If God Did Not Exist …

Sit. Adjust. Pray. Attack.

That line, in case you didn’t know, is from the old (egad!) movie An Officer and a Gentleman, wherein the leader of a squad of would-be naval aviation officers takes them to the mess hall and, in about three seconds, gets them through the pre-gustatory formalities.

Dan K. Thomasson would take the pray out of that sequence.

His article saying so appeared in the local paper, which I was reading as part of my strategy for surviving the daily two-plus hour ride to work on the bus. The bus – make that TheBus – thoughtfully provides the local paper for just that purpose, free. Which left me the two-plus hour bus ride from work to think about it. Mostly what I was thinking was that he, Thomasson, is perfectly right. And all wrong.

The armed services of the United States of America, says the article, are public institutions, paid for by We the People. As public institutions, they are barred by the U. S. Constitution from insisting on the practice of any religious system. Just ask any public school teacher, Quilly. Yet, the military academies at West Point and Annapolis do just that, compelling faculty and students to participate in specifically Christian religious observances and resisting all calls to stop doing so.

Thomasson thinks they should stop. Perfectly reasonable, perfectly logical. Why should Cadet Jon C. Marchinghome have to put up with putting up Christmas nativity scenes at West Point Military, when Caitlin Yossel at West Point Elementary doesn’t? Fair is fair. The civil libertarians would certainly approve such a move. So would the likes of Richard Dawkins, who would be happy for any excuse to advance the case that God can’t have died, because She was never alive in the first place.

I tried to read Dawkins’s The God Delusion. Really, I did. But I never got past the first couple of chapters. I’m not a person who enjoys argument for the sake of argument. I have lost patience with creation vs. evolution debates because they’re mostly about people yelling past each other. OK, they like showing everybody just how smart and loud and rude they can be. But I’m sitting there saying “Dudes, solve the problem or shut up and give my aching head a rest, already.”

Dawkins admits in so many words, in the preface to his book, that he’s yelling at people; in fancy words, his book is a polemic in favor – sorry, Dr. Dicky D, favour – of a rigorously atheistic view of the world. There are lots of sound, dispassionate, scientifically logical reasons to accept a rigorously atheistic view of the world. But dispassionate scientific logic isn’t going to make much headway in a debate, when the religionists are jumping up and down and throwing things. Besides, how are you going to get your book on the bestseller list if you don’t start jumping up and down and throwing things yourself? And Dawkins was after a bestselling book. Wonderful. Neverending warfare for fun and profit. Wonder if that idea’s been marketed …?

In my view, the problem that Dawkins and his ilk fail to solve is Voltaire’s problem:

Si Dieu n’existait pas, il faudrait l’inventer. (If God did not exist, we would have to invent him).

In other words, if the idea of God is so manifestly impossible, and even dangerous (as Dawkins argues to exhaustion), why does humankind persist in keeping some sort of God image around?

Ironically, two anecdotes in the preface to The God Delusion actually, and as far as I can tell unintentionally on Dawkins’s part, make a start at understanding Voltaire’s problem. In one, Dawkins compares efforts to bring atheists together in a common-cause effort to promote their worldview to “herding cats”. In the other, he tells the tale of a colleague who, while a committed atheist himself, nevertheless continues as a member of the Church of England ‘out of loyalty to the tribe‘.

Thus, the image of God serves as a focus for social consciousness – perhaps the only one left in western secular, individualistic, materialistic society. Atheism serves as a focus for individual consciousness.

And this is why Thomasson is, I think, all wrong in proposing an end to the tradition of common religious observance in the military academies. Hell, We the People are asking, telling even, our military personnel to be ready to give up their lives on Our behalf. I reckon there’s nothing in our society – any society – that’s more dependent on strong social bonding than that. For better or worse, ever since a bunch of nomads in the deserts and oases of the eastern Mediterranean, three thousand years ago, first conceived of a God that embodied all the ethical principles by which people in their society should live, most of the peoples of the world have used that image of God to bring society together in times of crisis, and attempt to keep it together in times of self-indulgent plenty. Or have we forgotten how full the churches of America were in the days following 11 September 2001, after being all but empty beforehand?

Can humanity devise a way to capture the strong social bonding now embodied in “God-consciousness” without invoking a common God? This, to me, is the important question, the only way to progress beyond the endless church vs. state, God vs. atheism, creationism vs. evolution debates. I don’t see too many positive examples. Most of the time in the last century, some human has wound up becoming the Godhead, rather like Roman Emperors who were worshiped as gods in their lifetime. Rome fell. A few dozen years ago now, this fellow Schicklgruber tried that. Most of us know how that turned out.

It’s my belief that We the People will eventually figure out how to run a society that has a strong social consciousness without resorting to all-powerful dictators, mortal or immortal. In the meantime, I’m OK with the concept of our officers and gentlefolk being taught a common concept of faith.

  O Ceallaigh
Copyright © 2008 Felloffatruck Publications. All wrongs deplored.
All opinions are mine as a private citizen.


  1. I agree with every word, except the last paragraph. I don’t know that we ever will figure out how to run that type of society. I’m hopefully pessimistic about it. I hope we can figure it out, but I don’t really believe it will happen.

    I have not read any Dawkins, and I have no desire to change that, but he seems to be the sort of man that religiously worships the idea that he is right, and everyone else should wake up and realize that his way is the only way that can truly save them. And in that respect, he is no different than the evangelists he seems to detest. His god is pictured on the back of “The God Delusion”, right above the “About the Author” blurb.

  2. Brig, my take is that we had better figure out how to go about this, or we’re screwed. There are now too many of us, and the resources to support us are now too scarce, for us to carry on with belief systems that are mostly based on historical misinterpretations and modern outright lies.

    One trouble is, most people (I think) have neither time nor inclination to be analytical; to function, they need to have a solid belief system. But belief in something accessible (such as the leader in a personality cult) is notoriously difficult to sustain. Führers are corruptible, by power or maggots. Ditto belief in an ethical code, because what is “ethically correct” changes with time and circumstance, and not always predictably. There’s a lot to work on.

    As with any public figure, it’s impossible for me to work out how much of Dawkins’s public persona reflects the real man. To be sure, no one without a massive ego and sense of mission would have survived the culture wars long enough to produce and defend a The God Delusion. He is a polarizing influence, to be sure, but so are the fundamentalist Christians who are his primary targets, and without Dawkins, the fundamentalists would pretty much have the floor, unchallenged. And we’ve seen where that’s taken us.

  3. Yes, and that’s the problem. Dawkins speaks up because the fundamentalists did, but they speak up because Dawkins did, and nobody can remember where it started.

    And this is why I fear that we will be screwed. We need the counterpoints, but nobody can leave them alone long enough to get it together. Nor should they, in a certain sense.

  4. You have a well thought out argument there. Reminds me of the old remark which said something like during war there are no atheists in a the foxholes.

  5. Here’s an article I just found.

    The first part had me chuckling here and there. The second part made me think, “Hmm, that’s worth considering.” The late middle, boring. I think he got so wrapped up in proving his point that he forgot to prove it. The end? Arrogant and assumptive. And I feel like all the questions he raised are still unaddressed.

  6. Actually, Jill, I hear tell that there are atheists in foxholes. They just choose not to admit it. Something about depressing morale …

    Oh, man, IG! I could go on all day. Executive summary: Dawkins should take that “clear-thinking oasis” lie the bleeping hell off his blog header.

    According to Mann’s Law: If a scientist uncovers a publishable fact, it will become central to his theory. This theory, in turn, will become central to all scientific thought. In the case of Dawkins, that fact is that individual genes will behave in a fashion that best ensures their own preservation (“the selfish gene”).

    It is indeed difficult to extrapolate, in any mathematically rigorous way, how altruism – “super niceness” – follows from “survival of the fittest individual”. Yet, humans practice altruism, and there are now seven billion of us. Moreover, most of those seven billion are here thanks to inventions such as penicillin, which would be impossible without the altruistic act, “public funding of scientific research”. Ergo, individual “fitness” (survival and reproduction) have benefited immeasurably by individual behaviors that, collectively, are “super nice”. That Dawkins doesn’t see that tells me he’s indeed blinded by his own light.

    Almost as distressing (“almost” only because Dawkins can lay no claim to historical or religious scholarship) is his view of Jesus of Nazareth, which could have come right out of Sunday School. Anyone who considers Jesus to have been “super nice” needs to re-read the Gospels, starting perhaps with the 23rd chapter of Matthew. And then re-read them again in the context of how much of what appears in the Gospels can be attributed to Jesus, and how much to the proselytizers who set his story to paper two generations after Jesus died.

    There’s a line of thought, with which I’m sympathetic, postulating that every religious figure, from Budda to David (compare 2 Kings to 2 Chronicles) to Muhammad to Joseph Smith to Bob Marley, has been posthumously bowdlerized into “super niceness” to fit the needs of the movement that sprung up around him. Jesus of Nazareth certainly fits that bill, not least because practically every scrap of information that we have about him comes from the bowdlerizers.

    Dawkins, not having expertise here, can (should, we being super nice) be forgiven for not understanding this. But it’s still disappointing in someone who so prominently promotes “reason” as he understands it. Which I guess means “reason = discipleship”. Where have we heard this before, mein Führer?

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