'TIME goes by...' '

Most of us have been taught to stay away from discussing politics and religion so as not to disturb the dinner guests. Well, as most of you know, I’ve been covering politics for so long I can barely discuss anything else.

And the freedom TGB gives me in writing these little essays compels me to confess that I do not recall when it was that I came out of the closet. That’s when I acknowledged that I’m an atheist, that I do not believe there is a God.

In fact, I don’t know why I capitalized the “G.” Although it may be blasphemous, I have had a bumper sticker that says, “I believe in Dog.” That’s because I have a love affair with my two Corgies and I generally have a higher regard for animals than many of the humans I’ve covered in high positions. I have wondered if the Bibles got it wrong and meant to spell it “Dog.”

Seriously, coming out of the closet happened slowly. At first I suppose I was an agnostic, telling myself and others that there may be a higher power, that I could not define, for all things alive have in common a compulsion to live, survive and grow.

Where does that come from? I didn’t know. I studied philosophy in university and read Aquinas’ proofs for the existence of god and understood Aristotle’s idea of the “prime” or “unmoved mover.”

I did not know whether or not I believed in the god that hung around guiding our lives. But I could not bring myself to believe in a personal being who played magic tricks like George Burns. If man was made in his image, what must he look like? Or she?

I am told by friends that something or some one must have caused the “big bang” and that somebody or some thing or power had to be there to start things off in evolution. But I can’t even imagine that possibility. Some giant hand cranking the universe into motion?

I remember arguing in a philosophy class that if the universe was infinite, why did it have to have a beginning? I did not know, and neither does anyone else. But that was an agnostic copout. Now I know. As Stephen Hawking now asserts, if there was a beginning, there is an explanation that did not need a god.

But isn’t the spirituality that we all feel evidence of god? Experiencing the sublime is spiritual, but it’s no proof of a god. All of us have experienced spiritual moments when we wonder what moves us to think, probe and overcome. Music moves me. Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” is spiritual and beautiful. Beethoven’s Ode to Joy can make me cry.

All men are brothers came from the Judaic concept that there is but one god. I am a Jew who takes pride in that heritage. But I cannot believe that god, looking like Charlton Heston’s Moses, exists.

It is true that there is some sort of order in our universe; we can predict the movements in the solar system. But there is also chaos (see Haiti). Our bodies, the results of millions of years of evolution, are indeed wondrous, but they tend to get sick and even die from little bugs and terrible afflictions.

The believers’ god works in strange and mysterious ways, but what sort of omnipotent, omniscient god tolerates a child with terminal leukemia or the holocaust of six million “chosen people” or the genocides in Bosnia and the Congo and the Sudan?

Believers praise god for sparing them from the tornado’s wrath (as if the tornado was anthropomorphic), but do they blame god for the deaths of those who were not spared?

But I have digressed. I have been comforted in coming out as an atheist by the September 28 Pew Research Center’s survey of religious knowledge in the U.S. It turns out that atheists or agnostics scored highest on a test consisting of questions about various religions. I should note here that 95 percent of Americans believe in god; just five percent of us are nonbelievers.

Jews and Mormons came in a close second or third. Indeed, the most observant or fundamentalist among us tended to know the least.

Half the respondents did not know that Martin Luther inspired the Protestant reformation or that the Golden Rule (“Do unto others...”) is not one of the Ten Commandments. Atheists/agnostics knew most about religion, the survey concluded, because they tend to have more education.

I would add that atheists are unencumbered by dogma. Atheists generally are more free to think of things that no one had thought of.

Copernicus, Galileo, Darwin and Einstein broke free from god and religion and some suffered for it. Only recently has the Catholic Church recognized that the earth revolves around the sun; and Judaism forgave the philosopher Spinoza, who was excommunicated from the Jewish community in Amsterdam because he believed that god was everywhere in nature; indeed god was nature and vice versa.

I should point out here that I draw a distinction – a sharp one at that – between those who worship and hope there is a god, and organized religion. That’s because the average believer in god stands in awe of the possibility there is a supreme being that he or she cannot know or fathom. But most organized religions have the temerity to define, limit and tell us what god thinks, and which country he/she will bless in war.

Organized religions, on a personal level, use books written eons ago by uneducated (by our standards), mostly superstitious and primitive minds to tell us how to behave. And as we know, some people believe these are literal truths.

I can’t quarrel with the Ten Commandments, but they are honored in the breach - that is, they are broken so often by god-fearing men and women, they are not to be taken seriously.

If they were truly observed as the bibles and koran admonish, The New York Times' Nicholas Kristoff told us in his own test of religious knowledge that the Old Testament stipulates that a girl who does not bleed on her wedding night should be stoned to death. Kristoff notes that Jesus made no comment on homosexuality, but the Old Testament says, “if a man also lies with mankind as he lieth with a woman” both shall be put to death.

All this is silly and outdated for most of us, even those who believe in god. But about 20-25 percent who are fundamentalist Christians and ultra-orthodox Jews and Muslims believe their scriptures are literally true and the word of god. But, alas, they also believe literally that non-believers are infidels and therefore a threat. And if there is no wall of separation between the religion and the state, then a threat against the religion becomes a threat against the state.

When I visited Israel as a journalist with U.S. secretaries of state who were there for the first time, Israeli officials took us on a tour of Yad Vashem, the somber and heart-wrenching memorial to the holocaust that cost the lives of six million Jews, not to mention Gypsies, Russians, Poles and anti-Nazi Germans.

In Damascus, we were taken to the Mosque where Saladin is buried and there we learned that the crusaders who came from England were not the heroes of Christendom who we studied in school or saw in romantic movies, but bloodthirsty rapists and conquerors wielding the cross as a reason to slaughter Muslims and Jews.

Saladin, a moderate and even chivalrous ruler who treated his captives well, at last defeated the Third Crusade in the 12th century. But the memory of the crusades among Muslims lingers and has been seen in the reaction to American aggression in the Middle East.

Indeed, as I think on it, much of my reporting has been about religious-based conflicts:

Between Hindus and Muslims in India and Pakistan

The semi-secular state of Afghanistan and the Taliban, which would resurrect the 10th century

The Shiites of Iran and the Sunnis of Iraq

Israel and its Muslim neighbors, some of them secular like the Palestinians, some deeply religious like Hamas

The Protestants and Catholics of Northern Ireland

The Serbian war against Bosnia pitted Catholics against Muslims

Hitler was Catholic, raised in an anti-Semitic environment

Stalin was raised in the Russian Orthodox tradition and he attended seminary, from which he was expelled, in backward Georgia.

It seems the more devout the religion, the more violent its actions against its perceived enemies. Kristoff points out that using suicide vests and women for terror bombings began not with the Jihadists, but with the Tamil Hindus in Sri Lanka.

I think it can be said that more people have been killed or subjugated in the name of an organized religion than in the name of atheism.

When the state religion or church has been attacked, the motives of the opposition were generally political as when Henry VIII and his daughter Elizabeth replaced the Catholic Church with the Church of England, and when the Bolsheviks, who overthrew the Czar and all but outlawed the Russian Orthodox Church that supported the monarchy.

Similarly, the reactionary and corrupt Catholic Church in Latin America became a target of revolutionaries. Wasn’t the attack on the World Trade Center and the deaths of thousands a religion-based initiative?

I do not believe, however, that any nation has gone to war or committed atrocities in the name of atheism.

Yet even now, in this country, the legal wall of separation between church and state is hacked at by religionists who hold atheism almost a crime. We are told by the rabid right that liberals and other nonbelievers are trying to kill Christmas, as if the merchandisers have no responsibility.

These Christian fundamentalists, the American Taliban, would figuratively stone the homosexual or the kill the doctor who performs abortions. One Pew poll in 2006 found that more than 40 percent of Americans don’t believe in evolution and that included prominent Republicans running for president two years ago.

These fundamentalists, according to the poll, deny the science that tells us the earth is millions of years old. In lockstep with the Republican Party, they deny climate change and man’s role in global warming. I suppose god has decided to kill the polar bears.

So it was a comfort to see that I had admirable company when I came out as an atheist: Woody Allen, Kurt Vonnegut, Richard Dawkins, Katharine Hepburn, Warren Buffett, Salman Rushdie, Diane Keaton, Bill Gates, Gene Roddenberry, among dozens of celebrities whom you can find at Celebrity Atheist List.

Finally, there are many quotes from prominent writers artists and statesmen proclaiming their atheism, but my favorite came recently from the great novelist Philip Roth during an interview on CBS’s Sunday Morning. Roth, who grew up in New Jersey, said, “I don’t have a religious bone in my body.”

“So do you feel like there’s a god out there?” he was asked.

“I’m afraid there isn’t, no...When the whole world doesn’t believe in god, it’ll be a great place.”

As posted on bit.ly/tgb2710100531 by Ronny Binnet
'Pastor Terry Jones' is our latest hero for atheism.. '

Thank you Pastor Terry for advancing our cause. My occasional series, Heroes of Atheism, last time featured a Jew who resorts to extreme action to prevent innocents going abroad ''inappropriately'' on the Sabbath and Muslims who stone adulterers to death.

It’s time now to turn to the third of the Abrahamic trio, our Christian brethren. Pastor Terry is the Koran (almost) burning, gay vilifying, gobbledygook spouting minister from the Dove World Outreach Centre in the town of Gainsville, Florida, in the US. Despite its global name, his Pentecostal church has a rumoured congregation of about 50. He and his church suffer from the usual array of vices of these kinds of churches. There are allegations of personality cult, fines for false claims to be doctor of theology, tussles with the tax office and allegations of dodgy finances. His flock is numerically irrelevant. His antics essentially rely on putting obnoxious statements on a sign outside his church and letting the world’s media, myself now included, promote his profile around the world free of charge. Perhaps we are the real mugs in the Pastor Terry story. He should be just some anonymous freak with ugly views but he’s been anointed by the world media and is basking in the attention.

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When the people of Gainsville elected a gay mayor, he erected a sign proclaiming, ''No Homo Mayors''. Pastor Terry is very active on the issue of homosexuality and he relies on Leviticus for this stance. Now Leviticus, the third book of the bible, is notorious for its appalling rules and prohibitions. Having just re-read it, Leviticus is just bizarre murderous drivel. I will blog on Leviticus another time for it is truly a friend of atheism. Homosexuals must be put to death according to God (Leviticus, 20:13). But then a little later, having a haircut, having sex during a woman’s period, inter-breeding your cattle or sowing the seeds of two plants in one field are all sinful. So start collecting the stones, hang around any farm or barber's shop for a good old stoning I say. I’m sorry, I digress.

The point is that Pastor Terry relies on the most ridiculous book in all of the literature of faith to damn gays and does so in offensive ways.

However, there is an important group called Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (AU for short). AU has pointed out that a tax-deduction status has a precondition of no political use of funds. So Pastor Terry cut off the word ''Mayors'' and so it now reads merely ''No Homos''. The man is an inspiration of innovation. If you want to hear an illuminating and indeed excruciating BBC interview with Pastor Terry click here.

And now we come to his Koran burning proposal. You will know that this idea, designed to coincide with the anniversary of 9/11, was roundly condemned and ultimately he drew back from the brink.

Pastor Terry seems to be quite phobic about Islam. He has written a book about his detestation of Islam - Islam is of the Devil. He has repeatedly spouted about the 10 reasons to burn the Koran and nominated September 11 as ''International Burn a Koran Day''. Pressure from within America led to his back down but his reversal must have been informed by the certain knowledge that other haters would step up to the breach. For hate begets hate and a flotilla of Koran burners left port on 9/11. The Koran was desecrated less publicly from Washington to Wyoming by fringe self-appointed ministers.

Well what is to be made of this opportunistic and reckless chancer? What does the Pastor Terry phenomenon tell us? Quite clearly, Pastor Terry has desecrated more than the Koran for he has desecrated the name of faith. His shonky church, his detestation of the other, be they Muslims or gays or Jews (for he is not a fan) pregnancy termination clinics (completely legal in my enlightened state of Victoria) and the financial allegations of his personality cult all fit the paradigm of the worst that faith has to offer the world.

This of course leads us to the eternal quandary, is Pastor Terry the tip of the iceberg or an irrelevant freak? Is he emblematic of the awfulness of belief or a peripheral straw man? Whatever, he is unintentionally a worthy foot soldier for atheism and I salute him accordingly. A grateful atheist hails this man who tars all people of faith with his misanthropic brush.

But there are other issues that Pastor Terry raises. First of all, why should atheists care if the various types of faith engage in warring banjos? Why would the godless care if a pastor in one faith (that we don’t believe in) insults another faith (that we also don’t believe in)? The critical word in that sentence is ''insults''. We should deplore any insult, even in the internecine wars of faith. The crusading movement is now almost a thousand years old. It has been revived in the past couple of decades and even if unbelievers don’t care for the underlying beliefs, any ratcheting up of the conflict is appalling for it adds to a millennium of killing.

The second issue is the serendipity of fate. Why did Pastor Terry achieve world infamy when there is a whole world of religious nutcases to vilify? It is something I continue to ponder in wonder. I have strived for such infamy my whole life and yet the gods of worldwide controversy have ignored me. What is his secret? It is luck or karma? I don’t believe in the latter so it has to be the former.

The final issue is this. The only question on which Pastor shows any coherence on is the issue of Islamic sensitivity. He quite correctly argues that Bibles and secular symbols such as flags are desecrated daily by Muslims. I deplore this. I deplore actions such as the artwork ''Piss Christ'', which mixed urine and an image of the crucifixion, understandably outraging Christians.

Pastor Terry marvels that while flags and Bibles are destroyed daily in Islamic countries, why couldn’t he do the same without attracting such bile and rancour. Indeed there is some sense that we are rewarding the inappropriate behaviour of a faith that appears eternally vengeful through its various fatwas, murders and desecrations by the Muslim equivalents of Pastor Terry. There is a tiny bit of truth to this but generally we must condemn those who trade in the currency of insults and hatred. And for this, Pastor Terry is embraced by a grateful atheist as a hero of the godless. Congratulations Pastor Terry, you are truly atheism’s latest hero.