What Do You REALLY Believe?
An issue that pops up with some regularity in the free-thought community is where we should and/or do stand regarding “mainstream” religious believers. These are not the ultra-religious zealots with which religion is often associated in this country at this time. Often, these folks are progressive politically, and some of these individuals will tell you that their progressive political beliefs are an imperative necessitated by their religious beliefs. As a liberal and atheist I am all for working with mainstream religious folk to advance a progressive political agenda, (so long as they respect my right to atheism just as I respect their right to religious beliefs), especially in these perilous times. Now understand, this does not lessen my hope that some day all people will make decisions based on reason and logic, and not on ancient superstitions. But people must come to rationalism of their own volition; imposing a secular worldview on people (as some communist countries tried to do) is both futile and unethical. But persuasion is definitely okay, and one way to persuade the religiously inclined is to press them (gently, gently) on what they actually believe.
You see, in some ways it is quite difficult to differentiate between the stated beliefs of “out-there” religionists and their moderate brethren, and putting this point to the moderates may just get them to re-examine their beliefs. A case in point: last year a woman in Florida decided to pray. With her eyes closed. While driving a car. Which proceeded to crash into a house. (Fortunately, no one was injured, although both car and house suffered significant damage). And for some reason, police brought her to a psychiatric hospital for observation. I guess they thought she just might be mentally unstable. And to be clear, this woman has nothing in common with mainline religious believers, who would never consider doing such a crazy thing, right? Well maybe, but then again, maybe not. It depends on what you REALLY believe. Do you believe in a personal god? Do you believe in the power of prayer? Do you believe that god knows everything that is happening all the time (omniscient) and is all-powerful (omnipotent). Do you believe that god (or one of his angels; you believe in them too, right?) looks out for you? After all, these are mainstream religious beliefs in this country. If you believe these things, the actions of the woman in the above story don’t seem so crazy, do they? God is there, he knows everything, so he knew the woman was praying with her eyes closed while driving, and as he is omnipotent and looking out for her, it was reasonable for her to believe that he would take the wheel and see her through to safety. My point is that there is nothing in these beliefs that conflict with mainstream religious thought in this country. Except for actually believing them.
This reminds me of an incident from right after 9/11 involving the oft-controversial television personality Bill Maher. Maher speculated that perhaps the terrorists were braver than we are; after all, they were willing to die for their beliefs, while we tend to just drop bombs from the safety of an airplane and then hightail it out of there. Maher lost his show for these comments, but that’s another issue. What’s germane is that Maher (who is an atheist) missed the point here. How brave is it to fly into a building if you believe, and I mean REALLY believe, that as soon as it hits you will wake up in a far better place? Not very. Bill was off the mark on this because (to his credit) he just couldn’t fathom truly believing in the supernatural nonsense that the terrorists really did believe in.
My overarching point is that most “moderate” religious folks do not actually believe in the superstitious nonsense to which they pay lip service. If they did, the actions of a woman closing her eyes to pray while driving a car wouldn’t seem so, well, crazy. So I say to my mainstream religious brothers and sisters: as you clearly are not all-in on your religious beliefs, why not take the logical next step and give up superstition altogether? You know you don’t really believe, and we free-thinkers are here to tell you that it’s okay to quit pretending that you do.