In midtown Manhattan yesterday, I happened to notice the following breathtakingly arrogant slogan on a church’s bulletin board:
“The errors of faith are better than the best thoughts of unbelief.” —Thomas Russell
This quote is probably of ancient vintage (both Thomas Russells listed on Wikipedia lived during the 1700s), which explains, though it does not excuse, its repulsive, hate-laden attitude. But what I find truly amazing is that a church in the year 2006, in liberal New York City, would openly endorse this kind of medieval bigotry. The posting of this quote confirms the thesis, unfortunately, that atheists are the last group in America against whom it is still considered acceptable to discriminate. Just try to imagine if this sort of hate had been directed against a different group: “The errors of Christians are better than the best thoughts of Jews,” or, “The errors of whites are better than the best thoughts of blacks.” The outrage that would ensue requires no description from me. Yet when the target is changed to atheists, this church feels free to announce its prejudice to the world during the midtown lunch rush.
The towering arrogance and conceited pride that radiates from Russell’s words goes a long way toward explaining why atheists and religious groups are still so far apart. This church boldly stated its belief that an atheist who calls for peace, compassion, justice and humanity is worse than a murderous religious fanatic who calls for torture and slavery in the name of God. They seem almost proud to share a pedestal with suicide bombers, Taliban theocrats and terrorist killers like the 9/11 hijackers (for whatever else might be said about these groups, one cannot deny the strength of their faith), so long as they do not have to share their space with any of those dreaded, despised atheists. In Russell’s eyes, and apparently in the eyes of this church as well, the mere profession of belief in an invisible sky-being, no matter how starkly irrational that belief is or what hatred and atrocities go along with it, suffices to raise a person to a level well above that of any nonbeliever, regardless of what works that nonbeliever has done or whatever love and care that nonbeliever might show towards their fellow living beings. Whether a person professes belief in God, in their eyes, is the only thing about them that matters and and the sole determinant of their moral worth, and that is a truly vile and despicable view.
Nevertheless, I am never one to shrink from a challenge. I will meet Russell on his own terms and see if his words hold truth. Let us consider some of the worst errors of faith and some of the best thoughts of unbelief, and let us see how they stack up against each other.
First, here is what I consider to be one of the best thoughts of unbelief: an excerpt from Robert Green Ingersoll’s beautiful and profound eulogy for his brother, Ebon:
This brave and tender man in every storm of life was oak and rock; but in the sunshine he was vine and flower. He was the friend of all heroic souls. He climbed the heights, and left all superstitions far below, while on his forehead fell the golden dawning of the grander day.
He loved the beautiful, and was with color, form, and music touched to tears. He sided with the weak, the poor, and wronged, and lovingly gave alms. With loyal heart and with the purest hands he faithfully discharged all public trusts.
He was a worshiper of liberty, a friend of the oppressed. A thousand times I have heard him quote these words: “For Justice all place a temple, and all season, summer.” He believed that happiness is the only good, reason the only torch, justice the only worship, humanity the only religion, and love the only priest. He added to the sum of human joy; and were every one to whom he did some loving service to bring a blossom to his grave, he would sleep tonight beneath a wilderness of flowers.
And here is one of the errors of faith: a passage from the Bible in which the great prophet Moses commands the mass slaughter and sexual enslavement of children:
Moses, Eleazar the priest and all the leaders of the community went to meet them outside the camp. Moses was angry with the officers of the army — the commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds — who returned from the battle.
“Have you allowed all the women to live?” he asked them. “They were the ones who followed Balaam’s advice and were the means of turning the Israelites away from the Lord in what happened at Peor, so that a plague struck the Lord’s people. Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.”
Here is another of the best thoughts of unbelief, a statement by the atheist leader Madalyn Murray O’Hair explaining her opposition to mandatory state-led prayer in public schools:
Your petitioners are atheists, and they define their lifestyle as follows:
An atheist loves himself and his fellow man instead of a god. An atheist thinks that heaven is something for which we should work for now — here on earth — for all men together to enjoy. An atheist accepts that he can get no help through prayer but that he must find in himself the inner conviction and strength to meet life, to grapple with it, subdue and enjoy it. An atheist thinks that only in knowledge of himself and a knowledge of his fellow man can he find the understanding that will help to a life of fulfillment.
Therefore, he seeks to know himself and his fellow man rather than to ‘know’ a god. An atheist knows that a hospital should be built instead of a church. An atheist knows that a deed must be done instead of a prayer said. An atheist strives for involvement in life and not escape into death.
He wants disease conquered, poverty vanquished, war eliminated. He wants man to understand and love man. He wants an ethical way of life. He knows that we cannot rely on a god nor channel action into prayer nor hope for an end of troubles in a hereafter. He knows that we are our brothers’ keepers in that we are, first, keepers of our lives; that we are responsible persons, that the job is here and the time is now.
And here is another error of faith, the Scottish preacher John Knox, in 1558, defending his thesis that women should never be permitted to hold any position of authority or power over men, and that any who disagree should be put to death:
And here is another thought of unbelief, the astronomer Carl Sagan reflecting on a picture, taken from billions of miles out in deep space, that shows the entire planet Earth as nothing but a lonely twinkle of pale blue in a vast ocean of night:
And first, where I affirm the empire of a woman to be a thing repugnant to nature, I mean not only that God, by the order of his creation, has spoiled woman of authority and dominion, but also that man has seen, proved, and pronounced just causes why it should be. Man, I say, in many other cases, does in this behalf see very clearly. For the causes are so manifest, that they cannot be hid. For who can deny but it is repugnant to nature, that the blind shall be appointed to lead and conduct such as do see? That the weak, the sick, and impotent persons shall nourish and keep the whole and strong? And finally, that the foolish, mad, and frenetic shall govern the discreet, and give counsel to such as be sober of mind? And such be all women, compared unto man in bearing of authority.
We succeeded in taking that picture, and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
And the faithful believer Rev. John Furniss, in a religious tract written especially for children, describing the suffering of an infant condemned to an eternity of agony in Hell:
The little child is in this red hot oven. Hear how it screams to come out. See how it turns and twists itself about in the fire. It beats its head against the roof of the oven. It stamps its little feet on the floor of the oven. You can see on the face of this little child what you see on the faces of all in hell – despair, desperate and horrible! The same law which is for others is also for children. If children, knowingly and willingly, break God’s commandments, they must also be punished like others. This child committed very bad mortal sins, knowing well the harm of what it was doing, and knowing that hell would be the punishment. God was very good to this child. Very likely God saw that this child would get worse and worse, and would never repent, and so it would have to be punished much more in hell. So God, in His mercy, called it out of the world in its early childhood.
And the novelist Zora Neale Hurston:
Strong, self-determining men are notorious for their lack of reverence.
…Prayer seems to me a cry of weakness, and an attempt to avoid, by trickery, the rules of the game as laid down. I do not choose to admit weakness. I accept the challenge of responsibility. Life, as it is, does not frighten me, since I have made my peace with the universe as I find it, and bow to its laws. The ever-sleepless sea in its bed, crying out ‘How long?’ to Time; million-formed and never motionless flame; the contemplation of these two aspects alone, affords me sufficient food for ten spans of my expected lifetime. It seems to me that organized creeds are collections of words around a wish. I feel no need for such. However, I would not, by word or deed, attempt to deprive another of the consolation it affords. It is simply not for me. Somebody else may have my rapturous glance at the archangels. The springing of the yellow line of morning out of the misty deep of dawn, is glory enough for me. I know that nothing is destructible; things merely change forms. When the consciousness we know as life ceases, I know that I shall still be part and parcel of the world. I was a part before the sun rolled into shape and burst forth in the glory of change. I was, when the earth was hurled out from its fiery rim. I shall return with the earth to Father Sun, and still exist in substance when the sun has lost its fire, and disintegrated into infinity to perhaps become a part of the whirling rubble of space. Why fear? The stuff of my being is matter, ever changing, ever moving, but never lost; so what need of denominations and creeds to deny myself the comfort of all my fellow men? The wide belt of the universe has no need for finger-rings. I am one with the infinite and need no other assurance.
This seems to be to be more than sufficient answer to Russell’s insult. In return, I challenge any believers who endorse his sentiment to proclaim that they find these errors of faith superior to the thoughts of unbelievers I have cited. Who would you rather share a world with, Robert Ingersoll or the murdering Moses? Whose view of the human spirit is more noble, Madalyn Murray O’Hair’s or John Knox’s? Who has a grander and more beautiful vision of the cosmos, Carl Sagan and Zora Hurston or John Furniss?
I will not return Russell’s insult; I do not believe that even the worst atheists are better than the best theists. On the contrary, actions are more important than belief, and I would much rather live life in the company of kind, loving and good-hearted people regardless of their beliefs. But, on the other hand, beliefs inevitably contaminate actions; and a person who believes things that are spiteful and bigoted will almost inevitably begin to act in tune with those thoughts. Moral belief is the only reliable way to give rise to moral action; and the texts and writings of many religions contain and endorse so many evils and cruelties that it is almost more surprising when followers of those texts do not act in such a way.
Perhaps the church which I saw did not intend to display such an ugly prejudice. Perhaps they simply found the quote and thought it would make a snappy advertisement without considering that there were real people who actually identify themselves as unbelievers and who would view that statement as the insult it is. But unintentional prejudice is prejudice nonetheless, and if the administrators of that church did not know that there are many real atheists out there, then they should have known. It is my hope that sites like this one can dispel the darkness of ignorance and bring in its place the enlightenment of understanding that atheists, too, are real people who do not appreciate being maligned.
UPDATE: I recently came across a more famous theologian who shares this opinion, namely Thomas Aquinas:
“Therefore it is clear that the sin of unbelief is greater than any sin that occurs in the perversion of morals.”