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Atheism is A-OK

Welp, I read quite possibly the dumbest pro-atheist article ever written. Congratulations, sociologists Gregory Paul and Phil Zuckerman! Let’s take it point by point, shall we?

Long after blacks and Jews have made great strides, and even as homosexuals gain respect, acceptance and new rights, there is still a group that lots of Americans just don’t like much: atheists. Those who don’t believe in God are widely considered to be immoral, wicked and angry. They can’t join the Boy Scouts. Atheist soldiers are rated potentially deficient when they do not score as sufficiently “spiritual” in military psychological evaluations. Surveys find that most Americans refuse or are reluctant to marry or vote for nontheists; in other words, nonbelievers are one minority still commonly denied in practical terms the right to assume office despite the constitutional ban on religious tests.

So, the historical (and contemporary) plight of blacks, Jews, and homosexuals is roughly equivalent to the horrific discrimination atheists face every day? Because we can’t join the Boy Scouts? All right, that checks out. I’m with you so far… Wait a second. I just remembered trying to join the Boy Scouts isn’t the same thing as being denied employment or the right to marry. That makes this line of reasoning moronic. We can’t join a private youth organization, greatly reducing opportunities to be sexually abused at the hands of “mentally awake, morally straight,” typically ardent Christian adults—DISCRIMINATION!! We have the right to be molested and traumatized as children, just like all God-fearing American citizens!

Next point: we can join the military, but we may be labeled “potentially deficient.” Boo fucking hoo. That’s not exactly on the level of being outright rejected on the basis of sexual orientation, or having to live with the half-assed compromise of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Also, frankly, I think in military terms, the average atheist would be “deficient.” The entire purpose of the military—the reason for the psychological abuse inflicted in boot camp, and punishment meted out during service—is to encourage subjugation to the group. You are not an individual; you are a cog in a well-oiled machine.

In psychological terms, it’s much easier to “break” a person of a religious background, since all religions share a common purpose with military thinking: you are subordinate to the group/church/God/beliefs you either chose or were born into, just as you are subordinate to the orders and chain of command the moment you enlist. Not all atheists are rugged individualists like myself, but most tend to think for themselves and stray from conventional thoughts or ideas. They will speak out and buck the system. In military terms, they’ll hot dog. They’re much more likely to end up like James Garner in Tank than Adolphe Menjou in Paths of Glory. That, to military brass, would make them “deficient.” The military does not reward enterprise and individuality; such things lead to defiance of ridiculous orders from incompetent leaders, and where would the military be if that happened on a regular basis?

And let’s not forget the adage that there are no atheists in a foxhole. A “deficiency” of atheists in the military is their lack of belief in God or an afterlife, right? If they don’t think God will help them survive in combat, or if they don’t think they’ll go on to their reward, they may be less likely to make “heroic” sacrifices. “May be” is the key phrase, because if you’re fighting alongside people you genuinely care about, is your belief that there is no heaven going to make you any less likely to jump on a live grenade to protect your unit? It depends on the person, in the exact same way it depends on the person of faith. But I could see a very reasonable argument that atheists would be less likely to make heroic sacrifices, because frankly, we value life more. We don’t see it as an endless parade of misery, and that the worse it is, the better it’ll be in heaven. That is a bullshit ideology that leads to complacency and despair, the assumption that all humans are the ragdolls of a malevolent universe (or worse, a malevolent God), so why bother taking action to change it? After all, we can’t change anything. We have no control. Blech. What a load of garbage.

The last point in this paragraph is the craziest and stupidest: that atheists are “denied… the right to assume office,” on religious grounds. Freedom of choice, motherfuckers. There is, as the authors point out, no legal basis whatsoever preventing atheists from seeking or holding public office (except in a handful of southern states, which this article doesn’t even mention to bolster its retarded arguments—but it’s moot, because that’s their right, just as it’s my right not to live there). No atheist would be punished for running a campaign, except perhaps in wasted time, money, and effort. But we live in a country where everybody’s allowed to vote for the candidate they choose. If voters choose spirituality and faith over logic and reason, that’s their nightmare; it’s not discrimination. And atheists have held these rights since the Constitution was ratified, unlike many minority groups who had to fight for the right simply to run for office.

Rarely denounced by the mainstream, this stunning anti-atheist discrimination is egged on by Christian conservatives who stridently—and uncivilly—declare that the lack of godly faith is detrimental to society, rendering nonbelievers intrinsically suspect and second-class citizens.

I snicker at the use of the word “stunning” here. I’m not exactly convinced, and no concrete evidence is provided here, that the noise produced by Christian conservatives has an actual, discriminatory effect on atheists. Look, I don’t provide any concrete evidence for anything I write, either, but I’m sounding off on a fucking blog, not writing for the Washington goddamn Post.

So you can take it with a grain of salt when I say that, in my observation, the screeching volume of the religious right grows louder and louder specifically because their views don’t reflect those of the country. This includes the majority of the right, including many religious folks. The power and influence of the religious right has always been overstated. It’s only when they’re lucky enough to be associated with a politician who ends up in a high office that anyone takes their views seriously. That much is a dangerous trend with a really simple solution: stop electing people aligned with those retarded religious groups. But I think such people are elected in spite of their crazy religions, not because of them.

The day that I go to a convenience store and am asked to show papers documenting my religious affiliation, and am denied service because it has a big, scarlet “A” on it, is that day that I might think I’m treated as suspect or second-class. Ridiculous.

Is this knee-jerk dislike of atheists warranted? Not even close.

Of course not, but neither is it surprising (though the authors seem to think so). People, religious or not, don’t like their beliefs challenged. That’s not limited to atheists: anyone, especially a proselytizer, who effectively says, “Your deeply held beliefs are wrong,” is going to be viewed with “knee-jerk dislike.” I know I don’t like it when religious people proselytize at me; that’s why I do everyone else the courtesy of not discussing religion anywhere but here, where people can read if they choose or easily ignore me.

It’s not a problem limited to religion. I certainly doubt I’ll be invited to a Ku Klux Klan rally to deliver a keynote on the importance of equal rights for all people. They don’t want to hear that they’re wrong. I don’t think it’s an issue of insecurity, fearing that an alternative view will infect them like a disease and turn them first into doubters, then nonbelievers; I think it’s just generally that people don’t want to feel like they’re being “talked at”—even when they agree with the person. They want to think their “different views,” no matter how heinous and poorly thought through, are valid. They want to feel like they’re being engaged in honest debate, not someone just shouting at them that they’re wrong. And the natural tendency is to assume, whether it’s true or not, that anyone with different views—typically worn on one’s sleeve by religious or political affiliations—is simply going to shout, “You’re wrong!” That’s certainly what I’d be shouting if invited to speak in front of a KKK group.

In a broader, more public sense, there are religious speakers whose foamy-mouthed commentary on various subjects produce a very visible, vehement sense of disdain. They don’t limit it to atheists, although on the (pseudo-)liberal end of the spectrum, commentators tend to strike out much more harshly at atheists than other religious groups. Right-wing religious commentators also strike out at atheists in harsh tones, but they’re much less interested in religious inclusiveness. Unlike the pseudo-liberals, who solely and glaringly ban atheists to Mantua, the religious right goes after everyone with equally absurd aplomb.

One thing I’ve observed with these pseudo-liberal religious commentators is that they seem a little more rattled by atheism than “competing” faiths, because they can’t use the same rhetorical tactics. Typically, they try to rally other people of faith by pointing out that they’re all basically on the same side: they all believe in God (or gods), they all have certain overlapping views, and all we need to do to get along is to emphasize the similarities while respecting the differences. Some atheist commentators fall into this trap, embracing this idea that religious customs are beautiful, people of faith should be respected (maybe even admired) solely for their devotion, that it’s all about ritual and community and not at all about ancient, retarded philosophy guiding followers toward wrongheaded beliefs. Religious commentators can hang with those folks. C.J. Werleman and Reza Aslan seem to be best buds; S.E. Cupp regularly shows up on Fox News.

It gets much more difficult to deal with when atheist commentators flatly reject any and all religious faith, any and all customs, any and all scriptures. You can’t invoke the “we’re all the same”/”Spaceship Earth” argument when someone else is asking, “Why do you think you can power a spaceship with unicorns and wishes?” Consequently, the “debate” tends to turn into a polemic; luckily for religious commentators, the majority of the atheist commentators have a much lighter skin tone than the majority of Muslims. It ceases to matter if an atheist is as against all other religious as he or she is against Islam. It ceases matter if they concentrate on Islam as a particular threat because, at this moment in history, a lot of people who are trying to reshape the world in the image of seventh-century Arabia “happen to be” Muslims. What matters is that white atheist men say negative things about Islam, so they are racists.

These are the sort of religious commentators who confuse the words “tolerance” and “respect,” the sort who think Charlie Hebdo was caused by too much freedom of speech, the sort who think it’s more important to condemn a lame satirical contest to draw Muhammad and/or the horrors of a “police state” rather than condemning two now-dead men who descended on a dumb event with the intention of murdering its participants. In short, they’re idiots who shouldn’t be taken seriously—but they’re also idiots who feel threatened by atheists, because most atheists don’t agree to meet in the middle with the agreement that as long as we all share faith, we can share hope that things will get better, people will come to a greater understanding, and in a few years we’ll all join hands and sing “Kumbaya.” They preach dangerous naïveté by telling people what they want to hear: (1) that they themselves are the problem, and need to work harder at tolerance and understanding, and (2) that things will just magically change one day.

On the other end of the spectrum are the much more plentiful, but less intellectually dangerous (because little of what they espouse has the gloss of intellectualism), far-right religious commentators. These goofballs want to do little more than create an “Us vs. Them“-style fervor to further entrench their base, and potentially expand outward. They don’t just target atheists. They target competing congregations/denominations, entirely different religions, people with different non-religious political views (that they twist to become religious), and so on.

What seems to these authors like jerking knees are just general, obvious tactics of propping up their own beliefs by cutting down others’.

A growing body of social science research reveals that atheists, and non-religious people in general, are far from the unsavory beings many assume them to be. On basic questions of morality and human decency— issues such as governmental use of torture, the death penalty, punitive hitting of children, racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, environmental degradation or human rights—the irreligious tend to be more ethical than their religious peers, particularly compared with those who describe themselves as very religious.

Consider that at the societal level, murder rates are far lower in secularized nations such as Japan or Sweden than they are in the much more religious United States, which also has a much greater portion of its population in prison. Even within this country, those states with the highest levels of church attendance, such as Louisiana and Mississippi, have significantly higher murder rates than far less religious states such as Vermont and Oregon.

Cool! We’ve reached the “cherry-picking arbitrary facts” section of the article.

Do I even need to make the argument that murder has little to do with religious faith? Yes, religious people murder for religious reasons. But I can’t remember the last time I heard about I heard about ISIS-style religion-fueled mass murder in Louisiana and Mississippi. People murder for reasons that typically have nothing to do with religion, so to make that argument is a false equivalency on par with some of the best.

A common, and I think quite plausible, correlation is made between poverty and crime. So, let’s consider the examples provided. Mississippi and Louisiana have the highest poverty rates of any states in the country (only Washington, D.C., ranks higher, and its murder rate isn’t exactly low, either). According to Gallup, church attendance is highest in Utah, which has an extremely low poverty rate and an extremely low murder rate. The per-capita murder rates in Vermont and Oregon are roughly equal to Utah: slightly lower in Vermont, slightly higher in Oregon. The poverty level bears that out: Vermont’s is slightly lower than Utah, Oregon’s is a bit higher. Coincidence? Notice how neatly these correlate, yet the correlation between church attendance and murder rate is nonexistent.

To be fair, though, let’s compare these two states to the countries mentioned: Sweden and Japan. Looking at the UN’s Human Poverty Index of 2007-2008, Sweden ranked the highest of any country (meaning the least poverty). Japan ranked 12. The United States ranked 17. They have lower murder rates, and also less poverty. I’m not an expert on statistical analysis, but this trend is much more cut-and-dried than trying to connect the murder rate to church attendance.

In addition, it’s really bad form that the two studies they link to were either authored or co-authored by Phil Zuckerman, one of the co-authors of this dumb article. One of those studies notes that “when it comes to more serious or violent crimes, such as murder, there is simply no evidence suggesting that atheist and secular people are more likely to commit such crimes than religious people. After all, America’s bulging prisons are not full of atheists; according to Golumbaski (1997), only 0.2 percent of prisoners in the USA are atheists – a major underrepresentation.” “No evidence suggesting that atheist and secular people are more likely to commit such crimes” is not exactly a ringing endorsement of atheists’ moral superiority. But hey, I’m just cherry-picking statements like this article does. Surely the full case is proven elsewhere. (Spoiler alert: nope.)

I would doubt an atheist is any more or less likely to commit murder than a religious person, because in this country, murder virtually never has to do with religious beliefs, consciously or unconsciously. Even if atheists are otherwise morally and ethically superior, using murder statistics versus church attendance statistics as a major example is sloppy and dishonest. I guess the plus side of these bullshit statistics is that the “underrepresentation,” using Paul and Zuckerman’s interpretation of statistics, obviously implies that atheists are better at not getting caught for murders. This falls right in line with our being smarter.

As individuals, atheists tend to score high on measures of intelligence, especially verbal ability and scientific literacy. They tend to raise their children to solve problems rationally, to make up their own minds when it comes to existential questions and to obey the golden rule. They are more likely to practice safe sex than the strongly religious are, and are less likely to be nationalistic or ethnocentric. They value freedom of thought.

Do atheists need academic papers showing they’re less likely to follow retarded religious proscriptions by practicing safe sex? A more important question to ask a religious audience is, does that make them better, more moral people? As an atheist, I would say yes. How would a practicing Catholic answer the question, though?

Valuing freedom of thought is a key point here; I would argue it’s the key distinction between atheism and religion. Atheists may not be smarter—even if they are, that’s an irrelevant statistic when trying to prove the case that atheists aren’t bad people; plenty of brilliant people have been monsters—but they are more thoughtful. Thoughtfulness, and the idea of thinking through problems rationally, will naturally reduce dangerous “isms” like nationalism and ethnocentrism. If you’re taught to question things and think them through, you’re going to be more likely to view irrational fervor with skepticism. I’m thrilled someone wasted grant money so they could study this stuff, but it’s common sense.

While many studies show that secular Americans don’t fare as well as the religious when it comes to certain indicators of mental health or subjective well-being, new scholarship is showing that the relationships among atheism, theism, and mental health and well-being are complex. After all, Denmark, which is among the least religious countries in the history of the world, consistently rates as the happiest of nations. And studies of apostates—people who were religious but later rejected their religion—report feeling happier, better and liberated in their post-religious lives.

Suspiciously, this is probably the article’s most controversial paragraph, and it’s also the one with no links/citations whatsoever. I’m sure many people have read the really dumb Huffington Post article about why Denmark is so happy, and I’m sure many thoughtful atheists have raised suspicious eyebrows about the metrics of UN’s World Happiness Report. Especially when they get an eyeful of the suicide statistics in those same “happy” countries. But speaking of that…

Nontheism isn’t all balloons and ice cream. Some studies suggest that suicide rates are higher among the non-religious. But surveys indicating that religious Americans are better off can be misleading because they include among the non-religious fence-sitters who are as likely to believe in God, whereas atheists who are more convinced are doing about as well as devout believers. On numerous respected measures of societal success—rates of poverty, teenage pregnancy, abortion, sexually transmitted diseases, obesity, drug use and crime, as well as economics—high levels of secularity are consistently correlated with positive outcomes in first-world nations. None of the secular advanced democracies suffers from the combined social ills seen here in Christian America.

Translation: “Atheists are neither better off nor worse off than religious people, except when it comes to suicide.” This paragraph is the written equivalent of filler, up until the last sentence adds a political jab that doesn’t match the statistic relayed literally two sentences prior.

I would also ask hard questions about comparing data country to country to prove this case about the superiority of secular states over “Christian America.” A “secular state” doesn’t necessarily mean a “free state,” particularly as I would define the term. (Those interested in my conception of this should look at these two posts, and then send me a short essay describing the similarities and differences between it and the “secular” nations of Europe and Asia.)

More than 2,000 years ago, whoever wrote Psalm 14 claimed that atheists were foolish and corrupt, incapable of doing any good. These put-downs have had sticking power. Negative stereotypes of atheists are alive and well. Yet like all stereotypes, they aren’t true—and perhaps they tell us more about those who harbor them than those who are maligned by them. So when the likes of Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, Bill O’Reilly and Newt Gingrich engage in the politics of division and destruction by maligning atheists, they do so in disregard of reality.

Look, up until this paragraph, I thought the article was generally moronic. Here is where it got me riled enough to vent my annoyance on the blog. First, the “politics of division and destruction” are not limited to the religious right, nor are they limited to those who malign atheism. Consider, on one side, your Richard Dawkinses, your Christopher Hitchenses, your Sam Harrises, your Bill Mahers… They, as often as the right-wing nutjobs mentioned in the article, practice the “politics of division and destruction.” At times, their rhetoric can be quite powerful, quite funny, and quite biting; mostly, they’re just bellowing about how dangerous religious principle is and how stupid (or, to be “fair,” how ignorant) its practitioners are. They, as much as anyone on the right, foment the same sort of “us vs. them” dichotomy that drives me nuts. They preach to the converted by accusing the unconverted of supporting dangerous ideologies simply for holding the same faith.

There are dangerous advocates of religion—the “intellectuals” who insist that the violent and depraved people of faith have misunderstood, or lack proper enlightenment, or that “secularism” is what’s creating these violent types—and as I’ve said before, one of the worst aspects of religion is that all the horrific stuff the violent types used to justify their actions is supported in the text as God’s will. It is not a misinterpretation or a misunderstanding. Religious texts are fairly explicit about when monstrous actions are justified by God. But just because some people are dumb enough to look at ancient texts and say, “Oh, okay, it’s all right to kill a bunch of people and rape a bunch of women,” doesn’t mean that they’re being supported, directly or indirectly, by the people under the same general faith umbrella who look at those same texts and say, “Boy, people in olden times were really fucking violent and weird. I think I’ll just stick with the golden rule.”

Supporting those people is only the result of more explicit words and actions. Something like direct financial support of the extremist groups by people of faith who would never, themselves, commit violent actions—but support those who do as brave, revolutionary heroes. But support comes in smaller ways, too—Reza Aslan blaming the Charlie Hebdo massacre on secularization and too much free speech, for example. He can denounce Islamic extremism all he wants (and usually he doesn’t want to; he chooses instead to downplay it), but his blaming of the victims as Islamophobic racists, and blaming of French government and culture for allowing enough freedom to criticize and insult some idiots’ religious beliefs, packs more dangerous thought into a single misguided interview than a thousand denunciations of violent extremists. Aslan and his ilk—your Glenn Greenwalds, your C.J. Werlemans—represent another category of “politics of division and destruction.” They’re over on the far left, crying out for something akin to fascism to keep anyone from criticizing religion in general and Islam in particular.

So if the buried thesis of this article is really to damn dumb right-wing commentators for their “politics of division and destruction,” Paul and Zuckerman need to go back and look at the First Amendment, and then look at what leftists are saying about atheists (all they’re doing differently is adding “racism” to the pile of negative stereotypes), and look at what atheists are saying about the religious. Division and destruction is everywhere—not just among the Christian right.

Worse than that, though, is the puzzling contention that this right-wing goofballs don’t have even a slightly reasonable basis for their prejudice and stereotyping. Don’t get me wrong: people should not be stereotyped, and stereotypes especially should not be a basis for discrimination—but it’s really easy to understand what those Christian idiots believe. They believe morality comes directly from God, and so anyone who rejects God and His knowledge lacks a proper moral framework to live in society. Their scriptures have taught them that before God swept in with His prophet pals to clean up the mess humanity had made of His world, they were a bunch of corrupt, depraved weirdos and perverts—and they would have stayed that way without His guidance and laws. And so, to reject that interpretation of human history is no different to them than saying, “I have no need for your morals. I’ll do what I want, when I want, and your damn religious morality won’t stop me.”

This is why they fear “the gays.” This is why they fear what they perceive as a leftist conspiracy to secularize the laws and customs of the United States. It’s this incredibly simple-minded, pandering, evangelical interpretation of the Bible’s “history” that has convinced them that we all need to go back in time to when people were good, God-fearing Christian folk. You know, like the founding fathers. (Unfortunately, since they get all their history from the Bible, which cuts off a few millennia before 1776, they don’t realize how disinterested the founders were in God…) They see morality, like everything else, in black and white. White is Christ, black is atheism (and most other religions, especially Islam), and there’s nothing in between. There is no secular philosophy, there is no conception that even the most ardent anti-theist might consider “the Golden Rule” a nice, simple maxim by which to live. (And since it predates Matthew 7:12 by hundreds of years, they can feel more secure about agreeing with it.)

This is just common sense, and if you want to do rhetorical battle with really stupid, yet unnervingly influential, commentators on the subject of religion—you have to understand where their arguments are coming from. If you have any desire to actually win converts to your perspective, instead of simply trying to divide and conquer, you have to show that you understand where they’re coming from—but you disagree. Here’s why. Think about it, won’t you? Taking potshots at idiots isn’t going to help your argument. It reveals you to be one of two terrible types of people: (1) someone who pretends to be baffled by someone else’s misguided belief, knowing full well why they believe it but acting as if it’s patently absurd, which makes you an asshole; or (2) someone who genuinely doesn’t comprehend another person’s very simplistic views, which makes you an idiot. Either way, you lose. In my eyes, and in the eyes of the people you should be trying to connect with—no, not the O’Reillys or the Palins of the world. The people who listen to those idiots—and yet, don’t entirely agree with them. Enough, but not entirely. Those are the ones who might be open to new ideas.

As with other national minority groups, atheism is enjoying rapid growth. Despite the bigotry, the number of American nontheists has tripled as a proportion of the general population since the 1960s. Younger generations’ tolerance for the endless disputes of religion is waning fast. Surveys designed to overcome the understandable reluctance to admit atheism have found that as many as 60 million Americans—a fifth of the population—are not believers. Our nonreligious compatriots should be accorded the same respect as other minorities.

Maybe “nontheists” have tripled in the U.S. because there is no actual discrimination. Are these guys really implying that the “understandable reluctance to admit atheism” comes from this intense persecution? Or is it merely because, for many, the struggle to absolutely, definitively reject God, spirituality, and faith might be the most difficult decision a person makes? If pressed, they might say “spiritual” or “agnostic”—not for the sake of propriety, but for the sake of really, genuinely not being sure what they think. For many, the sins of the church—or if its members—isn’t enough to destroy their belief in God. Even if they abandon their specific denomination, they don’t instantly abandon God. They may wrestle with the question, but when specifically asked, they’ll answer, “Yes, I believe in God,” even if that’s just shorthand for, “I believe in something.” That doesn’t mean they’re lying or reluctant; they’re just giving the best answer they can to what is, for them, a very difficult question.

I think atheism is “enjoying rapid growth” for greater reasons than “waning tolerance for the endless disputes of religion.” There is not a religious faith on Earth that is equipped to deal with the modern world, without making major compromises (to the extent that you might as well not even bother believing). The first nail in the coffin was the United States Constitution. Far from a document written by and for a Christian nation, the Constitution and its Bill of Rights created a system that allowed for true individual freedom: from government (no kings or emperors making arbitrary decrees to alter your rights), from religion (believe what you want), from class (go from an impoverished orphan to a titan of industry with nothing more higher a third-grade education). It was imperfectly practiced even from the start (*cough*slavery*cough*), and such hypocrisies perhaps explain why it has since been corrupted into an unrecognizable beast that regresses further and further back toward some sort of feudal serfdom. It’s very easy to simply say, “How could the U.S. really be for individual rights for all, and opposed to a class system, when the group of wealthy intellectuals agreed to let slavery slide? How could it be of the people, by the people, and for the people when you had cranky federalists insisting that the central government needed to be strong and powerful? How could it be in favor of religious freedom when Jews and Injuns were openly persecuted for their beliefs?”

Once you tear down the idealism by pointing out reality, it sure does seem like a piece of shit, doesn’t it? But just because the founding fathers didn’t practice what they preached doesn’t mean they were wrong in principle. Why shouldn’t individuals have freedom from artificial social, cultural, political, economic, and religious constraints? Why shouldn’t individuals have the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? The fact that the success of “the American experiment” (despite its notable flaws) led to semi-successful movements toward individual liberty in other countries demonstrates the power of its ideals. The problem was never with the Constitution itself (other than Article I, Section 9, clause 1 and its protection in Article V, which were more than a little problematic); it’s with the fact that people continue, to this day, to place unnecessary constraints on themselves (and/or others), regardless of the fact that the Constitution says, “Hey, you don’t have to do that.”

I’m not talking about the rule of law and order at the state and local levels. I’m talking about religious folk trying to reshape the country in their own conservative image. I’m talking about the power lusters who believe their wealth entitles them to dictate how everyone else should behave. I’m talking about the racist power lusters who seek jobs in law enforcement and the military for little other purpose than exerting authority over loathed minorities. I’m even talking about the pie-in-the-sky leftists who missed the word “pursuit” in the Declaration of Independence and think everyone in the country is simply owed happiness, at the expense of those made much less happy by having to pay for it. In essence, I’m talking about anyone in this country—on this planet, in this universe—who believes the subjugation of the individual’s rights to the group’s rights is moral and ethical.

This is a framework supported by every “modern” religion on the planet. Give and give and give to the group, until you have nothing left to give, and then give some more. That’s the law; the lure was originally the idea that, at the end of all this giving, you’ll be happy. Only that doesn’t work out so well in reality, so now the lure is the notion that the shittier your life is, the happier God will be with you, the better your seat in heaven. What’s the point of trying to make the one life we have any good? Our eternity in heaven is really the important part—we’ll be there way longer, right?

The result of this bankrupt (and bankrupting) morality is everything you see today. It’s a world of two types: takers and those getting taken. I don’t care who you are: without a proper moral framework, this is where you end up.

You’re a Fortune 500 CEO, worth billions, swindling sweet old ladies out of their Social Security—you’re a taker who sees yourself as evil for wanting to make money. You embrace actual evil, because now that your God has convinced you that you’ll go to hell, you gotta live it up here on Earth. Are you happy? A sociopath, if that’s who you are, can’t comprehend happiness; an ordinary person just learns to hate themselves. It’s a lot easier when you have money.

Or you’re an artist squatting in a loft, making things nobody wants to pay you for, unwilling and uninterested in getting a job, living on welfare or your parents’ generosity, complaining about how the country doesn’t do enough to support its artists—not realizing you’re a taker, too. You took that apartment you’re not paying for, you kyped your art supplies from a school you took out federal loans to attend before dropping out and defaulting, and everything you do is subsidized either by strangers or, even worse, people who love you, people you’ve fooled into believing in you. Are you happy?

Or you’re a little old lady, living alone and eating cat food because you sent all your money to some asshole claiming your money would be going toward providing clean drinking water to some large-eyed, tragic-looking African villagers, when it actually went toward building solid-gold toilets at the nonprofit CEO’s mansion. Are you happy? You’ve been taken, and maybe you know it, but maybe you don’t. Either way, are you happy spending your golden years in squalor to give water to strangers?

Or you’re just an ordinary person who believes in giving money and time to charity, but you can’t understand why you sometimes feel a strange sense of malaise. You can’t figure out why, when it comes time to do the bills and balance the checkbook, there’s a knot in the pit of your stomach because you’re not making ends meet—but you can’t give up volunteering and donations. You know that’s the right thing. What’s wrong is how much your goddamn rent is, and these brand-name prescriptions that are breaking the bank, and why can’t people just charge you less so you have enough to give away? Are you happy?

I’ve said it before: charity is great when you don’t have to make sacrifices in order to give. Religion isn’t that nuanced. Religion demands everything from you: mind, body, soul, and checkbook. When you accept that premise, you accept that in all areas of life, you must give and give and give to please God, country, and your fellow man. This requires sacrifice—but you’ll get your reward, someday, while you’re busy giving everything to everyone else. It all comes back on you tenfold, right? …right.

The only way to untangle this web of despair is to examine your beliefs and seek out something better. Maybe something written in the past century. Maybe something along the lines of secular philosophy, demonstrating ways you can make yourself happy first—and then deal with everyone else’s happiness, if that’s your bag. Prioritizing yourself ahead of everyone else does not have to be an evil action. Put simply: if it’s important for you to help others, how much help can you provide if you charge into an Ebola hot zone because they need you? You have to put on your crazy bunny suit and protect your own safety first. You can’t help anyone if you’re dead. Or bankrupt.

“Me first” doesn’t have to be “me only,” but it becomes that so easily in a culture that tells anyone who instinctively says “me first” that they are evil. They go from trying to fight it to simply embracing it. They become the Daniel Plainviews of the world—the takers, who simply choose to take more and more because they’re among the few seeing how easily people will just give and give. You wonder why income disparity in this country has gotten so insane, why it seems the entire business/financial world is a game rigged for the rich to win? It’s because you give while they take. This is not going to change by ceding more money and authority to a complicit government; it’s only going to change by pushing back, rejecting the religious prescription of self-sacrifice and proscription of self-esteem.

And this is what younger generations are wary of. They don’t all see it clearly—if they did, neither the Tea Party nor Occupy Wall Street would have gained any traction—but they’re up against the wall. They’ve been raised to give, they’re being told the only solution to all our problems is to give some more, yet all they see are these big, swinging dicks taking and taking and taking. Why do they get to take while the rest of us are supposed to give? That’s not the country we’re supposed to be living in.

Because our religion rigged the game in their favor. Our only choice is to reject it. Many are doing just that, whether they consciously know why or not. Call it secular humanism, call it liberal atheism, call it quasi-libertarian crankiness—people are embracing views that reject religion because they reject mental, emotional, and especially physical slavery. Abraham Lincoln, invoking Mark 3, said this in 1858:

A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved—I do not expect the house to fall—but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.

I’m not nearly dumb enough to compare atheist discrimination to slavery—although surely Paul and Zuckerman would be thrilled at the opportunity—but I do have the same expectation that he does with regards to the “divided house” of religious and “nontheist” Americans. Once we reach that tipping point, the house will cease to be divided, and finally, actual individual liberty will greet America for the first time in its history. I hasten to point out that such a dramatic change will take decades, if not centuries, without a Constantinian influencer emerging in the public eye—or atheists starting to talk about their views in a clearer, smarter way that actually addresses why people believe, instead of treating them as mystifying mystics.

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