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Some thoughts about atheists

I've been seeing an uptick lately in popular media about atheism. A lot of these things I've been seeing start with "Atheists are..." and then lay out the premise that folks who don't believe in some kind of supernatural god have all sorts of negative characteristics, whether they be fat or immoral or selfish or whatever.

And a lot of these "atheists are" statements are just silly. Some of them, like "atheists are sexist," are both silly and also filled with apparently unconscious irony, given the history of organized religion; others, like "atheists are immoral," are silly and also point to an inability on the speaker's part to conceptualize an internal code of ethics. But all of them are silly.

And so, I'd like to present this handy, pocket-sized guide to some of those silly ideas, and the reality.

Claim Atheists are immoral I: Atheism offers no framework for morality.
Fact It is possible to construct a rational framework for morality without reference to anything supernatural. For example, racism can be shown to be immoral simply because it hurts everyone--the racist and the subject of the racism alike. The first surgeon to perform open-heart surgery was black; had he not been permitted to go to medical school because of his race, as was the norm at the time, many people would have died because he would not have made the contributions he did. Michael Shermer has written a book, The Science of Good and Evil, that lays out a framework for morality which doesn't depend on a supernatural entity.
Commentary Claiming a supernatural agent as the framework of morality can lead to some spectacularly, catastrophically immoral consequences--as was the case in 2010 when Pope Benedict XVI, a man whose purported job it is to interpret morality, decreed that ordaining women into the clergy was an immoral act that was equal to pedophilia. When a person who dedicates his entire life to the interpretation of morality as defined by a supernatural entity runs off the rails so badly, it is because he has lost touched with the effects of people's behavior on other people--which is, after all, the core purpose of morality.



Claim Atheists are immoral II: Atheists can not have a framework of morality. Morality can only come from a god or gods.
Fact Religions do not set the standards of morality; they just reflect the moral ideas that people already have. In a society where slavery is common, the religious institutions tend to say that slavery is OK; when societies say that interracial marriage is bad, the churches agree. When the social mores change, so do the religions.
Commentary When morality is seen as a list of arbitrary rules handed down from a god, then anything that is on that list, no matter how atrocious, is viewed as 'moral.' Morality that comes from compassion, on the other hand, does not justify acts of atrocity. (I have actually written an essay about how morality as defined by organized religion has steered us wrong and let society down.)



Claim If you don't believe in a god, you have no reason to behave in a good or moral way. Atheists have no reason not to murder or rape or commit other immoral acts.
Fact Even without god, there are consequences for violent acts. Going to prison is a pretty good reason not to run around committing rape or murder, no matter what you believe or don't believe. No society can survive that permits its members to do these things; even an atheist society still outlaws rape and murder. More to the point, though, being an atheist does not mean being without compassion. In fact, if we look at the prison population in the United States, the vast, overwhelming majority of inmates--including violent inmates--identify as religious (primarily Christian), so clearly being religious does not guarantee moral behavior!
Commentary The people who argue that if there isn't a god, there is no reason not to commit murder are really scary. Basically, they are saying "I can not imagine having an internal sense of morality. The only reason that I am moral is I think I will get punished if I am not. If I believe that my god will let me get away with rape or murder, I'll do it." Those aren't folks I would trust with my silverware, my wallet, or my life.



Claim Atheists are arrogant.
Fact Atheism sees humanity as a part of the universe, not set above it. Atheists do not believe that human beings are the centerpiece of all creation; to call humanity the highest point of all the universe is extremely arrogant.
Commentary Many theists believe that the entire world--whose surface is 75% covered with water--was created specifically for man, who has no gills. To my ears, someone who says that the supernatural creator of the universe cares specifically about his life, even down to what job he works and what kind of car he drives, and that he can know what that creator wants from his fellow man, sounds pretty arrogant to me...



Claim Atheists are immoral III: Atheists just want to be free to commit immoral acts.
Fact Atheists don't believe that there is a god or gods. This has nothing at all to do with morality; many devoutly religious people commit grotesquely immoral acts, and many non-religious people are quite moral.
Commentary If a person wants to commit immoral acts, Christianity is actually a pretty good belief system to allow him to do so. Christianity teaches that the consequences of immoral acts are only temporary (after all, if you kill someone and he goes to heaven, he's not really gone--at least not forever) and that all it takes is prayer and repentance to wash away any immoral act. Atheists can not fall back on the idea that immorality is only temporary, that someone is not really dead after he has died, or that the right words spoken to someone in the sky will make the consequences of immorality go away.



Claim Atheism is based on faith I: Atheism is a religion.
Fact Atheism is a non-belief in a god or gods. This is a religion in the same way that not betting on horses is a form of gambling, not collecting stamps is a hobby, and bald is a hair color. If you don't believe that there is a god or gods, you're not practicing a religious belief.
Commentary The notion that atheism is a religion seems to be held primarily by folks who can not imagine not accepting the idea that the world is under the control of a god or some gods. A lack of belief in a god is not in any meaningful way a religion; there are no sacred objects, texts, or ideas in atheism, nor any of the cultural, doctrinal, social, or philosophical elements that are characteristic of a religion.



Claim Atheists are actually Muslim.
Fact Muslims believe in a divinity (the same dvinity as Christians and Jews, in fact) and believe that a man (Muhammad) was the prophet of that divinity. They also believe that a book attributed to Muhammad was directly inspired by that supernatural god. Atheists accept none of these things; ergo, by definition, atheists are not Muslim.
Commentary The idea that "atheists are actually Muslim" appears to have originated with a handful of American Fundamentalist Protestant sects. There is a convoluted rationale behind it, which starts with the notion that atheists do not actually not believe in god; in all honesty, though, it looks to my eyes like little more than an attempt to take one group of people who some folks feel justified in hating, Muslims, and turning this bigotry on another group of people, atheists, that they also wish to hate.



Claim Atheists are actually polytheists.
Fact A person who denies the existence of a supernatural entity of any sort most probably denies the existence of multiple supernatural entities.
Commentary The notion that atheists are polytheists appears to have originated with a conservative Muslim named Jaafar Sheikh Idris. It's the flip side of the "atheists are Muslim" argument; Islam tends to despise polytheism. The argument claims that science, evolutionary biology, and nature are revered and imbued with supernatural powers and abilities by atheists, and therefore atheists worship these things as gods. It's not clear where the church services are held...



Claim Atheism is based on faith II: Atheists have just as much faith that there is no god as believers have that there is.
Fact Even legendary atheist Richard Dawkins, in the book The God Delusion, says "There almost certainly is no god." Not "There definitely is no god," but "There almost certainly is no god."
Commentary There are atheists who assert that a god or gods definitely do not exist. Atheism, though, is defined by the lack of belief that a god or gods exist (an "atheist" is literally "not a theist"), which is not the same thing. Even theists feel confident asserting that a god or gods don't exist, as long as we're talking about a god or gods outside their belief system. Few folks would claim that it is a statement of faith to say that Apollo does not exist or Odin does not exist (or even that Santa Claus does not exist).



Claim Atheism is based on faith III: Atheists are closed-minded about god.
Fact Atheists believe that there is no evidence to believe that there is a god or gods, and that listening to people talk about a god or reading books presumed to be sacred do not qualify as "evidence." Not believing in something is not an act of faith. Faith lies in believing something without direct corroborating evidence; if I say there are invisible leprechauns in my garden, that's faith, but if I say there is no evidence to support the notion of invisible leprechauns at all, it's not.
Commentary One of the key difference between every atheist I've ever met and every believer I've ever met is about evidence. If you ask an atheist "Is there evidence that will convince you of the existence of a supernatural divine entity?" she will almost certainly say "Yes, there is," and probably even be able to spell out what that evidence would look like. If you ask a believer "Is there any evidence that would convince you that there is not a god?" the answer is almost always "No; I will continue to believe there is a god no matter what evidence to the contrary I see." That shows a huge difference between faith and atheism.



Claim Atheists are miserable, unhappy people.
Fact All the atheists I've met personally tend to be optimistic and filled with joy.
Commentary If we are fallen spiritual beings, then we can not be any more than what we are right now; if we are the natural result of natural law, then there's no upper limit to what we might become. Many religions teach that the world is something to be endured. For example, many Christians believe the world to be a burden that should be rejected, while many Buddhists see life as the result of undesirable attachment, and the goal of a spiritual path to be the end of attachment so that the cycle of rebirth is broken. These ideas inherently turn away from the world. Atheists see the world as an amazing, awe-inspiring, incredible, wonderful thing, filled with sublime beauty and working in intricate, subtle, and ultimately comprehensible ways. This is, I believe, a far more optimistic, and happier, view of the world.



Claim Atheists are angry at god.
Fact This makes as little sense as being angry at Santa Claus or the Keebler elves. It's hard to be angry at something you don't believe even exists!
Commentary I've met some atheists who are angry at being made to foot the bill for tax-exempt institutions that teach things which they see as destructive and harmful, or at the results of writing superstition into penal codes, or at the horrific human cost of the anti-intellectual, misogynistic, and homophobic ideas that permeate many religions, but anger at the machinery of institutional organized religion is not anger at god.



Claim Atheists are fat.
Fact In the US, there's a strong correlation between obesity and conservative parts of the country, with the most religious state in the US (Mississippi) also having the greatest per capita incidence of obesity. There's a great map to that effect here.
Commentary The notion that "atheists are fat" comes from Conservapedia...the same source which says that E=mC2 is a liberal plot.



Claim Atheists think that everything in the world came from nothing.
Fact The current model of cosmology is that everything in the universe came to be from a singularity whose total mass energy is that of the universe and whose size was less than the Planck constant, which is not "nothing."
Commentary Many, though of course not all, theists of various stripes reject scientific models of the physical world--regardless of any evidence supports those models. Unfortunately, the folks who reject those models tend not to understand them; so you get misunderstandings like this one and the one below.



Claim Atheists think that everything in the world came to be by random chance.
Fact Cosmology suggests that random fluctuations in the initial makeup of the universe were the seeds from which large-scale structures formed; evolutionary biology suggests that small random variation in individuals is the seed upon which natural selection works. However, the large-scale structures in the universe and the formation of different species of organism are both the result of NON-random forces, such as gravity and adaptation, working on those initial variations. The things we see around us are NOT the result of random chance; they are the result of forces which act to preserve certain kinds of variation, and so accumulate non-randomness over long periods of time.
Commentary As with the notion that atheists believe everything came from nothing, this particular misconception comes from a misunderstanding of principles of astronomy and evolutionary biology.



Claim Atheists are hateful. Atheists hate religious people.
Fact Atheists may hate the effects of organized religion on society--bans on stem-cell research, women being burned alive in rural Hindu areas if their parents don't pay sufficient dowries, women in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia being kept as virtual prisoners in their homes, and so on--but that's a different thing from hating people. When it comes to hating individuals, it's hard to beat fundamentalist theists, who will often proclaim all sorts of horrific torture and atrocity awaiting any person who does not accept their worldview. If atheists claimed that believers would be subject to eternal torture, it'd be easier to claim atheism as "hateful."
Commentary Imagine what would happen if an atheist were to make a claims about believers similar to the one that the former US president made of atheists: "No, I don't know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God." --George H. W. Bush, August 27, 1987.



Claim Atheists are like Hitler.
Fact In 1922, Hitler gave a speech in which he said, "My feeling as a Christian points me to my Lord and Saviour as a fighter. It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded by a few followers, recognized these Jews for what they were and summoned men to fight against them and who—God's truth!—was greatest not as a sufferer but as a fighter. In boundless love as a Christian and as a man I read through the passage which tells us how the Lord at last rose in His might and seized the scourge to drive out of the Temple the brood of vipers and adders." Upon his rise to power, Hitler banned atheist organizations throughout Germany. In the book Mein Kampf, he wrote "Hence today I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord."
Commentary "Hitler was an atheist" is a standard part of Christian trope in the US and parts of Western Europe, but it isn't true. That doesn't really matter, though. If the atrocities of Hitler (and other figures, such as Stalin and Pol Pot) can be laid at the feet of their supposed non-belief in the supernatural, then it seems reasonable to lay the atrocities of believers upon their belief in the supernatural. You can't have it both ways, saying that non-belief leads to atrocity but then excusing believers who commit atrocity by claiming that there's no association between their religious beliefs and the evil things they do.



Claim Atheists are sexist.
Fact Atheist activist organizations tend to have more men than women in them, but it's a chicken or egg problem. Many mainstream magazines aimed at women, like Ms. magazine, like to portray atheism as sexist, which discourages women who otherwise identify as atheist from coming out of the closet.
Commentary Given a world in which Orthodox Jews spit on, beat, and/or arrest women who want to worship at the Wailing Wall, Muslim countries in which honor killing is seen as acceptable, Hindo countries where women can be burned alive in "cooking accidents" if they displease their husbands, Catholic leaders who say that allowing women into the clergy is as immoral as child rape, and Baptists who say that the role of the woman is to submit gracefully to the divine authority of her husband, the claim that atheists are sexist is a bit...odd. There are misogynist atheists, to be sure, just like there are misogynist believers; the difference is that I have never seen a misogynist atheist who tries to set up organized systems that tell other people THEY should be misogynist, too!



Claim Atheists think that life has no meaning.
Fact Many atheists think that life has the meaning we give it, not the meaning that is imposed on us by a divinity.
Commentary "We exist to worship a divinity" is not, in my opinion much of a meaning, really.



Claim Atheists think that there is nothing beyond human understanding.
Fact There are many things that are still not understood. That's why scientists still have jobs, and haven't all packed up and gone home.
Commentary Many people feel a need to believe in something greater than human understanding; it's part of the drive toward everything from religious belief to belief in ghosts to belief in UFOs and alien abductions. The natural world is absolutely filled with beauty and wonder that's way beyond simple human stories about Sasquatch or space aliens, but I think that many people don't see that...which is a damn shame.



Claim Atheists are selfish.
Fact There is a strong correlation between secularism in a country and care for the poor. Secular Western nations like Sweden and the Netherlands consistently have better social programs, greater peace and stability, and a smaller division between the rich and poor as more religious nations. (Note, however, this assumes a nation that is secular because its citizens freely choose to be so, not a totalitarian nation whose dictators force atheism on people. Totalitarian nations tend not to be stable, peaceful, or prosperous, regardless of whether the dictators are religious theocrats or atheists.)
Commentary Many religious people claim that without a belief in a god or gods, there is no reason for altruism. Leaving aside the fact that all cooperative societies benefit from altruism, when we look in the United States we see that many secular charities exist, and that the largest donors to charity, men like Warren Buffett, tend to be non-religious. Also, religious charities often tend to use donated money for the promotion of religious values not necessarily directly connected to charity; the Salvation Army uses money to promote ideas opposing homosexuality, and the Mormon church has spent millions on TV ads against gay marriage, which is millions of dollars they do not have for charitable endeavors.



Claim Atheists don't recognize the good that religion does.
Fact On the contrary--atheists simply don't think that believing in a god or gods is necessary in order to DO the good that religion does.
Commentary Many religious folks credit religion for the good that is done in its name--for example, by saying that the good works of Catholic charities proves the goodness of god and of religion. Theses same folks, though, when asked about the atrocities perpetuated by religion, dismiss religious responsibility, saying things like "Those were just men claiming to do things in the name of religion, but the religion wasn't responsible for the evil they did." Again, you can't have it both ways. You can't credit religion with the good that people do in its name but dismiss the evil that people do in its name; either religion motivates people or it doesn't.


Comments

( 45 comments — Leave a comment )
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janetmiles
Mar. 9th, 2011 12:17 am (UTC)
This is a really nice summary. I do have one question, though, about the argument, "Atheists think that there is nothing beyond human understanding."

Would it be reasonable to say that atheists might believe that with enough time and research (where enough time may be many thousands or millions of years, assuming we don't kill ourselves off before then), all things could eventually be understood by humans?
tacit
Mar. 9th, 2011 12:20 am (UTC)
Depends on who you ask.

We do have finite brain power. If you look at dogs, say, which also have finite brain power, no dog will ever understand calculus--at least not at its native intelligence. I for one suspect there are probably things which are as inaccessible to us as calculus is to a dog; there are things which the limits of our finite intellectual capacity can't understand.

Unlike dogs, though, we have, at least in theory, the capacity to learn to extend our cognitive capabilities, through things like brain modeling in a computer, for instance. Given that, who knows? Now you get into a sticky definitional issue--if you give a dog the intelligence of a human, is it still a dog? Is an augmented human still human?
(no subject) - sweh - Mar. 9th, 2011 03:14 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - edwardmartiniii - Mar. 9th, 2011 12:51 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - red_girl_42 - Mar. 9th, 2011 02:48 am (UTC) - Expand
edwardmartiniii
Mar. 9th, 2011 12:51 am (UTC)
typo: "...whcih is a damn shame."
typo: "Thesesame folks"
tacit
Mar. 9th, 2011 01:25 am (UTC)
Fixed now, thanks!
(no subject) - datan0de - Mar. 9th, 2011 04:56 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - tacit - Mar. 9th, 2011 05:07 am (UTC) - Expand
chaos5023
Mar. 9th, 2011 12:55 am (UTC)
Wow. Pretty damn comprehensive. :)

Nit:

"Atheists think that life has the meaning we give it, not the meaning that is imposed on us by a divinity."

That's existentialism, not atheism. Admittedly the two do go together like chocolate and peanut butter, but there's nothing about an atheist position that necessarily compels an existentialist one.
tacit
Mar. 9th, 2011 01:27 am (UTC)
That's a good point; I've changed the wording on that one. :)
edwardmartiniii
Mar. 9th, 2011 12:57 am (UTC)
Hey man, Sasquatch is awesome. Just sayin'...

tacit
Mar. 9th, 2011 01:27 am (UTC)
So are the Keebler elves! No disrespect to either fictional entity is implied.
(Deleted comment)
red_girl_42
Mar. 9th, 2011 02:59 am (UTC)
Re: Atheists just want to be free to commit immoral acts
I think your friend's argument stems from an erroneous assumption. A person who quits their church because "it's too hard" is not necessarily an atheist. I would imagine such a person still believes in God, but no longer believes in the tenets of whatever organized religion they followed. This is not at all the same thing as atheism.
(Deleted comment)
tacit
Mar. 9th, 2011 02:08 am (UTC)
That's an excellent point, actually. I've reworded that part. Thanks! :)
(no subject) - catwoman980 - Mar. 9th, 2011 03:07 am (UTC) - Expand
(Deleted comment)
tacit
Mar. 9th, 2011 02:09 am (UTC)
Link isn't resolving for me at the moment.
(no subject) - datan0de - Mar. 9th, 2011 05:04 am (UTC) - Expand
zaiah
Mar. 9th, 2011 02:36 am (UTC)
Much of this post seems to be saying to me that 'Atheists are rationalists.' While it does seem that many rationalists ARE atheist the reverse does not hold. Many individuals who self-describe as atheist are just as swayed by magical thinking and Type I errors in decision making. They may reject the previous claims of god and religion but have not wholly rejected the mysticism or magical thinking. I saw this frequently at the University and have actually had to pull the 'you are treating your (or what you are calling) science as a belief system and a moral clause.' This point might not fit in your current essay, but bears mentioning. Just because an individual has rejected the idea of a god does not mean they have embraced rationalism. The human brain is still a tool of rationalizing not necessarily reasoning.
catwoman980
Mar. 9th, 2011 03:09 am (UTC)
I don't really think the post is saying Atheists are anything. It's merely pointing out some of the things they're not.

Another false claim to add to the list may be "Atheists are a monolith, and can be represented by a singular source or worldview."
(no subject) - zaiah - Mar. 9th, 2011 03:11 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - petite_lambda - Mar. 9th, 2011 11:26 am (UTC) - Expand
aztecknight
Mar. 9th, 2011 02:49 am (UTC)
I am curious if you have a fit for one of my key beliefs about God:

God is a multi dimensional being that pass through our dimension at various points. As a multi dimensional being, it appears different each time it passes through, just a a complex three dimensional object appears different ever time it passes through a two dimensional plain. It can not be explained in a three dimensional way.

Another key belief is that someday we will be able to understand this based on the advances in science we create. But that is a long time from now.

I also understand that there could be no God, god like being, or anything else beyond what we see. But since I see that there could be, I choose to believe in it.

Now if we are talking about what organized religion has done over the centuries, I can understand how that can make people into atheists.
the_xtina
Mar. 9th, 2011 05:46 am (UTC)
I also understand that there could be no God, god like being, or anything else beyond what we see. But since I see that there could be, I choose to believe in it.

Why?
(no subject) - aztecknight - Mar. 9th, 2011 06:37 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - the_xtina - Mar. 9th, 2011 08:23 am (UTC) - Expand
catwoman980
Mar. 9th, 2011 02:59 am (UTC)
I wrote a bit about the third claim, recently. It's not really written from an atheist perspective, mind you, so much as from the perspective that religious people should find those sorts of claims about morality abhorrent as well. Honestly, any decent person should reject the notion that they would rape/murder/do horrible things if only they could just get away with it.
red_girl_42
Mar. 9th, 2011 03:08 am (UTC)
I have had many Christians chastise me for generalizing about Christians. They are, after all, a VERY diverse group.

The only generalization anyone can make about atheists is that they do not believe in a god or gods. Beyond that, anything goes.

lovewithoutfear
Mar. 10th, 2011 04:58 am (UTC)
ICON LOVE, especially with Easter coming up
sweh
Mar. 9th, 2011 03:30 am (UTC)
Two comments:

1) I'm gonna guess alt.atheism is dead, but it's worth reviewing the old FAQ and maybe merging in and potentially updating answers based on that

2) "Claim Atheists are immoral II: Atheists can not have a framework of morality. Morality can only come from a god or gods.
Fact Religions do not set the standards of morality; they just reflect the moral ideas that people already have."

Who is the target audience for this? If it's an atheist then the whole thing is preaching to the converted (perverted?). If it's a religious type then this answer is failing to speak in the same language as the querent. You're stating as fact something contradictory to their belief system and then using that to justify why they are wrong. You might as well have answered "Fish".

Sorry for sounding negative, but this is a difficult thing to write properly; it's easy to write "confirming" statements to those who are already on the same path. It's harder to argue against the religious bigots (I use the word advisedly) because you have to frame the answer in a way that fits their underlying belief system; simple contradiction and redefinition fails to make any impact.
roguebaby
Mar. 9th, 2011 03:32 am (UTC)
yeah, I've never understood why I am supposed to have a carrot and a stick offered to me in relation to morality.
I think a lot of it boils down to "Don't be a douchbag"
(Deleted comment)
datan0de
Mar. 9th, 2011 07:51 pm (UTC)
"Although I do wonder if its easier to get laid as a Christian. "

This is purely anecdotal, but my experience is that no, it isn't easier to get laid as a Christian (unless you're a high ranking religious official, apparently). I say this despite the fact that I lost my virginity to the girl whose Catholic confirmation I was sponsoring. >:-)
6_bleen_7
Mar. 9th, 2011 04:26 am (UTC)
Very well said! I'll definitely bookmark this.

Re "Atheists are like Hitler": A useful work for exploring the "atheist Hitler" myth is The Holy Reich: Nazi Conceptions of Christianity, 1919-1945, by Richard Stiegmann-Gall. It supposes considerable knowledge of prewar Nazi Germany, and it's a reworked Ph.D. dissertation, so it's not light reading, but very informative.

Obligatory nitpick: The earth's surface is just under 71% water (about 66% by oceans and 5% by freshwater and salt lakes). A sea-level rise of 5 m would bring the coverage to almost exactly 75% (probably assuming total lake volume doesn't change).
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