Many (unfortunately too many) years ago, when I was an adolescent, there was a joke that at the time I thought was pretty funny – despite the fact that it was kind of sexist and un-PC, two things that I was blissfully unaware of at the time. Not only did I think it funny, but it also conveyed an element of truth about human nature. The joke went something like this:
Boy (to a pretty girl): If someone offered you a million dollars to have sex with them, and no one else would ever know about it, would you do it?
Girl: No one would ever know about it? Sure. I can always use a million dollars.
Boy: Well, then, what if I offered you two dollars to have sex with me, and know one will ever know about it?
Girl: Of course not. What kind of girl do you think I am?
Boy: We’ve already determined that. Now we’re just haggling about the price.
Or something like that.
That joke often comes to mind whenever there is a story about someone like that idiot pastor in Florida, Terry Jones, who burned the Koran after determining that it was guilty of some ridiculous charge or other. I’m sure that asshole would scream bloody murder if I were to burn a copy of his book of fairy tales. Just like the girl in the joke, we’ve already determined what kind of stupid religious idiot you are – now we’re just haggling over which sky-fairy you like. (Just for the record, regardless of the stupidity, I do defend his right to burn the Koran and blaspheme Islam the same as I would defend the right for anyone else to blaspheme any other religion or criticize any other belief system including my own.)
But that’s the way it is with zealots. In their absolute certainty of the existence and supremacy of their god, they are incapable of recognizing that those who believe in other imaginary friends have just as much validity for those beliefs as they do for theirs. As Hitchens said so well – religion poisons everything.
To be sure, there are millions of earnest people who believe devoutly and who are willing to tolerate others and their beliefs. For the most part, these are good people who mean no harm to their fellow human beings. But lurking in their subconscious or in the back of their minds is the arrogant certainty that their god and their belief system and their value system are the correct ones and are superior to any other religion. They are merely tolerating those inferior beliefs to maintain harmony and peace.
Consider the history of America and the genocide perpetrated on the Native Americans and the slave trade involving Africans. Both of these travesties were rooted in the arrogant assumption of the moral and cultural superiority of the Christian-based European societies, beginning with the Spanish and finally ending with the English (and the US, which was effectively an extension of English culture and beliefs, independence notwithstanding). The cruelties and injustices perpetrated on these peoples could never have occurred without this background sense of arrogant superiority, unspoken or unacknowledged though it may have been.
But, you say, aren’t you and other atheists guilty of the same sort of arrogance when you look down your collective noses at religious believers? Yes. And no. Yes, there is a certain level of arrogance in my attitude that my reason-based ethics and rational worldview is superior to those rooted in ignorance and superstition and dogma. But no, it is not the same. I am not pooh-poohing an equally valid belief system. I am celebrating the best abilities and qualities of our species and not arbitrarily supporting one form of ignorance and superstition over another. To say that a belief in the Flying Spaghetti Monster is true while a belief in Bertram Russell’s teapots is not, when neither has any credible verifiable evidence, is not the same thing. So the criticism that atheists are equally wrong is not valid.