I've recently read a few articles debating the subject of how friendly
"Nats" should be in relation to religious people. Of course, they didn't use
the term Nats (as that is a term of my own invention), but the gamut of
responses all fall under the umbrella of those disposed of such
It began with a Friendly Atheist and a rebuttal by Hanlon, but it
got me thinking. How should we develop the dialog between these two views of
those who believe in supernatural intervention, and those that do not.
Improvement of Religion
As you look deeply into the past, you'll see that religion has evolved and
improved… and improved man's society. Religion first began to help people by
relieving the guilt associated of butchering their animal brothers. Eventually
Christianity came along and got rid of the practice of human sacrifice found
in many cultures worldwide (e.g. from the Norse to the Aztec).
I once heard a story from an Irish bloke about how much good came with Saint
Paddy. Before his arrival, the shade of every forest held capricious spirits
who would like nothing more than to roll the dice for your life, livelihood, or
right shoe. After Patrick drove out the snakes, the Irish saw the world as a
gift from a benevolent father who wouldn't punish you… well, as long as
you were good.
Religion's child was philosophy, and philosophy's child is science. So, it was
a good start and was immensely helpful.
But is religion still helpful?
I guess the answer to that question depends on what we still need help with. We
certainly aren't living in a golden age… or at least, since we can't stop
desiring frivolous things like a better world, we might as well list some of the
improvements we think we'd like:
- Peace … both global (wars) and local (gang, crime, etc.)
- Poverty … people are still starving the world over.
- Environment … if you shit in your bed, you have to sleep in it, because
there ain't no other bed.
- Ethics, morality, tolerance, justice … and all of that jazz.
Sure, we could expand this list all night long, but let's look at how religion,
and a lack thereof, can help us on this short list.
Obviously this is where most Nats get most of their fire, for our devout,
bumbling president has quite a bit of blood on his hands. Of course, most
religious people talk about the blood-thirsty atheists like Stalin. Maybe
since the real problem is dogmatic obsessiveness, which can affect all sorts
of people, looking at history, we'd have to call it a tie.
People are starving the world over. The richest country in the world, has
millions of homeless people. In America (and in many other affluent countries),
the gap between the richest and the poorest continues to grow every year.
Clearly this may just be a situation built into any capitalist society, but
how do our two camps handle this issue?
I'm very pleased that there are many charitable organizations on both sides,
both religious and secular. So, this too, may be a tie. Sam Harris, in a
debate with Rick Warren thought there might be a difference based on
The thing that bothers me about faith-based altruism is that it is
contaminated with religious ideas that have nothing to do with the relief of
human suffering. So you have a Christian minister in Africa who's doing really
good work, helping those who are hungry, healing the sick. And yet, as part of
his job description, he feels he needs to preach the divinity of Jesus in
communities where literally millions of people have been killed because of
inter-religious conflict between Christians and Muslims. It seems to me that
that added piece causes unnecessary suffering. I would much rather have
someone over there who simply wanted to feed the hungry and heal the sick.
While there are some religious groups that make religious requirements on
their charity-- of the kind, we'll give you food if you listen to this sermon,
and things like that-- I believe that most of these groups will relax on
those sorts of requirements… if you ask. So, I'll give a small advantage to
In the opening chapter of Genesis, we have God giving command to Adam:
Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have
dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over
every living thing that moveth upon the earth.
This sort of antagonism between man and nature is prevalent in most of the
early mythologies of the cultures from Egypt to Sumeria and the surrounding
deserts. This concept supplanted the earlier hunter-gather attitude of animal
Some aspects of Chinese culture emphasized "the internal relation of man to his
surroundings based upon an integrative interdependence and a harmony between man
and the world."‡‡From the essay, On Environmental Ethics of the Two Tao and the Ch'I by Chung-Ying Cheng. For instance, the Tao says:
If people do not revere the Law of Nature,
It will … adversely affect them.
If they accept it with knowledge and reverence,
It will accommodate them with balance and harmony.
Other cultures, like the Indian, South Pacific, Northern Native American, and
many others, had less antagonism between men and nature.
But things seem to have become almost weird. Many Christians believe that the
world is just about to end. Granted, eschatology (and the end of the world) is
a long standing tradition in Christian culture, where predictions of The End
have been made starting around 60-70 AD with the destruction of Jerusalem and
continuing with some group or another every so many years until Waco, Heaven's
Gate and the Y2K bug.
I have heard and read many statements to the effect, that live as you will, for
Jesus will show up and clean up the environment when he cleans up the world.
I don't know about God, but if I went to the trouble of making a nice room for
my children and they burned the curtains and chopped up the furniture, I'd be
more than a little pissed.
When I talk about talk about environmental issues, there are too things at
stake. First, there is a matter of convenience. No more crude oil in the ground
means no more plastic which means no more happy meal toys. Yeah, quite annoying.
But there is another aspect where ignoring environmental issues causes suffering.
Burning coal releases mercury into the water which gets in the fish, which causes
health problems in humans… the sort of thing that is slightly above annoying.
Of course the science is still working on the details of whether we can curb
the climbing temperature or lower the levels of poisonous gas in the air and
water, but that is a matter of dialog and research. But if half of the
population doesn't care about the debate, then it becomes a matter of being
"an unjust steward."
Are non-religious people less or more moral than their religious brethren?
While I've already discussed this issue, it just might surprise many
people to know that most people think they are moral. In discussing previous
elections with a co-worker, he brought up the poor voting choices made by
"those immoral and liberal atheists". He seemed to be quite shocked when I
mentioned that liberals vote based on their morals as well. It is just our
population has different priorities of competing morals.
For this man's liberal counterparts feel that discrimination and tolerance
is more important than the issue of homosexuality.
While some people may feel that morality was given by divine intervention,
politics, by definition, is making a consensus of morals-- What are we all
willing to live with.
So while we can debate and discuss the merits of nats and the un-nats ethical
issue by ethical issue, the biggest discrepancy (and the balance of judgment
of my essay) comes down to tolerance.
Many of my religious friends, that is, the Christians, Jews and Muslims, go to
great lengths to talk about their suffering due to persecution from Nats.
Persecution (and its inevitable martyrdom) is another long standing cultural
tradition, but when I try to find out details, it amounts to disagreement.
A Nat says that a Christian is wrong in his belief about a young earth, and the
Christian doesn't look at that as debate or discussion, but as persecution.
Of course, I find it quite ironic when a friend of mine, who got pregnant
before her wedding day, was shunned and in my mind persecuted by her Church.
Also why is it paramount that unknowable and unprovable beliefs must be
consistent among all members within a Church. Another ironic story begins with the
persecution of Calvin for his beliefs in predestination, but ends when Calvin
gets his own church in Switzerland… only to start dishing out some persecution
on anyone not believing like him.
This is the sort of intolerance that motivates people to knock on my door. But
not get me to think and not to get me to be a better person, but only to get me
to believe as they do. Now, if after we part company, we both end up rolling our
eyes, that should be the most of it.
But the fire for most Nats is that it isn't the end.
For a vocal community of the religious have been working to put their brand
of intolerance into our laws and government. We built this country (and many
others) on the concept of rational discourse where religion may be practiced
and observed, but not in our government. The framers want them separated for
a very good reason.
So yes, the ten commandments have some good points, and yes those words have
inspired many people for thousands of years, and yes, much of those precepts
made it into the law of our land… but placing those ten commands when all
ten are not in our law, implies a certain intolerance to those that are not of
the same belief… even if they believe in those ten commandments.
Oh dear, I could spend the next few years going over issues such as these…
and I probably will, but not in a single essay. But my point is that tolerance
is often lacking in the crown of the religious person. Now I'm not saying that
we won't be able to dig up examples of intolerant Nats, for people are people.
But intolerance is not part of the Nat cultural tradition.
So, we Nats do need to be friendly and tolerant to our religious brothers and
sisters. This doesn't mean we won't debate and discuss our commons morals, or
that we will subvert our scientific facts and shoehorn our theories into
inconceivable and predetermined conclusions, or that we will not speak out
against immoral wars. We will continue to vote with our morals and attempt to
make, with our religious friends, a better world.
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