A Brilliant Retort from an Atheist, Hidden Away in a Newspaper…

***Edit***: Comments were accidentally turned off on this post, but they’re back on now. My apologies.

Local newspapers love to publish opinion pieces written by community members. It gives the writers a little more investment in the newspaper (“Hey, look! I got published!”) and the newspaper gets free content that tends to generate a lot of comments online.

Tim Lee is writing a series of guest columns on life after death for the Knoxville News Sentinel and his goal is to “accurately reflect the various perspectives of local residents.”

So, last week, he interviewed atheist Ralph Isler, a man who left the Methodist church when he became an atheist:

For Isler, humans are simply the result of millions of years of biological evolution. We have no souls. Cultural influences over epochs of time have caused humans to develop empathy, love and all other emotions. We are ultimately nothing more than chemical processes interacting at the microcellular level.

Therefore, when we die, those biological functions cease and we are no more. Game over.

Isler is content in having traded in his superstitious belief in an eternal heaven for a more rational yet temporal existence in this life only. He’s 99.5 percent certain that his journey has led him to the truth.

It’s a bit dry, but at least it’s accurate. No issues so far.

Then we get to the end of the piece:

In the end, though, Isler seems to have his own god. Isler. And Isler alone calls the shots, not some invisible celestial dictator in the sky. So Isler displaced God with Isler, as man displaces God with man.

That story sounds vaguely familiar. The name Adam come to mind?…

Umm… wait, what?! How many atheists believe they are their own gods? Did Isler really say that…?

Of course not.

So Isler wrote a letter to the paper and it was published yesterday. Unfortunately, those response letters — much like corrections — never really get the same attention as the original article. But this one is definitely worth reading:

As I started reading his article in the Jan. 15 edition of the News Sentinel, it appeared that Lee did an adequate job of expressing my views. So it was rather astonishing to come across his last few sentences where he showed, even after all our conversation, a lack of understanding the meaning of atheism while essentially characterizing me as egocentric with delusions of being a god. Apparently he means a god in the Judeo-Christian mold since he mentions Adam.

Well, I don’t really have the needs or temperament for that role. I would have to require constant adulation to pump up my fragile ego, but I’m not that insecure. I would have to support slavery, but I find it repugnant. And I would have to feel pleasure in making someone suffer eternal torment for not believing in my existence, even when I exercise all my powers to conceal it. The very thought of such psychopathic behavior should be totally repugnant to any civilized person. Atheism simply implies the view that there are no gods; it does not mean that the atheist aspires to fill that vacancy.

Excellent reply, don’t you think? :)

Too bad it’s hidden away in a giant collection of letters-to-the-editor.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Matt in Knoxville

    I think Isler handled this perfectly. Freethinkers are a very tiny minority here in Knoxville, but there many more of us around than you think. In fact, most of my Knoxville friends are either atheists/agnostics, nonreligious, or surprisingly tolerant Christians. Obviously it is neither easy, “safe” (professionally/socially), nor practical for most of us to “come out” at this time, but the tide is turning, slowly, even here in the middle of the bible belt.  Thanks for posting this story, Hemant.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/John-A-Anderson/100000016895400 John A. Anderson

    About 20 years ago, when I was living in Rock Hill, SC, the local paper interviewed Madalynn Murray O’Hair’s psycho evangelical son. The front page headline, in 48-point type, referred to him as a “Reformed Atheist.” My angry phone calls to the paper’s copy desk were met with shrugs. They just didn’t get it.

  • http://religiouscomics.net/ Jeff P

    If Tim Lee wanted to “accurately reflect the various perspectives of local residents” by interviewing Ralph Isler, then he missed the mark.  What Tim Lee did was to re-interpret and re-express the attitude (and put some words in his mouth) of Ralph Isler in language often uttered form the pulpit in decrying not putting God first. Pastors often say that if you are not consciously putting God first, then you are putting false gods first.  They say this like people must be worshiping these “false gods” as if they were worshipping the big daddy God.  They just can’t wrap their mind around some people just not believing in God… and people can not believe in God and at the same time not elevate other things (like self) to occupy some space supposedly vacated by the absence of God.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_KCX2GRSDO3RRW5ORJAIDG4VOWY SamM

    Oh the job of a journalist. Have they no shame?

    • JimG

      Oh, yes, because one columnist at a mid-sized newspaper gets it all wrong, all journalists are broadly tarred as shameless – including those of us who are ourselves atheists.
      And before you start with “Everyone knows the media parrots what its Christian readers want,” those of us who are Christians (not me) regularly get told we’re all obviously heathens out to destroy morality. It just depends on whose ox is being gored that day.

  • http://twitter.com/BradCatalyst Brad Cork

    I find it interesting that you think name calling is a brilliant atheistic retort… usually people only resort to name calling when they have nothing substantive to say.

    • David F

      I can find no instance of name calling in his letter.  Perhaps,  you could point it out for the rest of us.

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_LNWAM4DYCN4MLBLHFGDHE2YKZM GloomCookie613

      Yes, I second DavidF’s request, do show us the name calling because I’m not seeing it either.  I see someone correcting erroneous information.  Now the journalist in question came pretty close to calling names when he implied that the atheist gentleman thinks he’s [Isler] “god”, but somehow I don’t think that’s what you were referring to.

    • Edwardh

      Ahaa the self professed Prophet and Pastor of his very own home church makes more false accusations. He fears God as the devil has his number….SSA

  • starskeptic

    “Too bad it’s hidden away in a giant collection of letters-to-the-editor.”

    It is too bad – but that paper does devote more space to reader opinions (of all kinds) than any other paper I’ve ever read…

  • Anonymous

    “In the end, though, Isler seems to have his own god. Isler.”

    Far from it. As an atheist, Isler is more likely to use logical reasoning to determine his stance on social or ethical issues. A theist is more likely to defer to their god. These approaches employ radically different cognitive activities, a fact which can be demonstrated using neural imaging.

    Experiments show that when asked what his or her god’s beliefs are on a certain matter, the part of a theist’s brain that lights up is not the one that lights up when he or she is asked what another person (such as Bill Gates or the next door neighbor) believes about the matter. Instead, the part that lights up is the one associated with self-referential thinking. It’s the same part of the brain that lights up when a person is asked what his or her own beliefs are. So in actuality, it is the theist who has made himself a god, he just doesn’t realize it.

    In addition to the neural imaging experiment, theists responding to questions about their god’s opinion on a particular matter who subsequently had their own opinions manipulated (by watching a documentary on the same matter) reported a change in their god’s opinion.

    The results of these two experiments were published in a paper entitled “Believers’ estimates of God’s beliefs are more egocentric than estimates of other people’s beliefs”.  If you go to youtube.com/watch?v=wpFltZ1rAmg and skip to 5:15 you can see Dr. J. Anderson Thomson talk about the experiments.

    There’s also a neat video by a layperson coming at the matter from a psychological perspective that I found interesting at youtube.com/watch?v=-j8ZMMuu7MU. I’m interested in learning more about “ego as god”, so if anybody has more information I would like to hear about it!

  • Dan W

    If it weren’t for that last few sentences, that column would’ve been great. Kinda ruins the whole claim to “accurately reflect the various perspectives of local residents” when you add on bullshit that Isler never actually said.


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