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.

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About Adam Lee

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


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