Back about at this time of year, March 5, 2008 to be exact, an editorial I wrote for the Pittsburgh Tribune Review entitled “Which Pew Are You In?” began as follows.
Don’t you love surveys?
The front page of the Feb. 26 (2008) Washington Post carried a story about a poll conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. It suggested that Americans are fickle about their religious choices.
After the scandals that rocked the U.S. Catholic Church, it shouldn’t surprise anyone, particularly Pope Benedict. The Catholic Church has lost more members than any religion practiced here. But it has replaced its losses from the massive immigration invasion by Latinos.
Thus, Catholics still claim 23.9 percent of those polled. The mainline Protestant faiths (18.1 percent) have lost out to the newer Evangelical Protestants (26.3 percent). Mormons and Jews each represent only 1.7 percent of the faithful. Muslims, Hindus, Jehovah’s Witnesses and others register at under 1 percent.
Since I am a member of one of America’s smallest denominations — atheists — I felt a surge of pride in knowing of my exclusive status. Of the 35,000 peopled polled by Pew, only 1.6 percent are in my pew.
Those “unaffiliated” with any religion have grown to 16.1 percent: 12.1 percent are “nothing in particular”; 2.4 percent are agnostics; and 1.6 percent atheists.
Of course, “belonging” may not correlate with believing. Having lived all over the United States, I have had many opportunities to speak with members of many corporate nomad families who admit that the best way to ingratiate or integrate into many American communities is by joining a church, particularly one that has members with clout in the place the newcomers land.
Many people change churches because they like or don’t like the spiritual leader. But many can’t seem to throw off the need to have spiritual feelings. Do they like being hectored for dues and warned about being sinners?
While “going to hell” is currently played down quite a bit, death is still a “biggie” in the quiver of outrageously ridiculous arrows the self-appointed righteous religious rulers have to hold sway over their flocks.
“Getting right with God” remains a primary inducement for most people’s servitude to the fantasy of an afterlife. As I prepare to enter my 78th year, I read daily the numerous obituaries of people who didn’t make that milestone and feel sublimely lucky to have done so in relatively good health.
For many years I have been “unchurched.” As a widower, though, I remarried 14 years ago and my bride and I were delighted to call upon a clergyman relative from each of our two families to bless our union. These two are wonderful people, each with a sincere and abiding faith in his religion, whose moral compasses come not from their religious beliefs but from moral parents and the intrinsic goodness of some humans as compared with the intrinsic evil in others.
Since then, as our politicians parade their views, I have been watching with heightened sensitivity their constant use of the phase, generally as they conclude their statements (Obama is the perfect example), they say, “God bless you and God bless America”.
Ever since Madalyn Murray O’Hair won that famous 1963 Supreme Court Case, which prohibits Bible reading in public schools, the prayer in school issue has festered and continually emphasized the problem of keeping religious convictions from interfering with secular functions at all levels.
American life even before the founding of our present government in 1789 has always been alive with fractious issues, no one more contentious and violent than slavery, which brought us to a monstrous civil war and racial tensions which have yet to be fully resolved. But the civil rights movement has now established for African Americans a permanent and secure place in American life and jurisprudence.
Similarly, we are aware of the immense progress being achieved by the gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and trans-gender communities. As people realized that some of their beloved own family members were in these contentious categories, the climate softened and opened to a substantially different attitude among a vast majority of Americans.
The latter issue came with full force to me and my wife this past December 28th when we attended the nuptials of our niece and her woman companion. Thirteen years earlier our niece had birthed with artificial insemination a young male child, who has grown up for many years in the household with both women. He acted as “best man” at the wedding which joined two committed partners amidst accolades from many family members who made special efforts to attend. In our case, we made a special trip to be there, coming from DC to the West Coast.
I personally have not been well acquainted with many politicians but in reading 2 papers a day every day and being on line in my writing, I am not aware of any politician running for office who puts out front his or her position as an atheist!
How strange, since we know that, even without the huge new scientific knowledge obtained since then, our leading founding fathers were deists. In an article entitled, “The Christian Myth”, we learn that
Deists did not believe in the virgin birth, divinity, or resurrection of Jesus, the efficacy of prayer, the miracles of the Bible, or even the divine inspiration of the Bible.
These beliefs were forcefully articulated by Thomas Paine in Age of Reason, a book that so outraged his contemporaries that he died rejected and despised by the nation that had once revered him as “the father of the American Revolution.” To this day, many mistakenly consider him an atheist, even though he was an out spoken defender of the Deistic view of God. Other important founding fathers who espoused Deism were George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Ethan Allen, James Madison, and James Monroe.
What difference between atheists and deists? As I wrote earlier in my own “coming out” as an atheist editorial, “as an atheist, I find Oxford don and Darwinian exponent Richard Dawkins’ definitions of the various religious permutations enlightening:
A theist believes in a supernatural intelligence who, in addition to his main work of creating the universe in the first place, is still around to oversee and influence the subsequent fate of his initial creation. … He answers prayers, forgives or punishes sins; intervenes in the world by performing miracles; frets about good and bad deeds, and knows when we do them (or even think about doing them). A deist, too, believes in a supernatural intelligence, but one whose activities were confined to setting up the laws that govern the universe in the first place. Pantheists don’t believe in a supernatural God at all, but use the word God as a non-supernatural synonym for nature, or for the Universe, or for the lawfulness that governs its workings. … Pantheism is sexed-up atheism. Deism is watered-down theism.”
Of course, the concept of Darwinian evolution, which is now so well proven, did not exist in 1789. However, now with the power of science and its new tools, we can actually see the creation of solar systems and judge their longevity, including our own, now estimated to be another 5 billion years.
What that does to the puny, human construct of all the various religious liturgies is simply make them ludicrous.
So now as I wrote before,
None except atheism and perhaps pantheism requires courage or brains to adopt.
I must, however, confess that I evolved from being a “reverent agnostic” even as I became aware of these various standard gradations of belief. So where is agnosticism? Again Dawkins comes to our rescue by describing that position as “fence-sitting.” Any doubts about the fact that no God exists, he says, have been reconfirmed by the advance of scientific knowledge and overall human experience. This essentially gutless position avoids commitment and again requires no brains.
A look at the history of religions shows conclusively that religions have done enormous harm and may lead us all to the ultimate downfall of life on this planet. Avoiding apocalypse will involve outgrowing the sway of organized, corrupt and secularized religious power.
What to do? First become an agnostic or a pantheist. Come to believe that there is no power greater than other human helpers that can restore us to sanity.
From there you quickly will graduate to the supremely satisfying comfort of atheism, thus avoiding the quagmire of stultifying belief in any religion, which, to paraphrase Dawkins, is jazzed up tooth-fairyism.
But until we can admit the myth that our country was founded as a Christian nation, it will still be politically poisonous to run as an atheist, even though many now serving are clearly of that persuasion.
The dangerous power for religious hatred which leads to violence here and world wide gets daily reported in our main steam media! By simply giving the civil right without prejudice to confessed atheists to be elected to public office, we atheists would then perhaps not have to hear quite so often that Obama type signature speech sign off, “God bless you and God bless America”.
At my age, I don’t expect to live to see that as a common event, but I am praying, secularly of course, it will come before the forces of organized religion bring down human life on this planet.
From the Dissident Left: A Collection of Essays 2004-2013
By Donald A. Collins
Publisher: Church and State Press (July 30, 2014)
Rise of the New Atheists?
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