Imagine there’s no heaven

In a comic scene in Joseph Heller's 1961 novel, Catch 22, two atheists argue about God till one cries out in frustration, "But the God I don't believe in is a good God, a just God, a merciful God. He's not the mean and stupid God you make Him out to be.

In a comic scene in Joseph Heller’s 1961 novel, Catch 22, two atheists argue about God till one cries out in frustration, “But the God I don’t believe in is a good God, a just God, a merciful God. He’s not the mean and stupid God you make Him out to be.”

The very fact that we have a word for atheism demonstrates that it’s not like other forms of disbelief. There is no equivalent word for someone who is skeptical about fairies, dragons, or Stephen Harper’s latest version of events. To be an atheist is to have considered the notion of a god, held some image of that god in your mind, and then rejected the fruit of your imagining.

Fortunately for those who choose atheism, there’s no need to conceive of a good, just and merciful god, and then suffer the pain of denying him, her or it. The world is full of mean and stupid gods not to believe in. The god of the Westboro Baptist Church springs to mind, he who “hates fags” and sends his followers, most of them the issue of the group’s leader, Fred Phelps, out to picket funerals.

But Phelps’s deity is, if not harmless, at least toothless. He resides at the outer edge of the lunatic fringe of the gods, where his influence is limited to inflicting pain on mourners and making idiots of his own followers. Far more insidious are the high-profile, big box-office gods, who can never seem to resist meddling in politics and the law. Not content to be worshipped and adored, the A-list deities insist on obedience, even if they have to go to court to get it.

The National Post reports that Elinor, an Israeli woman who has somehow managed to keep her last name private, “has been ordered by a religious court to circumcise her son against her will or face fines of 500 shekels ($150) for every day the procedure is not carried out”.

Elinor’s son was born with a medical condition that made circumcision on the 8th day, as required by custom, impossible. Later, she balked. “As time went on,” she said, “I started reading about what actually happens in circumcision, and I realized that I couldn’t do that to my son. He’s perfect just as he is.”

In imposing the fine the rabbinical court declared that “fulfilling the command of circumcision is not a surgical medical act … Brit milah is exactly what it says: a covenant that God made with His chosen people, the nation of Israel.” Elinor appealed the decision to a higher rabbinical court, which rejected her case with the words, “Removal of the foreskin prepares the soul to accept the yoke of Heaven and study God’s Torah and commandments.”

So, if I understand this correctly, the deity in question gave the human male reproductive apparatus a hood of skin that in some manner interferes with the soul’s ability to accept yokes and study commandments, two behaviours said god requires of his followers, especially the male ones. Circumcision is a kind of factory recall to correct the error.

Elinor’s and her son’s plight is a relatively minor example of the folly of letting superstar gods get their fingers into politics and justice. In Saudi Arabia in 2002 religious police stopped 15 girls from leaving a burning school because their heads weren’t covered. All of the girls died in the fire. Saudi Arabia is only one of a number of countries in which religious law provides harsh punishments for women who drive cars, or are raped.

It is a common feature of the A-list gods that they all insist on the subjugation of women. This week Pope Francis, earthly agent for the biggest star of all and head of the only multinational corporation to own a city-state, released an apostolic exhortation that shocked the business world by calling capitalism “a new tyranny,” and criticizing inequality and exploitation. Inequality between men and women within the church, however, “is not a question open to discussion.”

Francis is a champion of the rights of the poor. He favours decentralizing church power. He stands for peace and against hate. He has even made a muted statement -“who am I to judge?”- of tolerance for gays. By papal standards, he’s a passionate reformer, but he serves a god with woman-issues, who can only do business with men.

Here in Canada, although our Constitution mandates the separation of church and state, we’re still burdened by an entrenched system of state-funded religious schools, and by legions of god-followers who clamour to insert their religious beliefs into public life. Fortunately, the electorate has so far demonstrated only limited tolerance for divine dabbling in government.

Still, gods lurk in Parliament, leaping up every once in a while with a private member’s bill to curtail women’s rights, or a government policy that endangers women’s health in Africa by directing aid through conservative religious organizations and de-funding women’s health clinics.

A word to the omniscient: play fair. You’re welcome to your followers, your churches, your hymns and holy books. Leave us our governments, laws, courts and police. We really can’t run them properly if we’re tripping over gods at every turn. We know you think we need your goodness, justice, and mercy, but too often all we see is meanness and stupidity.

Al Pope won the Canadian Community Newspaper Award for best columnist in 2013. He also won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in B.C./Yukon in 2010 and 2002.