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5 Faulty Arguments Religious People Use Against Atheists (Debunked)

Do atheists misunderstand religion? Or do believers still misunderstand atheists?

Power-of-myth-the-bookDo atheists really misunderstand religion?

I read the recent piece in Tikkun by Be Scofield, “5 Myths Atheists Believe about Religion” (reprinted in AlterNet as “5 Things Atheists Have Wrong About Religion”), with a fair degree of both trepidation and curiosity. Trepidation… because my experience has been that, when believers write about atheists, they usually get it laughably and even insultingly wrong. Curiosity… because there are things that the atheist community sometimes gets wrong, about religion and other topics, and I thought I might get some insight into stuff I might not have seen. I don’t think atheists are perfect — believe me, I am well aware of how imperfect we are — and I’m willing and even eager to look at things we might be missing.

But when I looked at these “myths” that atheists supposedly hold about religion, I was more than a bit baffled. Because none of these “myths” looked anything like myths to me. Instead, they looked like… well, like differences of opinion. At best, they were simply areas of disagreement: controversial topics, matters of subjective opinion, semantic squabbles. And at worst, they were red herrings, bafflegab, even complete misrepresentations of atheists’ actual positions.

So let’s look at these supposedly “ill-informed beliefs about religion.” And then let’s look at the assumption of religious privilege that underlies them… and at how religious believers defend this privilege by taking on the mantle of oppression and victimhood.

*

Thus begins my latest piece for AlterNet, 5 Faulty Arguments Religious People Use Against Atheists (Debunked). To find out the five things about religion that atheists supposedly misunderstand — and why this accusation is not only horsepucky, but privileged horsepucky masquerading as martyrdom — read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

Comments

  1. says

    I remember coming across that article, in particular remembering the disconnect between your article and the author’s interpretation of it. Thanks for responding to it!
    On a curiously related note, i just got clued in to an “Ideological Turing Test” of atheists’ and Christians’ ability to pick out true atheists and Christians based on their (genuine or posed) answers to questions about their worldviews. I’m about to cast my votes.

  2. lost control says

    I think PZ dealt with that already some time ago after Chris Stedman featured it as a guest post at his nonprophetstatus.com blog.
    Yeah, that was a rather ridiculous article.

  3. Stonyground says

    I am pretty sure that theists have more misconceptions about us than we do about them. Many of us used to be theists ourselves for a start so we know what it is like to be one.
    Comment threads are a rich source of evidence for theist misconceptions, not only that but the same ones keep popping up over and over so that correcting them is like playing an eternal game of whack-a-mole. Atheists think that the universe is just an accident. Atheists have no way of telling that murder, rape and theft are wrong. Atheists have no hope. Oh, and since Pascals Wager pops up with monotonous regularity, they presumably think that we haven’t heard it a thousand times already and don’t have any reply to it.

  4. Surgoshan says

    A popular myth atheists have about religion.
    “Religion means you occasionally do stuff.”
    What nonsense! I know a lot of religious people who do ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. Ever. Of course, they’ve been dead for some time, but they’re still down there, being religious, waiting for Jesus to come back so they can crawl out of the grave and fly through the sky and laugh at you wretched sinners.
    So maybe they *are* doing something. I don’t know; I don’t have a PhD in God. Still. Atheists are wrong. Because God.

  5. Leon says

    Well put, Greta. PZ critiqued this article already, but I think you did an even better job responding to it.
    I remember reading this article and thinking that it just seemed all wrong on a number of points, but couldn’t put my finger on what was wrong. It’s good to see people like you and PZ come out and articulate what he got wrong, and why.

  6. yb says

    “Because it’s taking a fairly minor disagreement over semantics, and treating it as a substantive difference over content”
    Yes. Perfect. YECs and ID proponents seem to do this kind of thing frequently as well, and this is the best concise description of it I’ve seen.

  7. says

    I must have missed this article on PZ’s blog the first time around. I read the link before reading your rebuttal, and I was just flabbergasted by it. You hit all the points I was thinking in your rebuttal. What stood out to me was a) how much he relied on semantic differences for his argument and b) how his arguments weren’t about clearing up misconceptions but rather taking a side in a debate.

  8. Rieux says

    Scofield has responded in the comments section at AlterNet:

    Greta – I have a new article coming out in which I talk a bit about religious privilege. I argue for ending the dehumanization of atheists of which you speak. But there is a vast difference between disagreeing with intellectual arguments that atheists like yourself make and discriminating against atheists. Otherwise no one could challenge any ideas that atheists make in fear of discriminating.
    The use of the word myth is a tongue and cheek expression and is in this context ironic. We all have myths we believe in. If I’m hearing you correctly you are mainly upset with the fact that I used the word myth? And you believe that because I used a commonplace word like “myth” that this compares atheists to other bigoted myths like atheists are selfish? it sounds like you think myths is a really dirty word. But everyone uses that term lightly in various common uses. You can use it to make a point, to accentuate irony…etc. I had no added negative association with the word myth. It makes no difference to me whether the article says myth or “have wrong.” In my opinion those things are essentially the same. Is it offensive to say that atheists can have something wrong?

    He’s full of it, of course. It’s fairly mindblowing how abjectly his “arguments” rely on his having private personal definitions of words (“religion” and now “myth”) and therefore denying any responsibility whatsoever for any reader ever interpreting those words to mean… what the overwhelming majority of speakers of English understand them to mean.

  9. Nemo says

    From AlterNet:

    Believers’ morality is immature, based not on a sense of empathy and justice, but on fear of punishment and desire for reward.

    To me that’s more a myth that (some) believers have about themselves than atheists have about believers. At least, they often say that they would have no moral guide without religion (and that we, without religion, must also be without morality). I actually think better of them than that.
    However, when they misapply the label of “morality” to things that aren’t really moral questions (see especially: sexual behavior), then yes, that’s coming from something other than a mature moral sense.

  10. Jake Lara says

    ¸.·´¯`·.´¯`·.¸¸.·´¯`·.¸> Religious people make intuitive gueses about what they don’t know but Atheists apply the scientific method to discapline our intuition or gut feeling so it doesn’t assume it’s got to be right but has to be proven. Having runnaway enthusiasm for intuitive geuses is a human characteristic.

  11. Jake Lara says

    Anyway yeah :) that’s what I think the simple difference is between Atheism and religion.

  12. says

    Scofield is yet another in a long line of apologists who have no qualms whatsoever about cherry-picking people, groups, and evidence to support a predetermined conclusion.
    Either that, or he is unable to understand that generalizing from the particular and particularizing the general are logical fallacies.
    I think you did a very good job analyzing the root of exactly what’s wrong with these supposedly held myths, Greta. Prior experience tells me, however, that people rarely make any attempt to change their mind even when confronted with razor sharp detail of what is wrong with that thinking.

  13. says

    I don’t like the whole line of Atheists believe X. The only thing that they do with consistency is lack a belief in god.
    That’s where Scofield and Greta miss the mark. They can say a certain atheist said Y and they’d be right. But pointing that out doesn’t meant the all atheists say Y or that they don’t say Z.
    They are some that are in line with Greta’s views, they are others that are not. They are some in line with Scofield’s view of atheists, others are not.
    I am hesitent to say most atheists say “X” or “Y”. They are atheists in the atheist movement that say this or that, but Scofield can’t say that virtually all atheists say those things and Greta can’t say that virtually none say those things.

  14. Not a rabbi says

    I agree with Rieux. What’s tongue in cheek about the use of the term “myth”? If it’s tongue in cheek then why not use a more appropriate word? A more appropriate word would be something like “misconceptions”, so that the title of the article would be something like “Misconceptions that Be Has About Miconceptions That Atheists Have About Theists.”
    In that case there’s no need for him to try to debunk his own misconceptions. So his “clarification” negates the whole point of his article
    BTW, any idea why he changed his first name from Robert to “Be”? “Be” in context appears to be a bossy imperative. Why would anyone who has a perfectly good first name to begin with, change it so as to use an imperative as his first name, especially when it doesn’t fit in with his last name? Other people can’t be a Scofield, and he already is a Scofield. Maybe he means “exist”, but we already exist, and why would he think we need someone to tell us to exist. His website also has a very bossy title. Its all very puzzling, and, coupled with his interests as he describes them on his website, suggests he’s not, as yet, to be taken seriously.
    Greta, I don’t think your comment about lighting the menorah is right. Lighting a menorah has a religious point to it and is not like meditation or going on a picnic.
    A secular or atheistic Jew is hypocritical if he lights a menorah. A secular Jew is also going to disassociate himself from the Hasidic element that does public menorah lightings.

  15. Nathaniel says

    Ah yes, yet another non Jew who obviously knows so much more about being one than actual Jews.
    Here I was thinking that lighting a menorah in my family was about a fun tradition and remembering our heritage. Thanks for showing me that the light.
    Incidentally, since you know me so much better than I do, what kind of job should I get? it would really help me choose my future college classes.

  16. Not a rabbi says

    Nathanial,
    I’m not a rabbi, but maybe I can play one on this blog.
    How can lighting a Menorah not be a religious practice if as you say it’s to remember your heritage. The heritage comes from a religious tradition The Book of Maccabees states that Chanukah is 8 days in commemoration of the fact that the religious Jews won a civil war that was about religion. They celebrated Chanukah as a way of making up for the fact that they could not celebrate Tabernacles until they won the war.
    The Talmud disagrees, probably for political reasons after the Maccabees became corrupt, and says that it’s because the oil burned 8 days, and that it was a miracle.
    The Lubavitch menorah lighting ceremony has a religious aspect. All Lubavitch practices in fact have a relgious aspect to them.
    You may not have noticed this but the Lubavitch menorah shape is “v” like so that it differs from non-Lubavitch memorahs. There’s a religious-myth reason for it.
    As far as what job you should get, don’t settle for anything less than becoming a doctor. A specialist would be even better.

  17. Nathaniel says

    “How can lighting a Menorah not be a religious practice if as you say it’s to remember your heritage.”
    In the same way Greta Christina can celebrate Christmas without bein’ done with the whole Jesus thing.
    Just a hint. Whether or not you can understand of accept that fact, telling Jews that they ain’t acting right isn’t going to go over well.
    But then again, maybe you’re fine with telling a black person they are acting mighty white.

  18. says

    Fish is a perfectly fine addition to sandwiches, I also like throwing in mustard. BTW, in this context, “Fish” means “whites”, “mustard means “colored items”, and “sandwich” means “doing laundry”. BTW, anyone know why my socks turned pink?
    Why to go Scofield! lol

  19. DFS says

    Greta, you rock. Just beginning to check out the blog but I will certainly be a regular. I left a few comments on this article over at AlterNet as well.

  20. vel says

    “Believers’ morality is immature, based not on a sense of empathy and justice, but on fear of punishment and desire for reward.” I’ll have to say, as a frequent poster on the WWGHA forum, that this is indeed the reason for morality often claimed by Christians themselves. More than once, I have seen a Christian claim that they would be a horrible person if they didn’t have a god to keep them in line, that it was only accepting this god that made them a better person, stopped them from being an addict, etc. Now, this might be a totaly lie, to make their story sound more dramatic, but it isn’t rare at all, at least not in the circles I travel in. And indeed who am I to question where they think they get their morals from? Maybe they are that weak morally and are that immature. They certainly act like it in som many other ways.

  21. Steve Jeffers says

    “More than once, I have seen a Christian claim that they would be a horrible person if they didn’t have a god to keep them in line”
    I think the standard line they use is slightly different – it’s ‘well, if morality doesn’t come from God, it comes from nowhere’.
    I think there’s a distinct need to be told what to do inherent in that, though. And I agree that the implication is that it’s only jamming signals beamed from heaven that stops them from becoming crazed monsters.
    From their point of view, a law needs to have an authority underwriting it. The joke being, of course, they will then misuse the concept of ‘natural’ to explain how their prejudice X is actually underwritten by nature itself. ‘There are no gay animals, so gayness is bad … what, there are gay animals … well, what you’re saying is that if you’re gay, you’re no better than an animal’.
    I think this idea that atheists get their morality from ‘nowhere’ or ‘themselves’ is one of the most common among theists, but also one of the easiest to explain to them how they’re wrong.

  22. Steve Jeffers says

    “you’d think that they were still being fed to the lions”
    The persecution meme runs deep with Christians. Hilariously, if you look at the history, almost all that ‘throwing to the lions’ stuff was done after the Christians were in charge in Rome, and they were cracking down on their own heretics.
    The early Christians in Rome were actually punished for atheism. Rome was a multicultural city, and every religion was tolerated. The only requirement was that you didn’t denounce the city gods. You didn’t have to worship them, or do anything, just not denounce them. Christians refused, and were prosecuted.
    So, same old, same old. This is my favorite summary of the situation:
    http://i108.photobucket.com/albums/n7/labrat80/christian.gif

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