Is Atheism Intolerant?

The Big Questions is a BBC show that tackles you-know-what. A recent episode asked: Is atheism an intolerant belief?

Forget the immediate answer (“No”) for just a moment and watch how the dialogue happens:

Reader Tony summarized the entire video this way:

Although some of the comments by the religious participants essentially amount to “You think that you are right and we are wrong which is very offensive to me because WE are right and YOU are wrong!” it’s quite an entertaining back-and-forth.

I’m actually just amazed to see this type of frank discussion on television. Why can’t we have this kind of show on American TV? We steal all of our popular shows from the UK, anyway — America’s Got Talent, The Office, Survivor, American Idol were all originally from the UK — so why not this kind of show?

Special applause to Chloe Clifford-Frith, of The National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies (a sort of sister organization to the Secular Student Alliance), for holding her own at the 2:30 mark of the first video.

(Thanks to Tony for the link!)

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  • http://hoverfrog.wordpress.com hoverFrog

    Is atheism an intolerant belief?

    Atheism isn’t even a belief. It’s a “hang on, that doesn’t sound right, can you prove what you claim” lack of belief. It’s simple enough to dispense with atheism altogether, just prove the case for gods. That’s hardly intolerant is it?

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    Most atheists view religious belief as just silly. Atheists don’t envision or wish any particular punishment for those that believe. Contrast that with religious belief. Some popular theologies hold that non-believers will burn for eternity in a lake of fire… or minimally be separated for eternality from all that is good in an afterlife. I couldn’t imaging anything more intolerant than that.

  • pete

    To have a show like this on American tv, I really don’t think will work. It would be like a spin off of the O’relly Factor.

  • http://reasonableskepticism.wordpress.com Bart

    This whole program was a giant straw-man fallacy. The host even contributed to this. “Atheists are SURE there is no god”—that somehow atheists have this certainty. They should have turned to the atheists in the audience and said “Raise your hand if you are sure there’s not a god”. Then done the same for the religious in the audience. I’m guessing there would be more hands on the religious side.

  • Tom

    Intolerance is a bad word these days, but it is really quite harmless. You shouldn’t tolerate abuse, neglect, or bad food. It’s also a lot like how people view “open-mindedness.” It really becomes an excuse to tolerating wrong ideas and bad thinking.

    Everyone should be intolerant to something! Since such a thing is so obvious, what is really being debated is “intolerant” with society’s spin on it. Which really means “unfair.”

    What’s really being asked is “Are atheists mean-old grumpy heads?” You know, it’s put in a way so that the whole TV audience can understand…

  • Nick

    I was thinking along the same lines as Bart said. Even the host noted that “atheists are certain that there is no God”. I have never heard of an atheist that was *certain* that a god doesn’t exist. Quite frankly, that cannot be answered, so why say you know, when you cannot really know? There are of course many religious “knowers” (as opposed to believers), but I have yet to see the same for the opposite side of the spectrum.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Jeez, it starts with the opening line. The host says “A growing number of Britons say they are certain there is no God…” That’s not a setup for an intelligent, honest discussion. Coming up on their next episode: “A growing number of Britons say they are certain there is no Santa Claus.”

  • gribblethemunchkin

    Nicky Campbell (The Host) often gets a bit bolshy with atheists, understandable since he probably feels he is defending his religion (he is christian).

    The big question often is awful but just occasionally they have someone worth watching on.

    I recall a chemistry professor on the same show as one of the Answers in genesis guys. The AIG guy called him arrogant to which the professor immediately turned around and said
    “You are allowed to be arrogant when you are right”.

    Classic verbal bitchslap.

    Of course, the same episode also had a church of England bishop smacking the AIG guy around a bit too.

  • Ron in Houston

    Personally, I think Chloe would make a great Mrs. Mehta.

    I agree she did a great job.

  • Richard P

    I don’t think so, when was the last time an atheist bombed a church? I personally know a number of bible thumpers, I have not killed any of them. I also know I practiced temperance as well, there have been a few times I wanted to, but held off.

  • http://primesequence.blogspot.com/ PrimeNumbers

    Tolerance is not about getting someone else to shut up, but growing a thick skin yourself. Atheists have had to grow a thick skin. After all, we’re going to need it in hell :-)

    But religious folk grow up with their faith un-challenged, living in their faith communities, all together, happy in their shared belief system. They don’t grow a thick skin, and thus lies the issue.

    Not that I think that atheism or atheists in general are at all intolerant, but we do certainly seem to have thicker skins.

  • Tony

    I also admire James O’Brien who was quite upfront about the whole thing. After saying that he believed in god “despite the absence of evidence” he then says “of course it’s uncomfortable for religious people to have their beliefs described as ‘bananas’ by atheists, but it isn’t as uncomfortable as being told you’re going to hell!”

  • stogoe

    Now I haven’t seen The Office (US), so I can’t judge its quality, but are you really sure that Idol, Survivor, and ‘Murkins Got Talent are the best examples of shows we’ve stolen from the UK? I mean, you’re not exactly painting an enticing picture with those trainwrecks.

  • http://primesequence.blogspot.com/ PrimeNumbers

    Another point is that atheism is not “anything” (other than a statement of belief in no god, or a statement of no belief in god).

    Atheists do not say – “I don’t believe in god and all believers must be killed”. The statement of atheism stops just before the word “and”. Words after that are personal to the individual and are not part of any atheism.

    Individual atheists may be as tolerant or intolerant of anything they wish to be, just as individual theists may be. But whereas there are intolerant theistic doctrines, there are no intolerant atheist doctrines as there are no doctrines beyond the simple statement of belief or lack of belief in a god, and I find it hard to find that statement, in itself, intolerant.

  • http://www.hanlonsrazor.org Hanlon

    Define your terms.

    Atheist people are not in any way inherently intolerant, but the belief system of atheism is. There’s not much wiggle room, there’s no “well that’s just how you see it”.

    However, that’s not any different than, say, anything else. If you believe in gravitational theory you’re pretty intolerant of someone trying to say it isn’t real.

  • http://primesequence.blogspot.com/ PrimeNumbers

    I think atheists can get along very well with agnostics and deists, and even pantheists. Even the basic theistic belief is not to big a problem to get along with someone, but specific ideologies, specific dogmas and specific ways children, women, homosexuals, etc are treated are the big problem. I don’t think atheists are necessarily intolerant of even theism, but they are rightfully fed up with the excesses of organized religion.

  • Jason R

    As an atheist, I am sure that there is/are no god(s). I wish atheists would bring out the idea’s that I’ve listed below more often as proof.

    — All modern religions are founded on the following precept: Religious texts are the infallible words of god(s).

    1. All religious texts are self contradictory within themselves

    2. All religious texts are contradictory when compared to religious texts of other religions.

    3. All religious texts have been proven to be historically inaccurate in their historical claims.

    4. All religious texts have been proven to be scientifically inaccurate in their claims about reality.

    5. All modern day religions are just evolutions of earlier religions

  • Alan E.

    I must say it was nice to see people, especially the guests, raising their hands when they wanted to speak (for the most part). We would never see that on any pundit talk show. That’s also why this show would never work in ‘Murka.

  • Siamang

    5. All modern day religions are just evolutions of earlier religions

    I would argue that this is not necessarily true. For example, Scientology.

  • Siamang

    I liked the show. But it really needed to go on longer.

    Also, it lacked what it really needs… some structure to the points.

    When someone brings up a point, it should go up on a whiteboard. If it gets addressed, the answer should go up.

    See, there’s something about an internet discussion that really works. And that’s the fact that people can scroll up and see that something’s been asked and answered, or brought up and shown to be fatuous or specious, or outright false.

    But in a chat show, so much gets talked about that cannot be come back to, or tracked or whatever. Good points get forgotten by the time the commercial break comes on.

  • TXatheist

    I like the format of this very entertaining discussion.

  • MeagD

    Is atheism an intolerant belief? What a poorly worded question. A belief cannot be intolerant – it’s just a belief. It may contradict another set of beliefs, but cannot be inherently antagonistic, rude, or offensive.

    Does ‘New Atheism’ breed intolerance in some? Of course it can. Does fundamental religion breed intolerance in others? Absolutely does in many circles.

    But to say that atheists are intolerant because they disagree with religious dogma and feel that no one group should be offered special treatment as a result of their beliefs, is ridiculous.

    What a foolish debate — It’s too bad they couldn’t have worded the question differently. Good on the atheists in the crowd for holding their own.

  • Another Atheist

    I am intolerant of the ignorance that begets the comparison of belief and non-belief as equivalent. Unless and until people can get it through their thick skulls that not believing is a type of belief the way bald is a type of hair color, there can be no meaningful conversation.

  • jdhuey

    I hate the whole Stalin – Mao – Pol Pot argument. These leaders caused massive harm not because they lacked a belief in a god but because they fanatically believed in a political system and they believed that it was their job to impose that system (and to retain power) at all costs. Actually, from what I’ve read of these histories, it is clear that there were many different and powerful motivations involved but primarily it boils down to a fanatical political worldview coupled with an extreme lust for power set in an environment of massive conflict. Religious belief (or the opposition to it) only entered into the picture because it interfered with their political objectives.

  • Emily

    holy whoacakes, batman! another atheist quaker!

    he and I should form a club.

  • ayer

    The commenters who say that the program is based on a fallacy since atheists claim no “certainty” about the non-existence of God are picking at nits. Dawkins said on Bill Maher’s program that on a scale of 1 to 7 his certainty that there is no God is 6.9, and he is certain enough that there is no God to label belief in God a “delusion.”

  • http://fatpie42.livejournal.com Fatpie42

    Stogoe:“…are you really sure that Idol, Survivor, and ‘Murkins Got Talent are the best examples of shows we’ve stolen from the UK? I mean, you’re not exactly painting an enticing picture with those trainwrecks.”

    Hey, you guys gave us Big Brother and we gave you all these shows in return. Sounds like a fair deal to me… :p

    Hoverfrog:“Atheism isn’t even a belief”

    I’ve never been very convinced about the view that “not believing in God” is somehow different from “believing there is no God”. In order to be an atheist, you must know at least one meaning of the word ‘God’. In order to claim to be an atheist you must have decided that you don’t believe that this meaning aligns with anything in the real world. If you simply aren’t sure what you believe on the matter, how exactly are you an atheist?

    Naturally knowledge and certainty are a different matter of course. The problem is that atheism isn’t a homogenous group. If they’d asked “is Christianity intolerant” the answer would have been quite obviously that some are intolerant while others are not – and there might have been some debate as to what extent intolerance or tolerance best follow from Christian principles. (And it is difficult to see what atheist principles we were meant to be examining. – Marxism, from the sounds of it.)

    However, if they asked the more equivalent question of “is Theism intolerant” we would quite obviously have a much more convoluted discussion on our hands. Yet for some reason, since it was “Atheism” rather than “Theism” under discussion, it was not noticed how dodgy the discussion was.

    Siamang:

    5. All modern day religions are just evolutions of earlier religions

    “I would argue that this is not necessarily true. For example, Scientology.”

    While I suspect you are referring to the whole ‘Zeitgeist’ nonsense, on which I would agree – there isn’t such a close correlation between Christianity and other prior religions. (Not that there’s a huge correlation between Norse religion and Shinto either…)

    Nevertheless, if you look at the basic gist of Scientology, there are some strong parallels with early Christian gnosticism. (The whole idea that our souls are trapped in the material world, like diamonds in the mud.)

    Siamang:Good points get forgotten by the time the commercial break comes on.
    That’s the main benefit of the BBC. No commercial breaks!

  • Siamang

    Nevertheless, if you look at the basic gist of Scientology, there are some strong parallels with early Christian gnosticism. (The whole idea that our souls are trapped in the material world, like diamonds in the mud.)

    Well, it was Jason R’s point that I was rebutting. So he can say in what way he means “evolved from”.

    What I was countering is that there are some religions that aren’t actually “offshoots” of other religions, but are established or invented. That is not to deny that their inventors were influenced by previous religions, only that this is more of an instance of intelligent design rather than evolution. 😉

  • http://fatpie42.livejournal.com Fatpie42

    Jason R

    “All modern religions are founded on the following precept: Religious texts are the infallible words of god(s).”

    Nope. What holy texts are there in Buddhism? Well, there’s the tripitaka, but it’s not really viewed as the infallible words of god (even if you decide to call the Buddha a god). Also what holy texts are there in modern paganism? Are they viewed as the infallible word of God?

    Within Islam, the only work viewed as God’s infallible word is the Qu’ran. The rest is quite happily recognised as fallible. Also, not all Christians insist on the infallibility of scripture.

    1. All religious texts are self contradictory within themselves

    I presume you know this from personal research. Okay then, what are the self contradictions within the Guru Granth Sahib (in Sikhism)?

    2. All religious texts are contradictory when compared to religious texts of other religions.

    In what way ‘contradictory’? You mean they have rival truth claims? Well this seems rather tautologous. If they all believed the same things they’d all be the same religions wouldn’t they?

    3. All religious texts have been proven to be historically inaccurate in their historical claims.

    That’s presuming that all religious texts make historical claims. The Guru Granth Sahib, mentioned earlier, tells no stories and therefore has no historical claims. It consists in songs about God and morality, not stories about the Gurus.

    4. All religious texts have been proven to be scientifically inaccurate in their claims about reality.

    Most religious texts pre-date the advent of the scientific method. I would be surprised if you could find ANY texts in the first century AD which are entirely scientifically accurate. They are written in societies where the people writing them and reading them would not have a modern scientific mindset. I would not be surprised to find that the way we describe things today will seem outdated in the distant future.

    5. All modern day religions are just evolutions of earlier religions

    All ideas are based on older ideas. This is another tautology. What is it meant to prove?

  • Siamang

    On this show, the host (IIRC) expressed the point of view that atheists advocate that government action should be secular and secular equals atheistic.

    This seems to happen a lot, either honestly or dishonestly, people equate government neutrality on religion to be atheistic.

    Which is why I do think we are being too polite in arguing for secularism. We are arguing for government neutrality, and so then religious people say that that is the atheistic position.

    We should argue for government support of atheism.

    “One nation under no gods.” Government support only of charities which actively deny the existence of any gods.

    In this current climate of faux balance that our media subscribe to, we need to move overton’s window.

  • http://miketheinfidel.blogspot.com/ MikeTheInfidel

    I would argue that this is not necessarily true. For example, Scientology.

    Scientology just builds upon the successful techniques of the Mormons and the Catholic church: Buy as much property as possible and get good lawyers…

  • http://miketheinfidel.blogspot.com/ MikeTheInfidel

    The commenters who say that the program is based on a fallacy since atheists claim no “certainty” about the non-existence of God are picking at nits. Dawkins said on Bill Maher’s program that on a scale of 1 to 7 his certainty that there is no God is 6.9, and he is certain enough that there is no God to label belief in God a “delusion.”

    Nonsense.

    At least one of the Christians on this show says he is 100% certain. None of the atheists claim 100% certainty. “As certain as we can be” is not 100% certainty.

    These are not nits. Less-than-100% certainty is an admission of non-omniscience. Claiming that you are 100% certain is to claim that you are incapable of being wrong. If you admit you could be wrong, you are not 100% certain.

  • ayer

    These are not nits. Less-than-100% certainty is an admission of non-omniscience. Claiming that you are 100% certain is to claim that you are incapable of being wrong. If you admit you could be wrong, you are not 100% certain.

    So claiming that you are 100% certain that 2 + 2 = 4 is an assertion of omniscience? Surely even Dawkins would admit there are some things he is 100% certain about.

  • http://notinthepink.blogspot.com Cezzie

    This show doesn’t go on for long enough. A few friends and I were in the audience for The Big Questions a few weeks ago and the topic was “Is Britain becoming intolerant to Christians?”

    Unfortunately for them it seemed as though they hadn’t managed to find enough people to stick up for religion. Practically everyone there was an atheist.

  • Aj

    It’s quite clear that these people don’t actually care what we actually are, it doesn’t matter what we say, they will not listen. We say we have a lack of belief in gods, they say we have a certain belief in the nonexistence of gods, and that we have a belief system about it. We say that our atheism cannot logically motivate us to any action, as a lack of belief in fairies doesn’t motivate them, but they say that Stalin and Mao were “profoundly atheist” (the Theos spokesperson was pants on head retarded). I’d really like to know how someone is “profoundly” atheist.

  • http://miketheinfidel.blogspot.com/ MikeTheInfidel

    So claiming that you are 100% certain that 2 + 2 = 4 is an assertion of omniscience? Surely even Dawkins would admit there are some things he is 100% certain about.

    … No. I am 100% certain that 2+2=4 because that’s a definition. This is something for which it is not possible to be wrong. I am equally as certain that 2=2.

    Claiming to know with 100% certainty that something exists in reality which is not definitional and which can only be evidenced through subjective experience is refusing to admit that you could be wrong.

  • Samuel Skinner

    In what way ‘contradictory’? You mean they have rival truth claims? Well this seems rather tautologous. If they all believed the same things they’d all be the same religions wouldn’t they?

    False. Polytheistic religions are different, but noncontradictory. Animism and religions like Taoism are non-contradictory with each other.

    Most religious texts pre-date the advent of the scientific method.

    You do realize that while the scientific method is recent, logic isn’t and neither is the idea that proof should be provided for claims.

    I would be surprised if you could find ANY texts in the first century AD which are entirely scientifically accurate.

    What do you mean scientifically accurate? Do you mean they were enitrely correct? Because than we would have to toss the Principia even though it is the model of what to do. If you mean books that make claims and back them up with evidence and provide ways to disprove them, than they do exist. On the Nature of Things is a good example where there is an attempt to explain how things work with theories instead of just stories, but really, the closest to accurate would be manuals on construction of buildings and machines.

    They are written in societies where the people writing them and reading them would not have a modern scientific mindset. I would not be surprised to find that the way we describe things today will seem outdated in the distant future.

    Yeah, but if they were inspiried by God (who can see the future) this would presumably be dealt with. After all, how much more useful would a holy book be if it gave instructions on how to make vaccines, better farming equipment or anything really.

  • http://luckyatheist.blogspot.com Mike Caton

    You can’t believe everything, because most of it a) most of it conflicts with other stuff and b) you need a way of being clear and honest about your rules for deciding which things to believe. That’s called skepticism, and it necessarily entails not believing in some (most) stuff. Atheism is the result of applying skepticism to religious claims. In these situations (where atheism is called intolerant), I ask the person claiming intolerance: is there stuff that YOU don’t believe? Is a (Muslim, Marxist, Red Sox fan) close-minded or intolerant? Isn’t it interesting that YOU (and your group) are the only ones that are “tolerant” (of your own creed). Repeated concrete examples are harder to hide from.

  • ayer

    … No. I am 100% certain that 2+2=4 because that’s a definition. This is something for which it is not possible to be wrong. I am equally as certain that 2=2.

    Yes, it is a necessary truth that is true in all possible worlds. But with the ontological argument, many theists point to the existence of God (the necessarily existent being) as true in all possible worlds and thus true a priori:

    http://www.philosophyofreligion.info/theistic-proofs/the-ontological-argument/the-modal-ontological-argument/

    Many also assert knowledge of the existence of God as “properly basic” and thus foundational:

    http://www.leaderu.com/truth/3truth03.html

  • Tony

    Atheist people are not in any way inherently intolerant, but the belief system of atheism is.

    Atheism doesn’t have a belief system. Or if it does it is possible the same belief system as that of people who do not believe that gnomes are hiding their car keys.

  • Dan W

    “Is atheism an intolerant belief?”
    The long answer: atheism is not a belief, it’s a lack-of-belief. The short answer: no.

  • Dan W

    I started watching the first video, but couldn’t even get halfway through it. The religious arguments claiming atheism is intolerant from just one guy were so idiotic and used such poor logic (if any logic at all) that I couldn’t be bothered to watch any more. The guy trying to claim that atheists dictators did bad things because they were atheists… *facepalm*

    One important thing I always like to point out when religious people accuse atheists of being disrespectful or intolerant of their beliefs is that respect should not be automatically given out to any religious belief, no matter how ridiculous and nonsensical it is. Respect should be earned, and I have yet to encounter any belief systems/religions that have earned my respect.

  • http://www.martinjbaker.com Martin Baker

    I thought the atheists came out very well in this. Chloe in particular did a great job against Paul Woolley.

    As for the theists…well I just shake my head. I don’t know whether I find it amusing or just bang-head-against-desk frustrating to hear the same old nonsense arguments.

  • gribblethemunchkin

    One of the things that occasionally makes me happy with this show is where they get smart well educated theists smacking down the idiot, poorly reasoned theists. All while the atheists watch on. The chap with the beard in this instance made a few wonderful points about what a ridiculous idea intolerant atheism is, despite himself being a theist.

    Lovely stuff.

  • http://fatpie42.livejournal.com Fatpie42

    Samuel Skinner:

    Polytheistic religions are different, but noncontradictory.

    That’s not actually true. Even amongst Hindus there are rival truth claims. For example, there are the Vaishnavas who consider Vishnu to be the main God and the Shaivas who consider Shiva to be the main God. There are also members of ISKCON who believe that Krishna (normally viewed as an incarnation of Vishnu) is the main God. Polytheists are perfectly capable of making conflicting claims.

    Samuel Skinner:

    You do realize that while the scientific method is recent, logic isn’t and neither is the idea that proof should be provided for claims.

    Without the modern scientific mindset there was a very different understanding as to what counted as ‘proof’ for a claim. As I said before, religious texts were not of a lower standard than other written texts of the time.

    On the Nature of Things is a good example where there is an attempt to explain how things work with theories instead of just stories, but really, the closest to accurate would be manuals on construction of buildings and machines.

    “De rerum natura” by Lucretius is actually a poem describing Epicurean philosophy. It is not scientific theory by any stretch of the imagination. The concept of atoms put forward by the old philosophers is not the same as the idea of atoms we have today and they were being no more scientific than Thales was when he claimed that “everything is water”.

    Yes, there was engineering back then. Does this mean that if they’d included a bit of writing concerning engineering in the Bible, you’d be happier with it?

    After all, how much more useful would a holy book be if it gave instructions on how to make vaccines, better farming equipment or anything really.

    There’s clearly only one explanation. God doesn’t like vaccines or modern farming equipment and these things are an abomination in the eyes of God. Stands to reason, eh? *wink*

    Yes, no holy books reveal startling new technology. But what is this really meant to demonstrate?

    Also, as I pointed out before, what about the religions which do not have holy texts (or at least do not hold their texts to have exceptional importance within the religion)?

  • Myk

    I was most annoyed by that young twat claiming that atheists are saying atheism is the only viewpoint for rational discussions in the public sphere.

    Hello?

    We’re saying rational opinions are the only viewpoint for rational discussions in the public sphere. We don’t argue things “because there are no gods”.

    He effectively admitted that religion was not rational, and yet wants irrationality to have a part of rational discussions?

  • Keith Allison

    I would guess that the reason we can have these shows over here is that no-one here really cares much about religion. It’s not necessary to be religious to get elected here, for example. Hardly anyone cares what/if you believe so long as you shut up about it.

    We are suspicious of overtly-religious people, as well we should be.

    The average Brit doesn’t think about gods, doesn’t talk about them and really has better things with which to occupy themselves.

  • http://mitchmcdad.com Mitch McDad

    I don’t think we could have this type of show on US TV because it’s not dumb enough. Intelligent debate won’t play here. We much prefer Jerry Springer type debate.

  • Tuathalan

    Richard P:
    I don’t think so, when was the last time an atheist bombed a church?

    Don’t know if they were bombed, but the ideologically atheist Soviet Union closed and demolished a huge number.

    Intolerance isn’t restricted to theists.

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