for 3 October 1996. Updated every THURSDAY.



Dog Spelled Backwards

"Either He doesn't exist, or, if He
does, He can't really be trusted." -
Woody Allen
Faced with an uppity atheist, most
True Believers blurt out a variation
on one question: "So why don't you
just marry your sister, abscond with
the pension fund, and pick all the
cashews out of the mixed nut bowl?"
As it happens, I don't have a sister.
But we Infidels don't begrudge the
Repressed their vicarious thrills,
and we're happy to oblige with
invented tales of kicking cats and
stealing waitresses' tips off the
lunch counter. It does keep us up
some nights, though, wondering who
will safeguard our pensions after
more people begin to doubt the
existence of the Speak Silently and
Carry a Big Lightning Bolt fella and
the theological fumes which fuel
that fake fireplace formerly known
as Hell begin to dwindle.
Heathens are accustomed to their
public reputation for depravity.
Still, it's time for nonbelievers
everywhere to shed our thick skins,
and for theists to grow a few extra
dermal layers; because the ringworm
has turned. As of now, Godlessness
is next to Cleanliness, which is
second only to Wireless
Admit it: No one believes in gods
anymore. They'll tell you they do,
but they don't - at least, not like
they used to. Take biblical scholar
Richard Elliot Friedman's word for
it: "One does not have to travel
very far on much of this planet to
find a bookstore, library, or
theater housing works that once
would have been considered
outrageous heresy." Consider the
thundering sermons of the Reverend
Dr. Charles Parkhurst, whose
seemingly banal invectives
("polluted harpies," "quivering
vitals") were considered
scandalously "intemperate
expletives" in the 1890s. Or
consider my grandfather, expelled
from college in the 1920s for
drawing a cartoon of his
overly-devout biology professor
demonstrating "a microscope with
which you can see God." Pretty tame
today, and by imagining Jenny
McCarthy transported to colonial
Salem, or Jewel serenading
Inquisition-era Madrid, you'll find
that Cardinal O'Connor starts to
resemble Bella Abzug.
So times have changed. Present-day
organized religion has devolved into
a carnival parade of Faith in which
noisy idolatry has replaced quiet
contemplation as the main float.
Their fervor is for territory and
clerics and the perverse
gratification of righteous grief.
Religion has thus relegated
preachers to mouthing the real
estate credo - "location, location,
Yet if God is omnisciently
Everywhere, why should he care for
one clod of dirt more than another?
Do these Referees-in-the-Sky really
privilege a pile of old bricks over
the lives of their players? And why
should fundamentalists on either
side weep over their dead, if they
believe that death by sacred
struggle merits an eternal reward?
Faith dies alongside fanaticism's
victims as all hope is abandoned to
antispiritual bloodshed,
clinic-picketing, or maybe just Pat
Robertson's 700 Club.
Let's draw some lines, organizing
Western belief systems into five
simple divisions, with no shortage
of fractions falling between each
integer: (1) True Believers, who
accept both church and at least one
god; (2) Spiritualists, who reject
organized religion but remain
deity-devoted; (3) Radical
Theologians, who aim to develop a
church's teachings despite the
absence of divine supervision; (4)
sissy Agnostics, loathe to burn
their last afterlife bridge; and (5)
Atheists, who confidently reject the
utility of religion or the
possibility of divinity. (Phew,
that's done.)
If, like The New York Times Magazine,
we can presume to predict the next
100 years: the 21st century will
divide its population into (1)s and
(5)s, fundamentalists and atheists.
Even Friedman (who circles the
religious scientists' wagons around
Ground Zero of the Big Bang) argues
that already "the disappearance of
God" hastened in the late 1800s by
Nietzsche and Dostoevsky "has been a
prevailing feeling for much of the
world in this century." Friedman
further observes that Faith has been
pulverized by the twin engines of
Science and Suffering: the vast
"increase in human control of our
environment" coupled with a "ghastly
abundance of catastrophes,"
especially genocides.
Others, paraphrasing that infamous
atheist Samuel Clemens, like to
imagine that reports of God's demise
are greatly exaggerated. (Walt Kelly
said it pithier: "God isn't Dead -
He is merely Unemployed.")
Moonlighting recently at Word, Feed
editor Stefanie Syman put less Trust
in her formidable Brain than Samsung
might have come to expect: "In the
age of irony (also known as Right
Now), believing in a God exerts a
seductive pull. Faith, and its
imperative to take something
seriously, without dissecting it,
feels almost transgressive." Remind
us to stop by the Reverend's Haus,
right after our nipple-piercing on
Sunday (also known as The Weekend),
to catch his next smokingly sincere
Alas - where can unironically lost
souls turn for moral guidance and
existential uplift? To atheism,
naturally. Freethinkers should come
back next week for a guide to
finding a moral basis in nonbelief,
along with snappy retorts to common
theist canards like Pascal's Wager,
the Argument from Design, and
"Hitler Was An Atheist!"

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