Useless Atheism

Marshall Brain, the guy behind the HowStuffWorks.com site and its attended media ancillaries, has decided to prove to everyone once and for all that God does not exist, therefore helping the lot of us to get rid of that nasty, distracting God and allowing us to focus on the really important stuff, like, I don’t know, rocket cars to the moon or a gum with flavor that’s actually long-lasting, and not just an extra thirty seconds of vaguely fruity tang at the tail end of your chewing experience. Thus: Why Does God Hate Amputees, which uses amputation as a central conceit to prove that God doesn’t exist, and that people are wasting their Sundays sitting in a pew.

Leaving aside the fact that a God who orders his followers to hack off part of their children’s genitals as a handy sign of religious identification clearly likes amputees just fine, here’s a tip for atheists: The problem is not that people believe God exists. The problem is that people want to use God as an excuse to do damn fool things. The two are entirely separate issues. Where atheists rather charmingly get things backward is by assuming that by getting rid of God, people will stop doing the damn fool things they say God wants them to do. As if they won’t find some other excuse.

Surprise! They will. Take, if you will, the 20th Century (please). What do Hitler’s killing 9 million Jews, Gypsies, gays and political opponents, Stalin’s starving of 25 million of the Soviet Union’s own citizens for political ends (and sending 1.5 million to the gulags), and Pol Pot’s presiding over the Cambodian autogenocide of up to 2 million people all have in common? If you say "Why, not a trace of a religious rationale on the part of those committing crimes against humanity, that’s what," you’d be entirely correct (note, however, that many of the victims were targeted wholly or in part because of their religion). The Rwandan genocide was not manifestly an issue of religion either, as the Tutsi and the Hutu largely share the same faith. Didn’t stop the Hutu from hacking up 800,000 Tutsi (and some inconveniently moderate Hutu as well) in the space of just 10 days.

Pound for pound, death for death, ruin for ruin, if you want to plot the destructiveness of secular and religious conflicts and movements in the last 100 years, I’m pretty sure you’ll find the religion-free ones have got the religiously-motivated ones beat, hands down. The reason should be obvious to an atheist: because God is not the one who wants people to do damn fool things; people want to do damn fool things, and they go looking for the excuse that will provide them what they need to do that damn fool thing. Sometimes, it’s "God wants this." Sometimes it’s not. Getting rid of God won’t stop people from doing damn fool things, it’ll just make them look for another way to get it done. Bullies and demagogues are notable for using whatever excuse is expedient and popular. God happens to be expedient and popular. It’s no surprise that He gets used. When He is no longer expedient or popular, the demagogues and bullies will move on to something else. The net amount of human-to-human atrocity and conflict will likely remain the same thereafter.

The same God that Fred Phelps allegedly worships is worshiped by the members of the Metropolitan Community Church; the same God whose more unsavory adventures in the Old Testament are used to justify abject hate is the same God worshiped by the Church of the Brethren; the same God that some say is leading us into battle against the heathens in the Middle East is the same one prayed to by the Quakers. Some people would see this as an example of how God can’t exist, since so many people believe so many contradictory things about the same entity. I tend to see it as a reflection of the desires people bring to the human need for spirituality and fellowship. God is many things; one of those things is a mirror.

Disposing of the God of the Quakers or the Brethren or the MCC– even if one could, which one cannot — is not something I see as either useful or desirable. These people do no harm in their worship, and their faith and their works in their faith have done immense good, as have the works in faith of many good people. The flip side of this is that we have to endure the God of Fred Phelps and the God of the Intelligent Designers as well. But this is where a useful atheist — which is to say, a person of good conscience — will spend his time combating those who are using their religion as an excuse to act to the detriment of society, rather than wasting his time in teleological debates that he can no more definitively conclude than can those who hold the opposite opinion.

As almost all of you know, I am an agnostic; I rather seriously doubt that God exists, or if He does, that She is actively concerned whether one eats shrimp or has sex with a member of one’s own sex, or chooses sides in a football game like a celestial bookie. I even doubt It hopes we all love another as we would love ourselves, thought it’s a nice thought. I rather profoundly doubt that anyone else knows whether God does these things either. But I could be wrong, which is why I say I’m agnostic rather than atheist. I don’t know. It does me no harm if other people believe other than I; what matters is what people do with that belief. If they use it to enrich their lives and to do good for others, than agnostic though I am, I will happily celebrate their faith and believe that their belief is an excellent thing. If they use it to justify their hates and fears and to make others wallow in their self-satisfied ignorance of the world, well, naturally, I’m going to have a problem with that.

Marshall Brain thinks he’s on to something by aiming to disprove the existence of God; what he’s doing is akin to looking at the smoldering remains of a house brought down by shoddy wiring and suggesting the solution to the problem is to expunge electricity from the land. You can make the argument that electricity is the problem, I suppose; rather more useful is to suggest the problem is an idiot electrician. Even more useful is to do what you can to make sure that particular idiot electrician doesn’t get any more work.

Look and Feel Update

Okay, I’ve made a couple of tweaks to the layout of the Whatever from the last time I noted the tweaking. The new tweaks include:

* Making the photo strip repeat vertically so it doesn’t end abruptly;

* Making the sidebar blue so the black background is not so contrasty (the black background has also been upgraded; now it’s a very very very very dark blue), and making the main text area a solid light blue color.

* Changing the typeface of the main text to sans serif. Depending on which fonts you have, you’ll now see the main text as Optima or Myriad Web (if you have neither, it’ll default to the former fonts and you won’t notice a difference). I’ve also tweaked the leading for the text to make it slightly more dense. I’ve also changed the headline font in Windows; on Mac it should stay the same.

Hopefully all of this will make the Whatever even more readable for you, the discerning consumer.  

Update: 3am — What do you know: turns out you don’t need to have the main content pane a set width. You can make it a percentage instead. And so I have: The main content pane is now 65% of the width of the page, with the text window being 75% of that and the sidebar being 25%. For folks at 1024×786, this means everything fits pretty much exactly as it should. With smaller windows things will start to look scrunched (particularly pictures) but the text collapses so it can remain readable. Larger resolutions, of course, will have no problems whatsoever (except that if you have your browser superwide, the text window will get a little wide for reading).

Let me know how that works for you.  

Swing Swing Swing

There are probably things in the world more fun than a tire swing on an autumn weekend. Not many, though.