No, Atheists Don't Owe Your Religion Any Respect

Faith Should Not Get Any Respect
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Faith Should Not Get Any Respect

As one of the most visible comets of the 20th century, Hale-Bopp would have been newsworthy anyway. 

Easily seen with the naked eye for 18 consecutive months, it was a constant celebrity in the media spotlight. Then on March 26, 1997, Hale-Bopp reached a new pinnacle of notoriety. 

It was on this date that 39 decomposing bodies were discovered near San Diego, California. These individuals had apparently been part of mass suicide and all were dressed in similar black attire with hoods over their heads. 

It turned out that they were members of a cult that believed it was actively taking refuge from a damaged Earth. They were convinced that a spacecraft was following the comet and their souls would board the vessel once their physical deaths were consummated. 

This was all part of a bizarre vision of biblical prophecy traced back to the 1970s and spun by two cult leaders. These 39 people had incredible faith, enough to gamble their very existence on an unusual— and seemingly improbable—course of action. 

One cannot deny the possibility that their souls did, in fact, make the jump and move on to a “better place.” There is no evidence of that outcome, of course, so the rest of us must suspect that they died on the fateful night they ingested their deadly cocktail. 

Certainly from that time onward, the Hale-Bopp Comet’s legacy would be significantly linked with the Heaven’s Gate cult. On May 21, 2011, the world was supposed to end—at least according to a radio host named Harold Camping. 

Camping embraced Old Testament entries that had been passed down for centuries in the oral storytelling tradition and employed an incredibly convoluted series of Biblically-based calculations to arrive at this date. He even pinpointed a time of six p.m., EDT. 

I didn’t place too much stock in this claim as I headed down to Costa Rica for a well-deserved vacation at that precise moment. 

There were people, however—various groups of Christians—who actually had confidence in Camping’s prediction and made ready for the end to come. 

For months they reached out to others through websites and radio programs, trying to make sure that people had made their peace with Jesus. 

On May 22, 2011, all over the planet Earth, people got up and attended to the normal activities of daily living. Folks took care of elimination, brushed their teeth, got dressed, ate breakfast, and did the things they would ordinarily do on such a day. 

Some faced malnutrition, thirst, disease, terror, and all manner of other privations. Many laid in the sun, dying with flies buzzing around them—it was the end of the world for them. 

Jesus was a no-show, as he had been on so many other days. Meanwhile, Camping and his followers attempted to publicly wipe the proverbial egg from their own faces. 

Not surprisingly, Camping later predicted a new date for the end of the world. If at first, you don’t succeed . . . Actually, this would be his third failed prophecy. 

More may follow—film at 11. A popular choice on lists of strange religions, Scientology was the concoction of science fiction author L. Ron Hubbard in the early 1950s. 

Employing evidence that was apparently only revealed to Hubbard, this viewpoint posits that a galactic tyrant named Xenu came to the Earth about 75 million years ago with billions of sentient beings called Thetans. 

The Thetans amassed around the bases of volcanoes, then hydrogen bombs were placed inside these geological protrusions and detonated. After the fireworks, the Thetans somehow set about attaching themselves to generation upon generation of the living (they must have had lots of fun piloting various dinosaurs. I wonder if that had anything to do with the ultimate dino extinction). 

Having assumed the lives of many humans over the millennia, members of the Church of Scientology are now able to examine their pasts through a process called auditing. 

That is hardly all there is to it. As one might suspect, an extraordinary amount of additional detail is associated with their doctrine and dogma. 

Much of the discovery of pertinent points seems to separate adherents from their hard-earned cash—several names have been suggested for this process. Several countries, including Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Greece, as well as the United Kingdom, have refused to recognize Scientology as a religion, but it is accepted as such in the good old U. S. of A. 

The church gets a serious chip on its shoulder with anyone who questions the validity of the liturgy and it loves to wield the sword of litigation to silence critics. 

This has not spared them a large measure of derision and ridicule, however, and they are often held in disdain by the broader public. 

That doesn’t make them wrong, naturally, but a close examination of the fountainhead of their faith certainly begs a lot of questions on the wisdom of the thesis. Just what evidence was there for all of the Thetanic adventures, and how did 75 million years of history become evident to L. Ron Hubbard of all people? 

A lot of folks are just cynical about these mysteries, I guess. Perhaps Hubbard’s background as a sci-fi writer feeds the suspicions of doubting Thomases. 

As we look at the Heaven’s Gate cult, the followers of Camping, the Scientologists, and all manner of other religious notions from the far frontiers of imagination, a lot of people might conclude that the proponents were more than a bit “out there.” 

Would anyone, though, suggest that we shouldn’t respect their constitutional right to pursue their respective beliefs no matter how wacky they may be? 

I would certainly give them the full measure of consideration because all citizens of the US are due freedom of religion as a birthright. I also expect a similar level of respect for my own right to believe what I want about metaphysical issues. 

Let’s take it to the next level. How many people would find fault with me as an Atheist—as a person of any sort for that matter—if I didn’t respect the irrationality exercised by those individuals? 

Would anyone damn me or find me bigoted because I look askance at these wayward souls for demonstrating an appallingly incoherent ability to think critically? 

Am I supposed to see them as virtuous because their nonsensical assessments reflect religious contemplation? I guess, in a way, I might hold the strength of their personal commitment in some regard, but aside from that, should I tip my hat to their apparent illogic like it’s a valued commodity? 

Do people generally revere stupidity or foolishness? I don’t think so. Yet certain groups of people seem to demand such reverence for a not altogether dissimilar investment of faith. Recently, I had separate conversations with a couple of Christians about my book No Santa, No Tooth Fairy, No God—The Need to Challenge Faith in America. 

In talking with them, I stressed that when religious people are attempting to base public policy on religion when they strive to use the “machinery of government” for religious purposes when they belligerently bully those outside their ranks, they are asking to be challenged on the strength of their spiritual foundation. 

People can’t expect to display that degree of stubborn self-righteousness without having to establish that their faith rests upon a substantial bedrock of evidence, logic, science, and/or other matters of sound reasoning. 

If this isn’t provided, it begs the question of how such forceful and arrogant spiritual advocacy can be justified with or without consideration of religious establishments. 

The individuals with whom I conversed pointed out that faith cannot be challenged on this basis, that it is founded on something apart from reasoning. 

Faith is a matter which is grounded on more of an emotional and intuitive plane and is not generally built upon a platform of rationale. 

Little did they seem to realize, but each was confessing that religious faith is irrational. No doubt, they didn’t think of it in those terms, but if something isn’t rationally based—that is, founded upon things like reason, evidence, and logic—it is by default not rational. 

Belief instituted on faith alone is untenable from a cognitive perspective. It is a flight of untethered disregard for facts. One of the Christians who talked with me, however, absolutely insisted that I should respect her exercise of faith. 

I looked at her and shook my head side-to-side, telling her that I fully respected her right to embrace that faith as long as she, in turn, has a similar disposition toward me. 

In retrospect, I could have added that I can respect people’s kindness, dedication, productive endeavors, humor, artistry, courage to defend the oppressed, and many other admirable traits regardless of religious affiliation. 

Asking me to respect a person’s propping of religion with faith, however, is asking me to venerate irrationality, to find virtue in something that is indicative of faulty judgment. 

I cannot do that. It is like presuming that people should appreciate the thinking of Heaven’s Gate cult members, Harold Camping, or your average Scientologist. 

Mainstream religious practitioners might take exception to that, but this may simply be a matter of asking whose irrationality it is. Religious faith is religious faith. 

If beliefs are not based upon reason, quibbling over some quantitative degree of irrationality is pretty meaningless. Within Christianity, for example, there is no substantial evidence for god, and validation of the existence of Jesus is shaky at best. 

The Gospels have been demonstrated to have been fiction, and the word of Paul is based on visions over someone he imagined to be otherworldly and not a person who walked the Earth. Church dogma has been conflicting and self-serving. 

The “success” of Christianity is largely a matter of historical inertia, childhood indoctrination, the promise of reward, and the threat of godly punishment if faith is not maintained. 

When it is scrutinized with even a modicum of objective effort, all of the props fall away and it collapses under its own weight. There is nothing there. 

Talk with any non-believer who was once a person of faith, and he or she will tell you how quickly the fallacies melt away. 

Reinforced by the dominance of their relative numbers and religious institutions, mainstream practitioners find that their complacency sets like mortar between small stones to contain questioning of faith. 

Worse, it gives believers false confidence for bullying, even though they really do not have strong ground upon which to stand. 

Most Christians, for example, don’t seem to mind laughing along with comedians or commentators as they make references to Heaven’s Gate, Harold Camping, or Scientologists. 

They don’t realize, however, that their own foundation is fabricated from the same kind of papier-mâché. All that is left to support religious belief is faith, pixy dust, and the theological emphasis on the importance of both. Everybody wants respect. 

As I state in my book, Atheists want a place of respect at America’s table just like everyone else. I’m not expecting that we’re going to win over the warm affections of the masses immediately. They’re not ready for that. 

We should, however, get the same kind of respect that most people receive on a default basis without the baggage of unwarranted biases which flow from the religious community. At least nonbelievers tend to base their theological views upon sound reasoning and a disciplined examination of dogma. 

This contrasts greatly with the incoherence of faith-based religious support. I am certainly one Atheist among many who is willing to respect religious people for all manner of things, first and foremost their right to believe. 

When it comes to respecting the exercise of faith, however, that is one bridge too far. Belief through faith is an act of cognitive weakness, not strength. I cannot deny its essence to gaze upon it as admirable any more than I can look up with reverence to the members of Heaven’s Gate, Harold Camping, or the Scientologists. 

Let’s look at this one more way. If I told religious readers that there was a giant purple giraffe with red spots who lives on the dark side of the moon and that this entity has the power to grant wishes to all who believe in her, how many would be eager to invest their faith in such a belief? 

People would instantly want to know what evidence supports this creature’s existence and how its powers could possibly be validated. Most would laugh at the absurdity of such claims brought out of nowhere. 

How could such a being have any awareness of what occurs on Earth or any impact on planetary affairs from its lunar location? People would demand proof. 

Oddly enough, from a perspective of simplicity, it is probably far more likely that the giraffe could exist than an all-powerful god that governs and manipulates the entire universe. 

Note that none of us were around when the Christian/Jewish/ Islamic god was first proposed so that we could have similar reactions to his/ her/its possible existence. The gods of today were generally suggested in a far more primitive and gullible yesterday. 

Obviously, just about no one would say that faith in the giraffe is commendable, yet why is faith in any god nobler? 

It seems that when you take a 3,800-year-old legend about Yahweh that has no more proof and is just as unbelievable, run it through centuries of primitive cultures that were primed with fear, build a model of inculcation that requires faith to indoctrinate helpless children, then voilà, nonsensical faith becomes a virtue. 

Still, if it looks like a duck, it acts like a duck and sounds like a duck, it’s probably a duck. Religious faith not based on substantial reasoning or evidence is irrational. 

This reality is a truth that cannot be twisted by wishful thinking. Believers may form a mutual admiration society among themselves which creates an illusion of respectability for faith, but in the end, it is what it is. Certainly, no reverence of it will be forthcoming from me.

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By Michael Spry

Author of No Santa, No Tooth Fairy, No God—The Need to Challenge Faith in America, available from and other booksellers. He is a contributor to the book Michigan Atheists Speak Out and coauthor of Adoption Without Fear.

First published in American Atheists Magazine 2012 (1st quarter), republished on Fadewblogs courtesy to the author.

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