God is Everywhere
I wish I didn't have to do this, but this column probably needs a disclaimer. It shouldn't be necessary, but unfortunately, I think it is. So here goes:
If you are a person with deeply held religious beliefs, or if you are a person who needs to constantly proclaim the glory of your God, then the chances are very, very good that you're not going to like what I'm going to say in this column. If after reading this warning you continue to read the column and find yourself offended or affronted, please don't blame me.
Okay, now that they're gone, let me tell you one thing about me. I don't believe in a god. What I call myself is a humanist, and this actually fits very well. I don't want to turn this into a diatribe about what I do or do not believe, but the short definition is that a humanist believes that there is no such thing as divine intervention in human affairs. Humanists believe that when people attribute great accomplishments or good works to a supernatural power, this does a disservice to the human beings who have accomplished these things and done these works.
It's a fact that most humanists are also atheistic, but an awful lot of us shy away from the term "atheist" because to most people in our society, that word brings about feelings of hostility. Far better to be a humanist and leave someone bewildered than to be an atheist and have someone want to beat you up. But if you want to call me an atheist, I will cop to it. It really is what I am.
The most common myth about humanists/atheists is that we don't believe in anything. Nothing could be further from the truth, though. Often, when I let on to a person that I don't believe in a supreme being, the reaction that I'm met with is puzzlement. Most people just can't grasp how anyone could not believe in a creator, an all-powerful being. What I usually say to these people is that I probably believe in nearly all the same things that they believe in. I simply choose not to attribute mysticism and/or superstition to those beliefs.
That having been said, let me tell you that these are tough times to be a godless person. Everywhere you turn there are people who will go to great lengths to extol the glories of their god or religion or spiritualism.
And of course, they're all over the media. Just try opening a newspaper or turning on the radio or television. It won't take long before someone will start sounding off about how wonderful their god is, or how we all need to get in touch with god in order to make the world a better place. I don't begrudge them doing it; just give a different point of view a teensy bit of airtime, maybe?
Religion in the media is nothing new, of course. I remember as a very young kid seeing Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen on tv. This was a Catholic bishop who had his own television show! Sheen was a learned man and a biblical scholar, but his shows basically boiled down to him standing in front of the camera and give a sermon (with a gigantic lavaliere microphone hanging around his neck).
Religious tv has come a long way since those days. It really reached its zenith in the 80's, didn't it? Go channel-surfing on your brand new cable box and, sure as I'm typing this right now, before long you'd find Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson or Jimmy Swaggert or Robert Tilton or (my personal favorites) Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. As that tedious decade wore on, the dominoes began to fall, and one by one all of them were shown to be charlatans and/or thieves. The tv station where I work carried the Robert Tilton program for a while. This goofball every now and then would start spouting gibberish. He claimed he was "speaking in tongues." Since what he usually said was nonsense like "ibby sabba," I could only assume that he must have been in touch with the spirit of the dead Andy Kaufman in his Latka Gravas personality.
Those money-grubbers fell by the wayside or were arrested, and it seemed that things were in a bit of an upswing.
Then some religious fanatics crashed some airplanes into buildings in the name of their god, and suddenly the deity is back in style and bigger than ever. (I'm sure that whole volumes could be written about the oddity of choosing to turn to religion when yet another in a-so far-never ending series of horrific crimes has been committed in the name of religion.) In the wake of 9/11, remember all those stories on the news shows about how America was Discovering Religion again? And this year, you're seeing tv shows with more intact nuclear families since those halcyon days of Wally and The Beav. It takes a long time to develop a series, mount it and get it into production, so this is tv's response to 9/11. Now there are no shirtwaist dresses and strands of pearls on the moms, but this is how tv tries to promote that reliable code phrase "Family Values" here at the dawn of the Third Millennium.
So anyway, as I said, it's a tough time to be godless and pay attention to the media. It didn't used to be this way. There was a time when rational thought was less hard to come by. Let me bore you with a little story of a very nice moment for me. Some of you may be old enough to remember the series Cosmos on PBS, which was co-written and hosted by one of my personal heroes, Carl Sagan. For the thirteen weeks in 1981 that Cosmos ran, Sunday evenings at 8:00pm were very special times for me. I'd turn off the phones, so no one could disturb me for that hour. Dr. Sagan, an exquisite thinker and a deeply committed humanist, let his philosophy show here and there on the show. For instance, when speaking about the evolution of life on our planet, he would say, "These are some of the things that hydrogen atoms can do given a few billion years." He made sure that we knew that, as far as he was concerned, there was no creator involved in the process. Then one night on the program, something truly wondrous happened. In one marvelous and deeply affecting scene Carl Sagan managed to crystallize nearly all of my thinking. In this sequence, a long camera dolly shot takes place. Sagan was standing on the camera dolly himself, and the effect was that he seemed to be slowly gliding through a wooded meadow. All we could see of him was his head and shoulders. Behind him was a beautiful view of lovely trees and gorgeous blue sky. As he moved through this scene of great beauty this is pretty much what he said: "We look around us and see all the beauty of our planet, and we see the majesty of the cosmos, and we feel a very strong urge to attribute all this beauty and order to the hand of some great creator. But if we can believe that God was always here, why not save a step in our thinking and simply believe that the universe has always been here?"
I wanted to leap off my couch and cheer! For the first time, I was hearing someone on a national television show articulate a humanist philosophy, and I was thrilled to my very core. So many of the things I'd been trying to put into words had been stated matter-of-factly by, not some insignificant schmoe, but one of the foremost minds of our time! I was filled with an almost transcendent joy.
It's been pretty much downhill since that moment. These days, a humanist point of view in the media is about as common as dodo bird sightings.
Did you know, for instance, that on Saturday, November 2, 2002 thousands of humanists and atheists held the first Godless Americans' March on Washington? You say you didn't hear a thing about it? You mean the godless, left wing media didn't report on it? But it really happened. And those thousands on the Mall translate into millions of people in this country with a philosophy that has nothing to do with theism. Try to imagine the same number of Baptists gathering in DC to voice their support for Dubya's mounting war effort and NOT hearing about it on the news.
Even PBS has wimped out, too. Ever since Newt Gingrinch and the rest of those Big Tent Republicans called Public Broadcasting a "sandbox for the left" (as if anyone with a liberal point of view had the mentality of a child), PBS has been backpedaling to show them how wrong they were. A while back, before 9/11 even, they ran an excellent series called Evolution. If you watched it, you may have noticed the same thing I noticed. There was not a single underwriting announcement for this program. Not even the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The funding for this series had to come from somewhere. But nobody wanted to own up to it. Just imagine the backlash of righteous indignation that would have been mustered by all the usual religious mouthpieces against whatever foundations or corporations put up the money for this show. Better to remain anonymous than to be boycotted by millions of Jesus' Best Friends with their shorts in a knot. But that wasn't all. An entire installment of the four-part series was titled "What About God?" For fifty minutes, the people who made this series fell all over themselves trying to make the point that a belief in evolution doesn't necessarily have to conflict with a belief in god. Of course, most of the people who watched that series were already well aware of this, but I have a feeling that that segment of the show was not exactly meant for them. It was there to say, "Hey look! See? We're not anti-God here in Public Television. And we'll even take great pains to make our point."
Nowadays, when humanism makes a rare media appearance, it has to spend an awful lot of time apologizing for itself.
And that's about it. Humanism just doesn't play well these days, so it's being ignored. Trying to find examples of it is an exercise in frustration. Frasier Crane, on NBC's Frasier, is an intelligent guy who has shown signs of being a humanist in past shows, but on a sweeps episode where his brother is going into the operating room for heart bypass surgery, Frasier says a prayer that his brother will survive. Tony Soprano may from time to time say that life is nothing and leads nowhere, but his nihilism is a far cry from humanism and has more to do with the evil creature that was his mother and his own internal demons than an actual philosophical point of view. On Sex and the City, Carrie and her friends may be appalled to find out that Mr. Big takes his mother to church on Sundays, but they recoil from this not because of any genuine cynicism about organized religion or belief in a universe without a creator. What shakes Carrie is that she may have fallen for someone who isn't as sophisticated as she wants him to be. Besides, Carrie does have a religion. It's Shoe-ism.
The Star Trek universe used to be a wonderful repository of humanism. I remember both Capt. Picard and Capt. Janeway espousing that wonderfully idealistic Roddenberry brand of humanism with grace and wit. But on the new series, Enterprise, one often hears characters saying things like "Thank God," which would have been unthinkable in other Trek series.
Look, this really isn't sour grapes. I'm sure that if you asked them, a hundred nineteen out of a hundred twenty humanists or atheists would tell you that they have nothing but respect for the beliefs of people of faith. But I'll also bet that every one of them would tell you that they would like to go just a while now and then without having other peoples' faith rubbed in their faces. And they'd also tell you that they'd like to have even just a little bit of the respect that they afford to others' religious beliefs returned to them.