Barbara Ehrenreich (atheist, feminist, author, essayist and columnist) gave this speech March 24 in acceptance of her Emperor Has No Clothes Award in Washington at FFRF’s post-Reason Rally gala dinner.
Wow, I have to hold it, OK? I think it’s anatomically correct, but there’s a fig leaf in case you’re curious. Thank you very much, Dan. I will be very proud of it as will my family.
It is an honor to be with you. I’m in so many settings where I am the only atheist, the only “out” atheist, and I kind of feel that whatever the subject is, I have got to get that in there somewhere. You know, particularly the idea that you cannot be moral, you cannot be socially involved or socially conscious unless you are with the “God Party.”
I thought I would go a little against the grain here with some dogmatic statements about God. Yes, I am going to talk about God. What qualifies me to do that? Well, I have read a lot of theology, surprisingly perhaps, a lot of the history of religion, and believe me this is very relevant, a huge amount of science fiction, which I am going to draw on. Plus since I have this award, I can now say anything, I think, I am entitled.
I wish we had the people picketing outside [Westboro Baptists] in here, because they seem to be experts, too. This is Saturday night, and I don’t know what all of you are planning to do for the rest of it, but I do know absolutely for sure that God does not care if you do it with contraceptives. He or she does not care if you do it with a person of the same sex as yourself, whether you are married or single, any of the rest of that.
In fact, if you search the bible, you will find no reference to birth control or gay marriage, and you will not find a word, strangely, about stem cell research. I have searched.
Let me say a little bit about abortion, since that is a major issue with the godly now. As a former biologist, I will say that if God cared about each fertilized human egg, he would not let an estimated 60% of them die each month before they get implanted in the uterus, flushed out with the menstrual flow.
They are killed by the deity him or herself, or at least not cared for by the deity. Unless of course you want to argue — I am always afraid to bring up this plain biological fact because someone is going to say, “Oh my god, we have to provide Christian burials for tampons” — it will get harder to dispose of a tampon than a Quran.
Where did the idea ever come from that God is called pro-life? I mean the people that say that, I am just saying pro-life here without any judgment attached to it. What about tsunamis?
What would Jesus eat?
This is equally dogmatic: God does not care about your weight-loss issues. You may wonder why I bring that up, but if you Google Jesus and quote weight loss, you will get millions of entries. A lot of people are convinced that Jesus wants them to be thin and that he has the best diet plan on the market.
You can contribute this to divine revelation on my part, but God does not care if you lose that last five pounds. Nor, sadly, does he seem to care if we are nice to each other, whether we are kind and we share, if we are nonviolent, whether we care for each other.
Those are human values, they do not come from some divine or extra-human source, and there are no rewards in the afterlife for those who put them into practice. In fact, if by some fluke or miscarriage of divine justice, I am ever offered a place in heaven, I will have to turn it down. Not only because my friends and family will be in the other place. Face it, something that seems very clear to me about the teachings of Jesus, whom I greatly admire, is that if you were offered a place in heaven that you would have to turn it down and give it to some poor sinner so that he or she does not have to spend eternity in hell, that would be the “Christian” thing to do.
I am just putting them on notice about that in case I should ever be put into that position. Now as for God’s particular interest in us or agenda for us in general, whatever issue you look at, sex or social morality, all the evidence points in one direction. He is just not that into us.
You may be wondering why talk about “God” at all. This is a Freedom From Religion celebration, not a theology lecture. If God is what they say — perfectly good and loving and all-powerful — then of course he doesn’t exist. It is impossible, as so many have pointed out over the centuries, for some deity to be both all-powerful and all-good. As Nietzsche or Stendhal said (it’s attributed to both), “God’s only excuse is that he doesn’t exist.”
There is no way to reconcile all that power and goodness. We won that debate. Long before Dawkins and the New Atheists came along, we won that, it’s over. Ever hear of the great American nonbelievers like Robert Ingersoll, anybody? Oh wow, I don’t often find many people who know.
Imagine cosmic ‘others’
Now I am going to ask you to get a little bit more out of your comfort zone and think in more general terms. Forget about the familiar monotheistic patriarchal notion of God. Think instead about the possibility of other conscious agencies or minds at work in the universe and bear with me. This is not a disreputable thing to think about. This is not freethought heresy.
Some of the greatest science fiction of the last century speculates on the existence of beings vastly different from ourselves. I am talking about Arthur C. Clarke, for example, Philip K. Dick and Ursula Le Guin, among others. Clarke was an atheist, Le Guin is, and Dick was unclassifiable.
Some serious thinkers here. They all imagined cosmic “others” that under certain conditions could interact with human beings. I don’t think that is such a strange thought for secular thinkers to have either. If there are such beings in the universe, especially powerful beings, I want to know about them.
I am not saying this as an agnostic. I am saying this as a curious person. If there are such beings of whatever kind, I want to know their habits, their inclinations, their tastes, their dimensions, their chemical composition, assuming they have dimensions and chemical composition, of course.
For me this is part of a larger curiosity about the world. For example, I want to know about extraterrestrial life. One of the greatest regrets in my life is that I will die, most likely, before we have contact with any intelligent extraterrestrial beings.
I advocate all the time for more public spending for the poor, the middle class, for the sick, but here is a confession I am proud to make. I want to see a lot more spending on science, on space exploration and on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.
I have to admit I wasn’t at the Reason Rally today because I had taken my granddaughters to the National Air and Space Museum. It is tragic. It is a monument to something we have abandoned. That’s how I felt. I could remember so clearly when the idea of being beyond the year 2000, we would have colonies on Mars.
It is not just curiosity, though, about extraterrestrial sorts of intelligence that motivates me. If there are powerful nonhuman and conscious beings in the universe, whether they are on distant planets or are floating among us right now like dark matter, then we had better find out all we can about them, and I say that seriously.
Recall the question that Einstein asked about God. He was not a believer, but he said what he wanted to know about God was one thing: Is he friendly? I would say it is important to find out. It is even kind of urgent.
There are many, many kinds of obstacles to knowing. We don’t have a lot of data on these points, and we may have some inherent mental limitations that prevent us from interacting with these other cosmic minds. But the point that I want to leave you with tonight is that one of the greatest obstacles to raising these questions and ever hoping for any kind of answer is religion.
I have all kinds of quarrels with religion — as do you, and I am not going to list them all — for its role in the oppression of women, from the Taliban to the Republican Party, for its role in fomenting war and reinforcing class hierarchies, suppressing science as well as so many other crimes against humanity.
Briefs against Christianity
I have another grievance against religion, or at least against the so-called “great” world religions, the great monotheistic religions like Christianity and Islam, Christianity being the only one I really know that much about.
Christianity has consistently for generations stood in the way of human understanding of the world: scientific understanding, philosophical understanding, even mystical insight into the world. It has prohibited these sorts of questions and punished the people who dared to raise them. It has discouraged consistently any speculation about God, or to keep that more general, as some kind of cosmic entity.
When I was a child, for example, most of my friends were Catholic and I would ask them the usual questions, “Why does God let babies die?” and so on. The answer, “It’s a mystery.” Remember that? It’s a mystery, we can’t know and if you questioned that answer or said it is not a good enough explanation for you, then you were told that God just demands one thing from you, which is obedience, submission, just shut up and do what you are told. Don’t commit any sins, including the sin of intellectual arrogance as the priests liked to put it, like asking too many questions.
You probably know that, but what is less well-known to freethinkers, and I invite you to open your minds to this, is that Christianity has repeatedly crushed or harassed or tormented the most devout Christian intellectuals and mystics who dared to think for themselves.
Meister Eckhart, for example, anyone every heard of him? Oh wow, great. When he died, the Inquisition was on his trail. He had been called to Rome because his notions about the deity were not acceptable.
Or Marguerite Porete, who was burned at the stake in 1310 because she had unusual notions about the deity, Christians, members of religions and lay orders.
Worse still in my brief against Christianity, Christians for 400 years were at the forefront of European colonialism, crushing all alternative religious systems on the planet, in the Americas, in Africa and somewhat less successfully in Asia.
They crushed polytheistic religions, they crushed ecstatic religious, they crushed goddess worship, paganism, pantheism, animism, all expunged pretty much from the world. With the destruction of all the indigenous religions throughout the world, we lost all notions of a deity other than that perfect and all-powerful monotheistic one.
We lost the female deities, we lost the multiple deities, the animal deities, the jaguar gods, the lion gods, the elephant gods. We lost the entire pantheon created by the human imagination over the centuries. We lost the vicious gods that demanded blood sacrifice, and we lost the fun-loving gods like Dionysius and Bacchus
As all those alternative ways of understanding were wiped out, pretty much, we were left with this single inaccessible, unknowable, patriarchal deity of monotheism. Which is to say, we were left with nothing, just the paradox of the perfect god whose only excuse can be that he doesn’t exist, a god who by definition doesn’t exist.
It was this vacuum that the great classics of science fiction attempted to fill, not with new dogma or myths but with an invitation to speculate about questions that organized religion prohibited people from asking. If we are truly freethinkers, no issue and no topic is off limits to us, even topics that have been historically monopolized by religion.
So yes, our great common challenge here in this group, in this gathering, is to free people from religion, get it out of our laws, our schools, our health systems, our government and, I would add, also our sporting events. I would really like to see some separation of church and stadium, if we could work on that.
What I am proposing finally is in the tradition of untrammeled freethought: We might have to also free “god” from religion.