Donald R. Burleson, Ph.D.

Contributing editor, The American Rationalist

Copyright (c) 2007, 2015 by Donald R. Burleson. This essay may be reproduced

provided original authorship is expressly acknowledged.



"A man without a religion

is like a fish without a bicycle."

VIQUE’S LAW (variously attributed)


Imagine that you are a young farm girl living in fifteenth-century Spain, and that

you have the misfortune (it’s a misfortune considering the mentality of the times)

of being present at a time when the crops in your area have failed. Sadly, several of

your more pious neighbors (a surly, humorless lot) have seen you near the fields,

on several occasions, moving your lips as if muttering to some unseen listener.

It is beyond the intelligence of your observers to imagine that you might actually

have been praying for the crops to thrive; for that matter, your lip movements might

have been due to a nervous twitch. In any case, the crops do fail in the end.

Before long, the Inquisition authorities, a somber, berobed gang of bullies, have you

in hand, charging you with invoking ‘the Devil’ to ruin your neighbors’ crops.

They torture you for several days, stretching you on the rack, tearing your arms from

their sockets, gouging your eyes out, and ripping your flesh from your body with

red-hot pincers, until at length you confess (who wouldn’t?) to being a ‘witch,’

naming several other people in the vicinity, young and old, as fellow servants of ‘Satan’

(whoever that may be). These other people will likewise be arrested, but your

immediate circumstance is that the day after your confession, you are burned alive

at the stake on the public square, while a drooling crowd watches and cheers,

all delighted to see that the ‘will of God’ has been done and that the holy name

of Jesus Christ, the prince of peace and love, has been exalted once more. The most

heinous crime of your life, in truth, has been leaving the front step not quite clean

when you swept it for your mother. But you have died in unspeakable agony, because

a dreadful, mindless, merciless force is in place—the force of organized religion.

The outrages of the Spanish Inquisition, fueled by delusional beliefs that should not

command the interest of an intelligent six-year old child, will continue for centuries.

Countless tens of thousands of people will die hideously for no reason at all.

In time, this rampant oppressive power, the Christian religion, gets tamed by the

civilizing influence of secular social philosophy. The Church will be largely separated

from the power of the sociopolitical state, and although religious forces will still

exert influence to promote censorship and similar forms of mind control, at least the

sky will no longer reek with the stench of burning flesh in the name of ‘God.’ But

no thanks, for this improvement in the world, to the pious; they would have kept

right on torturing and murdering the innocent, had they been allowed to do so.

Alas, though, equally deranged systems of outwardly pious but really power-motivated

lunacy will arise to plague humankind. Now imagine, not that you are a

fifteenth-century farm girl, but rather a twenty-first-century American engineer

who has had the poor judgment to take a job working in an Islamic country at

a time when fundamentalist hooligans are running amok. One day you find

yourself the prisoner of a gang of masked, gun-wielding barbarians—people too

cowardly even to show their faces, people unable to bear the gaze of sane and

decent and honest people, who intone sonorous passages not from the Bible

this time but from an even more dangerous and more evil book called the Koran.

One of your captors finally takes a long dull-bladed knife and slowly saws

your head off, while you first scream and then only gurgle as the blade inches

excruciatingly through your larynx. All the while, the cameras are rolling and

the subhuman cretin who wields the knife is crooning, "Allah is great."

We have come a long way in all these centuries, haven’t we? Now, when we

humans (if the term applies) murder our fellow beings to fulfil the ‘will of God,’

we make motion pictures of it all and post them on the Internet.

The deadly scenario, of course, is an obvious one. We are all in trouble

when a religion is in power. Christianity as a theocratic governing force may

(thank God, one is almost tempted to say) be a thing of the past for most of the

world, but Islam is not. And we are all in trouble when any religion holds absolute

power, because that power is said (without any basis, but then that scarcely matters,

does it?) to be divinely given; the power to rule supposedly comes from ‘God’

or from ‘Allah,’ whatever in the world that means.

The fact is that all these religious terms mean nothing at all that anyone can

pin down with any authority, clarity, or intellectual honesty. Throughout history

people have died by the millions because of ‘God,’ yet no one can even agree

on what, if anything, that term is supposed to denote.

One may try to define ‘God’ as ‘the creator of the universe,’ but it is far from

clear that the universe was ‘created.’ How do we know that it wasn’t simply

always here? (That indeed is the more natural hypothesis.) Even if one were to

grant that the universe might in some sense have been ‘created’ and that there

was a ‘creator’ or creative agent, some perhaps even conscious sort of

primordial shudder that started things off and let them evolve, this is scarcely

connectable with the simplistic, even debased images of ‘divinity’ presented with

such pomp in the Bible and in the Koran. (Hindu texts are rather more

palatably ethereal in this regard, and at least they make good poetry.)

Whatever ‘ultimate primordial truth’ there may be, one may rest assured that

organized religion knows nothing about the matter at all. Nothing. Its adherents

claim to know everything, but in truth they know nothing.

It constantly amazes me, in fact, how little most conventionally religious

people reflect on the fact that the details of their belief systems actually stem

from amalgamations of earlier bodies of myth. Has no fundamentalist Christian,

for example, ever realized that the Mary-and-Jesus story is actually a

rather transparent variation on the Oedipus myth? It’s simple: God impregnated

Mary (well, let’s say ‘married’ her, to try to maintain some level of cosmic

respectability), and Mary, as the churches continually remind us, turned out to

be the ‘mother of God,’ so one can only conclude, syllogistically, that God

married his own mother. Don’t religious people ever think about these things?

Perhaps it’s simply too painful for them to, since to reflect on such matters would

make it abundantly clear that the God of scripture is a highly reprehensible

literary character after whom we might not want to pattern our own morals.

The God of the Bible, a cosmic trickster apparently more concerned with

inflicting open running sores upon poor Job than attending to such things as

regulating the laws of quantum electrodynamics, could no more have

created the Milky Way Galaxy, could no more for that matter have created

the littlest midge that ever lived and crawled, than a writer of shabby

advertising jingles could have written the poetry of William Butler Yeats.

Whether there is any creative force operative in the universe or not

(and I am convinced that one may account quite well for the complexity

of the living world with no need to resort to a ‘creative intelligence’

hypothesis) the ‘gods’ of so-called sacred texts are fictitious constructions,

and it’s a pity one can’t just think of them in metaphorical terms, rather

than having to ‘believe in’ them with such owlish seriousness as the

world’s religions demand. No one has ever seen the Biblical God, and

no one has ever seen Allah, any more than anyone has ever seen Thor or

Zeus or Ra. (If someone tells me he has seen Osiris, and I don’t believe

him, why should I believe you when you say you have ‘seen God’?)

At least the Greek gods were entertaining, but when monotheism came

into being—and this was quite arguably the true fall of man—the gods

stopped being funny and became cosmic excuses for all the base and cruel

and detestable behavior lying ready in the slimy depths of the human mind.

The older I get, the more I find myself wondering whether a belief in a

personal God is even consistent with a personal sense of decency. The

trouble with the delusional notion of 'God' is that he becomes an excuse for

any loathsome abuse humans may decide to heap upon each other.

Think about it. No one is willing to say, "I am an abominable, heartless,

soulless, mindless, despicable, monstrous excuse for a human being, and

I am about to saw a man’s head off." But some people are quite willing to

say, "I am about to saw a man’s head off because I will be carrying out

the will of God."

If you are a monster at heart, all you have to do to legitimize yourself

is to invent a ‘god’ who is as loathsome a monster as you.

But if you are instinctively a decent, moral person, that is if you were

born with a conscience, you will most assuredly want nothing to do with

such a ‘god.’ Your innate sense of ethics taught to you by secular social

philosophy and common sense rather than by religious texts, will make the

notion of a sky-dwelling Chief Inspector of Moles repugnant to you.

A god who really would tell his followers to saw people’s heads off is

nothing but a maggot in the sky, an obscene fable representing the sickest,

most twisted, most revolting perversity of the human mind at its worst.

People who are not monsters themselves have no need to populate the heavens

with such cosmic monstrosities.

Religious people will say, "But my God is good." And I still say: no one has

ever seen him, good or bad, except in the imagination, and if he is going to be

the justification for cruelty and slaughter, as he has been throughout history, then

his apologists have the obligation to march him up here front-and-center

right now for us to see and hear. But let’s face it—the anthropomorphic

notion of God, by whatever name, is obviously only a projection of human

wishes, a projection of the human personality with all its flaws, upon the

universe. All the ‘revealed’ religious texts said to be (generally with

mind-numbing exclusivity) the ‘word of God’ are of course simply the

writings of men. Anyone can write a book that says "This book was inspired

by God." Countless people have died horrible deaths because of such books.

These books may contain passages of genuine inspiration, but so do

thousands of secular books over which no blood has ever been spilled. The

tragedy is that religionists expect the rest of us to take their texts

with such deadly seriousness, even when those texts wax absurd,

which they so often do.

In balance it seems fair to say that religion, despite its occasionally

charitable appearance, has done much more harm in the world than

good. It has obstructed knowledge and progress; it has often been the

source of genuine evil on a scale unimaginable from any other source.

(Nothing but religious fanaticism, the blind faith of halfwits, could motivate

anyone’s flying airplanes into skyscrapers and killing thousands of

good and innocent people.) In particular, women have been treated in

unspeakably savage fashion, throughout the history of humankind,

directly and undeniably because of religion. Unhappily, this is more or

less to be expected, since the inventors of the monotheistic God,

suppressing and nullifying the feminine side of existence, have fashioned

God as a male figure for their own purposes of wielding power over

others. (Born-again Christian types usually find such notions as

‘mother Earth’ repugnant, because it doesn’t mesh with their schemes

of maintaining male-centered power.) Religion has always been

primarily about such wieldings of power, one group over another, at least

in such authoritarian social systems as Judeo-Christian and Islamic

cultures. Islam in particular is a totalitarian-theocratic system that cares

nothing for individual freedom and certainly less than nothing for the

freedom of its women. But make no mistake—if Christianity as an

authority system were ever returned to the full sociopolitical power it

once held, centuries of progress in the area of human rights would vanish,

and we would have the Inquisition back again. This is the way religion

in a position of unchallenged power always works. Many Islamic

countries, for example, are stuck at the seventh century or so, in terms

of mental development, because of their slavish devotion to preposterous

religious beliefs, and the same could certainly happen anew in Western

countries if religious influences ever regained the all-encompassing

foothold they once unfortunately held.

Let us not forget that Adolf Hitler was raised a devout Christian who

fervently believed (and said as much, in Mein Kampf and elsewhere)

that he was doing ‘the will of God.’ This is an excellent object lesson

to the effect that generally when someone says "I’m doing the will of God,"

this means "I’m doing what I bloody well want to do, and don’t you dare

challenge me, because to challenge my actions is to blaspheme against God."

Incalculable evil has been perpetuated and justified in this way over the ages.

Religious people will protest, "But religion does good, too, and how can

you atheists have any sense of goodness if you don’t believe?"

Well, this question, though gravely insulting to the intelligence of a

freethinker, is a complex one, even aside from the question of the social

record of religion, with which I am fairly unimpressed. The simple answer

is that a person of strong character doesn’t need cosmic fairy tales to

behave well toward others. Indeed there is more to be said, it seems to me,

for someone who upholds moral and ethical standards for their own sake

than for someone who behaves himself only because he thinks that if he

doesn’t, the big Guy in the sky with the G on his sweatshirt is going to

wallop him with a club. But the question deserves more scrutiny than that.

Religious people will ask unbelievers, "You say you’re an atheist, but

don’t you sense, deep down inside, that there must be something...?"

Here things begin to get interesting, and we need to draw some

important distinctions, for purposes of clear discussion.

In particular it may be useful to draw a distinction between religion

on the one hand and spirituality on the other.

(And no, have no fear that I'm about to go "covertly religious" on you--

you're reading the reflections of a sincere and dedicated atheist.)

First of all, to nitpick a little about the language involved, let us

observe that the expression ‘organized religion’ is a redundant construction,

because all religion is organized. The very word religion comes to

us from the Latin ligare, ‘to bind." Religion is quite literally a

re-binding, a binding of the believer to the social system that collectively

demands belief. Spirit(uality) on the other hand derives from the

Latin spirare, "to breathe," and since one etymology bespeaks

bondage while the other bespeaks the personal openness and freedom of

breath itself, we may do well to preserve the distinction.

Sadly the term "spiritual" has supernatural or theological connotations

for most people, but if one takes the term to suggest simply a sense of

responsibility, connectedness to one's world, and ethical behavior,

then even an atheist can be "spiritual"-- indeed I should probably say

especially an atheist can be.

As one who wants nothing to do with ‘organized religion’ in any form

whatever, I nevertheless find little or nothing to object to when someone

says to me, "But I do feel, deep down inside, that there is some—well,

something—some ultimate cosmic principle, maybe, some deepest

Secret of Being that underlies reality." The universe is a vast and

mysterious place whose existence, at all, is amazing, and such feelings are

natural enough. Who knows what, if anything, these ineffable feelings

really mean? Unlike the religionists, in any case, one must strenuously

resist the temptation to codify these mystical impressions into a ‘system’ and

attempt to exert power over others by expecting them to share ‘faith’ in

that system, thus validating, as it were, the unique correctness of one’s own view.

It is particularly essential not to take these unfathomable feelings as an excuse

to think that there is such a creature as 'God' behind them, letting oneself

fall prey to delusion. Sadly, most of the world's religions not only insist

on the reality of this fictive construct but insist that

their own 'spin' on it is, in each case, uniquely enlightened.

It is characteristic of such religions as Christianity and Islam that

their believers generally regard their own point of view as the only correct

one, and regard those not sharing it as evil, or at least misguided.

The problem is that when a conventionally religious person asks the

person with the mystical feelings (the person feeling, for example,

a sense of connectedness to the cosmos, but having no patience with such foolish

collective notions as gods and demons), "Well, then, you do believe in God,

don’t you," then if the latter pauses even a second before saying no, this reaction,

in the strictured mind of the religious questioner, is perversely misunderstood.

The Christian questioner will then say, "Then you must also believe that

the Bible is the literal word of God and that Jesus died for your sins," making

an illogical leap over countless intervening questions of authenticity that do

not even get asked. (Or if the questioner is a Moslem, he will say, "Then you

must believe that the Koran is the inspired word of Allah, who calls for

violent death to all unbelievers.") The person with the ineffable mystical feelings,

when asked whether he believes in God, in order to leave a correct impression

in the mind of the questioner, must firmly and unhesitatingly say no,

because such questioners always have preconceived notions of ‘divinity’ and what-not

in terms of which to insist on interpreting responses.

(I once actually had someone say to me: "Everybody believes in God.

You really do too, you just don't know it."

I find such remarks almost unbearably arrogant and offensive.)

In the end, all notions of 'God' are spurious, harmful, potentially dangerous,

and frankly unworthy of the human spirit.

In truth, even if one does entertain the feeling—almost, let us say, after

the fashion of the Taoist or the Zen Buddhist—that at one’s quietest moments

one is close to being in touch with some ‘ultimate something,’ this feeling

has nothing whatever to do with the unfounded claims of the various organized

religions, belief systems for which there is no authenticating evidence at all.

The trouble with human beings has always been the common tendency to

feel that ‘deep down inside there must be something primal’ all too readily

leads people to translate those feelings into organized, structured,

communalizable belief systems, contentious, blind-faith systems laden with

all sorts of extra (and insupportable) mythological baggage, and to

expect others to share those beliefs. That is to say, the tendency is to

pass from a personal to a sociological phenomenon, from spirituality to

religion. Spirituality, as such, cannot be shared, while by definition

religion, as a social power system, must be shared.

The convolutive nature of this defining social aspect of religion

is as remarkable as it is appalling and ultimately dangerous, in American society at least.

We all expect to be expected by everyone else to be religious.

How many more people would openly proclaim themselves to be atheists

if they didn't fear censure from their families, friends,

neighbors, co-workers, associates, and employers--

many of whom would probably proclaim themselves atheists too if they dared!

It's precisely the same thing, this religious peer-pressure, as the classic story

"The Emperor's New Clothes," where the emperor rides naked in a parade

but nobody dares mention the fact until one candid child speaks up

to say that the emperor is, in fact, stark naked. Likewise, in a given group

of people, many of whom probably do not really believe in God,

years can pass without anyone's getting up the nerve to say,

"Well, you know what? I don't believe there is a God." A lot of the others

probably don't believe so either, but they're afraid to say it,

for fear of what their friends will think of them.

Such is the extent to which innocent ruminations about the cosmos

have grown to be codified into socially imposed belief-systems

that very few people dare to oppose openly and out loud.

Alas, it is all too short a journey from ‘I feel something deep inside’

to ‘There is a cosmic Something that I can ask to make the crops grow’

to ‘There is a God whose will we know, and in whom you too ought to

believe,’ to ‘God wrote this book, all of which you must believe as the

inspired Word,’ to ‘Believe all this or we’ll kill you.’

The Taoists and Zen Buddhists feel that one may experience a kind of

deep, wordless ‘enlightenment’ upon hearing, say, the clack of a gourd.

They draw no further conclusions. One could wish that everyone else would

just leave it at that and resist drawing conclusions too, when, in the wee hours,

the mystery of being comes to call.

If we are expected to share anyone’s more metaphysically developed

religious beliefs, then we should demand to see evidence that those

beliefs are true. But there is, and can be, no such evidence.

By and large, we are all indoctrinated in the faith of the place where we

happen to be born—in my case, amid the Bible-thumping Christian

fundamentalism of West Texas. Even as a small child, however, I could

not accept the religious tenets that were urged upon me, and I used to wonder

what was wrong with me, when the other children seemed comfortable

accepting all these things without question. It was many years before I

fully understood that it’s all right to be a religious skeptic. It was many more

years before I had the courage and the conviction to call myself an atheist.

Christian fundamentalists have always said (generally with an irritating smugness,

as if the remark really settled things): "There are no atheists in foxholes."

First of all, the statement is of course not altogether true. Let us concede, for the

sake of argument, that there are few atheists in foxholes, just as there are

(given the near-universality of religious indoctrination in childhood) relatively few

atheists walking around off the battlefield. What does this imply? Only that people

on battlefields are usually scared, and understandably so! It implies nothing at all

about the truth or falsehood of the belief system of the speaker. Indeed, a person

scared into praying that the next bullet isn’t for him, one might say, has been a

victim of emotional blackmail, where religious belief is concerned.

Much the same is true in situations of personal loss, or threatened loss—the fear

that one will lose a loved one who lies perhaps near death on a hospital bed,

let us say. It is a fortunate person indeed who has not known such fear, such

profound distress. One’s religious acquaintances say, "We will pray for your

loved one. Won’t you pray with us?" Even to the non-religious person, this sort

of thing touches the deepest, most primal chords in the human heart, for who would

not desperately desire the life and wellness and happiness of those one loves?

But as in the matter of atheists in foxholes, if wishing deeply and achingly for the

wellbeing of a loved one implies authenticating some particular group’s detailed

system of religious beliefs, then one is undergoing emotional blackmail, however

(perhaps) unintended. The wish that one might appeal to some agency of hope on

behalf of those one loves does not in any way verify the truth of anyone’s religion.

If those endangered loved ones are spared, one is filled with gladness and gratitude,

but what about those who are not spared? The religious-minded will say, "The ways

of the Lord are strange." This is perhaps as close as many such people will ever

come to uttering a metaphysical truth, at least if we are free to understand

the remark so broadly as to take it mean something like "Whatever the ultimate

truths or essences of the universe may be, it is inconceivable that anyone might

ever really know anything about them." When one church group or another claims

to know something they call the ‘will of God,’ i.e. claims to know the ultimate

(hypothetical) truths of existence, the spectacle of their claiming to know such things

would be hilarious if it were not so pitiable on the one hand and so very gratingly

annoying on the other. One wishes that such groups would truly learn the

humility of which they so often and so loudly speak.

Religious people have said to me, "You have a lot to be thankful for. You have

enjoyed good health, you have a good mind, you have lived a happy and

productive life, you have wonderful children and a wife who genuinely and deeply

loves you, you have many friends, you have a happy home and a reasonable

supply of material comforts. So aren’t you thankful for all these things?"

Well, yes, of course I am. Truly. But of course the religionist will then say,

"Thankful to whom?" And here we run into subtle difficulties whose resolution

generally seems to be almost inaccessible to the fundamentalist religious mindset.

The not-so-simple fact to grasp is that it is an illusion of language

to suppose that in order to feel grateful, one must feel grateful to someone

or something. In particular, it is specious for the religious-minded to

conclude, "If you’re thankful, you must be thankful to God as I conceive of

him, and this authenticates everything we believe about God."

Not so. One can simply feel thankful, humbled by the reality of how much

better off one is than one might have been, and one can legitimately feel this way

without the foundationless trappings of anyone’s religion, just as one may be

generous, philanthropic, caring, and thoughtful simply because a science of ethics would

find these properties obviously desirable, well suited to conduce to human happiness,

without anyone’s insisting that these qualities can only exist in the context of some

socially vested belief system based on religious precepts. Marx said that religion

is the opiate of the people, and unfortunately he was right; yet it is a sad commentary

on human nature that so many people seem to need (or think they need, because

they were so taught in childhood, prior to the development of their own

critical thinking skills) the mythological backdrops and dubious ministrations of

religion to keep them in line. One wonders whether a secular view cannot readily

encompass the ethics of the Golden Rule, and indeed one strongly suspects that it can.

What would be wrong with following, say, philosopher Immanuel Kant’s notion of the

‘categorical imperative,’ the idea that one should only act upon principles that

one wishes everyone acted upon? Following this notion, which of course has no

religious taint whatever, I would not choose to be totally selfish, because I could

only do so if I wished that everyone were totally selfish, which would make them

uncongenial to my own interests. Obviously this is somewhat similar to the

Golden Rule, though rather more complex in concept.

And speaking of the Golden Rule (treat others as you would like to be treated),

it is ironic that versions of it exist in all the major religions, which in itself proves

that such moral principles thrive independently of any particular belief system.

It is clear, to any human mind not overly burdened with the delimitations of

religious dogma anyway, that it requires no belief in anyone’s personal anthropomorphic

‘gods’ to see that more people are going to be happy if we all refrain from robbing

and maiming and killing each other than if we do rob and maim and kill each other.

Conversely, it is undeniable historical fact that the more such god-centered

belief systems gain social and political power, the more savage and immoral

they become, to the extent that such principles as the Golden Rule cease,

in these situations, to have meaning. They certainly had no meaning to the

Christian Inquisitors, and they just as certainly have no meaning to the

islamo-fascist terror-mongers who slaughter innocent people in the name of

their non-existent god.

Who needs the fraudulent claims of ‘divine inspiration’ so often foisted upon

us, as if these things were incontrovertible fact? One can find more inspiration,

more guidance, reading Shakespeare than reading any ‘sacred’ text ever written,

yet no one requires ‘belief in Shakespeare’ as a condition for social acceptance

or as a condition for being allowed to continue to live. Yet it is for just such

demands of unswerving belief that people are treated with brutality when

a religion, any religion, is in power. History absolutely proves this.

Humankind, if the world is to survive in a form that decent and honest-minded

people would find acceptable, must outgrow these religious systems once

and for all, must cast off the dead hand of religious exclusivity and learn

to look at the world, the universe of stars, not the way the self-serving

religious power-brokers would describe it, but the way it really is—a universe

full of intriguing and mysterious questions to which no one (certainly no

blathering and ignorant religious group) has all the answers, or ever will.


"This would be the best of all possible worlds,

if there were no religion in it."

--John Adams, second President of the United States