News & Politics

10 Myths and Truths About Atheists

The idea that atheists are immoral, or that they treat science as their religion is just pure BS.

Maybe you've read 10 Myths -- and 10 Truths -- About Atheism, Sam Harris's famous op-ed piece for theLos Angeles Times, which was an attempt to clear up the most common misunderstandings about atheists. The piece is a good idea. But something about it bugs me. Specifically, it bugs me how much time Harris spent dissing religion.

Don't get me wrong -- I think religion deserves criticism. But here, I think it's inappropriate. If you're writing a piece saying, "Here's who we are and why the myths about us are incorrect," you shouldn't go off on a "here's why the rest of you are losers" tangent. It's not persuasive ... and it's seriously off-topic.

So here’s my own version. (Very much riffing off Harris', and with all due credit to him.)

1: Atheists are 100 percent convinced that there is no god, as blindly faithful as religious fundamentalists.

Atheism means different things to different atheists. But for the overwhelming majority, it doesn't mean being 100 percent certain that there's no god. It means being certain enough. It means we're as certain that Jehovah or Allah or Ganesh don't exist, as we are that Zeus or Thor or the Flying Spaghetti Monster don't exist. (I've read and spoken with hundreds of atheists ... and have encountered exactly two 100 percenters.) Atheists aren't saying, "We're 100 percent convinced that there's no god, nothing could persuade us otherwise." Atheists are saying, "We're not convinced. The arguments for God are weak and circular; the evidence falls apart under close examination. Show us better evidence or arguments, and we'll reconsider. Until then, we're assuming that God doesn't exist."

Further reading: The Unexplained, the Unproven, and the Unlikely; The 100 percent Solution: On Uncertainty, And Why It Doesn't Matter So Much

2: Atheists are immoral: without religion, there's no basis for morality.

I could argue against this a hundred ways. I could argue that mature morality takes responsibility for its choices instead of blindly following someone else's rules ... an argument many theologians also make. I could point out that even believers are selective about their religious teachings, deciding for themselves which make sense and which are appalling or ridiculous. I could point out that religion isn't a reliable foundation for morality ... Exhibit A being gross ethical violations by religious leaders, from Jim Bakker to Osama Bin Laden. I could link to current research on the neurological/evolutionary basis of morality.

But mostly I want to say this: Look around you. This myth is patently untrue on the face of it. Atheists aren't killing, stealing, raping, cheating, at any greater rate than believers. Look at countries in Europe, like France and England and Scandinavian countries, where nonbelievers make up half, or more, of the population. They're not disintegrating into crime and chaos. They're doing pretty well, and they treat each other pretty well, with a strong sense of social responsibility.

And look at individual atheists: Oliver Sacks. Carl Sagan. Dave Barry. Andy Rooney. Ira Glass. Milan Kundera. Tom Lehrer. Barry Manilow. Katharine Hepburn. Richard Feynman. Barbara Ehrenreich. Ted Williams. Atheist cops, soldiers, firefighters. The person down the street from you who mows the lawn for the old lady next door. Are all these people cesspools of selfishness and immorality?

Unless you indulge in circular reasoning -- unless you think anyone with different religious beliefs is immoral by definition -- you have to acknowledge that atheists are as moral as anybody else.

Further reading: Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness Against Thy Neighbor

3: Atheists are angry and unhappy, with no meaning to their lives and no hope.

Again, I could go on for days about why this is wrong. I could talk about how meaning doesn't have to come from religious tradition ... and how there's plenty to hope for other than an afterlife.

But again, I mostly want to say: Look around you. Spend some time talking with atheists about something besides religion. Books, say. Music. Science. Their spouses or lovers. Their kids. Their friends. Careers. Hobbies. Political activism. Volunteer work. You'll find lives every bit as rich, full, complex, connected, transcendent, satisfying, meaningful and full of hope as the lives of religious believers.

We don't need religion to have meaning and hope. We have hope, for our own lives and for the world. And we create our own meaning. (Yes, many atheists get cranky when they argue with believers. Especially online. Surprise, surprise. Like no other marginalized group gets cranky engaging with the mainstream ... and like losing it on the Internet is an atheist monopoly.)

Further reading: Dancing Molecules: An Atheist Moment of Transcendence; For No Good Reason: Atheist Transcendence at the Black and White Tour; Atheism and Hope

4: Atheists are disrespectful, intolerant and mean.

Sometimes. What with us being human and all. But all of us? Even most of us? As a defining trait? And more than religious believers? Really? (I know, I wasn't going to get snarky about religion here ... but can you really look at the grotesque intolerance so many believers have inflicted, on atheists and one another, and still argue that atheists are the big meanies?)

Here's where I think this myth comes from. Atheists see religion as just another hypothesis about how the world works. We decline to treat it with more respect than any other opinions, theories, philosophies. We decline to treat its writings with more respect than any other books, its leaders with more respect than any other political or community figures. We think this special treatment unfairly armors religion against legitimate criticism. Besides, we don't see any reason for it.

But religion has long been treated with special deference, getting a free ride in the marketplace of ideas. And believers are accustomed to this ... so accustomed that questions and criticism seems like the grossest disrespect. As commenter Lynet wrote in another blog: People are so used to whispering around religion that an everyday voice sounds like a shout.

(I think this myth also crops up because these conversations are often on the Internet ... where, alas, many people are more disrespectful, intolerant and mean than we are in person. The next time you think atheists are being unusually disrespectful, read the conversations on the political blogs. Or, for that matter, the celebrity gossip and sports blogs.)

Further reading: Does The Emperor Have Clothes? Religion and the Destructive Force of Asking Questions

5: Atheists are whiny.

And again: Sure, some of us. Sometimes. But first, see above, re: what atheists are like when we're not debating believers on the Net. We're mostly pretty happy and grateful for what we have. And second: Demanding justice is not whining. And progressives, of all people, should not be calling it that. Nobody's arguing that anti-atheist bigotry is as serious as, say, racism or sexism.

But atheists have legitimate grievances. And many of our biggest grievances aren't about how believers treat atheists. They're about how believers treat one another. A common weapon against any social movement is trivialization. Women demanding equal rights are being hysterical; people of color are being emotional; LGBT people are being selfishly sybaritic. And atheists are being whiny.

It's a "Shut up, that's why" argument. It's not meant to address atheism. It's meant to silence it.

Further reading: Atheists and Anger

6: Atheists are just being trendy.

Yes, atheism is everywhere now. In bookstores, on the news, in the blogosphere. Just like gay people were in the early '90s. African Americans in the late '50s. Women in the early '70s. There's a point in any major social movement when it reaches critical mass. It gathers adherents and sympathizers, who become more visible and vocal ... a process that's self-perpetuating.

The movement picks up steam. It can no longer be ignored. At which point the mass media has a collective "WTF?" freakout. Who are these atheists (gays, African Americans, women), and where did they come from all of a sudden? Like we haven't been here all along.

Does that make atheism trivial? A fad, something people do to be cool? Of course not. No more than being queer is. Coming out as atheist is often a big deal. It can mean losing friends, being cut off from family. It can mean getting threatened by neighbors or kicked out of school, losing job opportunities or custody of your kids. And it often means a major upheaval in how you see yourself and your life. People don't do this to be trendy. People do it to be true to themselves.

Further reading: Godless is the New Black: Is Atheism Just a Trend?

7: Atheists are arguing with straw men: they criticize the ugliest, stupidest, most simplistic, most outdated versions of religion and ignore the thoughtful, complex forms of serious modern theology.

First, this isn't true. Many atheists have read serious theology. I was a religion major in college: OK, 25 years ago, but a lot of it stuck. And I've read more since becoming an atheist blogger. As have other atheist writers. But second, and more to the point: So what?

Most atheists don't give a rat's ass about religion as it's practiced by a handful of theologians. We care about religion as it's widely practiced in the real world. And that includes many versions of religion that are outdated, simplistic, stupid and ugly ... and richly deserving of criticism.

Further reading: In Defense of Atheist Blogging; Hypocrisy and the 'Modern Theology' Argument

8: Atheists are responsible for the worst crimes in history: Stalin, Mao, etc.

I don't know why this keeps getting trotted out. It's not like the so-called "new atheist" movement is running around saying, "Stalin was keen!" But I see it a lot, so I'm going to address it. Here's the problem. The Stalin argument basically goes, "Stalin was responsible for the murders of tens of millions of people. Stalin was an atheist. Therefore, all those murders can be laid at the feet of atheism."

By that logic, you could argue that Nixon was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands in Vietnam; Nixon was a Quaker; therefore, all those deaths can be laid at the feet of Quakerism. It makes no sense. A sensible version of the Stalin argument has to look, not at every death and imprisonment and such that Stalin caused, but at the ones explicitly done in the name of atheism, to suppress religion.

I'm not a Russian historian, and I don't know what that number is. I do know it isn't zero. I'm not arguing that atheists are immune from human evils, including brutal megalomania. But that number isn't 60 million, either. The essence of the Stalin argument -- apart from "guilt by association" -- is that atheism inherently causes great evil. And that's just silly.

There aren't many openly nontheistic world leaders -- what with the rabid stigma against us -- but there have been some. Helen Clark, New Zealand prime minister, 1999 - 2008: open agnostic. Robert (Bob) James Lee Hawke, Australian prime minister, 1983 - 1991: open agnostic. Bill Hayden, governor-general of Australia, 1989 - 1996: open atheist. And Winston Churchill called himself agnostic.

England under Churchill. Australia and New Zealand in the last two decades. Not exactly Stalinist dictatorships. And who knows how many other world leaders were/are nonbelievers but couldn't/can't be open about it? Yes, some megalomaniacal tyrants have been atheists. Many have been believers. And both atheists and believers have been decent, functioning world leaders. The Stalin argument proves nothing. It's a red herring and a scare tactic.

Further reading: Red Crimes

9: Atheists think science belongs to them; atheists treat science as their religion.

It's true that believers can be good scientists. No atheist I know would argue otherwise. But there's a reason atheists care about science and use it so much in our arguments. And it's not because science is our religion, or that we follow it without question. It's not even because we think science has disproved religion (although it has dispatched many specific religious beliefs). Atheists care about science because science provides an alternate method for understanding reality.

Science isn't primarily a set of theories and facts: science is primarily a method, one that sorts good information from bad, useful theories from mistaken or useless ones. Science is a method for perceiving the world that relies, not on authority and intuition, but on rigorous examination of evidence and a willingness to question any theory.

When it comes to understanding the world, science offers an alternative to religion: not merely different answers, but a different way of asking questions. Science doesn't disprove religion. It simply makes it unnecessary. Which is why it's relevant to atheism ... and why atheists care about it so much.

Further reading: What Does Science Have to do With Atheism?

10: Atheists think they're superior.

And again, I say: Some do. Thinking you're better than the people you disagree with is unfortunate ... but it's hardly unique to atheists. But more to the point: There's a huge difference between thinking you're better than people you disagree with ... and thinking that, on one particular issue, you're correct, and people who disagree are mistaken.

Religion has been armored against criticism for so long, people are shocked when they hear it at all. And because religion is so personal, many believers can't distinguish between criticism of their ideas ... and insults to the core of their being. They hear atheists saying, "You're stupid and I'm superior"... when atheists are actually saying, "I don't agree with you." Or, "You haven't made your case." "There's a flaw in your thinking." "What evidence do you have to support that?" "Your evidence and arguments are weak -- do you have anything better?"

Thinking you're right, and trying to convince people you're right ... that's not arrogance. That's the marketplace of ideas. As long as you're willing to consider that you might be wrong -- and you get that being right about X doesn't make you right about Y and Z -- thinking you're right isn't arrogance. It's no more arrogant to think you're right about religion than to think you're right about public policies or scientific theories. This is just another "Shut up, that's why" argument. It's an attempt to make atheists look bad simply for making our case.

Further reading: Defending the Blasphemy Challenge; 'Evangelical' Atheism, or, Is it Okay to Try to Change People's Minds?


* * * * *

If you want to criticize atheists, individually or as a movement, please do. We're not perfect, and the current incarnation of our movement is fairly young, with all the flaws of a young social movement. But don't spread lies about us. Don't foment fear about us. Don't assume that you know who we are without listening to what we have to say. And don't criticize us in ways that are just meant to shut us up. Thanks.

Read more of Greta Christina at her blog.
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