Remarks on a Letter from a Believer

Delivered at the December 3rd 1995 service of the North Texas Church of Freethought

How about the newspaper coverage we had in the Religion section of The Dallas Morning News last month? Shocking, wasn't it? I mean, it's accepted, to the point of being dull, almost, that people can believe in six-armed goddesses, or divine powers that live in the heavens, or in other dimensions, that people can believe that they have a "personal relationship" with a Jewish troublemaker who was crucified for insurrection two thousand years ago, or that people can seriously believe that when they have died and their bodies have decayed that, somehow, their personalities go on existing in some great beyond — or a grasshopper.

To have our freethought church, and our honest unbelief treated, for once, as no more ridiculous than these superstitious creeds — now that's really something. Perhaps — and I hope this is the case — it's a foretaste of things to come, of a future where atheism is regarded as a welcome alternative to the confusion of faith-based religions for those who honestly find that their beliefs are not subject to conscious control but follow from two little things called factsand reason. And, from there, perhaps, we — or our successors — can work on spreading and cultivating that sort of far-reaching personal integrity and fearlessness which has so often earned its defenders a noose, a stake, or worse.

An acquaintance suggested that perhaps atheism is easier to portray in a positive light with Madalyn Murray O'Hair missing.

Well, I got a couple of letters as a result of last month's newspaper coverage of our church. I wonder what it is about believers, though, that they always forget to put their names and return addresses on their correspondence. Are they afraid that Steve Blow will find them out and make fun of them? I hope when they pay their bills and fill out their IRS forms that they put down their names and addresses and so forth.

Anyway, this anonymous note reads:

"I enjoyed the article on atheists in the newspaper and I was struck with the similarity of our upbringing. I'm no longer a Catholic but was raised as one in a super devout family. I also began raising questions with priests."

"At about 21 I had rebelled against the arbitrary doctrines and sought another church. I have never found one, but have enjoyed hammering out my own religious beliefs. They have worked for me, e.g. when my first wife died and I was left to raise small kids alone; when I got fired after 20 years; when my teen age son died."

"I champion your finding your own way, but I tried out atheism for awhile. At first I felt free and in a way superior. But soon I felt alone. It didn't work for me (the curse of my early brainwashing?). I'm glad it does for you."

"The faith I hammered out is belief in an all powerful all loving God, whose love will really be shown to us in heaven (where we'll all go when we die). Our existence in heaven can't be fathomed. It's the true life. This first stage is hard to figure out. I live it as responsibly as I can, but why didn't God create us in heaven? I don't know."

The writer goes on to mention a couple of other things, mainly his interpretation of the Tower of Babel story and Yahweh's asking Abraham to kill his son, Isaac. This is done with the use of the technique highlighted by Thomas Henry Huxley, as we heard last month, of turning to symbols to explain away the plain meaning of the scripture. As the letter writer puts it "It's all symbolic of God's love for us."

It's easy, of course, to see the inconsistencies of this fellow's thinking. He even seems to see it himself when he admits that he can't figure out "this first stage," by which he means this reality. And I think we can't but help but even have a good deal of sympathy over that one — for who has completely "figured out" this life, this reality we find ourselves in? That's what we're here to do, after all. Not because somebody put us here and told us so, of course. But because it's in our nature to try and make sense of things, as much as it's in the nature of the HIV virus to infect and kill people, as much as it's in the nature of the earthworm to burrow in the earth, and as much as it's in the nature of an eagle to soar in the skies. WE ARE HERE TO TRY TO UNDERSTAND, and to ACT ON OUR UNDERSTANDING, to CHOOSE THE BETTER OVER THE WORSE, as a way to GIVE OUR LIVES MEANING.

I don't want to hold the writer of this letter up to ridicule. But what's the point of rejecting the "arbitrary doctrines" of the Catholic Church, which have been "hammered out" since the dawn of time virtually, and which have apparently been satisfactory for hundreds of millions of people, only to cobble together one's own set of arbitrary — and just as irrational — beliefs? What is the difference in the sort of monumental arrogance that it takes to insist, in each case, something like: "I don't know, but I must know, and so: I do know."

The Catholic Church, of course, has never defended its doctrines on any other basis but that they are literally as true as any scientific fact, as Galileo and others less lucky found out. But here we have someone introducing another criterion, one which some of us have heard before. Here we have someone defending his ideas (and suggests that we have no betterdefense for our ideas) on the basis that they "work."

So what does that mean?

If someone comes along and says that all the aeronautics textbooks are wrong and that hehas figured out the truth of the matter, why, we could go ahead and build an airplane based on his ideas and see if it flies. We can't quite do the same thing with this fellow's assertions. We already know that his ideas don't "fly" when it comes to their agreeing with the facts of reality, or when it comes to their being reasonable, or even when it comes to their being internally consistent. But he admits all this. Nevertheless, he insists, they "work" — for him, they "work." And here, perhaps, is where it's true that a kind of arrogance — even if there's a certain innocence about it — is the "pride" that "goeth before destruction." (Proverbs 16:18)

Atheism, says this fellow, didn't "work" for him because he "felt alone." What does "work" for him, on the other hand, is "belief in an all powerful all loving God, whose love will really be shown for us" — because there's certainly no evidence of it in our current experience, where wives and children die and people get fired from their jobs after 20 years — "in heaven." What "works," in other words, is in wishing so fervently that the world was not so cold, that it was not so uncaring, and that justice — or mercy, depending on your point of view — will prevail in the end, that the wish becomes to seem real.

I don't feel superior to this man. But I do think he has allowed the heartaches of living to deceive him into abandoning his reason. Religious superstition is like opium, not just because it's addictive, but mainly because for many people it exerts a powerful effect when it comes to relieving their situational (and existential) pain. Therefore, while it's not true that religious doctrines and teachings are "all symbolic of God's love for us," it is true that the idea of this impossible "God's love" is symbolic of the human drive to make ultimate sense of everything.

This is despite everything but our own desires and hopes tending to look pretty senseless, which leads me to my next point. I wonder where this man's friends and family were when he was suffering through the trials that fate had dealt him. If he felt himself driven to the notion of an invisible, unknown parent-like figure who would "make everything right," was it because he found his fellow man too uncaring? Was it because, as is readily obvious to all, the world is too full of indifference, suspicion, intolerance, hatred, and worse? Or is it asking too much of one's fellow human beings to suppose that they can or should behave any differently than we see them doing? Did this letter writer expect more comfort in his time of trial than it is reasonable to expect from people?

Ironically, we also know a belief in "God's love" can foster human indifference, suspicion, intolerance, and hatred. Because if someone knows "God's love," what use have they for the lowly human kind — unless you're Jimmy Swaggart, of course — ? Likewise, to someone who knows God is all-good and that people are all sinners, as repulsive to God as spiders are to humans, as Jonathan Edwards put it, the consideration shown by others has a tendency to be seen as coming from God, and not from one's fellow humans, who become mere conduits. Again, the effect is to estrange people from one another.

Is there a pattern here: of people withdrawing from each other in order to avoid being hurt? And then hurting each other because they have alienated themselves by withdrawing?

It ought to look familiar. It's the reality — ordinary or extraordinary — of the human condition. That is to say: life and love mean taking chances. There are no guarantees. And if you try to insist on guarantees, you lose altogether what's most important.

This is not to say that we have no power to get what we want. But that power is limited to our own behavior. We can't make others love us, any more than we can make real the fantasy of "God's love."

Fortunately, it's not that hard to get what we want and need. It starts with loving ourselves — by being the sort of people that deserve our regard: people who care about what is true, people who care about doing what's right, people who care about others and respect their predicaments as lonely and fallible human beings who nevertheless possess the same intrinsic worth as themselves. Much theology to the contrary, these are the principles that drive human society.

Have I oversimplified anything?

It's not right to be totally consumed by negative emotions. Even the strongest religious narcotic doesn't keep people out of the darkest depths of depression. There's professional help and medication for such disorders of the human central nervous system.

But aside from that, remember this: if you don't feel alone, if you're not scared, and if you're not sure what to do — at least some of the time — well, then, you're not out there walking on the tightwire of life.

Oh, and there's one more thing. Unbelievers have a tendency to get used to self-sufficiency. They often have grown quite used to living with a measure of isolation. If atheists had a creed, "Who cares what other people think?" might come close to it for some.

But I'll remind you that this church is a community. We may all be different, but we share something important. PLEASE feel free to think of others here as something like your extended family. Get to know each other and be open to the possibilities. Most importantly, the directors of the church — myself, Mike, Marilyn, and Debbie — although we're always reminding you of how you can help make the church successful, we also want very much to hear how the church can help you. How can we further your ambitions and aspirations as a freethinker? To my mind, that's one of our main purposes for existence: to help our members find for themselves what no gods can give them.

Thank you very much, and Good Morning.

© 1995 by Tim Gorski