An Atheist’s Message: Please Read About Your Religion (and the rest of them)

Religious BooksThere is an oft-quoted colloquialism that suggests the best way to encourage someone towards atheism is to give them a Bible.

Actress and comedian Julia Sweeney’s monologue “Letting Go of God” exemplifies this tried-and-true method of the emergence of skepticism through the study of holy texts. She discusses a reinvigoration of her Catholic faith that brought her to church, where she then enrolled in a Bible study class. As she progressed through the book, the girl who was once eager to join the sisterhood began seeing some serious discrepancies and injustices in the word of God. She mentions the child sacrifices of Abraham (although his son Isaac was spared) and Jephthah (his daughter was not so lucky), God’s afterthought about the necessity of the flood, and the characters flaws of the perfect Jesus among many other instances where she felt disinclined towards the holy book of her faith.

Along with her growing skepticism of the Bible and her “more conventional” Catholic faith, Sweeney recounts a story of two Mormon boys who came to her door to enlighten her about their faith. The two boys tell her the story of how the prophet Lehi came to Americaby boat in 600 BC with his family (the only good family in a totally evil Jerusalem). Lehi’s descendants from his son Nephi were the totally-good light-skinned people known as the Nephites while the rebellious son Laman’s descendants were the totally-bad dark-skinned people known as the Lamanites. If you sense some racial tension at this point, you would be spot on, as the Mormons tend to view the Native Americans as descended from totally-evil people. As the story continues, Jesus stops by America after his crucifixion on his way to heaven and tells the Nephites they will win the war against the Lamanites if they remain totally good. As Sweeney dictates it, “somebody blew it” and the Lamanites decimated all but one of the Nephites, a prophet named Mormon. He wrote down an entire account of what had transpired up to that point and this was later found in Palmyra, New York by Joseph Smith who translated the reformed Egyptian hieroglyphs with the aid of a special stone whilst looking into a hat into English. Today, we know these writings as the Book of Mormon, one of the canonical books of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which boasts over 13 million adherents.

At first, Sweeney says she wanted to feel self-satisfied that she was apart of a more traditional religious order. However, she admits she would have felt the same shock at hearing the Catholic dogma and tradition as she did the Mormon dogma if she had heard it for the first time. She cites the importance of the Virgin Mary as the untouched, God-inseminated mother of Jesus to Catholic and Christian lore as an example of a ridiculous story having crucial importance to her religion.

Julia Sweeney’s story eventually leads her to atheism and compels her to become one of the many activists working for the promotion of secular values in the world today. She serves on the board for the Secular Coalition of America. Please read and/or listen to her monologues and other work (links below). Sweeney’s Bible study-turned-atheism shows that the old adage may have some truth, and she is not the only one exploring it.

Cognitive scientist and philosopher Daniel Dennett offered in his book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, a plan that would make it compulsory for public schools to provide education on the facts, traditions, and histories of all the world’s religions without bias to any specific religion or religions. The driving force behind Dennett’s proposal:

“It’s just an idea, and perhaps there are better ones to consider, but it should appeal to

freedom-lovers everywhere: the idea of insisting that the devout of all faiths should face the challenge of making sure their creed is worthy enough, attractive and plausible and meaningful enough, to withstand the temptations of its competitors. If you have to hoodwink–or blindfold–your children to insure that they confirm their faith when they are adults, your faith ought to go extinct.” (Breaking the Spell, 327-8)

The idea has been accepted by some of the religious, but by others it has been called totalitarian and fascist. I find it hard to disagree with Dennett in saying that this approach seems almost libertarian. It helps create an educated and well-informed population while preventing parents from lying to their kids or indoctrinating them into their faiths without exposing them to other faiths. As Dennett says, “This knowledge will enrich their minds in uncountable ways, since it will acquaint them with some of the greatest music, art and literature that the world has to offer, and give them the sort of perspective on their own lives that you can only get from comparing your life with the lives of others.”

For more information about this idea, please watch Daniel Dennett’s TED presentation or his debate with Dinesh D’Sousza, an outspoken critic of the idea. (Links below)

I am very supportive of Dr. Dennett’s proposal for 3 main reasons:

  1. An informed citizenship.
    1. An unbiased teaching of the world’s religions to all increases the knowledge of cultures that are not one’s own in an extremely diverse world. It would allow for more stable connections between different religions and countries, and could move the goal of peace forward exponentially. Also, as Dennett points out, parents are stewards of their children and not their masters. They should not be allowed to lie to their children about their faith or anyone else’s faith and exclusively indoctrinate them into their religion.
  2. Open, honest discussion of religion
    1. A presentation of the facts, history, and tradition of all religions would allow us to sufficiently praise specific religions for the good they have brought to the world while also allowing us to examine the severely negative things that have happened in conjunction with religion. I think this may be the reason some people critique Dennett’s idea because they fear a true discussion of the facts, history, and tradition of their respective religions will diminish their influence and expose their inherent flaws.
  3. The Bible Theory
    1. As with Sweeney and the Bible Study, or the story of the Mormons, I believe that reading religious texts often breeds skepticism, and that skepticism is a healthy thing. We should never blindly accept anything we are told without research and should pursue truth, knowledge, and reason. Showing religions based on facts, tradition, and history should paint them in a positive light if they are worthwhile to have in our world but it often exposes inherent flaws. I think Dennett’s idea takes this idea and implements it for all to see.

Some critics of this idea will look at point 3 and say, “Exactly! Dennett’s basically trying to abolish religion!” However, look at what Dr. Dennett’s plan calls for. It calls for faith and religion exposure to all in an unbiased light. So if you believe this plan would destroy your religion, it might be because your religion inherently has flaws that can only be allowed to continue with indoctrination and the breeding of ignorance amongst your offspring.

What Dr. Dennett is calling for, and what I am supporting, is an open presentation and critique of religion. The religious right and many of its moderate members argue that political correctness is ruining America. (See Catholic League president Bill Donohue’s “discussion” with American Atheist president David Silverman in the link below) All Dr. Dennett and I are asking for is that religion be scientifically presented, bigotry and lies aside, and offered to all. If the Bible Theory rings true, maybe the atheists have a point after all.

Ben Conover is a philosophy, film, and classics major at Boston University.

Editor’s Note: I cannot write this article without mentioning the efforts of Sam Harris, founder of Project Reason, and Steve Wells, creator of the Skeptics Annotated Bible, Koran, and Book of Mormon, in the Scripture Project. Please take a look if you are interested in skepticism and religious texts.

Julia Sweeney’s TED talk (an excerpt from Letting Go of God):

Julia Sweeney’s Letting Go of God: (part 1)

Daniel Dennett’s Ted talk:

Daniel Dennett v. Dinesh D’Sousza: (part 1)

Dennett’s idea source: (from the Washington Post)

Silverman and Donohue on FOX