Attack of the Angry Atheists!

Some years ago, I attended a lecture by conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza. He began by asking why atheists care about religion. No one goes around complaining about those who believe in unicorns or mermaids, he said, so why should an atheist complain about theists? Theists and atheists should be allowed their separate viewpoints so that everyone’s happy.

The proper place for religion in society

Atheists are annoyed, and yet they have no reason to be, right?

Wrong. But before I get into that, let me briefly summarize the religious aspects of American society that I’m happy with. It’s okay to hand out leaflets in public places (not government buildings or schools—I’m referring to parks or sidewalks) or proselytize from a soapbox. Free speech is great. We all have to put up with hearing stuff we don’t want to, but the good (each of us getting the same rights) outweighs the bad. Churches are fine. I have no problem with someone saying “Merry Christmas” or religious displays on private property. These are all guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The problem

But I do draw a line, so let me summarize some of the things that concern me. I don’t like the tax support for churches ($71 billion in lost taxes each year in the U.S. because church donations are tax deductible). That’s tax money that the rest of us have to make up. I don’t like that all nonprofits’ financial records are available for public scrutiny except those of churches and ministries.

I don’t like “In God We Trust” as my country’s new motto (that change was made about 50 years ago) or on my money. I don’t like “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance (also added about 50 years ago). I don’t like the idea of the Ten Commandments displayed on government property, and I don’t like prayers opening government events like city council meetings.

I don’t like that “I’m more religious than you are” seems to be an important claim to make in politics. In 2002, the Senate passed a resolution in favor of “under God” in the Pledge when that phrase was under attack in the court system. The senators then made a pompous photo op on the Capital steps to demonstrate the God-pleasing (or voter-pleasing?) manner with which they could say the Pledge with “under God.” Even Democrats need to make public pilgrimages to churches to prove their godly credentials.

I don’t like revisionist historians claiming that this country was founded as a Christian nation (an empty argument given the clearly secular nature of the Constitution).

I don’t like religion clouding policy decisions. President Bush reportedly said in 2003, “I’m driven with a mission from God. God would tell me, George, go and fight those terrorists in Afghanistan. And I did, and then God would tell me, George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq … And I did.”

Why is it that if Bush had said, “Poseidon told me to end the tyranny in Iraq,” he would be laughed at, but when he refers to God, it’s okay? I know the answer, of course—it’s because most of the people he’s talking to are comfortable with the idea of God—but is reason a majority-rules kind of thing?

Political lobbyists of any kind can be a problem, of course, but I don’t like the special influence of religious leaders (James Dobson, Pat Robertson, etc.).

I don’t like that policy questions like abortion, gay marriage, and stem cell research are partly driven by religious concerns. I don’t like religion in the form of Intelligent Design masquerading as science in the science classroom. Despite the Dover decision, ID will doubtless reappear, like a hydra.

I don’t like that children are indoctrinated into religion when they’re young and defenseless. I’d like to see religion treated as an adult issue, like cigarettes, sex, or alcohol—something that you can get involved with if you choose, but only after you’re mature enough to weigh the issue properly. Adults are very good at justifying beliefs they arrived at through poor reasoning—that’s why adults from a myriad of religions can each argue with a straight face that theirs is the one true religion. And, of course, this explains why religion must maintain access to children’s minds: their market share would plummet without it.

I don’t like people using religion as a proxy for moral behavior. For example, you’ve probably heard about the survey that ranks atheists as the least trustworthy minority in America.

For more reasons why atheists have a right to be angry, see Greta Christina’s list.

D’Souza is right about one thing—no one complains about belief in unicorns or mermaids. That’s because those beliefs don’t cause harm in society. Contrast that with Christianity.

Properly read, the Bible is the most potent force
for atheism ever conceived.
— Isaac Asimov

Photo credit: Dan Santat

About Bob Seidensticker
  • kcthomas

    According to some atheists ,parents have no right to tell the children about ‘right” and “wrong” as the parents’ conception of what is right and what is wrong is not acceptable to atheists. Sincerely speaking such arguments will not carry us anywhere. When the whole philosophy is different for atheists and theists, what is the remedy ? Violence, hatred ? No civilized person will agree. So let us have tolerance, love, compassion and understanding OTHERS.

  • sane37

    There are many people who don’t care for criminal penalties for underage drinking, smoking or sex, but who would refrain from promoting or encouraging children to participate in such activities.

    Children are too easily manipulated as their minds are still forming, hence the tendency to protect them from such things by good people.

    Make more sense now?

    • Rick

      If you are equating these things with teaching kids about right and wrong in the context of a religious environment, then no, it makes no more sense now. You haven’t specified how teaching moral principles equates to treating the items in the original blog post as “an adult issue.”

      • sane37

        moral principles are not equal to religious ideology.
        some religious ideology can be moral, but religious ideology and belief are not automatically moral.

        Morality is independent of your religion.

        • Rick

          1) No one said moral principles are equal to religious ideology, nor has anyone said that “religious ideology and belief are … automatically moral.

          2) I’m sure your morality is separate from my beliefs about religion. My morality isn’t.

          Not sure what point you are trying to make with these strawman arguments.

        • sane37

          no strawman.
          Just saying that morality is does not have to depend on religion. It exists regardless.

        • Rick

          Thanks for the clarification. It isn’t what you said originally. I agree that there are some who hold moral principles who are not outwardly religious. Beyond that, your statement is a statement of opinion, not objective fact. Where the morality comes from is open to interpretation.

        • sane37

          Morality comes from the fact that Humans are social animals. In order to survive we have to work together. This requires a moral code.

          Religious is based in the mind only. By faith.
          It is secondary to Human survival.

          Monkeys do not appear to have gods because there is no need for them for day to day survival. They do, however, have to work together to survive.

          I am glad that as a species we have the luxury of inventing gods to comfort ourselves rather than scraping for mere existence.

        • Rick

          You’ve made some assertions without basis. These are your opinions, and you are welcome to hold them. But stating them with the certainty that you do suggests you have an evidence-based position. I don’t think you do.

          An alternate possibility is that there really is a God who created a universe with order and a special class of creatures capable of morality not found in monkeys.

          I’m glad that as a species, we have the ability to reason and discuss these things. But I don’t think that ability is accidental. That is an opinion, to be sure.

          Consider one of many data points. We see all manner examples of apparent design–of order that is too complex to be explained by any naturalistic means. The range of these examples spans from astronomy to biology to chemistry and microbiology. To me, that evidence is stronger than the opinions you have provided, so my faith seems to be in an object far more worthy of faith than the absence of design in which you trust.

          Faith is dependable only as the object of that faith is shown to be worthy of trust. We all trust in some origin narrative. I don’t see yours as reasonable.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          DNA alone defeats the Design Hypothesis. There may well be a cosmic Designer, but DNA does not look like what a designer would design–far too sloppy. More here–though you’ve probably already read and dismissed this.

        • Rick

          DNA does nothing of the kind. From the most “wordy” DNA coding to the most elegantly simple as we would describe it, every organism contains functioning DNA that works to make that organism a complete system of systems.

          Just because you have imposed a set of totally arbitrary criteria concerning DNA volume does not make that the test of whether it is designed. I find your C Enigma argument totally unconvincing. A Model T looks clunky by today’s standards, but no one mistakes it for a random happenstance.

          DNA is far more complex in every single organism than any computer program we have designed with all our prowess. And as a software coder, you know this to be true. You just resist the logical conclusion.

        • Kodie

          You can’t claim god is perfect if you are making excuses. A designer, but a shitty one?

        • Rick

          Gosh, Kodie. That wasn’t my claim. It is Bob’s claim that the designer is a poor one. I’m making the opposite claim.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          Not really. I’m saying that, knowing designers as we do, we do not see the hand of a designer in DNA. I’m not saying that we see a poor designer; I’m saying that the Design Hypothesis is busted.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          every organism contains functioning DNA that works to make that organism a complete system of systems.

          Yes, every organism contains working DNA. No, that’s not what we’re talking about.

          Just because you have imposed a set of totally arbitrary criteria concerning DNA volume does not make that the test of whether it is designed.

          Nope, not arbitrary but rather demanded. Don’t blame me for making up the Design Hypothesis–that demands that this hypothesized creator be a designer. OK, so what criteria do designers follow? Low cost, high strength, beauty, durability, and so on are possible criteria that designers in a thousand different fields might impose.

          Your challenge: show me one field of design where junk is deliberately added. I’m not talking about trash that’s not cleaned up at the job site. I’m not talking about one man’s beautiful decoration being another man’s junk. I’m talking about a designer deliberately adding junk.

          I find your C Enigma argument totally unconvincing.

          While you’re being unconvinced about the all-wise Designer creating amoebas with 200× the DNA that humans have, don’t forget to be unconvinced as well about pseudogenes, endogenous retroviruses, atavism, and vestigial structures.

          (This is the topic of Wednesday’s post.)

          DNA is far more complex in every single organism than any computer program we have designed with all our prowess.

          DNA is a Rube Goldberg machine. It makes our all-wise designer look like a mad scientist.

          And as a software coder, you know this to be true. You just resist the logical conclusion.

          You mean: Ain’t nature marvelous? Got it.

        • Rick

          Don’t blame me for making up the Design Hypothesis–that demands that this hypothesized creator be a designer. OK, so what criteria do designers follow? Low cost, high strength, beauty, durability, and so on are possible criteria that designers in a thousand different fields might impose.

          Where is it written that your estimation of “Low cost, high strength, beauty, durability, and so on” are the criteria by which we judge whether or not something is designed? I don’t see a citation that makes your judgment the end of the road on that subject.

          Vestigial structures are pretty much a non-argument. They have been shown to have functions. You can trot out some examples that may not have been addressed yet, in all likelihood. But the major ones have functions in humans and the rest seem to me to be grasping at straws.

          DNA is a Rube Goldberg machine. It makes our all-wise designer look like a mad scientist.

          I guess that’s in the eye of the beholder. Looks like a lot of beautifully functioning organisms to me.

          We just spent a few days scuba diving. Lots of unique creatures. All seemed to work just fine with the DNA they were issued. Can you say the same for any carefully designed software we humans have ever produced?

          Yet we would scoff at anyone saying the far less complex software just happened by accidents of mutation in copying and natural selection of the variants that worked with greater complexity. Why is it different for DNA? When I made a mistake programming in my computer classes years ago, all I got was an error message. Nothing worked.

          Kind of like evolution by random mutation. Can’t work to increase information complexity. The emperor has no clothes, as usual. You have no evidence to the contrary. Show me one case where information content can be shown to have increased in complexity, (and I won’t accept the long discredited bacteria argument—they are still bacteria which favor the variant not attacked by the drug in question—a loss of complexity, not a gain.)

          All of this is far afield from my original point, which was that sane37 made some assertions about what he believed to be true as if they were proven facts. You are now doing the same thing, of course. We need to be more circumspect about what we know versus what we believe to be likely. That was my point. Strongly asserting a point of view shouldn’t take the place of reasoned discussion nor for cogent arguments.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          Where is it written that your estimation of “Low cost, high strength, beauty, durability, and so on” are the criteria by which we judge whether or not something is designed? I don’t see a citation that makes your judgment the end of the road on that subject.

          Seems obvious to me. But, hey—maybe I missed something. Aside from “You’re wrong!” I didn’t get anything that would show us how you would spot the hand of a designer in something. You just going to keep that secret or do we have to pay or what?

          Vestigial structures are pretty much a non-argument. They have been shown to have functions.

          No one said they didn’t have functions. I just said that they were vestigial—they no longer have their original function.

          Yes, they’re an argument.

          You can trot out some examples that may not have been addressed yet

          I’ve addressed this more thoroughly in Wednesday’s post, but for DNA, there are a handful of categories, not dozens.

          I guess that’s in the eye of the beholder. Looks like a lot of beautifully functioning organisms to me.

          I can marvel at the intricacy of a Rube Goldberg machine as well. Complexity can be marvelous. I think, though, that simplicity might be more what we’d expect from an omniscient designer.

          All seemed to work just fine with the DNA they were issued.

          Wow—I acknowledged that in the last comment and showed where the actual question is. Are we going to move forward, or are you just going to keep repeating your opening arguments?

          Can you say the same for any carefully designed software we humans have ever produced?

          Huh? DNA is just like human software in this regard—works pretty well but not perfectly.

          “Over 4000 human diseases are caused by single gene defects.” More here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genetic_illness.

          Yet we would scoff at anyone saying the far less complex software just happened by accidents of mutation in copying and natural selection of the variants that worked with greater complexity.

          And software can evolve. The result is a hideous mess (from the human standpoint). Two very different approaches. I’d imagine that there are lots of similarities between sloppy DNA and sloppy evolved software (again: from the human standpoint).

          When I made a mistake programming in my computer classes years ago, all I got was an error message. Nothing worked.

          Then maybe you’ve forgotten. There are a lot more options than “It works” and “It works as good an empty program—that is, it doesn’t do a single thing.”

          Can’t work to increase information complexity. The emperor has no clothes, as usual.

          Right. Except that the people who actually understand this stuff (that is, not you or me) explain in a couple of sentences how well-understood mutations can produce new information. I think I’ll go with the experts.

          Show me one case where information content can be shown to have increased in complexity

          I imagine I don’t understand the question. You can have base pair B. Then a mutation happens and it gets doubled: BB. Then one of the base pairs gets mutated: BC. New information. More complexity.

          sane37 made some assertions about what he believed to be true as if they were proven facts. You are now doing the same thing, of course.

          Of course! But you’ll have to remind me what I’m asserting as fact that isn’t fact. I missed it.

      • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

        I forget the post now, but you’d commented some weeks back about the burden put on school kids in public school. Something about it being an atheistic view? Or that the secular schools were unfair to Christians? Something like that.

        Sorry that I can’t remember the post, but I replied to you and didn’t receive a reply. If you’re still interested in that topic (and remember the post), I’d be interested in your response.

  • RichardSRussell

    Morality, as a matter of opinion, is always relative and context-sensitive.

    For example, it’s often been remarked that, if men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.

    Similarly, if we’d evolved from mantises instead of apes, it would be immoral not to eat your husband’s head off after sex.


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