Five Heresies of Atheism

Five things atheists often say which are about as defensible as creationist arguments.

OK, yes, there are more than five, but it’s Saturday morning and I only feel like writing about five. These are the ones I most frequently encounter on the internet and in real life. Discussing these points with some atheists is often as frustrating as discussing creationism with believers. If you want to be effective in discussions with knowledgeable believers, don’t fall into these common traps.

1. Atheism is moral

If you don’t believe in god(s) it says nothing about your morality. And frankly your religion also says little or nothing about your morality. I know many Jews, Muslims and Christians who are not stoning people despite what is written in their holy books. Equating holy text with actual actions and law is nonsense (even in countries like Saudi Arabia, where sharia law is followed, the majority of the laws are derived from non-sharia sources).

Whether a person is dedicated to charity is not predictable based on their religion. Whether they are monstrous in war is also not determined by their religion. Whether they love to sit and pretend to kill other people as gaming entertainment, or watch people dismembered on screen as visual entertainment says nothing about their religion or morality or lack of it. Plenty of religious people devote their lives to charitable causes. To claim that atheists hold the high ground when it comes to overall morality is patent nonsense and is not supported by the evidence.

In an hundred years, after we have had atheist majorities in some countries for a substantial period, we can compare their actions against those of religious majority countries. But until that happens, it’s all unfounded opinion, unless you want to use the longest existing avowedly atheists countries (like those paragons of morality, the USSR, China, Cuba and North Korea) as the basis of your atheistic comparison. (Sweden only did away with its State church in 2000.) Comparing the actions of atheist minorities with those of State controlling religious majorities is like the old line about comparing “apples and oranges.”

2. There is a natural morality defining “good” and “bad”

There is no “good” morality compared to someone else’s “bad” morality. Without an objective morality coming from god(s), space aliens, or derived from some secret code in human DNA, there is only subjective morality. This may be judged on a utilitarian basis, as some would argue, but the results are far from uniform. For example, killing all criminals is probably utilitarian as it is less costly than prisons and prevents repeat offenders. Against this must be weighed the cost to society of the loss of the person killed and of the death of wrongly convicted innocents. So poor, less productive people would be killed and educated more productive people would probably be spared – pretty close to what we have today in many countries when you stop to think about it.

And please, don’t talk to be about “humanism” which is just as full of self-serving opinionated circular argumentation as any religious doctrine. There is no natural “humanism” no matter how many studies you do where small children are nice to each other and share things.  We have 5,500 years of partly recorded human history to examine, and if there was a natural inbred “humanism” driving our morality then why didn’t it show up anywhere? Where is the nation founded on kindness to others? Give me a break. If it were a natural human trait, we would see it everywhere, in every culture. The closest thing we have ever had to a universal law was slavery, which has existed in one form or another in almost every major culture[1] and has only been abolished within the last 200 years – less than 5% of recorded human history, and it’s still a problem in some countries.

There is no frequent general human action for which a moral exception does not exist (I said general, so spare me the question of torturing babies). Take the most major one, killing another human. Wrong, except in self-defense, to prevent them from harming others, as punishment for a heinous crime, as mercy killing or assisted suicide, and let’s not even get into the realm of abortion. And property rights is just a total snake pit of obfuscation and self-serving definitions. How about honesty? It’s good, except when it hurts someone’s feelings, or when you’re asked to testify against your family members, or when it’s self-incriminating. What if you’re in a country where blasphemy is a crime punishable by death and you’re asked to testify against someone you heard blaspheme? There is always an exception to any generalization. And for those ideals we would like to aspire to, like feeding starving people, it’s not a universal law anywhere. No country recognizes a legal obligation to feed others outside of its own territory, and the same goes for health care, and education. There are no absolutes, there are always qualifications.

3. Religion is the major cause of wars and strife

There have been almost no wars for religious reasons. A religious war would be one in which one religious population took over another’s territory and converted them, and then left. In other words, they did not invade for reasons of territorial conquest. Can you name a single one? Religion, politics, philosophy (America’s doctrine of “Manifest Destiny” a philosophical and quasi-religious justification for stealing others peoples’ land), and outright greed and monarchical and megalomaniacal arrogance have all been justifications for nicking the neighbors’ land, cows, women, water rights, you name it.

Does anyone seriously believe that the Vikings were raiding European cities because they didn’t agree with the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation? Did Hulagu’s Mongols slaughter the citizens of Baghdad because they were Muslims, or because their ruler refused to surrender? Even the 30 Years War, one of the most devastating wars ever perpetrated on civilians (with one of the Evil Empires here being the Swedes) was more about securing political alliances and ravishing the countryside to pay mercenary armies as opposed to converting the populace. And the Crusades were about territorial ambitions; taking back the “Holy Land”. It wasn’t about just killing Muslims, as you could do that in Spain, which was much closer. It was about the pilgrimage sites, a material economic interest of the Church. If the Crusades were really about religion, then they would have been marching to Mecca and Medina to wipe out the Muslim faith, not just nick the top Christian tourist destination and some nice beachfront properties along the way. And the Spanish didn’t come to the New World looking for converts, they came looking for gold, spices and land.

How about the first world war between France and Great Britain in 1754-63, known as the Seven Years War, or the Hundred Years War (1337 – 1453), the Great War (1914-1918) or the Second World War (1931-1945)[2]. An argument can be made for the 30 Years War (1618-1648) and the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864) as being religious in motivation, but they were really about political control, and used religion as a method for riling up the masses. Both cases did encompass forced conversions, however, so I would concede these to be at least partially religious motivated conflicts.

And now the big one. Yes, the Islamic religion initially was expanding by force of arms to extend the Ummah during the time of Mohammed and the first Caliphs[3], but when the Umayyad Caliphate took over, it was all about power and conquest, with religion taking at best a back seat. The Umayyads were a wealthy and powerful family from Mecca, originally fiercely opposed to Mohammed and his message. Reading the history, one can’t help but get the impression that here was a powerful family that saw a chance to take over the religious movement and use it to its own advantage. Certainly, their rule was diametrically different from that of the initial original Caliphs, and their reign became a byword for ostentation, conspicuous wealth and corruption.

4. Religion “poisons everything”

As I noted in an earlier blog (http://www.atheistrepublic.com/blog/deandrasek/christopher-hitchens-was-...) this is a preposterous claim. The vast majority of humans since recorded history began have been religious. So to say that it poisons everything is to condemn the entire history of humanity, except those rare instances where a notable lack of religious inspiration or belief was present. It was religious believers who fought for the abolition of slavery, and for its retention. Those people did not do this because of their religion, nor did they refrain from such actions because of religion.

Many great scientific discoveries have been made on the back of profound religious beliefs, on a desire to advance the interests of common people, to provide cures for diseases, hunger and injustice. Newton, Copernicus, and Kepler for example were all very religious men. To make the argument that they would have made better discoveries if they had not been religious is unsupportable. None of them said they could not proceed further because of religious compunctions. How can you possibly prove that someone failed to make a great discovery that they were otherwise capable of because of religion? Could Shakespeare have been a better writer if only he’d been atheist? Would Caligula have been less of a monster if he’d been an Epicurean?

Religion by itself is nothing, it needs human prejudice and ambition to advance. If there were no religion, would the world be much different? This is a question like “which came first the chicken or the egg?” Which came first, human nature or religion? Religion is made by humans, it’s a reflection of their own thoughts and desires to control others. If we did not call it religion it would be political doctrine, as existed within many communist and authoritarian regimes. Some historical political regimes were notably lacking in religious conviction, like the Mongols, those paragons of humanist virtue… some of whom actually became more humane when they adopted religion, as was the case with Mahud Ghazan who adopted Islam in 1295.

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Is it the fault of religion that the US retains capital punishment, but not the triumph of religion that the UK abolished it? Attributing a single cause to the origination or suppression of complex social mores is an invitation for disaster and charges of hypocrisy and irrelevancy. Religions are just as likely to be corrupted by pre-existing social mores (sometimes called “cultural parasites”), like circumcision, dress codes, and honor killings, for example, than the other way around. We don’t see America, that bastion of Christianity, following in the footsteps of Jesus by committing its wealth to the betterment of the poor. The avoid political positions of America’s fundamentalist Christian communities appear to harken more towards the bigotry, intolerance, and militarism of the Hebrew Bible, known to Christians as the Old Testament portion of their Bible, than towards the charity and non-violent nature of Jesus’ teachings in the New Testament[4].  The actions so often despised by atheists have been taken by people of many convictions, over many centuries, and it’s illogical to say that any single crime is somehow unique in the history of humanity and ascribed to any one religion.

You cannot look at the sum of human history and artificially divide it into the things you like and the things you don’t and say that the “bad” all came from religion, just because in many instances humans used religion to justify their predilections. What may be called “bad” results also come from science, like the use of the atomic bomb, chemical warfare, carpet bombing of civilians, napalm, social crimes coming from a belief in the “science” of eugenics, the Tuskegee syphilis experiments in the US, cluster bombs specifically designed for civilian casualties, America’s “industrial” and “analytical” method of waging war in Vietnam utilizing “head courts” of enemies which led to the frequent and often intentional massacre of innocent civilians, and hundreds of other examples of horrendous treatment of humans which in no way can be ascribed to “religion” have occurred. 

Getting rid of religion will not make people better, it will just give them one less excuse for being “bad” in some ways. Changing humans’ attitude towards violence, greed and the rights of others has been an ongoing challenge since the start of recorded history, with the first law codes espousing preferred codes of human conduct, which sadly remain ideals to be realized in most societies.

Whenever I see the quote by Steven Weinberg: "'Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion." First off, it makes me gag, given his highly biased approach to this issue when it comes to crimes committed in the Middle East, but aside from his obvious hypocrisy on that score (I still hold him in high regard for his scientific contributions), he must have never come across the Milgram experiment in the early 60s or the Stanford Prison experiment in 1971.

The Milgram and Stanford Prison experiments[5] differed in their details, but basically the situations were the same. Ordinary people were allowed or even encouraged to be horrible to victims who were under their control (even to the extent of providing electrical shocks to people to the point where they apparently are rendered unconscious or dead in the Milgram case). The people which were the subject of the study were in positions of authority or were directly under persons who they were told were in authority. Basically, most people will apply what are considered to be their baser instincts if they think they can get away with it or if they are told to act by persons in authority. Religion is just one example of an excuse for justifying what is otherwise an innate compulsion of almost all human beings, regardless of religion or lack of it. Since gods are made by people, how can we possibly blame a non-existent god for our own behavior? Religion is merely one way in which one group of humans exercises control or authority over another. It’s no different than kingship, nationalism, personal honor, or any number of motivational excuses.

5. Democracy is “good”

Democracy is the rule by the majority, and this is not good for atheists.  Atheists have been protected in non-democratic regimes just as often as in constitutional republics, and many progressive democratic republics have State churches and many mechanisms providing preferential treatment for religions.

The question is whether the political elites feel a need to protect atheists as a specific minority. In some cases they have, and in others they have not. In any political environment where there is wide suffrage, then there is the risk that politicians will cater to the prejudices of the majority in the quest for votes. This can only be countered through political influence either as a voting block of some substance (the so-called “swing” votes – although this has not worked for the Muslims in Israel, for example, as neither side of the Jewish political spectrum has ever included an “Arab” party as part of its coalition, even if that would have put them into power) or economic influence. Otherwise, toleration of minorities is a matter of charity on the part of the majority or indifference by the political elites.

In Northern Europe, atheism has largely grown up without strenuous opposition, and was probably not regarded as a serious threat to most regimes, as atheists have not really pressed their case in terms of a political agenda. Very few countries have eliminated their State churches (including most Scandinavian States), and many Monarchs remain unopposed by atheist groups. Even the position of the Church of England is not seriously challenged by atheists in the UK. Political parties are not clearly aligned along religious lines (even if they have the word “Christian” in the political party name), although issues such as abortion and access to birth control and divorce have been dividing political issues in a number of Roman Catholic majority countries.  The “stealth” advance of atheism in those countries is now being regarded as a warning by other countries where atheism is struggling to gain a greater foothold. And those in the religious majority can be expected to fully utilize their political power at the ballot box to push for agendas that promote their position or disadvantage the opposition – in our case, atheism.

Conclusion

In conclusion, these five claims sound good and make great memes, but they don’t stand up to scrutiny and they won’t convince educated people. Religious people are not all a bunch of ill-educated oafs with no knowledge of science, history, philosophy or political science. For me, the arguments for atheism are still overwhelmingly superior to those for religious beliefs in supernatural powers. But they are well reasoned arguments, many of which have been highlighted here in AR blogs over the years. They are not pithy statements of conclusions, which remain unsupported by evidence or sound argumentation. Being loud and cute is not the same as being right… although if it has a cat in it, I am sure more people will look at it.

References:

[1] It is more prevalent than individual property rights, as many cultures have considered their monarchs to be the ultimate owner of all land and sometimes even all moveable goods, with individuals having rights to them only through a grant from the monarch. Even today, in many countries the State owns all land or mineral rights, and people only have leasehold or termed land title rights.

[2] I prefer to use the start of the War as being the first date of open warfare between major belligerents, which would be Japan’s invasion of China’s Manchuria in 1931, which led to almost continuous warfare between China (which would become a member of the Allies) and Japan (which would become a member of the Axis).

[3] Running from the battle at Badr in 624 AD through 661 AD when the Umayyad caliphate was established.

[4] Unless, of course, you happen to be a fig tree out of season (Mark 11:12-25), or a wandering pig suitable for demonic possession (Matthew 8:28-34), or the few gentiles he came across who he was rather reluctant to interact with (Matthew 15:22-28). Citations are to the New International Version of the Christian Bible.

[5] See “The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil” by Philip Zimbardo (2008) (who was behind the Stanford prison experiment) and “Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View” by Stanley Milgram (1972). I have been told that there is a movie based on the Stanford Prison experiment, which takes things to a more horrific extreme was true in reality. But if people were told that they would be immune from legal prosecution if they chose to punish someone to the point of death, I suspect that a number would have done this.

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