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It has to be said: Religion is a dangerous thing

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THE EMPTY BOX (Let me start with my own disclaimer: The following views are mine and mine alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Memphis Flyer or anyone else associated with The Memphis Flyer: E.W.) Religion is the root of much evil. It has to be said. Here is what I believe: There is no god, there is no messiah, there are no prophets plugged in to some divine will. There are no saints or holy men. If there is a heaven or a hell or any other kind of afterlife, we can’t know anything about it while we’re in this life, so it’s useless to speculate and foolish to believe. Faith is an empty box. To believe in Christ is to believe in a rabbit’s foot. To believe in the Buddha is to believe that pro wrestling is real. To believe in Mohammed is to believe that the groundhog can predict spring. To believe that the Ten Commandments came from some god on a mountaintop is to believe that television psychics can talk to your dead grandmother. Allah, Jehovah and the Trinity are elves and Tinkerbells. They are no more than desperate hope given a name and anthropomorphic shape by the imaginations of frightened men. It has to be said. Religion is superstition. It is mankind crossing its fingers. Its sole functions are 1) to comfort and console those who cannot bear the suffering and death that are ultimately the lot of every human being, and 2) to offer meaning in a world where meaning can never be established. Religion, in other words, is a fortress of lies built to keep out the terrors of existence and nonexistence. For those in power, it is useful in still another way: Since time immemorial, the powerful have used religion to distract the oppressed, to encourage them to focus on the next world so that they will acquiesce to the injustices of this world. If you would have your slaves remain docile, teach them hymns. This is not saying anything new, but it has to be said again. On balance, religion has made the world a worse place. It has generated magnificent art and wonderful music and spectacular architecture, and millions of people have, over the centuries, done good and beautiful things in its name, but on balance it has not been good for the world. Those millions of good people would have done just as much good without it. Mother Teresa would have been saintly without the New Testament. Martin Luther King would have been a paragon of eloquent courage without having been baptized. Gandhi would have overturned an empire leaning only on his walking stick. Virtue would exist without Christianity or Judaism or Islam or Hinduism, which, in their vanity and vaporishness, are no different from the Roman’s belief in household gods or the Druid’s belief in tree spirits. A magic act is a magic act, whatever robes we clothe it in. But because of religions like these, the world has experienced centuries and centuries of backwardness and unnecessary suffering. Throats have been slit in their name, hearts exploded, the best minds distracted or destroyed, sweet people tortured, millions of children sent horribly to oblivion. It has to be said. Today is a good day to say it. Perhaps the worst of religion’s dangerous superstitions is the notion of the “holy” place. The idea that this patch of earth or that building or that city or nation is somehow sanctified by some god has left us with the bombs and guns and bodies of Kashmir and Belfast, of Baghdad and Jerusalem. “Next year in Jerusalem.” Oh, the lives such words have cost! Why not “Next year in Memphis” or “Next year in Singapore” or “Next year on the banks of the Platte”? What is land but land? What is a building but a building? Today is a good day to say it because we have a praying president convinced that he is plugged in to the will of God, and his conviction is leading the United States to holy war, first in Iraq and later . . . wherever his prayers might take us. The Muslim world is right: George W. Bush is on a Crusade. He believes that God is on his side, just as Osama bin Laden believes that God is on his side, and the PLO thinks God is on their side, and the Irish Republican Army is certain God is on their side. The list of those who have made war in the name of their god is too long even to start here. Today is a good day to say it because Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is convinced, as he said last week, that the United States is a country with God’s special blessing, and Attorney General John Ashcroft thinks his views on abortion and the Bill of Rights come straight from the mind of his right-wing Christian god. Our leaders say they want to make the world safe for secular democracy. I wish they meant it. But I’m afraid that what they really mean is that they want to make a world receptive to their Western god. There are wars enough when what is “holy” is not part of the picture. Communism and fascism and capitalism would have had their wars even with all gods standing on the sidelines. There are land wars and economic wars and grudge wars and wars for no reason that anyone can understand at all. But religious wars are the most tragic, because they are built so deeply on a deluded sense of righteousness. Have nonbelievers started wars? Of course. They have started wars for land or politics or pure villainy. But I don’t know of a single nonbeliever who has killed simply to make others stop believing. (Stalin, you would say? No, he killed for power.) On the other hand, the world has thousands, millions, who will kill, and have killed, in order to make someone else believe as they believe. You won’t read this in The New York Times, but it has to be said: Religion does more harm than good. I wish George W. Bush and his handlers would stop talking to, or about, their god. I wish the Near and Middle East would suddenly be flooded by a sea of atheism. I wish Northern Ireland would overnight experience mass religious amnesia. How much more at peace the world would be. A man truly awake does not need religion. He doesn’t need gods. He doesn’t need miracles. He doesn’t need holy lands here below or celestial heavens up above. For him, life in this universe is itself holy, as is every patch of ground and every path he walks. Life itself is enough of a miracle. To believe in a god who made this life is to believe in a miracle even greater than this miracle. Who needs more than one unfathomable miracle? Existence is a fluke, a freak, a wonder, a dream, a bizarre uncanny thing. Our own consciousness of this existence is so incredible a phenomenon that I don’t understand why anyone feels the need to believe in anything else more “spiritual.” It’s all spiritual. It’s all true magic. Why add imagined magic to explain the magic that is right before us? Religion is dangerous. It needs to be said, and no one is saying it, except on the nonbelievers’ web sites and in their magazines, where they speak only to each other. Our politicians won’t say it. Our commentators won’t say it. The power of self-censorship in this God-fearing country is too strong, freedom of speech be damned. I can say it here only because this audience is so small, and I have little to risk. (Will fifty of you read this? Will 500? I have no business you can boycott. I have no office you can vote me out of. All I can lose is my job.) Nearly all my friends are believers. Nearly all of those I love are believers. Most of them are generous and kind, and their religion gives them hope and comfort and pleasant society. Last night, I went to a Passover seder at the home of Jewish friends. They are wonderful people. It was a lovely evening. My own widowed mother has been sustained since my father’s death by the amazing kindness of the women in her church. Yes, I have seen many good works born in synagogues and church pews. But the nonbelievers I know are just as kind, just as loving, just as hopeful, and they have given just as much comfort to those in need. And I too hope. I hope, for example, that I will see my dead father and my dead friends in some next life, and that we will all be free from worry and pain forever. But it’s just hope, and it’s awake and open-eyed. It’s not faith, which is sleepy and blind. I don’t depend on my hope, and I wouldn’t base my living actions on it. It’s a hope that does not grow out of dogma, and I would never try to impose my hope on someone else. Pure hope never yet has led to war. The same cannot be said of dogma. If I were to found a religion, I would call it “The Church of the Hopeful Few.” Hope would be its only doctrine, and I think it would be a peaceful church. I know it does little good to tell believers that they should stop believing. I don’t really care if they believe, as long as they remain in their closets when they pray, and leave their gods there when they emerge. Their self-delusion saddens me a bit, but it is usually harmless. When it does harm is when it drives them against the self-delusion of those who believe otherwise. Then is the time of enmity and war. If our leaders must believe, then, let them believe. But let them remember that the White House is not a cathedral, and that the capitol building is a place of men, not gods.

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