NEAL STARKMAN suggests five ways that atheists can gain comfort from the irrational and often infuriating mindset of passionate believers.
WE’VE all been there: A tornado destroys a house, and one family member out of five isn’t killed; the local pastor proclaims it a “miracle.”
You undergo a hospital procedure, and a friend says she’ll pray for you. An athlete thanks God for having won a championship. A Congressman quotes the Bible to reinforce the suppression of women, or gay people, or Arabs, or atheists, or rock singers,or people who like sex, or pretty much anyone
he doesn’t like.
Don’t you get dizzy from all your eye rolling? Aren’t your teeth worn down from gritting them? How many times can you shake your head in disgust before you knock something loose?
And you can’t respond with a reasoned argument. These people don’t speak Reasonese; they won’t understand you. They know they’re right; they don’t see that their beliefs are merely substitutes for actual thinking. There’s nothing you can do to change their mind, because the foundation
of their belief is not to change their mind.
So, what can you do? What can you say to yourself that will give you at least a modicum of pleasure amidst the frustration and despair that inevitably follows such an encounter?
I’ve taken the liberty of providing you with some consoling thoughts. They won’t eliminate the disgust you feel, or the hopelessness concerning the human condition but they may be slightly palliative: They may offer some momentary solace in a world that’s gone nuts.
Consoling thought #1: These people continually live in fear.
Think about it: There’s this omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent God, and he is itching for a smiting. You stray from the course just a bit – you take his name in vain, you have a carnal thought, you cheat a little on your taxes – and bam! You’ve got a horrible disease, your dog dies, you lose the
promotion, and – icing on the cake – you suffer eternal damnation.
And here’s the really insidious part: If you recognize your sin, then you can confess, or repent, or whatever, and all is forgiven. Whew; glad that’s over with. But what if you sin and don’t realize it? You can’t admit to something you’re not aware of. So these people have to be on their toes not only for what they do but also for what they might have done but aren’t conscious of!
Can you imagine what anxiety that must produce? And to top it off, when they get older, they really can’t be sure whether they’re going to be sent to the penthouse or the basement. Wow—heavy . . .
Consoling thought #2: These people won’t be taken seriously by anyone outside their prayer circles.
Yes, it’s true that some God-fearing folks have huge followings. I won’t pretend otherwise. But the typical God-hears-my-prayers-and-then-decides-whether-to-answer-them true believers have to remain within a fairly tight cohort in order to maintain any semblance of respect.
Sure, they can hide their beliefs in mixed company. But as soon as they say something like “God in his infinite wisdom must have wanted that child to be abused,” people with IQs over 90 are going to heap all kinds of well-deserved scorn upon them. You can probably find a pretty good reverse correlation between religiosity and success outside the world of religion.
Consoling thought #3: You have an opportunity to brush up on your condescending
In most cases, it’s not kind to be condescending. But when someone tells you that the earth is only 4,000 years old, that there really was an ark, that this guy born of a virgin was killed for your sins but then somehow returned to talk to his friends, and that slaughtering thousands of people is okay if
God says it is, then you need to hone your condescension skills.
The trick, of course, is to say something that to intelligent onlookers indicates your utter contempt for what the person said but to the person itself presents somewhat of a question: What did he mean by that?
So, for example:
• Given your background, I can understand why you’d say that.
• Setting aside all science, logic, and internal consistency, I guess that makes sense.
• Your view of the world is pretty special.
• I just want to make sure: When you say stuff like that, you’re serious, right?”
(And when the person says yes, that’s when you frown, shake your head, and smile ruefully,
in that order.)
Consoling thought #4: This gives you a more accurate view of the world.
Okay, I admit, this one may be more depressing than consoling. But really, you pride yourself on knowing reality, right? And too often we encase ourselves in a wonderful little balloon of can’t-it-be-like-this? Too often, despite our common sense, we think, oh, if only I could find the right words to
explain to her that it’s utterly absurd for God to have checked in on her desire to lose weight for the reunion but to have ignored the Holocaust.
In short, we delude ourselves about the human condition just as much as some of these folks delude themselves about the superhuman condition. So encounters with true believers are reminders that some people are very different from us. And that protects us from future jolts of reality, when they might be more damaging.
(He martyred himself because he thought he’d be orgified by virgins after he died?)
Consoling thought #5: Your life is easier without a god – or gods – and religion.
You probably have a code of ethics: Be kind. Don’t lie, cheat, steal, or kill. It’s pretty basic, and you don’t have to continually monitor your own behavior: Can I do this? It’s okay with Corinthians but not Ephesians. But wait; Ephesians doesn’t count since the latest Encyclical. But was that consistent with what Father Lowell said last Sunday? I guess I can do it and then ask for forgiveness? But
isn’t even that a sin?
See, it gets really complicated. This goes beyond fear of God. This is living in an army. Religians – highly religious people – get their marching orders from an established hierarchy of authoritarians, something like God, preacher, father, and Fox News, though I’m not sure of the exact order.
Disobedience results in either carnal or ethereal punishment, and sometimes both.
You, on the other hand, are subject to your own ethical standards, the laws of the land, and the informal policies of your family, peer group, business, and community. But aside from that, you’re a “freethinker”; you’re not bound by the General in the Sky. You’re free to worry about only the real stuff.
I’m well aware that a religious person may read this and take deep offense. How dare he, they might think, consider himself superior to us? Well, it’s kind of tit for tat, isn’t it: Though many religians like to consider themselves humble before their god, very few are humble before their fellow humans.
On the contrary, part of their “rightness” relies on others’ “wrongness.” So if I did offend someone needlessly, then I guess I’ll reap my just rewards in Hell. Maybe I’ll see you there.
But probably not.