Review: San Francisco Atheists Newsletter, September 2008

By David Fitzgerald,
Steering Committee,
San Francisco Atheists

Conflating atheism with Communism is a tiresome old chestnut, and many atheists in the Bay Area regard the local communist activists with more than a little reservation. But if an atheist reader doesn't mind examining a discussion from a Marxist viewpoint, Insight Press has interesting titles to offer. For instance, Ardea Skybreak's The Science of Evolution and the Myth of Creationism is an excellent and accessible guide to how Evolution answers the questions Creationsim can't, and is highly recommended, even for those who won't appreciate the occasional brief dips into Marxist commentary.

Similarly, Bob Avakian's Away With All Gods!, for all its forid communist zeal and frequently revolutionary vocabulary, has much that non-Marxist leaning atheist readers will be able to appreciate. AWAG! is a wide-ranging and unapologetic 4-part critique of the harm caused by religion, in particular highlighting the use, and misuse, of religions by political powers to maintain the status quo.

The first half of the book is a rousing, no-holds-barred critique of Christianity and the Bible, then all three of the Abrahamic faiths. To fans of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, this may already be familiar territory. Next comes a harsh examination on the role of Chrisitianity in the darker corners of American history: slavery, lynching, white supremacists, native genocide, the patriarchy, and Christian-flavored fascism like the uber-fundie Christian Dominionists who won't be happy with anything less than a government based on the strictest interpretation of Old Testament crime and punishment.

Though all this, too is well-traveled to many atheist readers, there are still some real gems here, such as when Avakian illustrates how deep patriarchal attitudes permeate the Bible simply by pointing out how strange it would sound if John 3:16 said "For God so loved the world, that he gave up his only begotten daughter." I also smiled at his retort to the lame old Christian slogan "God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve" by reminding us that "God didn't create Adam and Eve or Adam and Steve"

His final section contrasts religion to reason and the scientific method, and religion as an obstacle to political and economic liberation. Most of my favorite points of the book came from this section. He notes that we need awe and wonder — but not superstitious awe. He also challenges those who say religions and myths are valuable because they offer "new insight into the deeper meaning of life, " arguing that who is to say what "the deeper meaning of life" is, especially if religious claims are divorced from reality in the first place?

Avakian asks us to call religion what it is — Irrational — not just as an insult, but simply to honestly identify the essential character of religious thinking. In one of his final sections, he breaks down the difference between art and religion, and gives an objective opinion of why one is harmful while the other isn't: Both represent the world in ways that differ from reality. But the qualitative difference between art and religion is that religion asks us to believe that what it presents actually is true—not only the truth but the defining and essential truth about reality. He sums up nicely: "If religion were to present itself in the same way and with the same expectations and requirements that art typically does...it would no longer be harmful...but it would also no longer be religion. Humanity will never be able to do without the imagination and without art; it must and will do without — and do much better without — religion."