There could be a super-intelligence with superpowers, somewhere in existence, that would fit the description of a “god.” The universe is an unimaginably vast, ancient, unexplored place, with a staggering level of complexity. Still, it’s very clear that no human currently knows anything about any such god-being. Many are pretending to know things they don’t know, and in so doing, lying to themselves and their followers.
If that includes you, your belief in “god” predisposes you to a laundry list of other reactionary beliefs. And even if you consider yourself liberal, your god-belief makes you overwhelmingly likely to hold a ton of ugly, conservative biases. You may think that you can believe in “god” and still be a fair-minded progressive, but you can’t. Your belief is holding you back, and by extension the world.
Progress isn’t primarily through better ideas. Progress requires the courage to reject bad ideas.
“God” is the worst idea in human history. Mythical or assumed real, this idea is hopelessly vague, undefinable, and can therefore be molded to fit any agenda. “God’s” characteristic as a progenitor, punisher, reaper, and all-powerful fixer casts all of us flesh-and-blood humans as subservient weaklings, capable only of responding to our “maker” with awe, fear and submission. “God” is the original conspiracy theory—the root of all other conspiracy theories—and it has to be sidelined, for humanity to advance.
There have been thousands of deities worshipped in recorded history, and doubtless many more who have faded into the mists of time. The Biblical “god” Yahweh is what Christians and Jews are talking about when they make “god” noises. Muslims call their “god” Allah, perhaps a phonetic confusion with the Hebrew “Eloah,” or “Elohim,” the plural. You can find endless controversy about whether Yahweh and Allah are the same being. But neither of them are beings at all, that anyone knows of. Just cultural controversy involving disagreeable male characters from dueling 3,000-year-old desert myths. For Yahweh, it’s a myth written down about the national “god” of the kingdoms of Israel (Samaria) and Judah, a storm-and-warrior deity who leads the heavenly army against Israel’s enemies. Why does about half the modern world worship a “war-god” with its origins in Israel, rather than one of the many gods of ancient Egypt, Rome, or Greece—or even China? Why don’t we worship a female nature “god?” Why didn’t we create our own uniquely American “god?” Because “gods” are carried through history by military, financial, and cultural staying power.
Scholars of religion have meticulously traced how these ancient gods and scriptures have woven themselves into the story of civilization. Frankly I can’t think of anything less interesting to a secularist. The correct number of gods and religions we should be concerned with in our daily lives is zero. But in the U.S., we’re stuck with Yahweh and Christianity as a force to be reckoned with and hopefully one day, defeated. Had history played out differently, we might be cursed with some other version of a “god” being weaponized against us. This isn’t any more controversial than saying that “if Hitler had won WWII, Americans would be speaking German.” Gods are the language of power, and like English, Yahweh is what Americans speak.
Confusion about origins and human purpose have led many cultures to fabricate their own custom deities based on grandiose projections of their needs, or their nature. Wherever wealth, power, and corruption are found, you’ll also find claims of divine legitimacy. In modern America, religion is a $1.2-trillion-dollar-a-year-business, bigger than Google and Apple combined. Every year since 1953, the National Prayer Breakfast has attracted powerbrokers of all political persuasions who genuflect to the Christian altar. As Jeff Sharlet established in his book The Family, for those drunk with religious power, might makes right, and right, in turn, signifies divinity. A perfect circle.
The American version of “god” carries the full legacy of colonialism and slavery, and yes, white supremacy. American evangelical Christian churches overwhelmingly support former president Donald Trump. The pussy-grabber has the full blessing of the modern followers of Jesus of Nazareth, in spite of his incitement of the day of infamy at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, or maybe because of it. It was an insurrection full of prayer and Christian imagery. The sordid American story of Christian Nationalism in the Trump era has parallels with other religions supporting corrupt, bigoted, strongmen in other nations, such as Hindu Nationalism and Narendra Modi in India.
The “gods” differ, but the results are the same
Because of its messianic self-righteousness, god-belief has become a prime source of human cruelty, including racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, fascism, mass murder, nationalistic fervor, and genocide. Don’t even try to quibble about 20th-century anti-communists or communist governments with state-religions deifying their leaders. Yes, many of these regimes were officially “atheistic.” But that’s because they needed to create their own replacement state-religions. Their anti-religious stance was anti-competition. In modern North Korea, they even gave their state-religion a name: Juche. Gods don’t have to be imaginary or supernatural, to be deadly. Gods are archetypes. They can even be unaccountable ideologies.
So what, then, is the opposite of deadly messianic god-belief, or ideological fervor? It’s not irreligion. It’s not atheism. It’s radical church-state separation. It’s an institutional framework spanning electoral politics, and journalism, and education, for subjecting religious ideas to the same scrutiny as non-religious ideas. It’s elevating science and the humanities. It’s the rule of law, separation of powers, checks and balances, fairness, and justice. Above all, it’s accountability.
Secularism, a prerequisite for modernity
Many people believe that atheists are too hard on religion, that we should draw the line at separation of church and state. That we should “let people believe what they want to believe.” Here’s why that doesn’t work: In a nation with self-government, religious people can elect radical theocrats. And why wouldn’t they? God-belief has a way of galvanizing adherents to believe in their ultimate righteousness and vote accordingly. If “God is the greatest,” why not implement “God’s law?” Without strict, legally-enforced secularism, tolerating religious belief in a democracy is like sleeping on dynamite.
Turbocharged by religious ideology, reasonable disagreements about taxes, healthcare, sexuality, racial equity, or social spending acquire the frisson of good vs. evil among religious voters. That can’t ever be a functional environment for compromise or problem-solving.
Official, constitutional secularism in a nation of devout believers is of course preferable to theocracy. But it may not be sustainable. We’ve seen countless examples of secular nations backsliding into official religion, including Turkey, Poland, Hungary, the former Soviet Union, and the United States.
Human rights, therefore, won’t be safe until we confront belief itself.
“Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.” –Voltaire
I’ve heard the apologetics from those who want to preserve a future for religion in some form: The waffling, the foot-stomping, the hair-splitting, the fallback position of “no organized religion, but yes spirituality,” the “liberal Christian” social-justice defense, the “baby / bathwater” defense, the argument from ignorance. I’ve heard every last, desperate stand, of the god-meme.
They’re all wrong, and not because I said so. Once you begin to understand who you are as homo sapiens, you’ll wake up to the source of the religious impulse. Then, you can’t help but recognize it stems from fear of death, and the desire for purpose and belonging. It drives some of the most otherwise sane people crazy for “god.” I understand the appeal. I was raised in a religious cult, and became a minister in my 20s. It took me until the start of my fourth decade to fully recognize the mess of confusion I’d been born into.
If you’re courageous enough, if you dig down beneath all your defenses, you know Darwin was right. Even the Pope has admitted this. You might not know the origins of the universe, but you do know that you evolved by natural selection, and that humans are the cousins of other primates—distant cousins to cows, horses, rats, dogs and dolphins. You know that the gods of the Old Testament, The Quran, or the Vedas, aren’t any more real than the Greek gods of Mount Olympus. You know that you’re a mammal, and that when you die, your carcass will follow the other 100 billion homo sapiens who’ve ever lived, into the cosmic recycling bin. You know that one day, your molecules will be repurposed into new forms, as vapor if you’re cremated, as a soil enhancer if you’re buried or composted—food for worms and trees. You know that your consciousness ceases forever when your brain shuts down. You know that the only afterlife you will ever have, is in the memories of those who remain after you’re gone.
Lots of things will happen after you die…none of them will involve you
You know this. You don’t want to believe it. No one wants to believe it. So you created a conspiracy theory to avoid the truth.
Every conspiracy theory represents a mechanism for denial of things you don’t want to believe. A statement of what would have to be true, in order for you to be able to accept a false, comforting narrative. A way of making sense of the chaos and randomness, and re-establishing a feeling of control. School shootings, political assassinations, terror attacks, elections that don’t go the way you want, demographic changes, and ultimately fear of death are the biggest drivers of conspiracies. This is known broadly as terror management theory. As people jump aboard each new conspiracy train, they seek refuge in numbers. When those followings become large enough, conspiracies become cults, like QAnon. When they become larger still, we call them religions.
The eight-fold path of denial
Each of the eight paths of denial represents a specific form of justification that a “protected” religious concept is in some form real, useful, or necessary. It’s a form of bargaining, to paper over your cognitive dissonance preventing you from acknowledging to yourself what you already know to be true.
THE FIRST PATH starts with the lament of all conscious beings: “I want more life, fucker!” Your self-preservation instinct tells you to stay alive forever, your cognition tells you that you can’t. This painful realization will lead you into mind-body and spirit-matter dualism. Dualism encompasses a lot of wishful thinking about “spirits in the material world,” about the concept of an eternal “soul,” “the hard problem of consciousness,” believing your consciousness to exist separately from your brain, (and somehow able to continue without it).
You will chase stories about near-death experiences, you will stroll down the blind avenues of Eastern mysticism and reincarnation. If you’re more honest than most, you will tell yourself that you “know” intellectually that death is probably forever, but you “hope” that there is “something more.” If you can’t stomach the pain, you’ll rationalize yourself back into pining for immortality.
This process has the power to destroy relationships. I once watched an atheist friend transform himself into a theological extremist during the course of his philosophy Ph.D. program—because he didn’t want to die. He labeled me an “annihilationist,” and cut ties. I guess in a certain sense I had become his enemy, because I was “killing” his afterlife.
THE SECOND PATH is about ancestor worship, and fear of separation from your loved ones. You can imagine some of the first humans as they placed their honored dead on a funeral pyre. They watched the smoke rising to the sky. They knew that the sky was the source of the sun and the rain and the wind. So they told each other stories about how their ancestors ascended to the “heavens” to fight or frolic with the nature gods. Some imagined they saw the outlines of heroes of ancient battles, and archetypes of their legends traced in the stars of the night sky. They knew that their memory of the dearly departed was still alive, so it wasn’t much of a stretch to imagine that they actually remained alive in some form, in a better place. These ancient humans also held hope that when they eventually died, they would see their ancestors again. The concept of living forever after death with your family in a place of eternal peace and happiness permeates religious myths—Valhalla, Stovokor, Heaven, Avalon, Nirvana, or the planet Kolob. This illusion even works for pets—The Rainbow Bridge. Sure, death is sad. But delusions are sadder still.
THE THIRD PATH concerns the bargaining you do with ‘god’ when things go wrong. Anyone who’s ever said “god, help me,” whether it’s finding a parking place, a job, or in avoiding a near-brush with death, knows what I’m talking about. If you’ve prayed for rain, for world peace, or for a loved one dying in a hospital, you’ve experienced the twin mental acts of recognizing the limits of your capability, and asking for supernatural help—basically magic. The trouble is, there’s no magic to be had. You actually know this. Yet somehow, the mental odds still stack up in favor of making what you might imagine is a million-to-one shot that “god” will come through for you. Football players throw a “Hail Mary” pass. Sometimes, when things work out, you credit “god” for the save. If things don’t work out, you’ll rationalize that you’re being punished, or ignored, or that “god” heard your prayer and said, “no.” “God has a plan,” is the catchphrase for when prayer fails on the third path of denial. You know thoughts and prayers don’t change outcomes. You’re well aware that “tots and pears” has become synonymous with doing nothing, while pretending to care. Especially when it comes to things like stopping people from being slaughtered—by guns, in church. Think about those murders as “god’s plan,” and check yourself to see if you still think “he” has one. The lottery has terrible odds–praying for “god’s” help is much, much worse.
THE FOURTH PATH is more broadly about morality, and what’s acceptable in your culture. God-believers line up as a group to blame tragedies on what they consider to be “sinful” behavior. From the Plagues of Egypt, to the Black Death, believers have long associated natural or human-made disasters with divine punishment. Covid-19 is the worst plague in 100 years, and it’s driving a historic surge in apocalyptic thinking, which manifests itself in vile, racist conspiracy theories, such as QAnon and “Stop the Steal.” Stop the Steal was blatantly racist, because it involved questioning election results in states and counties with a heavy concentration of black voters. There’s a lot of overlap between racist conspiracies, American Christian nationalism, and notions of white supremacy and white genocide. In the eyes of far-too-many American Christians, racial justice, equality and multiculturalism have become synonymous with “sin.” I’ll connect the dots in a separate article as to how god-belief and religion encourage the enforcement of a strictly conservative “moral” hierarchy, and oppose equality. But we only have to flip on the TV on any Sunday to hear Christian preachers fulminating about who they consider to be the culprits of our national decline: “Jezebel” women and abortion, “sinful” LGBT Americans, “urban rioters” which is code for black people, Muslims, Hindus, heretics and non-believers. “God” is never more clear about anything in America—than about who you should hate. Anyone with a shred of self-awareness or ethics should deplore that hate. No government or politician that privileges the Christian “god” above all others, can ever treat other religions or non-believers fairly.
THE FIFTH PATH concerns questions about how society should be organized, and the need to provide meaning and social cohesion with a unifying myth. Yuval Noah Harari discusses the role of religions in forming human civilization in his book Homo Deus. Gods in the ancient world became like trademarks for modern corporations, and their followers built temples that helped organize commerce and governments. Tribes and nations with strong religious beliefs tended to out-compete those with weaker myths. Civilizations with more than a million people tended to spontaneously produce angry, punitive gods, which helped political leaders keep order. But here’s the key point you might have missed in that sentence: humans created their gods, not the other way around. Gods were certainly useful. They helped people cooperate, fend off intruders, and provided their lives with purpose. Gods had a terrible down-side, though, and that’s the age-old hostility of believers toward non-believers and outsiders. Nevertheless, to most people, according to Dr. Lorne Dawson, professor of the sociology of religion at the University of Waterloo, “a meaningful life is more important than life itself.” We’re all paying a very high price for that meaning. Whatever unifying benefits humanity gained from religion in ancient times, have long been outweighed by sectarian conflict in the modern world.
THE SIXTH PATH connects charity and good works to god-based organizations and their leaders. There are two approaches to solving poverty. The first is taxation with wealth redistribution to all who need it. The second involves voluntary donations to charity. Guess which one god-believers support? The voluntary one, that allows them to separate the poor into “deserving” and “undeserving” categories, making aid conditional on religious participation.
Since voluntary contributions are never sufficient to help everyone, poverty persists. That allows tax-exempt religious organizations to maintain the pretense of doing “good works,” while using their aid as a loss-leader for proselytizing. For example, Christian homeless shelters maintain an air of superiority with strict, dehumanizing rules, promoting the not-so-subtle message that if people would just follow Jesus they wouldn’t have been homeless in the first place.
Think I’m exaggerating? Here’s a quote from a Kansas City Christian men’s shelter: “We offer a Gospel-based recovery program called Christian Community of Recovery (C-COR). Today, many men have successfully completed C-COR and they are clean, sober, active in church, employed in a career and experiencing the “abundant life” Jesus offers.” Our tax dollars should not support this, but they do, by giving religious charities a tax exemption.
Poverty is a huge source of crime, violence, and suffering. If we want to solve poverty instead of exploiting it for religious recruitment, we need universal, direct non-sectarian government aid. Our health, dignity and safety depend on it.
THE SEVENTH PATH re-creates god-belief as a personal path of spirituality or “religion for one.” Religious “nones” who claim to be “spiritual but not religious” were 27% of the US population in 2017. They outnumber every other religious denomination in the United States. This group rarely attends religious services, and tends to have rejected scriptural definitions of “god,” in favor of their own internal concept of “god.” This is why I call it “religion for one:” People are replacing what they’ve been told is true, in favor of what they want to be true. This might reflect an improvement in ethics. Barna Group reports that “spiritual but not religious” people “identify as liberal (52%) or moderate (34%), with only a fraction identifying as conservative (14%).” But this group still hasn’t reached a full acceptance of the reality of their material existence. They’re still seeking supernatural answers. And that still leaves them susceptible to the many depredations of the god-meme that can drive them into right-wing religion. Demagogues and influencers within the “spiritual but not religious” group in 2020 latched onto QAnon with a vengeance. Food and health and anti-vax conspiracies run rampant within this subculture. Social media has replaced church as the “organizer” of their religion. The excellent Conspirituality Podcast explores this recent phenomenon.
THE EIGHTH PATH attempts to elevate consciousness over matter. Spirit-matter dualism is bad enough. But there’s yet another group of spirit-believers who contend that matter isn’t real at all. That everything in the universe is actually spirit, or consciousness. That consciousness is the force of creation of the universe, and therefore precedes and supersedes matter, which is maya or illusion. Samsara is the journey through the illusion of matter and pain and reincarnation, to get back to the true nature of all things and the self, which is spirit. This Eastern religious concept is a part of Buddhism as the “ground of being,” and even some Christian theologians such as Paul Tillich have jumped on board.
Biocentrism is another pseudoscientific take on the nature of reality from Robert Lanza, M.D. (Previous article). It represents a full-frontal assault on the standard model of the universe in favor of a consciousness-based model. It’s an elaborate argument from ignorance (incompleteness). Probably the less said about this incoherent gobbledygook—the better.
The cutting-edge scientific understanding is that consciousness is what your brain does. It’s an epiphenomenon of the interaction of matter within your neurology. To attain this clarity about your consciousness, it’s not enough to reject personal god-concepts like Yahweh. “Spirituality” is another broad philosophical category people use to enhance the internal grandiosity of their ego–while assuming an outer pretense of humility. If someone believes that their consciousness is the “ground of being,” then they’re imagining themselves to be a demigod, amplifying their own desires to universal proportions.
Consider the absolute staggering hubris of someone who believes that through mere desire–by wishing and willing, they can create their own personal “reality.” Where does the rest of humanity fit into that solipsistic picture? How can anyone justify the immense suffering of the less fortunate in those terms? Did hungry kids just not think positively enough? This is inexcusable!
Responsible people see themselves on a lifelong quest. A quest to gain the required courage, maturity and discipline to submit to their status as a single mortal mammal among billions of others, all sharing a small planet circling an average star. This is the most straightforward description of the human condition. Yet so many people resist it. Rational thinkers recognize that they must subordinate themselves to the laws of chemistry, biology, and physics that govern our existence. And they recognize that it’s only hard-won knowledge about sociology, economics, political philosophy, psychology, and history that provide actual rational answers to solving the problem of hungry kids.
To a “new age” egoist, then, the toughest challenge is finding the humility to vanquish their spiritual pride, along with the breezy illusion of effortless control they’re used to.
But what ethical choice does anyone have, other than to buckle down and take accountability? It’s a challenge for many people to inhabit capital-R adult Reality. Because it requires a person to make peace with their mortality, constant uncertainty, and to accept their responsibility for action.
Part 2 of this series will catalog the conservative moral hierarchy, the unavoidable side-effect of god-belief and spirituality.
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There are unresolved paradoxes between the experience of cosciousness vs documentable description of the related physical phenomena. Not saying that these unknowns in anyway justify concepts of the supernatural or spiritualism. However, there is truth to the concept that individuals conscious experience of reality is mostly mediated by their previous personal experience of reality. Wishing can’t change reality, but the experience of reality is a personal creation. Sorry, nothing particularly insightful there, just musings related to my pondering the paradox of free will.
We know that consciousness arises from the chemistry and physics of neurology. Even if there isn’t yet a good description of how it works, we know that it does. We know that destroying or disabling regions of the brain has a measurable impact on consciousness. We know that chemicals introduced into the brain alter its function, and can induce psychedelic experiences. And yes, people’s prior experiences and beliefs will determine how they will interpret those altered states, for sure.