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5 Things Atheists Have Wrong About Religion

Atheists tend to be very well-informed about religion. But there are a few things they often still get wrong.

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4. Religion Requires a Belief in a Supernatural God

This claim, expressed by Christopher Hitchens as “to be religious is to be a theist” seems to be a difficult myth for some atheists to abandon. Many seem content with this intellectually inaccurate definition of religion. However, if you open any “Religion 101″ textbook you will find a variety of traditions that don’t require belief in any god, miracles or supernatural entities including Taoism, Jainism, Confucianism and Buddhism. Unitarian Universalism doesn’t require belief in any divinity either. And of course there are non-theists such as deists, pantheists and panentheists who are practicing members of Christianity, Judaism and Islam as well as other progressive traditions. There are many Christians who don’t literally believe the stories of the Bible. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was one of them. Thomas Jefferson, as well as other “founding fathers” are prominent examples of deists within American history. Jefferson created his own Bible in which he removed all references to miracles and supernatural claims. But yet he was still religious. He stated,

“The whole history of these books [the Gospels] is so defective and doubtful that it seems vain to attempt minute enquiry into it: and such tricks have been played with their text, and with the texts of other books relating to them, that we have a right, from that cause, to entertain much doubt what parts of them are genuine. In the New Testament there is internal evidence that parts of it have proceeded from an extraordinary man; and that other parts are of the fabric of very inferior minds. It is as easy to separate those parts, as to pick out diamonds from dunghills. –Thomas Jefferson, letter to John Adams, January 24, 1814

Others simply describe God as the natural order, the healing and renewing power of existence or the creative principle in life. Yet, despite all of these non-supernatural God forms many still attend religious services, draw inspiration from sacred texts and enjoy the benefits of a spiritual community.

I understand why anti-religious atheists are so reluctant to accept the fact that being religious doesn’t mean belief in the supernatural. The simplistic and convenient myth they’ve constructed would be shattered. It would be much harder to attack religion as it would mean a more sophisticated and refined critique, one that would be more difficult to arouse the passions of dogmatic religion haters.

3. Religion Causes Bad Behavior

A common way for atheists to denounce religion is to simply list all of the horrors that have been done in the name of religion and then say, “Look how awful religion is!” Religion becomes synonymous with all of the bad things done by religious people. But is religion the cause of bad behavior or simply a mitigating factor? Christopher Hitchens provides some surprising insight: “What’s innate in our species isn’t the fault of religion. But the bad things that are innate in our species are strengthened by religion and sanctified by it… So religion is a very powerful re-enforcer of our backward, clannish, tribal element. But you can’t say it’s the cause of it. To the contrary, it’s the product of it.” Amen! Hitchens says that religion is not the cause of bad behavior! Many of us religious progressives have been making this point for a long time. Of course religion is also a very powerful re-enforcer of our most beautiful, inspiring and profound aspects as well. It can inspire the best and worst in us.

This point is very important because it focuses the attention on the real source of bad behavior which is human nature, not religion. Understanding this is important when defending against attempts to dismiss religion because of the bad things done in its name. Certainly, religion plays a role in conflicts but it is just one factor among many such as ideological, political and sociological ones. If religion were the cause of bad behavior getting rid of it would simply make all divisiveness and conflict disappear. But of course this would not be the case. And, if religion were to be eliminated other forms of associations with the same group dynamics and dangers would arise.

 
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