We are all born atheist, but for so many of us it doesn’t last.
Ask yourself: When a child is first exposed to organized religion outside of the home, what do they see? Generally, the first thing they experience is the art of construction. Architecture, turned to serve a god. They are escorted into what they are told is a holy building, and the sight that greets them is a chamber made of perfectly cut stones, hundreds of feet high. The interior is illuminated almost entirely by the sun, through glass so intense with colour they don’t appear to be windows at all. As their eyes adjust, they realize these luminous displays depict scenes they have been taught since before they could speak. Stories that, until the moment they saw them in the shapes of the glass, they could not even imagine. As they absorb the overpowering scale of the space, they are watched, supervised, by towering figures carved in marble. Sculptures that seem to them as alive as they are, but timeless, immortal.
It must be overwhelming.
Think now of the literature they might be given to read. Again, the same thing. Assuming they live in a place where being taught to read is allowed, and that they have access to literature of any sort whatsoever, the works they read are almost always fantastical stories about their gods.
Finally, consider the paintings. That ubiquitous talent we humans apply to almost every surface we create. How much of the pigment laid down over the millennia was commissioned not just to honour a patron but, more importantly, to honour and seek favour from their gods? How many hours of the day would that child spend in their presence?
Those among you who’ve studied art history will know that to study our art is, as often as not, to study our religion. For most of our history, the two words could almost be considered synonymous.
Here are the first five major works that come to my mind as I type:
The Creation of Adam, the fresco by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
The odds are high you’ve heard of them all, but the list of works created in the service of the gods goes on endlessly. It’s a list that single-handedly defines entire cultures, and it's time for atheists to understand that if they ever hope to free humanity from the bonds of religiosity, they need to step up.
A heart that yearns for a sublime lie is not going to answer to a chilling fact. It wants to be seduced by beauty, and that's where we, the atheists, have failed.
Recently a famous atheist speaker wrote a short missive about his frustration with American atheists, specifically mentioning the infighting within the community. He described it as follows: "It's like being the child of divorced parents who hate each other." He stated his plans to focus his efforts towards humanitarian goals which mean more to him, and his own experiences in life. He's a smart guy who is making a difference, and I wish him all the luck in the world, but he's not the first person to say something like this, and we should be paying attention.
For what it's worth, I share his frustration. I think the infighting that occurs whenever two atheists decide to cross swords on some obscure piece of philosophical minutia is pointless … counter productive ... damaging. Matt Stone and Trey Parker lampooned atheists very successfully, many years ago, on exactly this point.
Forgive my arrogance, but I think I understand why we do it.
They... we... the atheists who are doing the job of bringing religion to an end in our species, see the task almost as a mathematical equation. A quantifiable sum of results that will arrive when we apply the correct amount of force, in the correct direction, over a great enough quantity of time.
Read any of the many brilliant works by Richard Dawkins. Very academic books, all of them exceptionally well thought through, but each of them facing the romance of religion with the ruler like exactitude of atheism, and its unavoidable grounding in the real. As he presents the pros and cons of a life of secular liberation, his works are, each of them, precisely correct ... but in this battle for hearts and minds, as I said above, being right is not enough.
What atheists need to do is start creating art that celebrates our species, without the theology, in however many different ways that can be done. Art that glorifies humanity, not its gods. Once we get there, once we have created a place that exists on the plane of beauty, only then, when we speak to those who can only be touched by the wondrous world of the magical, will we be able to offer them something of equal value. A realm that serves ... that literally is ... the very magic that created us. The magic of the real.
In doing so, we will have given them something to hold on to, something other than "I am right."
Being right is never enough. You have to be beautiful too.
I recently built a website for writers, with the stated goal of giving atheists, humanists, and anti-theists a place to publish their fictional works. With it I am working to bring secular literature a little closer to that realm. A place for atheist authors and writers to 'come out.' I want them to tell the world of the beauty they contain within themselves, and I am hoping that their beauty will infect others.
The sorely missed Christopher Hitchens understood this, and although he was oftentimes brutal in his assault of the religious, his prose, his critiques, they were unquestionably elegant. His command of the language was absolute, and he wielded it as only a General could, as a weapon, devastating to those who stood on nothing more substantial than half understood rhetoric.
Imagine what he might have accomplished if he were a painter. A sculptor. A novelist or a poet. An architect.
That is where we need to be.
We need to find those among us who can make humanity cry. Who can make us cheer. Those men and women among us who can transform a block of stone into an affirmation. They exist, but we haven't allowed them to speak, because while they tried to sing for us, we were too busy being right.
That must change.
Once we arrive, once we have created that place, we will have created a destination that humanity will be willing to consider.
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If you would like to visit the site mentioned above, you will find it at www.theatheists.ca.