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Atheism is Not Enough

Tibor Krausz has an article at Killing the Buddha, an online magazine founded by the awesome Jeff Sharlet, about atheists. I think he tends to paint with a bit too broad a brush, something he accuses others of doing, but much of what he says is spot on.

Judging by their lack of intellectual honesty and conceptual coherence, many of my fellow atheists appear to be rather sophomoric, no offense. Much of “new atheistic” discourse these days, so lovingly trotted out on social media from Facebook to YouTube, has degenerated not so much into a principled stance against religious obscurantism as into a nonstop juvenile lampooning of the faithful for their foibles, real or imagined.

Latching onto the late and great polemicist Christopher Hitchens’s catchy but wrong-headed dictum that “religion poisons everything,” my fellow atheists clearly revel in flinging their barbs at all the faithful, seemingly all the time, without any attempt at some distinction among them. Talk about painting with a broad brush.

Popular atheism is turning into a fad whose main apparent purpose is to make you feel like you belong to an exclusive club of self-styled “brights” so that you can congratulate yourself on your cerebral superiority to those religious “morons.”

But here’s the thing: The mere fact of not believing in the supernatural doesn’t make you a well-grounded rational individual, let alone a humane soul. It’s a start, yes, but only that.

Being an atheist in and of itself is not a praiseworthy stance. Without sound underlying morality and humanistic principles, atheism is mere naysaying that finds its sole raison d’être in fierce opposition to anything that smacks of religion. Many self-styled “secular humanists” are strong on the “secular” part, but rather less so on the “humanistic” bit. You know, trifles like compassion for fellow human beings, including those who happen to think differently from you.

As someone who spends much of his time lampooning the faithful, I actually agree with him on this. I see a lot of this and it bothers me as well. Do I think we should stop criticizing and ridiculing noxious and absurd religious claims? Of course not. But I think we (as a group; I obviously don’t mean everyone) need to make some distinctions and leave room for some gray area. The world just isn’t as black and white as we’d like it to be, with all the really smart people on our side and all the stupid people on the other.

In fact, I really wish so many of my fellow atheists would stop claiming that religious people are stupid. I was a Christian as a young man. I didn’t get any smarter when I left Christianity. There is a good deal of ignorance among Christians, especially of the fundamentalist variety, but ignorance is not the same as stupidity. And we have plenty of ignorant and none-too-bright atheists among us as well, and more than our fair share of irrational, tribalistic behavior.

I also wish that we’d stop saying that religion poisons everything. It simply isn’t true. The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is one of the great artistic achievements in our history and that fact is not changed by its religious theme. The music of Johann Sebastian Bach is no less beautiful for its religious motivation, nor is the Ave Maria any less haunting to me.

And this is not limited to religious art. The many homeless shelters run by priests and nuns are not “poisoned” by their religious beliefs, nor is the work of groups like Buddhist Global Relief, the Michigan Peace Team (mostly nuns and priests) or Quaker groups that fight against war. Many religious groups fight diligently against injustice and inequality and to claim that their efforts are “poisoned” by religion is demeaning. We can argue with them about the existence of God, of course, but we should not denigrate their work merely because they are motivated by their religious views.

I also think Krausz is right that atheism doesn’t get us very far on its own. As Dale McGowan says, “Atheism is the first step; humanism is the next thousand steps.”

Comments

  1. says

    The many homeless shelters run by priests and nuns are not “poisoned” by their religious beliefs…
    Well…no, “poisoned” would certainly be too harsh of a word. But there certainly can be aspects and/or ulterior motives of such a homeless center — like, trying to convert the homeless to Christianity — that are unnecessary at best. I think we could agree, though, that those unnecessary additives are better than an alternative of having no homeless center at all. Ideally, I’d have the homeless shelter without the religious additives, but since there are many atheists who probably couldn’t give a s*** about the homeless…well, that just goes to serve the point that atheism alone is not enough.

  2. cswella says

    I learned more, and the world made more sense, once I left Christianity. But the few other atheists I’ve met are either assholes or idiots. The best discussions in my group of friends are with christians or self-professed deists, so I agree with the article.

  3. dogmeat says

    I see this in my students’ club meeting. They will periodically have atheists who are really simply anti-theists come in for a meeting or two and when they discover that the SSA is about secularism, humanism, and acceptance of people, promoting justice, etc., they tend to leave.

  4. lofgren says

    I also wish that we’d stop saying that religion poisons everything. It simply isn’t true. The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is one of the great artistic achievements in our history and that fact is not changed by its religious theme. The music of Johann Sebastian Bach is no less beautiful for its religious motivation, nor is the Ave Maria any less haunting to me.

    I actually agree with most of the points in this post as well, but this paragraph misses Hitchens’ point by so wide a margin that it’s akin to the error you yourself criticized in Save Us from Ignorant Reporters.

  5. wscott says

    Huzzah! As much as I loved Hitch, “religion poisons everything” is among the dumbest things he ever said not pertaining to Iraq.

    I happen to do some work coordinating the efforts of several charities, the vast majority of which are religiously-based. And guess what? The overwhelming majority of them are sincere, compassionate people trying to make the world a better place. And nearly all of them are absolutely scrupulous about keeping any proselytizing out of their charitable works.

    Personally I believe most of these people would be just as compassionate without God having told them to be. But there’s no denying that the vast majority of the charity work done throughout history has been by religious organizations. That’s why the work of groups like Foundation Beyond Belief is so important – until we start putting our time & money where our mouths are, we’ll never be more than a bunch of self-congratulating slacktivist nay-sayers.

  6. cswella says

    Also, per the ‘poisoned’, I think that just as there are many variety of poisons, so there are different degrees of poisoned as well.

    Religious organizations helping the homeless or fighting for world peace are doing good things, but there are aspects of every organization that I would consider a poison. Barring all the obvious ‘poisons’, allowing religious organizations to run the majority of charities lends too much credence to their claims, making it harder to convince people in harmful situations that religion is not the answer.

  7. Doug Little says

    Personally I believe most of these people would be just as compassionate without God having told them to be.

    The thought that some religious people are only compassionate because of a perceived reward when they leave this mortal coil kind of taints the compassion. I’m a firm believer that altruistic behavior is something that is inherent in most of us which persists whether you believe in a benevolent deity or not. If god belief left us tomorrow I would wager that the same amount of charitable work would be done.

  8. bushrat says

    What? You mean all the atheists I know that think religious believers are stupid, but also think that water has memories, crystals heal and go to a homeopath instead of a doctor aren’t the pinnacle of human intelligence? Well color me surprised.

  9. Doug Little says

    What? You mean all the atheists I know that think religious believers are stupid, but also think that water has memories, crystals heal and go to a homeopath instead of a doctor aren’t the pinnacle of human intelligence?

    You actually know people like that?

  10. Dave, ex-Kwisatz Haderach says

    I’m far less inclined to be charitable to religious charities. I’m the son of missionaries, I’ve worked at christian hospitals, shelters and schools around the world. And for a hell of a lot of the religious people I’ve seen, the charity is incidental to the actual work. A person in a hospital bed is a captive audience, a hungry person will listen intently if there is a promise of food. I obviously can’t speak for every priest, nun and missionary, but a lot of them I’ve met are there primarily to score converts.

    That’s how religion poisons things. A hospital in a third world country is always strapped for resources, but the clergy is there making sure a sizable portion of the budget is spent on bibles, and other tools for preaching instead of medicines.

    Most of the places I’ve been were supported by churches and religious groups in North America, and their funding was based on how well they “spread the gospel”. The churches didn’t want to hear how many people got medical treatment, how many school rooms were built or how many people got fed. It was all about how many converts they got. I saw missions that actually helped people get shut down because they didn’t save enough souls. The most successful mission I saw lied flagrantly about their conversion rate, because a report saying “christianity is spreading like wildfire” gets money and one that says “5 villages now have access to clean water” gets next to nothing.

    So yeah, atheism isn’t enough, and secular humanism has work to do get out there to help people, but religions are not the standard we should be aiming for, not by a long shot.

  11. lofgren says

    @8

    I agree but it’s worth noting that atheists who make that claim are parroting theists who make it.

    That’s the thing about these atheists arguments. Even though the atheists should know better it can be hard to blame them when they are only repeating the claims made by the most vocal, belligerent, destructive theists, i.e. the fundie authoritarian leaders who are constantly drawing attention to themselves. In some cases atheists grew up hearing these claims from their own parents and pastors. It’s not right to excuse them but you can certainly see why they would have a pretty low opinion of believers.

  12. cjcolucci says

    If god belief left us tomorrow I would wager that the same amount of charitable work would be done.

    Maybe not, but for organizational rather than moral reasons. It’s not that hard to fit organized charitable work into an organization that already exists and preaches some sort of morality. And it makes things easier for church members to do charitabkle work. But there is no pre-existing organized atheism into which to fit oragnized charitable works. There are lots of non-religious charities to which atheists can contribute money or effort, but no default organization like the local atheist parish making it easier. And for all the good that some organized explicitly atheist charities might do, it’s still a lot easier to organize a chess club than to organize a club for people whose only common denominator is that they don’t play chess.

  13. lofgren says

    You actually know people like that?

    I do. My uncle doesn’t believe in god and thinks religion is ridiculous, but only because it is all a conspiracy by aliens to control our minds. Modern medicine is equally suspect because most illnesses are caused by a disruption in your vibrational field, usually as a result of modern building practices. Most illness can be cured by spending some time in the woods, where the vibrations of the trees combined with the birdsongs and hum of insects create a healing field that restores the body’s natural balance.

    I swear I am not making one bit of this up.

    Also the Nazis were not defeated at the end of WWII. They teamed up with the aliens and escaped into the center of the hollow earth. He knows this because if you meditate you can astrally project yourself into the aliens’ dimension and see things that most people can’t.

    Yeah.

  14. says

    One of the most brilliant people I know is a Christian. We grew up together in our suburban Chicago evangelical church. He was homeschooled and still ended up going to Stanford with scholarships and research grants in mathematics. He stayed out in the Bay Area after he graduated and started working for Amazon, briefly went up to Seattle, then ended up back in the Bay Area working for a software startup. These days he’s almost indistinguishable from the West Coast hippie image while I’m still a fairly buttoned-down Midwesterner living as an atheist in the land of Billy Graham.

    My friend has journeyed just as far from the church culture of our youth as I did, but he maintained his Christian identity. He’s married to and has a child with a Hispanic woman (I, um, think she’s Mexican, but I can’t remember so I don’t want to say anything more limiting) and is very interested in social justice as pertaining to the treatment of immigrants. He’s also deeply involved in working with and ministering to the homeless population of San Jose and if you heard him talk about what his church does you wouldn’t hear anything about forcing conversions or anything like that. It’s all about figuring out what the people need and trying to support them.

    He remains one of the smartest people I know and we share similar opinions of the closed-minded nature of the people we left when we left our church. He’s one of the many people I think of when I hear atheists tell me that the religious people aren’t very smart and they trot out the ol’ Hitchens line. People are far more complicated than a single, broad brush stroke can depict.

  15. Doug Little says

    lofgren,

    He’s got to be your favorite uncle then for the entertainment value alone. That’s some interesting shit right there.

  16. lofgren says

    This is where he is clearly wrong, everyone knows the Nazi’s are hiding in a base on the dark side of the moon.

    Love that movie.

  17. Doug Little says

    Maybe not, but for organizational rather than moral reasons.

    Yeah, initially maybe but I don’t think it would take long for people to rally around humanistic principles and fill the void so to speak.

  18. lofgren says

    He’s got to be your favorite uncle then for the entertainment value alone. That’s some interesting shit right there.

    I can’t tell you how tempted I am to totally derail this thread with a litany of his awesome beliefs.

  19. uzza says

    I second third and fourth the OP. Much of the acrimony comes from a too-narrow a definition of what comprises a religion. Questionable cases include Atheism Plus, these new Atheist churches Ed wrote about, Confucianism, maybe Lofgren’s uncle.

    Many people equate religion with a belief in [the incoherent notion] of the supernatural. That not everyone does is a fact too seldom acknowledged, especially by ‘new atheists’. Should a community [or an individual] hold a set of beliefs about how we should deal with the world around us, based on humanistic principles [or others] and corollaries that dictate certain behaviors as moral or proper, how is that not a religion?

  20. colnago80 says

    I think that Hitch was referring to phonies like Mother Teresa in his religion poisons everything comment.

  21. Doug Little says

    Should a community [or an individual] hold a set of beliefs about how we should deal with the world around us, based on humanistic principles [or others] and corollaries that dictate certain behaviors as moral or proper, how is that not a religion?

    To me a religion requires a belief in the supernatural.

  22. Sastra says

    I also wish that we’d stop saying that religion poisons everything. It simply isn’t true.

    In Hitchens’ defense, I think his meaning was subtler and thus more reasonable than how it’s usually interpreted. It relates back to one of his favorite questions: “can you name one moral action done by a believer which could not have been done by a non-believer?”

    His challenge remains unanswered — and this is the point. Technically speaking, every good thing a religion does — from charity to art — is only going to be considered “good” by an atheist who is perforce using a secular standard. It will be a secular good.

    What’s left is what an atheist would consider either pointless or wicked. Iow, it can only ADD ‘poison.’

  23. doublereed says

    I think his point with “religion poisons everything” is that even the religious charities have underlying propositions which undermine the altruistic acts that they are doing. The charity is obviously good, but it gets ‘poisoned’ by bad mythology and nonsense.

    At least, that was the idea that I thought he was going for.

  24. says

    I also wholeheartedly support what Tibor Krausz is saying. There is one function that religion has historically had that just does not exist within atheism, and may not even be something we want to try to get atheism involved with on a fundamental level. Religion is at least partly about a focus for community organization and communication. You can do that with humanism because it is a positive set of values, but not atheism so I find the sheer number of asshole atheists unsurprising. They are simply people who are also responding to religion and it’s claims.

  25. doublereed says

    But I guess your point was that’s a silly idea and we should care about what pragmatically happens. Fair enough.

  26. Doug Little says

    You can do that with humanism because it is a positive set of values, but not atheism

    I think that it is getting harder and harder to make a distinction between these two groups. From my perspective Atheism means more than just non-belief in the supernatural the movement has also adopted strong humanistic values, I think it comes naturally with the territory.

  27. chrisho-stuart says

    A related thought:

    Atheism isn’t the answer to anything. It is a way of pruning the search space.

  28. bushrat says

    @10 Doug, sadly yes, my girlfriend is a semi-hippy with all the requisite weirdo new age friends. I can name 3 off the top of my head in her general group, although one of them might not technically be an atheist. She gave up Xtrianity and adopted some weird hybrid of Wicca, nature worship and Buddhism. No gods, but loads of unfounded beliefs in various woo, alternative medicines, universal spirits, energy flows and general crap.

  29. caseloweraz says

    I agree that religious faith is not always pernicious. In fact, based on the total population of believers or on the totality of their past and present works, it is probably seldom so.

    However, I am dubious about the way Tibor Krausz writes. Here he seems to say that “a principled stance against religious obscurantism” is something atheism has degenerated into. That can hardly be what he meant to write.

    Much of “new atheistic” discourse these days, so lovingly trotted out on social media from Facebook to YouTube, has degenerated not so much into a principled stance against religious obscurantism as into a nonstop juvenile lampooning of the faithful for their foibles, real or imagined.

    I suppose this falls under the category of deadline-induced haste. I’ve read some otherwise excellent books that apparently suffer from the same thing. In fact, I’m reading one now.

  30. wscott says

    allowing religious organizations to run the majority of charities lends too much credence to their claims,

    @ cswella: I think you’ve got the cart before the horse. No one’s “allowing” them to run charities; they founded the majority of charities. Even the majority of modern secular charities, like the Red Cross, have strong religious roots. There’s nothing stopping secularists from doing the same, but until very recently we have not. …OK, that’s not quite fair; I think you could argue there were (and still are) many cultural and organizational factors working against secular charities. But the fact remains that they stepped up, and we (largely) didn’t. That’s on us.

    I’m a firm believer that altruistic behavior is something that is inherent in most of us which persists whether you believe in a benevolent deity or not.

    I agree, obviously. But given thousands of years of evidence implying the contrary, I can understand where a theist might not see it that way. The Time Magazine “no atheists in disaster relief” guy was demonstrably wrong, not to mention an asshole; but even now that 20% of Americans identify as godless, I don’t think the percentage of charity work being done by secularists is anywhere near 20%. (I’d love to see data on this if anyone knows of any?) So while I think you’re likely right, I’m afraid the burden of proof is very much on us to prove it.

    I’m far less inclined to be charitable to religious charities.

    @ Dave: Fair enough. My experience has mostly been with domestic/local charities, not overseas. I don’t know how much that changes the equation. I don’t dispute there are groups that use charity as a wedge to proselytize. In my experience they’re the minority, but my anecdotes are hardly a scientific sample.

    Atheism isn’t the answer to anything. It is a way of pruning the search space.

    Well put!

  31. says

    @Doug Little 29

    There are people trying to make atheism and humanism more interconnected and I wish them luck. But people tend to be pretty symbol minded and history matters with social change. If they want to start a new group that are humanistic atheist they have me wishing them even more fortune and a visit if there are any around where I live.

    But they will never be able to escape those who will claim the already existing symbols of atheism and humanism. The former gets adopted by monsters and saints alike. The latter does not have the social penetration that it needs at present.

  32. laurentweppe says

    Many self-styled “secular humanists” are strong on the “secular” part, but rather less so on the “humanistic” bit.

    I’ll go even farther than that: a self-styled “secular humanists” who indulge in sectarian supremacism, who congratulate him/herself on his/her supposed “cerebral superiority” is not, never was, and likely will never be “secular” in any meaningfull way. Such individuals are nothing more than the counterparts of the “My religion makes me morally superior to everyone else” fundies and are as contemptible.

  33. uzza says

    To me, a religion requires a belief in the supernatural.

    Fine. WHY?

    We have sets of values with a rationale for asserting them, eg Islam, Hinduism, Baha’i, that include belief in a supernatural, whatever that is, and we call these religions.

    Also we have sets of values with a rationale for asserting them, eg Atheism Plus, the atheist church Ed wrote about recently, Confucianism, that do not include belief in a supernatural. You have no name for them, but insist we do not call them religions. If not religions, what?

    You say the first group poisons everything, but presumably the whatever-they-ares won’t, even as they seek to replicate much of the first group. It seems to me that it is not “religion” but belief in irrational incoherent woo that poisons everything; and the two groups have more in common than not.

    But the only answer I ever get is as above, which propels me to agree with Krausz that the so-called
    New Atheists are a lot of ignorant self-righteous cultists.

  34. Doug Little says

    You have no name for them

    Philosophical System, of which Religions are a subgroup that happen to believe in the supernatural which as you stated is irrational incoherent woo.

    The Entomology of the word Religion specifically mentions Gods,

    Religion (from O.Fr. religion “religious community,” from L. religionem (nom. religio) “respect for what is sacred, reverence for the gods,”[10] “obligation, the bond between man and the gods”[11])

  35. freehand says

    Of course there are few secular charities. Those of us who are unchurched have better things to do (most of us anyway) than rant about religions all day. I’m a gardener, for instance. Should I look for secular garden clubs, read secular garden blogs, buy secular plants for the garden? No, I just look for information, materials, plants, or organizations of like-minded people.

    My gardening is not secular – that’s irrelevant. My martial arts, my computers, my cat and her vet, are not secular, but orthogonal to religious issues. So if I pitch in to fill sandbags in preparation of a storm in my community, or give to Goodwill stores, the subject doesn’t normally come up. Those don’t get listed as secular, and certainly not “atheist”.

    As mentioned upthread, folks don’t join clubs for people who don’t play chess. The next time we hear “Atheists don’t do charity” we should ask “Of all of those charities doing this kind of work, how many specifically declare themselves to be religious?” That would be less misleading.

  36. uzza says

    The Entomology of the word Religion

    You’re bugging me :-) The etymology of Thursday mentions God too, but the definition of religion doesn’t necessarily mention gods or anything supernatural. Without offering any reason, you reiterate your opinion that only one usage is allowed. Fine, you can tautologically refuse to call anything a religion when it doesn’t meet your criteria, just don’t assume everyone in the world thinks like you.

    The point is that saying all religions are X, and X is bad, obscures the real argument that X is bad, while it also introduces needless conflict. Krausz and I are merely saying it would be better to talk about how X is bad.

  37. wscott says

    Of course there are few secular charities. Those of us who are unchurched have better things to do (most of us anyway) than rant about religions all day.

    @ freehand 42: I’m not sure what that first sentence has to do with the second, or with thse that follow. Are you saying non-religious people are less likely to be organized or belong to groups, and therefore less likely to do charity work? Or that we’re less likely to wear our motivations on our sleeve when we do?

    And the 2nd sentence is kindof ironic, seeing as it’s posted on a blog network that’s largely devoted to ranting about religions all day! (Myself included.)

    The next time we hear “Atheists don’t do charity” we should ask “Of all of those charities doing this kind of work, how many specifically declare themselves to be religious?”

    Well, that was kindof the point of my post. How many homeless shelters in your city are operated by churches? My city is nowhere near the Bible Belt, but the answer here is All Of Them. How many local food banks are religiously operated? I’ll estimate 90% of them here, but I don’t have that list handy. Heck, even most thrift stores are religiously based. (Do you think they chose the name “Goodwill” by accident?)

    But ok, I thought I’d do a little research. Since you mention disaster work specifically, I looked at NVOAD, National Volunteer Organizations Active in Disasters, the major umbrella group for organizations doing disaster assistance work in the US. Their website lists 54 member organizations. Of those, 34 are explicitly religious. (Based either on their name, or on 2 minutes looking at their website.) I spotted another 3 that are currently secular, but were founded on Christian roots (Red Cross, United Way, etc). So that’s around 2/3rd. To be honest, I’m surprised the percentage was that low. This is an unscientific sampling, obviously, and not all NVOADs are created equal: apart from Red Cross & United Way, most of the Big Names in disaster relief are all explicitly religious (Salvation Army, Southern Baptists, Adventists Disaster Services, etc). And the number of them that are explicitly atheist or non-theist is exactly zero.

    My point is that most people have good anecdotal reasons to equate “charity” with “religious” in their minds. If we want to change that, we need to start putting our money & time where our mouths & keyboards are.

  38. neonsequitur says

    The Krausz article sums up several (but not all) of the reasons I identify as an agnostic.

    And the first obnoxious atheist who attempts to call me out for “intellectual cowardice” is just proving my point.

  39. longstreet63 says

    You know, when this ‘charity as a function of religion’ subject comes up, I always wonder why nobody mentions that the sum total of all private charity in the USA is about 10% of that provided by the good old secular federal government.
    Food stamps, Social Security, VA, welfare, unemployment payments, and all of the other supports that were, a century ago, the sole domain of charitable institutions are now functions of government. The United Way is a hobbyist organization compared to the modern welfare state.
    As it should be.
    And the influence of some very conspicuously religious politicians and voters have done their very best to kill all of those functions over the last 40 years or so, saying that they should be done once again by the private charities whose failure to be effective at doing so was the reason they became government functions.
    So, sure, religious people go out and do what they can sometimes, and I’ll concede even that many of them would do so without the tax benefits and control over their clients that they enjoy now.
    But the organizations they work for?
    Keep in mind what religious organizations sometimes do when told they cannot discriminate: They close.
    Control of and access to targets of conversion is why those organizations do it.

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