5 Things Atheists Have Wrong About Religion
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Despite their emphasis on reason, evidence and a desire to see through false truth claims, many atheists hold surprisingly ill-informed beliefs about religion. Many of these myths go unquestioned simply because they serve the purpose of discrediting religion at large. They allow for the construction of a straw man i.e. a distorted and simplistic representation of religion which can be easily attacked, summarily dismissed and ridiculed. Others who genuinely believe these false claims merely have a limited understanding of the ideas involved and have never thoroughly examined them. But, myths are myths and they should be acknowledged for what they are.
I’m not saying that atheists aren’t knowledgeable when it comes to religion. To the contrary, atheists in general know more about the particularities of religion than most religious people do. A recent study confirmed it. I have no doubt that they can rattle off all of the myths, falsities, fanciful claims, dangerous ideas and barbarous actions committed by the religious. It makes sense as a targeted group will generally know more about the dominant group than the other way around. But of course simply knowing more than other religious people about their traditions doesn’t preclude holding to false beliefs of their own.
There are certainly more than five myths about religion that are perpetuated by some atheists (and in some cases the religious). However, I’ve chosen what I feel to be the most significant false claims made by atheists to help provide a more accurate understanding of religion and to pave the groundwork for dialogue between these seemingly two opposing groups.
Now, let’s examine these myths.
5. Liberal and Moderate Religion Justifies Religious Extremism
While this often repeated claim seems logical at first glance, upon examination it is nothing more than another simplistic idea that provides a feel good rallying cry for those who want to denounce religion in its entirety.
Sam Harris states that moderates are “in large part responsible for the religious conflict in our world” and “religious tolerance–born of the notion that every human being should be free to believe whatever he wants about God–is one of the principal forces driving us toward the abyss.” And Richard Dawkins states, “The teachings of ‘moderate’ religion, though not extremist in themselves, are an open invitation to extremism.” Christopher Hitchens has called liberation theology “sinister nonsense” and compared the liberal Unitarian tradition to rats and vermin.
The problem with this line of thinking is that it leads to some unwanted logical conclusions when applied equally to other ideas. It is hypocritical to selectively apply the principle where it suits one’s needs but not elsewhere.
We can ask whether or not all liberal and moderate expressions of something are responsible for their most extreme forms. Are the people who casually smoke marijuana in any way responsible for the death of someone involved in a violent heroin drug trade? Is a social drinker of alcohol creating the environment that leads to alcoholism? Should they be shunned for supporting conditions that cause tens of thousands of alcohol-related unwanted deaths? Is a pediatrician responsible for Nazi medical experiments simply because he or she participates in the field of medicine? How about politics? Is a liberal democracy responsible for forms of government such as totalitarianism or fascism? Is a very progressive Democrat like Dennis Kucinich responsible for George Bush’s torture policies because he merely participates in the U.S. political system? If so, it means that one’s participation in a political system should be blamed for the worst crimes of any government leader.
I could list example after example, but to state my point simply, the more rational and tolerant uses of science, religion, medicine or government cannot be blamed for the destructive and harmful uses of them.