Setting the Record Straight

Allow me to be absolutely clear about this:

I am an atheist. That means I do not believe in any gods. I am not just an “aYahwehist”, lacking belief only in the god of the ancient Hebrews, or an “anAllahist”, lacking belief only in the god of the Muslims. The set of gods in which I do not believe is not limited to the anthropomorphic ones that look and act like humans, nor is it limited to the set of gods believed in by fundamentalists who take literally every word of their respective scriptures, nor is it limited to gods invented in the 20th century or after. The set of gods in which I do not believe includes all gods, of whatever description, that are, ever have been, or ever might be imagined by human beings. I treat them all alike, and disbelieve in them all equally. Unless some substantial evidence for any particular one of them is discovered, I consider them all equally unproven, and equally probable not to exist.

I bring this up because the Newsweek/Washington Post blog On Faith has recently seen a conversation in which four separate and prominent theist columnists made exactly the same mistake: assuming that the only god in which atheists disbelieve is the anthropomorphic, fundamentalist type of deity whose followers have been experiencing a resurgence in the past few decades, or that atheism exists solely as a response to this movement.

Here follow the contenders for the hall of shame. Anglican bishop Nicholas Wright:

…fervent Christian belief has often been associated in recent years with a particular kind of politics, and atheism has looked increasingly an attractive option if belief looks as if it’s driving you towards neo-conservative political beliefs… I suspect there have been quite a few who have been only too happy to make the equation between belief and neo-conservatism and to be happy about rejecting both, and at the same time.

Columnist Zalman Schachter-Shalomi:

One of the reasons that atheism is on the rise is because the notions that people have about God are primitive and backward.

…Once it happened that I attended a session led by a teacher who said: “My son asked me if there was a God. I told him that there was no God and he was relieved”. He turned to me with a challenge waiting for me to refute him. I just said: “Sir! The God you do not believe in I do not believe in either.”

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz:

What happened in more recent years is that the growth of religious fundamentalism created a counter-reaction in the U.S., a strengthening of trends and ideas – many of them quite old ideas – that have become, in certain groups, a la mode.

Episcopal bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori:

I would want to begin any such conversation by asking, “tell me about what kind of God you don’t believe in.” There are lots of varieties of divinity in which I don’t believe, either.

The current vogue in atheism, if real, has a lot to do with the diminished understandings of God promulgated by some believers.

Can we please get this straight? Atheists do not believe in any gods. It is not just the “old man with white beard sitting on cloud throwing lightning bolts” god in which we disbelieve (the silliness of which, as Richard Dawkins brilliantly points out, is brought up usually to distract from the fact that “what the speaker really believes is not a whole lot less silly”). We also disbelieve in gods that are held to be pure love, pure beauty, pure wisdom, or whatever other concept is currently in vogue among theologians. Both those types of gods are equally unsupported by evidence and equally improbable. (Concepts such as love and beauty certainly exist, but I do not think the believers who speak of God in those terms mean to imply that God is simply a concept, which is an idea that atheists could certainly agree with.)

Nor are we atheists solely because of the “diminished understandings” of God propagated by fundamentalists. Schori, Wright and their fellow columnists do not have any more evidence for their conception of God than the fundamentalists have for theirs, and that is why we are atheists – the continuing and pervasive inability of any theist to offer convincing evidence for the existence of whatever supernatural being they believe in.

To the people in this article and others, allow me to assure you that I am not an atheist just because of the loathsome conceptions of God perpetuated by fundamentalists. You can take my word for that. I am well aware of the less bloodthirsty, less anthropomorphic, more loving, more compassionate versions of God you promote. I do not believe in those either. They all fail on the same points: the question of why we do not see clear evidence for such a being; the question of why that being would not act to prevent evil and human suffering; the question of why there is so much religious confusion, disagreement, and schism; and many more.

I suspect that these people’s confusion stems from one basic, important point: although atheists do not exist solely as a reaction to fundamentalists, their increasing power in recent years has given additional importance to our cause and made it far more important to stand up and speak out against the evils inevitably caused by untrammeled, dogmatic faith. The continuing threat of Islamic terrorism, the rise of theocratic Christian nationalism, the bloodshed and suffering caused all around the world by false beliefs – all these threats to humanity’s existence and well-being have inspired many atheists (including this one) to come out of the closet and offer a dissenting voice of reason. Seeing the freethought movement arise and gain strength in response to the dangers of fundamentalism, some believers have erroneously concluded that it was caused by fundamentalism. In fact, we have been here all along (as books like Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers chronicle).

To these believers and others who would make the same argument, I have this to say: If you think that we are atheists only because we are unaware of your conception of God (an argument, ironically, that many fundamentalists make also), then make your case. Present your version of God and explain why it offers superior reasons to believe than other versions, and we will consider it fairly, as we always have done. I do not think it will possess any better evidence in its favor than the many others I have seen, but this is your chance to convince me otherwise. And more importantly, if you dislike fundamentalists’ giving your faith a bad name, then fight back against them. The world is in very real danger right now due to their excesses. If you dislike atheists pointing that out, then work with us to end this threat and set the human race back on a path of sanity.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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