Driving back from the American Atheist convention, in Cincinnati, I caught a radio program that seemed like a perfect fit with the talks given at the convention. They were saying the Continental Congress approved government funding to import thousands of bibles from Holland. Later when England’s embargoes made importing bibles impossible, the Continental Congress approved funding to start printing bibles. It was a great illustration of how the hypocrisy of a country founded on the principle of separation of church and state is in constant violation of that principle, a hypocrisy itself embedded in its founding. I was being naïve. I was in southern Ohio, where signs along the highway declared hell real five times on the same billboard—or I was in central Ohio by then or into the northern end. I was in Ohio.
They were using this hypocrisy to justify their push for further like-hypocrisies. They were arguing that the bible is and has always been integral to the country and that we’ve always been a Christian nation, like it or not. Separation of church and state is a part of our constitution but we’ve never actually abided to that rule so we shouldn’t now either? I guess was their argument. I’m not sure they said it out loud or left it implied, which is how radio programs like this usually work. Their job is to pique your rage. (“The liberal media is trying to destroy this president!” Then when a listener mails bombs to CNN offices, Sean Hannity had nothing to do with that.) They’ll wait till a swell of people are demanding the bible be taught in schools and then pretend that’s the will of the people when it’s actually just their audience regurgitating their planted ideas.
Voltaire said, “If God did not exist it would be necessary to invent Him.” What I love about that quote is that it gently points out the tautology that is religion. Existence in God is only “proven” by belief in God’s existence. It’s Carl Sagan’s dragon is in his garage that is there but can be shown to be there by no earthly demonstration whatsoever. Why would it be necessary to invent God? Because our extreme intelligence reveals to us our lives are temporary. We and everyone we know will one day die. That can be an enormously painful realization and the idea of a God welcoming us into an eternity a correspondingly powerful comfort. Here’s the thing about atheists, none of us would have any desire to take that comfort away from people who prefer to live with it.
At the convention, I backed up in an elevator to make room for people getting on. Apparently I got a little close to the woman behind me carrying a drink. She said, “If you spill my drink, I’ll send you to your maker.” Another guy on the elevator said, “Your maker?” The three of us were all wearing our atheist convention member lanyards. I said, “When she said that I assumed she wasn’t with the convention.” We shared amusement over this. (I don’t think we actually laughed.) That might have been the closest a conversation ever got to whether or not God exists.
What came up repeatedly was why people’s religion has so much influence over our government when we’re supposed to be a nation based on the principle of separation of church and state. One of the tables at the convention was set up by people from Kentucky protesting not the existence of a creationist museum and Noah’s Ark replica theme park but protesting that the state of Kentucky subsidized the place with millions of tax payer dollars. The world was never flooded by a god. Ancient religious texts usually if not always have stories of the world flooding, because when you traveled within a radius of a dozen miles your entire life, if your region flooded, you thought the world had. To maintain a relationship with your invented god you had to imagine he or she did this on purpose. If people want to celebrate the bible’s flood story with a replica of Noah’s Ark, fine, but why should atheists have to help pay for it?
Another speaker described how hold ups in stem cell research, during George W. Bush’s presidency, delayed the cure for his wife’s illness. The cure was discovered during Obama’s presidency, when stem cell research was allowed to continue but the cure came too late for his wife to survive. Pressure from religious groups, religious voters, people voting based on their religious beliefs, took his wife from him. Atheists might snidely refer to God as a made up man in the sky but it’s hard not to understand why when people’s religion goes beyond comforting them about the nature of our existence and takes the unnecessary second step of controlling other people who don’t hold those same beliefs with the obscene rationale that it’s okay because other people should hold those same beliefs, because that’s what the bible says. No one can prove the unprovable hypothesis that there is a God whose existence can’t be proven or disproven, but we can pretty definitively say that the bible is a book written and rewritten and translated and retranslated by human beings. Citing it ends no arguments with people who realize that. It doesn’t comfort an atheist whose wife could still be with him.
I went to the convention not knowing what to expect. I don’t consider being an atheist a passion of mine. I don’t consider not believing in something a passion. I found people who felt the same way. Just a friendly group of people having a fun time, but we were encouraged to be a presence. We have a message we’re trying to spread. The message isn’t other people shouldn’t be comforted by their religion. The message is your comfort shouldn’t lead to control over anyone else. Yet barely are we back and religious extremism is leading toward a government mandate that women carry all pregnancies to full term. Religion prevents religious people from recognizing this is a violation of a woman’s individual rights, because it’s a rule ingrained in them from the time they can talk. As atheists, we don’t care if your religion comforts you, we don’t even mind if it controls you, but when you take it and try to control the rest of us, we’re going to call bullshit. We don’t care if the religious label that sacrilege. That word only means something to the religious. That religious people are threatened by atheists illustrates the degree of control the religious believe their religion gives them a right to wield.
At a coffee shop near the hotel, I was wearing my convention badge, and a few guys were talking about us at the convention. The one picked me out and asked what hotel I was staying at. I told him, and he said, “Good!” and stalked off. I guess he wouldn’t have been able to stand it if we were sharing the same hotel. Another guy said, “I understand, man. Sometimes I wonder too.”
Good for him. We don’t really wonder, though. We feel sure that we wish to live in the observable world, and we are standing up for our right not to be controlled by other people’s beliefs about an unobservable one.