Eleven Myths and Truths About Atheists


A different version of this piece was published on AlterNet. This is the slightly longer, full-length version. For space reasons, I had to keep the original list limited to 10. This list goes to 11.

Scarlet letterMaybe you’ve read it. 10 Myths — and 10 Truths — About Atheism. Sam Harris’s famous op-ed piece for the L.A. Times. An attempt to clear up the most common misunderstandings about atheists.

The piece is a good idea. But something about it bugs me. Specifically, it bugs me how much time Harris spent dissing religion. Don’t get me wrong — I think religion deserves criticism. But here, I think it’s inappropriate. If you’re writing a piece saying, “Here’s who we are, and why the myths about us are incorrect,” IMO you shouldn’t go off on a “Here’s why the rest of you are losers” tangent. It’s not persuasive… and it’s seriously off-topic.

So I’m writing my own version. (Very much riffing off Harris’s, and with all due credit to him.)

100_percent1: Atheists are 100% convinced that there is no God, as blindly faithful as religious fundamentalists.

Atheism means different things to different atheists. But for the overwhelming majority, it doesn’t mean being 100% certain that there’s no god. It means being certain enough. It means we’re as certain that Jehovah or Allah or Ganesh don’t exist, as we are that Zeus or Thor or the Flying Spaghetti Monster don’t exist. (I’ve read and spoken with hundreds of atheists… and have encountered exactly two 100 percenters.)

Atheists aren’t saying, “We’re 100% convinced that there’s no god, nothing could persuade us otherwise.” Atheists are saying, “We’re not convinced. The arguments for God are weak and circular; the evidence falls apart under close examination. Show us better evidence or arguments, and we’ll reconsider. Until then, we’re assuming that God doesn’t exist.”

Further reading:
The Unexplained, the Unproven, and the Unlikely
The 100% Solution: On Uncertainty, And Why It Doesn’t Matter So Much

The atheist2: Atheists are immoral: without religion, there’s no basis for morality.

I could argue against this a hundred ways. I could argue that mature morality takes responsibility for its choices, instead of blindly following someone else’s rules… an argument many theologians also make. I could point out that even believers are selective about their religious teachings, deciding for themselves which make sense, and which are appalling or ridiculous. I could point out that religion isn’t a reliable foundation for morality… Exhibit A being gross ethical violations by religious leaders, from Jim Bakker to Osama Bin Laden. I could link to current research on the neurological/ evolutionary basis of morality.

But mostly I want to say this:

Look around you.

This myth is patently untrue on the face of it. Atheists aren’t killing, stealing, raping, cheating, at any greater rate than believers.

Look at countries in Europe, like France and England and Scandinavian countries, where non-believers are half or more of the population. They’re not disintegrating into crime and chaos. They’re doing pretty well, and they treat each other pretty well, with a strong sense of social responsibility.

And look at individual atheists. Oliver Sacks. Carl Sagan. Dave Barry. Andy Rooney. Ira Glass. Milan Kundera. Tom Lehrer. Barry Manilow. Katharine Hepburn. Richard Feynman. Barbara Ehrenreich. Ted Williams. Atheist cops, soldiers, firefighters. The person down the street from you who mows the lawn for the old lady next door. Are all these people cesspools of selfishness and immorality?

Unless you indulge in circular reasoning — unless you think anyone with different religious beliefs is immoral by definition — you have to acknowledge that atheists are as moral as anybody else.

Further reading:
Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness Against Thy Neighbor

Depression3: Atheists are angry and unhappy, with no meaning to their lives, and no hope.

Again, I could go on for days about why this is wrong. I could talk about how meaning doesn’t have to come from religious tradition… and how there’s plenty to hope for other than an afterlife.

But again, I mostly want to say:

Look around you.

Spend some time talking with atheists about something besides religion. Books, say. Music. Science. Their spouses or lovers. Their kids. Their friends. Careers. Hobbies. Political activism. Volunteer work. You’ll find lives every bit as rich, full, complex, connected, transcendent, satisfying, meaningful, and full of hope, as the lives of religious believers. We don’t need religion to have meaning and hope. We have hope, for our own lives and for the world. And we create our own meaning.

(Yes, many atheists get cranky when they argue with believers. Especially online. Surprise, surprise. Like no other marginalized group gets cranky engaging with the mainstream… and like losing it on the Internet is an atheist monopoly.)

Further reading:
Dancing Molecules: An Atheist Moment of Transcendence
For No Good Reason: Atheist Transcendence at the Black and White Tour
Atheism and Hope

Mean girls4: Atheists are disrespectful, intolerant, and mean.

Sometimes. What with us being human and all.

But all of us? Even most of us? As a defining trait?

And more than religious believers? Really? (I know, I wasn’t going to get snarky about religion here… but can you really look at the grotesque intolerance so many believers have inflicted, on atheists and one another, and still argue that atheists are the big meanies?)

Okay. Snarky mini-rant over. Here’s where I think this myth comes from.

Atheists see religion as just another hypothesis about how the world works. We decline to treat it with more respect than any other opinions, theories, philosophies. We decline to treat its writings with more respect than any other books, its leaders with more respect than any other political or community figures. We think this special treatment unfairly armors religion against legitimate criticism. Besides, we don’t see any reason for it.

But religion has long been treated with special deference, getting a free ride in the marketplace of ideas. And believers are accustomed to this… so accustomed that questions and criticism seems like the grossest disrespect. As commenter Lynet wrote in another blog: People are so used to whispering around religion that an everyday voice sounds like a shout.

(I think this myth also crops up because these conversations are often on the Internet… where, alas, many people are more disrespectful, intolerant, and mean than we are in person. The next time you think atheists are being unusually disrespectful, read the conversations on the political blogs. Or, for that matter, the celebrity gossip and sports blogs.)

Further reading:
Does The Emperor Have Clothes? Religion and the Destructive Force of Asking Questions

Whine5: Atheists are whiny.

And again: Sure, some of us. Sometimes. What with us being human.

But first, see above, re: what atheists are like when we’re not debating believers on the ‘Net. We’re mostly pretty happy, and grateful for what we have.

And second:

Demanding justice is not whining.

And progressives, of all people, should not be calling it that.

Very few people are arguing that anti-atheist bigotry is as serious as, say, racism or sexism. But atheists have legitimate grievances. And many of our biggest grievances aren’t about how believers treat atheists. They’re about how believers treat one another.

A common weapon against any social movement is trivialization. Women demanding equal rights are being hysterical; people of color are being emotional; LGBT people are being selfishly sybaritic. And atheists are being whiny.

It’s a “Shut up, that’s why” argument. It’s not meant to address atheism. It’s meant to silence it.

Further reading:
Atheists and Anger

Vogue6: Atheists are just being trendy.

Yes, atheism is everywhere now. In bookstores, on the news, in the blogosphere.

Just like gay people were in the early ’90s. African-Americans in the late ’60s. Women in the early ’70s.

There’s a point in any major social movement when it reaches critical mass. It gathers adherents and sympathizers, who become more visible and vocal… a process that’s self- perpetuating. The movement picks up steam. It can no longer be ignored.

At which point the mass media has a collective “WTF?” freakout. Who are these atheists (gays, African-Americans, women), and where did they come from all of a sudden? Like we haven’t been here all along.

Does that make atheism trivial? A fad, something people do to be cool?

Of course not. No more than being queer is.

Coming out as atheist is often a big deal. It can mean losing friends, being cut off from family. It can mean getting threatened by neighbors or kicked out of school, losing job opportunities or custody of your kids. And it often means a major upheaval in how you see yourself and your life. People don’t do this to be trendy. People do it to be true to themselves.

Further reading:
Godless is the New Black: Is Atheism Just a Trend?

Angry scream7: Atheists are just angry with God, or with religion. They’re angry about abuses in religious organizations; about actions of God that they don’t understand; or because God puts restrictions on them that they don’t like.

Uh… no.

Atheists aren’t angry with God, any more than we’re angry with Zeus, unicorns, or the Tooth Fairy. We don’t believe in God. You can’t be angry with something that you don’t believe exists.

It’s true that many atheists are angry about fraud, oppression, and brutality committed in the name of religion. (Many believers are, too.) And it’s even true that, for some atheists (although certainly not all of us), the journey out of religion started, at least in part, with anger. The realization that religious leaders were lying to them; the growing awareness that religion doesn’t offer what it promises; the sense that if God really existed he’d be a sadistic bastard… any or all of this can be the first crack in the foundation of religious belief, the first glimmer of understanding that religion is the emperor’s new clothes.

But it’s completely backwards to say that these people rejected religion because they were angry with it. It’s the other way around. They were angry with religion because they were rejecting it. Religion isn’t like a jerk boyfriend or lousy boss that you walk away from when they tick you off. People don’t reject religion because they’re mad at it. People reject religion because they become convinced that it isn’t supported by the evidence and doesn’t make sense.

As to the myth that atheist reject God and religion because we’re angry about its rules and restrictions… see #2 above, the myth that atheists have no morality. It’s just flat-out not true. Atheists have no more problem with the restrictions of morality than believers. We just want that morality to have a rational basis.

Further reading:
Atheists and Anger

Scarecrow8: Atheists are arguing with straw men: they criticize the ugliest, stupidest, most simplistic, most outdated versions of religion, and ignore the thoughtful, complex forms of serious modern theology.

First, this isn’t true. Many atheists have read serious theology. I was a religion major in college: okay, 25 years ago, but a lot of it stuck. And I’ve read more since becoming an atheist blogger. As have other atheist writers.

But second, and more to the point:

So what?

Most atheists don’t give a rat’s ass about religion as it’s practiced by a handful of theologians. We care about religion as it’s widely practiced in the real world. And that includes many versions of religion that are outdated, simplistic, stupid, and ugly… and richly deserving of criticism.

Further reading:
In Defense of Atheist Blogging
Hypocrisy and the “Modern Theology” Argument

Stalin9: Atheists are responsible for the worst crimes in history: Stalin, Mao, etc.

I don’t know why this keeps getting trotted out. It’s not like the so-called “new atheist” movement is running around saying, “Stalin was keen!” But I see it a lot, so I’m going to address it.

Here’s the problem. The Stalin argument basically goes, “Stalin was responsible for the murders of tens of millions of people. Stalin was an atheist. Therefore, all those murders can be laid at the feet of atheism.”

By that logic, you could argue that Nixon was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands in Vietnam; Nixon was a Quaker; therefore, all those deaths can be laid at the feet of Quakerism.

It makes no sense.

A sensible version of the Stalin argument has to look, not at every death and imprisonment and such that Stalin caused, but at the ones explicitly done in the name of atheism, to suppress religion.

I’m not a Russian historian, and I don’t know what that number is. I do know it isn’t zero. I’m not arguing that atheists are immune from human evils, including brutal megalomania.

But that number isn’t sixty million, either.

The essence of the Stalin argument — apart from “guilt by association” — is that atheism inherently causes great evil. And that’s just silly. There aren’t many openly non-theistic world leaders — what with the rabid stigma against us — but there have been some. Helen Clark, New Zealand Prime Minister, 1999 – 2008: open agnostic. Robert (Bob) James Lee Hawke, Australian Prime Minister, 1983 – 1991: open agnostic. Bill Hayden, Governor-General of Australia, 1989 – 1996: open atheist. And Winston Churchill called himself agnostic.

England under Churchill. Australia and New Zealand in the last two decades. Not exactly Stalinist dictatorships.

And who knows how many other world leaders were/are non-believers, but couldn’t/can’t be open about it?

Yes, some megalomaniacal tyrants have been atheists. Many have been believers. And both atheists and believers have been decent, functioning world leaders. The Stalin argument proves nothing. It’s a red herring, and a scare tactic.

Further reading:
Red Crimes

Professor_frink10: Atheists think science belongs to them; atheists treat science as their religion.

It’s true that believers can be good scientists. No atheist I know would argue otherwise.

But there’s a reason atheists care about science, and use it so much in our arguments. And it’s not because science is our religion, or that we follow it without question. It’s not even because we think science has disproven religion (although it has dispatched many specific religious beliefs).

Atheists care about science because science provides an alternate method for understanding reality. Science isn’t primarily a set of theories and facts: science is primarily a method, one that sorts good information from bad, useful theories from mistaken or useless ones. Science is a method for perceiving the world that relies, not on authority and intuition, but on rigorous examination of evidence, and a willingness to question any theory. When it comes to understanding the world, science offers an alternative to religion: not merely different answers, but a different way of asking questions.

Science doesn’t disprove religion. It simply makes it unnecessary.

Which is why it’s relevant to atheism… and why atheists care about it so much.

Further reading:
What Does Science Have To Do With Atheism?

Monocle-man11: Atheists think they’re superior.

And again, I say: Some do. What with them being human. Thinking you’re better than the people you disagree with is unfortunate… but it’s hardly unique to atheists.

But more to the point:

There’s a huge difference between thinking you’re better than people you disagree with… and thinking that, on one particular issue, you’re correct, and people who disagree are mistaken.

Religion has been armored against criticism for so long, people are shocked when they hear it at all. And because religion is so personal, many believers can’t distinguish between criticism of their ideas… and insults to the core of their being.

They hear atheists saying, “You’re stupid and I’m superior”… when atheists are actually saying, “I don’t agree with you.” Or, “You haven’t made your case.” “There’s a flaw in your thinking.” “What evidence do you have to support that?” “Your evidence and arguments are weak — do you have anything better?

Thinking you’re right, and trying to convince people you’re right… that’s not arrogance. That’s the marketplace of ideas. As long as you’re willing to consider that you might be wrong — and you get that being right about X doesn’t make you right about Y and Z — thinking you’re right isn’t arrogance. It’s no more arrogant to think you’re right about religion than to think you’re right about public policies, or scientific theories.

This is just another “Shut up, that’s why” argument. It’s an attempt to make atheists look bad simply for making our case.

Further reading:
Defending the Blasphemy Challenge
“Evangelical” Atheism, Or, Is It Okay to Try to Change People’s Minds?

*

If you want to criticize atheists, individually or as a movement, please do. We’re not perfect, and the current incarnation of our movement is fairly young, with all the flaws of a young social movement.

But don’t spread lies about us. Don’t fearmonger about us. Don’t assume that you know who we are without listening to what we have to say.

And don’t criticize us in ways that are just meant to shut us up.

Thanks.

Comments

  1. Severius says

    I really do like the line regarding religion gaining undue protection and being armored against criticism, borrowed or not. And the summation – of people being unable to tell the difference between a debate or discussion or even a question and an attack on their self and the core they build around their religious beliefs – really is clear.
    It applies to nearly any closely held idea. Though an unfair comparison, addicts react the same to talking about their addiction’s control over them. Just ask me why I keep smoking. Questioning your own core beliefs, is hard. Having to face someone else questioning them earns the typical defensive reaction. Like the parent who smacks a question on a sensitive subject from a child down with “Because I said so”, it ends conversation abruptly.
    Thank you for the excellent words. While I may not agree 100% with part of #7, as a whole you touched on many of the important points that many people miss. Too bad the best audience for this information is among the least likely to really read it.

  2. says

    I’m a little surprise by the 100% thing. I’m a 100%-er myself, and I thought most other atheists would be as well. This “show us more convincing evidence” idea seems disingenuous, as you know there is no way for anyone to present better evidence or arguments than those that have been presented for thousands of years.
    In my mind, religion is something invented by people to explain the unexplainable, to enforce certain rules on cultures and to provide a source of hope (and often fear). That isn’t a point of view that can be swayed by a really good argument, because there’s simply no argument to be made.
    If I asked you to describe some evidence that, no matter how unlikely its existence, would even make you consider a god for a moment, what could it possibly be?

  3. Myron says

    I really like your assement of the myths surrounding atheism. As as Progressive theists (Unitarian and Universialist), I have met many nice and friendly atheists, and I have also met mean ones as well. But like you stated, that is a human trait. Every barrel has its rotten apples.
    I also agree with the 100%er, I have met atheist and theist who believe they are right 100%. There is no way anyone can prove 100% there is or is not a god. atheism is simple the lack of belief in a deity “I am not convinced there is a god” and theism is just simple a belief in a deity “I am not convinced there is no god”. It does not mean they believe they are 100% right.

  4. says

    @Myron: There is no way anyone can prove 100% that there is “not” an anything. That’s why the burden of proof is on those who claim something does exist. The default position is “not.”
    For instance, I can say that I have an invisible friend (let’s call him Harvey). I am convinced Harvey exists, but I am delusional. You can’t prove 100% that he’s not there… but that’s because a negative proof is impossible. I must prove that he is there for it to be true, and I cannot prove it, and so he is not there.
    The fact that there is no way anyone can prove there IS a god is why I’m an atheist. Because the burden of proof is on the person who contends something exists, and no such proof exists (nor can it exist, because it’s a fantasy).

  5. Myron says

    The burden of proof is on the person who makes an affirmative assertion. If I say he is an idiot, I would have to prove why. If I say he is not an idiot I would still have to prove why becuase the burden of proof is on me because I am asserting something about him. If I say I am not sure if he is stupid or I do not think he is stupid then the burden of proof is not on me because I am not asserting something.
    Here is some more information:
    In order to proceed with the purpose of this paper it is important to understand what “Burden of Proof” means. Technically, it refers to legal matters, but it also applies in other fields of human endeavor like philosophy and science. Every affirmative statement carries a Burden of Proof, and although dogmatic atheists deny their own assertions are subject to this basic logical requirement of argumentation, no one is exempt. A Burden of Proof does not imply, outside of its legal context, proving something beyond a shadow of a doubt, but on the responsibility to provide reasons for one’s position. If one publicly makes a statement, then one has the burden of providing reasons for that statement. This paper will now demonstrate by example that the Burden of Proof lies on the one making an affirmative statement. It is important to realize that an affirmative statement involves the wording of the statement and not just a positively worded statement. For example, the Burden of Proof equally applies to someone stating a mathematical formula is valid as one saying it is not valid. A proponent of a mathematical formula should be able to mathematically prove it, and an opponent of the formula can prove the formula flawed by showing that the proof does not work. An extremely simple example would be someone claiming that 18 is a prime number. A prime number is a number divisible only by itself and 1. The proponent would have to prove that 18 can only be divided by 1 and 18; while the opponent could easily prove that 18 is divisible by 1, 2, 3, 6, 9, and 18. Consider the following examples.
    Example 1) A skeptic states he is not convinced that a Big Bang ever took place.
    Response: The skeptic is unconvinced and has no Burden of Proof to prove or disprove anything. The proponent of the Big Bang model can offer scientific evidence to show that there is an outward expansion of the universe and that radio telescopes are picking up a background radiation consistent with the idea of a Big Bang.
    Note: The skeptic did not state no Big Bang took place, but merely that he is not convinced. Being skeptical is not the same as making affirmative statements that things are or are not. The essence of the skeptic is to question, not to state things are not so. Socrates is an excellent example of a skeptic.
    Example 2) A flat-earth proponent states that the earth is not a sphere.
    Response: The flat-earth proponent clearly made an affirmative statement that something is not the case. As such, the Burden of Proof lies on him to provide his reasons for rejecting the idea that the earth is a sphere.
    Note: The flat-earth proponent did not merely state he was not convinced or did not believe, but that something was NOT the case. As such, he places himself under the burden to explain his reasons. Any attempt on his part to evade his responsibility to explain his reasons would rightly be taken as intellectual dishonesty.
    Example 3) A creationist states that the Theory of Evolution is unscientific nonsense.
    Response: The creationist has made an affirmative statement that something is unscientific nonsense. As such, the Burden of Proof lies on him to provide his reasons for rejecting the Theory of Evolution.
    Note: The creationist did not merely state he was unconvinced or did not believe in evolutionary theory, but that it was unscientific nonsense. As such, he places himself under the burden to explain how it is: unscientific and nonsense.
    Example 4) A Biblical literalist states that Carbon-14 Dating is fundamentally flawed.
    Response: The Biblical literalist has made an affirmative statement that something is flawed. As such, the Burden of Proof lies on him to provide his reasons why he believes Carbon-14 Dating is flawed.
    Now as can be observed from the above examples, an affirmative statement can be worded as to appear negative. To state one does not believe in something is not the same as to state something does not exist or that something does exist. A statement to the effect that “God does not exist” is not the same as saying “I am not convinced God exists.” The former carries the Burden of Proof to offer one’s reasons for that opinion; the latter carries no such burden. If the Burden of Proof always rested on the proponent of those saying a thing exists, then such people would always have to defend themselves and their beliefs. Newton formulated the hypothesis that would become the Law of Gravity, and was the one carrying the Burden of Proof to explain it. If a critic of Newton stated he was not convinced such a law existed, then that critic is not under the Burden of Proof obligation. If on the other hand, that critic of Newton said Gravity does not exist, then he has taken the Burden of Proof onto himself to provide his reasons. It would be unfair and illogical to assert that only Newton had the Burden of Proof but the denier of gravity did not. Although one cannot prove something does not exist, one can refute or at least rebut a theory that something exists by logically demonstrating flaws in the theory. For example, if a denier of Gravity released a marble that did not fall to the floor that would be proof that Newton’s Law of Gravity was flawed.

  6. EatenByChutulu says

    I am a 100%’er myself, not because I couldn’t be convinced by some really good evidence*, not because I know how the universe and everything in it got started, but because the evidence we do have points solidly to religion being a particularly absurd story that humans made up, in order to:
    a) explain existence.
    b) explain why their tribe/country is super extra special and therefore has the right -nay, the responsibility to conquer the “heathens” and take their land and resources.
    c) keep the populace behavin’ and believin’ (behavin’ being the most important part).
    d) hope that when we die we can have a pretty good life for all eternity -IF we were good theists.**
    *Can we actually have evidence from theists for a change and not just some really weak arguments?
    **Not all religions provide this “hope”. Quite a few religions [ie Judaism] took a while before they evolved a heaven myth.

  7. Myron says

    I am not a 100%er theist. I am just not convinced that God does not exist. I am a smart open-minded guy, I have read lots of atheist materials. None of it really convinced me or proved to me god does not exist.

  8. says

    @Myron: While I understand all of these examples, I think what you’re saying is that it’s a matter of semantics, that as long as I say “I am not convinced” instead of “I am sure,” I do not have to disprove god. I don’t think that way. There is no god, and if you’d never heard of religion and I told you about it you’d say “prove it” and I would be unable to do so.
    I understand the idea that an affirmative assertion places the burden of proof on me, and that it is said that there can only beaffirmative assertions, that my negative assertion is only an affirmative assertion of something else, but I disagree: the question of something’s existence or lack thereof makes this a special case.
    It is impossible to disprove the existence of something. I’ll make up an animal: the “flurb.” There is no such animal. It does not exsit. Now… PROVE to me it does not exist. You can’t. You can’t because proving something does not exist is impossible. And I am not willing to accept that the “rules” of burden of proof make it necessary to perform the impossible just to find the idea of a deity 100% incorrect.

  9. says

    JG: I totally agree that the existing evidence all points to God not existing. But that doesn’t mean that absolutely no new evidence could ever possibly sway me. I encourage you to look at Ebonmuse’s The Theist’s Guide to Converting Atheists, which proposes some hypothetical evidence that would convince him there was a God. (Verified, specific prophecies that couldn’t have been contrived; scientific knowledge in holy books that wasn’t available at the time they were written; truly miraculous occurrences… that sort of thing.) No, these things haven’t happened yet… but hypothetically they could.
    And there’s another reason that I’m not a 100%er, but a 99.995% instead. It is hypothetically possible that God exists, but is deliberately and malevolently concealing his existence from us and deceiving us. It’s wildly implausible — and in any case if it were true there would be absolutely no way of knowing — but I can’t prove with 100% certainty that it isn’t true.
    I am as certain that God does not exist as I am that Zeus does not exist; as certain as I am that there is no giant invisible rabbit following me around. Which is to say, not 100%, but pretty darned certain. But that .005% of doubt is important to me. For me, the fact that I’m willing to consider the possibility that I might be wrong, the fact that I can say “This is what evidence would sway me,” is what keeps my atheism from being close- minded and dogmatic.

  10. says

    Myron: I’m going to ask you the same question Ebonmuse asks in his Theist’s Guide to Converting Atheists: What evidence would convince you that God does not exist?
    Do you need a 100% infallible proof? No such thing exists, except in the fields of logic and mathematics. I can’t prove to you with 100% certainty that there no fairies in my garden, any more than I can that there is no God. I do think I can make a persuasive case that the “no God” hypothesis is far, far more plausible than the “God” hypothesis. (Here, if you’re interested, is a link to my Top Ten Reasons I Don’t Believe in God.)
    But since you say you haven’t yet seen any atheist arguments that you’ve found convincing, I’d like to know what kind of evidence you would find convincing. I can tell you what evidence I’d find convincing that God did exist: it’s more or less the ones outlined in Ebonmuse’s Theist’s Guide, minus the one about the space aliens, and plus one about “if members of a particular religion had a clear, consistent pattern of much better luck in their lives than other people, unexplainable by social or economic reasons or standard statistical variation.” What would convince you?

  11. says

    @Greta:
    … are you calling my invisible friend Harvey a rabbit? j/k
    This site you linked is exactly what I was talking about, a list of things that would prove god exists, and I am in agreement with most of it. But I do not consider it necessary to consider myself “not convinced” just because something I consider impossible is possible in the hypothetical, where anything is possible. It is hypothetically possible that in the next few moments Godzilla will come to my window, snatch me out and eat me whole. But despite the hypothetical chance, I am still 100% certain that will not happen.
    By your standard it would be impossible to know anything 100%, and I find that position untenable. I know my name is my name, I know I have ten fingers and ten toes and will never have more than that number. Yes, hypothetically it cannot be proven that I will never grow an eleventh finger, and that hypothetically it cannot be proven that I’ve been somehow brainwashed into thinking my name is my name and that I am truly someone else… but I know these things to be realistically impossible, regardless of the hypothetical.
    As to close-mindedness and dogmatism: I know Santa Claus does not exist. I know Nemo the talking fish does not exist. I know lots of things humans have invented don’t exist. Am I closed-minded because of this? And if so, is that a bad thing? Why do we treat a lack of belief in god any differently than a lack of belief in the real-life existence of cartoon characters? Yes, it’s technically more open-minded to believe that the tooth fairy exists, but I think that makes open-mindedness a liability, not an asset.

  12. says

    By your standard it would be impossible to know anything 100%…

    Yes. That’s exactly what I’m saying. With the exception of logic and math (which essentially says, “If you assume A and B are true, and you assume that the rules of logical analysis go thusly, then C must also be true”), we don’t know anything with absolute 100% certainty. We could all be in the Matrix, blah blah blah.
    My whole point is that this doesn’t much matter. We don’t need absolute 100% certainty to be certain enough. In everyday life, I am happy to say that I know things or am certain of them as a shorthand for “I know this as well as I can know anything.” But in logical discourse, I am equally happy to acknowledge that this knowledge and certainty is not absolute. And if somebody shows me evidence that I’m mistaken, I won’t shut my eyes and put my hands over my ears and start singing “La la la la la” to drown them out, simply because I thought I knew something that is now contradicted by evidence.
    And I don’t actually think that belief in the tooth fairy exists is more open- minded than non-belief. True belief in the tooth fairy is close- minded to the possibility that the tooth fairy does not exist, and closed to the evidence and the arguments that the tooth fairy is an implausible hypothesis. You can be open- minded and still convinced that you’re right… as long as you’re willing to look at good evidence showing that you might be wrong.

  13. Kagehi says

    It’s true that believers can be good scientists. No atheist I know would argue otherwise.
    Umm. Define “good” here, first, then explain why all the ones that like to “frame” things in terms that “science and religion need not conflict” are not blowing smoke up everyone’s… nose.
    Seriously. Its necessary to define the boundaries of what you mean by “good” here. A scientist that ***never*** find themselves in a situation where their faith conflicts with the evidence is either very, very lucky, or quite possibly intentionally, or unintentionally, avoiding any line of research that may lead to such a conflict. Failing to follow a valid lead is “bad science”, getting lucky can be good science, but it doesn’t resolve the inherent fact that some “other” field, or line of inquiry, would have slapped them into a brick wall. For those that “do” run into conflicts, one of four things happen: 1. They turn into bad scientists, by ignoring the evidence, in favor of supporting their faith, 2. Warp their faith to “fit in” the new fact, which.. well, works, but.., 3. Ignore the conflict locally, while still claiming that “faith” is the answer in that matter publicly, which I would argue makes that “worse” than a bad scientists, because they make valid discoveries, yet, undermine those very discoveries by denying them in public. or 4. Find that the conflict between what they held onto and what they found is too great, and abandon the premises of religion all together.
    So, sure.. Assuming that all “religious” scientists choose and “equal” number of the above options, or simply never find themselves having to confront the contradictions, they can be “good scientists”. But, its like arguing that someone who thinks airplanes shouldn’t be able to fly can make a good airplane mechanic. That some of them can invent elaborate justifications for why it happens anyway, while ignoring basic principles of flight, doesn’t mean they are people that a) will *always* do a good job fixing your plane, or b) some you **want** fixing it, given they might do something really idiotic at any moment, due to some “new” theory they derive as to what really keeps the things in the air.
    You cannot hold “bad ideas” as infallible, and not have those ideas infect what you do as a job. At best, you can hope that the person allows enough malleability in those silly ideas that they will never find themselves so conflicted that they “cannot accept” the real result. But, we have examples in people like Nisbet, and many others, where its blindingly obvious that they “can’t” give up, at least the idea, of “separate but equal magesterium”, and other similar silliness, because doing so would conflict with “their” need to allow faith and science to coexist. Their reasoning is flawed, their excuses pretty much non-existent, and their arguments unsupported by anything but wishful thinking. Are they good at their “other” non-PR jobs? Maybe, but given the not just poor, but non-existent, evidence they use to support the idea of non-conflict, one is forced to wonder if they can, let alone do, avoid such poor evidence for their scientific endeavors, when ever they have something they feel they “must” be right about.
    Think this one is a toss up Greta. All we can say about how “good” believing scientists are compared to anyone else is, my view is simply this:
    Since we have no means to measure, never mind judge, how effected they are by such beliefs, we can only be suspicious, but never certain, of how the conflicting world views effect their research, but, we can find cases where it **does** or **has**, and such examples do not credit the idea that such endeavors are either unaffected, devoid of error, due to such conflict, or *as good* as they might have been, had they not brought the tooth fairy into the argument at any point in the first place. I.e., I am **highly** suspicious of the claim that you can avoid being poor at science, while holding to ideas that tend to conflict with it. Evidence suggests, its only a matter of time before their is a conflict, and the measure of good/bad is in their reaction to that conflict, not in their progress to that point.

  14. Charles says

    I was thinking about #10, and under what circumstances a good scientist does bad science, and I realized it is when he or she cites the Bible for supporting evidence. Citing previous work is fine for science, but the problem is — wait for it — the Bible is not peer-reviewed. If the religious want to establish themselves in the institution of science, then they need to have their god submit their sacred documents to the other gods for peer review. Once those documents pass peer review, the science community will happy to engage the religious community, with respect, in the search for truth and understanding.

  15. says

    Kagehi (and Charles): By “good” scientist, I mean simply: Adheres in their scientific work to the principles of scientific rigor, and produces useful, fruitful, non-trivial results.
    And my evidence that religious believers can be good scientists is that many of them have been, and are. Newton, Galileo, blah blah blah. Some believers have beliefs that are so vague they don’t ever collide with their scientific research; some people, as you yourself pointed out, alter their beliefs when evidence conflicts with it, and see that not as a weakness but as a strength. And some people just compartmentalize. Which may make them inconsistent believers… but it doesn’t necessarily make them functionally bad scientists.
    I agree with you that the “science and religion don’t have to collide” meme is ultimately a problematic one. I’ve even written about it. But in a practical, day- to- day sense, religious believers can and do practice good science.

  16. Kagehi says

    And, I didn’t say they couldn’t. What I said was, “One must be suspicious of what they missed, ignored, or avoided, due to such belief.” Its a case of, all other matters considered, are we talking about someone with at least a B average, with respect to doing their job well, or a D+. A passing level of critical thinking still results in progress, but… its not so clear just “how much” progress that is, compared to someone who doesn’t have the handicap in the first place. “Suspicious of”, is not the same as, “There are totally incapable”. I am sure the one wacko doctor who thinks “souls” exist as separate entities from the brain is a passing neurosurgeon too, or he wouldn’t still have a job, but I wouldn’t go to him to solve a problem with my dog, never mind my own brain, if I could help it. Its.. confirmation bias. Most scientist that believe, “do not appear to be effected”, so… but, then there are always those for which the conflict has obviously sent them so far off the deep end that you wouldn’t want them research how to fold origami, never mind biology, geology, physics, or what ever. ;) lol

  17. Dan M. says

    With respect to #9, it occurred to me recently that, even ignoring things like technology, you have to normalize death tolls to available population.
    I hunted around a little (sorry, no longer have the links), but as a rough estimate, the first Crusades alone rival either Hitler or Stalin (depending on which side of the estimates you use).

  18. David Harmon says

    Regarding your #9: Stalin and Mao attacked religion because they didn’t like the competition. Both their regimes were (among other things) personality cults. Remember all those portraits on every wall? The Little Red Book of Mao’s sayings? They permitted worship of no god except themselves!

  19. skepticscott says

    I have to agree with Kagehi here. You can only compartmentalize so much, and to say that someone’s religious half can fully and devoutly accept things on faith, even if they are in direct contradiction to all available evidence, but that their scientific half can accept nothing that is not supported by strong, reproducible evidence strains credulity. If religious belief involved no truth claims about the physical world, then it might be possible, but virtually all religion, as it is practiced in the real world, does. How, for example, does a Catholic scientist simultaneously believe in the doctrine of transubstantiation, while explaining why people with wheat gluten allergies are still affected by the host even after it has allegedly transformed?
    My own feeling is that the public mouthing of the “science and religion don’t conflict” line represents an uneasy and somewhat cowardly truce that scientists have struck with religion, primarily to make their lives easier.

  20. says

    I’m not saying that science and religion don’t conflict. I’ve said repeatedly that I think they do. My point is very simple: Ultimately, science and religion conflict… but the fact remains that, despite this, religious believers can be very good scientists. Heck, until the last century, most scientists were religious believers. They can be honest and rigorous, and they can produce useful, productive, accurate- as- far- as- anybody- knows theories and data. (And it’s not as if atheist scientists never contort and compartmentalize to hang onto theories that are no longer valid…)
    To deny this is to flatly deny reality for the sake of ideology — which is exactly what we accuse believers of doing.

  21. Bruce Gorton says

    Kagehi, there is another possibility:
    Religious people don’t spend every second of their lives thinking about God.
    I know, they claim it is “fundemental” to their lives, but really, generally what they are thinking about is the task at hand.
    The same goes for scientists.
    When they are working on a problem, they are thinking of the problem, and very rarely on whether the result is going to conflict with their holy doctrine.
    They might eventually hit a point of going “huh” while listening to their preacher, but for the most part the two subjects don’t come up at the same time and they just don’t think of how they conflict.
    For a lot of us atheists, lets face it, we didn’t deconvert the second we hit something we couldn’t reconcile with faith, we
    deconverted when we became aware that he had hit something we couldn’t reconcile with faith.
    It isn’t even compartmentalising, it is just they don’t find their focus brought onto the contradictions.
    And thus, they can do very good science, be A+ scientists, and completely honest about it, while revealing things that flatly contradict their religion’s truth claims, without being atheists, agnostics or Deists. They just don’t connect the dots.

  22. skepticscott says

    My point was more that someone can be a good scientist or a good believer, but that if they try to be both, one or the other eventually is compromised. More often it seems to be the faith, which keeps morphing to conform to the gaps in their rationality (in which case it isn’t really faith), but not always. Case in point, Michael Behe. His religiosity has hamstrung his scientific worldview to the point of making him a laughable, pathetic figure. Sure, he’s done some legitimate research too, but just because a quarterback completes a pass every once in a while, it doesn’t mean he’s not a lousy quarterback.
    And if you feel it is so clearly the case, as I do, that science and religion do conflict, why do you think so many scientists try to convince people otherwise? Are they blind to the conflict, or are they just being disingenuous?

  23. Atramhasis says

    It seems to me that most arguments from atheists are not against god but against religions. Especially in America (I live in EU) there is a need for atheism as counterbalance for fundamentalism. But would it not be better called areligion? What arguments are there against a god in the most abstract meaning (force, spirit, “something there”,…)? Obviously god does not show himself to mankind (at least not currently and on TV) so no one can really say what or how god is. This means religious people are trying to explain something many people feel or experience but unfortunately they build institutions, set rules… and fail. We need more reasonable thinking people to tell religious people to stop. But why must it be through atheism and not just areligion?

  24. says

    (JBH) Three short points. (1) Many specific gods can be disproven. The Omni-cubed god can be disproven by the Problem Of Evil. The Greek pantheon can be disproved by a trip to the peak of Mt. Olympus. I prefer the position that we are atheists with regard to all testable gods and agnostics with regard to all nontestable gods. (2) On “certainty”, IMHO we can be certain of only three things, nevermind those at the moment – for all else we can take “working hypotheses” which we judge to be the most likely to be true, of the hypotheses we have heard, given the evidence and argument of which we have heard. I’ve found that working hypotheses work just fine, I don’t need certainty. (3) Atramhasis might have a case apart from (1) if he provided an alternate definition of “religion”, but most religions involve beliefs in some supernatural beings or other. If we define “religion” as accepting alleged “revelation” as a valid source of knowledge, for example, then Deists could be theists without being religious. The reverse is also true; some types of Buddhism are (regarded as) religious without being theistic. There was some Greek philosopher who said “If someone wants to call the corn Ceres and the sea Neptune, let him, as long as he does not pollute his mind with filthy religion.” I suggest that people who believe in spirit say that instead of “god”.

  25. Atramhasis says

    Actually I meant “areligion”, not “a religion”, maybe it would be better to call it “antireligion” but I wanted to show it as opposite to “atheism”. My intention was to find a better word or description, since I realize that atheism mostly is about being anti (or without) religion and not god. When you read all this books and blogs from atheists, they mostly argument against religions. I think you can separate god and religions – even if all religions are fraud, there can still be a god.

  26. Indigo says

    Atramhasis –
    But the thing is, for atheists it *is* about being without God. And since for an overwhelming majority of theists in the West, God and religion are inextricable, that’s how it turns out. We don’t reject religion and from there, theism; it’s the other way around.

  27. says

    Atramhasis — I’m sorry, but I don’t see your point at all. Yes, atheists argue against specific religious beliefs — but most of us also argue against any sort of belief in any sort of god. Of course it’s hypothetically possible that all religions are false but some sort of god still exists… but I still have no reason to view that possibility as anything other than remote at best, wildly implausible at worst.
    And of course we argue against beliefs that people actually hold — i.e., existing religions. Why would we bother arguing against beliefs nobody believes in?

  28. Atramhasis says

    My point is to find the truth (Wow!). I think there is only one truth for all questions. If religions and philosophies seem to contradict, it is just because everyone has an other perception, not because there are many truths. I mean there can not be “one god”, “many gods” and “no god” at the same time. So where is the truth? Maybe there is a golden mean? I think the humanity is still on the way to find the truth, maybe religions were necessary for a long time and now atheism is necessary to clear thing out. Science will help us a lot. At this point in the history of humanity it seems to me the best way to be agnostic. Greta, you said most atheists are not 100% sure on the god question. Doesn’t it make them agnostics? Where is the line?

  29. Bruce Gorton says

    Atramhasis
    If religions and philosophies seem to contradict, it is just because everyone has an other perception, not because there are many truths.
    Greta has already addressed this one quite thoroughly:
    http://gretachristina.typepad.com/greta_christinas_weblog/2008/09/blind-men-and-elephants-religion-and-science.html
    I mean there can not be “one god”, “many gods” and “no god” at the same time. So where is the truth? Maybe there is a golden mean?
    The golden mean is a fallacy, for example you don’t have “Its okay to enslave some people”, it is not okay to enslave anybody.
    The likely truth is that one which is most supported by evidence, there are no gods.
    But, we need to take into account that not all the evidence is in, hence it is only “Likely” not certain.
    The certain truth is that we don’t actually know.
    Doesn’t it make them agnostics? Where is the line?
    There isn’t one.
    Agnosticism is about not knowing, atheism is about not believing, thus while atheists may be agnostic atheists, most theists may be gnostic theists, but you do get agnostic theists, and gnostic atheists.

  30. Atramhasis says

    I just read the elephant story. Greta shows two elephants: one is there one is not there, like there were two truths, one of them wrong. But there can be only one truth. Even if religions are wrong about the whole elephant and don’t want to cooperate, they feel the same elephant and know “their” parts very good. Science is like the wise man who can explore the whole elephant and tell the blind man the truth, if they want to listen. They can now know what and why they felt.
    But Greta wants to show us that they were not exploring the same elephant like science? Is it not about our universe, earth, life, emotions, destiny…? I think we all should explore the truth and be glad, that we have a wise man (science) but do not forget that religions have more insights in specific parts of the elephant (like blind people indeed do), even if some of them are wrong.
    By “golden mean” I didn’t mean a mix of theories, but a new way to find the truth, a way all people would go. But maybe humanity needs a few more centuries…
    Bruce, your definition of (a)theism and (a)gnosticism are interesting, though not common, I think. I will think more about it…

  31. Myron says

    @Christina I guess it would require 100% knowledge of how the Universe works and why to convince me.

  32. Etherlady says

    Just a small comment from Scandinavia:
    The burden of proof always rest on those who make a positive assertion.
    If I claim “reindeer can fly” it is my job to prove it, not the job of any critics to prove they can’t.
    The same goes for claims about supernatural beings.
    If person X claims some god exists, it is person X who has to prove it. It’s not my job as disbeliecer to disprove it.
    Oh, and:
    Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof :)

  33. Mike says

    @ the 100%-ers.
    It is bordering on the irrational to believe that there is no god or god-like thing with the certitude of, say, we live in a helio-centric solar system. The rest of the universe is mathematically too vast to assert that. We are a grain of sand who can observe only the grains of sand around us, and we are on just one stretch of beach. Is it possible for a life-from(s) to be vastly more intelligent and powerful, with the ability to create a universe? If it could live long enough (or exist beyond the confines of biological ‘life’) and possess the knowledge to manipulate matter and energy as we do a computer program, than it’s quite plausible. It is also quite likely that we are as insignificant as amoebas to such a being.
    I understand that whether one believes this or not, it is irrelevant in the day-to-day, but I can not accept the 100% dogma, lest it close off my imagination, humanity’s essential tool for venturing into the unknown and solving problems.

  34. says

    “The burden of proof always rest on those who make a positive assertion.”(?) That is plainly ridiculous.
    The burden of proof falls on the person with the most to lose.
    If I were to positively assert that your house is on fire, the gravity of the consequences (should my assertion be true) would surely motivate you to investigate my assertion, no? If not, you would be stupid, even if there might be only a slim chance that I’m telling the truth.
    The burden is NOT on me to prove it.
    I would expect the slightest possibility that an eternal hell might exist would motivate a thinking person to investigate every trace of possible evidence of its veracity? Not to sit back like Etherlady and say “it’s not my job…”

  35. Indigo says

    Paulie, nothing personal, but that’s among the dumbest arguments I’ve ever heard. Somehow I doubt that if I told you that your house is surrounded by ultra-stealthy ninjas, that your tapwater contains mind-control drugs and your pets are all vampires, you would immediately leap up and make sure it’s not true. Hell, even if it was something easily confirmed like saying there was a million dollars under your bed, I still doubt you would run and go check. The onus is on me to give you some good reason to think I’m telling the truth, and the more absurd the claim the more compelling that reason should be.

  36. LadyBlack says

    I’d still love an answer with regards to “British society’s moral compass is based on religion”. I seem to have incurred your scorn and disgust by asking this question, and I don’t know why. I only wanted some advice, which I don’t see as a bad thing?
    I would se the above as being a reasonable premise, and is a deviation from the “No religion = no morals” statement.

  37. Belinda says

    Just another addition to your list of Atheist/Agnostic world leaders – our current (and first female!)Prime Minister Julia Gillard is an atheist (of course during the election the Australian Christian lobby was out telling people not to vote for her for that reason).

  38. says

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