By James A. Haught
Are you a religious believer or a doubter? Let’s find out. I’ll cite some divine religious tenets, and you tell me if you believe them.
In ancient Greece, even at the time of the great philosophers, priests sacrificed thousands of sheep, goats, pigs, dogs, horses, bulls and other animals to gods on Mount Olympus. Do you think a mountaintop Pantheon wanted animals killed? Or are you a doubter?
Ancient Phoenicians sacrificed little boys to Adonis — and ancient Canaanites sacrificed children to Moloch. Do you think an invisible Adonis and Moloch want children killed on their behalf? Or are you a skeptic?
Aztec priests sacrificed about 20,000 people a year to many gods, including an invisible feathered serpent. Do you think an invisible feathered serpent wanted human lives offered to it? Or are you a skeptic?
Mormons teach that Jesus came to America after his resurrection? Do you agree — or are you a skeptic?
The Unification Church preaches that Jesus visited Master Moon and told him to convert all people. Do you believe it — or are you a skeptic?
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Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that, any day now, Jesus will descend from the sky with an army of angels, and Satan will emerge from the ground with an army of demons, and they will fight the Battle of Armageddon, which will kill most of humanity. Do you agree — or are you a doubter?
A central belief of Catholicism is that when bells are rung and prayers are chanted, the communion host wafer magically turns into the actual flesh of Jesus, and the communion wine miraculously becomes his physical blood. Do you believe this Doctrine of Transubstantiation, or are you a skeptic?
The bible says that everyone who works on the Sabbath must be put to death. Do you think Sunday workers should be killed — or do you doubt this holy scripture?
Millions of American Pentecostals spout the “unknown tongue,” which they contend is the Holy Ghost speaking through them. Do you think the third member of the Trinity makes these noises? Or are you a skeptic?
Scientologists say that each person has a soul that is a “Thetan” that came from another planet millions of years ago. Do you believe this religious doctrine, or doubt it?
In China in the 1850s, a Christian convert said God appeared to him, told him he was a divine younger brother of Jesus, and ordered him to “destroy demons.” He launched the Taiping Rebellion, which killed an estimated 20 million people. Do you think the insurrection leader really was a deity — or are you a skeptic?
Tibetan Buddhists believe that when an old Lama dies, his spirit enters a baby boy just being born somewhere. The faith remains leaderless for several years, until searchers find the boy who received the old Lama’s spirit, and reinstall him as the old Lama in a new body. Do you believe that dying Lamas fly into new bodies? Or are you a doubter?
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I could go on — through the Flagellants, who whipped themselves bloody in an attempt to soften divine wrath — and the Millerites, who waited on mountaintops for the end of the world — and the Thugs, who strangled victims for the goddess Kali — to Jonestown and Waco and Appalachian serpent-handlers, to name just a few groups of idiosyncratic believers.
I assume that most everyone reading this rejects these divine religious beliefs that I’ve listed — beliefs that have been holy to many followers. So you’re all skeptics like me. Moreover, if the same questions were put to almost any church congregation, quite a similar reaction would occur to pretty much all of these tenets. Believers generally think that other people’s gods and miracles are bogus, but their own gods and miracles are genuine. So, everyone is a skeptic — at least about sacred claims that are alien to them.
Some educated modern theologians blow a smoke screen around religious creeds, contending that they’re merely symbolic, not literal. They say God actually is the unknown force of the universe. Well, I don’t know what caused the Big Bang and put awesome power inside atoms — but I don’t assume that I should worship it.
Or theologians say that God actually is the innate affection residing inside human hearts: God is love, in other words. I’m glad that humans have more kindness than sharks and rattlesnakes and cheetahs and hawks do — but I figure it stems from psychology that evolved through eons. The obfuscation obscures the clear, plain words of creeds. I don’t think Jesus was talking about atom power or human goodness when he told followers to pray to “our Father, which art in Heaven.”
Occasionally, an erudite believer tells me: “You’re too literal-minded. Church members don’t really believe in gods, devils, heavens, hells, angels, miracles and all that magic. Creeds and scriptures are just allegorical, never meant to be taken literally.” But this approach boggles me. Why would people say one thing but mean something else? Why would billions subscribe to faith, knowing that it isn’t factually true?
Everyone on Earth is a skeptic, even if multitudes worship regularly.
FFRF Member James A. Haught, syndicated by PeaceVoice, was the longtime editor at the Charleston Gazette and has been the editor emeritus since 2015. He has won two dozen national newswriting awards and is author of 12 books and 150 magazine essays. He also is a senior editor of Free Inquiry magazine and was writer-in-residence for the United Coalition of Reason. He is listed in Who’s Who in America, Who’s Who in the World, Contemporary Authors and 2000 Outstanding Intellectuals of the 21st Century.
This essay is adapted from a university talk reprinted in the anthology Everything You Know About God Is Wrong.