I’m not inclined to respect a religion that suppresses critical thinking, encourages homophobia and misogyny, and promotes the arrogant view that this unfathomably vast universe was created just for humanity. Nor am I inclined to respect the appalling belief that billions of people, many of whom are decent, have been damned to roast forevermore because they didn't bow before a celestial tyrant.
The Illogic of Damnation, Prayer, and a Divine Plan
How is it possible for a moral person to live blissfully in Heaven, knowing that countless fellow human beings are shrieking and writhing in agony below them? A majority of the damned did not have a true choice in selecting their religion—like many, they imbibed the beliefs of their immediate family as children, when their minds were malleable. If God has a plan for us all, as if often stated by evangelicals, the implication is that he selects where each of us is born.
In doing so, is he not condemning countless people to suffer eternal damnation? A person in India will be indoctrinated into Hinduism—which, presumably, is a ticket to Hell—whereas a person born in Alabama is more likely to be born into an ultra-conservative Christian family. Our minds, our worldviews, are molded by our childhood environments and, perhaps to a lesser degree, by our experiences.
Next, shall we discuss the futility of praying for material gain? Observe the world around you. Innumerable people suffer from problems that are far more severe than the problems most of us face. Their prayers are not answered — just think of the hundreds of millions of people that suffer from malnourishment and disease. Think of the myriad of issues that plague humanity. Why would the same god that ignored their far more desperate prayers answer your trivial prayer for an ‘A’ on a calculus test or to win a football game? Why should we, as well-fed, privileged people who live in lavish conditions compared to many in the world, plead for divine intervention? The whole notion strikes me as manifestly egocentric and naive.
In addition, if God has a plan for us, does it not clash with the much-touted concept of free will? And, perhaps I digress, how is it just for God to punish all of humanity because one woman, Eve, disobeyed him in a single instance? It would be like sentencing you and your entire family to languish in prison because one of your distant predecessors committed murder. Such a punishment is redolent of North Korea’s “three generation punishment,” a punishment in which the state imprisons not just political dissidents, but also their children and grandchildren.
The Hydra of Religion
For millennia, billions have believed with just as much conviction that their religions, the gods in their pantheons, were the only paths to truth. As time passed, new religions were invented, and the religions of antiquity drifted into mythology. The religions of the current age are no different. Eventually, they will fade into obscurity, and will be viewed in the same way we today view the ancient Norse and Egyptian religions—as relics of unenlightened ages. Is it not a remarkable coincidence that out of the thousands of religions that have existed, your religion, the one you were born into out of good fortune, is the only true one? Does it strike you as odd that most deities, as depicted in paintings and architecture, invariably resemble their followers?
Just as new heads were said to sprout from the decapitated body of the Greek Hydra, new religions and offshoots will always emerge from the remnants of dead religions. Religions not only endure because of childhood indoctrination, but also because they provide an alluring solution for those who desire an afterlife, a chance to reunite with their deceased loved ones. Our fear of our own mortality is the kindling for the roaring inferno of religious belief.
The Illusion of Human Significance
I now ask you to contemplate how breathtakingly immense this universe—this vast mosaic of stars—is, and how minuscule humanity is in comparison; consider the billions of years this universe has endured, and compare it to the ephemerality of the average human lifespan. A study published in 2010 by Yale astronomer Peter Dokkum revealed that there may be as many as 300 sextillion stars, spanning hundreds of billions of light-years.
What is the need for such an expansive universe if our species is the center of creation? When juxtaposed with the vastness of the cosmos, human civilization, with its towering concrete structures and bustling masses, is nothing more than a slightly larger anthill. In the vast cosmic tapestry that is the universe, mankind is just a single stray thread—a thread that will swiftly wear away and leave the greater tapestry intact and unaffected.
Furthermore, we must ask why God, an omnipotent, omniscient being, would be so vain and human-like that he would require the subservience of humans. Considering the sheer immensity of the universe, what is the likelihood that the creator gives a damn about who you copulate with, what foods you consume, and on what day of the week you work? The narcissism contained within religious doctrines is staggering.
The universe is infinitely more complex and magnificent than the infantile god of Christianity. If this religion had even a grain of truth, it would not limit itself to the parochial matters of Middle Eastern goat herders, but would instead provide humanity with complex revelations explaining the forces governing the cosmos itself. Religion not only provides facile solutions to the most perplexing questions of existence, but also convinces otherwise rational people that the most important answers are contained in a single book. As preeminent scientist Richard Dawkins once stated, “I am against religion because it teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding the world.”
Addressing Charges of Secular Arrogance and Intolerance
Finally, I would like to address the fact that atheists and agnostics are frequently denounced as being conceited. As skeptics, we do not claim to possess all of the answers, posit that the universe bends to our trivial desires, or assert that we have an intimate relationship with the very creator of the cosmos. That is what our opponents claim. We, on the other hand, are open to criticism and dialogue; our beliefs are pliable, but only with evidence. Constantly questioning our own convictions, we are cognizant that our perceptions are also subjective and distorted, that there is much that remains unknown. There is every possibility that we are wrong. The chance of being incorrect is something that religious zealots, on the other hand, are generally unwilling to even entertain.
As the late Christopher Hitchens, the lion of the atheist movement, once said:
Our belief is not a belief. Our principles are not a faith. We do not rely solely upon science and reason, because these are necessary rather than sufficient factors, but we distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages reason. We may differ on many things, but what we respect is free inquiry, open-mindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake.
Skeptics do not have a dislike of all religious people, but of religious belief and faith. Our anger stems from seeing otherwise intelligent people—our families, friends, and so many others—dedicating their lives to the ramblings of the ignorant men of past ages, and also from witnessing the enormous harm caused by religion.
These people are far too intelligent to be coerced into believing such myths. It's not worthy of them, as rational, autonomous people, to believe something because they're enticed by reward and terrified of punishment. If the primary motivation for believing something is “saving yourself,” then the belief is rooted in self-interest, not in love. Love is not compulsory and extracted through primitive threats of torture, but is what you feel of your own volition.