A few months ago a Christian blogger at Patheos offered up a list of cliches that Christians should avoid and it’s a pretty good list (including an earlier list and a later one as well). It inspired me to come up with a similar, though smaller, list of cliches and arguments that I hear often from atheists and I wish would stop.
1. Everyone is born an atheist, you have to learn to be religious. Just stop it. A baby is an atheist in the same sense that a tree or a golf ball is an atheist, because they’re capable of forming any opinion at all on the subject.
2. The Founding Fathers were all deists. Wrong. Even by a very broad definition of that word, only a handful of them were deists; by a narrower definition (someone who believes in a non-intervening, watchmaker deity), almost none of them were. The majority were more or less orthodox Christians. The leading lights among them — Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Franklin — are more accurately called theistic rationalists.
3. The Bible is worthless or bullshit or just a bunch of lies or some similar out-of-hand dismissal. No it isn’t. Even if the God of the Bible doesn’t exist and even if Jesus was not the son of God (both of which I think are true), the Bible is still a very important historical text. Even if it contains many mythologized events and inaccurate history (and it does), it’s still an important record of a society that did exist and interacted with other societies around them. It still tells us a great deal about life in the Ancient Near East. And even if Jesus was only a man, many of the ideas attributed to him are valid and even beautiful. Even as an atheist, I find Jesus’ words that “what you do to the least of my brethren, you do unto me also” to be a beautiful expression of human compassion.
4. Religion is just a way of controlling people. While it’s certainly true that religion is a powerful form of social control, long used by those who rule society to keep the rabble in line, that isn’t the only reason why religion was created, still exists or is found to be useful. Religion was not just a means of controlling people, it was also our first attempt to explain the world around us (why did the river flood and destroy our home? The rain god must be angry with us). And surely one of the reasons it persists is because it provides a system of social support and a sense of community for people. Atheists should not be oversimplifying like this.
5. Religion poisons everything. That was, of course, the subtitle to Christopher Hitchens’ book God is Not Great, but it is another absurd oversimplification. I had another atheist repeat that exact phrase to me a few weeks ago and I asked him to please explain how religion poisons, or even diminishes, the genius of Johann Sebastian Bach’s many compositions with a Christian theme (he wrote secular music as well, of course, but they are surely not “less poisoned” somehow than his religious works). Or how religion poisons Michelangelo’s painting of the Sistine Chapel. He had no answer, nor is there any coherent one.
Certainly if you want to argue that religion has motivated many horrible things, I will gladly join you; I write about such things every day. But it has also motivated extraordinary kindness and compassion. I know many good religious people who have sacrificed a great deal to help others with very little reward. They run homeless shelters (and no, not all of them try to proselytize in the process) and soup kitchens, they work to end gang violence, they fight tooth and nail for the rights of LGBT people, they risk their lives in war-torn areas to help refugees. And let’s not casually dismiss their reasons for doing so; many of them do it because they sincerely believe, as Bishop Tutu told me personally a few years ago, that that is what Jesus would do if he were here.