The Interview

May 12, 2009 | By | 12 Replies More

Via the Barefoot Bum, I found a list of interview questions posted by the Wintery Knight.

For now, I shall leave alone the good knight’s contention that Hitler was a “Darwinist atheist” (certainly not a Darwinist and arguably not an atheist, given his obsession with Nordic mythology and the occult, not to mention those SS belt-buckles that said “God is with us”), as well as his claim that “Atheists struggle with morality, it just doesn’t sit well on their worldview, even though they sense God’s law on their hearts, like we do.” Both are baseless and false and not worth any decent person’s time. I shall answer his questions though, and with as little snark as I can muster, given that I know I’m answering someone who believes I may have “fascist tendencies” (bah – I’ve never once advocated a merger of state and corporate power) and struggle with morality even though I apparently really do believe in God, even though I say I don’t – but obviously I’m just rebelling against our heavenly father like I did against my real one when I was 15. Really, if Christians wish to have an open dialogue with atheists, these tiresome myths must be left at the door.

Anyway, on with The Interview (I have sent this post as an email to the good knight and eagerly await his reply:

1) Do you believe that the universe was brought into being out of nothing by a person (agent)? Is it possible that this agent could communicate to us, or that we could discover something about that agent? (i.e. – does God exist, is he knowable)

No.  However, if an agent powerful enough to create the universe existed, you’d expect such an agent to be able to communicate with us in some way we could all understand, all at the same time. Also, if such an agent wanted anything about itself to be discovered, surely that agent would know the best way for us to do so. Revealing himself to a small number of people and letting them fight amongst themselves about who was right about what for two thousand years doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Image by Marcelmooij at dreamstime (with permission)

Image by Marcelmooij at dreamstime (with permission)

2) Explain to me in which religion you were raised by your parents, if any. How did your parents approach religion in the home? (strict, lax, etc.)

My parents didn’t raise us in any faith. I became a Christian at a young age after being exposed to it at primary school (age 5-12). Religion didn’t come up in conversation at all at home (let alone positively or negatively). We were, however, taught the importance of empathy, politeness, generosity, respect and decency (both directly and indirectly, by our parents’ examples). Both my parents are fine moral people, having proudly served their family and community their whole lives. My father was a public school science teacher (now retired but continuing to serve with Meals on Wheels). My mother was a long-time public servant and both parents were tireless social campaigners in our local area, defending our community hospital and local bushland reserves against corporate and government interference.

3) What events in your past affected your beliefs about God’s existence and knowability? (e.g. – I studied biology, comparative religions or anthropology, or I met a girl I liked)

It was a slow & gradual process. From around age 7, I started asking questions about God that no one could answer to my satisfaction – they still can’t. Once I learned about the methods of science and the contradictions, lack of historical support and the errors of the Bible (and other religious texts) as well as such concepts as the burden of proof, religion no longer appeared to be relevant to me. I came to the conclusion that as long as people were good, nobody had any right to send anybody to be tortured forever. I didn’t “decide to become an atheist” so much as eventually discard religion as irrelevant. I did, however, remain something of a some deist for a while until also discarding that philosophy as untenable. I later discovered I’d pretty much fit the description of an atheist for years but hadn’t really known it. Also: I fail to see how simply meeting a nice girl would be grounds for discarding my religion.

4) What are your main objections to belief in God’s existence and knowability today? (e.g – suffering, pluralism, hiddenness)

I don’t object to belief in God’s existence – people are free to believe as they choose, based on whatever evidentiary standards they have. But I don’t believe the claims made by religious people (not just the ones who use “God” with a capital “g” – allof them) are supported by anything past faith and flawed & incomplete text, often altered for political, not theological, reasons (who knows for sure what they left out of the official gospels at Nicea in the 4th Century – and, more importantly, why?).

5) This salt shaker (grab salt shaker and brandish it in a non-threatening way) exists because it is made of matter and occupies space. What is the mode of existence of moral values and moral duties, on atheism? Where do they exist, and what do they exist as? (e.g. – in people’s minds, as descriptions of behavior, in God’s mind)

Morality exists in our minds and, given what we know about our animal cousins, likely evolved in us as a means to ensure group cooperation and safety. Naturally, being complex animals, our morality and its justifications are more complex than those of our cousins. However at the core of human morality is still an attitude meant to ensure that groups are safe, cooperative (at least internally) and prosperous. Unfortunately it’s been twisted by things like nationalism, tribalism, politics and religion among many other things.

6) Free will is required in order for humans to act in ways that are morally responsible. You cannot assign praise or blame to anyone if they do not have free will. What is the rationale for free will on atheism? If there is no free will, on what grounds can atheists praise or condemn any behavior? (free will means the ability to act or not act)

All humans have absolute freedom to do exactly what they want. However, most humans have internal caveats on certain behaviours which are based upon the morals they were raised with, the empathy they have for others, the laws of their societies or cultures and many other factors, including but certainly not limited to religion. Atheists have as much right as anyone to praise or condemn the behaviour of others, on the same grounds as anyone else: the relative good or harm that behaviour does to themselves or to other people and the offense it may cause to their values.

7) Suppose you are an atheist journalist writing a story in atheistic North Korea in which you criticize the atheist leader Kim Jong Il. His secret police  burst through the front door of your apartment and drag you off you a torture chamber. You are told that you are about to be personally executed by the dictator himself. On what basis would you plead for your life, on atheism? (i.e. – how would you persuade a powerful atheist to do right)

Before I answer, I shall follow the grand tradition of Hebrew scholarship and answer this question with another question: imagine you’re in Rome during the height of the Catholic Inquisition. You post numerous articles protesting the gross cruelty, barbarity and generally un-Christian behaviour of Pope Innocent III and the cardinals behind the show trials and torture. This does not go unnoticed and you are soon apprehended and tortured. You learn that Innocent III will be at your burning and will light the fire himself. Given your shared belief in Christian doctrine, how do you propose to beg Innocent for your life (or at least a quick death)?

Now, the fact that my non-belief matched Kim Jong Il’s alleged non-belief would be irrelevant and I’m sure it would be to him as well, were I being strongly critical of his regime. Regardless of religion, if you criticise tyrants, especially on their home turf, you may have to face harsh consequences. You can’t reason with the unreasonable. It’s not like there haven’t been corrupt, unreasonable religious tyrants throughout history (see above – in fact, see about half the Popes who ever existed and whoever runs the show in Saudi Arabia) and it’s dishonest to portray tyranny as exclusively atheist. Actually, far from being an atheist, I suspect Kim Jong-Il’s an auto-theist!

8) Suppose that you are strolling along the river in the winter, and you cross a bridge. Suddenly, you hear shouts for help coming from the icy water below. A little girl has fallen in the water and will die in minutes unless you jump in. There is no one else around to save her. You have no relatives/dependents. You can swim. There is an even chance that you will both die if you try to save her. Do you try? How is this rational on your worldview? (i.e. – how is self-sacrifice rational on atheism)

I would attempt to save the girl because standing there and watching her drown would be unacceptable. Sure, I might die, but you don’t think about such things in a crisis situation – you do what you can and what you think you must. Heck, I’d jump in to save a dog – I have, in fact, done so (wasn’t exactly a 50-50 chance of my own death, but had I done nothing the dog was certainly doomed). Self-sacrifice isn’t necessarily rational, but not everything an atheist does has to be purely rational. We’re still human beings with emotions and empathy like anyone else – our lack of religion does not make us heartless machines. If I were a little more sensitive I’d resent the implication.

9) Suppose you travel back in time to the United Kingdom, when slavery is still legal! You meet William Wilberforce. He says that he has been battling slavery hard for 20 years, on the basis of Christian convictions, but that today he wants to let you try it in his place. On atheism, on what rational grounds could you try to persuade them? (If they say yes, ask them if they are pro-life and what they have done to support the pro-life movement)

First of all I’d shake Mr Wilberforce’s hand. Next, I doubt I’d have the skills to take on such an entrenched political and economic system (not to mention a whole government), but I’d do my best to simply point out that slaves are humans and no human should have the right to own & trade other humans as if they were farm equipment. I wouldn’t “use” atheism as it doesn’t come with any particular tenets or morals or behavioural requirements and “atheist” is just a description of someone who isn’t religious and who doesn’t accept the claims of religions. Appealing to my fellow humans’ humanity would likely be the most reasonable & effective cause of action. Of course, further research may reveal other factors that may be important such as economic or political considerations and general societal attitudes. Regardless of my precise methods, the fact that humans are being sold as goods and treated worse than livestock should be enough reason for anyone to rail against slavery.

10) Consider the heat death of the universe, which is the theory that the amount of usable energy is going to run out at some point in the finite future, as it disperses in space. On atheism, what is the ultimate significance of your moral decisions? How does it does it affect your fate, or the fate of anyone else you act on ultimately? What does it matter to you and to the species ultimately whether you act morally or not? (i.e. – how do your good and evil actions change where you and everyone else ends up?)

My personal decisions have no ultimate significance to the universe at large and I fail to see how they relate in any way to its heat death. Of course, I realise my decisions affect other people, which is why I try to make them carefully and with consideration of their potential effects on others. Strange, this conflation of astronomy, purpose and morality. I’m not sure you proofread your questions.

11) What is your purpose in life, and why did you choose that purpose? Is it just yours, or for everyone else too?

My purpose is to seek happiness while doing no harm (or as little harm as is it may be possible to do) for as long as I’m alive. I didn’t exactly choose it, it’s just what I’ve always done and what has always made sense to me. What else is there to do? Seek misery and cause pain? Of course it’s just my own purpose – I can’t presume to choose another’s purpose. That being said, I do presume everyone has more or less the same goal of happiness and fulfillment, but the precise methods of going about it are always going to vary from person to person.

12) Suppose Jesus appeared to us right now and addressed you directly with the following words: “I’m really here and you need to follow me in order to flourish and achieve the goal for which I created you”. He then glares suspiciously at me, snatches a few fries from my plate, eats them, and then disappears. Later on, the Ghostbusters show up and confirm that Jesus was no ghost, but really God stepping into history. And everyone in the restaurant saw and heard exactly what you and I saw and heard. How would you proceed? How would you find out what to do? (i.e. – the atheist now knows Christianity is true, and I want to see what they think they should do in order to act like a Christian).

I’d wonder what the hell Jesus was thinking stealing your fries (and also why you included such a red herring), considering the Golden Rule of “do unto others”, which Christians believe he invented, and not to mention breaking “thou shalt not steal”. Then I’d wonder whether someone who expected you to follow him after stealing your food, saying weird, cryptic things and then disappearing was worth following at all. He’s acting more like a magical hobo than the son of God. Nonetheless, I’d look forward to a chance to discuss the vast history of religious confusion, violence and genocide (all of it) with the big guy and ask what he was thinking letting all those people get tortured and murdered because of differences in interpreting his word (or the words of other alleged gods), when all he could have done was appeared, just like he did at that table, tell everyone to calm down and give everyone the same version of the same story. It shouldn’t be too hard for a god (“the” god) to give everyone the same message, should it? Advertisers do it every day – noone’s in doubt about the message of McDonald’s restaurants and it’s arguably much less important than the message of Jesus. However, if Jesus behaved as you described I’d just think he was a malevolent little trickster god (if a god at all) and that people should be wary of him, not worshipful. The way you phrase some of your questions and inject them with irrelevancies and red herrings like this is really quite odd. If it’s designed to put people off as they honestly try to answer your questions, well done.

13) What would be the most difficult thing about becoming a Christian for you? Would it be the moral demands? The demands on your time? The unpopularity, humiliation and persecution that you would face? How would you feel about publicly declaring your allegiance for Christ and facing the consequences? (i.e. – they have become a Christian, what is the most difficult adjustment from your current life?)

First off I think the persecution of Christians is a myth, especially in the US and in my country of Australia. In both countries, Christians make up the vast majority of the population and our leaders routinely proclaim their allegiance to Jesus. Our last Prime Minister was fond of claiming we were founded on Judeo-Christian values (as are most US politicians). In the US, every president since Carter has had a relationship with powerful Christian groups. Every president I can remember (starting with Reagan) has declared a public allegiance with Christ and has not suffered badly for it. Indeed, Christianity (or at least public statements of adherence to it) seems a pre-requisite for assuming public office in the US. And does noone remember George Bush senior saying “I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots.” When Christians are being actively prevented from being Christians in a free country like the US or Australia, and having all their political and tax-related perks & privileges revoked, I’ll take the persecution theory more seriously.

Second, having already been a Christian, the demands on a Christian’s life are worth the effort, given the reward they’re expecting after they’re dead. In fact, most believers I knew (and some I still know) don’t find such things an inconveniece at all – they find great joy & meaning in their religious activities. If it makes you happy, more power to you! Like I mentioned already, we’re all chasing happiness. As long as your happiness doesn’t impinge on another’s, go for it.

Lastly, if Christians are unpopular among any section of the community (including other Christian sects), it’s because of things including but not limited to: paedophile priests and subsequent cover-ups; TV evangelist conmen; soul-winning door-knockers; creationists constantly and through subterfuge and flat-out perjury attempting to have Genesis-based creationism deemed a scientific theory deserving equal time as evolution in state schools; opposition to civil rights for gays, the right to die with dignity and effective sex education for teens; baseless claims of persecution; blaming tragic natural disasters such as Katrina or the recent bushfires here in Australia (or unnatural disasters like 9/11) on gays or “abortionists” or public immorality. Also, consider the constant public moralising & condemnation of liberal attitudes that some Christian groups see fit to do, whether they’re a Christian political party, a Christian school suspending a kid for going to a prom or Pope Ratzinger popping up and saying condoms not only don’t work but spread AIDS as well. I haven’t even touched upon the constant demonisation of atheists and other non-Christians – some of which I saw at your site. Look, even if Hitler was a Darwinist (he wasn’t) or an atheist (highly debatable), it doesn’t do anything to debunk atheism, any more than the example of Pope Innocent III debunks Christianity. It’s just mud-slinging and people are getting a little sick of it.

Basically, if Christians are unpopular at all it’s because of their own activities – or, at the very least, the activities of Christian extremists. Now, while I believe people should have the right to exercise freedom of religion, I also believe that right should extend to people who don’t hold to a religion and don’t believe in any gods. People should be able to enjoy freedom of religion or freedom from religion if they so choose. If not, the concept of a free country is but a myth.

I believe religion should be someone’s private concern, but if they choose to push that into the public sphere in any way, they should be aware that not everyone will agree with them and that they may cop some criticism (not all of it constructive, people being what they are). This is the same with any opinion or philosophy or political view and I don’t believe religion should continue to receive a free pass on criticism and critical evaluation of its ideas. When you enter a public discussion you should be prepared to hear contrary view points and while this is happening more and more, ‘persecution’ is an overblown and inappropriate term for the current level of religious criticism. People may be becoming more vocal about the frequently objectionable behaviour of some Christian extremists – or just about the ideas of Christianity in general – but noone’s actively silencing Christians in the public sphere (though people frequently object to and file suit against atheist billboards!). Simply: noone has the right not to be offended by contrary viewpoints or dissenting opinion!

Now, I found a few of these questions poorly phrased and dotted with irrelevancies. The most glaring, being the one about Kim Jong-Il, seemed transparently like another version of the “atheism = evil” or “no god = no morals” trope that’s been endlessly debunked. I believe atheists and religious people are as capable as each other of being good or evil. Otherwise, secular or relatively non-religious countries such as Sweden & Australia would be awash with despicable, lawless behaviour, while theocracies such as Saudi Arabia & the Vatican would be bastions of human rights, equality and honest inquiry. I don’t believe religion automatically makes people moral, any more than I believe the opposite.

The rest of your article, before and after the questions, seemed rife with presumptions and prejudice toward atheists. Your question “who is safe to talk to?” suggests we’re some dark cabal of hate-filled people out to destroy your religion. For the record, nothing could be further from the truth. We may disagree with your beliefs and resent some Christians’ attempts to unnecessarily religionise our secular societies (for that is what they are – secular! This means “neutral toward religion”, not “burn all the Bibles”, just for reference), but I’m sure we’d all defend your right to believe what you want. As long as, for example, such beliefs didn’t presume to become laws for the rest of us, which is actually happening in some parts of the world.

Finally, if you really want honest answers from an atheist without a trace of snark or annoyance or sarcasm, try asking honest questions and leaving these presumptions that we’re all filthy unsaved sinners at the door. I wouldn’t accept such prejudice from my Christian friends (yes, I do have some – I’m even related to some Christians!) and I won’t accept it from anyone who claims to want an honest conversation.

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About the Author ()

Hank was born of bird-watching bushwalking music-loving parents from whom he gained his love of nature, the universe & bicycles. Today he's a musician, non-profit aid worker, beagle keeper and fair & balanced internet commentator - but that just means he has a chip on each shoulder.

Comments (12)

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    Hank: Well done! Many of my answers would be redundant to your own.

    I do like your neologism: auto-theist!

    Good for you, saving that dog.

    Excellent snark-restraint.

    Thoughtful and extremely clear. Too bad that it will be misunderstood and misconstrued by theists (I predict).

  2. Hank says:

    Well, truth be told it was my own dog I yanked out of the river, but the principle's the same – I could no more watch a dog – any dog – drown than a child and I resent the implication that I need a god surveilling me to make me do something.

    Another thing I didn't notice before I embarked was the good sir knight's requirement for any atheists who emailed him with their answers: "answers must be 1-2 lines, at most."

    Two lines at most! I don't think so. As I told WK via email after he said my answers were a bit long, some of his questions are complex and can't just be answered briefly (not by me anyway!) and some of the canards and implications within his questions also demanded a detailed response. Further, the fact that some of his questions were filled out with unnecessary, irrelevant and distracting imagery like the brandishing of a salt shaker non-threateningly (wtf?) and weirdo hobo Jesus nicking his chips and acting like a loon (wtff?) needed to be pointed out. If the good sir knight wanted short, simple answers, simply-worded questions without all that extra bollocks would have been a good starting point (though they wouldn't have guaranteed my brevity by any stretch).

  3. Pat Whalen says:

    Well done.

    On the question of the drowning girl I would point out that to an atheist this life is all we have. Saving this girl is giving her the chance to experience the rest of her life.

    On the hand how about the Christian perspective? This young girl is certainly innocent and on dying will go to heaven. By saving her she will run the risk at some later point in her life of falling into sin and spending eternity in hell. How could you do such a thing?

    Pat

  4. Mindy Carney says:

    The key, Hank, is that the good sir knight did NOT want short simple answers. He wanted blustering, defensive responses that he could then point to as examples of an atheist's fear and loathing of all things good (and therefore granted by God, of course) in life.

    How frustrating it must be for him to not only be saddled with excellent responses, but to be called upon his own folly as well. Good for you all around!

  5. Tony Coyle says:

    Bravo Hank! Great post. I applaud your honesty and your forthright answers.

    Regarding the Wintery Knight(!). Nice to see that his site demonstrates a clear lack of bias and a desire for honest inquiry ;-P

    For such questions he wants one to two lines! Shouldn't he just have created a multiple choice paper?. (but we know – he has difficulty reading for comprehension [Hitler an Atheist!!!eleventy-one!11oh noes!]

    However, as anyone who has ventured into philosophy should know – the shortest questions are often the most complex to answer, since they, in themselves, afford no context. One must therefore impose some context in one's response.

    Stupidly constructed questions (as your respondent provides) need even more attention to context, since in some cases the question is 'loaded' (as Q1 – do you believe in X? then posits X as fact for part 2. If you refute X, you must re-iterate the refutation in response to the second part or THEY WILL QUOTEMINE)

    I enjoyed reading this, Hank. Thanks again!

    I'm dazzled by your ability to even take the time. I gibbered aloud after only a few minutes at his site!

  6. Hank says:

    Glad you liked it – I'm just glad it made more sense than those questions. Also glad I didn't come off as yet another snarky heathen! Some of the crap WiKni included in his questions was quite baffling though – not in content though, rather the reasons for its inclusion. Reminded me of the some of the irrelevant embellishments I used to use in my assignments when I was 15.

    Pat, I've often wondered why Christians fight so hard to stay alive (or keep others alive) when they're sick or in danger myself. I realise that seems a pretty facile & naive question on the face of it, but surely a righteous person has nothing to fear from death? Obviously there are strong animal instincts and reflexive responses at play in a situation like a drowning child – of course you can't just watch her drown! However, if you're absolutely certain you or your equally righteous Christian loved one will go to Heaven, there shouldn't be any reason to, for example, keep the respirator plugged into the body if the brain's long since given up – yet the Schiavo case revealed in irrational need on the part of some Christians to keep people "alive" (however loose the definition).

    As for the rest of WK's site, the article accompanying the questions was enough for me. I glanced at a couple of other things but really, the attitude toward atheists there just seems to be the usual collection of myths, lies and ignorance. But I want people over there to come here and read my complete answers. I can't predict with certainty how creatively the answers WK collects will be edited, but an educated guess can be made, judging by the rest of the site.

  7. Hank says:

    The latest from Wintery Knight, in the comment thread of his post:

    "Atheists can do what they want so long as it makes them happy to do it, because that is the reason, the only reason, for an atheist to do anything, on atheism. The category of prescriptive morality is meaningless, on atheism. If acting like the herd makes an atheist feel good, they do it. If the herd owns slaves or engages in atrocities, they do that. They have no outside moral standard, only their own feelings.

    Oh, and regarding spouting religion. What you mean is that you want to destroy the fundamental rights to free speech and freedom of religion expression, using the power of the state, because of your feeling of being an offended victim. Since you have a right to be happy, and someone is making you unhappyby exercising their Constituionally-guaranteed human rights, and human rights are not grounded rationally by atheism, you think nothing of removing those fundamental rights from others – they are just illusions on atheism. But your need for happiness is real on atheism, and a powerful atheist state could help you to avoid being offended if it silences those religious people who diminish the happiness of offended atheists, as in North Korea."

    Doesn't seem like he's read or comprehended anything I've said or anything any other reasonable atheist might have said. It does seem as though he wasn't actually looking for actual answers from atheists; rather he's choosing in the face of contrary evidence to adhere to his myths and bigotry. He's not letting any of my commentary go through moderation either, despite the fact that I'm keeping it short enough for him to read without falling into a coma. You could always enquire of his motivation here, though: winteryknightblog(AT)yahoo.com. "@" removed to prevent bots!

    Clearly this cat's just out to reinforce what he and his flock already "know" about us heathens. What is it with these Christians constantly bearing false witness?

  8. Mindy Carney says:

    I am right now SEETHING at the Bad Sir Knight. He attacked me – his comments about atheists only doing things because they want to, because it makes them happy, was directed at my comment to his post. I spent over an hour this afternoon crafting what I thought was a well-phrased and insightful response. Taking him serious, not being a bitchy heathen, etc. He did not post either of them, only went back and reworded his own comment so it wasn't directly EXACTLY at me, specifically. All that I wrote, he was too chicken-shit to post. What a colossal waste of my time.

    I'm seething. It was actually some decent writing on my part, and I HATE that I wasted in on that peckerhead.

  9. Hank says:

    Mindy: I wasn't aware he'd personally attacked you, that dishonourable scumbag with manners several steps short of a dingo in a maternity ward. He has disallowed both comments I've so far attempted to post – unsurprising.

    I've invited Sir Wintery The Reprehensible to come here and discuss my answers; I also sent a blunt email (longer than two lines – I hope he managed to read it before he became distracted by a ball of yarn) letting him know precisely what I thought of his above attack and his general attitude. I expect to receive no response worth mentioning.

    It's really quite pathetic. I gave him the benefit of the doubt, answered more-or-less politely and snarklessly and gave his questions the respect I thought was due. Despite what I read in the interview article I hoped he wasn't yet another lying, bigoted fundamentalist with a chip on both shoulders about anyone who dares to not agree with his dogma. No, clearly his dogma is way too entrenched and fortified to be able to even entertain the notion of a moral, decent atheist and his interview is no such thing. The farce is strong in this one.

  10. Tony Coyle says:

    Hank, Mindy

    I see normal fundamentalist projection "you want to destroy the fundamental rights to free speech […] using the power of the state, because of your feeling of being an offended victim."

    Yet another whiny fundy. This is MY country and you'll DO as I SAY. You better! Why aren't you doing what I tell you to do! WAHHHH! DADDY DADDY SMITE THEM!

    If only they'd come up with something new – but that would imply creativity, and intelligence beyond scholarship.

    Maybe we should cede them Texas?

  11. Alison says:

    One of the things that always makes my head spin is that free speech argument. Laws should be made to restrict the speech of everyone who disagrees with my religious view, because people who disagree with my religious view want to restrict free speech. Ow.

    Of course, the idea of a unified herd of atheists is pretty inane, especially coming from a follower of an organized religion, but it doesn't require as much of an intellectual disconnect as that first one.

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