Aren’t atheists just as bad as theists?

By on April 13, 2011

pointing fingerAren’t atheists just as bad as religious people in telling people what to think? Atheists criticize religions for shoving their ideas down other people’s throats and at the very core of the New Atheism movement is the same arguments rehashed but with a more caustic tone coupled with forcefulness. How can you criticize people for spreading their religious ideas when you are doing the exact same thing?

The danger of this perspective is similar to that of many other theistic perspectives. On the surface, this perspective sounds reasonable and good. Similarly, it sounds reasonable and fair to say we should “respect everyone’s beliefs.” I find it morally degrading to even say that I respect, for example, the opinions of a homophobe regarding homosexuals. Beliefs are not inherently worthy of respect; respect must be earned.

The first disagreement I have to these claims is due to atheism simply meaning that one lacks a belief in a God or Gods. There is nothing inherent in this definition that makes it a religion. It is therefore not the spreading of a religious belief, which is what some criticize. To some, atheism is a religion. I ask those people then, is it even possible to not be religious? This is what most people mean by atheist. But what about the people who do more than simply not believe? The New Atheists involve themselves in many avenues to spread their opinions. Why isn’t this just as wrong and aren’t we hypocritical?

My second disagreement with this perspective is that there are additional central differences between atheism and religion. Religious claims are mostly demonstrably false. For example, the Earth being 6,000 years old or creationism are demonstrably false, but many of their other claims are as well. As for the remainder of the claims they have not met the burden of proof of their claims. Vocal atheists mostly point to these facts. One of the major “I gotcha!” arguments theists use against atheists are some of the following:

“Well, then how did we get here?”
“What is the meaning of everything?”
“Why is there something rather than nothing?”

Atheists do not have definitive or complete answers to these questions (though we do progressively have more answers every day through science).  That is not the weakness of atheism; it is the strength of atheism.  Atheists do not make unjustifiable and significant claims about the nature of the universe or existence.

My third contention with this perspective is the belief that religion is harmless and we should just leave people alone.  It is through the guise of friendliness and kindness that religion does the most harm.  Some of the most obvious examples, of which there are many more, are: the disenfranchisement of homosexuals, promoting the distrust of science, infusing politics with nonsense, denying a woman’s right to choose, and the spread of HIV in Africa.  All of these are done in the name of good and in the name of God.  Likewise, so many historical wrongdoings are justified by belief.   There was a recent article on the CNN Belief Blog illustrating how belief was used on both sides of the Civil War to justify or condemn slavery — this is an excellent example of how belief is a poor basis to determine anything as there is often diametrically opposed views, both of which have members who claim they have God on their side.

It is these individuals who participate and count themselves among the numbers of religious that add to this problem.  For example, politicians pander to religion because they know so many people are religious.  Religion is harmful to the democratic process because it allows public figures like Sarah Palin to rise to power through mostly nonsense arguments and restatements of her faith and religious conviction.  Additionally, donations to the Catholic Church and international support to avoid trials and subsequent justice in child abuse cases are directly related to individual support of the Church.  To remove these overlying social problems, individuals must change.

Lastly, atheists do not spread their gospel the way theists do.  Many theists go door to door, in early hours of the morning.  Atheists do no such thing.  Theists also often use threats to spread their message, such as threats of hell and the wrath of God.  In the case of Christianity and Islam, the religion itself spread through violence.  Atheists by and large protect freedom of religion.  We recognize that it is a marketplace of ideas and that free inquiry will uncover the truth.  It is theists who so often cross the line of church and state.

Discussion

Brian

Enjoyed this post. Although, it is incorrect to say, ” Atheists do not make unjustifiable and significant claims about the nature of the universe or existence.” Being an “atheist” implies that one holds the belief that there is no god. This is an article of faith. Hence, atheism does make some claims that are (seemingly) unjustifiable, significant and not demonstrably true.

Your arguments about the way religion has been used for evil are true empirical claims about how religion has been used in the past. For the sake of balance (a truer account), though, you should probably also mention the good that it has done in a more comprehensive manner than you have. You would also need to go further to prove that atheism would not also have led to problems had it had the same historical toehold that religion had. If it can be shown that atheism would have also been approximately as harmful, then it should not be preferred (obviously there’s a problem in talking about “preferring” such creeds, but I’m leaving that aside). It is perfectly conceivable that, had atheism had the historical rooting that religion had, it would have equally been used for atrocities e.g. it doesn’t take too much of a stretch of the imagination to conceive of how it could have been used to justify abortion/eugenics/ethnic cleansing. In a universe where God was thought to not exist, all sorts of other utopias/ubermensch/races could have filled the gap. This, prima facie, sounds like fanciful speculation, but if I told you (you ex hypothesi not being familiar with Islamic or Christian fundamentalism) that God would be used as a justification for mass murder you’d probably consider that fanciful nonsense too.

I think this is a good discussion and Matt does a great job explaining whether or not atheism involves faith of any kind; I think especially pertinent is his analogy involving fairies and other mythical creatures:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8_4uL9qGxNg

Also, to anyone unfamiliar, I highly recommend the Atheist Experience.

Brian

Lol, “short irishmen”. A lot of that seems tongue in cheek. Premeating that discussion is a false dichotomy to the effect that you must either believe or not believe (in god, big foot etc.) in the existence of something. Why elect to not believe in something when you admit you don’t know? The term “agnostic atheist” is an Austinian misfire insofar as it implies that one doesn’t know whether god exists, but one is willing to commit to the idea that god doesn’t exist. How can you believe in the existence of something that you don’t know to exist: that’s a patent contradiction (and contrary to the central tenets of epistemology, which this guy seems to think he is au fait with). What you could instead say is that the evidence suggests god exists (something I wouldn’t necessarily exist) or that it doesn’t exist. That’s would be logically defensible, but the position of the guy in this video is not.

Brian

Also, I made another point in my post above about atheists treating religion as a scapegoat and I’d be interested to hear your view on that. ;)

Brian

Atheism should be renamed “faitheism”. :o

I deliberately avoided discussing it as that could be a lengthy subject in and of itself. However, I will briefly address some of the issues you raised. The default position is not believing in something. Let me use Ricky Gervais’ example. If I told you I could fly (not by any mechanized means), would you believe me? You would ask me to show you. And in return I would say, “prove that I can’t fly!” Would you then change your mind and believe me?

The onus is on the one making the claim. Theists are making a variety of truth claims, including the existence of a god. I simply state that they are either wrong (in the case of Noah’s Ark, Jews building the pyramids, the Earth being 6,000 years old), they have failed to meet their burden of proof, and that some of their remaining claims are extraordinarily absurd (such as the one true God caring whether or not you mix fabrics or eat shellfish). This mindset is very similar to Socrates; he claimed to know nothing but could still point out how others did not know.

As for the good versus evil of religion, that is a very large topic in itself. I would, of course, direct you to God is Not Great. There are many other sources on this. Essentially, it would be ignorant to say that people have not done good for religion. Yet likewise, the same can be said for evils done in the name of religion. So which weights more heavily? The goods performed because of religion can be performed without the superstitious claims. One could do all of the good deeds which religion does (and indeed, many secular groups do) without the false claims. Without these false claims (for example, the resulting bloodshed over whether or not the communion wafer is literally the flesh of Christ), there would be less conflict and violence. At the very least, the conflict would not be under the guise of holy doctrine.

It would universally be a straw man to accuse atheists of thinking that most of the evils of the world would perish along with religion. Mankind is too destructive a creature for such a notion. Inherent within our race is constant violence. The removal of religion, however, removes some of the conflict. Furthermore, if truth is a virtue, the species becomes more virtuous. Lastly, these violent acts would no longer be justified through pursuit of divine justice.

I should also briefly discuss something else you mentioned. Many people who believe in God are pro-choice, for example. Previously, many people who believed in God thought that “test-tube babies” was an immoral practice. Likewise, many theists think homosexuality is immoral, and others do not.

Most, if not every, atheist I have spoken to and indeed much of the scientific community does not condone eugenics. Many of those scientists who work against eugenics are also atheists. Atheism has no doctrine or books from which to derive laws to unjustly use against others. It is simply a lack of belief in gods. Also, I have never met an atheist who is in favor of any kind of ethnic cleansing — quite to the contrary, secular groups tend to combat these atrocities. Theists claim to have objective sources of morality, yet they differ immensely on issues. Was slavery just? There were extreme discrepancies between religious groups on virtually every topic of morality.

I do not fear divine punishment at the end of my life, because I do not believe such a mechanism exists. And yet, I strive to act morally and just. This is a human characteristic. Just as before Christianity, and in a variety of other cultures there are examples of people acting justly without working under the fear of divine retribution.

Brian

The onus is indeed on the claim-maker. But theists and atheists are both claim-makers. So there is an onus on both.

Let’s take your example: the Ricky Gervais point confuses knowledge with belief. If you told me you could fly, and placed the onus on me to prove you couldn’t, I could prove that you couldn’t as the laws of physics and biology are a matter of fact. If you told me that God does not exist (or if I told you that he does) and either of us placed the onus on the other to prove otherwise, neither of us are likely to be able to prove that he does or doesn’t (leaving aside the CTMU for now). Therefore, neither of us could correctly claim knowledge of whether God does or doesn’t exist. To claim such knowledge would be a leap of faith. That is a leap of faith that both religion and faitheism are guilty of. And it is a leap of faith that is utterly unnecessary.

To now look at the second issue: I have read God is not Great; that fails to address the argument that I make above about religion being a scapegoat for faitheism for two reasons. One because, prima facie, it’s just an argument from authority – admittedly Hitchens can be convincing but that doesn’t prove anything. And two because the substance of God is not Great does not address the argument that I have made above. It is not clear that atheism would not have had the same deleterious effects on mankind had it had the same historical toehold. I cited examples of what it might have been like above. In an alternate universe, you might have lamented the eugenocidal (I’ll leave what this means open to your imagination) campaigns carried out by atheist regimes. Your own personal experience of modern atheists does not prove anything about what atheism might have been used for. Atheism provides steady ground for denying the innate worth of a human life in a way that theism does not. That seems to me to be a dangerous premise, that, in the hands of fundamentalists, could have wreaked havoc on mankind. So, at best, your criticism is a general one of both faitheism and religion, as both could have proven extremely problematic given the appropriate historical toeholds. Conversely, both could be the cause of much eudamoinic work. This equivalence implies that your denigration of religion is misdirected. You’re better off criticising faith-based doctrines and taking a leaf out of the Delphic Oracle’s book. :)

I am not making any affirmative claims that God does not exist, nor that any other gods exist. The overwhelming majority of atheists do not make these claims; they instead make negative claims. Even Richard Dawkins’ book the God Delusion has a chapter titled “why there is almost certainly no god.” The very video I linked you of Matt Dillahunty has Matt explaining that while he might say that god does not exist in a conversation, that upon further questioning he would explain this concept.

Atheists simply point out that theists have not met the burden of proof on certain claims (god) and have made demonstrably false claims (those others which I have listed. It seems to me from your description that it is impossible to NOT have faith or belief in the supernatural. For to not believe in it, which is what atheists mean by the term atheist, to you means they have a kind of faith claim about the supernatural. I do not assert in any philosophical discourse that God cannot exist — nor do most atheists — especially if we were discussing a Deist definition of a God which is inherently unprovable and impossible to disprove. My stance would also entirely hinge up on your definition of God. If God is the universe, then I believe in God. If God is love, so too do I believe in that concept. That, however, is just using “God” as a term for other concepts.

I would direct you to the argument that “Atheism is the New Fundamentalism” hosted by Intelligence Squared, and you can see more about my stance on religion and violence in the following post:
http://anamericanatheist.org/2011/02/18/atheism-and-violence/ I use language borrowed from the debate itself.

And as for my flight example:
“the Ricky Gervais point confuses knowledge with belief. If you told me you could fly, and placed the onus on me to prove you couldn’t, I could prove that you couldn’t as the laws of physics and biology are a matter of fact. ”

The entire point is that you cannot prove a negative and that the onus is on the claim maker. The onus would not shift to you. And the laws of physics and biology might indicate that that generally people have not been shown to fly, but I can. To further the example, since it for some reason was not clear: prove to me that I cannot fly because I can suspend the laws of physics. You would continue to not think that I could, as the default is non-belief of supernatural or significant claims.

Brian

I don’t mean to get short with you Tom, but this is getting frustrating:

“I am not making any affirmative claims that God does not exist, nor that any other gods exist. The overwhelming majority of atheists do not make these claims; they instead make negative claims.” Negative claims are claims that God does not exist. They are the same as affirmative claims that God does not exist. This is down to the binary logic of which the existence/non-existence dichotomy partakes. Your failure to recognise this also seems to be the reason for the confusion in the following quote:
“It seems to me from your description that it is impossible to NOT have faith or belief in the supernatural.” At no point have I said anything like this. You’ve assumed that I have because you continue to think that I must either believe or not believe in something. This is a false dichotomy.

You say in the post you’ve linked me to that you are against the violence perpetrated on behalf of many religions (in your case Abrahamic religions.) And as I’ve previously mentioned, and which is not responded to by your post on violence, atheism (and not just anti-theism) has the capacity to serve as a doctrine for violence too (for all the reasons I mention above). So your problem is not religion, but all doctrines that are amenable to such perversion.

I should reiterate that I have not disagreed with your point about the onus being on the claim-maker. At the very beginning of my last post I agree with this. So reiterating that argument is not cutting against any argument that I’m making. What I do disagree with is your Ricky Gervais point. it’s wrong to say “you cannot prove a negative”. Here’s why: there are plenty of negatives we can disprove e.g. you are not a fish. In the same way, it is “demonstrably untrue” that you can fly because we can use *induction* and the nomic quality of the laws of physics to show this. Simply saying that you can suspend them does not prove anything (and remember we are talking about proof and not belief, a distinction that we have to keep in mind). Whilst the onus would indeed be on you to prove it if there was some dispute, I think you’d find that there wouldn’t be.

Remember, there is a distinction between knowledge and belief, and as long as your caught on the horns of the dilemma, where you feel the need to either believe or not believe something, you won’t see the woods for the trees. “The struggle between for and against is the mind’s greatest disease.” Seng-Tsan.

I believe you have a significant misunderstanding of what a claim is, and what a disagreement to a claim is. I have done my utmost to try and explain these concepts to you.

If I say I can fly, and you say I cannot, it does not mean that the onus is on you once you have said I cannot or that I have failed to meet my burden of proof on the claim. That is the entire point of my examples and much of my lengthy explanation. I wish you the best of luck in coming to an understanding on these, as these are fairly basic principles of discourse.

I also want to note that I am in no way hung up on the distinction between belief and knowledge; and my flying example clearly explains the atheist position against the theist position in terms of what is reasonable to believe and what we know.

Brian

Ok, you don’t want to continue, so I’ll just ask one (potentially two) question(s): are you an agnostic? If not, what is the difference between atheism and agnosticism?

Brian: what is the difference between atheism and agnosticism?

By my logic the atheist “knows” there is no god and the agnostic “believes” there is no god.

I am an atheist. I know god doesn’t exist. By definition the atheist simply rejects the claim of the theist based on the theists lack of evidence to support their claim. It has nothing to do with belief or disbelief, knowledge or lack of knowledge. You can’t have atheists without theists but you could have theists without atheists if 100% of the people were theists there would be no atheists. This would not remove the atheist position. The atheist position simply wouldn’t have members.

This brings up another question? What exactly is the theist claim? Does the theist claim they “know” god exists or do they claim they “believe” god exists.

Since theists are grouped into faith-based religious cults, I would think that they believe that god exists and if this is the case it shows they clearly don’t know if god exists or not. Belief and truth are mutually exclusive.

Tom

How frustrating for Brian there. Tom your bias comes accross very heavily in that article and your unwillingness to listen to the ideas of others only confirms your arrogance. The patronising, passive aggressive tones that you adopt with others pretty much outlines this piece for what it is, a self serving soap box rant.

Steve

***Disclaimer: I am going to attack your system of beliefs, in order to reveal the holes in your logic.***

Alright, to begin, let’s break down the word “Atheism”:

1) The Greek root “Theos” is synonymous with the term “god”.

2) An “Ism” is a doctrine, or belief.

3) And finally, the prefix “A” means “without”.

Now, let’s put it back together: Atheism = “Without belief in god”. However, since many so-called “atheists” are former Christians, they don’t realize that religion is not defined as “a belief in god”, because many Eastern religions do not worship any deities, hence classifying them as atheistic. Does this mean that Buddhists and Jains are a bunch of belligerent, pseudo-existential cynics? No. On the contrary, they are some of the most spiritual individuals you will ever meet.

But, I digress. You are correct in one sense, but mistaken in another. Atheism is not a religion; it is a religious classification, completely unrelated to your brand of irreligion. (Which, by the way, is the correct term to describe the lack of religion.)

However, the irony is that this simple linguistic misinterpretation has created such a large and organized following of “anti-religious” people that label themselves as “atheists” and are hell-bent (no pun intended) on spreading their message of religious intolerance, justified by their fallacious logic. And un-original fallacious logic, might I add, since many of these people cling to “The God Delusion” like a Bible – mindlessly defending “arguments” that they have never even given any thought to. That sounds like a religion to me. As a matter of fact, I personally believe that fervent “atheists” are just as religious as devoted Christians, or members of any other faith, for that matter.

Oh, and by the way, what exactly is THE logic? Absence of evidence is evidence of absence? That doesn’t sound like empirical proof. Do you honestly think that you are going to eradicate (what you perceive) as ignorance….with more ignorance? Now, I’m not normally one to judge, but that sounds pretty ignorant. If you truly were not a religious person, then your confidence in science would eliminate the need to foolishly debate the validity of religious doctrines. But you aren’t confident; you want to argue about it because you’re insecure and doubtful of your beliefs, and therefore, you feel that if you can convince others, then you’ll be able to convince yourself. But the FACT is that religion is just a philosophical ideology, not a physical theory that can be proven or disproven.

People are always going to use their religion to help them explain “unknown forces” that are beyond their understanding, because this gives them a delusion of security. Similarly, “atheists” will always use their “religion” to liberate themselves from traditional social institutions, because this gives them a a delusion of grandeur, and a sense of intellectual enlightenment. And lastly, there is ALWAYS going to be conflict between groups of people, based solely on beliefs; this has been true throughout all of documented history, and is most definitely not just limited to religion. Personally, I choose simply not to make religion a part of my life in any way, shape, or form. And as for everyone else: I feel that they should be welcome to believe whatever they want, so long as it doesn’t affect me. In my opinion, that is truly the definition of being “non-religious”.

But hey, I’m just a blade in the grass. Maybe my beliefs are just as screwed up as yours, and I’m just too narcissistic to realize it. We are all human, after all. I didn’t mean to insult anybody, I just thought that I’d toss up my two cents. Have a great day.

Chris

Even though I am not an atheist (rather polytheist with apathetic tendencies. Yes its complicated.), I would like to say that I liked the article as it wasnt biased and showed a rather large quantity of rationality. I have to say, both atheism and theism can be bad but it isn’t the perspectives themselves that are harmful, its rather the mindset of the individual. There are selfish and rotten people out there who would rather kill than to coexist with someone who thinks differently.

To the question is there are god, I wouldn’t claim that deities exist or do not exist. The answer is unknown and probably will remain unknown and we could care less. It also largely depends on how someone would define a deity, such as my definition (no theist or atheist has been able to understand my definition).

I would like to say thank you and you should keep it up to not being biased but rather speculative on these matters. There arent many people who do so.

Chris

To add, with not biased, I meant less biased as normal. Brian is actually not biased.

John

Being an Atheist is almost as bad as saying you’re a Christian, Muslim etc. Your still buying into certainty with something you cannot absolutely know to be true.

Agnostic can be the only way. Who knows if there is/isn’t a god of sorts. ( Forgive my grammatical failings, i’m not stupid but uneducated).

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