The Runoff Principle



Over dinner today my friends and I had a discussion on the topic of what in particular I found to be so wrong with the concept of being spiritual, as opposed to religious, and I don’t think I got my message across in as clear a way as I would have hoped.

So this will, hopefully, serve as a more fleshed out and well-reasoned representation of my argument.  A written bit of staircase wit or as the French say, l’esprit d’escalier.  

The topic of personal spirituality, meaning here the separation of a deity from the context of a corresponding organized religious dogma, was raised and I voiced my opinion that I was not a fan of either the term or its cultural usage.

My dislike for the term “spiritual” stems mostly from its loose definition. When that friend of yours, you know the one, says that they don’t believe in any of that stupid religious stuff but they’re still spiritual I’m never exactly sure what that means. Do they still believe in a god or are they just super into nature? If original sin and the transmutation of wine into blood is too unbelievable for their modern minds then why is the concept of an invisible man in the sky still an acceptable belief for such a person?

The fact that being spiritual is so up to personal interpretation is part of what makes it so dissatisfying to me and so many other freethinkers.

When the discussion turned to the cause of this trend to the “spiritual” we came to a consensus that as our modern society has evolved the darker side of organized religion, namely the misogyny, homophobia, and murderous tendencies, have become too much for those socially liberal individuals who might still wish to believe in some sort of omnipotent higher being who watches over them. So instead of following the barbaric dogma of religions that were founded by illiterate desert dwellers thousands of years ago, they decide to come up with their own moral system and by extension their own version of god.

This type of opinion-based morality sets a potentially dangerous precedent.

When someone says that their personal god is an all-loving, all-forgiving, peaceful extension of the universe at large and therefore completely harmless, I have to disagree. For every personal peaceful hippie god interpretation, there is inevitably the reverse. The pick-your-own-adventure format doesn’t sit well with society when the convicted child-rapist, war criminal, or machete-wielding madman tries to pin his actions on his personal interpretation of the Bible, Torah, or Quran.

This picking and choosing of which parts of the (insert religious text here) that you choose to follow is one of the main reasons I became an atheist. If these texts actually contain the literal word and will of god then who are we to dare interpret them to our benefit? To say that gay people can’t get married and teenagers have to abstain from premarital sex but you won’t stone your daughter for mixing two types of cloth or for picking up sticks on the sabbath rings a tad hypocritical, no?

When we see clergy members constantly adapting the tenets of their faith so as to better appeal to modern audiences in an attempt to fill empty pews, then one has to wonder just how “sacred” the word of god really is?

(Pope Francis’ recent reversal of the Catholic church’s centuries-old stances on everything from contraception to evolution being just one example.)

This constant dilution of the core values of a faith is my primary argument as to why the concept of religion is so implausible to me. If an infallible god passed down his hand-crafted rules on how to live then how can his priests change these rules and still claim divinity? I firmly believe that theists must stand by everything in their books, even the truly evil stuff, or else abandon everything as equally illogical and ridiculous. What are we supposed to think about a religion as a whole when reading something as awful as this passage from Deuteronomy?

“As you approach a town to attack it, first offer its people terms for peace.  If they accept your terms and open the gates to you, then all the people inside will serve you in forced labor.  But if they refuse to make peace and prepare to fight, you must attack the town.  When the LORD your God hands it over to you, kill every man in the town.  But you may keep for yourselves all the women, children, livestock, and other plunder.  You may enjoy the spoils of your enemies that the LORD your God has given you.” -(20:10-14)

Modern theists, barring ISIS members and Evangelicals, have more or less come to distance themselves from these sorts of hateful passages in favor of the more “Blessed are the merciful” type bits, but this distancing does nothing to address the many faults at the core of the Abrahamic faiths and for that matter all religions. Seemingly every positive sentence in any religious book is followed by a paragraph glorifying suicide or blaming women, homosexuals, and apostates for the many evils of this world.

How can the “spiritual” overlook the horrific outcomes of religious faith and yet still yearn for some form of a deity whose followers will inevitably go on to commit horrors in its name?

They say that one quart of oil can contaminate a million gallons of drinking water, and the same is true when it comes to religion. The title of this piece, The Runoff Principle, refers to the fact that no matter how many different interpretations a religion goes through, becoming more and more distilled with each incarnation, each social advance, it still flows from the same polluted source and is therefore not safe for human consumption.

“Apparently one of the most uncertain things in the world is the funeral of a religion. “
– Mark Twain, Following the Equator.






The Runoff Principle

The Atheist Prophet

I recently watched Hasan Minhaj’s hilarious one-man show, Homecoming King, a really well-written and funny bit of stand up. After watching it there was one thing that stuck with me beyond the comedy. In a bit towards the end of the show, Hasan brought up Bill Maher of HBO Real Time with Bill Maher fame. He recounted how Bill along with his guest Sam Harris, a noted scientist, and Atheist, had bad mouthed the Muslim faith and how Ben Affleck, of Gigli and Batman vs Superman infamy, had come to the defense of Muslims everywhere. Even Batman, Hasan claimed, was against the blowhard Maher’s indefensible claims that Muslims must be thrown into internment camps like Japanese-Americans were during the second world war.

Now, even though I am an Atheist I am not a big fan of Mr. Maher’s. His show and its writers can be quite funny and he is a seasoned comedian with good timing but his smug over-simplification of complex issues as well as his reprehensible habit of bringing fame-seeking imbeciles like pro-pedophilia Milo Yiannopoulos and the snake oil salesman “Dr.” Samit Chachoua, a man who has claimed to cure AIDS with fucking goat’s milk, onto his show have stripped him of all credibility. This kind of showbiz buffoonery delegitimizes Maher as a leading voice for Atheists everywhere.

This being said, I must come to Mr. Maher’s defense. Nowhere in the ten-minute segment does Maher call for Muslims to be interred. I understand that he has a long history of badmouthing and demeaning Islam, much more so than any other particular religion. Despite this, he does bring up some legitimate and on-point concerns about the Muslim faith. At the beginning of the segment, he makes the claim that “Liberals need to stand up for liberal principles.”

This is an admiral stance.

His argument, as far as I can tell before Ben Affleck starts to yell (drunkenly?) over everyone, is that Liberals in America have grown to conflate the argument against bad ideas as an argument against the people who hold said ideas. Case in point “Batman” equates calling out Muslims for some of their more despicable views, namely murdering apostates, homosexuals, and those who dare leave the faith, to calling someone, “A shifty Jew.” Affleck claims that if you call out members of the second largest religion in the world for their holy book’s indefensible stance on everything from women’s rights to glorifying suicide, then you are in his eyes a racist.

This is terribly flawed logic. Muslims are not a race of people. Neither are Jews for that matter. Islam and Judaism are both just monotheistic forms of religion. It so happens that the term Muslims or Jews has become synonymous with different ethnic groups from the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. You can identify as a Jew but not go to Temple or believe in the doctrine of the Torah. Liberals in America seem to have no problem accepting this, but for some reason when you replace Jew with Muslim it’s a different beast entirely.

Liberals claim to despise the acts of barbarity committed daily by ISIS and Al Qaeda but then in the same breath call others bigoted for making the assertion that perhaps these jihadists are the true practitioners of their faith; a faith that was born of conquest and violence. After all, the Quran was cobbled together by the disciples of the illiterate “prophet” Muhammed from bits and pieces of the Old and New Testaments sometime in the sixth century and was used as a unifying document in Muhammad’s battles against the other Meccan tribes.

To say for instance that the Quran does not directly call for the murder of non-believers or free thinkers is simply false.

Quran (2:191-193)“And kill them wherever you find them, and turn them out from where they have turned you out. And Al-Fitnah [disbelief or unrest] is worse than killing… but if they desist, then lo! Allah is forgiving and merciful. And fight them until there is no more Fitnah [disbelief and worshipping of others along with Allah] and worship is for Allah alone. But if they cease, let there be no transgression except against Az-Zalimun(the polytheists, and wrong-doers, etc.)”

This passage is honestly no more evil than anything found in Jewish or Christian doctrine, but it does seem to be more widely executed by its practitioners. A day does not go by where you do not read about suicide bombings, or a family burning their pregnant daughter alive for marrying a non-Muslim, or another terror attack committed in the name of a supposedly all-loving Allah.

I do not mean to start a which religion is worse debate, I simply make the point that in any of the three Abrahamic religions there are many repeated passages that call for actions that a modern and civilized society should find barbaric.

All organized religion lends itself to abuse and violence.

To decry another’s beliefs because they do not stand up to the test of modern morality and justice is not the same thing as hating another person for such idiotic reasons as skin color or place of birth. The argument against the problems with Islamic faith is not an argument against a specific people, but against a specific set of ideas.

In the 1950’s it was common to hear a person openly decry the system of Communism because it did not meet the American criteria for decency. It was considered an immoral and inhumane method of governance and should be gotten rid of, and looking back most people would agree on this point. So why is it that a political or governmental worldview can be attacked for its merits, or lack thereof, but a religion is immune to equal scrutiny?

Can we not differentiate between the freedom to practice a religion, within the constraints of modern law, and the freedom to criticize a religious idea when it’s a bad one?

I have no problem with intelligent people like Hasan believing in a god, nor with their right to practice their religion unmolested by such un-American tests or bans as the current administration is inflicting on theists of a certain skin type. I do, however, take issue with those who would brush aside any discourse about the morality of a certain religion by saying that any such discourse is automatically racist or, as in this case, Islamaphobic.

Beliefs do not have intrinsic rights, only people do.

For instance, Kyrie Erving of the Cleveland Cavaliers thinks the world is flat. I don’t begrudge him this idiotic belief, but if he starts cutting members of the Warriors head’s off because they don’t share his beliefs then I would take umbrage with said flat-eartherisms.

To repeat Mr. Maher’s words, “Liberals must defend liberal principles.” Society cannot afford to sit idly by while members of one of the largest groups of us act like animals in the name of a fictitious book. If the more reasonable and educated members of the Islamic faith want to truly affect change they must be the first to admit that their book has flaws. As does any religious text. Only by admitting this problem can they begin to shift the faith away from its more violent roots into the religion of love that it’s proponents claims it to be.

Hasan was the right to call out Maher for his self-appointment role as the Atheist Prophet as freethinkers neither need nor want any one person, let alone some perpetually-stoned comedian, to speak on our behalf.

Atheists don’t need prophets, we let facts and reason do our speaking for us.

Meanwhile, the impetus is on smart young Muslims like Hasan Minhaj to be the change they want to see in their faith. The worst parts of the religion cannot be expunged by more bombs or occupation forces, but only by the overwhelming pressure of a billion and a half of their fellow Muslims to rid their beliefs of a doctrine of bigotry, hate, and violence that has plagued it since its inception.

And if anyone can do so it Hasan and those like him.


Quran quote from

The Atheist Prophet