Unhelpful Things (Some) Atheists Say

Unhelpful Things (Some) Atheists Say April 1, 2014

Yesterday, Ed Brayton wrote a post titled Atheists, Please Stop Saying These Things. I thoroughly enjoyed it and agreed with what he had to say. Below are summaries of his points (in his post he offers lengthy explanation under each).

1. Please stop saying that “we’re all born atheists.”

2. Please stop trotting out simplistic reasons why people believe. 

3. Please stop explaining the creation of religion in equally simplistic ways.

4. Please stop conflating fundamentalism or Biblical literalism with Christianity itself. 

5. Please stop saying that being religious means someone is stupid. 

6. Please stop saying “Religion is a mental illness” or “religion is a virus.” 

7. Please stop saying that if you call yourself an agnostic you’re really just a wimpy atheist who won’t commit or who doesn’t have the courage of their convictions. 

8. Please stop saying “tax the churches!” 

9. Please stop saying “The founding fathers were all deists” (or worse, atheists).

Inspired by Ed’s post (which you should read), I want to add a few more things.

10. Please stop saying that religion is the root of all evil. This is absolutely ridiculous. First of all, from Mao to Pol Pot to the Communist Gulag, there is plenty of evil apart from religion. Additionally, many of the atrocities commonly attributed to religion—the Crusades, 9/11—are actually the products of a more complicated mixture of cultural and economic factors, not religion alone. Finally, religion has the potential to bring about good as well as evil. Religion has a subversive potential that can be used to challenge hierarchy and power structures, for example, and it has often carried out this function.

11. Please stop saying that women who choose Christianity (or other traditionally patriarchal religions) must be dupes. Even within conservative circles, Christianity promises women a lot—respect, honor, value, security. Sure, I take issue with loads of traditional Christian teachings about women and gender, and especially with the idea that wives are to submit to their husbands. However, I am not blind to the attraction even conservative Christianity has for many women.

In addition to the things above, evangelical Christianity in particular also offers women something I’ve seen called “Jesus boyfriend”—a personal relationship with a God who loves them, is there for them, and has a plan for their lives. Sure, as an atheist I don’t think this relationship is “real” (although this of course depends on how you define “real”), but as someone who once had such a relationship, it can feel very real real and be incredibly empowering.

Christianity in particular and religion in general offer a sense of purpose, meaning, and community. Religion is also often intertwined with culture and creates connections to one’s ancestry and heritage. Is it any surprise that so many women choose to be a part of religious traditions, even those that strictly define women’s role? These women aren’t dupes. They’re rational actors.

12. Please stop assuming that Christianity as a whole (or religion in general) is anti-woman. Many Christians today embrace gender equality, and there are Christian feminists. Indeed, nineteenth-century women used arguments based in Christianity to advocate for women’s suffrage. Christianity is flexible, and it has strong subversive themes that have long been used to argue for an expanded role for women, both within Christianity and in society in general. Yes, Christianity can be used to limit women and curtail their choices. Trust me, I know! I’ve been there! But Christianity has also been used to free women and expand their options. (And while we’re at it, there are also Muslim feminists, and there are religions that are female-centric.)

13. Please stop saying that providing children with religious instruction is brainwashing or child abuse. Brainwashing is a loaded term with extremely negative connotations, and as such is inherently prejudicial. To argue that bringing a child up in a religion is brainwashing is to unfairly equate all religion with extreme or coercive sects and to minimize what those who have actually been brainwashed go through. Similarly, suggesting that every parent who raises a child in a religion is engaging in child abuse is not only false but also minimizes what actual child abuse victims have gone through and is unnecessarily inflammatory and stigmatizing.

Further, under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, children have a right to their culture, which includes religion. UNICEF summarizes Article 30 of the UNCRC as follows: “Minority or indigenous children have the right to learn about and practice their own culture, language and religion. The right to practice one’s own culture, language and religion applies to everyone; the Convention here highlights this right in instances where the practices are not shared by the majority of people in the country.” In other words, it is actually the right of a child growing up in a religious family and community to receive religious instruction.

Can the religious instruction children receive be coercive or traumatic? Yes. Can some religious beliefs, such as hell, cause children severe psychological distress? Yes. But we can address these things without misusing terms like “brainwashing” or “child abuse” and without ignoring children’s right to their culture.

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