I've been thinking about this off and on all day, since I saw this story over at Pharyngula. I have to admit that I was a little surprised by the way the story was framed, not by the general slant but by the actual language used. It's a story about a billboard in Orange Park, FL, not far from Jacksonville, with an ad purchased by the Northeast Florida Coalition of Reason. You probably know where this is going. Here's the ad.
But here's the odd thing. The article refers to the sign, in both the headline and the body, as an "anti-God billboard." Anti-God? Of course the sign isn't anti-God. It's simply suggesting that if you're an atheist, you're not alone, which isn't even a particularly radical thing to say. I mean, you might feel alone if you're an atheist, since we atheists don't tend to group together in mutual support of our lack of belief, but it's a long leap from a factual statement about the existence of other non-believers to an active dislike for an entity that, well, we discount the existence of in the first place.
I wonder, though, if I am anti-God, at least as concerns the typical understanding of the capital-G God, i.e. a personal, interfering-with-everyday-life, thou shalt have no others before Me, binary, good vs. evil, disobey me and spend eternity in torment kind of god. And I think I am.
Amy and I talk about this a lot, especially as it deals with narrative and story. She believes, and I agree with her, that religion is the most successful fiction ever created by humans, and that for the last couple thousand years, monotheism has been the most successful religious story type. Monotheism is so successful that more than half the world's population, to some degree, think it accurately depicts the physical state of the universe. (There's a wide range of belief encompassed here, from vague notions of a consciousness to young-Earth creationism--I'm talking about about how successful the meme is right now.) So why does that matter?
It's the binary part that drives me round the bend, because it reduces complex questions to simple good-bad, right-wrong dichotomies, and mature minds recognize that there's rarely a moral circumstance where the answer, every time, is absolutely clear.
I'm far from a scholar of ancient civilizations and their religious practices, but I have to say that it seems to me, at this far remove, that there's something to be said for looking at your gods as beings to be placated rather than imitated. After all, the gods have disagreements; they wind up on opposite sides of wars; they cheat on their spouses; rape; steal; kill their parents and each other (depending on the culture). They also, on occasion, work together in common cause, and they've been known to hash out agreements and compromise when necessary. They are, in short, reflections of humankind.
But here's the important bit. Because they are often petulant and moody, and because they change their minds as often as three-year-old children, they can't really be looked to for moral leadership. They're looked at as warning examples of what not to do rather than as shining examples of what to do, and so the responsibility for deciding what is socially acceptable and unacceptable devolves to the humans in that society. As a result, they're already equipped to deal with moral ambiguity, because their religious universe is filled with it.
But monotheists don't have that challenge. They get to point to a single deity who's provided some sacred writings with some occasionally contradictory requirements and directions for salvation and say "that's what we have to do." Doesn't it have to be more difficult to deal with moral ambiguity if your religious experience is based on the binary of good and evil? If you look at the spectrum of Christianity in the US, you discover that the more fundamentalist the person, the more extreme he or she is on almost any political or social issue. The more locked into a single God they are, the more they're likely to be a hardliner.
Obviously, I think the world would be a better place if the population were a lot more atheist or at least agnostic, and approached life as though this were the only one we have and so we'd better make the most of it. But if that's not going to happen just yet, I think I'd rather have the dominant worldview be one where there are lots of gods who are all horribly flawed in multiple ways, because that, at least, is closer to reality than one in which an all-powerful, all-knowing God gazes down on the suffering of His servants and does nothing to alleviate it while simultaneously claiming to be the ideal of benevolence and justice. If that's God, then yeah, I'm anti-God.