The unacknowledged but implicit standard about the true and the good belongs to us atheists. All statements about physical reality and moral worth must meet with our approval. And that means we are also the ultimate arbiters as to what counts as acceptable in matters of religion.
Now, what would most meet with our approval would be if there were no religion at all, but being atheists, we are nothing if not realistic. Not everyone can live knowing that there is no God that watches over us and cares about us; knowing that there is no immortal soul, but that death is the end; knowing that there is no such thing as karma, but that the world is full of wicked men who live quite comfortably and will never be punished for the evil that they do; and knowing that suffering has no purpose, that there are countless innocent victims whose pain and misery is meaningless and serves no higher good. We wish that people did not need to believe in God, the immortal soul, karma, and a purpose for suffering, but they do, and allowances must be made for that.
And because of this almost universal need for religion, it follows that atheists must ever be held in low regard. We must be thought wrongheaded, if people are to believe in what we deny. Thus it is that our judgment, not only as to what is true and good, but also as to what counts as an acceptable religion, can never be admitted, however much it may be followed in practice.
A religion is acceptable as long as it never contradicts what atheists believe, apart from the supernatural fluff that may be appended. For this reason, Republican politicians would probably benefit from having an atheist as an adviser. Consider the case of Scott Walker, who decided to “punt” when asked about evolution. On the one hand, Walker knew that to do well in certain primaries, he needed the votes of fundamental Christians. On the other hand, there is no way that in 2016 this country will elect a president who believes in the literal truth of the Book of Genesis. Since it is better to risk losing a primary to Mike Huckabee than to guarantee a loss in the general election, he should have asked himself (or his atheist adviser), what kind of answer would satisfy the atheists? Then, without hesitation, he could have said that he believes in evolution, but that evolution is guided by the hand of God. As long as he was not specific about exactly what that hand of God did, he would have been fine.
In general, references to God’s interference with world affairs must be kept to a minimum if they are to pass muster with atheists. As long as it is not overdone, we do not insist that such claims make sense, for we realize that religion cannot be rationalized. Saying, “There but for the grace of God go I,” for example, is equivalent to saying, “Thank you, God, for not doing to me what you did to him,” but only an atheist would carry out that implication, and such is not to be expected from the religious person who utters that expression of humility. Also, saying it was a miracle that a baby survived a plane crash is permissible, even though an atheist would wonder what kind of grudge God had against all the other passengers, who died. With magnanimous self-restraint, we atheists tolerate the characterization of this kind of chance event as a miracle, provided it is about something good, in this case, the survival of a baby. Under no circumstances, however, must God’s interference with the world be punitive. We atheists do not approve of any remarks by religious leaders that such things as September 11 or hurricane Katrina were God’s punishment for America’s iniquity. And it is through atheist disapproval of such remarks that people of faith can be sure that these disasters were not the acts of a vindictive God.
Just as we atheists will allow for an occasional miracle, but not for acts of punishment on the part of the Deity, so too do we allow for belief in Heaven but not Hell. It is for that reason that in the typical movie about Jesus, we almost never hear the Son of God talking about people going to Hell for their sins, even though there are several passages in the Bible where he does just that. Sometimes the relatively harmless expression “gates of Hell” will be heard when Jesus is giving Peter the keys of the kingdom, but in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), even that part of the speech is omitted. (An exception to all this is The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964), in which Jesus spends half the movie fulminating about all those who are damned to Hell.)
Regarding movies about Jesus, we atheists are always deeply moved when Jesus saves the adulteress by challenging those in the mob to let the one without sin cast the first stone. That is the atheist’s ideal conception of Jesus, a man of forgiveness. And so, no Jesus movie would be complete without that scene. But we do not like it at all when we read those parts in the Bible where Jesus says that it is a sin to get a divorce, and that to marry someone who was divorced is to commit adultery. That is why we never hear these words coming out of Jesus’s mouth in the movies (not even in the exceptional Gospel According to St. Matthew).
And that means that in the debate between Protestants and Catholics as to whether divorce is a sin, the Protestants are right and the Catholics are wrong. In like manner, because atheists believe in birth control, it follows that in this matter too, Protestants are right and Catholics are wrong. This is why the criterion of atheist sanction is so valuable. Protestants and Catholics, by themselves, can never solve these problems. The Protestant believes that God agrees with him just as surely as the Catholic believes that he and God are in agreement. And as God is not forthcoming on these issues in a way that is acceptable to both sides, they cannot be resolved by appealing to the will of God. But atheists are forthcoming in these matters, and that gives Christians an objective criterion for determining what God really thinks.
And this leads to the question as to whether ISIS represents true Islam or not. Appealing to the imams and other authoritative Muslims gets us nowhere, for they no more have direct access to the will of Allah than do the members of ISIS. Nor do we get anywhere by taking surveys of the Islamic countries, for such surveys reveal wide support for practices that people of other faiths, such as Christianity, find abhorrent. As with the disagreements between Protestants and Catholics, disagreements between Christians and Muslims cannot be resolved by appealing to either God or Allah without begging the question.
Fortunately, the issues can be settled by atheists. ISIS does not represent true Islam because we atheists disapprove of what they are doing. True Islam, just like true Christianity, must conform to the atheists’ final judgment as to what is right and what is wrong.