As an Atheist I’m quite often asked, “Well how do you know?” or of course the, “What if you’re wrong?” that’s meant to imply I should start believing out of fear of hell, which I find just disgusting. Many atheist respond by using what’s sometimes seen as “soft atheism” for the definition of atheism; they don’t know, they just don’t believe. I don’t take this side however; I know there’s no such thing. How do I know? Because I’ve found one…several actually.
On the island of Tanna in Vanuatu, a group of natives underwent a traditionalist movement to abandon all western and European ideas and go back to their cultural roots. Interestingly enough, one of the events that solidified this movement was the dropping of cargo by Western forces during WWII. The people began worshiping these forces, creating mock runways and radio towers out of bamboo. Within this group is a subgroup who have decided that Prince Philip of Edinburgh is a god.
The thing that is pertinent here is that this is a god that I cannot deny exists. There he is. There’s pictures of him, videos of him, etc… He’s there. He’s not the only one either. Pantheists believe that The Universe is a god and as I’m here in and part of that universe how can I possibly deny its existence? I cannot. How then can I be an atheist if I know that at least two gods quite obviously exist?
The answer to that question is exactly what most Christians, Islamists, Jews, Pagans, etc might say about a description of a god they do not believe in, “That’s not God.” To me, Prince Philip is just a man, like any other and The Universe is just The Universe (although “just” does not give it justice). What is a god though? If I am to justify my assertion that their god is not god, then there must be something I can point to that is lacking in these ideas or entities that precludes godness. What might that be?
One might be tempted to look at the first three religions I mentioned above, conclude that they all talk about the same god, YHWH, and say that YHWH is the only God and let it be at that. This is certainly how those people see it, but is that a legitimate point or just cultural/religious arrogance? There’s at least as many Hindus in the world and they have an entire pantheon of gods, some worshiped more than others.
If we take a more widely accepting, a more objective approach to looking at what gods are in order to figure out what makes one a god or just whatever, then we run into a very serious problem: they have absolutely nothing in common. For every feature of godhood you could come up with, there is a counter-example. Some are all powerful; others lack much power at all. Some are all knowing; some are ignorant and can be tricked. Some are loving; others are complete bastards (and in fact opinions vary on where to put some gods, like YHWH, in that continuum). The only real thing that can be narrowed down is that they are called gods by some people, exactly by those people who accept them as such. Worship is the only shared feature of gods, and even this is a problematic area as different gods are worshiped differently.
Worship is very often seen as a duty owed to the god. In many cases the very existence of existence is to serve that duty; mankind was created by the gods to worship them. In other cases the gods simply demand it because they can and because we can’t deny them without pissing them off. It’s hard to say really though what worship itself is as reading the various definitions gives a seemingly incoherent and/or incomplete view of it. For example, Christians sometimes object to my view of worship by saying it’s just an act of loving. This doesn’t seem enough though, for though I love my family I do not worship them and a Christian would very likely claim that doing so is sinful anyway. So it means something more than just love.
From what I can tell, the act and emotion of worship is something more akin to what one might pay to a king or other monarch. It’s a pledge of allegiance. It says, “You are more than I am; you have more rights.” More often than not it implies a rather slavish relationship recognizing the god’s right to do whatever it wants with the worshiper; to order them to death if so desired. It quite dangerously implies that the worshiper will follow the orders of the god even to the point of committing acts of what can only be described as evil such as flying airplanes into buildings full of people. Most often such a promise is possible because the worshiper believes that the God knows more than they, is wiser than they, and can see beyond the facade of basic, human existence. In the end, worship is the abdication of moral autonomy and responsibility. It hands someone else or something else that responsibility and calls it “God” either out of some extreme form of love and trust or out of fear; often times both.
Many Christians (and I’m sure other groups as well, but its mostly Christians I know so…) strongly object to this line of reasoning. They say that they’re allowed to question God all they want. Some think its a responsibility to question him. I believe they are kidding themselves because it is assumed that in the end, God is always right and they’ll just figure out why. At no point do they really believe that God is wrong and still hold their faith. Christians that begin to think that way are in what is known as a crisis of faith that they’ll eventually either get out of, or they become lost souls destined for the frying pan. In the end, you’re not really allowed to question God, you’re only allowed to ask why, to have doubts, etc…truly questioning a deity is generally a bad idea; especially to its face. Being against God is not a position that any “good” person can hold in such religions; it means damnation and most would say justifiably.
Believe it or not, there is actually a worse aspect to worship than abdicating moral responsibility, which I believe is not a right anyone has. Because we are not allowed to truly question God (again, see the last paragraph if you’re disagreeing right now) we begin to make him more like us. Gods begin to take the shape of our beliefs rather than the other way around. This is quite obvious when you look at all the various sects within any given religion. The differences between the sects are differences of moral quality. Fundamentalist Christians for example believe that acts of homosexuality are abominations perhaps even greater than pedophilia or murder. They believe that God sees it this way. More liberal Christians though claim that God is loving and isn’t that homophobic. Groups like the Westborough Church believe that God sends plagues, floods, and war to our country because of its support for secularism and homosexuality, and so does Pat Robertson (a more mainstream accepted asshole). Other Christians believe that these people are probably going to hell. Neither of these groups knows who God is, they make him up to look like them. They CAN’T know God; they worship him.
Those who worship Prince Philip likewise are removed from the real man. They give him all these special powers and make up prophesy about him, prophesy he could never fulfill. They assign him rights and powers that are not his to have. Religious believers call this “Idol Worshiping” and distance themselves from the act because of course the idol they worship is actually a god, right? My assertion though is that ALL forms of worship are over idols, even when performed for actually existing entities and even when those entities are super-agents like YHWH or Zeus.
Consider what happens when people begin to worship their nation or their flag. When the acts of ritual over these things become more important than what they are supposed to represent. For example, try sitting down at a baseball game during the anthem and note how many glares you get…or worse. If you try to find out why they are angry they’ll probably give you some line about troops fighting for your rights and you should go live in Iran or whatever. They’ve lost the meaning behind actually believing in something. Their idol has become more important than the idea because they began to worship the idea instead of just believing in it…and they assigned that worship a symbol. America to them is a God, not a country founded on reasonable and important ideas.
The same thing happens to Jesus, who’s purported teachings are in fact worthy of consideration. People began to worship him as a God. They make up weird myths about him being somehow also his dad or rising from the dead and being born a virgin. These things then become more important than the instruction, which may not even have been from one individual (and in fact can be proven not to be). Without falling into worship one is free to consider the instruction itself and accept it into their system of morals. Once they fall into worship though, Jesus the teacher is lost to be replaced by Jesus the God.
In the end, gods are projections of our fears, desires, and hopes that we turn into stone. We build them up and then create rigid, unquestionable constructs out of them which we then worship, abdicating everything we are to this abomination. If it was originally based on something good, it can no longer be. Even if mostly benign in nature, or founded on reasonable beliefs and moral values…the act of building something like that is inherently immoral and forces us into a position of rigid adherence to things we can no longer justify in any other way. One can tell a lot about a person by looking at their God.
Put these two things together, unquestioned obedience to whatever I think I’m being told because I want to be, and you have a recipe for a great many of the tragedies in human history. The development of a category of people that are inherently bad and can be legitimately destroyed is where we inevitably end up. When people don’t agree with our moral codes that we’ve assigned divine status, it becomes impossible to negotiate or find common ground because they become the enemy. How can we possibly work with those who are different when we refuse to understand them, and have called that refusal “God’s Will”? We can’t.
That being the case, I know there are no Gods because there is nothing that I could ever accept as one. The minute I start building a God around some idea, entity or whatever…I loose it. I get lost in myself and abandon truth for arrogance. Even if I believed in heaven and hell, Jesus and angels, YHWH and Satan…or whoever, I would remain an atheist. I would refuse to recognize them as Gods for the same reason I refuse to recognize kings, or the “right” of a president to imprison the people he’s responsible for as long as he wants. We grew out of kings many years ago, it’s time we also grew out of Gods.
So that’s it. I know there is no God because I reject the very idea. I reject the right of any entity, invented or real, to demand or even accept that role. Some super-agent in the sky may smite me down, I cannot disprove their existence, but I will never recognize them as a god.