Thursday, July 17, 2014

Do Atheists Hate God?

I often hear that atheists hate God. Or, as sometimes happens when I or a fellow atheist says something critical of God, I will get a response along the lines of “How can you hate a God that you don’t believe exists,” (which is really kind of a variation on the theme of “you really do believe, you just reject Him.”). And, of course, atheist characters in such presentations as the movie “God is not Dead,” are presented as just such a caricature of someone who rejects God out of personal hatred rather than an actual disbelief in his existence. Of course, reality is a little more complicated than such questions and accusations seem to imply.

In one sense, many atheists could be said to hate God. If you read this blog much, or my other one, you have probably seen me say some pretty unkind things about the Christian god that border on, if not actually crossing over into, hateful. And I will be the first to admit that I have a pretty active dislike for the character.

On the surface, that may seem a little silly. Really… how can we hate somebody we don’t think exists? But if you think about it… how do you feel about Voldemort from Harry Potter? What about Emperor Palpatine from Star Wars, or Cruella Deville from 101 Dalmations, Alex DeLarge from A Clockwork Orange, or Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest? I bet one or more of them raise some pretty unpleasant emotions in most of you, and we all know they’re made up. I know there are fundamentalist religious people who hate Harry Potter, in spite of the fact that he is both fictional and portrayed as the protagonist of his stories (kind of like God). That’s kind of the signature feature of compelling fiction: the ability to engage you emotionally even though it’s not real. And whatever else you can say about the various mythologies of most religions, you can’t deny that they make compelling stories.

Of course, outside the most fevered of fan sites, you don’t see many people writing emotional diatribes explaining that Emperor Palpatine and Voldemort are racist, totalitarian, physically and emotionally abusive mass murderers. But you do see atheists saying those sorts of things about the Abrahamic god (or gods, depending how much credence you give to which interpretations of his identity). Why do you suppose that is? Is it really because atheists know he exists and just hate him in some special sense that people don’t exhibit for genuinely fictional characters?

Well, no. Not even remotely.

There are a couple of reasons for the difference between how we react to God and how we react to Voldemort, and they have nothing at all to do with believing either exists.

The first reason has to do with the vast gulf between what the book(s) describing these characters say about them and what people profess to believe about them. Nobody has to write screeds about how evil Voldemort is because people who read the Harry Potter books (in general) freely acknowledge that he’s not a pleasant fellow. He, like the god described in the Bible, murders people (including innocent children) both in person and through minions, openly promotes racism and ethnic cleansing, and leads campaigns of violent warfare to enforce his will on those who will not obey his dictates. Everyone who reads the Harry Potter books can plainly acknowledge these as facts about Voldemort. Yet for some reason, many people who claim the Bible is the perfectly true and accurate account of their god deny that he does these things despite the actions being very clearly described therein.

Try going to a Harry Potter fan site and arguing that Voldemort is the very embodiment of love and goodness, and pretend that the books never describe him killing or oppressing anyone. I suspect you will find at least some of the responses rival the worst things any atheist has ever said about the god of the Bible. You’ll have a hard time believing that these people recognize that you’re talking about a fictional character. It’s really just that it kind of pisses people off to see what is evidently true outright denied, even if it’s only “true” about a fictional character.

The other reason we react differently to stories of Voldemort versus stories about God is because nobody seriously expects to run society on the basis of Voldemort’s orders to his Death Eaters. Whereas vast swaths of humanity seem to seriously expect the rest of us to arrange our lives after the orders of their god. There are no active movements to enact laws of draconian punishment and broad discrimination based on Voldemort’s odd sexual peccadilloes, nor to deny the findings of science based on Voldemort’s magic-centric view of power, nor to force our children to recite oaths of loyalty to Voldemort, nor coopt taxpayer funding for the purpose of teaching other people’s children that Voldemort is their true lord and master. But all of these and more exist among the followers of the Biblical god.

Quite simply, there is a firm limit on how much we can hate Voldemort that is established by the fact that, once we put his book down, he can’t affect our lives. And the same thing would be true of the Yahweh character, except that there are people trying to push his outlook on us all the time.

And when we point things out that we hate about this God character, it’s very often to counter claims that this character is the source of all goodness, and only of goodness. A realistic reading of the source material doesn’t really support that view. But it’s potentially poisonous, in that such a belief leads many to conclude that perfect goodness can include such notions as racial cleansing, slavery, misogyny, genocide, torture, and human sacrifice just to point out the tip of the iceberg.

Ultimately, atheists don’t hate God in any personal sense. We really, seriously, in the actually I-am-not-kidding sense, don’t believe he exists. But what many of us do hate is some of the actions and ideas that belief in (and worship of) such a character introduce into society that are pretty indefensible in any other light. We also love some of the ideas (such as compassion and charity) that are supported by those beliefs, but those ideas are supportable without belief in the character who espouses them. The key thing is the ideas themselves. We see the character of God as just a construct made by people, a personification of those ideas that serves to artificially tie the bad ones to the good ones. And that’s what we rail against: the construct. Because we think it’s a construct we can do without.

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