What’s God got to do with it?

Q: What was the most important religion story of 2009? The important story for me was the omni-absence of a … Continued

Q: What was the most important religion story of 2009?

The important story for me was the omni-absence of a personal God in so many stories about religion. God may not exactly be dead, but perhaps he, she, or it should be denied health insurance because of a strongly suspected pre-existing condition of nonexistence.

The 2008 American Religious Identification Survey, released in March of 2009, showed that “Nones,” those who don’t belong to any particular religious group, is the fastest growing religious category in America. They are the only group to have grown in every state of the Union. Some are atheists, some are agnostics, some are spiritual, some believe in Karma or crystals, and some believe in a deity or deities. Most have simply rejected the religion in which they were raised. Generally, though, they are more accepting of those with different beliefs.

Atheist and agnostic “Nones,” emboldened by the release of the ARIS survey that showed unexpected growth of the non-religious, have become more vocal. And along with opportunities to increase the visibility of, and respect for, the viewpoints of secular Americans, there come the inevitable strategic and philosophical divisions. Here is my gross oversimplification of the two basic camps.

Group A: Atheists who don’t suffer fools gladly. They point out that religious belief should be treated as any other kind of belief, open to criticism, and that unquestioned faith is a vice with inherent dangers, not a virtue to be respected.

Group B: Atheists who prefer identifying as humanists, who would rather look for ways to make this world a better place than talk about gods in which they don’t believe. They try to find common bonds between theists and nontheists, and seek issues on which to cooperate. Their focus is on being good without God.

Group A’s take pride in being intellectually honest, while Group B’s take pride in helping a movement grow. Quite a few, myself included, have a foot or toe in both groups.

Many people distrust atheists because atheists don’t worry about rewards or punishments in an afterlife. The message that needs to get out is how many non-atheists live like atheists, for all practical purposes, without belief in a judging god involved in the workings of the world. This would include all deists, almost all Unitarians, and most liberal religionists of all stripes. I even think many politicians, not just the one acknowledged atheist, Rep. Pete Stark (D-Cal), would be willing to make known publicly that their actions and policies have nothing to do with belief in an afterlife. I expect this category of “functional atheists,” those who believe that their actions in this life have nothing to do with how or whether they are treated in an afterlife, is larger than just about any religious denomination.

This brings me back to non-God religion stories, which I’ll illustrate with two of this year’s movies. The first is the blockbuster, Avatar. Russ Douthat, in the New York Times, wrote about its pantheism, a faith that equates God with Nature, where trees have “spiritual energy” and a network of energy is the sum total of every living thing. Douthat claims that Hollywood regularly returns to such themes because most people can’t accept the literal-mindedness of monotheistic religions. It’s a movie for my Group B people, since the good guys on this alien planet are spiritual progressives who prefer to be engaged in cooperating and making love, not war.

For Group A people, a more interesting and less viewed movie is The Invention of Lying. It’s about a culture even more alien, one in which nobody can lie. There is not even a word for “lie” or for “truth.” You can guess what this does to politics, advertising, and dating. Then one person develops the ability to lie. In a world where every word is assumed to be the absolute truth, a liar can become a king or a god. With the best of intentions, our liar-hero (Mark) tries to comfort his dying mother by telling her that she will be going to a wonderful afterlife. Of course she and others believe him. Soon everyone in the world is begging for information about this afterlife. Every word Mark makes up is taken as, well, gospel. In the biggest lie of all, he tells the world there is a Man in the Sky who is responsible for everything, and they will be happy up there with him after death. When asked if the Man in the Sky is also responsible for cancer, Mark quickly has to grapple with theodicy, the question no monotheistic religion has been able to answer: Why is there evil in a world created by an all-powerful and benevolent god? Incidentally, I think the 10 rules for the world that Mark writes on Pizza Hut boxes compare favorably to the 10 Commandments.

This movie helped me to imagine a world without lies. The movie’s theme was that Man in the Sky religion is possible only in a world where it’s possible to lie. (This reminds me that if there were an international anthem for atheists, it would be John Lennon’s “Imagine”–no religion).

Atheists sometimes compare belief in the biblical God to belief in Santa Claus. One difference is that Santa is omniscient only in December and omnipotent only on Christmas Eve. In “Do as I say, not as I do” fashion, many parents this month explained to their children why lying is bad, and that “Santa will know if you’ve been bad or good.” Whatever parents teach their children about God or Santa, I hope it will include a message to be good for goodness’ sake, a message to live by in all seasons.

Herb Silverman
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  • fhay26

    A definition of the word “good” or “goodness” is needed in order to have a constructive discussion of what kind of behavior is desired. My definition: that which demonstrates and promotes the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for every person. All else is based on whether we believe this or not.

  • LAltman

    I have not seen “The Invention of Lying” but as Herb describes it, it’s a historical drama. That stuff actually happened long ago, and the movie just added modern clothing and changed the names.

  • pelicanwatchcb

    Adding my comment to what FHAY26 wrote, my definition of good comes straight from the New Testament: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” And you don’t have to be a Christian to accept that.

  • jonesm2

    I enjoyed reading Professor Silverman’s comments and I enjoyed the movie “Avatar” as well. I recall watching a play of “The King and I” when a pejorative comment was made by one of the British characters about the religious beliefs of the Persians. Everyone in the audience laughed as if their belief system (the Persian’s) was so ridiculous. In Avatar, there is a similar moment when the head of security mocks the “deity” of the Na’Vi people. However, in this movie the Na’Vi are the good guys, so it kind of stands the situation on its head. Is the director trying to mock the religion of the Earthlings? The pantheistic views of the Na’Vi are heralded as the truth in the movie with scientific evidence backing the interconnection of all living things on the planet Pandora. Just found this curious.

  • fhay18

    I applaude Herb for his intellectual honesty and his dedication to the secular movement. Our personal freedom is at stake when we remain silent.

  • TomMelchiorre

    Herb, your opening paragraph has to be one of the best I’ve read anywhere in a long time. It just goes to show that people from South Carolina can put their–dare I say–unique perspectives and personalities to positive use, not to mention outrageously funny in a good commentary and atheistic way. Thanks for a hearty laugh first thing this morning.Tom

  • dbrown11

    Now Herb’s gone and done it! He just summarized the essential difference between the “believe’s” moral code vs. that of secularists. Believers (or at least true believes) do good because of the promise of reward in an afterlife. Atheists, by contrast, do good “for goodness sake.”While it could be argued that the result ends up the same, namely that the world receives the benefit of good deeds by both the believer and the athiest alike, one wonders whose motivation is the better grounded. Let us recall that throughout history, many horrific acts were perpetuated against one’s fellow man, all in the name of what was considered “good” in the eyes of God. (Religious wars being one such example.)I feel safer with the secular moral code.