Category: Morality and Ethics

Ten Books That Will Make You an Anti-Theist

I don’t think there is any doubt that in the aggregate, religion – not just belief without evidence, but organized, capital-R Religion – has historically been and continues to be a bane to humanity.  One of the reasons this realization escapes so many people is the cultural deference to religion and its ubiquitous portrayal as inspirational, beautiful, comforting, and wholesome.  One must be willing to go out of one’s way to get any exposure to the less attractive aspects and effects of religion – but once one resolves to do so, one discovers that the well of evidence that religion is harmful is deep indeed.

The following books, which I have listed in no particular order, merely scratch the surface of religious malfeasance.  However, they present such damning evidence so persuasively that it would be difficult for any but the most fanatical believer to defend the institutions they expose.  Note: These are not books for making people into atheists – that is an entirely different list.

God’s Bankers by Gerald Posner

It may surprise some readers that my selection of an indictment of the Catholic Church doesn’t involve the child sex-abuse scandal; indeed, there are many compelling (if horrifying) such works from which to choose.  God’s Bankers, however, tells a story that is far less familiar to most of us, and reveals a side of the church that is rarely acknowledged but no less sinister.  From selling indulgences to wealthy nobles to hiding Nazi gold to laundering money for the mafia to ensuring that individual dioceses held all liability for pedophilia lawsuits, the Vatican has consistently put protection and expansion of its financial assets above all other concerns, even while dictating and legislating the morality of its more than one billion followers.  In this exhaustively researched history of Vatican finances Posner offers an up-close examination of the seamy underbelly of what is arguably one of the wealthiest and most powerful – and most corrupt – institutions the world has ever known.

God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens

For those who are already familiar with Hitchens’s uniquely delightful, scorched-earth approach to defeating theists of all stripes, God is Not Great is more or less a collection of his most famous and irrefutable arguments, though having been written by Hitchens, no amount of repetition can ever be too much.  For those who are less familiar with Hitch, and especially for people newly coming into their own as atheists, God is Not Great will repeatedly make you want to leap out of your chair and shout, “Fuck yeah!”  Not only does Hitchens eviscerate the claims of religion, he lays bare the myriad ways it retards human progress and threatens the very survival of civilization.  (For those of you who prefer to listen to your books, the audio version has the wonderful advantage of being narrated by Hitch himself.)

Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind by Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola

This study of atheist clergy, told mostly in the voices of the participants themselves, gives readers a glimpse into the struggles faced by people who pledged themselves to serve god only to eventually realize that there is no such thing.  Trapped by a lack of marketable skills, financial opportunities, and the fear of social rejection – or, in some cases, of the loss of the automatic authority, respect, and stature that comes with the title of Reverend – these individuals struggle with whether and how to leave their ministries and what message to preach in the meantime.  It is difficult not to have both empathy for these men and women who, on the one hand, feel betrayed at the discovery that their religion was not what they had always been taught; and contempt for them on the other hand for feeding their parishioners the same misrepresentations and lies of omission that deceived them in the first place.  In either case, what the authors and the study participants make clear is that church leaders are duping young people into the clergy, and churchgoers themselves are deeply complicit.

Doc: The Rape of the Town of Lovell by Jack Olsen

John Story was a gentile doctor in a small Mormon community.  Though he was not one of them, he was devout in his own religion and ran his practice authoritatively and with the modern curiosity of an examination table fitted with stirrups, and in short order was one of the most respected and powerful men in town.  In the ensuing decades he sexually abused and raped hundreds of women and girls – people who were kept in ignorance about sex and their own bodies based on scriptural demands for feminine chastity and cowed by strict religious conditioning never to question male authority.  Women and girls who did speak up were swiftly shamed into silence or punished by their LDS leaders.   When enough victims finally came forward, Story’s most vigorous self-defense was his claim of devout religious belief, and his strongest defenders all declared that god was on their side.  Doc is a chilling tale of how fundamentalist religion grooms women to be victims of abuse and provides safe harbor for abusers.

Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer

From the absurd origins of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints to the disavowal of polygamy that gave rise to the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), Krakauer delivers a devastating blow to whatever claims of respectability the Mormon Church may still have had.  In riveting prose so characteristic of his writing, he weaves the tale of Mormonism’s bloody history with the modern story of two brothers who murdered their sister-in-law and her infant daughter because (so they claimed) god told them to.  Under the Banner of Heaven makes plain how thin the line is between religious devotion and religious fanaticism and how fundamentalism opens the door to unspeakable atrocities committed without remorse.

Beyond Belief:  by Jenna Miscavige Hill

Many of us think of Scientology as a Hollywood eccentricity that commits no real harm, since its adherents are mostly wealthy celebrities wasting their money on spiritual silliness.  I was genuinely shocked at how wrong that perception truly is.  Yes, the doctrine of Scientology is blatantly nonsensical and in many ways laughable and it is difficult to understand the mindset that accepts it as plausible, let alone rational.  But for the lives of people living within Scientology – teaching their classes, running their hotels and restaurants, building and maintaining their properties, and living in their military-style housing under military-style rules – it is an omnipresent, all-powerful force that controls their every action, punishes them severely for any misstep, and leaves many of them living in fear and servitude.  As you read the book make sure you never forget: This organization does not pay taxes.

Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Infidel is the poignant, disturbing, and inspirational memoir of how New Atheist and human rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali survived and escaped a life of religious brutality to become a role model and beacon for free-thinkers in the Muslim world and elsewhere.  She is unflinchingly honest even on matters that could be less than flattering for her, and she does an admirable job of conveying the mixed emotions of a child who was subjected to terrible things by her family, but loves and empathizes with them nonetheless.  Her frank assessment of the role of Islamic ideology in her plight as well as that of millions of other Muslim women, girls, apostates, freethinkers, gays, and secularists has put her in the crosshairs of Islamists and Regressive Leftists alike – and yet I challenge anyone to read her book and then claim with a straight face that her diagnosis of the Islam problem doesn’t have merit.

A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown by Julia Scheeres

Though it is now the subject of much tasteless humor, the Jonestown massacre was anything but funny – indeed, it was a tragedy and a crime on an almost unthinkable scale.  Contrary to what many assume, Jim Jones lured followers to his People’s Temple not by starting out as a cult leader who professed that he himself was god, but as an evangelical Christian preacher.  Once he had a congregation of fanatically devoted followers, he started singing a different tune – but by then they were already committed to him.  When he founded Jonestown he convinced his congregants to relocate there by proclaiming it as their sanctuary on earth; they didn’t know that it was the final stage of his years-long plan to kill them all.  Add in the fact that a third of the Jonestown victims were children and many were forced to drink poison at gunpoint, and the story is clearly not the light-hearted joke it is so often made out to be.  As with so many other tragedies borne of irrational belief, the story of Jonestown reveals how willingly people will act against their own best interests, and even the best interests of their children, when they believe it is sanctioned by god.

The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason by Sam Harris

Any intellectually honest person must admit that there is something happening in the world today that is peculiar to Islam.  Unfortunately, the repercussions are not merely peculiar, but deadly and potentially devastating.  There is simply no question that people will do irrational, sometimes terrible things when they believe they have divine warrant and in that regard, Islam is no different than any other religion.  What does make it different is the frequency and scale with which such warrants are served, combined with the principles of the doctrine itself, in which political conquest is fundamental in a way that has no analogy in other mainstream religions.  Beyond the very real threat that Islamism poses to free, secular society, an honest look at the dogma itself shows it to be every bit as heinous as its Abrahamic counterparts, putting the lie to the “religion of peace” canard.  As an aside, Harris has become a controversial figure for many of the ideas put forth in this book.  I submit that those who make accusations that Harris is racist or supports torture have not in fact read it, or if they have they are knowingly misrepresenting it.

Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things that Piss Off the Godless by Greta Christina

When confronted with the question of why atheists are angry (or why we talk about god so much when we don’t believe), Greta Christina’s list is the best response I have found yet.  Her list encompasses religious abuses both great and small, everything from depriving people of basic human and civil rights to creating divisions within families to hampering scientific and social progress.  What is unique about her book is not only that she seems to capture every legitimate argument that atheists and anti-theists make against religion, but the compassion she has for believers who, she correctly observes, are themselves often the victims of their own indoctrination and dogma.  It is an outstanding manual for summarizing that which many of us often struggle to communicate, and for explaining to the faithful why we feel compelled to discuss religion in spite of not believing in it.

What books would you add to this list?

Let Them Eat Cake – Just Kidding! Let Them Starve

starving child
Image credit AP/Rebecca Blackwell

I recently had the misfortune of encountering an article by one Peter Guirguis titled “3 Strange But True Reasons Why God Doesn’t Feed All the Starving Children in The World.” (I will not link to the article because I cannot in good conscience send traffic there, but intrepid readers will be able to find it easily enough.) The author explains in great detail why his god – who, you may recall, is supposedly omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, and omnipresent – prefers to let children suffer and die in agony through malnutrition rather than put his considerable talent to use to, you know, make some food. Alas that the title is rather misleading, given that the reasons he cites are not strange – at least not to those of us who are used to hearing theists make excuses for the failure of their god to alleviate starvation – and whether or not they are true is a matter of some dispute.

Reason #1: It Isn’t God’s Responsibility to Feed the Starving Children of the World

“Of all the times that I have read the Bible from cover to cover, I can’t think of a single Bible verse in which God makes a promise to feed all the starving children in the world.”

Well then, since there is no bible verse in which god is quoted as saying, “I promise to feed all the starving children in the world,” that totes lets god off the hook! Of course there are verses in which he promises to sustain us (Isaiah 46:4), prosper us (Jeremiah 29:11), meet all our needs (Philippians 4:13), give us plenty to eat (Joel 2:26), help us (Isaiah 41:13), satisfy the appetites of the righteous (Proverbs 13:25), and give us whatever it is we pray for (Mark 11:24); but apparently those should in no way be misconstrued to infer that god will actually sustain us, meet all our needs, give us plenty to eat, help us, satisfy the appetites of the righteous, or give us whatever it is we pray for. On the issues of what god was in fact promising in these passages and why he is seemingly constrained to doing only that which he explicitly promised, Guirguis remains silent.

He then goes on to spout the usual nonsense about how it is our job, not god’s, to feed starving children. Never mind that the majority of humans on earth live under circumstances that preclude their ability to influence whether, how, or where food is grown and distributed: They themselves live in or near poverty; or suffer food insecurity of their own; or lack access to information or freedom of movement or other resources; or haven’t the skills or power to implement political and scientific programs to improve food production and distribution; and so on. For most of us with the ability to take some action, the extent of what we can reasonably do is donate to the local food pantry or give money to NGOs, neither of which is going to eradicate hunger. Oh, and how humans were supposed to harvest, preserve, transport, and distribute adequate food across the globe to famine-stricken areas before the advent of modern technology (i.e., for the nearly the whole of human history) is anyone’s guess.

Reason #2 – God Isn’t Like Humans

Atheists make a mistake when they say things like, “If I saw a starving child and had the power to feed him and I don’t, then I am evil. That’s the same thing with God, He is evil because He has the power to feed starving children and He doesn’t.” The mistake that atheists make here is that they compare themselves to God, or they compare God to themselves. They put themselves in God’s shoes. God’s goals are different than our goals. His purposes are different than our purposes. His way of justice is different than the human way of justice.”

This is the claim that theists always make when confronted with the problem of evil: That we can’t apply our own standards of morality to god, which of course begs the question: Why not? And why, if nearly all reasonable and morally normal people would feed starving children if they had the power to do so, and many (if not most) theists at some point struggle with why their god does not do so, is the ethical instinct of all humankind chucked out the window and deemed inferior to a god whose actions are manifestly unethical?  Furthermore, this is not so much a reason why god doesn’t feed starving children as it is an admonishment that we should not ask for one.

Reason #3 – God’s Justice is Coming Soon For All

“While God does see hate crimes, rapes, and murders as sins, He also sees lying, cheating, and hating people as sins too. So since God is a just God, then He’s going to have to give justice to all if He were to judge the world today. That means that there would be a lot of people who would receive punishment for eternity for breaking God’s standards. So instead, God is saving His judgment for Judgment Day . . . So when you don’t see justice taking place immediately, it’s because God is giving everyone a chance to repent, and put their faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.”

There is a great deal with that statement that is problematic, the most obvious being that it is entirely irrelevant to the question of why god does not feed starving children – unless Guirguis is saying that since Judgment Day will happen someday, there’s no point in feeding starving kids in the meantime. Regardless, it is yet more transparent rationalization of god’s inaction: “It may seem like he isn’t doing anything, but that’s just because he isn’t doing anything right now.  He has to wait and see how many more people will come groveling to him before he decides he’s ready to get his Armageddon on.” In other words, we can’t see god’s ethics, and we can’t see his mercy, and we can’t see his love, and we can’t see his justice, but we still somehow know he is ethical, merciful, loving, and just, so let’s all just accept suffering as inevitable in the meantime and STFU.

Let me be clear that I am not refuting the good Mr. Guirguis because I am seeking to refute the existence of god. Indeed, the god hypothesis has been resoundingly refuted (or at least sufficiently challenged) by many others before me so I have no need or desire to re-invent that wheel. My point is rather that religion – especially the Abrahamic ones – require people to question and suppress their own innate senses of right and wrong, empathy, and compassion in order to reconcile the action (or more accurately the inaction) of their deity. It desensitizes people to suffering and injustice – after all, if god is allowing it, he must have a reason, so who are we to argue? I can only hope that one day people will decide that if god is allowing suffering, maybe it’s his ethics that are questionable, and proceed to embrace and heed their own conscience.

Ten Contradictions Theists Just Can’t Stop Making

Image via
Image via

Talking with theists about religion sometimes – and by sometimes I mean almost always – feels like Groundhog Day,  a painful and monotonous slog that simply travels the same territory over and over and over.  I get weary of both hearing and repeating the same arguments so frequently, so I decided to compile the most tired (not to mention the most tiresome) themes that I encounter, so that going forward I can simply point people here when they trot out these inevitable gems.

1. Explaining what god is or wants, then saying humans cannot understand god.

The conversation goes like this:

Theist: “God loves us and wants us to be saved. God is just and merciful. God will provide. God always gives us what we need, not just what we want.”

Atheist: “If god loves us, is merciful, provides, and always gives us what we need, why do children starve to death?”

Theist: “We are mere mortals and can’t expect to understand His ways. You can’t apply human standards to god.”

Uh . . . If we can’t apply human standards to god when it comes to figuring out why he lets children starve, why can we apply human standards to establish that he loves us, is just and merciful, and will provide?  By what means do you ascertain these attributes in the first place if not by human standards?  God is either knowable or he isn’t; you either understand him or you don’t. If his reasons for allowing innocent children to suffer and die are inscrutable, so too must be his reasons for everything else, and to claim otherwise is to admit that you in fact know nothing of god, but have opted to believe what is most comforting to you – something that is manifestly apparent to atheists already, but which most theists would not confess in so many words.

2. Claiming that god loves us all, then rationalizing human suffering.

Theists most often dismiss human suffering by victim-blaming – declaring that our own free will causes us to make bad choices, which cause us to suffer as a result. Once we get past the inherent privilege of a claim that assumes everyone has an array of both good and bad options from which to choose (or has a choice at all), we are still left with the problem of suffering that is not the direct result of our own actions. “Free will,” they repeat. “Some people use theirs to hurt others.” Ah, okay – so god is willing to stand idly by and watch innocents be tortured and murdered because he prioritizes the free will of evil people to do harm over that of their victims? That’s not much of a resume-builder for god, but for the sake of argument I’ll give you that one too. What about illness and natural disasters then? Even the most nefarious of minds cannot will a tumor or an earthquake or a tsunami into being. That’s when, if we don’t hear “Oh, free will causes climate change which causes those disasters,” we hear (again), “We are mere mortals and can’t expect to understand god’s ways.”

In this world, deliberately inflicting pain and hardship on someone we claim to love is called abuse. In religion, it’s called grace. When we regard human suffering as not only inevitable but as an expression of love by an omnipotent being, we trivialize the experience of those who must endure it and stifle the otherwise natural human impulse to alleviate it.

3. Pretending that free will and a divine plan are not mutually exclusive.

When asked once if he believed we all have free will, Christopher Hitchens ironically replied, “Of course I have free will; I don’t have a choice.” In other words, an omnipotent god endowing humans with free will and commanding that they use it negates the very notion of free will in the first place – with or without it, we are still exactly as god made us, choosing exactly as he already knows we will. Conveniently, free will seems to only ever cause humans to behave badly; when they are charitable, kind, generous, selfless, humble, honest, and virtuous, it is always because they were following the example set by god, but when they are selfish, cruel, and violent their actions are the result of their own frailty, thus ensuring that god continues to reap the credit when we choose well and remain blameless when we don’t.

As if this weren’t bad enough, many of the same folks who talk about free will also claim that god has a plan. Take a common trope on prayer, for example, that says when you pray, “God answers in one of three ways: 1. Yes; 2. No; 3. I have something even better in store.” All three of those responses entail a god who is actively shaping your life, and who is giving or withholding things based on what he either intends or knows will happen. So which is it? Because it can’t be both.

4. Behaving hatefully, then saying “god bless.”

I recently had the pleasure of conversing with a theist on my Facebook page who called me “ignorant;” a “liar;” a “child;” “dense;” “trash;” laughed that I was “probably not” in a stable relationship and therefore infected with “the latest STD;” that my jokes aren’t funny (O, the humanity!); and, predictably, that she wished she could be there when I stand before god after death to see me receive my eternal sentence for disbelief. She topped off this love-fest by saying, “May God bless you and keep you in the New Year and many more to come.” Wait, I thought you were being an arrogant ass, but you want god to bless me? Well, in that case, right back atcha! Hugs and kisses!

These people seem to think that no matter how nasty they act or how mean-spirited their words,  it is all permissible and forgiven as long as they conclude with an insincere blessing.  Some of them will further justify their unpleasantness by claiming they were only fulfilling their godly responsibility to love their enemies by pointing out the error of their ways.  Hence we end up with comments like, “Your ignorance and your unfunny jokes make baby Jesus cry, you slutty, disease-infested piece of trash! I’ll be laughing while you burn in hell! God bless!”

5. Declaring god as the source of objective morality, then interpreting scripture.

It is frustrating and disheartening that the myth that one needs to believe in the supernatural to live ethically persists in the face of thousands of years of evidence to the contrary. Beyond this obvious fallacy, however, lies the transparent manner in which theists lay claim to the objective correctness of their morals while simultaneously applying their own contemporary cultural morality to the world. “Look here,” you say, pointing at the words on the page, “it says to murder your loved ones if they worship any other god.” “You’re taking that out of context,” comes the reply. Or maybe it’s, “You have to consider the culture at the time this was written.” Or perhaps, “That isn’t meant to be taken literally.”

If objective morality comes from god, then the only way to determine that morality is through scripture.  If you are not going to take scripture at face value, then you are admitting that your morals are inherent within you and influenced by the society around you, not handed down from the outside.

6. Labeling god as omnipotent, then blaming evil on the devil.

Is it that god cannot defeat the devil, or is it that he chooses not to? Not that anyone could blame him if it was the latter, seeing as how the devil makes such an outstanding scapegoat. But seriously – if you believe god is omnipotent and you also believe in the devil, then you have to believe that god has made a decision to let the devil do his thing. If god cannot in fact defeat the devil then he is not omnipotent, in which case it makes little sense to worship and pray to him at all. In either case, though, god sure as shit has both the power and inclination to get involved once you’re dead – by sending you straight to hell for doing whatever it was the devil talked you into while god stood by and watched.

7. Seizing upon minuscule inconsistencies in highly specialized scientific disciplines as a failure of science to explain the universe while accepting supernatural explanations for which there is no evidence.

There are mountains of evidence in support of evolution by natural selection and the Big Bang. Virtually all of modern biology and cosmology are predicated upon these theories; the elegance of their explanations and success of their predictions continually reaffirm their validity. Furthermore, there is no small amount of evidence to suggest that under the right conditions, complex molecules can become self-replicating – the first step towards the creation of life. Meanwhile, there is no evidence for god. As in, zero. Zilch. None.

It has always struck me as odd that an institution that not only extols the virtue of faith but requires it as a matter of course and as a prerequisite of salvation would turn to science at all to justify its claims; after all, if the religious are so certain they are correct, shouldn’t faith be sufficient to maintain belief?  The answer is, of course it isn’t, and their desire to claim the legitimacy of science betrays their understanding (and fear) of this fact.  Furthermore, you cannot pretend to be concerned about the quality or weight of the evidence for a natural explanation of the universe while simultaneously advancing a hypothesis for which thousands of years of inquiry have failed to produce a single shred of evidence.

8. Subscribing to religion, then labeling the religious beliefs of others as “crazy.”

Protestants say Catholics aren’t really Christians. Baptists say Pentecostalism is a cult. Mormons say creationists are nutty. And yet all of these people believe more or less the same thing: That an invisible, omnipotent, omniscient, all-loving deity created the entire universe and was subsequently so displeased with his own creation that he made a virgin pregnant with himself in human form; condemned himself to be tortured and sacrificed to atone for the sins of his creation; rose from the dead and ascended bodily into the sky; and now presides over the affairs of all humans and keeps track of where they put their car keys and whether they masturbate so that he knows who to help while they are alive and who to torture for all eternity after they die.

Anyone who thinks this is plausible forfeits the right to comment on the sanity of anyone else’s ideas.

9. Accusing atheists of cherry-picking scripture to make it look bad.

This one always makes me laugh.  For one thing, no one needs to try to make scripture look bad; it does that all by itself with its genocide and rape and slavery and conquest and general bloodthirsty, vengeful douchebaggery.  For another thing, scripture is packed with so many mutually exclusive commands and prohibitions that cherry-picking is required if one is to follow or even just discuss it.  The only question is which cherries one will pick.  Some will pick the ones about love and kindness and charity and claim these are the “real” version of their religion, leaving the others – the ones about torture and violence and cruelty – on the branch, hoping no one will notice them.  Perhaps cherry-picking isn’t even the right metaphor.  I think a better one is the Tree of 40 Fruit:  Some of what it has to offer is sweet, some is bitter, and some may even be poisonous, but it all grows from the same plant.

10.  Claiming membership in one of thousands of sects of religion as authority for telling non-believers why our interpretation of religion is wrong.

How often do we hear from theists that we misunderstand, misrepresent, misinterpret, or are ignorant of their scriptures? “What the bible (Qur’an / Torah / etc.) really says is X,” they say, or “When god said that he meant Y.” Setting aside for the moment the fact that many atheists are former believers who are intimately familiar with scripture, what do we make of the fact that other people who also identify as belonging to that religion claim that actually, god didn’t mean Y either, but Z? And what of the ones who say not Z, but A? Theists themselves cannot agree with one another on what god really meant or wants and none of them can produce a single valid reason why their interpretation is more likely to be right than anyone else’s. Why then is the interpretation of a non-believer any less credible – or to be more precise, any more incredible?

What most believers refuse to see, or at least to admit, is that there is no wrong interpretation of scripture. What is “known” about god resides inside people’s heads; there is no objective, external yardstick by which it can be measured, nothing that can be observed, and no source to clarify what was truly intended by any given chapter or verse. Furthermore, even if we could eliminate the ambiguity of scripture we would still be left with the contradictions: For virtually every instruction, elsewhere in the text is its prohibition or the command to do the opposite, and since no one can ring up Yahweh or Allah to ask which one is the right one it is left to the individual to decide. Said another way, scripture is sufficiently ambiguous and contradictory that all interpretations are justifiable – in which case we are left with nothing more than a free-for-all in which religion is whatever any given believer says it is.


In defense of theists, contradictions are the inevitable consequence of belief in monotheistic religion, given its outlandish claims and its incoherence. It is hard not to wonder, though, to what degree these contradictions are the result of intellectual dishonesty and what can be attributed to a mere extreme absence of self-awareness.  Whatever the case, now that I have (hopefully) saved myself some time in future discussions, maybe I can at least spend less of the next Groundhog Day trapped in tedious debates and more of it sipping Mai-tais with Punxutawney Phil.