Essay:5 Things Atheists Have Wrong About Religion

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Blogosphere WIGO 1580 linked to an interesting article entitled "5 Things Atheists Have Wrong About Religion". Written by Be Scofield, the list aimed to examine several straw man arguments used by atheists against religion. Was this a successful rebuttal to the myths perpetuated by atheists in their quest to rid the world of God? Not quite. While far from being a completely uninformed, cloggish screed on par with the crap regularly repeated by Answers in Genesis, it was not without fault. Here we will examine a few of these "myths" further.

5 things atheists have wrong...[edit]

Firstly, it's worth nothing that addressing "atheists" is a very difficult task to do. Atheism, while it is technically a statement of belief, is really a statement of a lack of belief. It's ticking the N/A box when it comes to religion. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, that unites atheists outside of the statements "I don't believe in God" or "I don't subscribe to a religion". They have, in principle, no unifying belief or set of values to tie them together in a way that a normal religious group can be. When Sam Harris wrote Letter to a Christian Nation he could address a collective because they were united by a core set of values and dogma that grouped them together; namely those values and dogma associated with Christianity.

We can do this with any positive and prescriptive belief system. "Positive" in this case meaning that you do believe in something, rather than ticking that "not applicable" box, and "prescriptive" in that the belief defines your actions and thoughts. Christianity teaches about sin and loving your neighbour and how homosexuals and shellfish eaters are going to hell; Islam teaches that you don't draw Mohammad; Buddhism teaches you how to sit in a funny position and ask awkward questions. These positive and prescriptive beliefs act to unify a group. Atheism lacks such a thing - atheists are atheists because they don't believe in God, they don't not believe in God because they are atheists. Atheists are a united group with united values much in the same way that people who haven't listened to the music of Nordic Death Metallers 'Benea Reach' (chosen at random from Wikipedia, by the way) are a united group with united values.

Therefore attempting to address all atheists is a troublesome proposition from the start. Do all atheists perpetuate these "myths"? Do all atheists actively think about what is wrong with religion? Do newborn babies, who have yet to be introduced to the concept of religion in a meaningful way and are atheist by default, have straw man arguments about religion in their head? The short answer is "no", one cannot address atheists as a whole. You may address individuals for their own ideas, you may address arguments directly, but addressing atheists is not sensible.

Liberal and Moderate Religion Justifies Religious Extremism[edit]

This has been claimed most passionately by Richard Dawkins, as his views are very anti-religious. That moderate religion is a gateway religion to extremism isn't something agreed on by all and it remains a controversial point much in the same way its namesake, gateway drug, is also controversial. Indeed, many atheists are happy to co-exist with religion when it's private and isn't out preaching or bombing opponents. It's certainly not an often repeated myth of religion, and almost confined entirely to the strongest anti-theistic writers associated with the New Atheism trend.

Scofeld attempts to show that this is wrong by extending the analogy to other systems, politics mostly. Do we also use the excuse that moderate political positions justify the extreme political positions? For example, we wouldn't claim that progressive politicians justify extreme left-wing groups and we wouldn't say that moderate fiscal conservatives justify the extreme homophobia of the Religious Right. While an interesting observation, this is not the rock-solid logical refutation that Scofeld claims it is - it is merely an argument by analogy, and where the analogies break down the argument also breaks down. Specifically, religions are not the same as political beliefs. Some atheist writers have also made the comparison between religion and politics; we deride the political positions of others but expect acceptance and tolerance for their religion. We have been conditioned to expect religions to be free of any form of disrespect, but are happy to engage in very rude slagging matches over political beliefs.

They are not the same as drinking habits or musical taste or medical professionals and Nazism. The drinking example in particular (that we don't blame someone who drinks moderately for the deaths caused by excessive alcoholism or drunk driving) is bizarrely ineffective because moderate drinking does cause extreme drinking. Not least that excessive drinking has to start somewhere, but the supplies made for the moderate and sensible users are used by the excessive users too. If moderate drug use ceased to exist, then dangerous drug use would swiftly follow; there would be no physical supply or even a mental concept of drug use to feed the excessive and extreme habits. This example is probably quite close to how the gateway religion theory is best described.

The ins and outs of the gateway religion argument are quite complicated. But whether it is or is not the case is irrelevant. The key factors to understand from this point are that 1) it is not a position subscribed to by all atheists or as something inherent in the "belief" of atheism, 2) it cannot be classified as a myth about religion because of this, and 3) a refutation by simple analogy is not sufficient.

Religion Requires a Belief in a Supernatural God[edit]

Actually, no argument against this one here. Indeed, it's one of the more valid sections of the essay. Plenty of religions don't really have a God and Scofeld lists pretty much all of them.

However, is this actually a widely believed myth held by many atheists, or is perhaps just quote mining something Christopher Hitchens wrote when indirectly referring to a theistic religion, like Christianity?

Religion Causes Bad Behavior[edit]

Again, little argument against this "myth" as it holds as much ground as as the same PRATT about atheism being the cause of bad behaviour. Because it's interesting and relevant, it's worth repeating the Christopher Hitchen quote found in Scofeld's article:

What's innate in our species isn't the fault of religion. But the bad things that are innate in our species are strengthened by religion and sanctified by it… So religion is a very powerful re-enforcer of our backward, clannish, tribal element. But you can't say it's the cause of it. To the contrary, it's the product of it.

Apparently a nail in the coffin for those who say religion does bad things. I don't think anyone is under the illusion that a world without religion would be entirely peaceful and without violence. There are multiple direct causes of violence, oppression, war and torture and most of them involve fear, paranoia and desperation - something, as Hitchens says, is innate in the human species.

But let us remember what part religion does actually play in this - although this is merely a semantic dispute about the meaning of "cause". Religion often provides the excuse, the justification and the incentives required for violence to move from the hypothetical to the actual. Suicide bombers are certainly very much enforced by a religious belief in the afterlife. Soldiers being spurred on because they're on God's side (which was both sides, apparently), lunatics hearing God telling them to do nasty things, or even just a neighbourhood feud between a Christian and a Muslim are all examples where religion plays an enormous part in the either the post hoc justifications, the rallying of others to the cause or the ferocity of the participants. While violence and bad things would undoubtedly continue without religion, at least without it we wouldn't have Devils and demons to hide behind when looking for our excuses. And this is the key point.

To bring up a fairly potent example, when Louis Theroux did a documentary from inside San Quentin there was a part where he continually questioned a prisoner (against the advice of the warden) about what he had done. The man talked repeatedly about demons possessing him. Theroux continued to question and prod for more detail but all he got in return was "evil things" and "demons" and "possession" and then he went on to lead a small religious service with other prisoners. Everyone watching knew exactly what he meant. But why all this talk of demons and possessions? Surely it's not to just cover up shame. That's an extreme example, and I'm sure what this man did wasn't caused by religion, but it's a very salient example of how religion gives people the opportunity to hide their guilt and their motivations. God told me to do it, demons made me do it, a witch put a curse on me. All of these excuses constitute the strongest form of denial, made possible only by religion, that allows us to hide our own short-comings from others and, more importantly, even ourselves. Externalisation of flaws is a well known psychological concept (everyone does it) but religion provides one of the easiest routes to this to help believers justify whatever they may do. No crime is too severe that we can't offload the guilt of it onto the Devil if we want to believe that, and this is the heinous part that religion really plays.

To say that religion causes bad behaviour is far too simply to be correct. However, it undoubtedly exacerbates it and provides the mechanism we need to offset our guilt.

Atheists are Anti-Religious[edit]

Under construction

We have the term "antitheism" to cover this. Scofeld does do a decent job of highlighting the difference between the positions of being against religion, being against the negative aspects of religious practice, and not subscribing to religion. I'm not convinced of the "myth" status of this, however.

All Religions are the Same and are “Equally Crazy”[edit]

Under construction

It goes without saying that if someone doesn't subscribe to any religion, it's very likely that they'll see all religions as equally without merit.