10 Myths and Truths About Atheists
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Maybe you've read 10 Myths -- and 10 Truths -- About Atheism, Sam Harris's famous op-ed piece for the Los 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."
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