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Pop-apologists love to tell stories about how much atheists hate God. It’s a powerful claim, not because it’s accurate, but because it’s a bit like wishing us into the cornfields. All at once everything we say and everything we think is effectively removed from consideration and we sit mute despite our best efforts well beyond the eyes and ears of the one who put us there. You can try to reason with people who make this argument, but to them you might as well be out in the cornfield after all. They put you there with this story, and you can’t get out.

The pretext for putting us in that cornfield is often our commentary about moral qualities of God’s character. We tend to be critical of the big guy. These are themes well known by now to both atheists and religious apologists, as well as any number of people in between or off to the sides. That such comments are made for the purpose of argument seems obvious enough to me, but arguendo would seem to escape some folks, and so a comment or two on some of ‘God’s’ more unsavory activities quickly becomes evidence that those making the comments know very well that God is real and simply hate him.

And that’s the trouble with quote marks. Sometimes they disappear!!!

Anyway…

Maybe the whole argument is like a silence spell in a game of Dungeons&Dragons. All your thoughts about epistemology and metaphysics, logic, reasoning, the history of science or religion; all of these are suddenly translated into a single simple theme, the expression of brute rage. No matter what we actually say, or how we actually feel while talking about the subject, this notion that atheists just hate God translates the whole thing into rage. I can’t help thinking some apologists do it for just that very reason. Whatever the logic of it, the claim that atheists just hate God is a damned good way to end the discussion.

…even if one really means to continue talking about it anyway.

There is of course a self-fulfilling quality to all of this. No-one wants to be wished into the cornfields, metaphorically or otherwise. So, if you weren’t mad at God at the beginning of such a conversation, you may well find yourself mad at the person who said you were. Hopefully, this doesn’t rise to the level of brute rage, but it can certainly be frustrating. It’s at least enough to make a man brute miffed, stark-raving irritated, or even amused off at the source of the claim. Show that irritation, and you may well have the source claiming this is proof he was right about your motives all along.

I suppose it’s probably best to just go on about your life in such cases, really. It’s only a cornfield-banishment if you let yourself care about the brat who put you there. Otherwise, the demon kid is just an adult-child with his hands over his ears and you have a whole world in which to wander and explore. Who know? You may even find some corn to cook!

As often as not, we try anyway.

…to talk to the brat, I mean.

As often as not, when we try, the stratagem of choice will be to work our end of the dueling petitio. It seems obvious enough, so the thinking goes, that the person putting us into the apologetic cornfield construes our rejection of God in terms of an implicit assumption that He (God) must exist and that we must really know that after all. Since that is the point of explicit disagreement, this whole angle is a question good and begged. “Okay fucker,” so our inner monologue goes, “I can play that game too!” And out comes an argument in the form of an impatient reminder; “I don’t hate God; I simply don’t believe in him.” A frequent variation of this argument takes the form of an argument to the effect that one cannot hate someone or something one doesn’t believe in.

art-thrones-joffrey-620x349I used to think that made sense, but then Joffrey happened, and I learned very clearly that I can indeed hate someone I don’t believe in. Seriously, I have spent more time hating that little bastard than I ever spent on any real person. Neither Adolf Hitler nor John Chivington from actual history have been given nearly so many fucks from me as that perfectly fictional little piss-ant. Neither my old playground Nemesis, Scotty, nor the bastard who embezzled money from my Dad’s business when I was a teenager ever got my goat quite so effectively as that perfectly pathetic little bit of unreal royalty has. (Admittedly, Jofrrey has the advantage of being a recent pebble in my viewing-shoe, but presently anyway, he rouses more irkitude than any other.) So, yes, the bottom line here is simple. I can hate a person that doesn’t exist. I really can.

Oh geez! I hope I’m not the only one.

Well, I reckon I’m not. A quick look around the net seems to confirm that little creep got under a a good many people’s skins. It may be a charitable (or at least a convenient) assumption on my part, but I don’t think all the Joffrey-haters are under the delusion that he’s real. My capacity to hate people who aren’t real does not appear to be a super-power. Others too have this ability.

So is Joffrey unique? Could he be a sort of fictional singularity of hatred-arousing super-villainy? I mean, I don’t really hate Darth Vader. Never did. (The way he choked that guy with the force was actually kinda cool.) Snape and Voldomort hold my attention long enough to enjoy the story, but neither really makes the hair stand-up on the back of my neck. Angel Eyes from the Good the Bad and the Ugly? I kinda like him. Actually, I like a lot of villains. (Maybe that’s a problem.) Even Sauron is hard to really hate. That guy is more like a force of nature. He has to be contended with, but he isn’t human enough to be all that mad about him. You want him defeated, yes, but you don’t find your face screwing up with rage at the mere mention of his name.

See, …Sauron. You didn’t cringe, now did you?

Felix UngerThen again, there is Felix Unger. I know that’s probably one for the over-40 crowd, but seriously, you kids need to get off my lawn anyway, so I’m using him. He’s not quite a villain I know, but man could that character set me to gnashing my teeth. Don’t get me wrong, Tony Randall was great, and he was particularly great at making me hate that fricking Felix Unger. Also there is Frank Burns from Mash. Wasn’t that guy’s mere presence in a scene just like fingernails on a chalk-board? (Which brings me to a question; do young people understand how bad that chalk-board sound was? I haven’t heard it in well over a decade and I still hate it. Almost as much as I hated Frank Burns. I expect some folks have escaped this sound entirely, and maybe I should find a more current metaphor for a truly cringe-worthy event. …maybe something like Joffrey.) Anyway, the point is that you can hate fictional characters.

Definitely possible.

So does that count as a point for God’s apologists? No. It just means the world is, as usual, more complicated than we often imagine it to be. It is PARTICULARLY more complicated than we imagine it to be when we go to war with people who think wrong things (especially if they are doing it on the internet. …those fuckers!) To put it another way, if God was created by man, as some of us believe him to be, then perhaps He is the original Satan, because He has definitely rebelled against his creators. He keeps doing things we don’t want Him to, and when some of us want Him to just go away, he keeps popping up, in our dreams and stories anyway. No, not because He’s real, but because our own stories have endowed Him with with far more meaning than we can effectively dispatch in a single saying of the nay.

Just to be clear. I’m not really talking about God. I’m talking about ‘God’.

Polemic games aside, I do think this touches on a larger issue, maybe even a couple of them. There is something in the power of stories. I don’t mean some mystical force that bends steel or shoots mind bullets at people who piss you off. I mean that stories have a way of holding our attention more than we sometimes want them to. This is why people watch soap-operas. It’s the reason why any reality shows last more than  the time it takes to pitch them. And its the reason why every singe one of the dark-violent soap operas now filling cable television will replace every resolved plot point with a new cliff-hanger, and they will do it every fricking time! (I’m convinced Joffrey is behind the lot of them. Seriously, what IS that kid doing now that his character is gone? Has anyone checked? Oh! Well, nevermind.) My point is that you will come back to watch a story, even a story that sucks, if it presents you with an open question. That bit of suspense keeps us coming back to great shows like the one that formerly bothered us with Joffrey. It will also have us watching 5 separate episodes of MTV’s real world after getting home from work, and grumbling the whole time.

“What could be dumber than this damned show?”

(Looks around the room.)

“Oh!”

burnsAll of which brings me back to the uncomfortable curve of the matter. I think an awful lot of unbelievers struggle with the hold that religious narratives have on our imaginations. I know my own religious sentiments stuck with me for years after I ceased vouching for their truth. This bothered me sometimes, but I began as a reluctant atheist anyway, so perhaps it didn’t bother me too much. I don’t know when, but sometime in the last couple decades many of my old religious thoughts fell away. Just the same, I remember what it was like to disbelieve and yet to feel moved by the same old religious narratives.

It doesn’t help of course that these narratives are still told in our presence, that others press upon us the need to vouch for the truth of those stories, and some even see fit to damn us for not believing them, but if you take all that away, it doesn’t necessarily mean we are free to skip our way on down to the god-free world to secular smiles and gooey gumdrops. Those stories are all over our minds, and they don’t go away just because their most flat-footed story-tellers are in the other room.

This fact may be more true for those of us that grew up in religious households, but I don’t reckon it’s untrue of others either. Religion provides so many recurrent themes to the cultural landscape around us that you just can’t escape it. And some of these are pretty good stories. Some are shitty-stories (e.g. God is not Dead), yes, but some are pretty damned moving, even to a non-believer (e.g. Amazing Grace). We may not like the implications. We may have good cause to dislike some of the implications. But that doesn’t mean the stories aren’t compelling, that we don’t feel the dramatic tension when the stories are well told, or that we won’t find ourselves rehashing a theme or two borrowed (perhaps without our realizing it) from religious circles.

Just as with fiction, religious themes may well hold someone’s interest without any literal belief in the characters and events described in them.

I should add that it isn’t entirely clear that atheists hate God, even as a concept. I’ve been focusing so far on villainous themes, because creeps and bastards are uniquely compelling (even godly ones). But of course, characters in a story move us in other ways too, and this is as true of divine stories as it is of sit-com plots. In the argument from evil, God is a downright bastard, to be sure, and I think sufficiently bastard-like to merit a conclusion or two about his character. Still, the peace-love-dove version of Jesus still evokes a warm and fuzzy something or other deep down in my non-soul. I don’t believe in either of these gods, of course, but the point is that each is moving in its own way. The gods of Greece and Rome can still get my interest, as can those of the Vikings. The shear inscrutability of Krishna can draw my attention as well as anything. All of these figures have compelling attributes, not because they are real, but because they are at times part of stories told really well.

Simply put, religious themes do not cease to occupy our attention simply because we stop believing in them. Our attention may be drawn to them by others, but our own thoughts will frequently come back to those themes without any external prompts. They occupy too much of the thought-world around each of us to be simply banished to the cornfields. In that respect, gods may have an advantage on atheists. We can be put in that cornfield by anyone malicious enough to go for the debate equivalent to a quick fix. Gods can’t. You put them out of your metaphysics, and they pop up in your poetry. Kick them out of your ethics and they sneak back into your favorite morality tales. Some may find in all of this an opportunity for a gotcha game, but that’s a scene closer to the spirit of Frank Burns than a Matlockesque moment of truth. (Yes, I wrote Matlockesque. Deal with it!) I reckon those theists whose thoughts I value can see this. As for those who continue to play the you-just-hate-God game, perhaps I shall put them in a cornfield of my own.

…better yet, rye.

Apologists keep telling us that God doesn’t go away when we cease to believe in him. I think its closer to the truth that ‘God’ doesn’t go away when we cease to believe in him. Some people will never notice the difference.

At this point, I reckon that really just shouldn’t surprise anyone.