(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)
On my last trip to get a haircut, I overheard a different barber talking with his customer in the next chair. The barber was telling a joke that was aimed at atheists. I could not hear all of it because my own barber was making conversation with me and I did not want to seem rude by telling him that I was more interested in what was going on in the adjacent chair, but I managed to get the gist.
The joke was about an atheist who goes on a hike alone in a remote area and confronts a bear who overpowers him and is about to kill him. The atheist cries out to god to save him from an awful death. At that point god freezes time (and the bear) and has a conversation with the atheist where he essentially asks him why he should save him now, given that he did not believe in him until the atheist really needed his help. I missed hearing the next bit but the punch line was that the bear got on his knees and gave a prayer of thanks to god for the meal that he was about to enjoy. So presumably the atheist dies because of his denial of god. The barber and his customer shared a good laugh at the joke.
Of course, there are many such jokes that circulate. Some religious people seem to get a big kick out of the idea that atheists will be punished by god for not believing in him, and take a lot of glee in the thought that they will suffer awful deaths and eternal torment in the afterlife. The Jesus people often take that tack, never missing an opportunity to let you know how awful hell is. Some of them realize that harboring such thoughts of gruesome vengeance does not reflect well on their own professed religious values so they try to disguise their sense of satisfied anticipation by cloaking it as concern for our souls, that they are not enjoying the thought of our suffering but are merely trying to warn us away from an awful fate in the afterlife.
What was interesting to me is that all these stories that religious people tell are just that – fiction. Things like the barber’s tale never occur in reality. Religious people seem to believe that god can unambiguously appear to people, stop time, and do all kinds of amazing things to show off his power but it doesn’t seem odd to them that such things never ever happen in real life. Apart from repeating the events written about in their unreliable ancient religious texts, they have to resort to making up stories (jokes or otherwise) about god. It never seems to strike them that the stories in their religious texts that speak of god’s intervention in earthly events also probably started out as just these kinds of fictional stories designed to reinforce religious people’s belief that god was on their side.
You would think that it might occasionally strike them “Why doesn’t god do this kind of thing once in a while nowadays? Why is he so silent? He never writes or calls.” After all, we new/unapologetic atheists in particular have given god enough provocation to make him good and mad at us, enough to make him want to teach us a lesson by very publicly smiting us. You would think that the fact that god has never unambiguously appeared or spoken to anyone or done anything would be sufficient to at least suggest to religious believers that god might not exist. But such is the power of faith to overwhelm reason that the thought never seems to even occur to them, let alone convince them.
This is because when it comes to god, religious people do not seem to be able to distinguish fiction from reality.
POST SCRIPT: Choosing between science and religion
Alas, not everyone chooses sensibly, thus revealing the power of early religious indoctrination to convince believers to deny reality if it contradicts belief.