Voltaire on Religion

“Religion began when the first scoundrel met the first fool.”


That is such an awesome quote about religion. The only problem is that, as far as I can tell, Voltaire never said it. Neither that phrase nor something substantially similar to it appears in any of Voltaire’s works that I can find.

Voltaire did say something similar in a letter to Frederick II of Prussia in December 1740,

Ne peut-on pas remonter jusqu’à ces anciens scélérats, fondateurs illustres de la superstition et du fanatisme, qui, les premiers, ont pris le couteau sur l’autel pour faire des victimes de ceux qui refusaient d’etre leurs disciples?

May we not return to those scoundrels of old, the illustrious founders of superstition and fanaticism, who first took the knife from the altar to make victims of those who refused to be their disciples?

But it’s quite a leap from that to the almost aphoristic scoundrel and fool quote.

If anyone knows the origin of this quote, either in Voltaire or elsewhere, I’d love to know more.

Saudi Arabia's Repression of Atheists

In February 2016, it was widely reported that Saudi Arabia had sentenced a young man to 10 years in jail and 2,000 lashes for posts on Twitter advocating atheism.

According to a Saturday report in the Saudi newspaper Al-Watan, the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice — the Saudi religious police force whose duties include monitoring social media — found more than 600 tweets posted by an unnamed 28-year-old dissenter.

According to the report, the man refused to repent for the tweets and said that he had the right to assert his opinions.
In addition to the 10-year prison term, the court sentenced him to pay 20,000 riyals — about $5,330 — and receive a beating consisting of 2,000 lashes. Such floggings are generally broken up into weekly bouts of 50 lashings each and administered according to specific guidelines.

In 2013, Saudi Arabia convicted activist Raif Badawi of “insulting Islam through electronic channels” and apostatsy and was sentenced to seven years in jail and 600 lashes. That sentence was increased in 2014 to 10 years in prison, 1,000 lashes, and a fine.

In 2014, Saudi Arabia updated its anti-terrorism laws to include atheist advocacy as a terrorist act. According to Human Rights Watch,

The interior ministry regulations include other sweeping provisions that authorities can use to criminalize virtually any expression or association critical of the government and its understanding of Islam. These “terrorism” provisions include the following:

Article 1: “Calling for atheist thought in any form, or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion on which this country is based.”

This is the country that U.S. political leaders extoll for the “extraordinary friendship and relationship” it has with the United States.

Atheism Is Not a Synonym for Bernie 2016

When I was growing up in the 1970s, the few times I ever heard anyone use the word “atheist” it was always in a political context. Typically, it was someone inveighing against the atheist Communism of the Soviet Union. The general sentiment was captured by Ronald Reagan in a 1985 speech,

Atheism is not an incidental element of communism, not just part of the package; it is the package.

It was just a foregone conclusion of adults I knew that atheism and Communism were one and the same thing.

Fast forward 40 years, and the idea that atheists are or should be politically homogeneous is still around. With the end of the Cold War, however, it is typically
atheists themselves who insist that atheism necessarily entails not only statements about religion, but also politics.

John Loftus, whose books I have read and enjoyed, offers up a particularly facile instance of this on his blog when he wonders why atheist leaders aren’t falling all over themselves to endorse Bernie Sanders for U.S. president.

I’m going to talk Presidential politics folks. Atheist intellectuals and activists are failing us when it comes to something that may do more for atheist causes than anything else we can do, or say. Atheist leadership should lead. So far they are failing us. I’m talking about leaders like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Michael Shermer, Valerie Tarico, Jennifer Michael Hecht, Annie Laurie Gaylor, Dan Barker, David Silverman, Russell Blackford, Hemant Mehta, Daniel Dennett, Jerry Coyne, Peter Boghossian, Barbara Forrest, DJ Grothe, Phil Zuckerman and others, some of whom I am personal friends with, and all of whom I respect for their contributions. What am I saying? We should all be speaking out in support of Bernie Sanders for President for these reasons!

Loftus doesn’t even bother to make a case why atheist leaders should line up behind Sanders–other than that Loftus himself apparently shares Sanders’ politics and wishes his fellow atheists did as well. Instead he simply says things like,

If you value my opinion at all, getting Sanders elected as the next president of the US may be the most important thing we can do.

The. Most. Important. Thing. We. Can. Do.

Even atheists can be true believers, even if not about God.

Loftus seems like a decent guy and I’m fairly certain this is an example of him being an overly enthusiastic Sanders supporter. But when I read it, the post irritates in much the same way it grates when I happen across arguments that Christians need to unify behind someone such as Mike Huckabee or Rick Santorum.

Let’s Get High and Deny Christ!

This comic panel first appeared on the internet at I Heart Chaos, but other than that I haven’t been able to track down where it originally came from.

There is a lot of weird religious comic book stuff out there–including some fundie Archie comics–but this seems more like it was intended as satire (or possibly the dialogue in the speech bubbles is photoshopped).

Either way, an excellent comic.


Let's Get High and Deny Christ


Occasionally when I am in a social situation where someone learns I am an atheist I will get strange looks as if the person meeting me was just realized I was a space alien. Fair enough, since I typically have exactly the same reaction when I realize someone is a genuine, whole hearted believer.

Anyway, the thing is that most religious people I meet are, in general, not very interested in knowing much about religion. Oh, they tend to know a lot about their particular little corner in religion land, but they often don’t know and usually aren’t interested in understanding how their own particular religion has been instantiated and practiced over time, much less other religions.

I suspect this is a defense mechanism because once you start looking at religion from a sociological or historical perspective, you start to run into a lot of Weird Shit(TM). Consider a folk religious practice adopted by some Christians in the UK called sin-eating, which believe it or not, was taken quite literally by its practitioners. According to Wikipedia,

This ritual is said to have been practised in parts of England and Scotland, and allegedly survived until the late 19th or early 20th century in Wales and the adjoining Welsh Marches of Shropshire andHerefordshire, as well as certain portions of Appalachia in America (documented in the Foxfire cultural history series). Traditionally, it was performed by a beggar, and certain villages maintained their own sin-eaters. They would be brought to the dying person’s bedside, where a relative would place a crust of bread on the breast of the dying and pass a bowl of ale to him over the corpse. After praying or reciting the ritual, he would then drink and remove the bread from the breast and eat it, the act of which would remove the sin from the dying person and take it into himself.

In his 1926 book Funeral Customs, Bertram Puckle wrote the following about sin-eating,

A less known but even more remarkable functionary, whose professional services were once considered necessary to the dead, is the sin-eater. Savage tribes have been known to slaughter an animal on the grave, in the belief that it would take upon itself the sins of the dead. In the same manner, it was the province of the human scapegoat to take upon himself the moral trespasses of his client–and whatever the consequences might be in the after life–in return for a miserable fee and a scanty meal. That such a creature should be unearthed from a remote period of pagan history would be surprising enough, but to find reliable evidence of his existence in the British Isles a hundred years ago is surely very much more remarkable.

Professor Evans of the Presbyterian College, Carmarthen, actually saw a sin-eater about the year 1825, who was then living near Llanwenog, Cardiganshire. Abhorred by the superstitious villagers as a thing unclean, the sin-eater cut himself off from all social intercourse with his fellow creatures by reason of the life he had chosen; he lived as a rule in a remote place by himself, and those who chanced to meet him avoided him as they would a leper. This unfortunate was held to be the associate of evil spirits, and given to witchcraft, incantations and unholy practices; only when a death took place did they seek him out, and when his purpose was accomplished they burned the wooden bowl and platter from which he had eaten the food handed across, or placed on the corpse for his consumption.

Howlett mentions sin-eating as an old custom in Hereford, and thus describes the practice: “The corpse being taken out of the house, and laid on a bier, a loaf of bread was given to the sin-eater over the corpse, also a maga-bowl of maple, full of beer. These consumed, a fee of sixpence was given him for the consideration of his taking upon himself the sins of the deceased, who, thus freed, would not walk after death.” He suggests the connection between the sin-eater and the Jewish scapegoat of the old Testament.

On the one hand….ewwwww.

On the other hand, this is hardly any stranger than the Eucharist and the belief in transubstantiation. When you are at a point where you do not rely on a rigorous method of investigation, such as the scientific method, to try to understand the world, then anything goes.