Open the newspaper today—or tomorrow, or almost any day for many years to come—and you will discover that some pious Muslim has deliberately blown himself to bits for the purpose of killing “infidels” or “apostates.” It is likely that the bomber was male, middle class, and comparatively well educated. It is especially likely that he was guided by the sincere expectation of spending eternity in Paradise. In fact, suicide bombing is now so commonplace in our world that most of us have lost sight of just how unimaginable it should be. It is, perhaps, the least likely thing human beings could ever be inclined to do. What, after all, is less likely than large numbers of middle class, educated, psychologically healthy people intentionally blowing themselves up—in crowds of children, in front of the offices of the Red Cross, at weddings—and having their mothers sing their praises for it? Can we even conceive of a more profligate misuse of human life? As a cultural phenomenon, suicide bombing should be impossible. But here it is.
Somewhere in the world a man has abducted a little girl. Soon he will rape, torture, and kill her. If an atrocity of this kind not occurring at precisely this moment, it will happen in a few hours, or days at most. Such is the confidence we can draw from the statistical laws that govern the lives of six billion human beings. The same statistics also suggest that this girl’s parents believe—at this very moment—that an all-powerful and all-loving God is watching over them and their family. Are they right to believe this? Is it good that they believe this?
The entirety of atheism is contained in this response. Atheism is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply a refusal to deny the obvious. Unfortunately, we live in a world in which the obvious is overlooked as a matter of principle. The obvious must be observed and re-observed and argued for. This is a thankless job. It carries with it an aura of petulance and insensitivity. It is, moreover, a job that the atheist does not want.
Tom Flynn, the editor of Free Inquiry, has invited me to contribute four essays to this magazine over the course of the next year. This invitation comes after he wrote a mixed, misleading, and ultimately exasperating review of my book, The End of Faith, in these very pages. Having accepted his invitation, I now feel a mixture of emotions about which psychological science has precious little to say. In this first essay, I will resist the temptation to rise heroically to the defense of my own book—but I will fail.
President Bush has now endorsed the pseudo-scientific notion of “intelligent design” (ID) and declared it to be a legitimate alternative to the theory of evolution. This is not surprising, as he has always maintained that “the jury is still out” on the question of evolution. But the jury is not out—indeed it was well in before President Bush was even born—and anyone familiar with modern biology knows that ID is nothing more than a program of political and religious advocacy masquerading as science.
It is for this reason that the scientific community has been divided on just how (or whether) to dignify the spurious claims of ID “theorists” with a response. While understandable, I believe that such scruples are now misplaced. The Trojan Horse has passed the innermost gates of the city, and scary religious imbeciles are now spilling out.
PERHAPS it should come as no surprise that a mere wall of water, sweeping innocent multitudes from the beaches of 12 countries on Boxing Day, failed to raise global doubts about God’s existence. Still, one wonders just how vast and gratuitous a catastrophe would have to be to shake the world’s faith. The Holocaust did not do it. God’s ways are, indeed, inscrutable. It seems that any fact, no matter how infelicitous, can be rendered compatible with religious faith. In matters of faith, we have kicked ourselves loose of the earth. Given the degree to which religion still inspires human conflict, this is not the good news that many of us imagine it to be. One of the greatest challenges facing civilisation in the 21st century is for human beings to learn to speak about their deepest concerns—about ethics, spiritual experience, and human suffering—in ways that are not flagrantly irrational. Incompatible religious doctrines have Balkanised our world and these divisions have become a continuous source of bloodshed.
Twenty-two percent of Americans claim to be certain that Jesus will return to earth to judge the living and the dead sometime in the next fifty years. Another twenty-two percent believe that he is likely to do so. The problem that most interests me at this point, both scientifically and socially, is the problem of belief itself. What does it mean, at the level of the brain, to believe that a proposition is true? The difference between believing and disbelieving a statement—Your spouse is cheating on you; you’ve just won ten million dollars—is one of the most potent regulators of human behavior and emotion. The instant we accept a given representation of the world as true, it becomes the basis for further thought and action; rejected as false, it remains a string of words.
It appears that President Bush and the Republicans in the Senate have failed (for the moment) to bring the U.S. Constitution into greater conformity with Leviticus and the writings of St. Paul—which are, respectively, the sections of the Old and New Testaments that justify Christian concerns about gay marriage. Reading these documents, one discovers that the Creator of the universe does not approve of homosexuality. In fact, his instructions on the subject go far beyond a mere prohibition of gay marriage. According to God, homosexuals must be put to death. God himself says so in Leviticus (20:13), and St. Paul says it in Romans (1: 24-32). God also instructs us to murder people who work on the Sabbath, along with adulterers and children who curse their parents. Congress might also want to reconsider the 13th Amendment, because the biblical God clearly expects us to keep slaves. He merely admonishes us not to beat them too severely (Exodus 21). God’s wisdom on this subject can be distilled to a single precept: don’t injure their eyes or their teeth, because then you have to set them free.
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