The man walked into the tavern and scanned the room until he noticed a long table with 11 men sitting at it. He walked over and said, a bit hesitantly, "Hello, is this the A. J. meeting?"
The man at the head of the table said, "Yes it is, Atheists of Jerusalem! Welcome! So glad you found out about us! We can use all the members we can get. My name is John."
The newcomer told his name, and said, "So glad to meet you too! I heard rumors about this group, but up until now I've felt like the only atheist on earth. You don't know what it feels like to suddenly meet a whole bunch of them at once!"
John said, "On the contrary, all of us here know very well how it feels. We've spent our lives feeling like the crazy ones because we don't have all sorts of fantastical beliefs as almost everyone else does, when in fact we are the few sane ones. That's why we started this group, to be a haven from the rest of the world, where we can feel sane for the first time. And where we might even think of ways to talk other people into sanity."
The newcomer then introduced himself to each of the other members of the group, and said, "I can never get over the fact that, here it is, the year 50 A.D. already, in this great scientific and technological age, when great thinkers even hundreds of years ago already proved that matter must be made of atoms, proved that the earth is spherical and measured its size, measured the distance to the moon and its size, speculated that the earth goes around the sun, that the stars are other suns immensely far away, and that current forms of life must have evolved from previous common ancestors. Our greatest philosophers have proven that the existence of a god makes no sense. We've built monumental buildings, and great aqueducts and roads that have improved people's lives substantially. --And yet most people still believe that people can predict the future by reading the entrails of goats, and can change events for the better by offering animal sacrifices as gifts to the gods! If anything, there seems to be a resurgence in such beliefs lately, just when you'd think they'd be withering away."
John said, "Yes, all of us have noticed such a resurgence, unfortunately. Most of us think it is a backlash against that scientific and technological progress. We fear that such irrationality will take over again, and halt that progress. The Roman Empire may seem invincible, the world's only superpower, but if this keeps up, we're on the way out, I tell you! As for your amazement at the stupidity of most people, I'm afraid you're just preaching to the choir here! But one of the pleasures of being in this group is being among like-minded people, and some of the most intelligent people you are ever likely to meet, who are as up-to-date as can be on the latest scientific and technological advances. For instance, just last week we were talking about a new invention that Peter here heard of, called a 'steam engine'. It uses the expanding force of boiling water to move things. It's just a toy, but perhaps larger versions could be used to replace animal and human muscle power, and relieve people of ceaseless physical toil, even create more power than ever available before. Perhaps it could move chariots at tremendous speeds, faster than any horses could, and people could travel great distances in short amounts of time."
The newcomer said, "That is absolutely fascinating! I'd love to hear more about it."
Peter said, "Alas, that's all I know so far. I'll certainly tell all about it if find out more."
John then said, "So, let's resume where we left off last week, shall we? As I recall, Peter had just begun telling his idea of combatting religion with a silly parody religion he came up with."
Peter said, "That's right. We've tried reasoning with people, but that never seems to work. What better way to show people how silly their religions are than by parodying them with an equally silly religion, which they can easily see is silly, and then perhaps realize that their own religion is equally silly. I call the religion 'The Church of the Flying Bread Monster'. I picture an invisible being made out of a piece of bread, with olives for eyes, that flies around. Followers would bless each other by saying, "May his crusty appendage touch you."
John said, "That's very cute. I like it!"
The newcomer said, "It might be even more humorous if you call it 'The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster'. How about it having meat balls for eyes instead of olives?"
John whispered, "Remember, spaghetti won't be invented till more than a millennium from now, after Marco Polo visits China and gets the idea from their noodles. It's bad enough that you called this year '50 A.D.', when people won't start numbering years that way until centuries from now!"
The newcomer whispered back, "Oh, sorry, I forgot! Then bread it is!"
Peter then continued, "So as I was saying, I would like to follow priests around whereever they go, preaching this parody religion right next to them preaching their crazy religions, making the priests out to be complete laughing stocks."
John said, "I think that's an excellent idea. Why don't we meet next Saturday, at the main temple, and do just what you say. In the mean time, we ought to come up with all sorts of silly embellishments for that religion. We could all wear some sort of silly costume, for instance, and say it's part of the religion for some reason.
Someone else, named James, said, "Just be sure to make it ridiculous enough that no one will believe it! Remember, there are an awful lot of amazingly stupid people out there. You may think you're combatting religion, only to find that this plan has backfired and you've inadvertently started a new religion, even more ridiculous than the ones already in existence!
John said, laughing a bit, "A very good point. Yes, we'll have to be very careful."
The newcomer said, "I hesitate to bring this up, because you'll all think I'm just trying to claim your originality for my own ... but I actually came up with an idea somewhat along the same lines several months ago."
John said, "I've found atheists to be among the most honest people I've ever met. Or as Peter always says, 'If you can't trust an atheist, who can you trust?' We can't just undo past wrongs we've committed with some religious ritual absolving our guilt, as religious people can, so must live with our consciences. So don't worry, I don't think you're stealing someone else's idea. So ... what's your idea?"
The newcomer said, "Well, my idea wasn't overtly comical and silly, the way this bread monster idea is. It was just philosophically ridiculous. The idea was as follows:
The god of the Hebrew holy book is a nasty sonofabitch, from what I've heard, despite always claiming to be a loving god. He's a total psychopathic tyrant. But, this being the idea for a new religion, of course it wouldn't just say to forget the whole idea and not believe in that god. That's not the way religions work! Instead, it would add a new layer of idiocy on top of the previous idiocy, to try to explain away the previous idiocy. It would say that this god realized he wasn't being loving, and changed his mind! That is of course a ludicrous idea, because an omniscient god would never be wrong in the first place, and so would be incapable of changing (which I guess would make him not omnipotent, come to think of it, since he wouldn't have the power to change! But then again, if he's omnipotent, he wouldn't have the power to be not omnipotent, which would also make him not omnipotent! But I digress...) That holy book has their god blaming all of Adam and Eve's descendents for Eve eating that forbidden fruit, which of course is ridiculous, because their god is supposed to be perfectly just, and blaming people for what their ancestors did is the height of injustice. So their god just realizes one day that he was being unjust, and starts being nice forever after. There ought to be some crazy reason why, but I never went further with the idea."
John said, "Hmmmm.... That would be a great idea, except for one thing. There's a religion that already beat you to it, and it's the religion of most of the people in this region! And it hasn't made a difference; people still believe in the religion anyway! In the Hebrew holy book, it tells the story of their god creating a world-wide flood to kill everyone off but a single couple, to punish all of humanity for all of its bad deeds, and says that their god changed his mind afterwards and felt regret for killing everyone off, and said he'd never do it again. And yet despite that ludicrous idea, people still believe in that religion."
The newcomer said, astonished, "Really?? I of course heard about that flood story -- who hasn't? -- but not the part about their god changing his mind. I guess I should read that book, but I've never wanted to waste a single second of my life on religion."
John said, "Ironically, you'll likely never find a bunch of people who know that book as well as atheists do. A number of us here have read it cover to cover, including me, and can practically recite it by heart. It's the religious people who rarely know much about it -- otherwise they very likely would see how heinous and self-contradictory it is, and become atheists! All they know is the few good parts. As the sign says that I have on the back of my chariot, "Read the holy book -- become an atheist." You'll probably learn a lot about it as part of this group. Ironically, the fact that it is so badly written keeps people from reading it, so keeps up its credibility, for it is quite a challenge to slog through. One would think that a Supreme Being could have been a better writer."
Peter said, "Still, your idea has possibilities. How about this idea for why he suddenly decides to stop blaming everyone: because all of humanity offers him one giant human sacrifice as a gift, the human sacrifice to end all human sacrifices, that changes their god to nice for the rest of all time. Create some sort of mythical heroic figure who's the greatest most important person who's ever lived. Animal sacrifice may be barbaric enough -- our campaign for people to stop it has gotten nowhere, since this is too tiny a group to change things -- but at least peoples' attitudes have been shifting on human sacrifice lately. They're starting to think of it as barbaric, so they'd think of your religion idea as barbaric."
The newcomer said, "Might as well add cannibalism in there too! Have the followers symbolically eat the person after he's been sacrificed. But it would sure have to be some special person who's sacrificed, for that god to change his mind in such a big way! All of the human sacrifices so far sure haven't done it."
Peter said, "How about him being some mythical god born of a virgin? What religion doesn't have gods being born of virgins, after all? Either that or sacrificing virgins. Whatever it is, it's gotta have virgins in there somewhere. Sex sells. Have their god have sex with a virgin and have her give birth to a god, which would of course then be the son of their god."
John said, "That's good, although so many people wouldn't think of that as adding to the ridiculousness, because they already believe nonsense like that. It definitely needs some special twist to make it far more ridiculous, but I'm not sure what."
The newcomer said, "How about claiming that this sacrifice of the most monumental historical importance happened very recently, within the memory of many people still alive today, and then just ignore how no one remembers it, no chronicler of the times wrote about it? Claim that it happened around 20 years ago, let's say."
John said, "Another nice touch."
Peter said, "Also, keep emphasizing how he's that god's only son, to add to the pathos of him being sacrificed -- as if that god couldn't have as many sons as he wants! After all, he's supposed to be omnipotent! And as if that son, who's also a god, couldn't stop himself from being sacrificed in a long, painful, horrible way if he felt like it!"
The newcomer said, "And how about this: After claiming that the religion is all about morality (despite worshipping that heinous god), then completely contradict that by claiming that only people who believe in that religion go to heaven, regardless of whether they've been moral or not, while all people who don't believe in it go to hell, also regardless of whether they've been moral or not. Tell them that their god will only stop blaming them for Eve eating the forbidden fruit if they believe in the religion. Then, have the priests in that religion claim to forgo earthly wealth, yet live in the most opulent buildings that we are capable of building, paid for by the ordinary worshippers. Tell the worshippers that they not only have to believe in the religion, but they have to attend religious services in those opulent buildings. Tell them they can't just stop their god from blaming them for what Eve did by being moral, but that only the priests can, by chanting magic words at them, and they can't just do it once and be done with it, but the worshippers have to keep coming back every week for another "treatment". --Oh, and by the way, they have to keep giving the priests at least 10% of their earnings. Have the priests spend most of their time exhorting their followers to give them money -- despite that they claim that their god is all-powerful and grants their wishes that they say in prayers, so that they should be able to just pray for more money! That would make it obvious to even the most naive fool that the religion was just made up as a scam to trap people into it in order to give those priests money."
John said, "That's great! This idea definitely shows promise. But still, it needs something else. This still isn't a religion much more ridiculous than lots of religions people already believe."
The newcomer was deep in thought for much of the rest of the meeting. Then toward the end of the meeting, he suddenly said, startling everyone, "I've got it! John, you said my religion idea needed some special twist to make it extra ridiculous, and I just thought of one. Don't have all the HUMANS offer the son of that god as a sacrifice to that god. Have THAT GOD offer his own son as a sacrifice!"
For a second, John just stared at him, openmouthed. Then he stammered, "S-s-so let me get this straight. The idea of a sacrifice is to give a gift to a god so he will treat you better in exchange. So you're saying that that god has a son in order to offer him as a sacrifice TO HIMSELF, and he has to give that gift TO HIMSELF in order to have an excuse to be in a better mood and treat everyone nicely from then on???? How could someone give themself a gift? And he can't just DECIDE to be in a better mood, and then do it, but has to go through that crazy, bloody rigamarole????"
"Yes!", said the newcomer, with a broad smile.
John said, "That's the stupidest, most insane idea I've ever heard in my life! You'd have to have feces for brains to believe that! Perfect! Not only is that a great parody religion, but obviously there's no danger that anyone will ever mistake that for a serious religion, and start believing in it. I mean, there may be a lot of stupid people around, but surely no one is THAT stupid! Never mind the Flying Bread Monster, let the 12 of us go out to the religious places and start preaching that religion. It should make great comic theater.
The newcomer said, "Yes, let's do that! Only one thing. I'm afraid of being persecuted as an atheist, in this society, as I bet many of the rest of you are. I could lose my livelihood, be attacked, who knows what. So I'd rather not use my real name, while I'm participating in this group, in case anyone overhears it and finds out who I am.
John said, "Okay, fair enough. So what should we call you, Saul?
"Ummmm ... how about Paul, instead."
...And the rest, unfortunately, is history.