An atheist is kicked out of Boy Scouts for professing his beliefs. An Alabama Supreme Court justice erects a 5,200-pound granite shrine to the Ten Commandments in the state courthouse. Creationists contaminate the public schools of Ohio and parts of Georgia with their pseudoscientific scheme to undermine the scientific theory of evolution. The Bush administration, judging "ensoulment" has occurred by the life's blastocyst stage, restricts federally supported stem cell research. Americans are outraged when the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance are ruled unconstitutional.
This is a surprising level of hostility toward secularism, especially in a country whose constitution never mentions the word God, and prohibits the establishment of any religious doctrine - even that of monotheism.
I used to be a relatively content atheist; why care if the majority of people believe in one god or another?
After all, everyone rejects the existence of most gods; it's only a matter of degree. I'll bet most Christians don't believe in the existence of Zeus, Oden, Vishnu, Mithrus, Horus or the tree Druid spirits.
Count me in. I don't accept any of that primitive mythology either. I differ only by including the God of the Hebrew Scriptures to the long list of hypothetical beings that I see no compelling evidence for.
But after recent events, especially the creationists' war on science, and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, my apathy has eroded away. The assault on secular society is too frightening. Organized religion is the most dangerous problem in our world.
Although not all secularists are atheists, many people equate the two; and atheism, it is argued, unavoidably leads to immorality and bad behavior. The absurdity of that assumption is staggering.
Bad behavior? Compared to what? Where is the evidence that belief in a deity leads to good behavior? Our prisons are filled with theists. The child molesting Catholic priests are clearly religious, as are the bishops who protected and relocated them. And atheists were not responsible for the inconceivable cruelty and suffering of the Middle Ages, theú Inquisition or the Crusades - nope, that was organized religion.
In contrast, Darrell Lambert, the atheist Boy Scout, had achieved Eagle Scout status and earned 39 merit badges - impressive accomplishments for an "amoral atheist." Quite simply, morality as a product of religion is a myth.
During any discussion with theists, after they inevitably fail to prove God's existence, the assertion is made that atheists cannot disprove the existence of God. While this is quite correct, of course, it is also quite irrelevant. There are an infinite number of beings whose existence is impossible to disprove (Zeus, Oden, Vishnu, unicorns, etc.).
The inability to disprove something's existence is not a rational, or compelling reason for belief. The burden of proof lies with those who make a positive claim of existence.
Most accurately defined, atheism simply means "without belief in a deity." But some atheists do argue that God does not exist. Usually this refers to a specific concept of God that is paradoxical and not logically coherent, such an omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent God.
One underappreciated problem with theism is that a belief in an afterlife has the unavoidable effect of making this life less unique and precious. Theism, therefore, inherently devalues human life. Unfortunately, as we have seen, this can have dangerous consequences.
The suicide bombers in Israel and the Sept. 11 hijacckers clearly believed in a heavenly afterlife. Good luck finding an atheist willing to strap a bomb to his or her back, or fly a plane into a building. Frighteningly, however, there seems to be no end to theists willing to perform such monstrous acts.
In the Middle East, Kashmir, Sri Lanka, Northern Ireland and elsewhere, the most intractable and dangerous of the world's problems are mired in religion. There can be no compromise when "absolute truths" are at issue.
With weapons of mass destruction potentially becoming more available, the consequences of continuing religious conflicts could be disastrous. Why are religious groups so self-destructively stubborn?
How can they be so absolutely certain in beliefs that contradict those of other religious groups? The answer is faith.
Because of the lack of positive evidence for the existence of a deity, all religions require some level of faith to foster belief. Faith is, by definition, the firm belief in something without proof.
Interesting questions arise. How does faith originate? How does an individual know which religion to blindly accept and obey? The answer is shockingly straightforward.
The vast majority of personal religious beliefs can be accurately predicted based solely on the beliefs of one's parents or the culture one is raised in. Odds are that an individual born in Saudi Arabia will be a Muslim; in Ireland, a Catholic; in India, a Hindu, and so on. In an effort to be intellectually honest, religionists should ask themselves, "Are my religious beliefs based on rationality and evidence or indoctrination?"
Many might find an honest answer to be simultaneously illuminating and disturbing. Ultimately, no religion can demonstrate its firmly held beliefs are factual. Logic and reason are not helpful when choosing the "truth" of one religion over another.
Faith is required, and the origin of an individual's faith toward any particular religion is overwhelmingly cultural indoctrination.
Religious surveys indicate the United States is a predominantly Christian nation; as such, the general public holds a variety of interesting supernatural beliefs: virgin birth, resurrection, the devil, God, heaven, hell, immortal souls, original sin, angels, demons, etc. Although I strongly support an individual's right to hold whatever beliefs he or she cares to, it's important for religionists to recognize their supernatural beliefs are anything but established facts.
Their beliefs are, instead, fundamentally based on faith. These supernatural opinions have no place in a secular government. Curtailing funding for stem cell research, a technology with enormous life-saving potential, based on the supposed existence of a soul is as absurd as basing foreign policy decisions on tarot card readings.
It is simply irrational for government policies to be prejudiced by unsupported supernatural beliefs and indoctrinations.
John Bice is an MSU staff member at Life Sciences Building. Reach him at bice/msu.edu.