An Essay with a few asides, digressions, and deviations | By Roy Luna
From my standpoint here in the West I feel that one can no longer say just “religious oppression” when speaking about this important section of the Rights of Man. At least not in our countries where tolerance for religion has officially existed since the revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. (I know, I know! There have been lots of lapses since. It was difficult to lead a successful life as a Jew in the American twentieth century, and an impossible one in the European.)
I am from the West, and firmly entrenched in the West. There is nothing remaining in me that smacks of Eastern mysticism, although I still get goosebumps from Maugham’s rendition of past avatars as beheld through a concatenation of candle flames. [The Razor’s Edge]
Still, these days we must take care to fine-tune the expression “religious oppression,” and change it to “oppression by the religious,” for it is those very religious groups that are responsible for promulgating the oppression.
The term “religious oppression” needs to be divided into two parts: a) the oppression of a religious group by the majoritarian religion; and b) the oppression of any religious group by any other religion.
As part of their pursuit of happiness, these groups were given the freedom by their enlightened governments to choose their religion, the liberty to participate in its tenets, and the wherewithal to live and die according to its dogma. But once they tasted this magnificent freedom, they wanted to rescind it from all other religious competitors. In other words, just because one became a Protestant didn’t mean that one became enlightened. Being a Protestant meant being just as ornery as a Catholic.
Voltaire is still thought of as an anti-Semite. I propose that he was not. He was anti-dogma, so he had to hit the Jews twice as hard: 1°, for having incredible tenets and far-fetched events in their own religion, and 2°, for having provided these implausibilities as a basis for the Christian belief system. Nor do Muslims and Hindus get off scott free in Voltaire’s criticism, either.
For decades going into centuries, it seemed that no new religious creed ever saw it fit to open its arms to new ones. Some even promised death to their own brothers and sisters who wished to leave their religion. But new faiths flourished anyway, even though all it meant was that the adherents were discarding beliefs that were no longer worthy of being credible, but what they substitued for them were beliefs that couldn’t be accepted as credible to others, and retaliation and oppression of those non-believers was the knee-jerk reaction.
There’s not even room for metaphor: transubstantiation was meant to be taken literally: the body of Christ inhabits the wafer that is ingested during Communion, and his blood is the wine. People were burned at the stake for daring not to believe this. I was thirteen, and I could tell that the wafer tasted of cereal, and Catholics, for some odd reason, don’t imbibe the wine. But I can bet you that it wouldn’t have had a metallic nose and an aftertaste of iron. Why hasn’t someone christened their vineyard “Domain of the Blood of the Savior”? How about “Château Saint Sang”? “Terroir Sanguis Christi”? I know: “Salva me, Inebria me”?
That’s the way of the world: one’s religion is the only true one; all the others are false, unworthy, downright delusional.
Why do serious God-believers view independent thinkers as a danger to their own tenets? Do they realize that their tenets are so tenuous that they don’t want miscreants pointing that out? But we atheists also believe in the First Amendment: We say to the religious, “Knock yourselves out!” We just want to be left alone, to have the freedom to think what our conscience dictates to us. Ah, conscience. The religious think that only God can provide for one’s conscience. Sorry, the word comes from conscientia, based on knowing, not believing. In any case, the Bible is one of the most immoral texts I have ever read. Murder, incest, adultery, polygamy, slavery…
Isn’t that just great, to have won the freedom to believe what you want, to enjoy the benfits of the First Amendment, the balm of practicing your faith out in the open for all to see; but then not grant others the freedom to live under a different canon, including—and especially—no canon at all. Atheists have been anathematized for all ages. What exquisite irony! Nonbelievers wish to live unencumbered by esoteric, irrational and spiritual edicts. Their system of beliefs does not rise from fanciful deities, mystic spirits, or even from other humans who even more fancifully have been inspired by those deities and spirits. It would be comical if these religious groups weren’t all so dead serious, serious enough to construct hostilities against the “heathen,” including eliminating them. But serious they are, and they devote serious time and effort to create propositions, interpretations, and elaborations on how many gods there really are, how the divisions of the trinity work, how many circles of hell there are, what hierarchy of angels there is, how the saints come marching in, how the virgin mother functions, or does not function, what the sacraments mean, don’t mean, what the afterlife promises, threatens, and, my personal favorite, what the soul signifies and portends.
Ay, ay, ay! The soul! Along with the heart! So much mythology, so much symbolism, so much profundity! Whole books, whole treatises, whole bulls, have been devoted to the inner life, the essence of the divine in us, the core of our being. This is what we learn: The empty husk ≠ eternal life. The material ≠ the spiritual. The atom ≠ the thought. The substantial ≠ the ethereal. We are so used to these dichotomies surrounding us that it is difficult, if not impossible, to remove ourselves from them.
Well, I think most believers will tell you that the soul portends eternal life, at least an existence after this one, wherein one may still suffer agonies, or enjoy nirvana, or just float around in limbo waiting on someone else to sort it all out. The soul means that we continue after we die, or something like that.
From my standpoint in the land of stability, of credible, verifiable, and self-checking Science, the soul is a pitiable attempt to allay fears of death. I’ve heard adults speak to children about a loved one, including pets, proclaiming that they have gone to heaven to live with the angels, etc., etc., and all the while I wonder if those adults are yearning to believe this for themselves. Their minds must discern, even for a little bit, how shaky and wobbly it must sound. It’s so pretty to think that the body becomes a discarded husk, while the true life, in the shape of something that is shapeless, wanders off into a tunnel of divine light and there perceives life everlasting. While it is not nice to lie to children, I can perhaps accept as true the possibility that children are not yet fully equipped to deal with the cruelty, the insanity, the disturbing disquiet, the maddening incomprehension of contemplating one’s non-being. I remember that I was thirteen when I started to reject some of the more outlandish stories that Catholics have created, a thin wafer that miraculously becomes the body of Christ; a whole panoply of saint intercessors and miraculous relics, etc., etc.; but it took me a lot longer to come to terms with my own death. As sad as that may be—and, by the way, I still fear pain and suffering, just like my religious brethren—I find the courage to confront my fears—and my melancholy—through the succor of Science and Philosophy.
One of the required texts in the Survey of French Literature I taught was Montaigne’s essay Philosopher c’est apprendre à mourir (To Study Philosophy is to Learn How to Die.) After all these centuries, it’s still powerful stuff.
Both of these pursuits have sprung out of the heads of men and women, in an absolutely non-miraculous way. (More women could have become prominent thinkers had they been given the chance!) These branches of knowledge have not been helped, not even partially, by spiritual intercessors, ethereal beings, or extraterran creatures, whether or not these last had a hand in the construction of the pyramids. Science and Philosphy have come about because of thinking: firstly, thinking about thought, then cogitating about the world, and eventually contemplating our role in the societies we have chosen to establish. All these workings of our neurons have created for us a useful set of paradigms which, when followed, point us in the right direction. Fanciful revelations from texts deemed sacred for having been dictated to us by supernatural beings do not, I repeat, do not point us in the right direction. On the contrary, religious concerns have led to more dead ends, and dead people, than any natural slaughter I can think of. This includes earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, plagues and boils. Slaying, sacrificing, smiting others in the name of god or gods, has repeatedly taught us that these exercises are not beneficial to mankind. Yet, they are still a knee-jerk reaction to multitudes. The West, with its supposed freedom-loving multitudes, with its supposed live-and-let-live approach does not seem immune to this reaction.
Consider that one of the terrorists, perhaps two, who were involved in the recent Parisian attacks, were infiltrators from the hordes of Syrian refugees seeking asylum. This report was enough to convince many Americans to want to slam the door shut on those Muslims, for those “others” believe in weird things, and, what barbarity, the majority of those people would rather murder one of their own than allow him to leave Islam.
In Eighteenth-century France, Protestants were accused of killing family members who wanted to become Catholics. This facile argument enabled the Catholic majority to torture and to kill these Protestants with nary a guilty thought. Those Protestants deserved to be eliminated, was the belief, before they killed any more Catholics.
Well, xenophobia, and especially religious xenophobia is alive and healthy and living in the West today, particulary among conservative, nationalist Republicans in the U.S. and the Front National in France. “Turn those refugees away and let them starve or drown in the sea”, they say, “for they are become the new Trojan Horse, and those heathens gather unto themselves the assassins and the infiltrators who will slit our children’s throats and turn our cities into a wasteland!”
What are the conservatives afraid of? Well, how about the following hazards that seem to be taken for granted?: foreigners contravene national immigration laws; they bring crime and disease; they take jobs from citizens; they disproportionately use, and abuse, social services; they create a burden on educational services; they threaten national identity with their accelerated birth rate. My favorite: they refuse to learn the language.
How many of these are actually true and verifiable?
Funny, the Muslims call Americans the heathens for not believing in their religion. But many Muslims are now American citizens; surely they’re not heathens, are they?
Out of the circular, viciously repeated history of religious conflict, there is one thought that surges from the frothing tides of blood and the anguished screams of the dying: How simple, how refreshing, and how natural to be an atheist!
Atheism = a, prefix meaning without + theos, god + ism, suffix denoting system, principle or ideological movement.
This means, therefore, that atheism is not, I repeat, not a religion. It is the refusal of religion. We have no prelates, no bishops, no pope. We have no dogma, doctrine or creed. We do, however, believe in a system of morality, but not one based on the fear of a deity.
We still might, however, say “Oh, my god!” because one cannot free oneself entirely from common linguistic practices, although my friend Caro always says, “Oh, my goddess!” which does brilliant double duty against both religion and sexism. Take that, you monomaniacal patriarchal prigs! Not only do we not believe in your made-up god, we don’t believe that she necessarily would have been male. A god with a penis? What would he have used it for, anyway? Urination? No, a god doesn’t need to discharge waste products. Procreation? If so, then there must be a corresponding goddess with the correct female genitalia. You know, it is easier to accept that there is neither god nor goddess. There is not need to go into irrational tangents to try to patch up faulty logic, to try to fill in the holes of the most skillfully constructed fabrication, of the best known stories of traditional creative writing, including the most beloved scenes of biblical magical realism.
This is worth repeating: How simple, how refreshing, and how natural to be an atheist! In atheism there are no complexities of debate to discover which god is the true God. There are no visions of what god wants, or professes to want. There are no dicta as to what he demands. There is no confusion about which biblical text to believe, and which biblical text to put down as “enthusiastic hyperbole,” and none to denote as “apocryphal.” There is nothing to interpret, no text, no word, or words, no burning bush, no shining star, no mountain, no rock, no chosen people, no one and no thing. Atheists believe that we are alone on this planet, with nothing but what is inside our minds to help us survive. We deplore what most of humanity insists on keeping, and this is religion, which has up to now only helped us to slit each others’ throats.
We atheists are more levelheaded than the religious because we insist on believing that which we perceive with our senses and that which is provable by our Science, which protracts our senses. Still, many religious people deign to feel sorry for us, as if we were the ones to merit pity. We are presumed to be lost and lonely, mapless in the vast reaches of empty space, and hapless in our erring. True, Science must err before it can be rectified, but I am here to tell you that we atheists lead happy lives, and we can come up with many of our own ideas in order to live full lives, and even to live with enthusiasm. Mighty are these ideas! Who needs enthusiasm for a being without existence, when we have enthusiasm for life, for this one life that is the only one we have, with no more coming. So we say: let’s live it right, let’s not throw it away, our own or others’. Believe no longer in the soul, for it does not exist, and accept that there is no other life after this one. Let’s believe in what’s right in front of us, verfiable and comforting, for there can be much beauty in this one life, if we try, and not waste our time and effort in reaching for another life that will never come.
This is the point where atheists fear the religious. It seems that many religions provide for an end-of-the-world scenario. It seems that many of the religious view the coming of this doom as something to be desired. Ergo, many of the religious wish to hasten the finale, close the resolution, sprint to the denouement. Unfortunately, they’ll take all of us with them if they succeed. I for one don’t want a President with a finger on the button of the doomsday machine, ready and willing to receive divine revelations. All we atheists see when we see you guys yearn for your appointment with your god is a harvest of great suffering and then death. All we see is a group of deranged minds that have accepted preposterous assurances from dubious sources, and are zealously awaiting to meet their god. Why the rush?
We also have enthusiasm for our planet, since this is our one and only home, and there will be no other. So we say: let’s work on making our earth look more like heaven than like hell. Lately, it’s been looking more like hell. Let’s make an attempt to make it look the way it once was: pristine and bountiful, with a full panoply of other species to accompany us. Let us waste no more time in thinking that ruining this planet doesn’t matter, for we have another life in heaven to look forward to. Let us waste no more effort into putting our hopes on something that might never come, and instead work on making the world that we do know into something worthy of future generations. Let’s not yearn for the promised land, but let’s turn this one into a happier land.
The meanings of words display the prejudices of the society that creates and uses them. In the 16th century, “libertine” meant someone who seized the liberty to think for himself, and not follow the conventional road. The rest of society, the conventionals, chided their courageous brethren by concocting a word that infused their liberty with a heavy dose of licentiousness. What did these calumnies of profligacy entail? None other than freedom of sexuality, of simply refusing to chain oneself to a single person for the rest of one’s life. Viewing today’s divorce rate, I feel many religious people have now accepted the beliefs of the “libertine” in that, they too, no longer believe that their god will look askance at them if they engage in pre- or extra-marital sex, or that they discard their one and only in order to move on, sometimes a bit wantonly, to other sexual partners. Atheists would be the least judgmental about all these sexual advances in society: there never was a god to rebuke these actions that used to be called sins. Consensual sex was never a sin, and all that baggage over the ideals of virginity, marital fidelity, purity, chastity, and, especially, clerical celibacy, can finally be relegated to the dustbin of history. Dead ends they were, these sins of sex. Adultery has gone the way of eating meat on Friday, a punishable offense that could land you in jail, or worse. Adulterers, especially the women, are still stoned to death in various parts of the world.
Diderot showed a while ago (1772) that sexuality, a biological process, is weighed down by tons of societal moralizing. Read his Supplément au voyage de Bougainville (Supplement to the voyage of Bougainville) to find out how he deals with the subject. Here’s a hint: the natives of Tahiti, before they were “discovered” and “saved” by the Europeans, thought it hospitable to offer visitors a drink, a snack, and a woman. Quite hospitable!
We have enthusiasm for society, for kindness and compassion, like the kind we have been witness to after natural disasters. The outpouring of help has transcended frontiers and the benefactors don’t care to ask first about the sufferers’ religion. All we know is that there are children in pain, communities in duress, families torn asunder from their towns and each other. Why do we care for people then, and not when it’s war and jihad that are creating the upheaval?
People call us atheists godless; this is true. But this word as they understand it includes corollaries of wickedness and immorality. This is certainly not true. There are moral atheists and there might be immoral atheists, in the same way that there are moral Christians and immoral Christians. Our systems of coercion do differ, however. Instead of making people do the right thing for fear of divine wrathful retaliation, we prefer to make people do the right thing because that is what we expect others to do to us. This is the Golden Rule, and all ethical systems establish it, and provide methods and procedures to enforce it. I will not punch you in the face, because I would not like you to punch me in the face. I will not persecute you for your religious beliefs; I expect the same treatment, even, and especially, if I eschew all religious beliefs.
One thing has changed in me: I am no longer willing to sit peacefully by while others call me wicked. I shall stand up and call you hypocritical, you Westerners, you Americans, you who long ago enshrined liberty of thought into your laws. In my mind, of course, I do not respect your beliefs in ghosts and spirits, but in fact I will not hinder you from believing in them, and I will take no physical actions to deny you your rights. Therefore you must, if you are to believe in your own laws, allow me to live my life without any divinity at all, and in so doing, each one of us will live separate lives convinced of our own morality and our own superiority, but still accepting the legislated morality of our secular laws. That, in effect, is how modern society is built. A group of disparate individuals inhabiting the same land, enjoying our liberties and pursuits of happiness, separately, but at the same time, earnestly, intrinsically, refraining from slitting the throats of those who don’t think like us.
I realize that “not slitting the throat of those who don’t think like us” is a far cry from a better image of a societal utopia. But it’s a start. We could also add: “not slitting the throat of those who don’t look like us,” to improve the image. I think that from here we can actually build our society that our enlightened Foundering Fathers bequeathed to us. They knew that this would be a work in progress. They knew that “enlightenment” was a progression, long, arduous, and chronophagic. You think that 239 years of experimentation is enough? Well, we’ve been hindered by the very thing that the founders tried to declaw back in 1776: religion.