Some myths about atheism

I had a discussion on Politics.ie today about atheism and Atheist Ireland. I’m reproducing here some of the responses I made to comments about atheism and Atheist Ireland policy.

Myth 1 – Atheism is a religion

Atheism is not a religion. It is either a belief that gods do not exist, or an absence of belief that gods do exist. Religions typically have belief systems, creeds and regulations that usually involve supernatural intervening beings. Some popular expressions coined to counter this myth are that atheism is a religion like not collecting stamps is a hobby, or atheism is a religion like bald is a hair colour.

However, some significant general beliefs necessarily follow from atheism, including the general belief that morality does not come from gods, and the general belief that our understanding of reality is not revealed by gods. These beliefs necessarily follow from atheism, as distinct from just being likely to correlate. They are significant beliefs in a world in which most people believe the opposite.

Myth 2 – Atheism requires faith

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

Myth 3 – Atheists can’t disprove god

There is no onus of proof on atheists to disprove god. The onus of proof is on a person who is making an assertion to justify that assertion. Most atheists simply live their lives on the basis that they have not sufficient reason to believe that god exists, in the same way as most religious people live their lives on the basis that they have not sufficient reason to believe that the gods worshipped by other religions exist.

However, if an atheist chooses to assert that there are no gods, and in particular chooses to assert that there is no personal intervening god with whom humans can have relationships, that atheist can reasonably argue that such an assertion is proportionate to the best currently available evidence.

Myth 4 – We need religion for morality

Religion influences morality, but we do not need religion for morality. And religion can influence morality in both good and bad ways.

The Christian Bible includes some good moral ideas, such as love thy neighbour as thyself and the story of the good Samaritan. It also contains some bad moral ideas, such as that you should stone a man to death for gathering sticks on the Sabbath or stone a woman to death for not being a virgin on her wedding night.

The Quran includes some good moral ideas, such as being good to the poor and not having compulsion in religion. It also contains some bad moral ideas, such as that a man can beat his wife in certain circumstances, that a woman’s inheritance and testimony being half that of a man’s, and that you should cut off the hands of thieves.

However religious people address these differences, the very fact that they notice the difference shows that they are applying their own morality to their religious texts, not getting their morality from their religious texts. Religion enables people to do both morally good things and morally bad things, while believing they are doing morally good things.

Myth 5 – We need religion for cultural values

Religion influences cultural values, but we do not need religion for cultural values. And religion can influence cultural values in both good and bad ways. The World Values Surveys, the largest ever cross-national survey of social change, has been conducted in several waves since 1990, in over eighty countries spanning all six inhabited continents, by a network of social scientists at leading universities around the world.

It has found that poverty and wealth, and religion and secularism, are the main factors that influence cultural values around the world. The influence of poverty and wealth can be measured on a scale of individuals moving from survival values to self-expression values. The influence of religion and secularism can be measured on a scale of societies moving from traditional religious values to secular-rational values.

Personal survival values are highest in Africa and ex-communist countries, and personal self-expression values are highest in Protestant Europe and English-speaking countries. Traditional religious values are highest in Africa and Latin America, and secular-rational values are highest in Japan and Protestant Europe. In most societies, although more slowly in Africa, individuals have been moving towards self-expression values, and societies have been moving towards secular-rational values, since the first World Values Survey was conducted in 1990.

Myth 6 – Atheism has caused atrocities

Atheism has not caused any atrocities. Atheism does not have any creed or dogma that instructs atheists to do anything, whether good or bad. Some people mistakenly blame atheism for atrocities caused by dictators such as Hitler, Stalin and Mao. This is wrong for two reasons.

Firstly, Hitler was not an atheist. He was a Roman Catholic who remained religious though opposed to organised religion. He wrote in Mien Kampf that he believed he was doing the Lord’s work in fighting against the Jews. The Nazis went into battle with the words ‘God with us’ inscribed on their belt buckles.

Secondly, even if Hitler had been an atheist, he did not carry out his atrocities in the name of atheism. Neither did Stalin or Mao, both of who carried out their atrocities in the name of advancing their own dictatorial ideologies.

Atrocities and injustices are made more likely when people place faith and dogma ahead of reason and empathy. And faith and dogma can be used to advance nonreligious interests, from Fascism to the unfettered free market. One big difference between religious faith and dogma, and nonreligious faith and dogma, is that we can test nonreligious faith and dogma by how it matches up to reality, while religious faith and dogma hides its testability in a supposed afterlife.

Responses to Comments about Atheism

Comment: There are some atheists who organise themselves into hierarchical groups with a leader in lace as spokesman. There are some who are very vocal activists and verge on anti-theism. There are even some who tried to get the idea of an atheist temple in London funded and built. Then there are the vast majority who quietly get on with their lives quietly without evangelising their philosophy. Don’t label atheism based on the acts of a very small minority. The whole “Atheism is a religion” meme is dated and is pure garbage.

That’s a pretty good summary, minus the lace.

Comment: I’m referring to organised atheism. It is hipster ballix, of the highest possible order. For brain dead clampits with fk all else to think about.

Think yourself lucky that you don’t live in an Islamic State.

Comment: An unprovable BELIEF centered around the non-existence of GOD, which requires the removal of all “Godly” things from society. Similar to ISIS in many ways which requires the destruction of “false idols”.

Strictly speaking, every belief is unprovable (using the current meaning of prove, as opposed to the original meaning of ‘to test’). Most rational atheists try to proportion our beliefs to the best available evidence, and conclude that it is more likely that humans invented the idea of gods than that they exist. Almost every atheist I know would change our minds if presented with evidence that there is a god.

Comment: As I’ve said “the belief” that God doesn’t exist is perfectly understandable (Agnostic) Stating that God doesn’t exist is a religion (Atheism) unless you can prove otherwise….Please Do:.

Stating that God doesn’t exist is typically shorthand for stating that we believe god doesn’t exist. Almost every atheist I know would change our minds if presented with evidence that there is a god.

Comment: Atheists state for a FACT that God does NOT Exist…..Unless, are you having doubts? A dark night of the intellect perhaps?

Most atheists don’t state for a fact that God does not exist.

Comment: That doesn’t answer the question I asked other than to kick it into the long grass in what could turn out to be the hated questions of theists everywhere: infinite regression?

The most honest answer is that we don’t know, just as we don’t know how life started or how consciousness works. But not knowing does not justify inventing a deity to answer the question.

Comment: Well atheists are claiming that the universe was NOT created by a god, because they are stating that there is no such thing as a god. That’s not the same as simply saying that they don’t know how the universe was created – they are saying “I don’t know how the universe was created, but I do know that a god didn’t do it”.

Most rational atheists don’t say that. See my previous responses.

Comment: Agnostics are in the safest position – their answer can’t be wrong. They say that they don’t know if there is a god or not, and thus they say that they don’t know whether a god created the universe or not. Both theists and atheists are in the position of possibly being wrong.

Most rational atheists are also agnostics. We believe that there is no god, but we don’t claim to be able to know that there is no god.

Comment: Please provide dictionary definitions of these new forms of atheists, then. I have no squabble with classic atheists, or even with theists.

Atheism can mean different things to different people, ranging from a belief that gods do not exist, to an absence of belief that gods do exist. A belief that gods do not exist is sometimes called positive, strong or hard atheism. An absence of belief that gods do exist is sometimes called negative, weak or soft atheism.

Responses to Comments about Atheist Ireland policy

Comment: I thing Atheist Ireland are a bit confused – to all intents and purposes their objectives are secularist, so Secularist Ireland would better describe them. What would be the role of an atheist organisation escapes me.

We discussed this before we were formed. We promote atheism, reason and ethical secularism. A group with the name secularism could only promote part of that agenda. We work with religious people on the secular part of our agenda. For example, we have recently formed an alliance with the Evangelical Alliance of Ireland and the Ahmadiyya Muslims to promote secular education.

Comment: It might well be a case that Atheist Ireland can articulate what it stands in opposition to, but it cannot articulate what it stands in support of?

Our priority issues include challenging religious discrimination in the Irish education system and Constitution; removing the Irish blasphemy law; promoting human rights standards in Irish law; helping nonreligious and minority faith families vindicate their right to a secular education; and working on specific issues such as the Civil Registration Act, State funding of chaplains, and repealing the eighth amendment.

Comment: I don’t think anyone in true poverty in Ireland cares about revoking the Blasphemy law that doesn’t actually do anything.

Our campaign against the blasphemy law is partly because of its impact on the Irish media self-censoring itself, and mostly because of its impact internationally, where the Islamic States at the United Nations have used wording from the Irish blasphemy law to promote spreading blasphemy laws internationally, and to defend themselves from criticism of their own blasphemy alws, where people are persecuted, jailed and killed.

Comment: It annoys me that if I put down Atheist on the census form Atheist Ireland will be assumed to speak for me.

Well, we don’t suggest that you put down Atheist on the form. The only place to do that would mean that you are suggesting that atheism is a religion, which it is not. We suggest that you tick the ‘No Religion’ box. Nobody represents all atheists. Atheists are individual people who typically value their personal philosophical independence. If you are not a paid-up member of the advocacy group called Atheist Ireland, then we do not represent you or claim to represent you, although we do try to represent the best interests of atheists generally in an ethical secular State.

Comment: One thing I found odd with Atheist Ireland is the fact that they seem to have adopted Travellers as an issue, which seems quite random. Travellers are quite a religious bunch when it comes to it and as a group they are not targeted by the Catholic church as far as I am aware.

Our policies are based largely ion human rights law. We work alongside other groups whose human rights are violated in Ireland.

Comment: Name the privileges that this State extends to Catholics, which are not extended to any other section of this society.

In my opinion, the main two are (1) the Catholic Church running 90% of our State-funded schools, with exemptions from our equality laws that allow them to discriminate on the ground of religion against pupils, parents and teachers, and (2) the Catholic-inspired eighth amendment to the Constitution that prevents the Oireachtas from legislating for the right to abortion.

Comment: Religious oaths are a privilege? In what way? In what way does a religious oath confer a privilege?

It means that a conscientious atheist cannot become President, a judge, Taoiseach, Tanaiste, Attorney General, or several other offices.

Comment: A truly secular Republic shouldn’t promote or support ‘anti-religion’ just as it shouldn’t promote or support any particular religion over others or none.

That is precisely Atheist Ireland’s policy. We would be as opposed to the State promoting atheism as we are to the State promoting religion.

Comment: Of course, AI didn’t have the balls to test its theory [on blasphemy] on a certain religion of peace.

Yes, we did. Both when challenging the blasphemy law initially, and later by republishing Charlie Hebdo cartoons after their cartoonists were murdered by terrorists.

Comment: The blasphemy legislation should be repealed and the constitution amended to remove that particular prohibition. That being said, the law as it stands in Ireland is unenforceable in the sense that it is written in a way that makes prosecution near on impossible.

Well, we don’t know that. It can’t have been written to be unenforceable because the whole point of rewriting it was that they were constitutionally obliged to make it enforceable. Otherwise they could have just left the old one there, which the courts had in fact found to be unenforceable. Also, in reality, it has a self-censoring effect on media outlets even without being enforced.

Comment: My fear is that when they come to replace it, as they will, that it will be replaced by some beefed up incitement to hatred law, that will include some specific clauses on protecting religious believers. Indeed, that was the recommendation of the Constitutional Convention. I fear that such laws, unlike the blasphemy one, would be prosecutable and would impact on freedom of expression.

This is indeed a danger. It is one of the recommendations of the Constitutional Convention. Atheist Ireland has proposed that it either be simply removed, or else replaced with a positive clause on freedom of expression based on human rights law.

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8 Comments

  1. I’m disappointed that you didn’t provide a link to thread, because despite an hilariously over the top thread title, the thread was based on AI’s declining an invitation to attend the Easter Rising Commemoration.

    http://www.politics.ie/forum/culture-community/247759-atheist-ireland-fifth-column-organisation.html

    You never addressed the valid questions about that decision – along with the decision to announce it publicly.

    That was what the thread was predicated on.

    It’s clear that many people don’t accept the rationale for the decision.

  2. Michael, Thank you very much for your excellent article.

    The only thing I’d like to add is the truly profound words of the astute modern philosopher, Peter Boghossian, whom defines “faith” to be “pretending to know things that you don’t know”. I have never met an atheist whom claims to know that a god or gods did most definitely not create the universe. There is a huge difference between extolling the faith that a named god exists with 100% certainty, and simply holding an evidence-based opinion that the probability of such a claim is close to zero. If atheism was a faith/religion than it would require that probability exists on a scale from -1 to +1 rather than on its mathematically correct scale from 0 to 1 (zero to unity). The statement “I don’t believe in faith X” *does not logically mean nor imply that* “I have faith in the opposite of X”.

    Practical example: A pair of religious apologists knock on my door to inform me that, because I’m not following their religion, I am an evil person who’s life is totally guided by satan. Such callers completely fail to understand their logical fallacy: inept bifurcation; false dichotomy (the deliberately excluded middle); black-and-white thinking; the fallacy of the false alternative. They also fail to understand how insulting they are to those of us who have painstakingly trodden the very long path from our early childhood indoctrination to our simple lack of belief many decades later.

  3. You make some good points, especially with Myth #1 and #2.

    One error of history:
    “Neither did Stalin or Mao, both of who carried out their atrocities in the name of advancing their own dictatorial ideologies.”

    On the contrary, their “ideology” was atheism. Dialectical materialism (a form of atheism) was central to the Party, to Marxist-Leninism. Both Stalin and Mao hated belief in a god, and persecuted and slaughtered those who believed in a god.

    Those are the facts in any good scholarly biography of Stalin. When Stalin was a teen at an Orthodox seminary in Georgia, he rejected religion and became an atheist, joined the Bolsheviks, and became a bank robber, revolutionary, and killer.

    His whole central focus was on atheism, Marxism-Leninism which took precedent over his relations with women, family, and friends. He even killed co-revolutionaries in the name of the Party!

    Read Young Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore.

  4. Reference to the etymology of the words theist/atheist and gnostic/agnostic might be useful. Definitions I’ve used are presented below.

    A theist is one who believes a god or gods exist. The prefix ‘a’ entered the English language from Greek and indicates a negation* This leads us to the definition of an atheist being one who is not a theist and, therefore, one who does not believe a god or gods exist.

    A gnostic is one who claims to have knowledge about an matter in dispute. Adding the negation gives us agnostic meaning one who is not a gnostic and who, therefore, make no knowledge claim.

    *OED Second Edition (1989)
    —–
    Although the majority of the atheists I know are also agnostics, I have encountered some who claim to know that no god exists. They constitute a small minority of those who post to the newsgroup ‘alt.atheism.’

  5. I find it very interesting that the few if any objections are about anything AI has said or done, and are not only factually incorrect, their accusation is the exact opposite of the case.

    It’s uncannily as if someone, or some cabal, is sitting around self-tasked with trying to imagine what an atheist might claim, or what an atheistic group might do, specifically to find things to object to, as it were fishing for insults.

    The objections reflect a mind-set in which the only way to think about religion is to
    1) assert some prejudice without evidence,
    2) trawl for any innuendo that can lend it legitimacy
    3) present it with relentless hyperbole.

    Now who would do something so perverse and contemptuous?

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