The Many Problems Of Belief, Doctrine and Atheism
Image “The Triumph Of Death” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, via Wikipedia.
Religious belief systems are one of the most powerful emotional drivers in humanity today. Depending on specific belief system, which book is taken as holy, which god or gods are worshiped, and the seriousness with which the believer takes their faith, the beliefs of the religious are held as a very personal thing; on par with the perceived identity of the believer in terms of the way it is treated. If a person threatens the belief system of a religious person in the form of written or even drawn criticisms, the reactions can be extreme; in some cases causing the death of the critic. People equate their particular brand of religious belief with all that is righteous and good in the world. The words of their holy texts not only delineate their perception of the current world and how it came about, but also the origins of humanity and the universe itself. The two major religions, Christianity and Islam, both stem from the same set of myths and stories, only the interpretation of the holy words differ. The main writer of the Christian texts is said to be Paul of Tarsus, or Saint Paul, about 40 years after the apparent death of Christ, and the writer of the Islamic holy book, the Qur’an, is said to be Muhammad, who though said to be illiterate, is believed to have dictated his god-inspired words to a scribe some 600 years after Paul. Both texts have their basis in the writings of the ancient Jews, who wrote the Old Testament, yet both religions hold the newer books in much higher esteem than the older writings. Both Islam and Christianity believe in a single god, Allah for Islam, and YHWH (or simply God) for Christianity. On the surface they would seem like very similar religions, but believers in these religions have a certain brand of disliking, even hatred toward any other brand of religion. Each of these religions has many offshoot sects and cults based around the original tenets of their holy books, and many conflicts arise because of the differing interpretations of these holy books; for instance, in Northern Ireland between Catholic and Protestant Christians, and the geographically and politically separated Islamic groups like Shia and Sunni Muslims. Infighting abounds within the two major religions, but there is one thing that every religions claims to be undoubtedly one hundred percent true; each claims that their version of their held religion is the one and only true religion. All others are wrong, and must be looked down upon.
It seems that, even given the separation between sects and offshoots within any given religion and their claim to be the ultimate truth holders, that Christians are more tolerant of other Christians, and Islamics are more tolerant of other Islamics, than they would be of someone from a completely different religious background. It seems like the lesser of two evils. Interestingly though, there is one group that both the major religions despise equally; the unbeliever.
To the theist or believer, the atheist or unbeliever is the ultimate form of evil. The reasoning for this is complicated, but there are a few points that stand out when examining the situation. Firstly, the holy books claim that God or Allah made man in his image, to be his servant, to follow by his rules, to worship him, and to be judged by him at death. But because the unbeliever holds no stock in a higher power, they therefore hold no fear of final judgment; no fear of judgment means no need for the god-given rules that underpin their very beliefs. Secondly, the rules that are passed down from “on-high” state that the ultimate crime against god is to not worship. People see their worship and piety as a virtue, because it follows the dictates of the all-powerful judge of mankind. Therefore, those who do not fawn at the feet of the gods are immediately to be distrusted; they break the most important rule given to mankind from god. Thirdly, the belief than god-made-man has been given not only the rules to live by, but also the ability to interact socially without killing each other straight away, a moral code, means that unbelievers have no morals whatsoever, further adding to the distrust. The unbeliever, without this set or moral imperatives therefore is untrustworthy. And fourthly, but most importantly, the unbeliever has come to their own conclusions about the universe, be it through learning and gaining of knowledge, or by simply realising that the “god-hypothesis” makes no sense. Many who have chosen the path of knowledge have come to this same conclusion, and many have chosen to deepen and broaden their knowledge of the world and the universe. The knowledgeable atheist becomes in this sense dangerous, because with the facts that are uncovered daily by science, the god that once inhabited every gap in humanity’s knowledge is now finding smaller and smaller places to exist. If the claims of the atheist are true, then one would think there would be many people who feel rather foolish in their lifelong devotion to a god, a god that may not exist. This acts as a deterrent against knowledge, because knowledge so often creates more questions, and as the questions are answered, the god that once inhabited these spaces retreats further into obscurity.
Atheism is feared by the religious, because in their minds it stands for everything evil in this world. The oft touted position that atheists are amoral, or choose their morals on a whim seems to be the biggest weapon in their arsenal. If an atheist doesn’t believe in a god or gods, then what is there to stop them raping and killing everyone they see? In the mind of the theist, it is god that gives them their moral and ethical rules to live by, and society would not exist without the presence of a god. The atheist position on morality is that it has existed as a beneficial behavioural and social mechanism developed over millennia, even pre-Homo Sapiens, to help societies of animals work together; it evolves over time as societies and technologies change, and will continue to do so as we continue to change the ways we interact. In the mind of the theist, this breaks all the rules, and throws up a multitude of painful questions; the book says humans are not mere animals but hold a special place on earth; god created the earth specifically for humans, therefore he had to give us our rules; evolution can’t work if the world is only 6000-10000 years old; and so on and so forth. But the enemy is not atheism; the enemy is information and knowledge.
In some cases, the books of Christianity and Islam state that the unbeliever should be either shunned or killed. If the holy books of Islam and Christianity are to be followed to the letter by their adherents, then it’s no wonder that atheists are distrusted, whether they deserve the distrust or not. There are many places on earth where the label of “atheist” is seen as on par with “murderer” or “rapist”, and others still where the simple assertion of a disbelief in a god can either land you in jail or dead. Of course, Christianity has had centuries longer to mature, and has had its main growth in areas that are now considered the “First World”, and has adapted in many ways to become much more tolerant than those who adhere to Islam; Islam, being younger, and prevalent in poorer and “Third World” countries, seems to have had fewer opportunities and exposure to the forward thinking ways of the west, and is at odds to many of the things many strive for in the West (such as social justice, equality of the sexes, individual rights, etc.)
I’m not trying here to make it sound as though all atheists have it tough; some do, some don’t. If you live in The Maldives, or the United States of America, you may find it tougher than if you live in Melbourne where I do. And certainly it’s not just atheists who suffer from discrimination at the hands of religion. In fact, in places like Pakistan, the laws that they use to defend their own religion from ridicule seem to be so lax in their definitions that they may actually be used as grounds to persecute other religions. What is clear to me is that religious belief is volatile, and can be used as grounds to persecute any “other” that is seen as unsavoury, or does not toe the line of that religion.
As the world becomes more closely linked, as the Internet becomes a part of all our lives, and as information becomes impossible to avoid, it seems that situations like the recent ones that spurred riots and protests from around the world will become increasingly common, as people from one side try to create controversy and await for the reaction from the other side. We see this on a personal, one-on-one basis, and we also see it on a much larger scale.
I seem have digressed here, from a historical overview of tolerance and intolerance from a theistic viewpoint, to an atheistic viewpoint, to current affairs, but I think it’s important to note that nothing that happens now in society is without history; what has happened in the past will continue to affect the future of our societies and our planet. What I hoped to do here is to give a little perspective on just a few of the very complex points that surround the issues for believers and non-believers alike. we should all be aware of what is happening in the world; sticking our head in the sand is no way to help fix our problems.