(Talk for Marshall University chapter,
Campus Freethought Alliance, Sept. 10, 1997)
By James A. Haught
Religion is an extremely touchy topic. Church members often become angry if anyone questions their supernatural dogmas. (Bertrand Russell said this is because they subconsciously sense that their beliefs are irrational.) So I try to avoid confrontations that can hurt feelings. Nearly everyone wants to be courteous.
But sometimes disputes can't be avoided. If you think the spirit realm is imaginary, and if honesty makes you say so, you may find yourself under attack. It has happened to many doubters. Thomas Jefferson was called a "howling atheist." Leo Tolstoy was called an "impious infidel."
Well, if you wind up in a debate, my advice is: Try to be polite. Don't let tempers flare, if you can help it. Appeal to your accuser's intelligence.
I've hatched some questions you may find useful. They're designed to show that church members, even the most ardent worshipers, are skeptics too - because they doubt every magical system except their own.
If a churchman berates you, perhaps you could reply like this:
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You're an unbeliever, just like me. You doubt many sacred dogmas. Let me show you:
--- Millions of Hindus pray over statues of Shiva's penis. Do you think there's an invisible Shiva who wants his penis prayed over -- or are you a skeptic?
--- Mormons say that Jesus came to America after his resurrection. Do you agree -- or are you a doubter?
--- Florida's Santeria worshipers sacrifice dogs, goats, chickens, etc., and toss their bodies into waterways. Do you think Santeria gods want animals killed -- or are you skeptical?
--- Muslim suicide bombers who blow themselves up in Israel are taught that "martyrs" go instantly to a paradise full of lovely female houri nymphs. Do you think the bombers now are in heaven with houris -- or are you a doubter?
--- Unification Church members think Jesus visited Master Moon and told him to convert all people as "Moonies." Do you believe this sacred tenet of the Unification Church?
--- Jehovah's Witnesses say that, any day now, Satan will come out of the earth with an army of demons, and Jesus will come out of the sky with an army of angels, and the Battle of Armageddon will kill everyone on earth except Jehovah's Witnesses. Do you believe this solemn teaching of their church?
--- Aztecs skinned maidens and cut out human hearts for a feathered serpent god. What's your stand on invisible feathered serpents? Aha! -- just as I suspected, you don't believe.
--- Catholics are taught that the communion wafer and wine magically become the actual body and blood of Jesus during chants and bell-ringing. Do you believe in the "real presence" -- or are you a disbeliever?
--- Faith-healer Ernest Angley says he has the power, described in the Bible, to "discern spirits," which enables him to see demons inside sick people, and see angels hovering at his revivals. Do you believe this religious assertion?
--- The Bible says people who work on the sabbath must be killed: "Whosoever doeth any work in the sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death" (Exodus 31:15). Should we execute Sunday workers -- or do you doubt this scripture?
--- At a golden temple in West Virginia, saffron-robed worshipers think they'll become one with Lord Krishna if they chant "Hare Krishna" enough. Do you agree -- or do you doubt it?
--- Members of the Heaven's Gate commune said they could "shed their containers" (their bodies) and be transported to a UFO behind the Hale-Bopp Comet. Do you think they're now on that UFO -- or are you a skeptic?
--- During the witch hunts, inquisitor priests tortured thousands of women into confessing that they blighted crops, had sex with Satan, etc. -- then burned them for it. Do you think the church was right to enforce the Bible's command, "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live" (Exodus 22:18) -- or do you doubt this scripture?
--- Members of Spiritualist churches say they talk with the dead during their worship services. Do you think they actually communicate with spirits of deceased people?
--- Millions of American Pentecostals spout "the unknown tongue," a spontaneous outpouring of sounds. They say it's the Holy Ghost, the third god of the Trinity, speaking through them. Do you believe this sacred tenet of many Americans?
--- Scientologists say each human has a soul which is a "Thetan" that came from another planet. Do you believe their doctrine -- or doubt it?
--- Ancient Greeks thought a multitude of gods lived on Mt. Olympus -- and some of today's New Agers think invisible Lemurians live inside Mt. Shasta. What's your position on mountain gods -- belief or disbelief?
--- In the mountains of West Virginia, some people obey Christ's farewell command that true believers "shall take up serpents" (Mark 16:18). They pick up rattlers at church services. Do you believe this scripture, or not?
--- India's Thugs thought the many-armed goddess Kali wanted them to strangle human sacrifices. Do you think there's an invisible goddess who wants people strangled -- or are you a disbeliever?
--- Tibet's Buddhists say that when an old Lama dies, his spirit enters a baby boy who's just being born somewhere. So they remain leaderless for a dozen years or more, then they find a boy who seems to have knowledge of the old Lama's private life, and they annoint the boy as the new Lama (actually the old Lama in a new body). Do you think that dying Lamas fly into new babies, or not?
--- In China in the 1850s, a Christian convert said God appeared to him, told him he was Jesus' younger brother, and commanded him to "destroy demons." He raised an army of believers who waged the Taiping Rebellion that killed 20 million people. Do you think he was Christ's brother -- or do you doubt it?
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Etc., etc. You get the picture.
I'll bet there isn't a church member anywhere who doesn't think all those supernatural beliefs are goofy -- except for the one he believes.
You see, by going through a laundry list of theologies, I think you can establish that the average Christian doubts 99 percent of the world's holy dogmas. But the 1 percent he believes is really no different than the rest. It's a system of miraculous claims, without any reliable evidence to support it.
So, if we can show people that some sacred "truths" are nutty, maybe subconscious logic will seep through, and they'll realize that if some magical beliefs are irrational, all may be.
This progression is rather like a scene in the poignant Peter de Vries novel, The Blood of the Lamb. A gushy woman compliments a Jew because "your people" reduced the many gods of polytheism to just one god. The man replies: "Which is just a step from the truth."
Meanwhile, it's encouraging to realize that almost everyone in the world is a skeptic -- at least about other people's religion.