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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Bruce, I appreciate your thoughtful response. I pretty much agree with you, too...except where you say that I have nothing good to say about religion. If you visit the discussion, What part of Xian Culture do you Miss?, you'll see that many nice things are being said... by myself included. Even in my response, I didn't completely smear religion. I conceded that there have been some good things... probably many good things. There was a lot about it that I enjoyed while I was Christian. The difference between you and I is that I have had that experience and you have not. While you may be able to look in and observe, I've been a part of it and know from first-hand experiences the different levels of manipulation and control that occur.

There's an expression of speech called, "poisoning the well" and that's the expression I was using. Well, based on Wikipedia's definition, I have been "poisoning the well" against religion. But, in the literal sense, I meant it to mean that the small drop of poison that has been added to religion poisons all of it. If you have a glass of water and add just a drop of cyanide, the entire glass has been poisoned. Religion would be the pure glass of water and, say, Deuteronomy 25:11-13 would be the drop of poison. Only there are MANY!! verses inciting bloodshed like that... and I think it's those murderous, unmerciful verses that taint all of religion, even with all the good religion may have to offer.

Does religion have a functional purpose? Yes. Do I think that purpose could be carried out through other channels besides religion? Absolutely. Is Christianity much different than it was even 100 years ago? Yes. Does that mean it's keeping up with civil rights trends now? No. It may be much more improved, but that doesn't mean I think it's overall something worth maintaining. Will I fight it like Hitchens? No. My entire family, aside from a couple members, are Christian. They're good people and I love them. My grandfather is the best man I know and he's a Southern Baptist preacher. Throughout his life, he's done a lot of good in the name of Christ. If he weren't religious, would he be as good? I think so.

My main point was and has always been that I think people should take credit for the good that's been done. Why do we have to put religion on a pedestal? Religion is nothing really; it is comprised of people. I just think humans should start giving themselves more credit and stop believing the lie that religion does tell, which is... you are a sinner and not worthy of life without God. Maybe if people could believe they were good on their own merit, they wouldn't need religion to tell them how to be good.

I agree with all you're saying. But we have differences in our underlying assumptions. These are the unspoken assumptions that are within ourselves that color how we see everything.

One example, that one drop of poison pollutes the whole well. That is really way out there. That would mean that every institution is negated and dismissed because there is at least one drop of poison in each of them.

Another example, that you have experienced religion as a believer and I have not. I dare say that there are as many experiences of religion, on the most subtle level, as there are religious people. You imply that my experience of religion would be the same as yours -- but you know that is not possible.

Third, that religion does not deserve credit for any advances since it is people who do the accomplishments and thus people, not religion, deserve the credit. But that assumes that no institution deserves credit, but only the people who comprise them. I can agree with that, but only if you are prepared to apply that assumption to all institutions, from science to democracy to capitalism. If institutions do not deserve credit for historical progress, but only people do, then why do we have institutions at all? I would submit that you are correct to a degree, you can see the human contributions, but that is an abstraction since we cannot ever separate the individual accomplishments from the institutions in which people organize, plan and behave.

Other than those differences, I agree with you. And maybe we should each question our underlying assumptions as well as the institutions we are evaluating.

Touche, Bruce. Breaking it down like that makes sense... and I appreciate you responding to each point.

Henceforward, my issue will be with specific religions and not religion in general. The institutions you mentioned, and others like them, do not ever ask, nor command, their adherents to murder, rape and plunder in their name. Now, those things may have been done in the name of said institution, but the doctrines associated with those institutions do not endorse that kind of behavior.

Christianity, Judaism and Islam all incite their followers to murder (among other things). Science can definitely be held responsible for some death, doom and destruction, but those things are not a mandate of science. Communism led to mass genocide, but genocide is not something the institution of Communism ever called for. Yes, people are responsible for that (Hitler, to be more specific). People become zealots for a cause, but that does not mean the cause is at fault. Concerning specific religions, that particular religion is the cause because it's doctrine commands that its followers kill people who don't agree. That is the difference.

Do you at least see that difference?

If we're paralleling institutions and religions, then I agree... I'm all for institutions. We need them and they can be effective. But are all institutions defensible? No. Institutions are not good across the board, and religions are not good across the board. SO! I'll concede that some religions can be good, but not all.

I do think the religion of Christianity has done more harm than its good can account for. Yes, it feeds the poor; yes it makes people feel better when a family member dies; yes, it can be inspiring. But, due to the controversial nature of its texts, some people take certain commands literally (as they're commanded to) and end up doing any number of atrocious things in the name of Jesus. That happens way too often (it's a liability issue)... and then all the other Christians are like, "Oh, that guy makes us look bad!" but that guy is the one following the mandates!

Eh. I've written too much. So, we basically agree... all religion is not the problem; they're not all poisoned even if they don't have a clean record. However, I think specific religions are the problem when their holy books incite murder, etc.
Hi Cara! I love what you wrote and I just wanted to attach an essay I wrote for your reading enjoyment at your leisure. Also, I hope Bruce reads this too. He might understand where I'm coming from in writing "Divine Right: The Truth is a Lie"
"One example, that one drop of poison pollutes the whole well. That is really way out there. That would mean that every institution is negated and dismissed because there is at least one drop of poison in each of them."

When those institutions A) claim to have a monopoly on the truth; B) make, to varying degrees, claims of infallibility; or C) claim (and attempt to use) authority over others backed by an omnipotent god; then yes, one drop of poison does tend to spoil the whole thing.

Now, I can imagine a handful of people would be soured on the Red Cross if a scandal happened to emerge there. That wouldn't discredit the whole organization, especially considering all the lives they've saved. But then again, the Red Cross isn't demanding a holy mandate for our blood donations on the threat of everlasting torture after we die. See the difference?

"Another example, that you have experienced religion as a believer and I have not. I dare say that there are as many experiences of religion, on the most subtle level, as there are religious people. You imply that my experience of religion would be the same as yours -- but you know that is not possible."

There's a problem with your base assumptions here. The first is that human experience is so inconceivably different that it cannot be compared. And yet, we're able to relate similar descriptions of love, fear, hate, pain, awe and others. We're able to describe events in near-exact terms under controlled conditions. It does not follow that her experience of religion is invalidated solely on the condition that you are different people.

"Third, that religion does not deserve credit for any advances since it is people who do the accomplishments and thus people, not religion, deserve the credit. But that assumes that no institution deserves credit, but only the people who comprise them. I can agree with that, but only if you are prepared to apply that assumption to all institutions, from science to democracy to capitalism. If institutions do not deserve credit for historical progress, but only people do, then why do we have institutions at all? I would submit that you are correct to a degree, you can see the human contributions, but that is an abstraction since we cannot ever separate the individual accomplishments from the institutions in which people organize, plan and behave."

Again (referring to my last post), I ask for a single lasting achievement religion can take credit for, especially one that could not come about in the absence of religion.
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.

Hitchens is one "atheist" whom I have no respect for whatsoever since he feels it is perfectly acceptable to force women to remain pregnant against their will (at peril to their health, wellbeing, and lives) in the name of being "pro-life." My issue with that is that such a position discounts, and even totally disregards, the woman's right to life and liberty as a human being and as an American citizen. But that's a whole separate issue that belongs on a different topic rather than here.

I find Hitchens to be an overly verbose know-it-all gasbag who ought to be arrested for possession of brains with intent to use, IMHO. I don't relate well with people like that — at all.

I have not read Dawkin's book because I don't have a science education so I don't think I'd be able to understand it and get much out of it. I understand things in terms of simple daily life reality: how my life as a woman (a member of an oppressed group) is going to be affected by laws and public policies influenced and shaped by culturally ingrained patriarchal normalization of misogyny, institutionalized sexism, and discrimination at the end of the day when it's all said and done. [Think "Welfare Reform, Hyde Amendment, and Stupak"] That's the bottom line for me and millions of other women across America today.

I also understand things in terms of mathematical patterns, geometric and exponential progressions (linear and nonlinear), and in terms of historical patterns and events that we know, or have good reason to believe based on documentation, to have occurred. Archeology is a neat science insofar as it relies much on historical documentation from which scientific finds at dig sites are then contrasted with.

So my examination of religion as a feminist, who is daily fighting social injustice and gender discrimination, and as an atheist; is based on all of those aforementioned understandings and life experiences.

Regarding PZ Myers: He is a biology professor at a Minnesota university. His treatment of religion is from his vantage point as a scientist — plus what he sees as a professor who is greatly perturbed by Christianity's influence in the US resulting in unprecedented numbers of freshmen biology class students lacking rudimentary academic capacity because of ID/Creationism and a severe deliberate downplaying of evolution in many public and private schools across the nation.

While I share Myers' frustration in the regard that we have med school students entering med school without a fully balanced background in evolution and in the full truth about the pros and cons of pregnancy, childbirth vs. abortion and contraception owing to Creationism and abstinence-only sex ed, I also can understand being turned off by someone who comes off as yet one more scientist with an elitist "Smart Guy" attitude. Nobody likes to be condescended to by elitists, even if they're right, because it smacks of classism.

The science community has earned a reputation of doling out too much rude "shut-uppery" that turns a lot of people off — especially a lot of women who are mainly concerned with overcoming centuries of academic, economic, and judicial discrimination; fighting human rights violations, promoting equal rights and equal justice.

I actually posted those thoughts on PZ Myers' blog, Pharyngula, under his blog post in which he agonized over the lack of female, minority, and economically underprivileged people's representation among the ranks of atheist speakers in the "New Atheist" movement. I told him very bluntly what the issues are: the blindness of inherited/normalized unearned privilege.

I told him that given the lack of support and concern for women and girls' human rights to bodily autonomy in a "movement" that is largely middle/upper class white male dominated, atheist feminists are more likely to be found speaking at political rallies, women's rights events, and devoting our time to helping improve the lot in life for poor women and girls with everything from access to advanced educations and equal opportunity in getting good jobs to access of legal abortions and reliable contraception — rather than debating theists about their belief in a god and blathering like gas bags extolling the virtues of atheism over religion. (Whether or not Myers dismissed my input or absorbed it is another matter.)

On Pat Condell: His You Tube activism is quite popular. He has that dry British wit and snarky humor that many find appealing. I listen to Pat Condell very frequently. I have not heard in any of his videos that I have seen thus far where he loaded the message with expletives in his rants against religion. However, we all have our moments where we drop the F-bomb. Everybody gets angry. Everybody gets upset. And since language is the most powerful tool at our disposal in cyberland to express ourselves, sometimes an F-bomb is used to emphasize or underscore an issue, or elicit from readers the emotional picture of what is being conveyed.

Pat Condell does, however, voice a very strong opposition to oppressive religions from the viewpoint of a British man who sees parliament's acceptance/allowance of Sha'ria Law and a catering to Muslim immigrants' belief system that promotes the oppression of women and gays and which also openly chastises the average Brit for wanting to have a beer at the pub.

I agree with much of Condell's message: A religion that demands respect but gives none — especially to women — deserves no respect. And it will get none from me, I can assure you that! Now if you are offended by the delivery of his message (which I am not, BTW), that is certainly within your right and completely understandable.

Now here is something that you and I will probably disagree on:
"Since the weight of the books by extremists was so disproportionally on the side of anti-religionists,..."

I must advise you to read works (books, essays, journal articles, legal opinions, medical opinions, public policy/law discussions, theological treatises, etc.) by Albert Mohler, Pat Robertson, Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, Tertullian, Saint Augustine, John Calvin, Martin Luther, Pope Urban II, Pope Innocent VIII, Pope Alexander VI, Pope Benedict XVI, Mary Pride, Martha Peace, James Dobson, Ralph Reed, Don Wildmon, Robert Rector, Bruce Ware, Phyllis Schlafly, Ann Coulter, Nancy Campbell, Beverly La Haye, Tim La Haye, RJ Rushdoony, John Ashcroft, Tommy Thompson, Astin Ruse, Steven Mosher, and countless more.

I think that when you look at the extremists and the amount of power and privilege they've wielded to the detriment of women and girls' human rights to bodily autonomy, extremist atheists are far, far outnumbered by extremist Christians alone — never mind extremist Muslims (like Afghanistan's new "democratic" government leaders who said that a woman "has the absolute right to obey her husband.")

Although I do not agree with the delivery method of Dawkins and Myers, and although I think Hitchens is a flat out jerk, I am forced to admit that they're the only voices standing up effectively to an overwhelming number of misogynist religious bullies.

Remember, bullies don't stop bullying on their own. They have to be stopped. Sometimes that requires fighting fire with fire. And like it or not, it may be the obnoxious atheists who are the ones making it safe for quieter, mellower atheists to be, well...atheists.

BTW, your book needs an index - just a suggestion.

Which book, Doone? I wrote four, three of which I cite in text with footnotes and one in which I used the index method (a.k.a. "acknowledgments") Do you mean the one referenced in this discussion? If so, I would like to ask you you're opinion on why an index would make it better than citations in text with footnotes. I actually gave that some thought when I wrote it, but found that the in text with footnotes method of source citations/definitions/etc worked better because of the sheer number of them throughout the book. But I guess it's a matter of style preference. When I read other people's books, I much prefer to be able to find citations and definitions on the same page that I am reading rather than having to go all the way to the end of the book to dig the source or definition from an index.

As to seeing the world as black and white: there are certain things that we all draw our proverbial line in the sand at which there is no compromise. As a woman who has suffered because of religiously-inspired gender-targeting discrimination, my stance on equal rights for women is non-negotiable. Obviously, being a woman and having come from a very disadvantaged background, human rights violations against women and girls going on today as a continuum is my Maginot Line — without apology.

Women make up half the human race. Accepting normalized human rights deprivations and discrimination for half the human race solely because of gender/biology is not something that should be lightly brushed aside as somehow unimportant or less important than any other human/civil rights issue, IMHO.
OK, thank you for your input and I will certainly keep that in mind if and when I do a revision. T
Bruce, I'm unimpressed.

"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?"

I challenge you to name a single substantial, lasting thing beneficial to humanity that was born out of religion, and could not have come about in the absence of religion. Nobody is arguing that some are inspired to do good based on religious experience. What I'm asking is whether religion is necessary and whether it's capable of producing anything besides short-term goodness.

"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."

How self-contradictory is this? Regardless, either way you slice it, people are doing it for arbitrary reasons, rather than the goodness produced by the act itself. You haven't dispelled a category of motivation, you've simply divided it in two: selfish actions and hollow actions.

"There are many religious extremists, but extremism should not be met with more extremism."

Cite a single example of an atheist, in the name of atheism, committing an act of terror. Until then, find a word besides "extremist."

"And that is what I feel happens when religious people get together or when atheists get together."

With regard to religious people, would you be talking about the Muslims or the Jews? Protestants or Catholics? Buddhists or Hindus? Mormons or Jehovah's Witnesses? Fundamentalists, Moderates or Liberals? Universalists? Please specify.

While you're at it, I'll need you to clear up what you mean by "atheists." Would you be talking about the conservative atheists or the liberal atheists? Or perhaps you're referring to the socialist atheists or even the libertarian atheists. Are you talking about the moderates or are you talking about the anti-theists? What about the simply "non-religious?" Oh, maybe you're talking about the atheist Bears fans or the atheist Packers fans.

...or maybe we could stop forming baseless generalizations about hopelessly diverse social groups.

"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."

Oh? So that whole thing about 50% of the American populace rejecting evolution and wanting to teach creationism isn't current. It's just something that happened hundreds of years ago? Let's talk about your own skewed perception for a bit.

1) Most atheists I've spoken to do not focus on Christianity of the past. Occasionally it's helpful to bring it up as a touchstone for crimes Christianity still will not take responsibility for, especially to use as an example of why theocratic rule is a bad idea and why Christiantiy does not have the market cornered on morality. Particularly, it's useful as a tool to demonstrate the ever-evolving moral zeitgeist in a culture. It is not the sole reason we oppose Christianity.

2) Christians of various sects do plenty of bad stuff today. Perhaps you weren't aware of the religiously-defended cases of child neglect leading to death that happen periodically in this country, or the forced marriages by Christian cultists to underage girls. Then there's the faith healing fraud that robs gullible people of their hard earned cash. There's groups like Blackwater, whose Christian fundamentalist leader is responsible for countless unneeded deaths overseas. There's also a strong movement on the religious right which hopes to bring about the conditions described in Revelation to speed what they believe will be the second coming of Christ.

If I were to go on summarizing as briefly as I can, I would easy quadruple the length of this already-long post. We have plenty of things to worry about from modern Christianity.

3) Many atheists are quite outspoken against Islam today. What you're misidentifying as blind hatred is actually a matter of trepidation. It's easy these days to be confused with the anti-Arab bigots who would like nothing better than to see every Muslim on the planet blown to pieces.

This causes some to hesitate in their criticism of Islam. However, others have been bolder in their opposition (myself included), making sure to differentiate between being anti-Muslim and anti-Islam in the same way we differentiate between being anti-Christian and anti-Christianity. Why? Because we're anti-religion, but pro-human.
You could make the argument that Mayan, Sumerian and Egyptian priests invented astronomy, higher mathematics and other technological improvements so they can better perform their religious role. The wealth going to religion in early civilizations did support some societal improvements.

I am not totally convinced that argument would withstand. Astronomy could have just as easily been invented by non-religious people, but we will never know because all we've got to go on is what actually *did* happen. Second, was that contribution really so beneficial that it outweighed the bad of ritual human sacrifice? I would definitely argue that point.

Another point I would raise to counter that claim would be the question: "How much has religion socially engineered entire peoples such that advancing the benefits of astronomy and mathematics was thwarted more than it would have been otherwise?"

Sure, the contributions of astronomy and math are important. But if these have not been able to be developed to full potential for humankind's collective use and benefit because of religion's stifling this knowledge as a means of social engineering, is it not fair to ask whether or not the "good" truly outweighs the "bad" here?
You make several good points here, Jacqueline. Another one would be that there is a difference between a discovery made due to the influence of religion, and that made by a religious person.

Eratosthenes may have been devout in his observances to the gods (or may not have been), but did his religious beliefs have any impact on his measuring the circumference of the Earth? (or the axial tilt, distance from Earth to the Sun, calculation of prime numbers, etc) Unlikely.
Another one would be that there is a difference between a discovery made due to the influence of religion, and that made by a religious person.

That's a stellar question, Dave G. As one example I can think of off the top of my head (I've got tons of stuff crammed into my "file system", LOL!) is that of Sir Isaac Newton. He and Gottfreid Leibnitz simultaneously and separately developed Calculus.

[HINT: For everyone who could not make it through four semesters of college level calculus and one semester of differential equations without tons of frustration, thank these two guys :>]

Now, Sir Isaac Newton may or may not be the best example since some sources say he was a devout Christian who allegedly wrote in his memoirs that he gladly embraced celibacy while other sources claim he was not religious; but he is one that comes to the fore in my mind. I don't recall anything on Leibnitz's religious position or belief. If Leibnitz was agnostic or even an atheist, that would be interesting to find out because for many years, the mathematical community bickered over which one of these two men developed calculus and some even claim that Maria de Agnesi played a larger role than was credited for (because women weren't allowed to pursue learning and those who did often faced extreme penalties for doing so — Hypatia ring a bell, anyone?)



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