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Patton Oswalt Gets Atheism and Religion Horribly Wrong

Patton Oswalt usually nails it, but here he couldn't be more wrong.

Patton Oswalt's recent sitdown with his frequent foil Salon was one of the more enjoyable interviews to come along in quite some time. It was satisfying to see the internet's chief exporter of eye-roll-inducing outrage have to answer for its endless production of nonsense, and Oswalt put on a veritable clinic on the importance of free speech and the unfettered exchange of ideas.

However, there was one topic on which the comedian came up woefully short (and in a rather contradictory fashion): outspoken atheists and their critiques of religion:

"I feel, as an atheist, about people like Richard Dawkins and Bill Maher the way that Christians must feel about Fred Phelps. Look, being an atheist means you don’t give a fuck about what anyone believes in. I don’t think any of it’s real, but you can go ahead and do it.... Everyone that goes, 'But all the war is because of religion, blah blah blah,' well then you’re no different than the housewife that’s like, 'My son killed himself because of a Judas Priest record.' No, your son killed himself because he was an unstable idiot. Those people started wars because they were unstable idiots. They stumbled across this religion thing, but if they hadn’t found that book, they would have found something else."

Actually, being an atheist means you don't believe in a god or gods, nothing more. Beyond this, though, to not "give a fuck about what anyone believes in" is a reckless position, but it makes sense in the context of Oswalt's belief that if it weren't for religion, "unstable idiots.... would've found something else."

Not that Oswalt is one, but this is a common view among apologists for religion. According to this reasoning, when gunmen murder cartoonists while yelling, "God is great!" and "The prophet has been avenged!" their crime isn't actually about religion. They're simply "unstable," and if it weren't for religion setting them off, it would've been an album, or a television show, or a long wait at the DMV.

Oswalt is a brilliant guy, and I can only surmise his inability to understand the entrancing power of faith stems from his total lack of it. For its billions of followers around the world, however, religion isn't some hobby to pass the time while they run out the clock on life; it's an essential part of their existence -- one that goes beyond their mortal bodies and, for many of them, extends into an eternal afterlife.

Oswalt continued, appearing to contradict what he just said:

John Oliver said this, that Islam is still a relatively young religion, and if you look at Christianity and Judaism when they were young, they were violent, fucking crazy religions. But right now I would say there’s a bigger percentage of that in Islam, but still that percentage is still small. Again, he [Bill Maher?] is discounting all of the moderate, progressive, intelligent, horrified Muslims going, 'What the fuck is going on right now?' And especially attacking someone who is Muslim, who’s living in America, they came here because they wanted to get away from that shit.

Notice that suddenly there is such a thing as "violent, fucking crazy religions," and now Oswalt is using Islam's age of 1,400 years to point out -- correctly -- that when Judaism and Christianity were this old, horrible things were being done by its adherents thanks to a more literalist interpretation of their respective holy books, which are arguably the most violent texts ever authored.

As for Oswalt's insinuation that certain atheists are attacking anyone "who is a Muslim," this is a slanderous canard oft-repeated by apologists who like to toss the word 'Islamophobia' around like beads on Mardi Gras. But the fact is the most notable, loudest so-called New Atheists such as Maher and Dawkins have never attacked anyone simply because they belong to a particular faith. Faith-based fanatics, however, as well as the tenets of faith, are a different story. For the umpteenth million time, critiquing a belief system is not the same as attacking the people who abide by that system.

Oswalt went on:

"There’s always going to be Christians, always going to be Jews, Hindus, Muslims, so let’s find a way to make all that progress. Because that’s always been the solution of frightened people, if we could just get rid of this chunk, everything would work. No, it doesn’t. I realize that there are people, intelligent, well-meaning people, that literally think if we can wipe out gay people, it will trigger some magic spell that will fix everything else. They believe that the reason all this shit has happened is because of gays and that God is angry at us for not stomping them out. If we can all just work this magic spell. That’s really terrifying thinking. It’s terrifying."

Again, despite he's previous assertion about the seemingly cursory role religion plays in the psychology of "unstable" people, Oswalt here acknowledges that there's a chunk of people who believe that god is angry that gay people exist and their existence is tolerated, which means the eternal heavenly father, who has the power to damn people to everlasting fiery torment, is being disappointed and even mocked. The implications of this and other religious beliefs are too profound to dismiss as something akin to the two kids who killed themselves after listening to a Judas Priest album 30 years ago. This difference is especially stark considering that nearly every day, people of faith are blowing themselves up and killing lots of others in the process. And it's not what they're listening to that's driving them to this behavior. It's what they're reading.

The urge to give religion a pass for its role in violent acts is understandable. As Oswalt rightly pointed out, the vast majority of people of faith do not act like bloodthirsty maniacs. But the plain reality is that in such cases their behavior is demonstrably morally superior than their holy books would have them act.

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Image credit: Gage Skidmore