Five Cliches Atheists Should Avoid

A few months ago a Christian blogger at Patheos offered up a list of cliches that Christians should avoid and it’s a pretty good list (including an earlier list and a later one as well). It inspired me to come up with a similar, though smaller, list of cliches and arguments that I hear often from atheists and I wish would stop.

1. Everyone is born an atheist, you have to learn to be religious. Just stop it. A baby is an atheist in the same sense that a tree or a golf ball is an atheist, because they’re capable of forming any opinion at all on the subject.

2. The Founding Fathers were all deists. Wrong. Even by a very broad definition of that word, only a handful of them were deists; by a narrower definition (someone who believes in a non-intervening, watchmaker deity), almost none of them were. The majority were more or less orthodox Christians. The leading lights among them — Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Franklin — are more accurately called theistic rationalists.

3. The Bible is worthless or bullshit or just a bunch of lies or some similar out-of-hand dismissal. No it isn’t. Even if the God of the Bible doesn’t exist and even if Jesus was not the son of God (both of which I think are true), the Bible is still a very important historical text. Even if it contains many mythologized events and inaccurate history (and it does), it’s still an important record of a society that did exist and interacted with other societies around them. It still tells us a great deal about life in the Ancient Near East. And even if Jesus was only a man, many of the ideas attributed to him are valid and even beautiful. Even as an atheist, I find Jesus’ words that “what you do to the least of my brethren, you do unto me also” to be a beautiful expression of human compassion.

4. Religion is just a way of controlling people. While it’s certainly true that religion is a powerful form of social control, long used by those who rule society to keep the rabble in line, that isn’t the only reason why religion was created, still exists or is found to be useful. Religion was not just a means of controlling people, it was also our first attempt to explain the world around us (why did the river flood and destroy our home? The rain god must be angry with us). And surely one of the reasons it persists is because it provides a system of social support and a sense of community for people. Atheists should not be oversimplifying like this.

5. Religion poisons everything. That was, of course, the subtitle to Christopher Hitchens’ book God is Not Great, but it is another absurd oversimplification. I had another atheist repeat that exact phrase to me a few weeks ago and I asked him to please explain how religion poisons, or even diminishes, the genius of Johann Sebastian Bach’s many compositions with a Christian theme (he wrote secular music as well, of course, but they are surely not “less poisoned” somehow than his religious works). Or how religion poisons Michelangelo’s painting of the Sistine Chapel. He had no answer, nor is there any coherent one.

Certainly if you want to argue that religion has motivated many horrible things, I will gladly join you; I write about such things every day. But it has also motivated extraordinary kindness and compassion. I know many good religious people who have sacrificed a great deal to help others with very little reward. They run homeless shelters (and no, not all of them try to proselytize in the process) and soup kitchens, they work to end gang violence, they fight tooth and nail for the rights of LGBT people, they risk their lives in war-torn areas to help refugees. And let’s not casually dismiss their reasons for doing so; many of them do it because they sincerely believe, as Bishop Tutu told me personally a few years ago, that that is what Jesus would do if he were here.

106 comments on this post.
  1. Doubting Thomas:

    How about this one: “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.” — Weinberg

  2. remuss:

    Really?
    I happen to find the inherent hypocrisy of Jesus saying that “what you do to the least of my brethren, you do unto me” contrasted to Luke 14:26-27, Matthew 15:4-7, to be utter gobshite BULLSHIT. The bible is BS because it is incoherent nonsense, UNLESS you happen to cherry pick. I mean, shit, Hitler was opposed to smoking. So, there, right?

  3. dingojack:

    Ed –
    A baby does not believe in a god or gods and so is, by definition, an atheist.
    A golf ball in an inanimate object and so cannot have a state of mind. Not having a mind, a golf ball can neither believe nor disbelieve in anything.

    If you are having difficulty discerning the difference between the two, my advice – stay off the golf course.

    Dingo
    —–
    PS: ‘This door IS NOT alarmed; it is an inanimate object and therefore cannot have a state of mind’, ‘If you see a suspicious package, relax and remember – inanimate objects can’t have a state of mind’.

  4. remuss:

    And are you saying that religion isn’t taught? What, is it divinely revealed? Address the whole argument you make in part one, not just the easy pickings, will you?

  5. Alverant:

    #2 & #5 are just superlatives, add “just about” in front of the absolute and you become much more accurate. I would also say that even some of the good things religion motivates people to do still carry a little bit of taint.

    For example think about the soup kitchens where volunteers try to proselytize. I volunteered at a food back last year around Thanksgiving and Christmas and someone donating canned veggies stuck bible passages on all their cans. One could argue that religion poisons so much that what it doesn’t poison can be dismissed as anomalies.

    #3 The Titanic movie is also a fictionalization of historic events but historians don’t use that movie in their research. Maybe they use stills from the movie given how accurate the sets were, but they still go to the source material. Likewise you can go to other texts to get the information about society back then.

    Also remember the NT was written centuries after the fact so it may not be as trustworthy of a source that you imply. Given the importance of the bible to many people, you’re not going to find many non-Atheists saying, “OK 90% of this book can’t be verified so we shouldn’t use it for historical purposes.”

    One can also make the same argument for the myths of any culture because they do show there was a society and reflected their ideal cultural values.

    #2 Even though the majority of the FF were christian, they had the sense to keep their religion out of forming a government and even went against it (power from the people, not from God; freedom of expression; equal rights for all citizens). In that sense they were very unchristian for the few months they were working.

  6. laurentweppe:

    “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.”

    It’s as stupid an oversimplification as “Religion poisons everything” except the added verbiage is supposed to make it sound profound (because in debate wit trumps substance). You want good people to do evil things? put a gun against their head and give them an order; or have they born into a dictatorship; or even easier: convince them that the evil fanatics’ children must die before they grow into more fanatics: you don’t need religion for it: you can build an impassioned (and utterly despicable) defense of ethnic cleansing simply by mixing soundbites from Hitchen & Harris without adding an atom of religiosity

  7. brucegee1962:

    This has been bugging me awhile, so I just want to get it off my chest.

    I think I was a better person when I was a Christian than I am now. I was more likely to take time out of my schedule to volunteer to help the unfortunate, work at a suicide prevention hotline, volunteer at various charities, etc. than I am now.

    Part of that is simply where I am in my life’s journey: my spare time and money now goes into my family and kids, instead of going out to work with raondom strangers. And of course that is also “good” behavior.

    But if I’m honest with myself, I have to admit that the carrot/stick of heaven/punishment was a much better motivator than the purely logical reasons that motivate me to work to better my fellow humans today.

  8. Martin Wagner:

    #7: No offense, but I’d say that says more about you and your personality than it does the ethics and value of superstitious, fear-based motivations over humanistic, rational ones.

  9. dingojack:

    On second thoughts, you could be right.
    What experimental procedures are you suggesting to test your hypothesis that: ‘babies believe in god (or gods) and therefore are not atheists’?
    :) Dingo

  10. remuss:

    @#7: Congrats. You’ve gotten older. Old people are clearly less moral than young people. I know this because I’m younger than you.
    LOL.

    Your argument doesn’t speak well for the carrot of hell and the stick of heaven.

  11. thisisaturingtest:

    Re cliche #4:
    True. Religion was what passed for science at one time; just as mere technology is today (or, more precisely, the use of it in disregard of the process of thought that produced it [as Michael Crichton was fond of pointing out]; or the fear of it out of the same disregard)

  12. No One:

    brucegee1962

    But if I’m honest with myself, I have to admit that the carrot/stick of heaven/punishment was a much better motivator than the purely logical reasons that motivate me to work to better my fellow humans today.

    That’s the problem with the carrot/stick, once the stimulus is removed the reactive behavior often ceases. Perhaps as you get older compassion will “grow” within you without the need for an external stimulus.

  13. left0ver1under:

    The bible is only a historical book if you’re using it the same way linguists do, trying to trace back the origins of words to their invention or where the stories were borrowed from. The catholics, gnostics and others argue over its contents between the 3rd and 7th century CE when it was a compiled. It’s a collected bunch of stories much like the Canterbury Tales in the 13th century, Aesop’s Fables or ancient Greek plays attributed to Homer. It’s not a single coherent story, it’s closer to a game of “telephone”.

    The alleged events it purports from 2000 years ago are as credible as freemasonry’s claims of being around since ancient Egypt. Most of the stories in the “new testament” were borrowed from other areas from around the Mediterranean (e.g multiple saviours like Mithras, the crucifiction of Osiris, etc.), just as many parts in the “old testament” were borrowed from around the region (e.g. the “flood” from Sumeria, the alleged origin of the Code of Hammurabi).

  14. bobapthorpe:

    I’d add to #4 the importance of ritual to human life; everything from christening, bar/bat mitzvah, and wedding to funeral. Throw in seasonal festivals like harvest, new year, and spring (Easter). All of these are important and cross-cultural, often religious but sometimes not. These are not foibles of religion akin to their fondness for funny hats, but rather vital events in a human’s life; there’s a reason religions tend to co-opt them. The ritual, theatrics, and community are part of the human experience.

    I wish Alain de Botton hadn’t been so douchey when promoting his recent book on the matter; I think he and Ed rightly take atheists to task on this point.

  15. Ibis3, member of the Oppressed Sisterhood fanclub:

    On the Bible: do you feel the same about all the other middle eastern and near eastern “scriptures”? I have a massive book of such texts that only scholars read. If it weren’t for the accident of history that made this collection of writings the most commonly available, I doubt you’d give them more than a moment’s thought. Sure, read the highlights (i.e. the stuff that’s foundational for understanding Western lit and art like Genesis and The Sermon on the Mount), but don’t pretend that it’s especially valuable in its own right. In fact, it’s mostly vile and nasty, containing so much misogyny, racism, cruelty, and backwards thinking that it deserves to be consigned to the ash heap of history at last. “Oh but it has this nice sentiment here.” So what? It’s like praising fascism for getting the trains to run on time. There are much more worthwhile books to read and treasure.

  16. Bronze Dog:

    I think there are some modifications to be made to the list, but it’s workable.

    For the baby one, I prefer to make the point that atheism should be the default, since it’s a null hypothesis. You shouldn’t need a reason to be an atheist but you should need a reason to believe in gods. Bringing babies into it just kind of seems like using the technicality to feel smug, and leads to distractions about neurological development when the focus should be on the principle of null hypotheses and falsification.

    One cliche I’ve seen when some atheists get sloppy is the idea that religion is the root of all evil. I certainly think it’s behind a huge chunk of the world’s evils, but there’s still tribalism, greed, and so on. Ditching religion won’t lead us to utopia in a day.

  17. chriswalker:

    A baby does not believe in a god or gods and so is, by definition, an atheist.
    A golf ball in an inanimate object and so cannot have a state of mind. Not having a mind, a golf ball can neither believe nor disbelieve in anything.

    True, but babies don’t believe in the veracity of the scientific method. Or the freedom of speech. Or object permanence. I do believe that Ed’ point was while babies do technically fit the definition of “atheist”, it is a poor argument because babies are ignorant of literally everything. If we received absolute 100% proof positive of a god’s existence today, a baby born tomorrow would still be an atheist.

  18. Reginald Selkirk:

    Believer, nonbeliever – it doesn’t matter. The cliche I wish they would stop using is “It’s to die for.”

  19. remuss:

    @18.
    Kill the Militant Atheist Armies!!

  20. Michael Heath:

    Ed argues we should avoid this false assertion:

    The Founding Fathers were all deists.

    True, but this false assertion is related to a very important related topic. Many of the key framers’ approach to thinking had them rejecting religious thinking while still maintaining some theistic beliefs and self-identification with Christianity. Their approach to thinking is relevant today not because of their conclusions but instead the rejection of religious thinking and the adoption of enlightenment thinking.

    In addition many of the key framers were deists; but not the type that fit the common use of the term today. It’s important to understand the full context of the word deist so we don’t wrongly abandon good historical reporting that correctly used the term deist in the proper context when describing Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, probably Madison, along with others who thought like them and arrived at similar theistic beliefs.

    The theistic conclusions held by the founding framers are effectively irrelevant when understanding both their mutual intent regarding just governance along with their approach to how to think to develop knowledge. Especially when it comes to their architecting our current approach to governance and advancing human understanding. In fact their ideas on how to defend and amend the Constitution depended upon human reason, not the promotion and reference to holy dogma.

    The framers approached the architecture of governance from two radically liberal angles:

    1) That government was for the people, not for a god; even if the population predominately shared a mutual belief in an intervening god supposedly demanding our submission.

    2) Their construct of government, its relationship with people, and how we encourage human progression came not from religious edicts, but instead from human reason, i.e., enlightenment thinking. Thinking which is a rejection of fealty to fixed “truths” as asserted by religious powers.

    So while conservative Christians and Thomas Jefferson might believe in a providential god, conservative Christians referring to dogmatic edicts hold no just authority over our Constitution and the limitation of our rights, a rejection which Jefferson pioneered and therefore puts him in the camp of secularists in spite of his being a theist like them.

    Ed writes:

    The leading lights among them — Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Franklin — are more accurately called theistic rationalists.

    I immediately adopted this term because it so accurately describes how these five and others came to their conclusions. However I perceived the set of people fitting into theistic rationalism, in the 18th century American context, as a population set which is a subset of both Christianity and Deism. Theistic rationalists back then could rightly answer “yes” to being a deist, a Christian, and a theistic rationalist if the term existed in their time.

    However I’ve seen some recent dialogue between the inventor of the term, Gregory Frazer, and Albert Mohler, that had Frazer putting theistic rationalists in a set distinct from both Christianity and deism. To do so he seemed to falsely conflate ‘orthodox Christianity’, which these framers clearly were not, with Christianity. In addition Dr. Frazer used the current common layman understanding of deist, which is people who are not theists, when the definition of deist originally and in the founder’s time also described an approach to arriving at beliefs/conclusions based on reason and the observation of nature, which again was a rejection of dogma and revelation but didn’t necessarily disqualify a providential god.

    I think the segration of theistic rationalists from deism and Christianity is a mistake and will lead to the same type of confusion we encounter when people rightly note thee five framers Ed’s references are deists, but a type not commonly understood. So I hope Dr. Frazer will lose control of his definition and the term can be understood merely by understanding the definition of theism and rationalism, and therefore isn’t necessarily exclusionary from Christianity and the few remaining deists in our midst.

  21. Nathair:

    One cliche I’ve seen when some atheists get sloppy is the idea that religion is the root of all evil.

    That’s just an ironic rebranding of the sloppy 1 Timothy 6:10 from the KJV. It isn’t anyone’s actual position.

  22. dingojack:

    chris – “True, but babies don’t believe in the veracity of the scientific method. Or the freedom of speech. Or object permanence. I do believe that Ed’ point was while babies do technically fit the definition of “atheist”, it is a poor argument because babies are ignorant of literally everything.”

    Firstly, how do we know that babies don’t believe* in:
    a) the veracity of the scientific method?
    b) the freedom of speech?

    Do we have evidence of this? (Well, clearly not, to my knowledge no experimenters have figured out how to prove these types of hypotheses). I suspect that ‘I believe that babies don’t believe in…’ is what is really meant here.

    Actually babies are proving to be not quite as much the tabla rasa we once thought.

    Dingo
    —–
    * semantically “don’t believe” and “disbelieve” are not equivalent. The former can be passive and latter is active.
    So is it atheists disbelieve or atheists don’t believe in god or gods?

  23. tuibguy:

    Even as an atheist, I find Jesus’ words that “what you do to the least of my brethren, you do unto me also” to be a beautiful expression of human compassion.

    I used to like this one, too. But then I started thinking about the fact that he was talking about Judgment Day, and that those who fail to be perfect to their fellow man were going to be going to Hell.

    Dulled the finish a bit for me.

  24. Enopoletus Harding:

    Excellent job, Ed, though I still find Ayn Rand’s teachings to be less error-filled than that of Jesus.
    @left0ver1under
    -The code of Hammurabi was Akkadian, not Sumerian. All the books of the NT were written by the 3rd C AD-the first list of exactly the same books of the NT as we have dates to 367 AD. Osiris was not crucified; being stuffed into a pillar of wood is not crucifixion. If anything, Christianity influenced Mithraism, not the other way around (except in generalities); see http://www.kingdavid8.com/_full_article.php?id=77dc2106-6b98-11e1-b1f8-842b2b162e97.
    @Alverant-The books of the NT were not written “centuries after the fact”-all were written under two centuries after the ‘fact’.

  25. Nick Gotts (formerly KG):

    Firstly, how do we know that babies don’t believe* in:
    a) the veracity of the scientific method?
    b) the freedom of speech?
    Do we have evidence of this? (Well, clearly not, to my knowledge no experimenters have figured out how to prove these types of hypotheses).
    - dingojack

    Don’t. Be. So. Silly. Are you really so ignorant of science that you think there has to be specific experimental evidence for every empirical statement? Babies don’t have language – yes, we do know this, because the process by which they acquire it has been studied extensively – and that means they cannot formulate either of those beliefs, nor the belief that there is a god, or that there are not any gods, or that there is no good reason to believe there is a god. They are only “atheists” in the sense that sheep (which, like babies, have states of mind but not language) are atheists – that is, a sense that no-one with any gumption would seriously want to maintain, or would even think they can win any debating points by maintaining. Sheesh.

  26. remuss:

    @25:
    So, acquiring language entails gaining religious beliefs?

  27. glodson:

    But if I’m honest with myself, I have to admit that the carrot/stick of heaven/punishment was a much better motivator than the purely logical reasons that motivate me to work to better my fellow humans today.

    I think that’s a horrible motivation. And the worst kind of motivator. It is all to easy to justify doing the worst things imaginable, as you have the reason of “I’m doing it to save souls.” I mean, if one really believed there was the insane deity of the Bible sitting in judgement over the souls of the dead with the ability to condemn a soul to an eternity of suffering, then anything you do to save a soul is justified. It diminishes the importance of this life, except in the context of saving souls.

    Really, I’m the opposite of you. While I don’t have the time like I did when I was younger, and religious, I’m more concerned with my fellow human’s life as they are now. I am free to accept and reject moral principals taken from any source. There’s no feeling that I’m only acting because of what a fictional god might want, but rather I act compassionately because I really want to help people.

  28. dingojack:

    What I am saying is that I agree with Ed in a limited way. one can’t say that babies are or are not atheists because we can’t know this, nor could we prove it* (but, as pointed out by Bronze Dog (#16) it is the most logical null hypothesis, using the broader “don’t believe” standard).
    Dingo
    —–
    * however we certainly can’t say they must be religious either.

  29. dingojack:

    remuss – perhaps Nick thinks only the dumb are atheists.
    :) Dingo

  30. remuss:

    OK. Blastulas aren’t true atheists. What about toddlers? What about 6 year olds? Surely they’re just parroting their parents, and they don’t quite get it, so, they can’t be theists?
    What exactly is so invalid about the default position? The …vague term of “baby” being used?

  31. dingojack:

    Meerkats have been shown to have language. I wonder what god(s) they believe in?
    dingo

  32. chriswalker:

    By the standard being proffered here, Terri Schiavo died an atheist because she was pretty well incapable of forming any kind of complex thought. It’s not inaccurate, but it is low hanging fruit to claim the null state as a “victory”.

  33. laurentweppe:

    OK. Blastulas aren’t true atheists. What about toddlers? What about 6 year olds? Surely they’re just parroting their parents, and they don’t quite get it, so, they can’t be theists?

    Don’t go there: eventually you’ll start pointing at religious kids and say they are merely paroting their parents, not knowing any better, proclaim with absolute certainty that their display of religiosity are nothing more than an elaborate circus dogs’ tricks, then point at atheist kids and say “Awwwww look at how smart and mature they are“, then anyone aware of what “double standard” means will grind their teeth.
    My point is, don’t harm people’s dental health.

  34. davem:

    One cliche I’ve seen when some atheists get sloppy is the idea that religion is the root of all evil. I certainly think it’s behind a huge chunk of the world’s evils, but there’s still tribalism, greed, and so on.

    It’s not religion that is the problem, it’s churches or organised religion. …and priesthood… It’s about having someone in authority tell you what to think, and to make you think that that brown-skinned mooslim deserved that drone attack. Organised religion is tribalism.

  35. matty1:

    1. That new born babies lack belief in God (and in free speech etc) is a sensible null hypothesis given what is known about development. The problem is with the implied leap from this to the idea that if children were not taught religion they would automatically grow up to to be philosophical naturalists who reject supernatural claims when they encounter them.

    2. To claim the Bible is useless for history because it is inaccurate shows a poor understanding of how historians use source texts. Attempts at straight factual reporting are rare throughout history and even today so instead you have to piece together a story from what different biased recorders thought happened. You also have to accept that if contemporary accounts are lacking an account from two or three generations later is better than nothing in establishing a rough picture.

    To save time – of course these points are equally true of the Iliad or the Popol Vuh. That is rather the point, we don’t have to choose between believing such a book totally and throwing it on the bonfire, we can study it as an example of how past societies thought. The fact that we do this for a lot of old texts is a reason to treat the Bible the same not a reason to declare that because people who take it literally are still around we must have nothing to do with it.

  36. Nick Gotts (formerly KG):

    So, acquiring language entails gaining religious beliefs? – remuss

    What sort of lackwit are you? Where did I say anything that could possibly be interpreted as meaning or implying that by anyone with more than two brain-cells? Having religious beliefs requires having language. Do you really think that means or implies that acquiring language entails gaining religious beliefs?

  37. Nick Gotts (formerly KG):

    Meerkats have been shown to have language. I wonder what god(s) they believe in?
    dingo

    I’m truly flabbergasted. Another dolt who thinks that “A requires B”, implies that “possession of B implies possession of A”.

    (Incidentally: no, meerkats do not have language in anything remotely approaching the sense that humans do.)

  38. Nick Gotts (formerly KG):

    OK. Blastulas aren’t true atheists. What about toddlers? What about 6 year olds? Surely they’re just parroting their parents, and they don’t quite get it, so, they can’t be theists? – remuss

    The stupid, it burns!

    Though no man may draw a stroke between the confines of day and night, yet light and darkness are on the whole tolerably distinguishable. – Edmund Burke

  39. remuss:

    Instead of points, insults. Why, we must be on the interwebs.
    So, is atheism the default position, or not?

  40. remuss:

    What are you getting at, @formerly KG?

    Can you address the point, instead of flinging insults? Or is that your point?

  41. remuss:

    @33:
    I’m not going there. But thanks for the heads up.
    I’m just trying to figure out why the hair splitting is relevant, that’s all.

  42. Donovan:

    I do agree with some of your complaints, but two I find questionable.

    The Bible is indeed an important historical text, but I find it no more important than Shakespeare, with the latter being far better written. I think the Bible’s language is clunky and it’s message is abhorrent. I think any student of human society ought to read it, but I would never claim they will enjoy it, and I certainly hope they won’t be directly inspired by it. I will grant, though, that my opinion of its artistic merits are personal and subjective. If you like that sort of thing, I will respect that.

    And religion does poison everything. Sure, a few pieces of art come to us from the church’s patronage of artists, but how many times must we hear that gods inspired the art. How many times must we hear how our talents are “God-given”? Even the exquisite music of Bach or the glowing pigments of Dürer are used as gobshite propaganda. Religion actively seeks to poison these works by using them to instill such awe in their followers. When religion goes away, sure, the works will remain and they will be beautiful, but it will only be because religion has been purged.

    I know this message will be lost in a long string, but I hope you can see this “challenge” of sorts. Name something that really isn’t poisoned by religion and let PZ or Greta or maybe Coyne or Krauss agree or disagree with you. I respectfully decline such an engagement of wits only because I’m honest enough with myself to know that nobody here cares what I think, nor should they. I just really want to be challenged on this point, or the point of the Bible’s importance, to see if the challenged me agrees with the current me.

  43. Nick Gotts (formerly KG):

    remuss,

    Stupidity on the scale you demonstrate naturally garners insults; if you don’t want to be insulted, try being less stupid, if you can manage it.

    1) It makes no more sense to apply terms such as “atheist” (or “theist”) to an organism without language than it does to apply them to a stone.
    2) *sigh* You mean you really can’t see the relevance of the Burke quote? Just because there is no sharp dividing line between two states of affairs, one of which changes into the other, that does not mean there’s not a radical difference between the endpoints.

  44. matty1:

    @42

    I think the Bible’s language is clunky and it’s message is abhorrent

    I’m inclined to agree with you with two caveats.

    1. The language of most English translations of the Bible is indeed clunky but I hesitate to form an opinion on how it reads in other languages including the originals.

    2. I’m not sure there is a single coherent message, there are lots of messages some of which contradict each other and a lot of stuff that doesn’t seem to me to have a message.

  45. matty1:

    Whether ‘religion poisons everything’ seems to me to depend on what we mean. If it is a way of saying that the involvement of religion makes a thing worthless then it is clearly false but if the argument is that however good Bach may be the religious aspect is still a negative then it may be true.

  46. heddle:

    #42,

    And religion does poison everything. Sure, a few pieces of art come to us from the church’s patronage of artists, but how many times must we hear that gods inspired the art. How many times must we hear how our talents are “God-given”? Even the exquisite music of Bach or the glowing pigments of Dürer are used as gobshite propaganda. Religion actively seeks to poison these works by using them to instill such awe in their followers. When religion goes away, sure, the works will remain and they will be beautiful, but it will only be because religion has been purged.

    This doesn’t begin to rise to the level of a sensible criticism of religion. It is just the kind of warmed-over tripe the OP criticizes. Who could actually write

    When religion goes away, sure, the works will remain and they will be beautiful, but it will only be because religion has been purged

    and believe that they have just penned anything of substance? What does it mean? That the works of art are not beautiful, but will be when religion is purged, or that they are beautiful, but will not remain as such unless religion is purged? Either way, utter stupidity.

  47. nickmatzke:

    Watch out Ed, you’ll get branded as a soft-headed accommodationist faitheist Quisling if you keep this up. But, good post anyway.

  48. Enopoletus Harding:

    Even though I still think Ed’s post is excellent, the phrase “religion poisons everything” is, in a limited sense, true, as everything that is wholly religion is based on nonsense, and is, thus, poisonous. Religion, however, rarely wholly poisons everything, but often merely makes it somewhat annoying to atheists that a good work should be associated with nonsense.

  49. Sastra:

    I generally agree with the list, and would only quibble here and there with some of the interpretations put on it. Babies are non-theists, without an opinion on God (or politics or economics or much else.)

    Though I just now thought it might be interesting to make an argument that babies are in fact theists in that they instinctively ascribe god-like powers, knowledge, purpose, authority, and worthiness of worship to their parent(s) or caregiver(s). As Mommy becomes more human, the image of God takes over the empty hole.

    Certainly if you want to argue that religion has motivated many horrible things, I will gladly join you; I write about such things every day. But it has also motivated extraordinary kindness and compassion.

    Yes and no. Was it really the ultimate motivation?

    There is a serious problem which occurs whenever anyone tries to demonstrate the benefits of religion: these benefits logically can’t be unique to religion. They can’t be something religion has and secularism doesn’t if the way we measure something as “good” is through secular criteria, a shared criteria. The atheists set the standard because the standard is supposed to be objective — something even an atheist (a nice, good atheist) would agree was nice and good. So religion AS religion literally can’t add in anything new. The best it can do is set up a system which encourages the practice of what atheists value — and then claim the system is effective.

    But the beliefs? Irrelevant.

    Of course, this works in religion’s favor when we’re talking about the evil religion does. It’s a shared evil, just as it has to be a shared good. What skews the agreement is how the situation is framed. Religion allows people to have their own facts — facts which can’t be shared or known or acknowledged by outsiders. Now anything goes.

    I’d say that the hyperbolic “religion poisons everything” is true with limitations in the same sense that “pseudoscience poisons everything” is true with limitations. You could have communities of astrologers or ancient astronauts or astral projectors or alternative medicine which function quite well in that there is a lot of love, excitement, support, and some good wisdom and knowledge added to whatever unscientific nonsense they’re structured around.

    But that wouldn’t mean that there is “good” to be said about homeopathy, that it motivates and inspires when allopathic medicine does not. We’re not dealing with pseudoscience itself, but other things which have no necessary connection: when we do, it’s poisonous rot it would be better to do without… even if Aunt Edna has been so much nicer and happier since she joined the local group of “energy healers.”

  50. raven:

    Religion poisons everything.

    Technically it should be, Religion poisons almost everything, almost all the time.</b?

    But you won't go wrong rounding off to:
    Religion poisons everything.

    Try writing, “Religion makes everything better” without laughing or vomiting. Sure, if you are fans of jet planes flying into skyscrapers, shooting young girls for going to school, bombing family planning clinics, or claiming the earth is 6,000 years old and the center of the universe.

  51. matty1:

    This is radical I know but it may be possible for something to have bad and good elements. I’m not saying that applies to religion but the idea that our only options are that a thing is either all bad or all good, all I can say is that sadly I only have one face and two palms.

  52. felix:

    1. Everyone is born an atheist, you have to learn to be religious.

    Just stop it. A baby is an atheist in the same sense that a tree or a golf ball is an atheist, because they’re capable of forming any opinion at all on the subject.

    I disagree totally on this one.

    To me this saying embodies several important arguments:

    1. Religion is an explanation that parents offer when children ask questions about the world. It is just a particularly bad one.
    2. You have to be taught to believe in a God, you not going to get there by yourself.
    3. The God you are taught to believe in is purely an accident of birth.
    4. There are multiple conflicting religions with no way to say which is correct.

  53. zmidponk:

    I would disagree with #1 and #3, myself. For #1, yes, a baby has the same capability of forming an opinion on religion as a golf-ball. And? It’s not uncommon for babies to be born with no hair on their head. Such a baby is both atheist and bald. If that baby grows up to be a 40 year old man who has spent much of his life thus far studying all the world’s religions, but rejecting all of them, and has also decided to shave his head, he will still be both atheist and bald. In much the same way that the 40 year old man is not more bald than he was as a baby because he is now capable of growing hair but has decided to shave it all off, he is also not more atheist than as a baby because he is now capable of comprehending religion but has rejected it. It is simply the case that he is now atheist for different reasons than he was as a baby in the same way that he is now bald for different reasons. And, yes, this does mean a golf-ball is atheist, in much the same way that it is also bald.

    As for #3, actually, yes, the Bible is utterly worthless nonsense. There are certain passages that, when read in isolation, could express certain noble sentiments and suchlike, but if you’ve ever tried just picking up the Bible and reading it from cover to cover, thus reading those passages in context, even in cases where doing this does not change the meaning of that passage, that context is still a passage from a book of really, really badly written fairy stories that quite often contradict each other. As such, I would suggest there are much better sources for such things.

  54. Nick Gotts (formerly KG):

    2. You have to be taught to believe in a God, you not going to get there by yourself. – felix

    So, how did anyone come to believe in God in the first place?

  55. felix:

    @Nick:

    before better explanations where available it was possible to invent god.

  56. DaveL:

    The bible is BS because it is incoherent nonsense, UNLESS you happen to cherry pick.

    Of course you cherry pick. If you don’t approach the Bible as being inherently authoritative in its entirety in the first place, there’s no reason not to. It simply become a case of judging each idea on its merits.

  57. felix:

    @DaveL … but since none of the good bits are original there’s no point to read it for ideas.

  58. Sastra:

    The test I use on the worth and value of the Bible is this: if people didn’t believe that the book was divinely inspired and contained the meaning of life — and this was simply supposed to be an ancient text — what would I think?

    I think I’d think it was rather amazing. Such a long, intact record of what people a long time ago believed, often beautifully written and replete with strange and archaic rules and concerns as well as stories which I could identify with, and ones I couldn’t. Similarities and differences, traces of history and development. Worth reading at least in excerpts, worthy of scholarship — and a real shame if it is neglected.

    The main problem with the Bible is that it’s been over-rated. If we’d come across it as teens or young adults and felt like we ‘discovered’ it on our own, like academic nerds, we’d probably think it was fascinating. And look down on those who fail to appreciate it.

  59. dsmccoy:

    @Ed

    because they’re capable of forming any opinion at all on the subject.

    Don’t you really mean:

    because they’re incapable of forming any opinion at all on the subject.

  60. khms:

    In much the same way that the 40 year old man is not more bald than he was as a baby because he is now capable of growing hair but has decided to shave it all off

    … but only the grown man can be a skinhead.

    There’s an important difference here. You’re bald if you have no hair; you’re a skinhead only if you have no hair because you decided to be that way.

    Similarly, to me at least, atheist doesn’t just mean you don’t believe in god, but that you actively disbelieve – which necessarily means a newborn doesn’t qualify.

    The main problem with the Bible is that it’s been over-rated. If we’d come across it as teens or young adults and felt like we ‘discovered’ it on our own, like academic nerds, we’d probably think it was fascinating. And look down on those who fail to appreciate it.

    Well … yes and no.

    That’s essentially how I came across it (maybe a little younger), and I immediately recognized as mythical – it sounded very similar to other mythical texts I had already seen.

    And it was fascinating … but it also was distinctly not the kind of text I like to read. Especially the NT, apart from the gospels, proved more than I could stand.

    It qualifies as really, really badly written fantasy.

    Looking down on those who fail to appreciate it … maybe if that’s a dog-whistle for the religious?

  61. isilzhaveni:

    No, the bible IS pretty much worthless…

    What about the words to stone disobedient children to death? Or bash the brains of babies on rocks? Or to kill all the women who’ve had sex and take the virgins as unwilling ‘wives’? Or jeebus saying to hate your parents? Or the fact that he also said he came to uphold the old law–the ones where you kill disobedient children?

    Yeah…there are tons of reasons as to why the bible is worthless, immoral pile of dung. Maybe it has some historic significance, but certainly nothing more.

    You’ve lost a reader, btw.

  62. andrewwilson:

    Yes, Bach was religious but he had to feed his (very large) family so he went where the money was, to the largest benefactor of the time, the church.

    Had the largest benefactor been secular he would have gone there.

  63. demonhauntedworld:

    Even though we can all quibble about whether #1 is semantically correct but technically meaningless, I think it does raise an interesting thought experiment: namely, whether a child raised in cultural/linguistic isolation (such as those apocryphal tales of children “raised by wolves”) would still grow up to develop some sort of religious belief. Society conditions most of us to adopt a religious belief system, and a lucky few manage to reject or resist that conditioning and become (or stay) atheists.

    So the question becomes, what is our “natural” state of belief regarding theism?

  64. Enopoletus Harding:

    @isilzhaveni
    -It’s worthless for some purposes. Is the Odyssey worthless because of its gruesome ending? Are the reliefs of the Battle of Kadesh at Luxor worthless because of their content? The Bible is, indeed, mostly worthless if one wants to find present-day morality in it. So is every other ancient artifact.

  65. felix:

    @KHMS “Similarly, to me at least, atheist doesn’t just mean you don’t believe in god, but that you actively disbelieve”

    So, if the concept of god had never been invented there would be no atheists?

  66. felix:

    isilzhaveni says “You’ve lost a reader, btw.”

    No, actually YOU have lost a useful and informed source of news and opinion.
    So long!

  67. Donovan:

    This doesn’t begin to rise to the level of a sensible criticism of religion. It is just the kind of warmed-over tripe the OP criticizes. Who could actually write

    When religion goes away, sure, the works will remain and they will be beautiful, but it will only be because religion has been purged

    and believe that they have just penned anything of substance? What does it mean? That the works of art are not beautiful, but will be when religion is purged, or that they are beautiful, but will not remain as such unless religion is purged? Either way, utter stupidity.

    Try reading just what I wrote without your own rather odd additions. You might still disagree, but after removing your addled mind’s dysfunctional interpretations, it ought to make more sense.

    And if you want substance, stick to the main body article and avoid the comments. I am not here to amuse nor enlighten you, that’s the bloggers’ job.

  68. Better Off Damned:

    Except for the first two, I’ve never heard any of these used as an actual argument. They’re simply things many of us tend to say, but rarely in an entirely literal sense.

    When, for example, a person says “The bible is bullshit”, they are not stating that it has zero worth in any sense whatsoever (ie. as a historical document or literary work). What they mean is that it’s not the “word of god” as Christians insist it is; that it’s a book of old myths, and should not be regarded as truth.

    What you have listed aren’t arguments, but rather, hyperbolic statements.

  69. Five Cliches Atheists Should Avoid | Dispatches from the Culture Wars | Christian Dailys:

    [...] all the other middle eastern and near eastern “scriptures”? I have a … … Link: Five Cliches Atheists Should Avoid | Dispatches from the Culture Wars ← Jer's Place: Sunday School-the Word of God or "Words Just [...]

  70. Winterwind:

    Actually babies are proving to be not quite as much the tabla rasa we once thought.

    Hey Dingo, what’s a tabla rasa? Is it a kind of Indian drum whose rhythms are wholly determined by its environment?

  71. Nick Gotts (formerly KG):

    often beautifully written – Sastra, on the Bible

    That must be the bits I haven’t got to yet. A couple of years ago I set out to read the whole thing – the KJV, specifically, which is reputedly great literature. I’m currently bogged down in Samuel I. What has surprised me most is just what tedious dreck it is in literary terms.

    However, it is historically and politically important, not so much for what it tells us about the times it was written it – let alone the earlier ones much of the OT is supposedly about – but because of its enormous influence over the past two millennia.

  72. dingojack:

    Winterwind – I, of course, meant tabula rasa. Serves me right for not spell-checking.
    Ah Nick you do remember typing the following:

    “Babies don’t have language – yes, we do know this, because the process by which they acquire it has been studied extensively – and that means they cannot formulate … the belief that there is a god, or that there are not any gods, or that there is no good reason to believe there is a god.”

    So what you’re saying is one needs language to formulate religious belief. So those born deaf-mute are, by necessity, atheists? And if they are (or not) how can we know?
    Dingo

  73. Nick Gotts (formerly KG):

    So what you’re saying is one needs language to formulate religious belief.

    Yes, of course you do.

    So those born deaf-mute are, by necessity, atheists? And if they are (or not) how can we know?
    Dingo

    Are you trying to be as stupid as possible here? Because you’re certainly succeeding. Try looking up the difference between language and speech. Sign languages such as American Sign Language have the full expressive power of any spoken language. Alternatively or in addition, people born deaf-mute can in many cases learn to lip-read and to speak intelligibly.

    Sheesh.

  74. Nick Gotts (formerly KG):

    Oh, and of course people born deaf-mute can learn to read and write. What fucking century are you marooned in, Dingo?

  75. dingojack:

    Nick – one does not need to communicate in order to formulate.
    Dingo

  76. Nick Gotts (formerly KG):

    Nick – one does not need to communicate in order to formulate. – dingojack

    Jesus fuck me rigid. You have to have internal language (verbal thought) in order to formulate. And how do you think you would acquire that without understanding at least some of what other people are communicating to you?

    Look, it’s abundantly clear you know fuck-all about cognition, language, and how they develop. There’s a century’s worth of scientific investigation of these questions. Just stop making a fool of yourself, it’s plain embarrassing.

  77. hunter:

    I find the knee-jerk dismissal of religious belief on the part of some atheists to be just as arrogant and self-absorbed as the demand on the part of some believers that everyone follow their beliefs. As Ed points out, there is a great deal of value in the Bible, as well as other sacred texts — codification, if you will, of the moral foundation of a culture — and belief does not necessarily preclude rational thought.

    It brings to mind a news item I ran across a couple of years ago, noting that some biologists had theorized that human beings have a genetic predisposition to belief, based in part, I think, on the discovery of 60,000 year old grave offerings at a site in Turkey — probably long before there was any coherent entity that could be described as “religion.” There’s no doubt that we seem to have a deep need to explain things, and as Ed pointed out, religion is simply one of our earliest attempts.

  78. Nick Gotts (formerly KG):

    I find the knee-jerk dismissal of religious belief on the part of some atheists to be just as arrogant and self-absorbed as the demand on the part of some believers that everyone follow their beliefs. – hunter

    Well, the important thing is that you’ve found a way to feel superior to both.

    codification, if you will, of the moral foundation of a culture

    Thanks all the same, but when that “codification… of the moral foundation” includes grovelling to a tyrannical, sadistic, pathologically jealous, misogynistic, homophobic, racist, genocidal psychopath, I think I won’t.

    belief does not necessarily preclude rational thought.

    Not entirely, but it certainly has a pretty good try.

  79. harold:

    Certainly if you want to argue that religion has motivated many horrible things, I will gladly join you; I write about such things every day. But it has also motivated extraordinary kindness and compassion.

    Yes and no. Was it really the ultimate motivation?

    Please note that the question about ultimate motivation works both ways.

    It works this way –

    Certainly if you want to argue that religion has motivated many horrible things, I will gladly join you; I write about such things every day.

    Yes and no. Was it really the ultimate motivation?

    Just as well as it works this way –

    But it has also motivated extraordinary kindness and compassion.

    Yes and no. Was it really the ultimate motivation?

    (I am not religious. In fact, I am so not religious that I have tried to believe in a “nice” religion and been unable to because I didn’t find it credible. Furthermore, this comment is a neutral logical observation which does not in any way promote or defend any particular religion.

    Nevertheless, it is highly possible that some readers will be triggered into a non-rational state of anger by the perception that, by the act of posting a comment which does not explicitly “condemn all religion”, I have erred by omission, and have not displayed a level of hostility toward religion which meets their arbitrary standards.)

  80. Nick Gotts (formerly KG):

    it is highly possible that some readers will be triggered into a non-rational state of anger by the perception that, by the act of posting a comment which does not explicitly “condemn all religion”, I have erred by omission, and have not displayed a level of hostility toward religion which meets their arbitrary standards. – harold

    Yeah… others might just conclude from the comment I quote that you’re a pompous ass.

  81. Michael Heath:

    Better off damned writes:

    Except for the first two, I’ve never heard any of these used as an actual argument. They’re simply things many of us tend to say, but rarely in an entirely literal sense.

    When, for example, a person says “The bible is bullshit”, they are not stating that it has zero worth in any sense whatsoever (ie. as a historical document or literary work). What they mean is that it’s not the “word of god” as Christians insist it is; that it’s a book of old myths, and should not be regarded as truth.

    What you have listed aren’t arguments, but rather, hyperbolic statements.

    Let’s take #3:

    The Bible is worthless or bullshit or just a bunch of lies or some similar out-of-hand dismissal.

    I looked at only the first twenty comment posts. Comment posts @ #2, #5, and #13, written by three different people, suggest perhaps you’re not looking hard enough.

  82. Sastra:

    harold #79 wrote:

    Please note that the question about ultimate motivation works both ways.

    If you reread my post at #49, you’ll be happy to see that I make this point.

    As I see it, the problem with religion and what it motivates (good and evil) doesn’t come down whether it encourages us to value the good and disparage the evil. It comes down to the fact that what’s really unique about religions are the facts that define them — special, private facts for the insider of faith. This puts it in the same category as pseudoscience.

    You can do right for the wrong reason and get a grudging pass. What you did made enough sense for other reasons that maybe it doesn’t really matter how much emphasis you placed on the wrong one. But when you do wrong for the wrong reason, that motivation matters a lot. In other words, someone who supports vaccination because their homeopath told them “it’s a form of homeopathy” is a mixed blessing. So is someone who fights discrimination against homosexuals because “we are all God’s children.”

    Bad method is poison.

  83. harold:

    it is highly possible that some readers will be triggered into a non-rational state of anger by the perception that, by the act of posting a comment which does not explicitly “condemn all religion”, I have erred by omission, and have not displayed a level of hostility toward religion which meets their arbitrary standards. – harold

    Yeah… others might just conclude from the comment I quote that you’re a pompous ass.

    And they might conclude from this thread that you have a few issues yourself.

  84. raven:

    As Ed points out, there is a great deal of value in the Bible, as well as other sacred texts — codification, if you will, of the moral foundation of a culture — and belief does not necessarily preclude rational thought.

    Written like someone who has never read the kludgy old book of mythology.

    The bible isn’t a codification of our morality at all.

    It prescribes death sentences for disobedient children, nonvirgin brides, heretics, atheists, adulterers, sabbath breakers, and false prophets among others.

    Marriage is between one man and as many wives as he can round up and as many sex slaves as he can buy.

    Women are property. Slavery is common and approved.

    Hunter is just plain flat out wrong here. Anyone who followed bilbical morality today would be doing multiple life sentences in prison.

  85. harold:

    Sastra –

    I don’t disagree with either of your comments.

    My personal take, which I do not seek to impose on anyone else, is that the essence of religion is a set of shared, culturally sanctioned rituals and behavioral norms, sufficient participation in which define membership in a social group. The behavioral norms can range, along a spectrum, from high level empathy based abstraction (“golden rule”, “compassion for sentient beings”), to rigid avoidance of arbitrary taboos. Most religions feature both types of norms simultaneously. The rituals and behavioral norms are often, although not always, associated with explanatory myths, and the myths may be flexible and overtly perceived as symbolic/artistic, or the acceptance of some myths as fact, at least ostensibly, may be required. Again, both attitudes toward myths (by myths I mean culturally sanctioned magical beliefs) may be present simultaneously. For example, the Catholic church has historically permitted symbolic interpretation of Genesis (since the early church) and is internally flexible on many things, but technically requires adherents to claim to believe in the Immaculate Conception as an absolute.

    We don’t know whether pre-human hominids or paleolithic people had religions, but we do know that just about every human social group since the neolithic, with the possible exception of rare hunter gatherer groups, has religions.

    It just seems to be something people do.

    It does seem that some societies are evolving in a way that reduces the importance of religion, and replaces it with an empathy based/social contract set of shared behavioral norms, and that’s probably a good thing, but for at least ten thousand years, religion has been a near universal aspect of human societies. Great scientists and thinkers of the past often observed religious rituals, simply because they took them for granted as part of the basic background of their lives.

    That’s why if I’m upset about something like unjustified violence, I complain about “unjustified violence”, not “religion”. Some unjustified violence is associated with religion, and some isn’t, but it’s all unjustified violence.

    People do follow social codes, even in societies where the code of observing religious rituals is weakening. The hairstyles and clothing we use are tightly regulated by unconsciously perceived social limits, which are broken almost exclusively by people with schizophrenia or similar disorders. Yes, some people adopt a “rebel” style, but that style is itself as regulated by overall and subcultural norms as any other style. A vast amount of human behavior is “religion like” in that it is motivated by adherence to overt or unspoken norms that are established by social groups, and even if formal religion goes away, that won’t.

  86. laurentweppe:

    It prescribes death sentences for disobedient children, nonvirgin brides, heretics, atheists, adulterers, sabbath breakers, and false prophets among others.
    Marriage is between one man and as many wives as he can round up and as many sex slaves as he can buy.
    Women are property. Slavery is common and approved.

    And our “western culture” including what we uses call progressive ethics is the offspring and inheritor of all this stuff done by ancient Levantines.
    Or are you going to pretend that modernity was invented out of a vacuum by white guys circa 1750?

  87. raven:

    And our “western culture” including what we uses call progressive ethics is the offspring and inheritor of all this stuff done by ancient Levantines.

    Or are you going to pretend that modernity was invented out of a vacuum by white guys circa 1750?

    Are you trying to pretend that the Enlightenment was a product of the bible?

    Our modern western civilization owes as much to the bible as we modern humans owe to our ancestors, the amphibians.

  88. Sastra:

    harold #85 wrote:

    It just seems to be something people do.

    Well, yes. Same with superstitions, bad science, gangs, and hyper-nationalistic enclaves arming themselves for war against The Other.

    You’ve gone into what I call “Therapist/Anthropologist Mode,” taking an objective and non-judgmental stance towards what religious people believe and concentrating instead on how their beliefs “work” for the individuals or culture. There’s nothing wrong with Therapist/Anthropologist Mode — if one is, in fact, either a therapist or anthropologist or concerned with therapy or anthropology. It’s only a problem if this way of looking at religion is working as a distraction from a different and equally valid approach — one I’ll call the “But is it true?” Mode.

    It’s not fair to complain that atheists over-utilize or over-estimate the importance of this mode if the religious adherents themselves insist over and over and over again that THIS is mode they think most important. If we’re going to attack irrationalism we can only persuade irrational people to change by working with the worth they place on being reasonable and believing true things. You can’t change people by telling them they’re violating your values; you can only get them to change themselves by showing them they were violating their own values.

    Religious people at least think they care if they’re right. They think it matters. It’s our wedge, given that we DO have to attack doing right for the wrong reason in order to get to doing wrong for a wrong reason.

    My personal take, which I do not seek to impose on anyone else …

    Please don’t. I mean, I hate this phrase and am sick of it when used in this context. Just tell what you think. Don’t reassure people that you’re not going to “impose” your views on them as if this is the natural default.

    “Impose” how? With a gun? Following me around and pulling on my clothes? Giving a forceful argument which, when accepted, will take away my identity and deny who I am and turn me into you? ‘Cause you must think you’re better.

    Yuck. In my experience, people who proceed expressing their viewpoint with this little phrase about ‘not seeking to impose their take on anyone else’ are appealing to a pop pomo accomodationist ecumenicist stance against telling people they’re wrong. We do not debate. We share. We do not judge. We accept with love. Do not criticize what I say, because I wasn’t trying to impose it on you by making you consider it seriously. I’m just sayin’, is all.

    It’s the attitude which inspires people to define Richard Dawkins a “militant atheist” because he wrote a book telling people they ought to change their mind on religion because they’re wrong, thereby seeking to impose HIS view as BETTER than theirs. The nerve. In religion.

    So … do consider dropping it. At least in any of the FtB. Or, maybe, just to me. Because it grates and makes me whine.

  89. Sastra:

    “Sure, science arose out of (the Bible)…in the same sense that plumbing, sanitation systems, and public health policies arose out of sewage.”(PZ Myers)

    Heh.

  90. laurentweppe:

    Are you trying to pretend that the Enlightenment was a product of the bible?

    No, and you know I’m not trying to pretend such a thing, and you know that I know that you’re using the old and annoying “playing dumb as a rhetorical short-cut” trick and did your mother forgot to tell you that playing pretend is a bad thing or did you decide that it was ok because it allows you to larp the daring rogue?
    .
    Ed made the sensible claim that the “Bible has no historical value at all it’s all shit and lies and I’m so much smarter than the people who don’t use its pages as toilet paper” tripe was to be avoided. And the only form of dissent commenters like you have been able to produce so far can be summarized as “We’re much better than Them therefore we should be entitled to express our contempt is the thickest way possible“: nothing more than base aristocrat wanabee screed.

  91. zmidponk:

    khms #60:

    … but only the grown man can be a skinhead.

    There’s an important difference here. You’re bald if you have no hair; you’re a skinhead only if you have no hair because you decided to be that way.

    True. However, being a skinhead is more than just deciding to shave all your hair off. So someone who has decided to shave all their hair off, but does not actually belong to the ‘skinhead’ subculture is just bald.

    Similarly, to me at least, atheist doesn’t just mean you don’t believe in god, but that you actively disbelieve – which necessarily means a newborn doesn’t qualify.

    Well, OK, that means according to how you, personally, define atheism, that means the baby is not an atheist. However, the dictionary definition of atheism is a bit broader than that – and this definition means the baby is an atheist.

    To address the wider idea that this argument being pointless, it really depends on how this argument is used. For example, I have seen some religious people actually claim that you need to be ‘brainwashed’ into atheism. This argument would be a very good response to that – it shows that no, actually, you start as a blank slate, atheism, and you might then get indoctrinated into religion, depending on how and where you’re brought up. This is why some people call the process of leaving religion and becoming atheist ‘deconversion’ – you’re simply reversing your earlier conversion from atheism into religion.

  92. harold:

    You’ve gone into what I call “Therapist/Anthropologist Mode,”

    You’ve gone into what I call the “immature insecure angry prick” mode.

    What a surprise.

    So “Please, ewww, ick, yuck, gross, etc” right back at you. I, like, totally find you gross. Ewwww.

  93. Nick Gotts (formerly KG):

    You’ve gone into what I call the “immature insecure angry prick” mode. – harold

    It’s truly amusing, and very telling, that you say that to Sastra, who is (unlike me) unfailing polite to those she disagrees with.

  94. Nick Gotts (formerly KG):

    However, being a skinhead is more than just deciding to shave all your hair off. So someone who has decided to shave all their hair off, but does not actually belong to the ‘skinhead’ subculture is just bald. – zmidponk

    Do babies shave their heads – i.e. decide to be bald? Because if not, your analogy works in precisely the opposite direction to the one you think it does.

  95. Sastra:

    harold #92 wrote:

    You’ve gone into what I call the “immature insecure angry prick” mode.

    Yes, I know. I do that a lot, whilst seeking as usual to impose my views on everyone else. It’s involved in the imposition part.

    Don’t be such a goose. I wasn’t disagreeing with your main point, merely pointing out it wasn’t the main point here. The power of myths do not lessen over time due to some sort of evolutionary imperative. It requires an imposing bit of action on the ground.

  96. lsamaknight:

    Certainly if you want to argue that religion has motivated many horrible things, I will gladly join you; I write about such things every day. But it has also motivated extraordinary kindness and compassion.

    Actually I feel that I have to really take issue with this. This is not a point in religion’s favour, it is in fact a point against it and I would argue actually an example of how religion poisons things. Religion doesn’t inspire good works, it co-opts the natural human impulses towards empathy compassion and claims them for itself to claim proof of its goodness and righteousness.

    On a good day it might re-enforce this natural human tendency and provide an organisational frame-work to pool and amplify an individual’s impact. On a bad day its another leg propping up the edifice of the lie that religion is a source of morality (ie the ‘You can’t be good without god’ meme).

  97. Alverant:

    #24 If it was more than 100 years, then it is technically “centuries”. For example you say 4 centuries and 1.1 centuries.

    Babies DO believe in freedom of speech. You can’t shut the little buggers up!

    Babies also know the scientific method. You can tell that by watching how they act. When in a high-chair and they throw bowls, food, etc on the ground they are learning that if something isn’t supported then it goes down. In other words, they are confirming the existence of gravity. Scientific experimentation is the only way babies have to learn about the world until they learn language.

  98. bradleybetts:

    I would disagree with 1 and 3, on the strength that:

    1- While it is true that babies are only Atheists because they have not yet formed an opinion on religion, that does not change the fact that if no one taught them to be religious, they would almost certainly not be so.
    3- While I agree that the Bible is an important historical text (and should be treated as such, not as infallible book of moral rules) and can teach us a lot about the history of the Near Middle East and of early human Monotheistic traditions, it should be studied in the same manner as Ancient Greek mythology. The fact we can learn from it does not change the fact that it is bullshit. No sane modern person has ever tried to claim that the story of Theseus and the Minotaur was anything other than complete fiction, regardless of what it can teach us of Ancient Greek society, culture, philosophy, religion and mythology.

    Other than that, I agree. The rest are all just lazy generalisations which oversimplify the situation.

  99. Jim:

    @68, as a theist, I can say I have been exposed to all five of these as lines of argument. Most of them were used not to reason me out of a theistic position, but in great anger and with very little thought behind them.

  100. jamessweet:

    Good list, although I can’t entirely agree on 3 or 5. Though I mostly agree.

    On 3: What good morality there is in the Bible is not particularly insightful or unique. Every culture has a version of the golden rule, for example, and Jeebus’ expression of it is not particularly poetic or insightful (and actually is mildly problematic in a way that is not universally shared by all expressions of that important principle). As far as the poetry aspect, as has been pointed out by many others before me, most of the Bible is decidedly UNpoetic boring crap. There are gems, to be sure, but they are few and far between.

    The Bible remains an important historical work, and has some modest intrinsic literary interest in parts as well. (Note that it is of tremendous literary interest *because of* its historical importance; I distinguish this from intrinsic literary interest, an area in which the Bible is severely lacking, albeit not entirely devoid.) So to that extent, I agree with the point. But the Bible *is* extremely overrated, even independent of religious claims. As a work of literature, it is mostly crap; and as a treatise on morality, it ranges from trite to deficient.

    On 5: Parsed literally, you’ll get no disagreement here. But I think the intention of the phrase is that even when religion is apparently inspiring goodness, there is a tendency for the poison to creep in. For example, the proliferation of free Catholic-run hospitals is admirable, and at one point alternatives simply did not exist; but these same hospitals refuse to perform life-saving procedures because of the poison of religion, and one could argue that their continued existence retards the creation of free secular clinics to take their place.

    Religion does not merely inspire bad actions; it has a tendency to poison those good actions it inspires. That’s what is meant by the phrase, I think. If kept in that perspective, I have no problem with the phrase. On the other hand, you are right that too many atheists take it as an absolute, and this is wrong.

    Strongly agree with points 1, 2, and 4. On point 4, I would add a sub-point, which is overstating the idea that organized religion was invented as a means of social control. First, it’s clear that proto-religious myths evolved naturally as people lacking the proper tools tried to explain the world around them. Second, while it is reasonable to speculate that organized religion was originally created as a means of social control (and FWIW, this is a hypothesis I am highly sympathetic towards), we simply don’t know, and cannot state it with certainty. The best we can do is say that we suspect it is true, but we will never know for sure.

  101. jamessweet:

    I see a lot of argument over point (1). I think a lot of the arguing misses the point (and in fact, Ed’s reasoning I think also misses the point). While the statement “We are all born atheists” is technically true, at least for certain definitions of the word, it’s not really a useful argument, or even a particularly meaningful statement. Nobody ought to be convinced of anything by this. It tells us nothing of any value. “We are all born independents”, so should I not vote Democrat? “We are all born shitting ourselves”, so should I eschew the toilet?

    Some have said that the point is that children must be taught religious dogma, but I think this is weak. Surely, children raised with no instruction on the matter would not naturally becoming Christians believing in a specific personal good with particular traits, but nor would they likely be naturalists. Although the present state of research in this area is a little on the thin side, it appears that children have a strong tendency towards teleological explanations. (It has been termed “promiscuous teleology” by proponents of this idea) Skepticism is not our natural mental state; rather, we tend to see agency where there is none, we tend to be superstitious, we tend to mythologize, etc.

    It seems likely to me that our “natural” metaphysical orientation lies somewhere between the dogmas of organized religion and the meticulous skepticism of atheism. That children must be taught religion is no more interesting than that they must be taught skepticism and naturalism.

  102. zmidponk:

    Nick Gotts #94:

    Do babies shave their heads – i.e. decide to be bald? Because if not, your analogy works in precisely the opposite direction to the one you think it does.

    Erm, what? I am pointing out that ‘bald’ is a general term that encompasses simply not having hair for any reason (much like ‘atheism’ is actually a fairly general term that encompasses not believing in any god or gods for any reason), whereas being a ‘skinhead’ requires more than merely the lack of hair. I fail to see how that changes if the baby has not decided to shave it’s head in order to achieve this baldness.

  103. rork:

    Addition:

    Let’s not argue that if you are a Christian, it must mean you must agree with every one of dumb things said in the bible. Exceptions exist. Corollary: examples of incredibly stupid things in the bible prove Christians are stupid.

    I think that tactic is pretty common cause it’s easy and satire is hard to respond to, but it’s off base with the better Christians I’ve met. Saying Jesus taught you something you think is true isn’t affirming his divinity, or the truth of some of the more crazy stuff he is credited with. However if someone has argued something is true just cause a book says so, I grant you a broad license.

  104. Rutee Katreya:

    Even if it contains many mythologized events and inaccurate history (and it does), it’s still an important record of a society that did exist and interacted with other societies around them. It still tells us a great deal about life in the Ancient Near East.

    …The only particularly useful bits you can get out of it, on that count, are minutiae of customs, and even then only in their ‘ideal’ form. There are considerably better sources for life in the Roman Empire, even within Judea, as well.

    By and large, I agree that these are useless cliches, but while the Bible is a historically important document, it’s not exactly a great primary source.

  105. Nick Gotts (formerly KG):

    Dingojack, remuss, harold,

    I apologise for the personally abusive comments I made on this thread – they were uncalled-for.

  106. Andy Porter:

    I see lots of offense taken at the concept that atheists can be as cliche and militant as any religious group. If a person is believing one thing or not believing one thing let them be. why do all atheists and christians have to posture and debate constantly? At some point BOTH sides need to learn to mind their own business and let others be what they want within reason. The problem with atheists is they seem to think they know the nature of the universe just as bad as christians and place their faith in science instead of god. they read a few books and claim science offers a better explanation without even understanding the explanations a lot of times. who cares, and who knows anything. its a pissing contest i get sick of hearing to the point i want to smack most everyone on both sides. the fact that the atheists will posture up and fluff up their vocabulary at me for saying this proves to me their intent to dominate the world with atheism the same as christians have tried. they seek out anyone who is not atheist and try to convert them just like missionaries.

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