Sometimes you read something you wrote or said sometime back, and you go “Damn! That was me? This is some really good stuff!” That was my reaction to this post on my old site, shortly after the publication of my book.
Anyway, I’m reposting it.
What’s the book about?
It’s about atheism, but not in the way most atheist books approach the subject.
Most books are basically addressing the reader with the question, “Why should I be an atheist?” The recent bestsellers by authors such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens tell the reader “Here’s what’s wrong with religion,” and that’s something you absolutely have to know to make the decision.
But after you’ve made that decision, or come to that realization, you’re faced with this other question: “HOW can I be an atheist?” That’s a whole other issue. In being an atheist day-to-day, what do you do, what do you think? Our society has been immersed in religion so long, and so deep, we don’t have good models for how to NOT be religious.
With Red Neck Blue Collar Atheist, I wanted to provide some of that. For instance, someone comes up to you and says “If there’s no God, why not just rape and kill people whenever you feel like it?” After reading this book, you’ll know a couple of good answers.
One of which is that the question – which is suggested by everything most of us learn in church – is not just silly but viciously nasty. It’s an insult, really, to all humanity. The question is based on the idea that compassion, love, charity, all of that stuff, is completely alien to human beings, and becomes available to each of us ONLY after we’ve immersed ourselves in a belief in God. The people who ask it have no idea what they’re saying, because their religion has prevented them from thinking, in even the most superficial terms, about what the question implies.
Imagine the question as “Rather than opening the door for an older person, why shouldn’t you just slap them to the ground because they’re in your way?” If a 15-year-old boy asked you that, and you knew he was serious about it – that he literally had no idea of the right answer – well, he sounds like a budding sociopath, doesn’t he? You’d want to get him into counseling as soon as possible. And yet that’s only a slight rewording of that very typical Christian question – one I myself have heard dozens of times.
Why did you write it?
Well, I think most of us, getting out of religion, will eventually figure all this stuff out on our own. But it took me 20 years to get it all straight in my head, after I stepped away from religion. I’d much rather it had taken ONE year, or just a few months.
Priest, Parents, Peers – I think of them as the Three Ps of the cultural trap that religion represents for most of us. You’re surrounded by all these goddy messages, in every little aspect of life, and you have nowhere to go for non-religious answers to the questions you have about religion. I mean, really basic stuff, such as “How did Noah get all those millions of species of animals on the Ark?” – nobody will just come out and tell you, “Oh, that never happened. Don’t spend two seconds thinking about it, because it’s a complete fiction. Anybody who ever told you that story was flat-out lying, or deluded.”
The only place you have to figure these things out is the privacy of your own mind. And the number of things you have to deal with, the sheer amount of wrong answers you’ve been fed during your religious training … well, it’s just breathtaking.
If you had a big barn filled to the rafters with bales of hay, and you had to move all of it outside, out of the barn, and do it all by yourself, it would take a damned long time. But if you had just one friend to help, it would take half the time, or even less.
A lot of this stuff is really simple – as the Blue Collar part of the title implies – but it’s not always easy to accomplish if your entire cultural surround consists of nothing but religious advisers, religious answers. After you’ve done it, and you look back and see an empty barn, then it all looks simple. But before you start, it just looks impossible.
I wanted to be the friend who’d help you move out that hay. I wrote the book to help readers move religion out of their heads, and replace it with the rudiments of this whole other thing – the whole universe of thoughts of a NON-religious human being.
I notice you use a lot of western-type metaphors in the writing. Like you talked about a barn filled with hay just now. Why is that?
Again, it’s part of the Blue Collar thing, the implication that none of this stuff is very difficult to understand. That you don’t have to have a Ph.D. to figure out that your religion is silly, and to decide to become an unbeliever.
But it also comes very much from my own history. I worked as an actual cowboy for a number of years — with horses and mules, including draft horses.
The cover picture of the book even shows me riding a bull. Badly, I should say – any professional bull rider would look at it and say “Well, hell, he’s no bull rider!” And they’d be right. I only got on eight of them before I stopped, which means I never got good at it. So the only picture I have is of me riding a bull badly. But I did ride four of them to the buzzer. And these were not mechanical bulls, but real ones – 800 pounds or so of snorty, powerful, unpredictable, dangerous muscle and bone. Even in a world of professional bull riders, I get to be just a little bit proud of that.
But don’t think the book is filled with hokey “howdy-pardner” cowboy language. It’s written in plain English, and I only touch on the western stuff in illustrating a few of the arguments, or telling the reader who I am. I hope anybody who grew up in the U.S. would get the barn-filled-with-hay illustration I just used, just from the fact of having seen barns and bales of hay in movies or on TV, and nothing in the book is any more cowboyish.
What do you mean by “telling the reader who I am”?
I’m saying I’m just this ordinary guy who spent a lot of time getting all this stuff straight in his head, and now wants to pass it along.
If you look at it from a real-world perspective, nothing in religion is very complex. It’s just not. And in some ways, as I say in the book, it’s really pretty fragile – so fragile that unassisted teenagers can reason their way out of it.
I’m living proof of that. I grew up in a place – Texas – where you didn’t dare even ask the questions. I let it slip one time – one time! – that I was having doubts, and my stepfather tormented me about it for years afterwards. So I kept my mouth shut and just worked on things on my own. Eventually I got here.
You know, even after you decide you don’t believe in Jesus, or whatever other images your religion has pressed into your head, it can take a while before you’re actually free of it. I think all the people who say they are agnostics are really an example of that fact. They’re MOSTLY convinced that none of it is true, but they still have these sneaking suspicions that they themselves might be wrong. They still worry, for instance, that God might be watching them, looking into their thoughts, and putting another checkmark beside their names on the Hell List every time they sin.
I went through that myself. But there was a moment, probably 20 years after I first started wondering at the age of 13, that I realized I no longer had those sneaking suspicions. The very idea of a god that spied on you constantly was gone from my head. Man, talk about freedom! That, really, was the gateway to a much better part of my life. You don’t have to be afraid all the time.
What do you mean, afraid?
Well, look, isn’t that really most of what keeps religious people in line? They’re afraid that they’ll burn in hell? Or that lightning will strike their house?
I mean, damn, who wants to live like that?
And the worst part is not the effect it has on individuals, it’s that there’s an entire conversation about how to live well, how to interact with your fellow human beings, that we’re not having. Religion, the idea that all you need to be good and live well is to obey God – which really means priests and the things they say – it’s stunted our entire moral development. As a culture.
I look at the fact that we’ve constantly been in wars, over the entire course of my life, and I have to ask WTF? The idea that you can march into a place and start killing civilians, and consider it an acceptable price to pay for whatever it is you’re really after … who thinks like that? If you really look at it, these are not just video game characters off in some distant fantasy, they’re real people. There’s some 7-year-old girl out there, the light of somebody’s life, and she dies bloody on the street. What could be worth that?
But we haven’t had that discussion. Each of us sleeps comfortably every night, when we should be leaping on couches like Tom Cruise on Oprah, shouting that this has to stop, and there has to be another way.
And we haven’t had that discussion because we’ve inherited a whole package of truly freaky cultural mandates, either based directly in religion or closely associated with it, that have to do with what constitutes moral behavior. If you’re thinking in that religious channel, which has never considered humans as real, but only as player pieces in some larger goddy game, it might be okay to kill that little girl. She’s going to live on, after all, probably in paradise.
The fear that arises out of religion’s rules and commandments throughout our history has kept us from dealing with all this stuff on a realistic level, a level that solves problems in some more compassionate humanistic way. Every one of us seeing that sort of thing on TV should be saying “Wait just a damned minute. Really? Really? Someone in this room thinks it’s okay to kill somebody’s little girl, and then walk away and sleep well that night? That it’s not even very important, because she’s ‘collateral damage’ and because ‘You have to expect those things in a time of war’? No effing way!”
I’m getting off the subject of the book now – all of that is a whole other conversation. But the point is, there’s a level of crazy built into our culture, and to me it appears to spring directly from the fact that we’re TRAINED to be crazy, to think in an irrational manner and believe unbelievable things, by our religious upbringing.
How do you mean that?
Well, if you’re thinking about real people in any social question you ask, you get an array of answers that can work for real people.
But if you’re thinking about the supposed concerns of some 90-foot-tall galactic overlord, sitting on a golden throne in the sky – a being which you believe is infinitely more important than the entire human race – you get entirely different answers. And because that galactic overlord idea is just crazy as hell, some of the answers you get, maybe a lot of them, are crazy as hell.
We have to get away from that. We have immense problems before us, and more coming up, and only reasoning people have any chance of working out the right answers. Religion, and the kind of thinking it teaches, is a threat, a massive threat, to all of us.
Religion isn’t just some fluffy little kitten that lives with us and just occasionally, accidentally, scratches people. Meaning that it gives all of us all a lot of pleasure and the occasional claw mark on the furniture or our arm – a war, or some idiot parent denying life-saving medical care to his kid – is a small price to pay for what it gives us.
Instead, if you can get religion out of your head and really look at what it’s done to us, you start to see it as a nightmare, a huge menace, something that’s cost us more than most of us are able to even notice.
Like that saying about the fish that swims in water but never notices the water, we’re immersed in an entire world culture built on malignant, crazy ideas.
It’s all been going on for thousands of years, and at some point it has to stop.
And here I guess I’m getting back to that earlier question you asked me: Why did I write the book?
I wrote it because if we’re going to survive, or hopefully prosper, as a species, all of this craziness has to stop. I wanted to do my part — to be a small part of stopping it.
I wanted to show people that you don’t have to live crazy. That even if you don’t have a college education, even if you’re only 15 years old and have nobody else to talk to about the subject, that you can figure out this stuff, understand it, all on your own, and live the rest of your life free of the craziness.
THAT is why I wrote the book.
What do you say to those people who criticize atheists for being pushy and evangelical? Why can’t we all just get along?
Hah. Heard that one about a thousand times.
Look, imagine that you’re sitting in a room and that someone is preaching at you constantly. Okay, you can easily see that you’d like to stop that …
But most of the time, there’s nobody preaching.
Yeah, about that. That room we’re sitting in – our society – was built by religious people. It came about in a context of thousands of years of incredibly insistent goddiness, so that every bit of furniture, every bit of decoration, is either directly religious, or else strongly affected by religiousness.
The atheists who appear pushy are basically saying “Okay, even when nobody’s preaching, we’re still sitting in a room filled with religious icons, pictures of Jesus on the walls, a carpet woven with the image of the Virgin Mary.” And if you really look at society around us, with a mind clear of religion, you can see that. The smallest and most constant example is that you can’t even sneeze without somebody god-blessing you. Scale it up from there to every social question – abortion, war, the use of condoms, education, medical research — hell, for some people it’s a burning question about whether or not you should have a blood transfusion, even if it’s the only way to save your life.
What looks like pushiness is really just social self-defense, which is long overdue. Atheists just want to start clearing the common room, the room we all have to live in, of all that goddy furniture and decoration. Nobody’s saying you can’t have your faith — your own room with all the goddy images you want to put there — just like nobody’s saying you can’t have your stereo. We’re saying “Hey, you there across the street, we’d like to be able to sleep. We’re glad you have your music, but keep it at home, you know?”
As to being pushy, even if we WERE being pushy, I always say “Give me a thousand years or so to shout my message of freedom of thought, like the godders have been shouting their demanding religiosity for MANY thousands of years, and then come back and talk to me about being pushy.”