Friday, April 24, 2009

Ten Myths About Atheists

Myths and reprehensible misinformation persist concerning Atheism and Atheists, and are regularly spread through the media and especially on the Net. It seems at times as if there is little accountability, and some of the most outrageous violators tend to be religious zealots and extremists who have fixed preconceptions about us embedded in their heads.

One of the most articulate disposals of such myths was published in the LA Times of Dec. 24, 2006. It listed each of ten major myths regularly circulated about Atheism, and a compelling rebuttal to each. Given there is little I can do to improve on any of them, and "re-inventing the wheel" appears unproductive, I provide them here for readers' convenience and invite comments you may have:

Ten Myths About Atheists

1) Atheists believe that life is meaningless.

On the contrary, religious people often worry that life is meaningless and imagine that it can only be redeemed by the promise of eternal happiness beyond the grave. Atheists tend to be quite sure that life is precious. Life is imbued with meaning by being really and fully lived. Our relationships with those we love are meaningful now; they need not last forever to be made so. Atheists tend to find this fear of meaninglessness … well … meaningless.

2) Atheism is responsible for the greatest crimes in human history.

People of faith often claim that the crimes of Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot were the inevitable product of unbelief. The problem with fascism and communism, however, is not that they are too critical of religion; the problem is that they are too much like religions. Such regimes are dogmatic to the core and generally give rise to personality cults that are indistinguishable from cults of religious hero worship. Auschwitz, the gulag and the killing fields were not examples of what happens when human beings reject religious dogma; they are examples of political, racial and nationalistic dogma run amok. There is no society in human history that ever suffered because its people became too reasonable.

3) Atheism is dogmatic.

Jews, Christians and Muslims claim that their scriptures are so prescient of humanity's needs that they could only have been written under the direction of an omniscient deity. An atheist is simply a person who has considered this claim, read the books and found the claim to be ridiculous. One doesn't have to take anything on faith, or be otherwise dogmatic, to reject unjustified religious beliefs. As the historian Stephen Henry Roberts (1901-71) once said: "I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours."

4) Atheists think everything in the universe arose by chance.

No one knows why the universe came into being. In fact, it is not entirely clear that we can coherently speak about the "beginning" or "creation" of the universe at all, as these ideas invoke the concept of time, and here we are talking about the origin of space-time itself. The notion that atheists believe that everything was created by chance is also regularly thrown up as a criticism of Darwinian evolution. As Richard Dawkins explains in his marvelous book, "The God Delusion," this represents an utter misunderstanding of evolutionary theory. Although we don't know precisely how the Earth's early chemistry begat biology, we know that the diversity and complexity we see in the living world is not a product of mere chance. Evolution is a combination of chance mutation and natural selection. Darwin arrived at the phrase "natural selection" by analogy to the "artificial selection" performed by breeders of livestock. In both cases, selection exerts a highly non-random effect on the development of any species.

5) Atheism has no connection to science.

Although it is possible to be a scientist and still believe in God — as some scientists seem to manage it — there is no question that an engagement with scientific thinking tends to erode, rather than support, religious faith. Taking the U.S. population as an example: Most polls show that about 90% of the general public believes in a personal God; yet 93% of the members of the National Academy of Sciences do not. This suggests that there are few modes of thinking less congenial to religious faith than science is.

6) Atheists are arrogant.

When scientists don't know something — like why the universe came into being or how the first self-replicating molecules formed — they admit it. Pretending to know things one doesn't know is a profound liability in science. And yet it is the life-blood of faith-based religion. One of the monumental ironies of religious discourse can be found in the frequency with which people of faith praise themselves for their humility, while claiming to know facts about cosmology, chemistry and biology that no scientist knows. When considering questions about the nature of the cosmos and our place within it, atheists tend to draw their opinions from science. This isn't arrogance; it is intellectual honesty.

7) Atheists are closed to spiritual experience.

There is nothing that prevents an atheist from experiencing love, ecstasy, rapture and awe; atheists can value these experiences and seek them regularly. What atheists don't tend to do is make unjustified (and unjustifiable) claims about the nature of reality on the basis of such experiences. There is no question that some Christians have transformed their lives for the better by reading the Bible and praying to Jesus. What does this prove? It proves that certain disciplines of attention and codes of conduct can have a profound effect upon the human mind. Do the positive experiences of Christians suggest that Jesus is the sole savior of humanity? Not even remotely — because Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and even atheists regularly have similar experiences.

There is, in fact, not a Christian on this Earth who can be certain that Jesus even wore a beard, much less that he was born of a virgin or rose from the dead. These are just not the sort of claims that spiritual experience can authenticate.

8) Atheists believe that there is nothing beyond human life and human understanding.

Atheists are free to admit the limits of human understanding in a way that religious people are not. It is obvious that we do not fully understand the universe; but it is even more obvious that neither the Bible nor the Koran reflects our best understanding of it. We do not know whether there is complex life elsewhere in the cosmos, but there might be. If there is, such beings could have developed an understanding of nature's laws that vastly exceeds our own. Atheists can freely entertain such possibilities. They also can admit that if brilliant extraterrestrials exist, the contents of the Bible and the Koran will be even less impressive to them than they are to human atheists.From the atheist point of view, the world's religions utterly trivialize the real beauty and immensity of the universe. One doesn't have to accept anything on insufficient evidence to make such an observation.

9) Atheists ignore the fact that religion is extremely beneficial to society.

Those who emphasize the good effects of religion never seem to realize that such effects fail to demonstrate the truth of any religious doctrine. This is why we have terms such as "wishful thinking" and "self-deception." There is a profound distinction between a consoling delusion and the truth. In any case, the good effects of religion can surely be disputed. In most cases, it seems that religion gives people bad reasons to behave well, when good reasons are actually available. Ask yourself, which is more moral, helping the poor out of concern for their suffering, or doing so because you think the creator of the universe wants you to do it, will reward you for doing it or will punish you for not doing it?

10) Atheism provides no basis for morality.

If a person doesn't already understand that cruelty is wrong, he won't discover this by reading the Bible or the Koran — as these books are bursting with celebrations of cruelty, both human and divine. We do not get our morality from religion. We decide what is good in our good books by recourse to moral intuitions that are (at some level) hard-wired in us and that have been refined by thousands of years of thinking about the causes and possibilities of human happiness.

Most of these, of course, I have addressed and prior to this piece was written in the TIMES. I addressed points in book reviews, as well as in exchanges conducted on other blogs I have posted on such as, and

So it isn't as if these are new to me, in fact, I elaborated my own myths about Atheists in my (2007) book 'Atheism: A Beginner's Handbook' - most of which dovetail with the above. I listed 7 myths as follows (with brief rebuttals much shorter than in the book):

1. Atheists Deny God

Impossible - since one cannot "deny' that which has no evidentiary basis anyway. Do we "deny" Easter Bunnies? Fairies? Leprechauns? No - because ab initio they are groundless and preposterous and no evidence has been offered to change that.

2. Atheists reject morals

More nonsense, since any persistent observer of human social interaction will note that the vast majority of people are law-abiding and decent folk who naturally practice a common-sense, utilitarian ethics similar to what has been described. No supernatural law or commandment ordains this behavior. Instead it is the conscious and deliberate recognition that the promotion of the welfare of others is directly linked to the one's own welfare. Compromise others' security, and you in effect compromise your own. Undermine their welfare and you also undermine your own. No god is necessary.

3. Most criminals and insane are atheists

Totally wrong, since the statistical evidence shows unambiguously that most criminals and insane are religious believers (e.g. McLoughline, Emmett, 1962:” Let the Statistics Tell Their Tragic Story,” in Crime and Immorality in the Catholic Church, Lyle Stuart Books, New York, pp. 189-214)

4. Atheists Always Recant Near Death

A myth created and fueled by bible punchers. See any issue of American Atheists, which monthly has a profile on a real, 'Foxhole Atheist'. Soldiers in action now in Iraq and Afghanistan who are Atheists.

5. Hitler was an Atheist.

Wrong! Technically Hitler was a Roman Catholic. Robert Payne notes [1]:

Adolf Hitler's birth certificate records that he was born at six o'clock in the evening on April 20, 1889, and goes on to record that two days later, at a quarter past three in the afternoon, in the presence of Father Ignaz Probst, the boy was baptized in the local Catholic Church”

As is known from standard Roman Catholic doctrine, once one is baptized a Catholic, he or she technically remains a Catholic unless excommunicated, or until death. Payne later documents Catholic Church attendance by a number of Hitler's luminaries, including Gregor Strasser, Erich von Ludendorff and others.

6. Atheism is a Religion

This claim is absurd on its face. The misplaced strategy, however, is always to attempt to place atheism within the same logical context as religion and then attack it on the basis of occupying an analogous “belief” spectrum. In the end, this is a fool’s errand.

For one thing it turns the very meaning and basis of religion on its head. We know all religions embody centralized beliefs or dogmas that issue from some sacred scripture or a body of theology based on scriptural interpretations.. Atheism has none of these, since there are no central propositions or beliefs with which all atheists agree.

First, atheists withhold belief, they do not invest it. This alone separates atheists from religionists or people of faith. Second, atheists make no positive claims for any transcendent existent that requires their worship or obeisance. They simply acknowledge no god or entity with which to build a religion in other words. Third, atheists maintain no sacred works, scriptures, or ancient artifacts, from which their “truths” are extracted. They have no analog to a Bible, Qu’ran, Talmud or anything remotely similar.

If religionists insist on calling atheism a "religion" they essentially destroy the very meaning of the word they are trying to use.

7. All Atheists are Materialists

Nonsense, because there is no single form of Materialism. Hence it is absurd to say this without qualifying which form of Materialism. And once one does that he automatically concedes ALL Atheists cannot adhere to a single version! For example some discrete types include: hylozoism, which ascribes vital characteristics to all matter, and panpsychism, which attributes a mindlike character to all constituents of material things. Then there is epiphenomenalism, according to which sensations and thoughts do exist in addition to material processes but are nonetheless wholly dependent on material processes and without causal efficacy of their own.

Then there is physicalism, which asserts all agents, entities that exist must be some manifestation of physical cause- either by way of matter, energy or fields.

[1] Robert Payne: 1973, The Life and Death of Adolf Hitler, Praeger Publishers, p. 15

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