The big lie that religious people tell one another is not that God exists.
That is the small lie.
Any claim which goes unsupported by evidence -- and moreover, does not even consider evidence (except reports of "miracles") to be necessary -- can only be described as small, since it is insubstantial, no more than a hunch really.
Sure, this little lie about God can get elaborated into something solemn and serious enough to command the adherence of wonderful, well-meaning people all over the world... But it's really just -- what shall we call it? -- a goof, a conjecture, a stab in the dark.
We all know people who believe that it is "Our Father Who Art in Heaven" who exists (some may be reading this post -- hello!). Others say it is Allah; others Vishnu. Others the Flying Spaghetti Monster (a site I recommend, if for nothing else than for its impressive control of tone).
For the nonbeliever, these lies are perhaps amusing, sometimes engaging, sometimes even deadly, but little lies. No more.
The big lie that religious people tell is that a world without God is a world without hope or meaning.
On the last day of November, Pope Benedict XVI issued an encyclical which parroted this lie.
The New York Times, true to form on the topic of atheism, then echoed this lie uncritically in an article entitled, "In Pope's Latest Teaching, an Argument for Hope, Not Atheism, in the Face of Struggle." (For the internet edition the title was shortened to "Pope Stresses Hope in Latest Teaching." If I were an editor at the Times, simply as a matter of saving space, I would just go with "Pope Stresses" -- and lose the rest. It works!)
Here's the letter which I wrote to the New York Times after seeing that article (it went unpublished -- no surprise):
Re: "In Pope's Latest Teaching, an Argument for Hope, Not Atheism, in the Face of Struggle," December 1, 2007.
As an atheist, I recognize that, for many religious people, their faith brings them great hope for the future (the "ocean of infinite love" that Pope Benedict XVI describes, as well as other rewards in this life).
I would only ask that religious people stop insisting that my outlook on life is correspondingly hopeless and meaningless. On the contrary, my atheism gives me great hope; it renews my commitment to creating, with others, a world filled with love, fairness, empathy, and other good things, since, in all likelihood, this is it folks!
Yes, we nonbelievers must avoid utopian dreams of forever changing the human condition (e.g. the New Socialist Man or the Fourth Reich). But a belief that this life is all we have has a marvelous way of concentrating the mind on the need to listen to, and work with, other people. It gives you hope in humanity. It gives you hope that together we can make of our lives something worthwhile and beautiful.
This is my plea:
Please, my dear religious fellow-citizens of this country and the world, please stop telling the rest of us that our lives have no meaning. Our lives have meaning, I assure you. And you are part of it.
Even you, Pope Benedict XVI. Even you are part of the meaning of my family and my life.
For an enlightening discussion of faith and meaning by four great thinkers of our time -- Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens, the "Four Horsemen" together at last -- click here.