Wednesday, March 28, 2012


 I love revelations. Not the capital “R,” the ones that happen when you least expect it. The epiphanies, the eureka moments. The ones that confirm my suspicion that we don’t do any conscious thinking at all; it’s all done at the neural or sub-neural level. It took me seventy years to understand this:

The interesting question is not, why is religion universal, but why isn’t it? It used to be. When did the case for religion begin to break down and why? And why has it spread?

There were branches of Eastern religions that espoused a no-god philosophy, but they managed to do it within a structured, religious context; and, inevitably, their sects reverted to more recognizable theisms.

The Greeks could hardly have avoided atheism, but it could still have been punished by pain of death in the wrong circumstances; and the death penalty came back with a vengeance with Christianity. Even today, I wouldn’t advise walking in downtown Kabul and shouting, “Allah is a fuck-head.” You know what I mean?

But likewise, I wouldn’t have gone into downtown Moscow in 1945 and hollered, “Stalin is a fuck-head,” either. State atheism is no saint.

As much as anything, one has to ask, how come it’s such an emotional issue, this religious stuff? Why do people kill over it? Why do they worry about it when they get married? Why do they make such a fuss over it? Curious minds want to know. Like mine, for example.

Like theism, there are multiple forms of atheism from the quasi-religious forms to the brutal state-sponsored forms—what business is it of the state’s, anyway?—and all sorts of philosophical positions in between; but the atheism that concerns me most is the “popular” atheism. As is, “Do you believe in God?”


I think that pretty much sums up atheism for the common person. It’s a rational question to which one can give a rational answer and not expect to be burned at the stake. Anymore. No big deal. Unless you happen to be in Alabama. Or Nigeria. Or a courtroom.

We can thank the Enlightenment for the spread of science, of education. Inch by inch it spreads to all corners of the globe (a globe has corners?) and where it spreads, so does atheism. Like blight on a birthday cake: ooo, there goes the frosting. It’s spread is not uniform; vast areas of both the country and the world are unaffected or lightly so. It’s progress is not smooth, the forces against it would still like to kill.

Yet, apparently, it’s inevitable. Apparently, the forces pushing atheism are the same forces reducing violence and the number of babies being born. It appears that, in some senses, the cures to our problems are spontaneous. Who would have known that population expansion was not exponential but on a bell curve? Who would have known?

In retrospect, the advent of public atheism was inevitable just as was the scientific revolution. Indeed, just as every day is inevitable.

All in all, though, for a subject so central to our time—the spread of rationalism—it’s amazingly understudied. Perhaps it’s taken for granted. Didn’t I just say it was inevitable?

Aren’t you glad you took this train?

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