Myths about atheism obscure its secular values: my article in Irish Times

by Michael Nugent on November 17, 2012

The Irish Times report on the recent Atheist Ireland AGM led to two weeks of letters to the editor about atheism and Atheist Ireland. I wrote this article in response, which the Irish Times published yesterday.

Recent letters in The Irish Times promoted six common myths about atheism, including that it is a religion or belief system based on faith and certainty, and that we need religion for meaning and morality.

Atheism is not a religion. Religions typically have creeds supposedly revealed by supernatural beings, while atheists form our own beliefs. Atheist groups claim to speak only on behalf of our members, not on behalf of the creator of the universe.

Atheism is not a belief system. There are as many belief systems as there are atheists. But two significant general beliefs follow from atheism: that morality does not come from gods, and that reality is not revealed by gods.

Atheism does not require faith. Faith is belief that is disproportionate to the best currently available evidence. Atheism is proportionate to the evidence. There is no reasonable evidence that gods exist, and a lot of evidence that humans invented the idea.

Atheism does not require certainty. Strictly speaking, we cannot be certain about anything. But we can be as certain that the Christian god does not exist as Christians are that Thor or Zeus do not exist. Give us reliable evidence and we will change our minds.

We do not need religion for meaning. We each determine our own sense of meaning. We have evolved to notice patterns in nature, which helped previous generations to survive. This can cause us to mistakenly see patterns and ascribe agency, including to gods, that are not there.

We do not need religion for morality. Morality is a natural process of our brains, based on empathy, compassion, reciprocity and reason. It enables us to distinguish good moral ideas in the Bible, such as love thy neighbour, from bad moral ideas in the Bible, such as killing people for gathering sticks on the Sabbath.

What then is atheism, outside of these myths? What is “new atheism”? And why does a secular state protect the rights of everyone equally?

Atheism can mean anything from actively believing gods do not exist to passively not believing gods exist. Most atheists believe gods exist only as ideas in human minds. Some atheists believe the very idea of a god is incoherent.

Atheism is a natural answer to the big questions of life. Most atheists believe the universe is as it seems to be when we apply reason and science to the evidence of our senses. We do not need to invent gods to explain either what we know or what we do not yet know.

The term “new atheism” has been used to describe the approach of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens, and of atheist advocacy groups including Atheist Ireland.

“New atheists” promote reason, science, empathy and human rights; campaign to oppose the harm caused by religion, from Catholic sexism and homophobia to Islamic floggings and stonings; and engage in charitable activities without preaching.

“New atheists” also promote secularism: the idea that the state should be neutral on the issue of theology. This is the only way to protect equally the right of everyone to believe what they want.

Our natural morality can be corrupted by faith and dogma, whether religious or fascist, and whether enforcing state economies or the free market. But we can test fascism and the free market by how they match up to reality, while religious claims hide their testability in a supposed afterlife. That makes it important to keep religious faith and dogma out of political decision-making.

In Ireland, an atheist cannot be president or a judge, the Catholic Church controls 90 per cent of our primary schools and religions are exempted from tax and equality laws.

Whatever we believe about gods, we should all support a secular state that promotes neither atheism nor religion but advances human rights and equality.

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