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.