I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how little things have changed in the last two hundred years.
Mind you, we’ve made enormous advances in science. Since Charles Southwell anonymously published his An Apology for Atheism, nearly every science has seen revolutions: evolution in biology, general relativity and quantum mechanics in physics, plate tectonics in science, to name only a few. And because of those revolutions, our lives have changed enormously.
Yet I can pick up books written by freethinkers written centuries ago and see the same idiotic religious arguments torn apart with the same exasperated patience, over and over again. All that seems to have modernized is the language, and in some cases, not even that. These ideas freethinkers were battling then haven’t stuck around because they’re good or sensible, but because they’re religious. Religion has a bad habit of claiming bad ideas are too sacred to challenge. And it has a terrible problem with evil.
What do you do when bad things happen in a world where a supposedly loving god reigns supreme? What can you do when terrible things happen to innocents, and your all-powerful god has done nothing to stop evil from happening? What do you do but let go of your humanity, and embrace the idea that, somehow, your god must have had a reason, and the victim deserved it?
Even when the victim is a child.
Tracie Harris (host): You either have a God who sends child rapists to rape children or you have a God who simply watches it and says, ‘When you’re done, I’m going to punish you. If I could stop a person from raping a child, I would. That’s the difference between me and your God.
Shane (caller): First of all, you portray that little girl as someone who’s innocent, she’s just as evil as you.
Some religious people can’t accept the reality of the god they have made, and make excuses for it, rather than admitting that if it is all powerful and all knowing, it must be responsible for the evil it allows to happen, and it allows evil to happen to those who don’t deserve it. Therefore, they deny their god had responsibility – or they claim what their god did was good, even when a child is harmed or dead. Religion is one of the modes of thought that leads good people to horrible conclusions, and allows them to feel moral in doing so. And religion claims to be unchanging truth, which allows these hideous ideas to be propagated throughout generations. All too often, no argument is allowed. You either believe, or be damned.
Even the children.
Charles Southwell had a little something to say about that:
Witness the character of Him implied in the conceit of that popular preacher who declared ‘there are children in hell not a span long’—a declaration which could only be made by one whose humanity was extinguished by divinity.
Our pulpits can furnish many such preachers of ‘a religion of charity,’ while a whole army of Christian warriors might be gathered from metropolitan pulpits alone, who deeming it impious to say their God of mercy would permit the burning of infants not a span long, do nevertheless, firmly believe that ‘children of a larger growth’ may justly be tormented by the great king of kings; and as ignorantia legis non excusat is a maxim of human law, so, according to them, ignorance of divine law is no excuse whatever, either for breaking or disregarding it.
Then and now, the same horrific ideas.
Eric MacDonald said recently, speaking of how “Gods swallow our humanity,”
The problem is that gods are forever (at least in believer’s minds), and so the values that are vested in them come to be seen as moral absolutes, and while morality has tended to function, traditionally, in this way, based as it has been in systems of religious belief, morality is seldom best understood in so marmoreal and intransigent a form. The pope tends to dismiss those who question the Roman Catholic Church’s unyielding moral laws as relativists without noting that the field is not divided, as he seems to think, into absolutes and relatives, but into principles and their application to complex and nuanced human circumstances in which there is no role for absolutes to play. Of course, the pope thinks that all values derive, in the end, from the absoluteness and infinite wisdom of his god, without noticing that it was he and his forebears who vested those values in their god in the first place. For, despite everything that he can say about moral value, he cannot provide evidence for the proposition that these values are either commanded by his god, or inscribed by his god into the very fabric of human nature. The values are purely human. They have a history.
The biggest problem the pope faces is providing an explanation as to why we should stop that history at some point in the past, and accept, as eternal, human values as understood at that point, instead of recognising that the ethical project has much of its history yet to run. Even people like Beverly Brewster recognise that many conceptions of god are now no longer useful — may even be morally repugnant, as the gods of Jesus or Muhammad often are – and need to be discarded. There is not one conception of god that has stood the test of time. Isn’t it about time that we recognised that gods are human creations, and that, in the end, we are responsible for what we do with them?
It’s well past time. And that’s why I’m glad a new generation of loud, proud Atheists are out there battling those despicable zombie ideas. I hope that someday, religions will be as dead as the ignorant notions we had of how the physical world worked before revolutions happened and our thinking advanced. I hope that someday, the idea that a child could ever do anything to deserve rape, torture and eternal torment in hell is left where it belongs, deep in our past, and considered a shameful mistake that humans will never make again.