Know-Nothings

“We have heard talk enough. We have listened to all the drowsy, idealess, vapid sermons that we wish to hear. We have read your Bible and the works of your best minds. We have heard your prayers, your solemn groans and your reverential amens. All these amount to less than nothing. We want one fact. We beg at the doors of your churches for just one little fact. We pass our hats along your pews and under your pulpits and implore you for just one fact. We know all about your moldy wonders and your stale miracles. We want a ‘this year’s fact’. We ask only one. Give us one fact for charity.”

—Robert Green Ingersoll, “The Gods

In the mid-1800s, an anti-immigrant political movement arose in America in response to waves of Irish Catholic immigrants whom, it was feared, were plotting to overthrow democracy and make the country a vassal of the Vatican. The official name of this movement was the American Party, but its popular name was the Know-Nothing party – so named because, supposedly, when members were asked about their affiliation, they would say “I know nothing.”

Today, the ugly remnants of racism and nativism command far less power than they once did; we have even had a Roman Catholic president since, and he turned out to be a staunch and proud supporter of the separation of church and state. However, the advocates of know-nothingism still exist in a different form.

Every week, priests, rabbis, ministers, imams and other clergy members the world over stand before their flocks and claim, whether implicitly or explicitly, that they know the standards and the rules of an unseen supernatural world that surrounds us. They claim to know of the existence of a blissful hereafter, and what we must do to reach it. They claim to know of the existence of a dreadful underworld, and what we must do to avoid it. They claim to know that there is a god (or gods), they claim to know, at least to some extent, the will and desires of that being, and they claim to know what we must do to win its favor. (By pure coincidence, I’m sure, the required acts almost always involve our continued obedience and financial support of the clergy telling us this.) Often, they also claim that they can perform magical acts that the rest of us cannot, which will draw the deity’s blessing and persuade him to forgive us our sins.

The entire vast edifice of organized religion is built on this conceit – that there are some people who know the spiritual world better than the rest of us, who are more able to interpret the will of the gods and intercede with them on our behalf. From this specious claim has grown a multibillion-dollar industry, organized and managed by a hierarchy of clergy members whose salaries are paid by the tithes of their parishioners.

These claims are false. The clergy do not know what they claim to know. They have no knowledge of a spiritual world, no knowledge of the existence of a god, no knowledge of angels or demons, no knowledge of an afterlife, no ability to perform supernatural rituals, no special ability to peer into our souls or our hearts, and no more insight into what constitutes moral behavior than any other human being. When it comes to the supernatural, they are know-nothings in the truest sense of the word.

Knowledge, after all, requires more than mere belief. Knowledge can be defined as justified true belief, and for a belief to be justified, it must be supported by evidence – by facts. The clergy do not have these facts. What they have, instead, are guesses, faith, pious assumptions, and naive trust in the collected writings and oral traditions of past theologians who have no more knowledge of a supernatural world than today’s theologians do. Like castles built on insubstantial air, they buttress the assumptions of past generations with new assumptions, each one trusting that there is a solid foundation of fact at the base of it all. But in all the long years of ecclesiastical history, none of them have yet presented any reason to think so.

If the clergy claim they know, what is the basis for that knowledge? Have any of them been to the afterlife themselves, or seen supernatural beings with their own eyes, or heard God’s voice with their own ears? If they claim so, what evidence can they offer to prove that the experience did not originate from within their own heads? If they have better insight into human nature than the rest of us, any ability to do something that ordinary people cannot do, can they demonstrate this ability in objective tests whose results are open to verification by all?

If they cannot offer such evidence, then the rational conclusion must be that the clergy are raking in rewards in exchange for empty words, guarantees they cannot substantiate, promises they cannot keep. In exchange for a weekly dose of soothing sentences and pious platitudes, we have given them money, heaped power and influence at their feet, turned over practically everything of value we have. And for what? Their sermons are like fairy gold, evaporating into mist in the morning, leaving behind nothing of value. We have been swindled, and it’s about time we stopped rewarding the swindlers. Even the ones who are sincere are draining us of attention and resources we could more profitably use elsewhere, and offering nothing in return except continued dependency.

But perhaps I’ve cast my net too sweepingly. Perhaps it’s unfair to say that clergy do no good at all. They might assert that they do offer a service to their followers: providing a focal point of community, teaching principles of moral behavior and good citizenship, offering a source of guidance and counseling. Fine. If that is what they offer, let them say so – and let them make it clear that they provide these services only in their capacity as human beings, and that they have no more knowledge of or connection to the supernatural than anyone else. Let them tell the truth about that, and then let the people decide if they wish to continue supporting them.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://spaninquis.wordpress.com/ John P

    I’ve always maintained that religion was just another source of employment for a lot of people. Organized religion is simply an institution of self-perpetuatipon – it exists to exist. In the process it provides employment.

    As humans, we all need some form of employment to sustain us. Without it, we’d be on the dole. In one sense, then, churches provide employment for priests, nuns, ministers, some lay persons, etc. The guys at the top, however, are like a giant Amway pyramid scheme. The people at the bottom sustain the ones above them, who sustain the ones above them, until you hit the head honchos, who require a cadre of people below them, all generating revenue to sustain the ones at the top, who do nothing but supervise.

    Imagine if the veil was lifted from the faithfuls eyes, all at the same time? The Pyramid would instantly collapse. Who would support the Vatican? I guess they could turn it into a museum.

  • lpetrich

    Those guys are clever. They will claim that their pet beliefs are provable, but when the counterarguments come in, they will deny that their beliefs are provable and talk about “reasons to believe” and Pascal’s Wager.

    I’ve seen Catholics claim that the existence of God is unprovable and that Thomas Aquinas’s famous five proofs are not really proofs but “reasons to believe”. But according to their church’s teachings, that is heresy, since one of the Catholic Church’s dogmas is that the existence of God is provable.

    You can find chapter and verse on that in First Vatican Council (1869-1870)

    If anyone says that the one, true God, our creator and lord, cannot be known with certainty from the things that have been made, by the natural light of human reason: let him be anathema. (Canon 2:1)

    There are additional such no-nos, like atheism (of course!) (1:1), materialism (1:2), mantheism (1:3), the belief that the Universe emanates from God like light from a light bulb (1:4), the believe that God couldn’t help it when he created the Universe (1:5), that the Apocrypha are not divinely inspired (2:4), that only internal experience can possibly be convincing (3:3), that miracles do not happen (3:4), that all the Church’s dogmas can be understood with pure reason (4:1), and this doozie:

    If anyone says that human studies are to be treated with such a degree of liberty that their assertions may be maintained as true even when they are opposed to divine revelation, and that they may not be forbidden by the Church: let him be anathema. (4:2)

    In other words, if such studies propose that the Earth moves around the Sun, and that revelation states that the Sun moves around the Earth, then one must believe that the Sun moves around the Earth. And one isn’t even allowed to claim that it will be one day be shown that revelation, when properly interpreted, shows that the Earth moves around the Sun (4:3).

  • http://evolte.org/blog Zach A

    I like your last paragraph — to me, this is where it gets really interesting!

    Yes, religion-as-supernaturalism is bunk, and we shouldn’t be afraid to say so. But there *do* seem to be real and legitimate human wants that religion often provides (as you say, community, teaching moral behavior, guidance and counseling).

    If so, it stands to reason that as a culture we will not be wholly free from religion until we figure out how to carry forward the “good bits” without the “bad bits.” My perception is that there are currently two main classes of communities — ones that are truly non-religious (listings on the AHA and CSH websites), but not terribly widespread or organized, and ones that are more established (UUs, liberal Quakers) but otherwise non-optimal, e.g. accepting nontheistic members but still corporately being religious organizations. Personally I’m starting to think organizing the former is more promising than trying to reform the latter.

  • OhioAtheist

    Another great post, Ebonmuse. Keep it up!

  • Jeff T.

    Ebon, once again you beautifully state a very valid argument. You have hit the nail on the head so many times in this piece that it is simply a pleasure to read and to know that other people out there have grasped reality and understand entirely the utter fallacy of religion gives me hope.
    While I have not agreed with every one of your political views, seperation of church and state obviously a mutual agreement, I have always considered you a mentor on the subject of atheism and religion and this piece reinforces that admiration.

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    Beautiful.

    I’m reminded of one of the most unsettling scenes in Craig Thompson’s graphic novel memoir “Blankets” (an absolute must-read for atheists, btw). He’s a child in Sunday school, being told about Heaven and angels singing and playing the harp, etc. He asks his Sunday school teacher if he’ll be able to draw in heaven (even as a child he loved to draw), and he is told, unequivocally and with complete confidence and authority, “No. You can’t draw in Heaven.”

    Now, set aside for the moment how appalling it is to squelch a talented child’s creativity by saying something like that. My point is this: How on earth did the Sunday school teacher know that you can sing and play music in Heaven, but you can’t draw? On what basis was she making that claim?

    None at all, that’s what. It’s not what she was taught about Heaven — she was taught about singing and playing harps, not drawing — and in her closed mind, drawing therefore couldn’t be part of Heaven. But she didn’t really have any basis for her answer. She was just making it up.

    Just like all of them are just making it up.

  • konrad_arflane

    The interesting thing is that, IIRC, one of Luther’s points of dissension with the Catholic church was whether people needed intermediaries between themselves and God. Luther’s view was that each man has a direct, personal relationship, which not only cut the saints out of the loop, but also the priests.

    Of course, human nature being what it is, it’s not a point you’ll hear very many Protestant theologians making to the wider public today.

  • stillwaters

    As always, another well-written and thoughtful post. The “Know-Nothings”! That’s so true. I’ve always thought it a good idea to ask the theist how they actually know what it is that their god thinks. The answer invariably ends up with their precious bible. And, of course, you just keep on with how they actually know that their bible is the word of their god, and contains god’s thoughts. This, invariably, leads to the firm conclusion that it is faith, blind faith, and faith alone, that they base their worldview on. They view the world based on wishful thinking, not on reason or science. Certainly not on critical thinking.

    It’s a sad situation that so many people come to view the world in which they live based almost entirely on what fraudsters say. I call them fraudsters because they are pretending to speak for a supernatural being that no one has ever truly encountered. If this god truly spoke to anyone of us, he would do so individually, not through these self-proclaimed authority figures.

    And those of us that do see reality for what it truly is are ridiculed, ostracized, and dismissed as immoral. Wake up True Believer! See the world as it truly is, not as you wish it was. I know I don’t know everything, and I certainty don’t know as much as many other people, but I do know that I can’t speak for the creator of the universe. I speak only for myself, because that’s whose thoughts I do know. And one thing I do know – the authoritative preachers who speak for god are nothing but charlatans.

  • Doy

    Knowledge comes from the real “bible”, which is the nature, and it does not fit with the christian bible, or any other religious books. The believers never even presented a small angel-feather as evidence for their superstious beliefs, but demand 100% evidence from everything else. Science should turn around and demand such evidence for goods, angels, heaven, hell, demons, saviours, etc. We need more scientists like Richard Dawkins.

  • Lib

    I was raised catholic. (technically, i suppose i still am being raised, but I am semi-publicly atheist) and personally, I think catholicism is one of the worst strains of christianity in some ways. Catholicism refuses to let its members think for them selves at all, claiming that only the interpretation of the pope is valid, and then only when he is in a specific chair. Yes, they only take his word for infallible when he’s in the chair of Peter. While on one level that makes me crack up, on another level it is scary that catholics follow everything so blindly, without thinking about it. The typical attitude of a catholic is that if they don’t understand the teaching, it is just an incomprehensible “mystery” that we are not meant to understand.

    In religion class, our teacher will praise blind faith and unquestioningly following the teachers. Movies about the vatican glorify the city for being the last civilized theocratic monarchy, failing to see the irony. The vatican is filled with ridiculous splendor while a majority of their followers live in poverty. Catholic logic isn’t logic at all. Any time they can’t answer a question, they can find a church teaching, and, despite the logical flaws, refuse to listen to any more reason.

    The clergy of any religion, especially Catholicism, don’t know what they preach, and don’t try to know.

    And that’s my catholicism rant…

  • Adele

    One of my absolute favorite arguments against religion, and the most glaring problem in Christianity for me as a child: how do they KNOW?

    Obviously the stock answer is “Because the Bible says it is so,” but – how do you know the Bible is true? How do you KNOW it is the Word of God? Who is telling you this?

    Perhaps I am rather naiive… but this seems to me to be one of the most difficult things for Christians to get around. And so simple. I love it.

    And… theists… “I just KNOW” is NOT a legitimate answer to this question. “I just KNOW” is self-delusion, plain and simple.

  • Adele

    The most frustrating thing about religion: it firmly restricts people from thinking. Well do Christians like to call themselves a “flock” – they follow their religious leaders as blindly as did the animals in George Orwell’s masterpiece Animal Farm.
    This is utterly disgusting. It is my belief that atheists should consider learning to be their highest calling.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X