On the subject of God, many have provided their opinions. Even as more and more people sway from belief, a great many laws and traditions stem from faith in a supreme being, with all the trappings of hatred and superstition that come with it. The idea of God underlies all societies and affects every person, so much so that even atheism has become as theological and rooted in scripture as any religion, and its students can be as prejudiced as any believer. It is hard for this writer to watch a Dawkins documentary, for instance, and not cringe at his hostility towards certain religious people who are, initially, friendly and helpful. In these cases, he is carrying his anti-religious prejudice into conversation without first deciding whether or not he likes the person – he is talking to a belief, not a human being. His atheism reveals deep-seated dogma and derision – traits the movement is supposed to be against.
However, looking beyond his passive-aggression, Dawkins paints a plain and truthful picture of religion as a tyrant reigning over history. Countless atrocities have been committed in God’s name, a name used for the good of kings and bishops but never the common man. Even today, the Islamic State murders, burns, and rapes its way across the Middle-East, tearing apart historical monuments and killing in increasingly sadistic and despicable ways. Taking this into account, it is easy to see why an atheist might think it OK to behave with hostility towards believers. But perhaps it is time to, briefly, step outside of religion. Maybe the problem lies with humans, and ideology. Faith in any movement acts as a shield against responsibility, allowing us to act without a care for morality or such trivial things as ‘being a decent human being’. Though religious doctrine contains a wealth of questionable material, there is little in those books to validate mass murder, public beheadings, or raping children. These blanket ideologies allow awful people to band together and run a while as monsters, ignoring everything from the law to ethics to the contents of the actual books they claim to be following. But of course, there is a head to every twisting serpent, and here you find the reason. Ideology must begin with an idealist; and ideas, you must realize, don’t need gods at all. Power, glory, pride – these are what motivate people to evil. When the head is severed, the body still thrashes. Perhaps it settles into a lazy stirring as the ideology becomes more moderate. This is like a puppet continuing to dance once its strings are cut, and maybe starting to think for itself.
The difference in religious ideologies is that the head can never die. The idealist has created an imaginary source of guilt and shame, an eternal onlooker and judge, keeping followers strictly in check, even if only in their own minds. Even so, many religions have become more moderate over time: in the modern day, even the Pope refers to the Bible as guidelines not to be taken literally. Depending on one’s viewpoint, this can be called either deterioration or evolution – a decline from the original vision as faith wavers, or positive growth as the ideology moves to better suit modern socio-political stances. In essence, religion, for the most part, has moved away from using people as tools and weapons, and more towards treating them as individuals. The occasional movement tries to force the world back into a barbaric past, and these must be dealt with as justly as our civilised world demands, but things are, despite the evil of some groups, improving. We are allowed to attach ourselves to whatever cause we wish, or none at all; and as time goes on, more and more nations are joining us in this privilege. The question of whether we are better off with or without a cause should be addressed another day.
You may have realized, if my discussion was successful in its purpose, that none of the above has anything at all to do with God, nor have I committed to its existence or non-existence. All of these movements would happen with or without the existence of a supreme being: the tragedies would happen just the same. This is because the greatest tragedy of all would be lack of free will. Without the ability to choose, humans are meaningless. In fact, I would go so far to say that, if there is a meaning of life, I want nothing to do with it. Who could possibly want a set purpose in this world, when there is so much we can make for ourselves? Free will is our greatest gift, whether it is God-given or simply a result of evolution beyond our basic instincts, giving us access to things like love, appreciation of art, and the ability to capture our universe with pen or paintbrush. Once, someone looked up at the moon and thought, I want to go there. And we did, because nothing is impossible; because nothing is defined except that which is defined by us.
Morality, for instance.
Many have made a show of denouncing morality as without substance if there is no God to decree it. I reject them: even if God created laws to follow, it is our prerogative to ignore them. Our morality is ours alone – we made it, which means it is more powerful than anything that could be forced upon us.
Maybe our morality shapes the universe.
If God exists, I think he made us in his image so that we could make him in ours.
I’ll leave you with, what I believe, is the most important message left to us by the late Terry Pratchett:
‘I was walking along the bank of a stream when I saw a mother otter with her cubs, a very endearing sight, I’m sure you’ll agree. And even as I watched, the mother otter dived into the water and came up with a plump salmon, which she subdued and dragged onto a half submerged log. As she ate it, while of course it was still alive, the body split and I remember to this day the sweet pinkness of its roes as they spilled out, much to the delight of the baby otters, who scrambled over themselves to feed on the delicacy. One of nature’s wonders, gentlemen. Mother and children dining upon mother and children. And that is when I first learned about evil. It is built into the very nature of the universe. Every world spins in pain. If there is any kind of supreme being, I told myself, it is up to all of us to become his moral superior.’