Divine Right: The Truth is a Lie — An Atheist Defends Atheism

Initially, I was going to post this as a rebuttal to refute the letter written by Bruce Sheiman and any misconceptions that fence-sitters may develop after reading Mr. Sheiman's book, "An Atheist Defends Religion." Mr. Sheiman's letter to a reader is re-printed in another thread that was posted by Noisican under the Ethics and Morals forum. Since my rebuttal to Mr. Sheiman's position is too long for a reply post on that existing discussion, I believe it merits its own discussion.

Mr. Sheiman's position (in short) is that since religion offeres many people comfort, happiness, and a sense of purpose in life, then it is only right to defend religion as a social good. I find several things wrong with that.

First, in the most well-known religions since the time of the Neolithic Revolution during the time of Hammurabi's Codified Law, religion caused more suffering than it brought happiness and comfort. History and archeology shows us by the excavation of ancient sites and analysis of recovered grave goods alone that for everyone who received "comfort" from religion, many more did not.

From the beginning of the Neolithic Revolution up through the end of the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, and into the 19th century, women (half the human race) were frequently targeted for becoming fodder for religion — from ritual sacrifice to appease the gods/God, to extra punishments, torture and execution for violating gender-defined roles promoted and dictated by religion. Ruins of ancient ritual sites show us that victims of human sacrifice did not die nice, peaceful deaths. Many were unwilling. For them, the idea that religion brought them "comfort" or "happiness" is highly questionable. They were hewn down before the prime of their lives without getting much of the benefits that makes life worthwhile living.

In polytheistic religions in Meso-America as well as in ancient Europe and the regions known as the "Fertile Crescent", victims of human sacrifice were often violently killed in their youth. This does not even include all the atrocities and human rights violations that have occurred, and which are being occurred today, in the name of Abrahamic monotheism.

Additionally, religion always seemed to explain why some people were spared the cruelties of war and natural disasters, but not others, and this set a lot of people up for marginalization. It promoted an ideology that God (or the gods) favored this or that group, but not others. It's downright despicable when you think about it.

It's selfish and inconsiderate to say, "God spared me/my family" in a natural disaster. What kind of message does that send to others who weren't so fortunate? That they or their loved ones weren't "worthy" enough of God's favor to be spared? Or how about, "God was on my child's team's side" at high school sports events. What about the parents of the children on the other school's team? Why wasn't God on their team's side?

It is more than insulting to hear these kind of statements. But it is even more of an insult to my intelligence to be told that this is all somehow OK just because some people are benefiting from religion, because such "benefits" frequently are not without expense or loss suffered by too many others. Women are still being told today across the US and other nations in the world that any extra suffering they're forced to bear as a consequence of divine decree from god will be made right in the afterlife. A preoccupation with the afterlife dismisses the importance of enjoying the one life you've got right now, and the importance of social responsibility to doing your part to make life suck just a little bit less for yourself and everyone else while you're here.

It is the weighing of benefits v. costs that must be examined honestly and painfully before making any apologia for religion as an overall social good.

As a fellow author, I respect Mr. Sheiman's honest endeavor to produce a book of compelling introspection. But his is not a position I can agree with. As one author to another, I would recommend reading his book but I would also have to recommend reading mine, Divine Right: The Truth is a Lie, which is the antithesis to his noble effort.

As an atheist, and especially as a woman, I take greater comfort knowing that there are other like-minded men and women — from young to old — who recognize the importance of purging harmful dogma from societal influence. A preoccupation with an afterlife diminishes the value placed on the quality of life in THIS one. I would find greater comfort knowing that as a woman, it wasn't my predestined lot in life to have to suffer extra punishment, pain, misery, and injustice with the justification that I'll get my reward in some afterlife. So yeah, having harmful religious influences criticized and estopped from making so many people suffer in this life — knowing that in the end I'll be "worm food" — is a greater comfort for me than any false hopes and empty promises offered by religion ever could be.

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YOUR arguments, by the way, are the same hackneyed and cliched points made by the typical 9th-grader assigned the task of explaining why he is an atheist.

So is insulting a woman who POLITELY critiqued your position the best you can do? You do realize that being an overly verbose gas bag trying to pass for a "Smart Guy" requires no special talent, right? And for the record, my name is "Jacqueline", not "Jackie."

Please accept my apology for offending you. But also, PLEASE understand that most of the criticism I have received has largely been based on the same arguments and assumptions.

If you can correct just one thing, recognize that so much of your criticism, in particular of Christianity, is of the distant past. (NB: My next book will be about fundamentalism, which is to say that fundamentalism is not only a religious phenomenon, it is a broader ideological and group-behavior phenomenon.)

Indeed, much criticism of Islamic fundamentalism is of the present - but even here there are many mitigating (non-religious) factors.

I am an atheist, as much as that may be hard to believe. But atheism is not one thing. There are a number of differentiating factors that explain why you and I have ideological differences.

Again, I apologize for any offense I caused. But you may also want to examine your own criticism of Christianity.

Again, I apologize for any offense I caused. But you may also want to examine your own criticism of Christianity.

Apology accepted. And for the reccord, I *have* thoroughly examined my criticism of Christianity, and much of that examination is in my book Divine Right: The Truth is a Lie.

Within my own lifetime, I have seen hope and promise of equality for women as citizens, and equality of opportunity, take a nosedive with Christianity-inspired assaults on women's fundamental human right to have control over their own bodies. I am not talking just about an early abortion, either (although that is a biggie). I am talking about assaults on poor women's access to reliable contraception and voluntary tubal ligation for those who know they never want to endure pregnancy and childbirth — which still, even with modern medicine, kills women in our country and leaves many more with permanent internal health problems that are not 100% repairable.

The fact that being a woman means that my body can be voted on as if it were public property, the fact that I am treated as not deserving of self-determination, as if the church and state (and men who will never ever have to be in the scary situation of being pregnant — a non-benign medical condition that changes a woman's body permanently if she survives the ordeal) are somehow entitled to conscript unwilling women to childbirth chattel slavery at peril to their wellbeing, is proof enough in my eyes why religion, in my view, has harmed more than it has helped humanity. Remember, women make up half the human race. So misogyny, whether driven my religion or pseudo-science, is a scourge on ALL of humanity. And religion has had a head start in that respect.

One volunteer clinic escort I know (he is also a member of Think Atheist) calls these "pro-life" protesters (all whom are Christians) "tampon terrorists." They stalk, photograph, and harass the women, the escorts, and medical staff entering abortion clinics. Terrorists like Eric Rudolph (bombed an Atlanta abortion clinic) and Scott Roeder (Dr. George Tiller's assassin) all started out as moderately conservative Christian pro-life protesters waving dead fetus placards. Please don't be fooled about Christianity's evolving from violently oppressing women. It has not.

Clergymen like Paster Steven L. Anderson thunderously pontificate from pulpits extolling the necessity for women to be removed from the public square and returned to the authority and control of fathers and husbands. They use the Bible to justify keeping women as second-class citizens firmly under the iron-fisted rule of Biblical patriarchy.

Clerglymen don't tell people who to kill, who to enslave, and who to oppress — they just tell people who to hate, and they tell people who their "God" deemed as "less than."

You are definitely more of an expert in your chosen field of Christianity than I am, and I do not disagree with you on any point. As much as I admire contemporary Christianity, I certainly cannot admire it within the context you describe. So, again, I apologize for appearing so doctrinaire.

I do not want to offend your religious sensibility given what you have researched and experienced. But I would point out one thing: You seem to be judging all of religion in terms of Christianity, and all of Christianity in terms of its modern fundamentalist expression with respect to women -- ignoring or disparaging its accomplishments in all other realms to date. As much as I agree with your assessment of Christianity's treatment of women, I do not think you are being fair to condemn all of that religion.

And congratulations on your new book.

I haven't been following this thread much (although I do get regular email updates when someone comments), so I'm adding to this discussion without going further back than Jaq's comment that you replied to. If my two-cents is out of line in light of what's already been said, I apologize.

I'm sure I haven't done the kind of research Jaq has done, but I'm pretty well-versed when it comes to Christianity since I was raised in a very religious home. Both my grandfathers were Southern Baptist preachers and, until I was in my late teens, never missed a service. When I turned 21, I moved to Nashville so I could "get closer to God" and spent almost all my time immersed in theology. I can tell you, I never thought I'd be atheist at the end of it all. Because of the 24 years I spent being taught Bible stories and memorizing Bible verses, though, I feel fairly qualified to offer my opinion.

The "accomplishments" Christianity has made have been in spite of its scriptural dogma. Christians, individually, have progressed beyond their holy book's archaic commands, but that says nothing for the religion itself but much more about the progression of humanity as a whole.

As much as Christians/Christianity would like to take credit for fighting against slavery in the Civil War (since many of its leaders were Christian) it cannot since there is not even one word spoken against slavery in the Bible. In fact, Jesus commands slaves to obey their masters. Even though he also suggests masters treat their slaves kindly, he never condemns the practice of slave-owning; he never points out the fact that owning another human being is wrong.

The reason the South fought for their "right" to own slaves is because the Bible endorses the practice. Like I said before, Christians have progressed in spite of their holy book; not because of it. What seems to have happened is that humanity has phased out of things like slave-owning and the oppression and mistreatment of women on its own and without religion. Religion has been resistant to progression from the beginning and only gives in once it is practically impossible not to... and then it tries to take credit for the progress.

Christianity is responsible for the murder of many enlightened men and women; many scientists and scholars. It has stunted the growth and development of medicine and fought every discovery tooth-and-nail. Additionally, Christianity is not the only religion that is responsible for these things: Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and many other religions have been historically just as murderous and repressive and anti-intellectual.

Jaq, and all the other people who blame religion and Christianity for the things listed above, are justified in doing so. The record proves what is to blame. Maybe the adherents of said religion contributed in some way, but it is not because of their religion... it's because people are either good or bad on their own merits. There are good Christians and there are bad Christians; there are good Jews and bad Jews; good atheists and bad atheists. The individual actions of people says nothing of their religion and everything about their own character.

Just read through Deuteronomy and see how ridiculous and murderous its Laws are; see how vindictive Jesus was at times in the NT. There are good things sprinkled throughout the Bible, no doubt. But those good things do not cover over the bad. I would venture to say that the bad overshadows and nullifies the good in that book, and other holy books. It only takes a drop to poison the well after all.

Yes, we can see the good in those religions, but that good can stand on its own and does not depend on the religion to remain intact. The fact that there is good in every culture, no matter how primitive, means that goodness is not dependent on religion... but religion is absolutely dependent on people's acceptance of it. People believe their morality depends on a particular set of doctrines, and because of this they are led to do atrocious things they wouldn't otherwise do. It can be confusing, I think.

Like I said before, I think religion... all religion... poisons the well. I think we could do without it. I think we should start taking credit for the contributions we make as individuals and stop giving the credit to the religions. People are the ones who are responsible for any goodness or evil that is poured out... not religion.
Well, I wasn't necessarily blaming Buddhism for the repression of women, but it has been responsible for some blood shed. I'll agree that Buddha himself probably would not have condoned that behavior, but his alleged followers made a religion out of his philosophy (which he didn't want to happen). I'm speaking of the religion of Buddhism and not the ideals of the man himself.

In any case, my main point is that people are responsible for whatever progression is made and not their religion.
Hey Guys:

I appreciate your points of view, but anyone can see that you are single-minded, one-sided, and completely into a negative cherry-picking of history with respect to religion.

What I say in my book is the truth about history is not about what actually happened, but rather what people think happened, since there are no two people anywhere who can agree on one single reading of history. That makes us all distorters of history -- but some people distort history more than others.

The proof comes to this: If someone has a point of view who is incapable and unwilling to find even a single positive interpretation of the other side's perspective (i.e., you can see only the negative that religion has caused in history and see nothing positive), I can tell you that person is flat-out wrong about religion and history. Tell me religion offers nothing but "poison" and I come to the conclusion that you are every bit as fundamentalist as the religions you criticize.

It is unfortunate that the more pleasant and good-natured people I have met in my book odyssey (my book has appeared in 100 blogs; I have had 15 radio interviews; appeared on Fox News, etc.), it is the religious people who are the more humane and decent. Explain that to me.

Yes, because phrases like There are good things sprinkled throughout the Bible, no doubt. and Yes, we can see the good in those religions are clearly statements that no good can come from religion.

Try responding to what she actually wrote, not what you think she wrote, Bruce.
Try responding to what she actually wrote, not what you think she wrote, Bruce.

Well, when some people already have their minds made up that other people are closed minded, you get what we see here. Delicious irony.
Well Bruce, unfortunately Christianity is the 800 lb gorilla, with Islam running a distant second. Judaism, the parent of both Christianity and Islam, is a tiny minority. Less than 2% of the world's population is Jewish. Abrahamic monotheism dwarfs all other religions.

The only religions that I would honestly have to say that probably did not promote human rights violations of anyone, especially women and girls, were the ancient late Paleolithic/early Neolithic fertility goddess religions and animism (similar to what much of the Native American spiritual beliefs encompass) that have been made practically extinct by the patriarchal religions which usurped them — particularly by patriarchal Abrahamic monotheism in the Fertile Crescent region which arose from the Neolithic Revolution of animal husbandry and agriculture.

However, the religion of the Incas and the Aztecs involved some serious human rights violations: the sacrifice of virgin girls to appease the gods.

The clashing of patriarchy, particularly Christian patriarchy of European immigrants to the New World, with matriarchy and animism of Native American peoples shows us the results: a Holocaust on this continent's soil whereby 95% of the indigenous people of the US and Canada were slaughtered for the sake of Manifest Destiny. This was carried out with Christian excuses that originated from Rome in the form of papal bulls; a series of which (beginning with the first Crusades back in 1095 AD onward) framed the Doctrine of Discovery that granted free license to European monarchs (as vassals subordinate to the Pope's temporal and spiritual authority) to pillage, rape, enslave, and murder entire non-Christian nations (in the name of doing "God's work") to bring the treasures, property, and subjugated peoples of these "heathen lands" under the authority of the Christian church.

Native American social justice activist John Trudell said it best: "Celebrating Columbus Day is like celebrating Osama bin Laden Day."

Polytheism of Mycenaean Greece, Sparta, and Troy gave birth to the concept of the "divine right" of rulers. The royal houses of Troy and Sparta each claimed descent from the gods. Oddly, women were treated (albeit only slightly) better in Spartan society than they were a thousand years later in the Iron Age Roman Empire from which Christianity hails. I get into all this and much more in my book, which is also available on Kindle as well.
I'm actually pretty frustrated, Bruce, that that's all you got out of my post. I never said all religion offers is poison... not even close. I don't believe you fully read what I wrote if that's your interpretation.

I don't think I'm being single-minded or one-sided. I've been on that side; I've been religious. And guess what? I'm just as pleasant and good-natured as ever now that I'm atheist. I am still humane and decent. In fact, there are many, many atheists who have those good qualities in abundance. Explain THAT. It's not only religious people who are good... and that's the biggest frustration we atheists seem to share: we're good people without religion but somehow that's completely overlooked.

I don't know why you must insist that religion should take credit for the good deeds done by humans. Why can't humans take credit for the good deeds done by humans? If the only reason you're doing good is to get points in Heaven, that's not very impressive. If you're only acting nice to avoid being punished, maybe you're not really a nice person. I am not motivated by fear to be good... I am good for the sake of being good.

Anyway, because you obviously didn't read what I wrote I won't bother replying further. I get frustrated with people who don't even engage in the responses I took time to write and are never satisfied with the answers given just because they want to maintain their point of view.
Jacqueline and Cara:

I am not ignoring your position. I have been an atheist all my life. And my book is mainly a response to Hitchens and Dawkins and Myers. See my blog, there's a guy named Condell who seems to think that you cannot speak about religion without using the "F" word. Those are the people I am responding to. Not atheists like you.

I know there are many, many good atheists (I am one myself). But I am more interested in the psychology of it all. My real interest is in the ideological extremism that exists on both sides of the spectrum -- theists and atheists. I do believe you are decent and good; I apologize for implying that you are not. But I do FEEL a good amount of extremism in your arguments. Dawkins was asked in an interview if you could concede just one good thing that religion produced over the millennia, and he said he could not think of anything. Really, NOTHING?

If you cannot tell, I take a middle approach. Since the weight of the books by extremists was so disproportionally on the side of anti-religionists, I thought the more interesting book was writing what is good about religion.

Real religious people, the majority of them, do not do good things to win bonus points in the heavenly sweepstakes. They do good for the love of God, the way we would do good for anyone we love. There are many religious extremists, but extremism should not be met with more extremism.

Read Cass Sunstein's book "Going to Extremes." He talks about research that shows that when people -- religious and non-religious -- engage in ideological one-sided groups, they come out more one-sided than when they started. "When people find themselves in groups of like-minded types, they are especially likely to move to extremes." Groups, he says, naturally go to extremes; he calls it "group polarization." And that is what I feel happens when religious people get together or when atheists get together.

What does this have to do with God? Well, if you don't believe in God as I do not, you wonder why people DO believe in God. And you wonder about people like Hitchens and Dawkins who cannot say a single good thing about religion (group polarization).

And one more point: Read Robert Wright's "Evolution of God." In it he says what I do: Christianity was evil 100s of years ago; and Islam is evil today. But you only seem to criticize Christianity of the past. I care less about the past and more about how Christianity has evolved into something more humanistic.

I read you last paragraph about "maintaining their point of view." And yes, I do that. But so do you. At least I can say good things and bad things about religion and atheism.



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