A Rebuttal to Chris Stedman’s “What’s the biggest misconception about atheists?”

If I were to imitate Ed Brayton and come up with a list of “Things that Atheists shouldn’t say”, I would look for material in many articles and lists and speeches that tend to clear up misunderstandings about atheism. Usually I feel on the side of the misconceived atheist, and it seems that I do fit the bill when it comes to how some religious people imagine atheists pretty neatly. I do hate god, although I don’t believe in him, because he’s repulsive, I do want to destroy religion, (I can’t, but want and can are completely different things), and many more. But there is one point that really grinds my gears and it’s when people say “we’re really not that different!” to the theists. I’m referring to an article that Ophelia Benson has already covered, and I have commented on her blogpost, but I couldn’t let it go.

The article I’m referring to is by Chris Stedman, called “What’s the biggest misconception about atheists?” Chris Stedman asks this questions from a series of atheist “representatives” (I presume they are elected in a global atheist convention that I missed), and they provide their answers. And I find myself excluded. Now, I don’t expect these people to include me, or people like me, in their own agenda which is valid and respectable, but I can (and will) point out that this is not true about me, that I’m not such a nice atheist as you are.

Well, for starters, to me the biggest misconception about atheists is that there is a misconception about atheists, because we’re not really a monolith, and I don’t mean it in the sense that “Christian and Muslims are not a monolith” (they’re not, obviously), because when it comes to Christians and Muslims there is a common ideology and something of a shared history and mythology and canon, while that is not true about atheists. However, this is not what I find really objectionable in Stedman’s piece.

I have a feeling that many of my objections are going to be controversial – but remember, unlike these people, I’m no one’s representative, I speak only for myself. You are free to agree or disagree. I’m not saying you should or must act like me. What I’m saying is that (1) You can listen to my arguments and (2) don’t pretend that there aren’t atheists unlike you. Thanks.

Now, on to my objections. We begin by Tanya Barrett, co-chair of the Connecticut Coalition of Reason and 2013 American Atheists Connecticut Activist of the Year:

The misconception about atheists that I run into most frequently is that atheists are immoral, unethical, and not compassionate. Some people have only been exposed to atheists when they are interested in arguing about the separation of church and state, as opposed to seeing them as regular human beings who have the same capacity to be kind and helpful as anyone else.

Now, I think that’s untrue for three reasons. First of all, there are many atheists who raging assholes. No religion or ideology or school of philosophy has any monopoly on assholes. Two, I’m not so sure if “regular human beings” are such a prize – I think kindness (genuine kindness, not the fake kindness) and helpfulness are quite rare among people. If being compassionate was so commonplace compassionate people wouldn’t be elevated to mythical status. But, more importantly, third, I don’t want religious people to think I’m moral or ethical. If a religious person looks at my life and thinks “Yeah, this guy is really moral and ethical” I’d feel like a failure.

Now, personally, I dislike religion and I oppose it because I find it immoral and unethical. I think religion celebrates totalitarianism, patriarchy, guilt, sexual repression, family, obedience, collectivism, weakness, slavery of the body and mind, and I celebrate quite the opposite of these things. My moral role model is Marilyn Manson. My favorite fictional character is Satan. I’d be dismayed if I were considered a moral and ethical person in the society that I consider immoral to the bone.

Sex is an interesting topic. I don’t have taboos. I don’t think sex should have any justification beyond fun. If it’s consensual, it’s moral. I don’t care if people commit consensual incest. I don’t care if they roll in mud and that satisfies them. I don’t care if people get in a relationship with someone who’s 50 years older than them. And when people point their fingers at these couples and go “eww”, I’m entertained. I don’t mind perverts – and I don’t want people who believe in the fascist concept of “normal” to find me moral.

To me, atheism is part of a bigger package. I also oppose nationalism. I also oppose the structure of families as they are today. I don’t expect people to be as radical as I am. I don’t mind reformists and friendly atheists. I don’t think they’re doing anything wrong. I think I’m playing my role and they’re playing theirs. I understand that some people’s opposition to religion is purely from a reason standpoint. But, let’s not make such hasty generalizations.

Chris Stedman himself closes this piece:

In addition to some of the misconceptions offered by my fellow panelists—the ideas that we atheists have no meaning or sense of purpose to our lives, that we are without morals, that we yearn to believe—I think another misconception is the idea that atheists and theists do not and cannot identify shared values or areas of mutual concern.

Up until this point I agree – of course atheists and theists can have shared values. Ultimately all the great reforms are done by liberal theists who share some major values with anti-society atheists, and there have been atheists who share the repressive values of the religion. It seems painfully obvious to me, but still, it’s blatantly true. But it leads to something else:

This is a harmful and ultimately dehumanizing assumption, predicated for some on the idea that atheists are so completely unlike theists—and that the chasm between believers and nonbelievers is so vast—that it isn’t valuable or even possible to work together for the common good.

But the reality is that we aren’t as different as we may think. Theist or atheist, we’re all trying to construct meaningful lives, understand ourselves and others, and learn more about the world around us. So let’s get together and get to know one another better.

This is beautiful prose, but void of content. To me, these two paragraphs of Mr. Stedman remind me of astrology and horoscopes. The trick that the writers of horoscope use is that they use such general statements that you read and nod “yeah, that’s true about me”, but in fact it could be true about any person. I don’t think anyone (with the exception of the followers of some philosophies who aren’t Stedman’s designated reader) thinks that they are leading meaningless lives, point is, the meanings are different, no one thinks that they want to misunderstand themselves and others, or want to learn less about the world around them. Point is, those understandings can be different.

Hey, theists and atheists both exist! We are formed by atoms! We live in the same universe! Aren’t we so much alike?

If I were a theist, I wouldn’t buy Mr. Stedman’s forged pact of alliance, and I wouldn’t sell it as an atheist either.

Why do we need to be alike, or similar, to “get together and know each other better?” I don’t need to pretend to be similar to people to be their allies or their friends. Why not acknowledge that we are different and “get together”? Wouldn’t a world filled with similar people be an awfully dull place anyway?

I think acknowledging the differences between people and individuals is a sign of respect for who they are. People are who they are because of their differences from other people, what distinguishes them and not what connects them. I can tell a theist “Our worldviews and attitudes are fundamentally different, let’s get together”. (Again, I don’t say atheists and theists are fundamentally different, I say I am. If you’re an atheist and you feel you are very similar to theists, all the power to you. But don’t speak on everyone’s behalf).

I personally strongly dislike this type of feel-good horoscope-like inoffensive pretenses of our common humanity and lovely nature. I find them simplistic and irrelevant, and somehow magically dreadfully obvious and yet completely misleading at the same time.

If you are a theist, and you are also annoyed by these feel-good butterfly-filled sentences, you and I are much alike! Let’s get together and smoke weed. I mean, know each other better.

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