Herding Cats?

It's said that organizing atheists is like herding cats. We're implicitly compared to believers, who have acknowledged leaders, authoritative texts, and formal organizations. The reason usually advanced to account for this phenomenon is that we atheists are generally rather individualistic and thus reluctant to follow someone else's lead on such matters. But there's another reason which I've never seen presented in the context of explaining the herding-cats idea: atheism is much too broad a concept under which to seek to organize. The proper comparison is not to individual religious sects but to theists as a whole.

If we randomly put a dozen people who don't believe in any gods in a room, then they're no less likely to reach an agreement on any given issue than if we randomly put a dozen people who do believe in gods in a room. A representative sampling of a dozen of the world's theists would include four Christians (two Catholics, one Orthodox, one Protestant), three Muslims (two Sunnis, one Shiite), two Hindus, a (theistic) Buddhist, a Taoist, and an Animist. I rather doubt they would agree to much at all, since they don't even agree on the basic definition and identity of the gods. In fact, the random group of atheists might even be more likely to reach agreements since many atheists have great respect for science, which provides an objective way to establish underlying facts, since appeals to faith would be roundly rejected, and since atheists have no prejudices against other atheists who don't believe differently than they do. The task of organizing atheists seems significantly different from this perspective.

I'm not expressing an opinion about whether atheists should attempt to organize. Atheists—as distinguished from the much larger group of the non-religious—number very few in many parts of the world, including my own, so there may be wisdom in trying to gather as many people under the umbrella as reasonably possible. My point is only that organization works best when it's structured around a specific set of beliefs and not a general belief or disbelief. Only with that in mind can one make real comparisons between groups.

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Go to Mass or Go to Hell

The Catholic Church teaches that its members must attend mass on Sundays and all other holy days of obligation under pain of mortal sin. This means that if they purposely miss mass, they commit a mortal sin and, as with all mortal sins, if they then fail to repent of and confess this before they die, God will condemn them to hell for all eternity. If you choose to sleep in, to stay home and read a book, to have a picnic with your family in the park, to do anything but sit, stand, kneel and—most important—hand over your money in church for an hour each week, then you risk frying in a lake of fire for your grievous transgression. While I understand the pragmatic benefits the Catholic Church reaps from people who still take this threat seriously and begrudgingly shuffle off to mass each week when they would otherwise actually enjoy their alleged day of rest to the fullest, it makes little sense from a theological perspective.

Why would God threaten believers with punishment for failure to attend mass? The most plausible justification, at least initially, is that he wants to encourage them to attend, in the same way that a parent punishes a child who skips school. The problem is that God inflicts a punishment identical to the harm to be avoided in the first place! We can presume that God wants believers to attend mass with the ultimate goal of saving their souls from damnation; the danger in not attending mass regularly is that one may stop believing and/or commit acts which are inherently wrong such as murder, theft or adultery and end up in hell. But threatening believers with the potential danger is absurd, as it unnecessarily increases the danger which believers face, giving them an easier and more certain avenue to hell. (Of course, hell itself is already infinitely unjust. Of course, God himself created the original danger. I’m just showing how it’s absurdity upon absurdity.) It would be as though the state executed drivers who failed to use their seat belts. That’ll show them to be more careful next time! Never mind that there’s no next time, either for the executed or the damned, and that they would have been perfectly fine without either punishment.

Of course, if God has purely selfish motives for demanding his believers worship him every week, we might have a different analysis. One might think that God, for every person he tosses into the everlasting flames, loses an infinity of worship from this person, but St. Thomas Aquinas argued the saved in heaven will delight in the suffering of the damned, so perhaps God’s interests are served no matter what. Then why go the whole charade of earthly existence? I would say that perhaps the drama is interesting, but God already knows how it’s going to end anyway. What’s the point of playing it out? It’s impossible to avoid absurd conclusions when one postulates an infinite being, and throwing in infinite rewards and infinite punishments doesn’t help. My intention here was just to point out one additional absurdity peculiar to Catholicism.