Religion’s Greatest Lie

“While believing strongly, without evidence, is considered a mark of madness or stupidity in any other area of our lives, faith in God still holds immense prestige in our society. Religion is the one area of our discourse where it is considered noble to pretend to be certain about things no human being could possibly be certain about.” – Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation

Each day we are bombarded with article after article, news report after news report of the horrors that religion inflicts on the world.  From Muslims throwing homosexuals off the tops of buildings, widespread female genital mutilation, and the censorship of ideas in the name of “religious liberty” just to name a few.  As egregious as the above examples are, and I could write a number of articles enumerating the barbaric acts of the religious, these all pale into insignificance when one considers the greatest lie of religion: the idea that death is not the end. When Christopher Hitchens talks about religion poisoning everything, the idea that death is not the end is how the poison is introduced. There is a stark contrast between how an atheist and a religious person views this life. As an atheist, I understand fully that the few years I have on this planet will come to an end and so will I.  This makes every single moment we have here precious.  Contrast that to the religious person who, when faced with an appalling situation will rationalize it and say, “When we get to heaven, all wrongs will be righted.” The most pungent example of this occurred during a discussion panel.  Christopher Hitchens had this to say:

“What about Fraulein Friesel in Austria, whose father, unwilling to get out of the way, kept her in a dungeon where she didn’t see daylight for twenty-four years and came down most nights to rape and to sodomize her, often in front of the children… I want you just to take a moment to imagine how she must have begged him. Imagine how she must have pleaded. Imagine for how long. Imagine how she must of prayed everyday, how she must have beseeched Heaven. Imagine, for twenty-four years. And no. No answer at all. Nothing! No-thing! NOTHING! Imagine how those children must have felt. Now, you say, ‘That’s all right that she went through that, because she’ll get a better deal in another life.’ I have to ask you if you can be morally or ethically serious and postulate such a question. No that had to happen, and Heaven did watch it with indifference, because it knows that that score will later on be settled. So it was well worth her going through it – she’ll have a better time next time. I don’t see how you can look anyone – ANYONE- in the face, or live with yourself and say anything so hideously, wickedly immoral as that, or even imply it.”

I hope the reader understands that the response of the religious makes sense only if they believe the lie that death is not the end; that there is a life after we die where all wrongs will be righted.  Implied in this idea is the poison that we are morally released from doing anything to alleviate the suffering of others as “god will right all wrongs in the great by and by”.  Nothing could be more corrosive to morality than this and the above example shows how effective that poison is.

 

Memento Mori

“Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day…The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.” – Seneca

“You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” – Marcus Aurelius

One of the epiphanies associated with adopting the secular worldview is the realization that this is the only life we have.  There is not a single shred of evidence that there is anything waiting for us on the other side of death.  Oftentimes the contemplation of this fact prevents some from adopting a secular viewpoint in spite of being convinced by the arguments and evidence.  I’m sure you’ve heard the objection, “I can’t believe we live and die and then that is it.”  This fact is so unpalatable for some that it elicits an emotional response that overrides the conclusions of reason.

For me, this realization was a very visceral epiphany.  The understanding that this is our one and only life, rather than being a strictly intellectual acquisition, resonated deep inside me and caused me to reevaluate just about every aspect of my life both in the present and what I had planned moving forward in the future. Prior to this, I felt like I had all the time in the world and if I didn’t get to it in this life well, there was always eternity (of the Catholic variety) waiting and there would certainly be time o’plenty to get to it, whatever it happened to be. All that changed with the realization that once you got that tap on the shoulder letting you know it was time to leave the party, that was that.  The party wasn’t over, it would continue on but you had to leave never, ever to return.

What goes through your mind, dear reader, when you contemplate this fact?  Is it something you push to the side, glancing at it occasionally with averted vision or is it something you embrace each day?  Some might say that to constantly focus on one’s death is a morbid view and an unhealthy thing.  Nothing could be further from the truth!

The Stoics, Greek and Roman philosophers, understood the importance of meditating daily on the idea of Memento Mori, roughly translated “One day you too will die.” They exhorted those practicing the Stoic disciplines to keep this fact in mind each and every day. In addition to being a philosophical framework, Stoicism is also a mental discipline and, like any discipline is something that is to be practiced.  Was your experience of the realization of your eventual death something that motivated you and caused you to appreciate even more this one and only life we all have?  Then the Stoic practice of being constantly cognizant of this fact each and every day will continue that even more so.  More importantly, it will motivate you to change your behavior. Speaking from personal experience the awareness of my own unavoidable death is the driving force that provides meaning to what I choose to invest my time and energy in.  I don’t have an unlimited amount of time and each and every day I am taking more and more from less and less.  Every second is precious to me and I am careful about how I spend my time and the activities I invest that precious time in.  Far from draining the value of our life as the religious would have you believe, it adds meaning to it which is the very thing the religious claim is lacking in the secular worldview.  There are other philosophies that also take somewhat the same view towards death as the Stoics but I have found that the Stoics have a special appeal to people who hold to a secular worldview.  There is other wisdom to be mined from the Stoics but nothing as transformative as Memento Mori.  If you are looking for a framework upon which to hang your secular worldview give the Stoics a good look.  Practice the different disciplines starting with Memento Mori and see how transformative it can be.

“A man who dares to waste one hour of time has not discovered the value of life.” – Charles Darwin

 

A wonderful holiday gift.

I’ve been asked and am honored to have accepted the position of International Editor for Nastik Nation, India’s online forum for atheism and free-thought.  Why the name ‘Nastik Nation’?  As the website explains, “The word nastik generally stands for an atheist in the main languages of the Indian peninsula, except in Tamil. In Tamil it is naathigam, that too is a word derived from the same Sanskrit word nastik.”

The website publishes a monthly newsletter which can be accessed from their website which, in addition to being very well written, is also didactic for the secular community.  The issues facing the secular movements in both India and the United States are fundamentally the same though the particulars differ.  The insights that our secular brothers and sisters in India provide on these issues are invaluable.   More importantly, there is an instant connection you feel between yourself and the writer; the power of ideas to unite groups and cultures moves from the theoretical to the visceral. Seeing the ideas we both espouse at work changing the political, legal and cultural landscape in both milieus shows the power these ideas have. The power of these enlightenment ideas are still as strong as the day they were born and this gives me hope for future generations.

Most importantly, I will be able to have a hand in helping to bring attention to the work that is being done and difficulties our brothers and sisters are facing because of the ideas they hold.  These difficulties are far more strenuous than anything we face here in the States and as such each and every one of these brave men and women are inspirations to us all. A quick Google search will turn up articles such as this which illustrate the risks of being charged with blasphemy, or as I like to call it, thought-crime, by the religious fanatics.  I am constantly inspired by the bravery of the people who make up the Indian secular movement and am honored to be working with them.