Wednesday, September 5, 2007


One day, when I got back to the parking lot at the end of the work day, I found an "atheist pamphlet" stuck in my car door. (Yes, such things do exist. I suspect the Baptist gathering at the convention center a few blocks away had something to do with the pamphleteering.) The tract made a convincing argument: "There is no god and only feeble-minded people with deep psychological flaws are foolish enough to believe in one." It urged me to "take off the straight jacket of organized religion and become a free thinker!"

The pamphlet got me thinking. It occurred to me that the ancient Greeks weren't really so wrong by asserting that "Zeus" is a god, nor are the Muslims actually wrong in their claim that "Allah" is god, nor are Christians wrong in saying "Jesus" is God. The error isn't in the name one assigns the Supreme Being, but in the reality of that Being. It isn't wrong to declare Zeus "god" simply because you've assigned him the name "Zeus"; it's wrong because the person you call Zeus doesn't really exist. There is no temple on Mount Olympus filled with superhuman creatures. But in some wildly foreign language "Zeus" might just be the name of a "real god". The error lies not in the name ("Zeus" or "Allah" or "Jehovah" or “Jesus” ...) but in your definition of "god". The question isn't so much whether there's a supreme being, but whether the actual supreme being is anything like the "gods" described by these religions.

Well, that little pamphlet stuck in my car door was plenty convincing. So right here and now, let me take this opportunity to openly declare: “I've converted to atheism.” As I understand my new catechism, I have no supreme authority over me. I might choose to submit to some "higher" authority (parent, teacher, police officer, judge, etc.), but only out of enlightened self-interest. Those in authority are all governed (just as I am) by a social contract, whether that contract is codified as law or not. However, this atheist catechism leaves me pondering another question, "To what is society subordinate?" Who or what governs the government? Here in America the popular answer is "We the People", but that's only true in recent Western societies. That answer would have been universally scoffed at just three hundred years ago and is still considered heretical in much of the world today. But despite that, if I accept the idea that each of us is accountable to all of us, that then again raises the question, "To what are 'We the People' held accountable?"

As much as I like the circular argument that we each answer to all of us (that we are individually subject to the rules that we collectively establish), I find myself troubled by the idea that morality is nothing more than the present consensus of the local majority. I have this nagging suspicion that morality (the question of "right" or "wrong") is based on something more than popular opinion. As I see it, if morality were merely the consensus opinion, then all socially acceptable things (as slavery once was in the South) should be accepted. Likewise, socially repugnant things (as free speech is in Islamic countries) must be rejected. I have this disquieting sense that reality occasionally has a nasty habit of disrupting the popular social order. Socially accepted fornication fuels epidemics; socially accepted governmental corruption jams the gears of the economy; socially accepted corporate malfeasance yields bankruptcies; socially accepted hatred leaves rubble where cities once stood.

So the circular argument, "I'm accountable to us," quickly collapses in on itself. It means nothing more than: "I'm accountable to me" (since I ultimately have to decide for myself whether society's moral standards are correct). So in the end, I am subject to no supreme authority higher than myself. Through the power of my own reason I decide what’s true or false, what's right or wrong. I am the captain of my fate. So now that I’m an atheist, who do I recognize as my supreme authority? Who is my "god"?

That's right, "I am!" My god's name is "Bob". (I think Bob Newhart was the first to announce this discovery when he reported that he and his wife were forming their own religion, "Bob-ism". As Bob Newhart told it, they'd considered naming their religion after his wife Judy, but they soon learned that the name had already been taken by another religion.) So who's the great "I AM" of Bob-ism? Well ... I am, of course. You can foolishly bow to the gods you've created with your organized religions; I bow to no god but "Bob". Am I a good god? I'm good enough for me. It's okay if you don't fall at my feet and worship. After all, you're your own god, too. So if your name is Jesus (or Allah or Jehovah or Zeus), you are absolutely correct when you claim that "Jesus" (etc.) is God. We’re just a bunch of good ol' gods. After meals, each of us can bow his head and recite, "I am good (though not so great). Now I thank me for what I ate." Believe you me, religion just doesn't get much better than this.

I give me all my reverent devotion and in return I give me all my needs. What more could I want? Yet, amid all my self-adoration, I find myself asking, "Isn't there something greater than me?" One part of me recoils at the thought that anything could displace me as "my Lord and my God", but there's another soft voice deep down, saying: "Surely, there's something more. If I'm truly what it's all about, then what's the point of anything? And why all this vast support structure just to provide me food to eat, air to breathe, water to drink, light to see, ... ?" I think I could manage with a million fewer galaxies. And what's with the mosquitoes who bite my skin and the Islamofascists who fly into my buildings? I think I'd do just fine without those. I don't quite know how to put it, but somehow the god "Bob" seem so ... I don't know ... trivial. After all, in the grand scheme, just how much more significant am I than the fly that was bothering me a moment ago (until I swatted it). Do my few more chromosomes really make me better qualified to be a god than that fly is (or, to be precise, was)?

Oh wait, I almost forgot. There are all of you, my fellow gods, out there. Maybe we could find some mutual purpose for our otherwise pointless lives. But then, even as a community of gods, just how much greater are we than all those chromosome-deficient gods that are buzzing over a bloated armadillo? And are some of those gods (even as they alight on the carcass) secretly slipping little tracts under the armadillo's scales, leaving teeny-tiny messages for the other flies: "There is no god and only feeble-minded flies with deep psychological flaws are foolish enough to believe in one.” Do those tiny pamphlets urge: "Pull yourself off the fly paper of organized religion; become a free thinker!"

Nah, those flies aren't struggling with existential questions about us gods. They just don't have what it takes to be gods like us (well, maybe they could be a god like you, but not like me). Shux, those winged carriers of cholera can't even imagine what it's like to have a rich, purposeful life like mine. They probably don't even suspect that there's anyone or anything greater than themselves, but I'm different. I've thought about whether there's a god greater than me, and after giving it deep thought, I've concluded that there is nothing beyond the limits of my imagination. What I can see, hear, feel, taste and smell is all that exists. I should know ... after all, I'm god and my opinion is the final authority.

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