Why is Stephen Prothero So Hard on Atheists?

It’s not easy to defend Stephen Prothero when he writes about atheists. I wrote before that he knows a lot about our “community” even if he wrongly calls atheism a religion with our own brand of fundamentalists.

His new book is God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World — and Why Their Differences Matter and he’s still doing interviews all over the place for it. But the more of those he does, the more I want to keep my distance.

Take this interview with Nicole Neroulias, for instance:

Why are you so hard on atheists?

I think they’re intellectually dishonest, and I think it’s the hardest religious position to take up. With Christianity, you just have to affirm that Jesus is God and sent to the world to save the world. With atheism, you have to reject every single god. There’s a lot of gods out there. I think many atheists are not actually atheists; they’re just people who’ve rejected the Jewish or Christian God, more specifically the god that their parents taught them. They don’t know anything about the Hindu divinities. How can you reject a god that you’ve never even heard of?

That’s like asking how we could dismiss the existence of all unicorns when we’ve only rejected two species of them.

The same arguments that made us lose faith in our family’s god apply to other gods all the same. They’re all fictional. You want us to believe in your god? Prove to us that your god exists. It’s that simple. And it’s a challenge that no religious person has ever met.

And for what it’s worth, Christians reject all the same gods atheists do… with one exception. Prothero never faults them for that.

Even the interviewer didn’t seem to like his explanation:

Perhaps they just feel committed to scientific evidence rather than mystery?

Then I hope they never read a novel, since mystery lies at the heart of so many novels! But, even rejecting the supernatural, not all religions have gods, not all religions necessarily have the supernatural. Confucianism and Buddhism might be the religion for them.

Isn’t Prothero the religion expert? Many forms of Buddhism buy into the concepts of karma and rebirth — are those not supernatural? And if you don’t believe in those, what exactly makes it a religion? Same deal with Confucianism, which seems more like a philosophy that a deity-centered faith, which is really what atheists have a problem with.

You can label your belief system whatever you want. Atheists don’t see evidence for any god and that eliminates most religions. To say that we could be Buddhists (or whatever) is missing the point.

  • Sally

    As you rightly say, Confucianism (like Taoism) isn’t a religion at all but a philosophy. Nothing in either of those philosophies even mentions any kind of a god. Buddhism takes no real stance on whether there is a god or not, but Buddhists still tend to deity worship Siddartha Gautama as if he were a god, but they don’t have to. So sure, atheists could become Buddhists *if they wanted to*. There are some health benefits to doing yoga, meditating and eating vegetables. But what if they don’t want to? Philosophy isn’t the same as a religion and he seems confused on that point.

    Are you sure he’s an expert?

  • http://yetanotheratheist.net Yet Another Atheist

    But…but…BUT… You can’t possible reject ALL religions! Surely you must believe in something! ;-)

  • http://twitter.com/rebellionkid Adam Casey

    For a moment there I thought you meant a different chap called Prothero

  • http://godlessartist.blogspot.com/ Kilre

    This dude just seems to revel in the mystery far too much, and he’s just as dishonest, by his definition, as we atheists.

    I’m not sure he knows what he’s talking about; i.e. pulling things out of his ass.

  • dglas

    I have yet to encounter a religion that does not posit humanity as being metaphysically substandard in some way. The unattainable ideal may be represented by a god, a way, a path or other such figure, symbol or method. Atheism does not posit humanity as being metaphysically substandard in any way.

    This Prothero person seems to have fallen for the most pathetic error in the history of humanity – that doubt equals denial.

    Skepticism is a critique-based philosophy, seemingly the only one. Skepticism defaults to not giving assent (believing) without evidence. Science is a subset of skepticism with respect to particular (empirically testable) kinds of claims. Atheism is a subset of skepticism with respect to a particular (non-testable) claim. Being an atheist does not require denial; it only requires lack of assent.

    Lack of assent is not a religion.

  • GentleGiant

    I think a Billy Madison quote is appropriate here:

    “Mr. [Prothero], what you’ve just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it.”

  • mkb

    I have not read Prothero’s new book, but I read his previous one about Religious Illiteracy and it was dreadful. Every time he mentioned an atheist he had to throw in a gratuitous insult. He’s a bigot. I would keep my distance.

  • Sara

    Oh man. I had to read a book by this guy for my civics class this year. The one about religious literacy. I couldn’t bear to read through it though. I just studied the terms glossary for my exam on it. Ha. But I can’t believe I actually gave him money…

  • Aj

    How is accepting the existence of something without evidence easier than rejecting something? You just have to believe a God sent himself to Earth as a man, to preach and be sacrificed (to himself) in order to save us (humans) for the purpose of persuading himself to forgive us (humans) of our sins (or the sins of some other people). How do Christians reject all the gods they have never heard of?

    You can’t have a religion without supernatural beliefs. Are Confucianism and Zen Buddhism religions? No. What’s with this “committed to mystery” bullshit? Sounds like a commitment to ignorance, accept we know that religious people can’t admit they’re ignorant, they have many unjustifiable answers from the origin of the universe, the afterlife, to the apocalypse.

    Stephen Prothero is an imbecile or a troll.

  • http://chaoskeptic.blogspot.com Iason Ouabache

    With Christianity, you just have to affirm that Jesus is God and sent to the world to save the world. With atheism, you have to reject every single god.

    Bullshit! With Christianity you have to reject every single god except Jesus (including the Hindu gods). Atheists just take it one god further.

  • Houndies

    “you just have to believe that jesus is god sent to save us”. just cuz you believe it doesnt make it true! i believe if i buy enough powerball tickets i will win the lottery. if i’m still around in 2000yrs (yeah right) i’ll be sayin “any day now i’m gonna win cuz i believe it!”

  • JD

    Huh. Where is the intellectual honesty in having an invisible friend?

    So far, it looks like he’s continuing to push his own religion, and he doesn’t appreciate people calling BS on the whole enterprise. I gather that he can better deal with other people that have a similar kind of delusion with unprovable entities, even if the names and relationship details are different.

    Besides, it’s the positive claim that must be proven, not the negative, just as I don’t have to prove that unicorns don’t exist. If someone believes there are invisible sentient beings, it’s their job to do the proof. Just believe he believes in Jesus doesn’t make him “in the right” if it turns out that some other being deserves the credit for creating the universe, earth and life. In that hypothetical situation, he’d be about as wrong as an Atheist is.

  • Chaoticag

    I’m studying Hinduism right now actually, and I still don’t find it more convincing, although it seems to be one of the few religions that can easily shift around a bit. There is no shred of proof for it either, but it’s pretty interesting anyway.

  • Rob Honeycutt

    “Perhaps they just feel committed to scientific evidence rather than mystery?”

    What the…? Science explores and presents FAR more of the mystery of the universe than any religion ever has or ever will. Science just has much more strict rules about what kind of stuff you can make up.

  • Aric

    Amazingly poor logic. I can see that it might be psychologically easier to accept a belief in one god and reject all the others than to reject all gods, but that’s not what he’s saying.

    One more person to ignore.

  • http://geo-geek.blogspot.com Rachael

    Yes. Atheists never read fiction because we are unable to separate fantasy from reality and are thus further incapable of suspending disbelief in order to enjoy a good story.

    Moron.

  • Mana

    Yes, but the thing is, there ARE scores of atheist Buddhists, as I know has been extensively pointed out before. Karma and rebirth are not necessary to Buddhism, neither is the supernatural in any form.

    If you insist that it is, that’s like saying the Pope is essential to all Christianity. That’s neither true nor fair to the many different branches that have nothing whatsoever to do with the Pope.

    Now if you want to delve into Pure Lands for instance, the supernatural such as karma and rebirth are integrated. But it is not integral to all Buddhism.

    All you need for Buddhism (IMHOYMMV) is to believe that 3000 years ago a guy named Siddhartha figured out and set forth a worthy set of guidelines to resolve human suffering, and that you would like to attempt to follow or integrate those teachings into your life.

    That’s it. Fin, end, full stop. Anything else is a bonus. While it won’t make you a Theravada Buddhist or Zen Buddhist, it will make you a Buddhist, if an informal one.

    What makes it a religion? That’s the thing – not much does. Several branches most certainly fit the label, but it cannot be said of all, particularly the westernized versions.

    I think it would be truer to the argument at hand to question the assumption that everyone feels the need for a religion, rather than eliminating Buddhism as an ineligible choice for endorsing the supernatural.

    To give Hemant credit he said “many forms,” however then it seems he went on to dismiss/negate atheist Buddhists completely. It’s entirely possible I missed the point in favor of jumping to the defense of my POV, though.

    P.S. I loved the “species of unicorns” analogy. I’mma dork.

  • http://secularshawshank.wordpress.com Andy

    Some logic there, huh? Like Ron Rosenbaum’s recent Slate article, Prothero is fractally wrong.

    He’s also the perfect example of someone who just likes religion, thinks it’s cool. Atheists don’t have cool fairy tales. So he doesn’t like them. If atheists prayed to statues and had elaborate “woo-woo” rituals, he’d adore us.

    (And his analog to novels is beyond idiotic. If Kurt Vonnegut were still alive, he’d smack Prothero across the face with a giant trout.)

  • David H.

    Prothero was pushing his book in “The Colbert Report” the other week. I thought it might’ve been an interesting book at first, but one of Colbert’s questions re: one of the Indian religions confused Prothero (it didn’t confuse me), but Prothero gave a confused answer.

    And I sat there and thought, Wait a minute, you just wrote a book on all these freaking religions, how the hell did you get Hinduism/Buddhism wrong? Are you not an expert on religions?

    No. No, he is not.

  • HamsterWheel

    Par for the course. Prothero’s comments contain the usual load of sophistry, semantic subterfuge and steaming pile of putrid intellectual effluent one would expect from someone whose imaginary friend is worse than Big Brother.

  • fritzy

    “Perhaps they just feel committed to scientific evidence rather than mystery?

    Then I hope they never read a novel, since mystery lies at the heart of so many novels!”

    In all fairness, I have not read anything by Mr. Prothero other than what you have posted here, Hemant but if this quote is any indication, he is about the most inanely stupid and intellectually dishonest writer to get published, right behind Glen Beck and Bill O’Reiley.

    And why is this guy so intent on selling a religion, ANY religion, to atheist? It’s as if he’s frightened by our very existance.

  • Steve

    I wonder if the eight religions that rule the world include the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I am a devout atheist, but I did have to put a Pastafarian fish on the back of my car, so I guess my atheism is in question :-) R’amen

  • JT

    @David H.

    Thank you! I was reading this article and wondering if it was the guy who not too long ago made me yell at my TV over exactly what you said. You wrote a fucking book on the differences of various religions!! How can you not answer that question?? I’m guessing anyone who was planning on reading his book would be better served spending an hour or two on wikipedia…or doing anything else. Hell, pray for the knowledge to magically be inserted into your head. It has about as much chance of working as reading his literary abortion.

  • Gibbon

    That’s like asking how we could dismiss the existence of all unicorns when we’ve only rejected two species of them.

    But it’s a valid point. How can you reject what you don’t know? If you don’t know that there are aliens living on a planet that’s orbiting a star in the Andromeda galaxy, how can you reject the notion that there is? Likewise, if you don’t know if there is a god or not, and no one in fact knows, then you can’t reject the whole notion of god(s).

    Many forms of Buddhism buy into the concepts of karma and rebirth — are those not supernatural?

    At this point I’m simply going to say that more than anyone else atheists are obsessed with the supernatural. The vast majority of religious people are more concerned with whether they are living the right life rather than the supernatural, whereas the atheists or the New Atheists at least, are stuck on the idea of the supernatural and belief in it. It’s sad really, they’re obsessed with what they reject.

  • fritzy

    “With Christianity, you just have to affirm that Jesus is God and sent to the world to save the world. With atheism, you have to reject every single god”

    Actually, I haven’t rejected any god. Rejecting something implies you are turning against something that actually exists. Since Mr. Prothero and his ilk have failed miserably to convince me why I should accept the existance of any of their invisible sky monsters, I clearly have not rejected any god, as there is nothing there to reject.

  • Twin-Skies

    “Then I hope they never read a novel, since mystery lies at the heart of so many novels!”

    The difference is that I understand that most novels are fictional accounts. You, Prothero, apparently can’t seem to tell the difference between a bible and a physics textbook

  • Alex

    Dawkins can sell some books, but look how many Glenn Beck sells. Bashing atheists sells too. Who knows what sort of pay day Prothero will get when he signs up as a Fox News religion commentator.

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

    Then I hope they never read a novel, since mystery lies at the heart of so many novels!

    Yes, Steven Prothero, there’s absolutely no difference between basing your life on a fundamentally inscrutable mystery and enjoying the plot of a good piece of fiction.

    What a knob.

    Oh, and Gibbon:

    But it’s a valid point. How can you reject what you don’t know? If you don’t know that there are aliens living on a planet that’s orbiting a star in the Andromeda galaxy, how can you reject the notion that there is? Likewise, if you don’t know if there is a god or not, and no one in fact knows, then you can’t reject the whole notion of god(s).

    No, it’s not a valid point. If there’s no evidence for something, you most certainly can dismiss it. There is no evidence for any of the god claims people have made, and there is no reason to define new ones in a way that fits with what we already know about reality. We can dismiss the ideas of unicorns without redefining them to be horses in costumes.

  • Hitch

    Kind of funny. He started off gentle, as a kind of part-time atheist. He’s converged to an all-out basher.

    Not that special. The ratio of backlash books to recent skeptic books is staggering if you go the the bookstore shelves.

    It’s actually kind of helpful. I think it’s pretty clear now what he’s on about.

  • Richard P.

    And most of us regardless of whether or not there’s a god don’t want to be involved with religions mind numbing bullshit.

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

    Gibbon again:

    At this point I’m simply going to say that more than anyone else atheists are obsessed with the supernatural. The vast majority of religious people are more concerned with whether they are living the right life rather than the supernatural, whereas the atheists or the New Atheists at least, are stuck on the idea of the supernatural and belief in it. It’s sad really, they’re obsessed with what they reject.

    You’re absolutely right. They’re not concerned with the supernatural, because they don’t bother to question its existence. They just take it as a given. We, on the other hand, actually care if it exists, and take the time to question what people say.

  • Flail

    Occasionally I like to remind myself of a Buddhist story that I am really fond of. If you have two minutes, read The Poison Arrow.

    The moral of the story is really: “It doesn’t matter, get to work doing something good in this life. Now.”

  • http://nssphoenix.wordpress.com drdave

    Atheism is not a religion, its a personal relationship with reality.

  • Hitch

    Man, that’s a bumper sticker right there.

  • Chaoticag

    @Flial

    The poison arrow is more about ending suffering, you might want to check the Jain story of the six blind men and the elephant, which is more to the point, but I’d object to since there might not be an elephant.

  • DSimon

    Flail, that’s a cool story, thanks for linking it.

    I enjoyed it, even though the fact that it was fiction threatened to burst my fragile little atheist brain. ;-)

  • Dan W

    Wow, Stephen Prothero’s sounding more and more like a moron. Every time he talks about atheists, he just says more stupid things that make me dislike him more. Atheists are intellectually dishonest? As opposed to theists who believe in god(s) despite the lack of any evidence for it? I think Prothero needs to go learn some things about atheists instead of making up bullshit about us.

  • Neon Genesis

    Prothero is a hypocrite because his whole book is bashing universalists for being too plurastic and for supposedly not being respectful to the diversity in religious beliefs, but then he turns around and bashes atheists for not being pluralistic enough. Make up your mind already Prothero as to which one you want people to be! Prothero seems to want to accuse everyone else of hurting interfaith dialog who doesn’t agree with him but doesn’t take a step back to examine himself to see how his own comments are hurting interfaith dialog.

  • Aj

    Gibbon,

    But it’s a valid point. How can you reject what you don’t know? If you don’t know that there are aliens living on a planet that’s orbiting a star in the Andromeda galaxy, how can you reject the notion that there is? Likewise, if you don’t know if there is a god or not, and no one in fact knows, then you can’t reject the whole notion of god(s).

    Reject means not accept or acknowledge. Most atheists I’ve met say you should not accept propositions that do not logically follow or do not have sufficient evidence in support of them. It’s implied that most atheists would not accept gods they do not currently know about, if they’re not supported by evidence.

    It’s implied that Christians, who are monotheists (reject all gods but one) and strong atheists (reject all gods in principle), even ones they don’t know about. Prothero has a point against himself.

    At this point I’m simply going to say that more than anyone else atheists are obsessed with the supernatural. The vast majority of religious people are more concerned with whether they are living the right life rather than the supernatural, whereas the atheists or the New Atheists at least, are stuck on the idea of the supernatural and belief in it. It’s sad really, they’re obsessed with what they reject.

    Religious people are concerned with whether they are living the life that something supernatural wants them to lead. You irrationally deny religions are about supernatural belief. What is theology about? What are religious texts about? What a sermons about? What are prayers about? What are rituals about? Supernatural beliefs. Religious people by definition are very much concerned with the supernatural.

  • sarah

    “Then I hope they never read a novel, since mystery lies at the heart of so many novels!”

    huh? obviously he has zero understanding of atheism.

    he is just one of those people that cannot fathom a person not believing in a god or have faith in some other religion that doesn’t have a god.

  • geekgazette

    I think one of the many problems with understanding the difference between religion and atheism in the word believe. It drives me crazy when a Christians say “you have your beliefs and I have my beliefs” as if the two are equal. It is like a creationist saying that evolution is just a “theory”.
    I don’t “believe” that their religion is fictional because I just woke up one morning and decided to be an atheist, or because someone told me it was fake. I “believe” it is all made up because just about every ounce of evidence is contrary to what they say is true. They have no basis for their “beliefs” except what someone told them, and a text that most of them know nothing about, with the exception of the title and a few of the books it contains. A text that has been show time and time again to be full of contradictions, immorality, impossibilities and out right untruths.
    The average person doesn’t understand that most words can have a slightly different meaning given the context. This is because everything has been watered down by religion, poor education, and popular culture/media.
    Atheists need to use a word other than “belief” to describe our views. As long as we keep using it we are going to continue to sound like nothing more than another religion.

  • Rich Wilson

    Atheism is not a religion, its a personal relationship with reality.

    s/its/is’s/
    and that’s my new .sig

  • Dan Covill

    Honeycutt said:
    “Science explores and presents FAR more of the mystery of the universe than any religion ever has or ever will. Science just has much more strict rules about what kind of stuff you can make up.”

    Wonderful! That’s a keeper.

  • http://hoverfrog.wordpress.com hoverfrog

    I don’t reject any gods. Atheism is the opposite of theism, not the opposite of Christianity or Hinduism. Theists believe in at least one deity, atheists don’t. Theists don’t starts with an million deities and reject all but one and neither do atheists. Theists generally are taught about a single deity or group of deities and accept that belief. Atheists may follow the same path and then lose that belief or, like me, may simply have never been taught that a single god is real.

    I do not reject gods, I simply haven’t gained any.

  • fritzy

    Gibbon;

    “But it’s a valid point. How can you reject what you don’t know? If you don’t know that there are aliens living on a planet that’s orbiting a star in the Andromeda galaxy, how can you reject the notion that there is? Likewise, if you don’t know if there is a god or not, and no one in fact knows, then you can’t reject the whole notion of god(s)”

    *snort*–that’s a good one. Because every person of faith in this world has done a thorough examination of every major world religion before chosing the “one true religion” and rejecting the others. Please, throw another one my direction–I need a good laugh.

    Oh, and in case your question is serious, because all notions of god(s) are untennable hogwash supported by neither evidence or logic.

  • Neon Genesis

    We might ask the same question of Christians. How can these bigoted anti-atheist Christians reject atheism when half of them don’t know anything about atheism?

  • Tony

    But it’s a valid point. How can you reject what you don’t know? If you don’t know that there are aliens living on a planet that’s orbiting a star in the Andromeda galaxy, how can you reject the notion that there is? Likewise, if you don’t know if there is a god or not, and no one in fact knows, then you can’t reject the whole notion of god(s).

    This is basically nonsense. The first part of the question “are their aliens living on a planet in the Andromeda galaxy”?” is “what do you mean by aliens?”. If your definition of aliens is “life forms” then the next question is “Do we have any evidence for the existence of life forms?”. Of course we do we have an abundance of evidence for the existence of life forms, right here on earth. From there it is an entirely reasonable proposition to suggest that “if there is a planet in the Andromeda galaxy that satisfies the prerequisites for the existence of life then there may be aliens on your hypothetical planet”.

    There is no evidence for the existence of gods or the supernatural. Therefore there is no reason to assume that gods or the supernatural exist, here or on Andromeda. Remember there’s a word for supernatural things that have been observed. That word is “natural”.

    Then I hope they never read a novel, since mystery lies at the heart of so many novels!

    This is a fairly typical dig at those joyless atheists who can’t feel a sense of wonder or beauty at the universe. It’s also wrong. It doesn’t stop me from enjoying a book or a film just because I know it isn’t real.

  • http://www.secularplanet.org Secular Planet

    With Christianity, you only have to believe that a cosmic Jewish Zombie who was his own father can make you live forever if you eat his flesh and telepathically tell him you accept him as your master, so he can remove an evil force from your soul that is present in humanity because a rib-woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree.

    With atheism, you don’t have to believe any of that bullshit.

    There’s a fair comparison.

  • http://logofveritas.blogspot.com Veritas

    Not to mention that it’s just plain insulting to insinuate that you should pick a religion if one can be twisted around to pick the fact that you live your life based on facts and not poorly-written torture smut.

  • Claudia

    I think they’re intellectually dishonest, and I think it’s the hardest religious position to take up. With Christianity, you just have to affirm that Jesus is God and sent to the world to save the world.

    Oh well that’s easy enough to do, I mean with all that evidence that is out there /sarcasm

    With atheism, you have to reject every single god. There’s a lot of gods out there. I think many atheists are not actually atheists; they’re just people who’ve rejected the Jewish or Christian God, more specifically the god that their parents taught them. They don’t know anything about the Hindu divinities. How can you reject a god that you’ve never even heard of?

    Well naturally, which is why everyone on the planet is actually a believer in 9,997 different religions, because they’re only likely to be familiar with 2 or 3 different faiths and they can’t very well say that they reject all the others, can they? Of course, Christians and Muslims (and others I’m sure) not only reject all other religions but believe that their adherents will burn in everlasting fire, which is why Prothero also cites their dishonesty….oh wait.

    Then I hope they never read a novel, since mystery lies at the heart of so many novels!

    Yes of course, I know my disbelief in elves really ruined my appreciation of the Lord of the Rings, all three times I read it. Naturally the unwillingness to believe thing without evidence totally eliminates the capacity for a fertile imagination, just ask Douglas Adams.

    But, even rejecting the supernatural, not all religions have gods, not all religions necessarily have the supernatural. Confucianism and Buddhism might be the religion for them.

    This gets into the muddled territory of what defines a religion. I believe (but I could be wrong) that a religion, at a minimum, requires belief in the supernatural of some sort. If it lacks that it becomes philosophy+culture. I don’t know if non-religious Buddhism or Confucianism are for me because I haven’t studied them but I don’t reject them because they do not make supernatural assertions.

    Prothero seems to be an actual expert on religious affairs, so I can’t really conclude that his laughable statement about having to examine every supernatural belief before rejecting it rather than rejecting the idea of the supernatural generally is a product of ignorance. Its highly doubtful that he’s come this far without having many many of us explain that rejection of the supernatural is the position and hence rejection of specific supernatural claims is also possible but not required proactively. So he’s being dishonest, like so many before him.

    He describes himself as “religiously confused”. Just because you haven’t arrived at your destination Mr. Prothero, doesn’t mean all that have must have taken the wrong road. If you truly understand the community, stop misrepresenting it.

  • http://www.thatpinkmouse.com/bloggy Jenny Bliss

    @geekgazette

    evolution is indeed just a theory, this is true :P they just dont know the difference between a theory and a hypothisis is all lol i always say those people do need to look them up in a dictionary at some point ^_^

  • Greg

    Gibbon, enough people have replied to you, perhaps, but I just want to make one point in relation to this:

    Likewise, if you don’t know if there is a god or not, and no one in fact knows, then you can’t reject the whole notion of god(s).

    But what is a god? I have heard definitions for god ranging from the absurd, to the… Oh… wait. ;)

    Let’s try again… I have heard plenty of different definitions of god. I’ve heard: ‘god is love’, and god is a beardy man in the sky. I discount the first because it is just a useless substitution of a word that provides us with no extra information of any sort. That and the people who claim it generally claim that god is something else too. I discount the second because I have seen no evidence for it.

    Before I can allow for the fact that there might be different types of something, I first have to be convinced that there is one type to begin with.

    Put it this way:

    If someone comes to me and claims a Fladvaark exists, and describes it to me as having 6 legs; being 10 foot tall, 6 inches wide, and 2 inches deep; bright orange; furry; eats Kavalitaks; and flies through the air; is it reasonable of me to reject its existence when I am not presented with any evidence? Am I rejecting all Fladvaarks?

    If I am then presented with the claim that Fladvaarks have 1 leg, are minuscule, transparent, scaly, doesn’t need to eat to survive, and hops around, is it not reasonable for me to treat it as a separate entity to the first definition, and then also discard the claim when I find no evidence to back it up? Am I now rejecting all Fladvaarks?

    The word ‘god’ is used in order to get their own made up creature some extra respect from other god believers, when the concept of it in all reality can be as similar to the concepts to other gods as the two Fladvaarks above are to each other. The only thing in common between them is the name that has been given them.

    As an atheist, I treat all gods as separate entities. There is no big ‘set’ of gods that I dismiss, only individual definitions that are called god that I dismiss.

    Oh – and please don’t reply that ‘Fladvaarks’ are obviously made up and absurd.

    Apart from having spectacularly missed the point if you do so; as far as I am concerned: so are gods.

  • Will

    Prothero describes a religion as having four things in this new book. Creed, cult (ritual, holiday), scripture, and community. He actually tried to show that atheists had all these things and were therefore a religion (he couldn’t find anything for the cult other than Darwin day lol). And he tried to say that atheists use ayn rand’s books as scripture. The guy is obviously an idiot. I mean his chapter on Santeria/Yoruba was more pleasant than the one on atheists and that’s almost all superstition and fortune telling. I think the more out there the religion, the more he approves.

  • muggle

    Atheism is not a religion, its a personal relationship with reality.

    I quite like that! And this too:

    I do not reject gods, I simply haven’t gained any.

    Though there, hoverfrog, you have me beat, lucky you. I’ll pass it along to my daughter and grandson who were never taught any.

    Honestly, this idiot’s a moron but if people keep trying to turn Atheism into a religion, I might just become Extian. (Link doesn’t seem to be added right: http://www.lyricsoncall.com/lyrics/greydon-square/extian-lyrics.html

    What, btw, is with this god, any god, silliness? Enough of this silly ridiculousness of you have to reject all gods ever made up. I don’t see them rejecting his noodliness, the Flying Spaghetti Monster. At least not in the sense of having seriously considered him in the first place before doing so.

    Secular Planet, that’s a great summary of Chrtianity!

    Just because I don’t like Jesus doesn’t mean I don’t like Harry Potter. Cool kid and what a natural kick-ass with magic! This non-magical folk is duly impressed.

  • muggle

    I don’t know what I’m doing wrong. My link to the Extian lyrics seems to keep disappearing so let’s try it again:

    http://www.lyricsoncall.com/lyrics/greydon-square/extian-lyrics.html

  • Hitch

    Frankly that people try to frame atheists is not that harmful. It gives us chance to explain and reiterate. It’s better than being ignored and the stereotype being implied.

    But yes it is annoying too.

  • Steve

    @Gibbon
    “If you don’t know that there are aliens living on a planet that’s orbiting a star in the Andromeda galaxy, how can you reject the notion that there is? Likewise, if you don’t know if there is a god or not, and no one in fact knows, then you can’t reject the whole notion of god(s).”

    Because I can devise, imagine and accept a rationally or scientifically valid model of how aliens came to be and live in another galaxy. It’s something outside the realm of my experience, but it’s plausible.

    There is nothing rational or plausible about omnipotent, omniscient, invisible, metaphysical and invisible “sky beings”/gods. It’s pure imagination without any basis in reality.

  • Steve

    To add to that. That issue about aliens and gods only becomes an interesting question when those aliens become so advanced that you can’t possibly comprehend them.

    Like Arthur C. Clarke said: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”.

    Could an alien race that’s millions of years old be perceived as gods by us? Yes. But if knew they are aliens, then they wouldn’t be gods.
    People might worship and “believe” in them, but it wouldn’t be faith. If anyone could proof the existence of a god, there would no longer by faith. Faith per definition is a belief in something that doesn’t exist.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff P

    Atheism is not a religion, it’s a personal relationship with reality.

    It’s witty and catchy but a little condescending.

    A less confrontational (but less bumper-sticker worthy) version would be

    Atheism is not a religion, it’s merely skepticism as applied to religious belief.

    I would also like to echo other comments that I enjoy reading fiction. I have no problem enjoying a good novel (or story) even if I know the characters are made up. There is a difference between enjoying something and believing something.

  • Erin

    After googling Stephen Prothero and discovering that he is a professor of religion at Boston University, and as a student attending a college in Boston, i have to say it is going to take a lot of willpower not to march on over to his office and ask him to have an honest discussion about why he believes atheists apparently “reject a god that you’ve never heard of” when a huge number of atheists that i have met are extremely well educated in a variety of religions. I have taken classes that covered christianity, islam, hinduism, judaism, buddhism, shinto, daoism, voodoo, sikhism, and wicca, and as part of the course i have visited about half of their places of worship. I have found all of them equally fascinating, and visits to a lovely Hindu temple in New Jersey and a Zen Buddhist meditation room were especially eye opening. However, nothing I learned about any of these religions made me rethink atheism, so I dont quite know how the professor would back up his claim that I’m intellectually dishonest if i’ve rejected the gods that I have heard of and studied.

  • Hitch

    I think it’s fair to have a level headed discussion with him. Not confrontational, but bringing quotes and ask him to reconcile it with your actual views is very legitimate.

    If you feel negatively stereotyped it is also OK to say so, in a non-confrontational way of course.

    Heck I wish more people actually read the Minnesota study of mistrust of atheists before claiming to write scholarly about it.

  • Gibbon

    MikeTheInfidel, Aj, fritzy, Tony, Greg, Steve, and anyone else who objected to what I said:

    You can not reject what you don’t know. There are going to be things out there in the universe that we have absolutely zero knowledge of, which means that we don’t even have an idea of what they are. Now, aside from the problem of how I could know that when I have no knowledge of such beings, (which makes it an assumption, but this is a thought experiment), without the tiniest knowledge of those things we can not reject the idea that there are things that we have no knowledge of. You can only reject what you know.

    The only difference between these unknown things and god is that we have a starting point for the latter, what we have is the term ‘god’ and the most basic idea, which I would say is “a supernatural being”. But without a substantial or satisfactory definition for the idea/term, (Greg was right to point out the problem of there being so many different definitions) any rejection of it is little more than a dismissal of an empty shell; there is no substance to it. So you’re rejecting barely anything.

    The additional problem of rejecting god is that if you do start from the idea that it is a supernatural being then you have no basis on which to reject it other than the inability of humans to perceive or experience anything that may exist beyond the natural world, which by definition god would be if it is supernatural.

    I’m actually reminded of a quote from the 6th century Chinese philosopher Confucius when he said: “How should I know anything about another world when I know so little of this?”

    You irrationally deny religions are about supernatural belief. What is theology about? What are religious texts about? What a sermons about? What are prayers about? What are rituals about? Supernatural beliefs. Religious people by definition are very much concerned with the supernatural.

    It is not irrational when the idea that religions are about supernatural beliefs is based on NO evidence whatsoever and was instead the product of 18th/19th century Christian missionaries who were trying to convert others to their religion. They came up with the idea that religion is about god or the supernatural in order to deny that other religions were equal to theirs and so as to make it look like Christianity was the only religion that contained “the true word”. In other words it was a tool for Christian proselytising, and if I remember correctly it was a symptom of Orientalism.

    Here is a tip, no one knows what religion is. To ask ‘what is religion’ is to open a question that has been virtually impossible to answer. Within the academic discipline of religious studies, which includes the likes of Stephen Prothero, Wendy Doniger, and John Esposito, there is no agreed upon answer, only different approaches to solving the problem.

    Don’t accuse me of being irrational Aj when I have the intelligence to avoid one of the lies of religious dogma, when you don’t.

  • http://hoverfrog.wordpress.com hoverfrog

    Gibbon

    You can not reject what you don’t know.

    Nor is there any need to. Given that nobody knows about gods why accept or reject them?

    The only difference between these unknown things and god is that we have a starting point for the latter

    I’m afraid that we don’t have any such thing. “God” is a concept without a decent explanation. If you think that “a supernatural being” explains anything then you’re wrong. The word “supernatural” itself serves to obfuscate any reasonable enquiry by removing the burden of evidence and reason from it. Furthermore it is a lazy way of saying that you have no explanation for something without admitting your ignorance.

    you have no basis on which to reject it other than the inability of humans to perceive or experience anything that may exist beyond the natural world

    Can you demonstrate that anything exists beyond the natural world? If not then why are you making any claim about it?

    I know you’ve answered this but it is worth repeating.

    You irrationally deny religions are about supernatural belief. What is theology about? What are religious texts about? What a sermons about? What are prayers about? What are rituals about? Supernatural beliefs. Religious people by definition are very much concerned with the supernatural.

    Some religious people are. Some are more reasonable.

    For the record:

    Theology: the rational and systematic study of religion and its influences and of the nature of religious truth.

    Religious texts: A sacred writing or book; An authoritative statement. Typically myths and cultural commentary surrounding one or more figures important to the religion.

    Sermon: An address of a religious nature or moral rebuke.

    Prayer: To ask that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner confessedly unworthy. :) Or less sarcastically the act of praying can also be viewed as a ritualised time where the subject orders their thoughts and puts their actions and desires within a moral or religious context.

    Ritual: a set of actions, performed mainly for their symbolic value. It may be prescribed by a religion or by the traditions of a community. The term usually excludes actions which are arbitrarily chosen by the performers, or dictated purely by logic, chance, necessity, etc

    Supernatural beliefs are not a prerequisite for any of these. Many adherents to faiths will ascribe a supernatural context to these actions but they are unnecessary.

    The issue here is that religious opinion is quite diverse. Undoubtedly there are superstitious adherents to religious dogma and these can be frustrating to deal with. There are also many rational and reasonable religious folk but you don’t tend to find them on the Internet. ;)

    To ask ‘what is religion’ is to open a question that has been virtually impossible to answer.

    Really? I googled the question and got 61,600,000 results so it seems as if 61 million sites have at least posed the question and attempted an answer. Wikipedia does a bang up job actually with: “A religion is a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a supernatural agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.”

    A bit vague and it clearly doesn’t cover everything but it’ll do as a starting point.

  • Claudia

    The additional problem of rejecting god is that if you do start from the idea that it is a supernatural being then you have no basis on which to reject it other than the inability of humans to perceive or experience anything that may exist beyond the natural world, which by definition god would be if it is supernatural.

    It seems to me that this gets into the problem of word definitions and default positions. Insofar as I can tell calling something “supernatural” is a cop-out. Its the affirmation that an unexplained phenomenon lies beyond our comprehension and thus, and this is key, cannot be explained by natural laws. There are two problems with this. One is the harsh teacher of our past history. Make a list of the things that have been called supernatural over the centuries; lightning, rain, the sun, earthquakes, eclipses, the diversity of life, the orbits of the planets etc. All were said to be supernatural, affirmed to be forever beyond our comprehension. All are now explained. This brings me to the second problem, which is that if we find ourselves with something that totally surpasses our ability to explain it, how can we draw the default conclusion that it is supernatural, knowing that we are limited in knowledge and that every single previous claim to the supernatural has eventually been debunked by science?

    Another is this insistence that every single religious claim must be studied individually before a default nonbelief position can be taken. Note that this only applies to religious belief. No one expects anyone to travel the Earth listening to the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of tales of elves and gnomes that arise in different cultures before one is allowed to have a default disbelief in such creatures.

    There are two fundamental mistakes in the reasoning here. One is that it is illegitimate to reject the concept of the supernatural by default. I will not accept the existence of the supernatural until someone can explain to me how one would differentiate between something supernatural and something natural but unexplained. The other is that in the special case of religion one is not allowed to come to any preliminary conclusions until one has completed the impossible task of studying every single religious claim in existence, instead of deciding that no religious belief that the individual knows of has any credibiity and thus defaulting to nonbelief, always open the possibility that someone somewhere might actually come up with a convincing argument for their own religion.

  • Aj

    Gibbon,

    Religious people reject and accept things which they do not know about, explicitly. A few atheists reject explicitly all gods, they are called strong atheists. These two groups exist, therefore it must be possible or they lie when they affirm that they are e.g. monotheists or strong atheists. Most atheists do not explicitly reject gods they do not know about, but implicitly reject any proposition of a god without sufficient evidence, which must include gods of dead cultures they have never heard of. Rejection of gods is rejecting barely anything, and there needs be no other basis than lack of experience to reject something.

    It seems I’ll have to explain to you what the terms I mentioned mean. Theology is the study of a god or gods, the divine, supernatural beings. Scripture, accounts from prophets (people who claim to speak for supernatural beings) taken to be true and authoritative by believers to some degree. A sermon is a speech delivered by a prophet, or a member of clergy invoking the prophets. Rituals are performed actions to commune, please, appease, honour, or request from supernatural beings. Prayer is to commune with supernatural beings in thought or words. These things did not originate with Christianity, supernatural beliefs have been an essential part of religion for much longer than Christianity has existed. All other religions contain beliefs of a supernatural nature that have to be considered to understand their practices and laws.

  • charles

    people are religious because they can’t deal with life not for any logical reason.they literally do not know what they are talking about.

  • http://www.jono46.wordpress.com Jono

    Charles, that’s a particularly cruel thing to say about the religious. Are you truly so much better than us?

  • http://annainca.blogspot.com Anna

    Ugh. I’ve officially taken Stephen Prothero’s books off my “to-read” list.

    I think many atheists are not actually atheists; they’re just people who’ve rejected the Jewish or Christian God, more specifically the god that their parents taught them. They don’t know anything about the Hindu divinities. How can you reject a god that you’ve never even heard of?

    The idea that we have to learn about every single deity from every single culture before we “reject” them is just ludicrous. But what’s funny about his comment is that the very first religion I ever studied in depth was Hinduism. I did a research paper on it when I was 14, so it was the first belief system I looked at in a comprehensive way. I had also learned about Greek mythology a few years before that. And since my parents never taught me the Jewish or Christian god (or any other), I never had a reason to think of a particular deity as special or more likely to be true than another.

    But, even rejecting the supernatural, not all religions have gods, not all religions necessarily have the supernatural. Confucianism and Buddhism might be the religion for them.

    Say what? I don’t want a religion. If I wanted a religion, I’d go and get one. I’m well aware that there are religions that don’t contain supernatural dogma. I just don’t want to be part of them. Why does he think I should have to have a religion? What’s wrong with just being an atheist? I’m not into rituals. I’m not into group chanting or meditation. That’s not for me. I don’t even like the philosophy of Buddhism or Confucianism. But he thinks that just because they’re godless, I should be attracted to them?

  • Barry Smith

    he wrongly calls atheism a religion with our own brand of fundamentalists

    It’s a regularly heard argument, but one which is easily dismissed by resorting to a long word: epistemology.

    Epistemology is the philosophy of knowledge; what is knowledge and how is it generated?

    For atheists knowledge is something that comes from observation and the study of the world. For theists knowledge is something that comes from faith – in denial of evidence if necessary.

    This is where religions differ from atheism. They have a common epistemological perspective which is fundamentally different from that of atheism, and that is why atheism is not simply another religion. It is instead a wholly different philosophical position.

  • Karen Harbster

    “Athiests don’t see evidence for any god…” This quote causes me to ask the following questions out of curiousity. How does an athiest explain the wonder of the creation that is all around us? Where did it all/we all come from? When I’m out in a forest or anywhere in creation, I look around and begin thinking of the amazing detail of each and everything I see from the tiniest cell which I cannot see to the largest thing my eyes can see and think about how it all came to be. Could all of this beauty be an accident, explosion, or freak of nature? How did it all come to be and how does it continue to exist?

  • http://hoverfrog.wordpress.com hoverfrog

    Karen Harbster, I love questions so I’ll try to answer yours. Bear in mind that we atheists aren’t a unified group and we don’t follow any sort of agreed tenets so my answers may well be different from the next atheist’s answers.

    How does an atheist explain the wonder of the creation that is all around us?

    Well not by calling it “creation” for a start. Personally I’m in awe of the magnificence of the universe, its vastness and diversity from a sub atomic particle to the effect of black holes. It is all rather grand. Fortunately we have some excellent tools at our disposal to help us to understand this. These tools are called “science” and they do a bang up job of finding answers to questions about the universe.

    Where did it all/we all come from?

    When a man and a woman love each other very much…. We are the products of successful matings from organisms who have beaten the odds and survived. There is an unbroken line between you or me all the way back to the time of the dinosaurs and beyond.

    Could all of this beauty be an accident, explosion, or freak of nature?

    Obviously yes. That is what the evidence suggests and we follow the evidence even if the answer isn’t what we would prefer. Not doing so is dishonest and does us no favours.

    How did it all come to be and how does it continue to exist?

    Look to history and science for an answer to that.


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