Whenever I attend a conference or small meeting of atheists and secular skeptics, I am somewhat ‘put off’ by the general attitude that all religions and religious people are fair targets of ridicule, as if to say: “There’s nothing there worthwhile studying or trying to understand; it is all ignorance and stupidity.”
Admittedly not all atheists and skeptics have this attitude; among them are some very good historians and scholars of religious history and writings. An exception to the facile dismissal of all religion by the new atheists is the atheistic philosopher, Daniel Dennett, who calls for an objective, naturalistic study of religions in order to determine what might be worthwhile and what should be abandoned. He also makes the interesting distinction between belief in God and the belief in belief in God; noting that the difference is relevant to our evaluation of the religious attitude. But in other parts of his work in which he is identified as a ‘new atheist’ alongside the evolutionary scientist Richard Dawkins and the writer, Sam Harris, Dennett (much to my disappointment) tends to agree with those who hold that generally religious culture has little or nothing valuable for contemporary thought.
Walter Kaufmann, who was an effective ‘atheist’ and heretic long before our current crop of outspoken atheists, was also bothered by the general attitude among some secular-minded people that the worst aspects of religion characterized religion in general and the attitude that religious tradition offered little of value to modern thought. Kaufmann included a humorous dialogue between Satan and the Atheist in his 1960 book, Critique of Religion and Philosophy. After some humorous statement as to why more Christians and Muslims than Jews or Buddhists inhabit Hell, Satan offers some sarcastic remarks about the ‘culture’ of the atheist.
Here are excepts from the dialogue. Hopefully some readers will find it a humorous alternative to the over-simplified ‘philosophy’ that atheism represents the truth and religions represent nothing but barbaric and nonsensical ideas worth nothing but ridicule.
Dialogue between Satan and an Atheist —- borrowed from Walter Kaufmann’s Critique of Religion and Philosophy
A = Atheist (One of our current crop of ‘New Atheists’)
S = Satan
A: You look so content. Have you grilled another theologian for breakfast? Or did you heat up a Christian for your lunch?
S: Both, my friend.
A: I have often wondered how you catch Buddhists. After all, they do not believe the sort of thing Christians believe, so you can’t undermine their faith.
S: I get them to fall in love with the world.
A: By dangling beautiful women in front of ascetics?
S: Not necessarily. Their aim is to fall out of love with the world. I try to show them that suffering is worth while.
A: That’s what I said: women.
S: That works only in the least interesting cases. The others I try to interest in some cause, some task, some mission. I may even persuade them to spread their knowledge to as many men as possible. As soon as I have kindled some ambition, I generally do not find it too hard to involve them in all sorts of compromises. But there are other ways.
A: Just name one more.
S: Sometimes I try to lead them from detachment into callousness and indifference to the sufferings of others. But that works only in the early stages. Once a Buddhist has developed his peculiarly detached compassion he represents one of the hardest cases that I know. A Christian theologian is child’s play compared to that.
A: Who else gives you trouble?
S: For a long time the Jews did. I took the wrong approach. I argued about Scripture with them and got nowhere. They knew the texts just as well as I did, made connections from verse to verse across a hundred pages much more nimbly than I did, and were never, absolutely never, fazed by anything I said. I could not shock them. Usually they produced some rabbi who, more than a thousand years ago, had made my point and been given some classical answer. They considered this whole thing a game even more than I did: after all, for me it was business, too. For them, talking about Scripture was sheer delight. It was their favorite pastime which allowed them to forget their business and all their troubles. Where a Christian might have blenched they laughed, told stories to refute me or make fun of me, and I wasted my time.
A: But couldn’t you show them that their interpretations were untenable?
S: I tell you, they considered the whole thing a game, and they played it according to special rules: by their rules, their arguments were tenable. They never claimed that Moses had meant all the things they put into his mouth. Of course not. But according to the rules of the game it could be argued that an interpretation of the words of Moses was correct in spite of that —even several conflicting ones. What mattered was that you played well; and compared to some their rabbis, I didn’t.
A: So what happened?
S: I tried to get them to speak irreverently about God. Sometimes they did, but then it turned out to have been humor, and so it did not count. Threats, on the other hand, stiffened their backs, and most of them would rather be martyred than blaspheme under pressure. As long as the Christians martyred so many of them, there was a real dearth of Jews and Buddhists in hell, and the place began to fill up with Christians and Muslims. It got terribly stuffy, and there began to be talk of discrimination. I was even accused of having adopted a quota system. But now things have changed.
A: Did you change your policy of admission?
S: Not at all, But when the Christians stopped persecuting the Jews, I began to be phenomenally successful with a new approach. I told them that their way of life was dated, that their laws were not made for the modern world, that freedom was the big thing now, and that their ancient laws interfered with their freedom.
A: Do you mean to say that all Jews who eat pork go to hell?
S: Of course not. But once they give their laws, their old way of life goes by the board, and they no longer study Scripture as they used to. By now many of them know the Bible as little as Christian youths.
A: And does everyone who doesn’t know the Bible go to hell?
S: No, certainly not. But when they get to that point I ask them what right they have to call themselves Jews, religiously speaking. And that does make a dent. Then they start to worry. And whether they worry or not, their religion has become a social affair for most of them, just as for Christians.
A: I’m glad to hear that. More and more people are beginning to see the light. I have been joking with you, asking about people going to hell. I don’t really believe in hell. So far as I am concerned religion is bunk.
S: Just what do you mean by saying that? Bunk?
A: I mean, it is a lot of nonsense which isn’t worth bothering about. There are sensible things like science, especially psychology and anthropology, which are much more profitable. Religion is a stupid waste of time.
S: Oh, I don’t think so at all. There is nothing that interests me more. Religion is one of the most fascinating subjects in the world. I suppose you don’t like poetry and art either.
A: You are wrong. There are some painters and poets whom I like. Picasso, for example, and a lot of modern art. I like Tolstoy, too, before he became a Christian, or tried to become one. And Dostoevsky, in spite of his crazy religious ideas. I am interested in their psychology.
S: What about the Book of Genesis?
A: I don’t read stuff like that. Next you will ask me if I say Psalms. I must have been exposed to things like that as a child. But I have mercifully forgotten it.
S: Have you read no religious scriptures at all?
A: I have only an amateur’s interest in anthropology. I have read a bit about primitive religions. But I have never followed it up. There are all sorts of handy cheap editions now; perhaps I’ll try some of them next time I travel by train. Usually I drive.
S: But these things were not written for a quick dip on the train between a crossword puzzle and whiskey sour.
A: And why not? You would not want me to go to church to catch up with the Upanishads?
S: Of course not. You don’t go to church to catch up, as you call it, with Lear: but at least you take off an evening for it and give it your whole attention and let it do something to you.
A: And what should these scriptures do to me? At most I should want to fill a gap in my education. I don’t want to be converted.
S: Well, these are not things merely to know about or to have handy for a dinner conversation. The Bible and the Buddha, the Upanishads and the Bhagavadgita, Lao-tze and the Tales of the Hassidim, these are not things about which one is informed or not informed: what matters is that they speak to you and some way change you.
A: Have you become a preacher, Satan?
S: I am merely shuddering at the prospect of having to spend an eternity with you. I should rather like to make a human being of you before you settle down in my place. I don’t agree with the people who accept these scriptures, but I can talk with them and, to be frank, I rather enjoy talking with them. But you! I wish you would go to heaven.