective of a succession of Kikuyu tribesmen. Huxley manages to craft the perspective of the Kikuyu people so convincingly that by the time the British -the sunburned Red Strangers of the title- arrive on the scene with their alien ways they are as bizarre and nonsensical to the reader as they undoubtedly were to the people.
Of particular amusement to me are the scenes where the newcomers attempt to explain the Christian God to the locals, with his Son and his willingness to speak to children and his distaste of sacrifice. It brings to mind the fact that all religions are equally insane, and it is only through the contempt of familiarity that we do not laugh at the notion of a God murdering his Son so that he may be turned into weekly crackers to munch on.
Here is one such scene, quoted in full:
“The biggest building of all, made of mud and poles with a pole sticking up out of the roof, seemed always to be empty; and [Matu] asked Kamau the reason for this.
“That is a place where people go to talk to God,” Kamau said.
Matu was very surprised. “Why do they not go to a fig tree?” he asked. “The fig is sacred to God, because its roots have grown from the sky, and God sends sprits there to eat sacrifices.”
“This God does not eat sacrifices,” Kamau replied. “He does not like them.”
“How can God fail to like a good fat ram without blemish, the pick of the flock? Matu asked, even more amazed. “And why should God listen to a prayer which is not considered to be worth a sacrifice by those why pray?”
“All the same, the strangers do not sacrifice rams or he-goats,” Kamau said. “They talk to God in a loud voice and sing, and then he listens to them.”
“God listens to a song?” Matu asked incredulously. “Surely he does not attend to such trifles as that!”
“This God does not mind; but when people disobey him he uses a very strong magic to turn them into salt, and he sends cattle plagues and diseases. But he loves everyone, and when a small bird, such as an njigi, dies, he can hear it fall.”
“That is absurd,” Matu said. “Birds are senseless things which eat millet; God cannot possibly be interested in them.”
“The strangers say he is, nevertheless. He has a very big bird in the sky which he sends with messages, and it helps him to rule. It can fly from here to the big water, called in Swahili the sea, without rest. He also has a son, who was born in the country of the strangers, but was killed there a long time ago.”
“That is quite impossible,” Matu said. “God has no children, nor wives, nor goats. He is quite alone. Everyone knows that.”
“This God had a son,” Kamau insisted, “who was killed by very wicked men who did not listen to what he said. All this is recorded in signs, and those who can understand them know exactly what happened, although it occured many generations ago.”
“Has this God, then, a wife?”
“No, there is no wife. God chose a virgin and she became the mother of his child.”
“But that is a very shocking thing indeed!” Matu protested. “If a girl conceives before she is married, everyone ridicules her, and the man is fined ten goats. That story cannot possibly be true.”
“It was magic,” Kamau replied. “She did not lie with anyone, yet she conceived.”
“Now I know that this is all untrue!” Matu exclaimed. “Can a plant sprout from the earth without a seed, or a child grow in its mother’s womb without the intervention of a man? All this has nothing whatever to do with God.”
“You are very ignorant,” Kamau retorted angrily. “You do not know anything, and for that reason when you are dead you will go to a place where there is a very big fire and there you will roast like a yam for many, many seasons.”
“Now I see that your sense has flown off like a bee,” Matu said. “That is quite impossible.”
“You think so because you are ignorant. I have become a follower of this stranger’s God, who is very much more powerful than any other and protects me from illness without my going to a mundu-mugu to get charms. When I die my spirit will go into the sky, where I shall find many companions, women as well as men, and be very well content.”
“Are there are any cattle and goats in this place as well?”
“No, I do not think so, but there is much singing, and a kind of musical instrument, bigger than a flute.”
“I do not think it sounds a very good place,” Matu said.
It has been all over the atheist blagocube, that the pope has declared atheists to have caused the immense tragedies of the 20th century- referring, of course, to the horrors of the Nazi regime. Others have already pointed out that the Nazi regime was, arguably, Christian to the core. Antisemitism had -has- festered deep in the heart of European Christendom since the religion was spread to those reaches by fire and sword and missionaries. PZ Myers posted a list of Nazi quotes- having never read it, it’s quite astonishing to realise just how much of Hitler’s perspective was tainted by Christianity:
“The best characterization is provided by the product of this religious education, the Jew himself. His life is only of this world, and his spirit is inwardly as alien to true Christianity as his nature two thousand years previous was to the great founder of the new doctrine. Of course, the latter made no secret of his attitude toward the Jewish people, and when necessary he even took the whip to drive from the temple of the Lord this adversary of all humanity, who then as always saw in religion nothing but an instrument for his business existence. In return, Christ was nailed to the cross, while our present-day party Christians debase themselves to begging for Jewish votes at elections and later try to arrange political swindles with atheistic Jewish parties– and this against their own nation.”
[Adolf Hitler, "Mein Kampf", Vol. 1, Chapter 11]
The clinically insane Catholic League president Bill Donohue in the United States goes even further; he appears to personally blame modern non-believers for the atrocities committed in the middle of the previous century:
Radical atheists like the British Humanist Association should apologize for Hitler. But they should not stop there. They also need to issue an apology for the 67 million innocent men, women and children murdered under Stalin, and the 77 million innocent Chinese killed by Mao. Hitler, Stalin and Mao were all driven by a radical atheism, a militant and fundamentally dogmatic brand of secular extremism. It was this anti-religious impulse that allowed them to become mass murderers. By contrast, a grand total of 1,394 were killed during the 250 years of the Inquisition, most all of whom were murdered by secular authorities.
Huh. I’m not sure what modern atheists -who by and large condemn those governments- have to do with the actions of lunatic madmen, but we will set that aside. Why is Billy comparing genocide committed by modern machinery of massacre -gas chambers, rifles- with those committed by torture and fire? Does he honestly think that if the Inquisition had access to lethal gas, they would not have used it? The Church in Spain would not have contented themselves with torture and forcible conversion of the Jewish population, O no, they would have rounded them up and gassed them as surely as Hitler did.
And for the same reason.
Still. I think what is truly unfair about Billy’s accusation is that he compares only the Inquisition to the murders of the 20th century. What about the oft-raised Crusades? The first was more a pilgrimage than a holy war, but there were a lot more than one. What about the Albigensian Crusade? The Crusades into Eastern Europe, specifically raised against the pagan Wends? What about Charlemagne’s brutal massacres of the pagan Saxons? What about the Blood Libel and the persecutions of Jewish communities across the entire medieval period?
This is why I laughed, bitterly, at Andrew Brown’s column in the Guardian. Like nearly all media commentators, he shows an appalling lack of understanding of the middle ages:
The slow civilising of the barbarians after the fall of the Roman empire was, [the pope] believes, accomplished by the church: “Your forefathers’ respect for truth and justice, for mercy and charity, come to you from a faith that remains a mighty force for good in your kingdom, to the great benefit of Christians and non-Christians alike.”
Slow civilising of the barbarians? What civilising? The so-called ‘barbarian peoples’ of Europe created great works of art and literature, and not all of it was promoted by the Church. A lot of it was preserved by the Church, but I’ll wager just as much was destroyed by it. The Church of my beloved period was as barbaric and dangerous as the time, as murderous and malevolent as any sword-slinging warlord massacring a stubborn people.
We look back and see a bleak period of history (well, I don’t), torn by constant struggle and war. Life, brutish and short, at times choked into place by the gloved hands of priests and pontifeces, at others driven forward by the twin threats of earthly mutilation and spiritual torment at those same gloved hands. The bleakness of the period was neither caused nor alleviated by the church; the church was simply a part of the same moral Zeitgeist, if you will.
It still is. That is the problem that Billy and Darth Ratzinger and their allies fail to see. The rest of Europe managed to civilise itself. Sometimes with the church pushing forward, and as often with it pulling back. Now that we are approaching something resembling civilisation, despite our flaws, we are capable of seeing the Church as precisely what it is: an empty shell, a fortress defending worthless old men.
The bard of bards, Tim Minchin, has sung everything that needs to be said about this hollow-hearted pontifex:
The other day The Friendly Atheist posted a clip of the inestimable Morgan Freeman outing himself as a non-believer. The news brought a smile to the faces of atheists everywhere, as we realised one of the most soothing voices in Hollywood was one of us. (cue chanting) The relevant part of the CNN transcript is here:
Kiran Chetry: And you’ve said before, Morgan, that you’re a ‘man of god.’ When you did this and so many of these questions were posed—
Freeman: When did I say I was a ‘man of god’?
Chetry: You’re not?
Freeman: [laughing} No-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o. No no no no no.
Chetry: You’re a ‘man of faith’.
Freeman: Faith! There’s a big difference.
Chetry: Alright, so, the question of faith leads us, most of the time, to a god. What is your view of faith?
Freeman: Questions of faith is whatever you actually believe is. We take a lot of what we’re talking about in science on faith. We posit a theory… and until it’s disproven, we have faith that it’s true. If the mathematics work out, then it’s true. Until it’s proven to be untrue…
As great as this is, I have a problem with his wording. I’ve noted before that there is no ‘faith’ required for atheism, not in any real sense of the word. Either one is an atheist because one simply does not believe in deities, or one is the straw-man ‘absolute atheist’ who requires virtually no faith whatsoever. This has been covered. Yet what Freeman describes here is ‘faith’ in science, potentially giving credence to religious apologists who insist that scientists (and/or atheists) who trust in scientific discovery are faithful- that science is a religion.
Ignoring for the moment that ‘science’ and ‘religion’ are both extremely poorly defined in the public sphere, this is complete nonsense. Yes, accepting science requires faith- but not the Faith that is required of religious belief. Scientific faith is the same faith required to trust that your coffee mug will not slip through the kitchen bench and shatter upon the tiles. It is a faith that the world tomorrow will be the same as the world today. That the sun will continue to ‘rise’, amino acids will continue to… amine, and gravity will continue to pull much as it ever has.
Can we be certain of such things? Of course not! That kind of certainty is -so far as I know- impossible. Yet it is the basis of all sane human interactions. A religious man would take it on faith that the molecules which form his morning joe will not spontaneously re-arrange themselves into mercury exactly as much as a lady atheist. Tim Minchin touches on this in his famous beat poem, Storm, as he muses if he ought to ask her if scientific knowledge is so loosely-weaved that deciding
…whether to leave
Her apartment by the front door
Or a window on the second floor…
is equal. Of course we know the answer: we take it on faith that her apartment is the same as any other.
Contrast this with religous Faith and we have quite a different matter. Religious Faith requires one to believe in omnipresent beings, undetectable creatures, bread turning into literal flesh, wine into blood, demons escaping from the broken flesh of the world and seeking to devour us body and soul. Whatever a ‘soul’ is. Religous Faith would have us trust that there is some eternal, unchanging part of ourselves- non-physical, because human cells die and regrow on average once every seven years; and not mental, because all people change over time. Religious Faith, in short, requires us to ignore the world around us and trust in made up stuff.
So when Freeman talks about faith in science, he is not speaking about Faith, for the two are distinct concepts. It is an unfortunate shortcoming of modern English that we have only the one word for both concepts, but that is the nature of language. Faith -the word- is a convenient shorthand to mean ‘trust that stuff works out at least until shown to be otherwise.’ Actually, Freeman says it very clearly:
We take a lot of what we’re talking about in science on faith. We posit a theory… and until it’s disproven, we have faith that it’s true. If the mathematics work out, then it’s true. Until it’s proven to be untrue…
I do not think we should coin new terms for the two divisions of the word. Language is tricky enough as it is, and I am distrustful of neologisms by nature. It would be nice if we could be more careful about how we use words like faith. It is easy to be misunderstood, or to have one’s meaning distorted. I have yet to see it happen to Freeman, but I guarantee there is at least one religious blogger gloating as I type about how science is as much based on faith as his personal superstition.