Atheism Doesn’t Promise Utopia, So Theists Should Stop Pretending It Does

I read Dana Hunter’s article “Why I Wish Religion Away” today and it reminded of an issue that I have with many theists debating atheism. The basic issue is this: some theists pretend that we atheists are promising a utopia to humanity, and the they make us defend claims we have never made. Of course, atheists are not monolithic, but I don’t know of any famous atheist who has claimed “as soon as religion is vanished from the face of the earth a new golden era is begun with no sexism and no racism and no crime and animals will turn vegetarian”. Our whole shtick is not promising paradises.

What do we claim? (Or better, what some radical atheists like me claim?) We claim that (1) Religion is evil (2) Religion is bad for humanity (3) Overall the role of religion has been negative in human history (4) fighting against religions and trying to deconvert people is a worthy cause.

Now you’re welcome to debate any of the above claims, whether you are a theist or an atheist who disagrees, but only those claims, not claims that were never claimed or implied. So, I think these lines of argument are irrelevant to the debate:

1) There will be evil in the world, even if religion is no more. Yes, there will be. However, one cause of evil is removed and that is progress. That’s like saying “If racism is over, then there is still sexism, so why bother fighting racism”? Or “Even if scientists manage to cure cancer people would still die”. See, makes no sense. We don’t promise you utopia, stop pretending that we do.

2) What about atheistic tyrannies like Soviet Union? Yes, without religion there are still many reasons for people to oppress others. Like racism, sexism, etc. None of those ideologies or prejudices are necessarily religious. But then again, atheists don’t argue that the end of religion suddenly ushers in an era of freedom. We say that religion is one cause of tyranny, and removing that one cause is a good thing.

3) Religion has done some good / has some good parts too. To say that something is overall bad and negative doesn’t mean it’s absolutely bad. This is again the utopian mindset, that opposing ideologies are absolutely good and absolutely evil.

You very rarely see this line of argument in politics anymore. Any liberal or conservative is willing to concede that the other side has some good points too. I think this all boils down to a special status that we give to religion, and people’s desire to defend it, therefore they turn it up to 11 while no one is discussing things in such dramatic terms. I think it’s because of a desire to defend religion at all costs, and knowing that if we treat religion in normal terms there’s no way to really defend it.

Also, I ask atheists not to fall for these lines of argument, too. Simply remind them and these are extreme and laughable positions that no atheist (or very few) really hold.

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About Kaveh Mousavi

Kaveh Mousavi is the pseudonym of an atheist ex-Muslim living in Iran, subject to one of the world’s remaining theocracies. He is a student of English Literature, an aspiring novelist, and part-time English teacher. He is passionate about politics, video games, heavy metal music, and cinema. He was born at the tenth anniversary of the Islamic Revolution of Iran. He has ditched the Islamic part, but has kept some of the revolutionary spirit.

  • Sastra

    You make an important point — points. It sometimes seems as if the religious can’t help but try to create us in their own image. If they found God because of a presumed human hunger for perfection, then surely atheists who ‘turn away’ from God must be hungering for the same perfection — and will find it within other absolutes. The idea that a demand for perfection is a flaw to be fought against doesn’t seem to come into play. Improvement, not utopia. Better, not absolute.

    It’s interesting to note that the beloved examples of “atheistic tyrannies” of the apologist could be said to be as bad as they were/are mainly because they resemble religion as much as secularly possible. Lack of open discussion, dogmatic adherence to creeds, unquestionable leaders, etc. That doesn’t exactly make a case for religion being “better,” does it? On the contrary.

    And if actual supernatural religion had been added to the mix — Stalin claiming to be acting on the commands of God, say — does anyone really think it would have been an improvement?

    • Kaveh Mousavi

      Well there is a real world example, North Korea, which really has elevated its dictators to godly status. The official head of state is still the dead grandpa of the current dictator who resides from heaven.

      • Sastra

        Good example. It’s rather hard to maintain that North Korea is “atheistic.”

        Christopher Hitchens once visited there and said that it resembled Heaven as much as anything on earth ever could. And he did not mean it as a compliment. Not at all.

        • Leo Buzalsky

          Notice, too, that theists, when discussing tyrannies, rarely seem to use North Korea as an example. I think some recognize this problem.

  • Andrew B.

    “Religion has done some good / has some good parts too.”

    I oppose religious-thinking because its success rate for doing “good things” is much, much lower than other methods like moral philosophy, empathy education, secularism, etc. Defending the religious approach to ethics is like defending the tactic of guessing on a multiple choice test, because “guessing has done some good, too.”

  • Leo Buzalsky

    Our whole shtick is not promising paradises.

    That is, however, their shtick. So, I am left to wonder if perhaps they cannot comprehend the fact that someone would have a shtick that does not include such a promise.

    Alternatively, it may be that they know they have an audience that wants such a promise. So they straw man the atheist to more strongly demonstrate that the atheist cannot promise such. But why, then, straw man when there is no such promise in the first place? That, I suppose, is because they don’t want their audience to even consider that someone may even have a shtick that lacks such a promise.

  • rapiddominance

    Even though I’m a christian, I can’t imagine how the world would suddenly improve if atheism were to dissappear. Perhaps the increase in atheism is just as much a symptom of religious chaos as it is science education.

    I can’t speak for all (or perhaps most) of my fellow believers, but Christ never promised we would build a utopia in this life, nor did he suggest that we try to create one. That little “City on the Hill” thing with the Puritans was a boast that was doomed to fail. Likewise, I know of no atheists who’ve made a similar promise (though some do believe the world would improve dramatically in religion’s absence).

    I don’t really think of religion as a good or bad thing–instead, I see it as a natural human behavior. Considering the human desire to survive or transcend this temporary life, it would seem that religious practice is either 1) a natural, evolutionary outcome, or 2) out of a desire planted in human hearts by a creator. If you and I ever agree on this issue, I doubt it will happen soon.

    Am I implying that atheists hold an unnatural position? Not necessarily. A lot of the atheists I’ve encountered (possibly most) were once theists who tried hard to believe, but in the face of evidences and doctrinal contradictions they couldn’t hold on anymore. They tried to “survive”, but they couldn’t. However, there are some atheists who seem to have never really had a need for deity at all in their lives and I admit that I find this subset to be of interest.

    Scott Morgan

    • rapiddominance

      It was the “Puritans” who promised to build a City on a Hill, right? I’m not very good with details.

    • Kaveh Mousavi

      I think you can add another possible reason for this desire – social upbringing. We’re all born to a religious world, and we are conditioned to find belief in god natural and automatic. Atheism may not be unnatural, but at least in my part of the world is not a very good survival tactic.

      • rapiddominance

        I think you can add another possible reason for this desire – social upbringing.

        Definitely an influence, especially in regards to the form of religion or spirituality one pursues.

        Atheism may not be unnatural, but at least in my part of the world is not a very good survival tactic.

        From what I’ve read in your blog so far, you can live out your life as a known atheist (or christian), but trying to deconvert people is where it gets particularly risky.

        Going back to “social upbringing” and whether or not atheism is natural–you’ve got me thinking. I suppose that if you’re raised in an atheist home its quiet natural to become an atheist. I should look into some stats on that (if there are any). I know that Christopher Hitchen’s brother converted to theism, and I think one of Madelyn O’Har’es son’s did, as well . . . but I wonder how common it is for a person born in a secular home to acquire religious beliefs.

        Also, I think we can add other factors aside from “transcendence” and “social upbringing”. Wicca is becoming increasingly popular here in America, and there seem to be other factors involved in the phenomenon than what you and I mentioned. Perhaps, for some, there’s a desire for power. Maybe its about being part of a group, or thinking magic is cool. Maybe its the Wiccan emphasis on adoring the earth that draws some people. A particular male friend of mine seemed especially fond of the “goddess aspect” of it.

        • rapiddominance

          Wow, I’m all over the map. I need to practice thinking linearly.

  • miserlyoldman

    The folks at Ask an Atheist have an (unintentional) refrain that appears at least once every few episodes to the effect of, “name one good thing that religion does that can’t be accomplished secularly. Name one.” It may be my favorite response to heading #3.

  • rapiddominance

    Kaveh, I’m sorry to keep bothering you. I’m changing the topic a little bit because I was thinking about Iran in the last hours or so and I want to know more about it historically.

    I took a class on Middle Eastern history in college, but my details are fuzzy–consequentially, my questions might come out a little obscure.

    To my understanding, Iranian culture and tolerance was a little different before approximately 1976. I don’t remember the leader(s) name(s), but I think the last name was Shah. My understanding is that the environment in Iran, though still heavily Islamic, was far more westernized in nature, that education was more liberal, and that Iran was a safer place for people of differing world views.

    1) Is my general understanding anywhere close to accurate?

    2) If so, was Iran a “better” place, socially, for people like yourself (and others like me).

    3) If so, what went wrong?

    I wouldn’t mind if you delete this comment because its off topic, but if you ever feel like writing a post on 20th Century Iranian history, that would be pretty awesome. That said, I hope its not rude of me to “make a request”. I’m not exactly your target audience (at least I don’t think I am) so I definitely don’t expect you to prioritize around my wishes.

    Thank you for tolerating me!

    Again, Scott

    • Kaveh Mousavi

      You’re not bothering me, and I’m not tolerating you because I actually enjoy reading your comments a lot. :) I’ve posted a reply to your question.

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