Correcting the Atheist Myths

Greta Christina says that when Sam Harris wrote about the myths and truths of atheism a couple years ago, he spent a lot of time attacking religion.

Don’t get me wrong — I think religion deserves criticism. But here, I think it’s inappropriate. If you’re writing a piece saying, “Here’s who we are and why the myths about us are incorrect,” you shouldn’t go off on a “here’s why the rest of you are losers” tangent. It’s not persuasive … and it’s seriously off-topic.

Now, she has created her own list.

My favorite item is this:

7: Atheists are arguing with straw men: they criticize the ugliest, stupidest, most simplistic, most outdated versions of religion and ignore the thoughtful, complex forms of serious modern theology.

First, this isn’t true. Many atheists have read serious theology. I was a religion major in college: OK, 25 years ago, but a lot of it stuck. And I’ve read more since becoming an atheist blogger. As have other atheist writers. But second, and more to the point: So what?

Most atheists don’t give a rat’s ass about religion as it’s practiced by a handful of theologians. We care about religion as it’s widely practiced in the real world. And that includes many versions of religion that are outdated, simplistic, stupid and ugly … and richly deserving of criticism.

You can see the full list here.

(via Greta Christina’s Blog)

  • http://toomanytribbles.blogspot.com/ toomanytribbles

    the ‘thoughtful, complex forms of serious modern theology’ is what’s left of a superstition that is being perpetually beaten back by science and enlightenment.

  • Pingback: 10 Myths and Truths About Atheists « Cinephage

  • mikespeir

    Most atheists don’t give a rat’s ass about religion as it’s practiced by a handful of theologians.

    Exactly. And neither do most theists.

  • Richard Wade

    You are what you do, not what you say you are. If you behave most often stupidly and brutally, then you are a stupid brute, despite how much you say you’re wise and gentle.

    So too is a religion what its practitioners actually do, rather than what some ivory tower theologians say it is. Look to the actual behavior of a person to characterize him, and look to the actual application of an idea to assess its value. Does the idea look good on paper but mainly produces suffering and strife when applied in the real world? Hmm. Guess it’s not such a good idea after all.

  • http://yangandcampion.googlepages.com margaret y.

    Greta Christina’s points are well said. Thank you for sharing this. I have been looking for a succint set of replies to certain theists’ assumptions and here they are.

  • Miko

    We have George H. Smith and we have Sam Harris. I’d say we’re arguing on both fronts.

  • GullWatcher

    Most atheists don’t give a rat’s ass about religion as it’s practiced by a handful of theologians.

    Actually, a lot of atheists don’t give a rat’s ass about religion, period. Or at least not about its philosophical underpinnings. I’ve never really understood those who do, those who read enough religious books and theology to successfully argue their points on a theologian’s own turf. I’m glad they can do it, but I don’t really understand the fascination. It’s always seemed a bit unhealthy, like the fairly common fascination (among the general public) with serial killers.

    So, I’m wondering – is this a sort of cultural difference between atheists that were raised with religion and who overcame it, versus those raised without much religion? Or is it just a random personal preference?

  • Aj

    A theologian will only increase the obscurity, the logical consistancy, the compatibility with our current scientific knowledge. That still leaves them plenty of room for dopey, dangerous, harmful beliefs. “Thoughtful”, “serious”, and “modern” aren’t words I would apply to theology.

    Even the most absurd beliefs, like creationism, can be logically consistant with the evidence, if you don’t apply reason, especially Occam’s razor, to the premises. A god who is all powerful could place everything as if evolution happened without requiring it did. Others would say “that’s not a god I can believe in”, but that’s as much wishthinking as the god who hides bones for us to find.

    The only protection we have from those theologians that say that hurricanes were caused by gay people or abortion, is from rationality, our reason and skepticism. Irrationality: faith, superstition, religion cannot argue against other forms because they rely on the same foundations.

  • http://noadi.blogspot.com Noadi

    The few serious thoughtful theologians I’ve talked to also aren’t incredibly religious. I’d consider most of them deists which is a position I can respect even if I don’t believe in it.

    The issue is of course these people are the minority even among theologians who often just couch the nastiness of their religion in fancier words and justifications. Of course I agree with Sam Harris, religion as it’s practiced by the majority of its followers is more important than what a handful of theologians say.

  • Pseudonym
  • Pseudonym

    OK, let me expand on that. Greta said:

    Most atheists don’t give a rat’s ass about religion as it’s practiced by a handful of theologians. We care about religion as it’s widely practiced in the real world.

    That’s what many atheists say. But many atheists act as if they don’t give a rat’s arse about religion as it’s widely practiced in the real world, but rather as it’s practiced by a bunch of nutters pretty much confined to the US “Bible Belt” and some bits of the Middle East.

    Yes, such people do exert a disproportionate influence. I’m aware of this, and I also find it troubling. It’s largely an accident of history that Wahhabism happened to be dominant where oil was found, and that US-style Evangelicalism happened to occur in a nation that would later become millitarily and financially dominant.

    Nonetheless, this is a very small part of the “real world”.

  • inkadu

    Dawkins makes the point that faith itself is bad, whether it makes you a conservative bible thumper or a soup kitchen worker. Or, rather, whether you use “faith” as an excuse to confirm your pre-existing bias. It’s not a surprise that conservative churches are in the south, and liberal ones are in Massachussets. It’s not the religion, it’s the culture it comes from. As such, I think we should probably cut religion some slack as a causative factor (for good or ill).

    BTW – The “modern sophisticated” theology has been coined “the courtier’s reply” by PZ. I’m not sure of the origin, but I assume that you can call someone a whore or a courtier, it amounts to the same thing.

    And atheists that quote chapter and verse usually do come out of the religious traditions they are attacking. I do think it’s handy to point out the internal inconsistencies of a religion, but none of those details really matter if you’re trying to establish the existence/non-existence of God.

    Also — Catholics! Maybe you can answer me this: If you can’t recite the Nicene Creed in good faith, what the hell kind of Catholic are you? I know that if I went into a Catholic Church and said, “I don’t believe in the Virgin Birth, I don’t believe that Jesus is the son of God, I don’t believe in the ressurection, and I don’t believe confessing sins clears my soul, I don’t believe in the after life, etc,” that the priest would gently show me the door (or invite me to stay and see if I change my mind.)

    Now imagine that I said all that, then concluded with, “And I’m a Jesuit theologian who has studied for 30 years in the Vatican.” I’d probably be treated to a fine dinner and invited to give the sermon on Sunday.

  • http://deeplyblasphemous.blogspot.com Chris Bradley

    Yeah, one of the things that militized me against religion was the understanding that the fundie fringe wasn’t a fringe – that it was the face of American religion.

    I mean, who are these Christians who keep coming into statehouse after statehouse and trying to sell intelligent design? Who are marching in front of abortion clinics? Oh, sure, some religious folks get together for interfaith conferences to work together, but it’s evident to any modern American that fundamentalist religion has a huge and immediate power in our society, and a lot of other societies, too.

    Maybe if religious folks cleaned up their fundamentalist messes before they got to the statehouse to repeatedly and frivolously attack science, or managed to keep fundie nutjobs out of, say, the Presidency of the US or things like that, it might be believable that atheists were attacking a straw man. But given the easily demonstrated power and authority of fundamentalist religion in very many levels of US society, the idea that atheists can’t attack religion through fundamentalism is absurd.

  • http://mattstone.blogs.com Matt Stone

    In my experience that comment no 7 is largely true. As with Pseudonym I find “…many atheists act as if they don’t give a rat’s arse about religion as it’s widely practiced in the real world, but rather as it’s practiced by a bunch of nutters pretty much confined to the US “Bible Belt” and some bits of the Middle East.” Small world syndrome. The world is bigger, America is bigger.

  • Aj

    If you think that Christian Fundamentalism in the United States, and Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia, is the pinnacle and mostly the extent of religious harm, then who exactly is suffering from small world syndrome? Give me a break, blaming atheists for your ignorance is not our problem, it’s not like there aren’t books, websites, and podcasts that cover this.

    Religion is a large part of many cultures. As Steven Weinberg once said:

    With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.

    People do try to justify their own feelings with religious authority, of god, holy books, and prophets. Yet religions are certainly not contentless, they often contain very harmful ideas that are not related to the culture of the people. You cannot deny religious influence, its causal nature, it is not a proxy for other things. If children are coerced, indoctrinated, and persauded that a holy book, or a person, has authority, then what they say clearly matters.

  • Alfred

    you shouldn’t go off on a “here’s why the rest of you are losers” tangent.

    I re-read Harris’ piece and distinctly didn’t read this comment or anything like it. Talk about straw men…

    I’m always amazed at the irony of the self-identified “positive” atheists who constantly turn around and attack the likes of Harris and Dawkins. Why? Because they dare hold religion up to scrutiny and point out its flaws. Welcome to the scientific world-view friends. If you want positively assert atheist views then do so, it is a valuable thing, but what Harris and Dawkins do has value too. And don’t put words in their mouths, natch.

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    But many atheists act as if they don’t give a rat’s arse about religion as it’s widely practiced in the real world, but rather as it’s practiced by a bunch of nutters pretty much confined to the US “Bible Belt” and some bits of the Middle East.

    I’m sorry, but I just don’t think that’s true. The harmful influence of religion is very widespread. Just in the U.S., it affects public policy on LGBT rights (including but not limited to same- sex marriage), sex education, science education, stem cell research… I could go on and on.

    And it’s not just public policy. Thousands of atheists — heck, thousands of believers who question conventional religion — can tell you horrible stories about being twisted and traumatized by religion. Children being taught to hate their bodies. Children being taught that people who are different are evil. Women in abusive marriages being counseled to stay with their husbands because marriage is forever. Sick people being told that they’re just not praying hard enough, or their faith isn’t strong enough, and that their sickness is their fault. Etc.

    Religious extremism is not confined to a handful of nutters. And the harm being done by religion is not confined to religious extremism.

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    I re-read Harris’ piece and distinctly didn’t read this comment or anything like it. Talk about straw men…

    Not a straw man. Here are a few samples of what I’m talking about. From Harris’s piece:

    “On the contrary, religious people often worry that life is meaningless and imagine that it can only be redeemed by the promise of eternal happiness beyond the grave.”

    “An atheist is simply a person who has considered this claim, read the books and found the claim to be ridiculous.” (Emphasis on the word “ridiculous” — unnecessary snark, IMO “mistaken” or “implausible” would have gotten the idea across just as well.)

    “Pretending to know things one doesn’t know is a profound liability in science. And yet it is the life-blood of faith-based religion. One of the monumental ironies of religious discourse can be found in the frequency with which people of faith praise themselves for their humility, while claiming to know facts about cosmology, chemistry and biology that no scientist knows.”

    I’m always amazed at the irony of the self-identified “positive” atheists who constantly turn around and attack the likes of Harris and Dawkins. Why? Because they dare hold religion up to scrutiny and point out its flaws.

    You haven’t read much of my writing, have you? :-)

    I love to criticize religion. I do it all the time. My most famous piece is a 4,650 word rant on why atheists are angry. In fact, I even said in this very piece, “I think religion deserves criticism.” And for the record, I like both Dawkins and Harris. I don’t agree with every word they’ve ever written, but I like them.

    My point about Harris was not “That Sam Harris is a big meanie for criticizing religion.” My point, simply and entirely, was, “I don’t think criticism of religion was appropriate in this particular piece.” In a piece whose purpose is to explain and defend atheism, I think it’s a distraction.

  • Aj

    Those quotes don’t demonstrate your point, it’s clearly an exaggeration. Unnecessary tangents they maybe, but I wouldn’t compare it to calling people “losers”, that surely is a strawman. Are these seriously the best of the examples?

    “An atheist is simply a person who has considered this claim, read the books and found the claim to be ridiculous.” (Emphasis on the word “ridiculous” — unnecessary snark, IMO “mistaken” or “implausible” would have gotten the idea across just as well.)

    He meant “ridiculous”, he used “ridiculous”, he did not use “mistaken” or implausible”, and we both would not have read the same meaning if he had because clearly you wouldn’t have a problem with it. It’s not even a criticism of religion, it’s a description of a common reaction.

  • Pseudonym

    Greta:

    I’m sorry, but I just don’t think that’s true. The harmful influence of religion is very widespread.

    I understand why you say this. You must understand that being outside the United States as I am, I don’t see this “harmful influence”.

    With a couple of exceptions (same-sex marriage being the most obvious one), they do seem to be largely associated with US evangelicalism. I simply don’t see Methodists opposing science education or Hindus opposing stem cell research.

    And, living outside the United States as I do, I see very little of this. OK, Australia has a Roman Catholic Prime Minister at the moment, and he is against same-sex marriage (though I have to wonder if this is for political reasons rather than his personal morals). On the other hand, he did remove pretty much every other legal inequality between same-sex and different-sex couples, so I can correctly identify this as “progress”.

    Thousands of atheists — heck, thousands of believers who question conventional religion — can tell you horrible stories about being twisted and traumatized by religion.

    I’ve heard plenty of such stories from ex-fundies, and few if any such stories from ex-mainline religionists. With a couple of notable exceptions, the latter tend to be more of the form “I just didn’t believe it any more”.

    Aj:

    Stephen Weinberg was, to put it simply, wrong. If we learned nothing from Josef Stalin and Stanley Milgram it’s that good people can be made, and have been made, to do bad things in the absence of religion. They can even be made to fly planes into structures, as occurred near the end of WW2.

  • Aj

    You misunderstand Weinberg’s point. Your mistake is to assume that Weinberg is literally talking about the mythical “good person” and “evil person”. His point is clear, religion motivates people to do evil. I do not understand why I have to explain this.

    Japanese imperialism and Stalin’s communism are sufficiently like religions, it has been noted ad nauseam for many years. I cannot take seriously anyone that cannot recognise this. It is quite common for supreme leaders to either be viewed as deities, think themselves deities, or believe their authority and position comes from deities.

    Religion is not a requirement for suicide missions, or any violent act. To note that there are examples of non-religiously motivated violence does not suggest that violence is not religiously motivated. There are plenty of non-religiously motivated violent events, without picking suspect ones that are disputed.

  • Pseudonym

    His point is clear, religion motivates people to do evil.

    What Weinberg (and, apparently, you) fails to appreciate is that religion is nothing special. Just about anything can and has been used to make people do evil.

    The cold, hard fact is that people do evil.

  • Aj

    I didn’t expect you to stop egregiously downplaying the role of religion, as a religion apologist that’s what you do. I don’t just fail to appreciate that religion is “nothing special” I thoroughly reject the idea. The influence of religion is widespread and powerful, affecting education, reproduction, health, equality, and free speech to name but a few areas.

  • Pseudonym

    I’m not a “religion apologist”. My problem is twofold:

    1. The type of religion claimed to be “widely practiced in the real world” is not widely practiced and bears little resemblance to most of the real world.

    2. The problems purportedly caused by religion are also, if not more so, caused by influences other than religion.

    I think that this is important to know, because by blaming religion in a kneejerk manner, people miss the real causes of atrocities, which indirectly increases the chance that they will happen again. The fact that some are willing to point to any slightly religious overtone says more about the person pointing fingers than reality.

    Incidentally, I once read an opinion piece by a gynecologist who interpreted Stonehenge as a model of the female reproductive system. Proof positive that if you’ve got female reproductive systems “on the brain”, you’ll see them everywhere. It’s kind of like how homophobes see the purported “homosexual agenda” everywhere, including in the Teletubbies.

    Sam Harris blames 9/11 on the moderate theists. Pat Robertson blames it on lesbians and the ACLU. Both of these reactions come from the same place in the human psyche.

    Some, like Hitchens, even go to the trouble of characterising everything that they dislike as “religious” and everything they like as “non-religious” which is why, in his universe, Stalinism is “religious” but Trotskyism isn’t.

    You did mention that “Japanese imperialism and Stalin’s communism are [...] like religions” (incidentally, it wasn’t just Japan which carried out aerial suicide raids in WW2; the Germans did it too). There’s an interesting discussion to be had there. It’s certainly true that ideologies like nationalism seems to hit the same triggers that certain types of religion does. Nonetheless, to say that religion (or quasi-religion) causes this is to ignore the fact that there is an underlying facet of human nature that allows it to happen. Milgram wasn’t studying religion.

    The simple facts are this: Religion did not cause what happened in Abu Ghraib. Religion did not cause what happened in Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka, East Timor or Zimbabwe. Religion did not cause what happened in Stalin’s Russia. And for the record, atheism didn’t either.

  • GullWatcher

    @Pseudonym

    The cold, hard fact is that people do evil.

    That’s half the picture. The other half is that (most) people don’t want to see themselves as evil, so they need justifications, something to make the evil no longer evil in their minds. I’ve only come across two things that can make that happen, and religion is one of them. The other thing is believing that some group of people is less important than, and in the way of, your people or your cause. Even then, there’s about a 90% overlap, since differences in religion are one of the ways people decide who is ‘us’ and who is ‘them’. It’s not an accident that in most of the examples you gave, the people on opposite sides are of different religions – Abu Graib, Northern Ireland, East Timore, Sri Lanka, all have a religious component to the evil. As examples, I don’t see that they do much to prove your point.

  • Aj

    Pseudonym,

    Well that’s one way to dismiss Sam Harris’s arguments without attempting to address it in the slighest. There is a slight difference between Pat Robertson and Sam Harris. Harris uses reason to argue at length for his position, Robertson has faith that lesbians are evil and God punishes people.

    Oh please tell me how Trotskyism is like a religion in the same way Stalinism is as described in God is not Great, I am in need of a laugh.

    Religious apologists are inclined to disregard or not even see religious influence, dismiss arguments without addressing them. It really must take some creative brain power to deny religious influence in the conflicts in Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka, and East Timor.

  • Pseudonym

    I’ve only come across two things that can make that happen, and religion is one of them. The other thing is believing that some group of people is less important than, and in the way of, your people or your cause. Even then, there’s about a 90% overlap, since differences in religion are one of the ways people decide who is ‘us’ and who is ‘them’.

    I suggest that you’ve only identified one thing: the all too human tendency to deny the humanity of others. This doesn’t, as you correctly pointed out, need religion.

    Incidentally, I’d like to know where you got the 90% figure from.

  • Pseudonym

    Oh please tell me how Trotskyism is like a religion in the same way Stalinism is as described in God is not Great, I am in need of a laugh.

    I’d rather not spend more time on Planet Hitchens than I need to. That stuff rots your brain. So to get back closer to the topic, let’s apply some good old-fashioned skepticism, and see what our bullshit detector kits tell us. We will apply the same techniques to Hitchens as we would to any other person who peddles bizarre claims.

    We can’t definitively prove that John Edwards doesn’t get messages from dead people. What we can, however, say is this: Suppose I were to set myself up as a “psychic”, perhaps with good motives (I wanted to make people feel better), or perhaps with bad ones (I wanted to acquire money and fame), with a cold reading show. Then my show would look pretty much identical to that of Edwards. I would ensure that I always have an “out” should something go wrong, and I might even cheat with some “hot reading”.

    So in a sense, John Edwards is what I would inevitably look like.

    Similarly, I can’t definitively prove anything about Hitchens. But if I were to start with the premise that “religion poisons everything”, and had to maintain that belief at all costs, then some things would inevitably happen. For example, I would have to downplay any good thing that any religious person does. Anything that I had a soft spot for, I would have to a priori define as “not religious”, whether it was or nto. Anything that is objectively bad, I would have to define as “religious”.

    If anything bad had even a slight religious or quasi-religious angle to it, I would have to emphasise that with as much rhetorical force as I could, and ignore any other forces. I would admit no scientific evidence whatsoever, because it might dislodge my premise. I would rely, instead, on anecdotal evidence and “proof by example” where possible, and pretend that this means “everything”.

    In other words, God is not Great is pretty much the book I’d write.

    Sam Harris is much the same. He has to define “faith” in a way that doesn’t apply to his postmodern version of Buddhism, otherwise he would “provide cover for” groups such as the Sinhala nationalists. What he believes and practices is good, therefore it isn’t a faith.

    Yes, I realise that there are differences between Sam Harris and Pat Robertson. Sam Harris is more educated, much younger, and speaks to a more intelligent audience. But he’s still a primate.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X