Which is it, asked German philosopher
Friedrich Nietzsche. Is man only a blunder of God, or God only a
blunder of man?
I vote for the latter.
Though I was brought up in a religious faith,
it was at a very young age—
that I realized I had no belief in
God and no amount of indoctrination was going to change that. This
sense of nonbelief has been so strong and abiding through my life that
I find it virtually impossible to understand the psyches of people who
believe in anything supernatural.
Just to be clear, it is not just God that I
can't fathom. I also reject the existence of Satan or any form of
afterlife beyond the redistribution of the body's matter. In my book,
there are no ghosts, golems, angels or spirits. I do not believe in
psychic power, astrology or predestination—
and forget about karma, kismet or
crystals. My view is that the soul does not exist outside a functioning
brain, nothing was meant to be, and things that seem inexplicable are
not miracles or paranormal experiences; they are simply not yet
I have never understood why the fallback
position to unanswerable questions about the universe is that an
all-powerful, all-knowing being intervened. To me, "We don't know yet"
is a fine response.
I don't expect to be applauded for these
views, since they are out of step with the majority of Americans, but
neither should I be despised for them. Yet, I will be. I can already
imagine the torrent of hate mail, with readers accusing me of all sorts
of vile human derangements just because I subscribe to reason and logic
to explain the world rather than faith.
As an atheist, I am a member of the last
minority group that is still subject to open and acceptable derision
The depths of this hostility were on display
at a Tampa City Council meeting recently, when three council members
walked out rather than be present when an atheist gave the invocation.
Kevin White, an African-American on the council, first tried to get the
invocation canceled. When that failed, he and the two Hispanic members
of the council left the room.
They showed a shocking lack of tolerance for
diversity and difference, considering they, too, are members of
historically excluded groups.
White went on to suggest that it was
demonstrably dangerous to hear an atheist speak. He said it could
unleash a snowball effect on government and compared it to engaging in
Huh? Does he mean that appealing to the
rational mind rather than a supreme being is so inherently persuasive
that it could catch on?
Well, it has. What White may not know is that
a far larger percentage of his constituency are already nonbelievers
than he suspects. A 2001 survey conducted by the Graduate Center of the
City University of New York found that more
29 million adult Americans say they identify with no religion. Of those
more than 6 million said they didn't believe in God. Compare that to
the number of adult Americans who say they are Jewish (2.8 million),
Muslim (1.1 million), Unitarian (600,000) or Buddhist (1.1 million).
If national statistics equate even in broad terms
to Tampa, then inviting Unitarian and Muslim speakers to give the
inspirational words to begin the council meeting represents the views
of many fewer residents than inviting atheists or agnostics to do so.
(Of course prayers don't belong at government functions regardless of
who is giving them, but that's another column.)
White doesn't know about the mainstreaming of
atheism because atheists don't tend to stand up for themselves. They
have been relegated to a closet that is darker and deeper than that in
which gays and lesbians find themselves. Certainly in the public
sphere, announcing one's atheism is the kiss of political death.
According to a 1999 Gallup Poll, half of Americans say they would
refuse to vote for an atheist candidate solely on that basis.
Today, there are still eight states that have
provisions in their state constitutions explicitly barring atheists
from holding political office. The Tennessee Constitution states: ''No
person who denies the being of God, or a future state of rewards and
punishments, shall hold any office in the civil department of this
These restrictions are no longer enforceable,
but the language remains on the books. No legislator is interested in
suggesting their removal.
America is a country steeped in religion and
as such I expect to be bombarded by it. I take no issue with the right
of religious people to proselytize, to erect houses of worship on every
corner or to broadcast their fervor on television and radio. All I ask
in return is a little consideration for the millions of us who don't
join in the ''good news.''
My faith is in mankind and the marvels
accomplished by human ingenuity and drive. Why that makes me a pariah
to White and others like him is beyond my ken. But it certainly says
more about them than me.
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