Jul 21 2011

Why the “5 Myths Atheists Have About Religion” Aren’t Myths

This piece was originally published on AlterNet.

Power of mythDo 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.”

Let’s take them apart, one by one.

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.

Simpsons church sign 5. Liberal and Moderate Religion Justifies Religious Extremism.

This is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. This is not a “myth” atheists have about religion, or a “mistake” we make about it. This is a topic on which believers and many atheists disagree. And it’s a topic on which Mr. Scofield seems to be entirely missing the point.

The point is not that liberal and moderate religion justifies religious extremism. The point is that liberal and moderate religion justifies religion. It justifies the whole idea of religious faith: the idea that it’s entirely reasonable, and even virtuous, to believe in invisible supernatural entities or forces for which there is no good evidence.

And atheists think that religion is a bad idea. At the very least, we think it’s a mistaken idea. Many of us even think it’s an idea that, by its very nature, does significantly more harm than good.

Now, many atheists do think that liberal and moderate religion provides intellectual cover for the more extreme varieties… again, because it makes the whole idea of religion and religious faith seem reasonable and legitimate. I happen to think that myself. But even these critics aren’t saying that Unitarianism is some sort of gateway drug to fundamentalism. We aren’t saying that the entire well of religion is poisoned because of the hateful, extremist versions of it, and that therefore liberals and moderates ought not to participate in it. We’re saying that the entire well of religion is poisoned because it’s wrong. And we’re saying that liberal and moderate religion justifies that wrongness.

If you disagree about whether religion is wrong… fine. We can have that conversation. But don’t say that the very idea of atheism — namely, that we don’t think there’s a god or a supernatural world — is a “myth” that atheists have about religion. It’s ridiculous. And it trivializes the actual myths that many people hold about other religions or the lack thereof.

Blake god 4. Religion Requires a Belief in a Supernatural God.


This one makes me want to facepalm my hand right through my skull.

Because it’s taking a fairly minor disagreement over semantics, and treating it as a substantive difference over content, and indeed an accusation of willful ignorance.

For the overwhelming majority of people who use the word, “religion” means “belief in supernatural entities or forces with some effect on the natural world.” It most typically means “belief in a god or gods”; even when it doesn’t, it almost always means “belief in the supernatural.” Souls, angels, ghosts, Heaven, gods, goddesses, reincarnation, karma, the spirit of the earth, a conscious creative and guiding force in the universe, etc. — for the overwhelming majority of people who use the word, that’s what “religion” means.

And when atheists criticize religion, that’s what we’re talking about.

Are there secular Jews? Materialists who follow a Buddhist philosophy and meditation practice? Non-believers who participate in the Unitarian community? Yes. Of course. But — and I cannot say this strongly enough — when atheists are talking about religion, THAT’S NOT WHAT WE’RE TALKING ABOUT. Most of us don’t care about it. Light a menorah; go to a Unitarian picnic; meditate until your eyes roll back in your head. We don’t care. As long as you don’t think there’s any god, or any soul, or any afterlife, or any sort of supernatural anything… we don’t disagree with you. And we couldn’t care less. Some of us even rather like it. It’s the “belief in the supernatural” part that we think is mistaken. It’s the “belief in the supernatural” part that many of us think does harm.

In fact, many of us atheists are secular Jews and materialist Buddhists and non-believing Unitarians and whatnot. Many secular Jews/ materialist Buddhists/ non-believing Unitarians/etc. also identify as atheists. And many of them are just as critical of the religious parts of religion — i.e., the supernatural belief parts — as those of us who don’t have any cultural or philosophical affiliation with a religious tradition.

Case for god And yes, atheists also understand that some “religious” people have re-defined the word “God” into such vague, abstract terms that the guy becomes unrecognizable by most people who believe in him. We understand that some “religious” people have re-defined the word “God” as the creative principle in life, or the power of love in the universe, or that which by definition cannot be understood or defined, or something along those lines. We often find it incredibly annoying: we’re trying to have a conversation about God as most people understand the concept, and the modern theologians come along with their deepities and vague abstractions, and totally confuse the issue. Plus, many of us strongly suspect that these abstract definitions only apply when nobody is looking, and that a more supernatural definition comes into play when the atheists go away.

But again, when we’re talking about religion and God, that’s not what we’re talking about. We don’t care about your vague, convoluted, abstract deepities, except insofar as they confuse the issue. If you don’t believe in a supernatural God… then we think you’re an atheist. As Richard Dawkins said to the queen of vague theology, Karen Armstrong, “Tell the congregation of a church or mosque that existence is too vulgar an attribute to fasten onto their God, and they will brand you an atheist. They’ll be right.”

I suppose that, every time I critique religion, I could instead type the entire phrase, “belief in supernatural entities or forces with some effect on the natural world.” You know why I don’t? Because I’m a good writer. I’m trying to be concise. I know that I’m already a more wordy writer than I ought to be; I’m trying to be as concise as I can. And instead of using a thirteen-word noun phrase, I’m using the word “religion,” the way that it’s used and understood by the overwhelming majority of people who use it.

So the next time you read an atheist critique of religion, please just do a “search and replace” in your head. If you insist on re-defining “religion” as “belief in supernatural entities or forces with some effect on the natural world… or some sort of cultural/ philosophical affiliation with a tradition of said belief, regardless of any actual belief”…then the next time you read an atheist critique of religion, just zap out the second part of that clause in your head. That’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about the first part.

And please stop acting as if a semantic difference over a word whose definition is basically agreed on by almost everybody somehow constitutes willful ignorance on the part of atheists.

Bad to the bone - skull 3. Religion Causes Bad Behavior.

And yet again: This is not a “myth” atheists have about religion. This is not a “mistake” we’re making about religion. This is a point of disagreement. This is a topic on which many atheists disagree with believers.

And unless you’re going to actually make a case for why your side is right, I am, respectfully, going to maintain my position.

It’s certainly true that, when atheists critique religion, many of us often point to specific harms that have been inspired by religion, or that have been rationalized by it. But we don’t end our analysis there. (Or at least, most of us don’t.) We understand that people do bad things inspired by all sorts of ideas: political ideology, patriotism or other tribal loyalty, protecting one’s family, etc. We even understand that the harms done in the name of religion have multiple causes, and that greed/ fear/ hunger for power/ etc. are a big part of it. The point we’re making isn’t, “People do bad things and justify them with religion.” Or even, “People do bad things directly inspired by religion.”

The point is that the very nature of religion itself — the very nature of a belief in the supernatural — is, in and of itself, harmful, and is more likely to both inspire and rationalize terrible harm than other kinds of ideas.

I don’t have space here to make this argument in its most complete form. (I’ve made a more thorough argument elsewhere.) So here’s the quick- and- dirty two-minute version: Religion is ultimately dependent on belief in invisible beings, inaudible voices, intangible entities, undetectable forces, and events and judgments that happen after we die. It therefore has no reality check. And it is therefore uniquely armored against criticism, questioning, and self- correction. It is uniquely armored against anything that might stop it from spinning into extreme absurdity, extreme denial of reality… and extreme, grotesque immorality. Any other ideology or philosophy or hypothesis about the world is eventually expected to pony up. It’s expected to prove itself true and/or useful, or else correct itself, or else fall by the wayside. With religion, that is emphatically not the case. Because religion is a belief in the invisible and unknowable — and it’s therefore never expected to prove that it’s right, or even show good evidence for why it’s right — its capacity to do harm can spin into the stratosphere.

That’s my argument. That’s the argument made by many other atheists.

And if you’re going to respond to this argument, you can’t simply say, “Nuh uh.”

You can’t just say, as Mr. Scofield does, that “the real source of bad behavior… is human nature, not religion”… and leave it at that. If you do — as Mr. Scofield does — then you’re simply asserting the point you’re trying to prove. Scofield is saying here, “Many atheists say religion causes bad behavior, but the real cause is human nature.” And he apparently expects us to reply, “Oh. Well, that settles it. Never mind, then.”

And we’re not going to do it. Many atheists — again, myself included — have actually made a case for why human nature alone is not responsible for the terrible harms done by religion. We have actually made a case for why religion itself bears at least part of the blame. And you don’t get to say, “Many atheists disagree with believers about this… therefore, these atheists don’t understand religion.” A disagreement is not a myth. If you think we’re making a mistake here, you need to make a case for why we’re wrong.

No_Religion.svg 2. Atheists are Anti-Religious.

I will confess that I’m confused by this one. Mr. Scofield here seems to be conflating two different points into one: (a) Religion doesn’t have to mean belief in God, or even belief in the supernatural, and (b) Not believing in religion doesn’t necessarily mean being opposed to it.

So I’ll take them one at a time.

(a): Asked and answered. See above, #4: Religion Requires a Belief in a Supernatural God.

(b) Yes, we understand that. We understand that many atheists don’t think religion is inherently harmful. We understand that many atheist activists choose to focus their activism in areas other than opposing religion, such as creating a safe and supportive atheist community, or fighting for separation of church and state. (In fact, most of the more confrontational, anti-religion atheist activists I know of — myself included — heartily support these efforts, and even engage in them ourselves.) We understand that some atheists are involved in the interfaith movement, and are willing and even eager to work with religious believers and organizations on issues they have in common. We even understand that some atheists and atheist activists see religion as essentially neutral, or benign, or even a positive force.

I’m not familiar with this purported “silent majority” of religion- loving atheists that Scofield is talking about… but atheists are well aware of these differences within the atheist community. Look at the many debates we have about confrontationalism versus diplomacy, fighting religion directly versus creating a positive image of happy atheism, etc. We’re aware of these differences. We spend a great deal of time hashing them out. A great, great deal of time. Perhaps rather more time than we ought. We thank Mr. Scofield for his concern… but he’s really not telling us anything new.

Frankly, I’m a little puzzled as to why “atheists are anti-religious” is even on this list. It’s not even a myth atheists supposedly have about religion. It’s a myth we supposedly have about other atheists. But in any case, it’s pretty easy to dismiss. It’s simply not true.

Religious symbols 1. All Religions are the Same and are “Equally Crazy.”

Boy, howdy, did Scofield get this one wrong. R-O-N-G Wrong.

I take this one a little personally, since it’s a direct response to something I wrote on AlterNet. And it’s a gross misrepresentation of what I wrote. To the point where I’m tempted to think it’s deliberate. However, I’m going to give Mr. Scofield the benefit of the doubt that he failed to give atheists. I’m going to assume that this was not a case of willful, malicious ignorance. And I’m going to spell out my point again, as plainly as I possible can.

I did not say that all religions were equally crazy, full stop, end of discussion. In fact, the entire freaking point of this piece was that the question of whether all religions are equally crazy was a complicated one, without a single simple answer. The entire freaking point was that the answer to this question depended on how you defined the word “crazy.” The entire freaking point was that, on the one hand, all beliefs in the supernatural are equally out of touch with reality, since the supernatural doesn’t exist and there’s not a scrap of good evidence suggesting that it does… but that, on the other hand, there really are significant differences between different religions, and specifically that older religions have had more time to smooth out the rougher, more out-of-touch-with-reality edges of their doctrines, and have adjusted better to social norms (or have shaped society to adjust to their own norms.)

Scofield made a point of quoting me at length on the first point. And he made an equal point of completely ignoring the second one.

So I will make this very, very clear, as clear as I possibly can:

Atheists are aware that different religions are different.

And we still think they’re all wrong.

There are a handful of atheists who don’t believe in gods, but who still believe in some sort of supernatural something. But the overwhelming majority of atheists don’t believe in any sort of supernatural world. We get that different religions are different — but we still think they’re all wrong. We get that some religions are more disconnected from reality than others — but we still think they’re all disconnected from reality. We get that some religions do more harm than others — but many of us still think they all do some amount of harm. We’re not as pissed off at, say, the United Church of Christ as we are at, say, the Catholic Church — but we still think they’re worshipping an invisible creator-god who turned himself into his own human son and sacrificed himself to himself in order to forgive humanity for sins he created us with the desire to commit. And we think that makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.

(And yes, once again, when we say “religion,” most us mean “belief in the supernatural.” I’ve already responded to that point, and I fervently hope I never have to respond to it again in my life. An almost certainly fruitless hope, I know.)

Again: This is not a “myth” that many atheists have about religion. This is a gross misrepresentation of a position that many atheists have about religion — a position that has serious validity. The straw man version of this “myth” isn’t a myth… because no atheist that I know of actually holds it. And the actual version of this “myth” isn’t a myth… because it’s not a misunderstanding of religion. It’s a disagreement about it. Again: It’s absurd to say that the fundamental difference between atheists and believers — namely, whether there really is a god or a supernatural world, or whether that idea is a total misunderstanding of the nature of the universe based on an unfortunate convergence of cognitive errors — is a “myth” that atheists have about religion. And saying it totally trivializes the actual myths that many people hold about religious affiliations that are different from their own.

Which brings me to my final point.

Poor, Poor Pitiful Me

Protocols of the elders of zion Here’s the thing. Bigoted myths about religions other than one’s own are a reality. Examples: All Mormons are secretly polygamists. All Muslims are hateful extremists, seeking the violent overthrow of the Western world. Jews grind up babies and put them into Passover matzohs. Etc.

And there really are myths that some atheists have about religion and religious believers. I don’t see them expressed very often by the thought-leaders in the movement, but I do see them pop up now and then in forums and comment threads and so on. Examples: Believers are stupid. Believers are sheep, incapable of thinking for themselves. Believers’ morality is immature, based not on a sense of empathy and justice, but on fear of punishment and desire for reward. I’ve even seen atheists refer to believers as “rednecks” and “hicks” in comment threads about religion in the American South… and it’s made me cringe. If Scofield had been talking about any these, I would have been uncomfortable, I would have been embarrassed, but I wouldn’t have had a darned thing to say about it. Other than, “Yup. You got us there. Atheists can be jerks.”

But when you take legitimate areas of dissent and disagreement that many atheists have with religion, and label them as “myths”?

You’re trying to take on the mantle of oppression.

The reality, in the United States and most of the rest of the world, is that religion has a tremendously privileged status. Religion is deeply embedded into our culture and our laws. So much so that it’s often invisible until it’s pointed out. At which point — as is so often the case with privilege — those whose privilege is being critiqued tend to squawk loudly, and resist vehemently, and act as if a terrible injustice is being committed.

Anti Atheist poster And the reality, in the United States and most of the rest of the world, is that atheists are the targets of significant bigotry and discrimination. Most Americans wouldn’t trust an atheist. Most Americans wouldn’t vote for an atheist. Atheist veterans get booed when they march in a Memorial Day Parade. Atheist groups get targeted with hysterical venom when they play “Jingle Bells” in a Christmas parade. Atheist bus ads and billboards — even the ones simply saying that atheists exist and are good people — routinely get protested, vandalized, and even flatly rejected or removed. Atheist high schoolers trying to organize student groups routinely get stonewalled by school administrations. Atheist teenagers get threatened and ostracized by their communities and kicked out of their homes. Atheist soldiers — in the U.S. armed forces — get prayer ceremonies pressured on them, get atheist meetings and events broken up, get judged for their fitness as soldiers based on their “spiritual fitness”… and get harassed and even threatened with death when they complain about it. Atheists lose custody of their children, explicitly because of their atheism. Bigoted myths about atheists abound — myths that we’re amoral, selfish, hateful, despairing, close-minded, nihilistic, arrogant, intolerant, forcing our lack of belief on others, etc. — and many of us experience real discrimination as a result.

So it totally frosts my cookies when religious believers take legitimate areas of dissent and disagreement that many atheists have with religion… and equate them with bigoted myths. It is a classic example of privileged people defending their privilege by taking on the mantle of victimhood. It is a classic example of privileged people acting as if resistance to their privilege somehow constitutes misunderstanding, bigotry, and oppression.

Tikkun_logo Tikkun, the progressive Jewish magazine where Scofield’s “5 Myths” piece originally appeared, describes itself as “dedicated to healing and transforming the world,” and says that they “build bridges between religious and secular progressives by delivering a forceful critique of all forms of exploitation, oppression, and domination.”

But Scofield’s piece in Tikkun is not a forceful critique of all forms of exploitation, oppression, and domination. It is, instead, a classic example of it.

I expect better from them.


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  1. 1

    On myth 4, “religious” as in religious belief may have a broader scope than just religion. Many sceptics are opposed to religious, faith or non-evidence based belief of any kind. In this sense, marxism, gaia, animal rights, humanism, environmentalism can all be seen characterized as religions when they have their absolutes, their fervent believers, charismatic leaders and evangelism.
    Myth 2) As you yourself note “I’m not familiar with this purported “silent majority” of religion- loving atheists that Scofield is talking about”. Perhaps that is because most of these atheists are not Atheists, i.e., having adopted the Atheist collective identity. Most scientists are nonbelievers without being activists. About two-thirds of libertarians are atheists, but would probably identify as libertarians first. Religion and a propensity to religious beliefs seems to be the modern human norm, while nonbelief is the outlier. The attitude of the silent majority of atheists might be one of acceptance of religion rather than hostility towards it.

  2. 2

    In this sense, marxism, gaia, animal rights, humanism, environmentalism can all be seen characterized as religions[...]

    Some of the items in this list are pretty different from the others. Being in favor of animal rights is a values thing; we have a pretty good consensus that certain animals experience pain and suffering, and the disagreement is about whether or not that’s something we should care about.
    Religions often try to market themselves the same way, but tend to skip over the part where the basic facts that their value claims rely on are what’s under contention.
    Humanism, marxism, and environmentalism seem somewhat in the middle; they say “We should do X so that we get benefits Y and Z”, and that’s a factually testable claim. There’s still a value judgement in whether the particular Y and Z are actually important, but in most cases they aren’t controversial goals (wealth, liberty, and happiness, typically).

  3. 3
    Andrew Hall

    “Atheists are aware that different religions are different.”
    True enough! Different religions are like different types of mental illness. The amount of damage that they do diifer, but all are harmful.

  4. 4

    I agree, many of the people that know I’m atheist invent any kind of stupid thing, say that I’m unhappy or than I feel all-mighty like a God, really stupid things, buts is not the worse, a friend of mine, also an atheist, their parents didn’t give food to him, he had to purchase his own food (he is only 18 years old, and still studying) and I ask to ALL THE MINDLESS BELIEVERS, Who is the real BAD people, and atheist whom doesnt hurt anyone or the believers that invent everything bad about them, don’t feed their own children and hate them, even when your “imaginary friend” said that everyone is equal??? Ask me please

  5. 5

    You chose to be dimissive by emphasizing the differences among marxism, gaia, animal rights, secular humanism and environmentalism. Yes people have different subjective values, but what these have in common with religions is the presumption to prescribe behavior for others, and among the fervent believers the right to impose their value system by force upon others.
    The animal rights movement is more than just knowledge that animals can experience pain and suffer, presumably the sickos that torture animals know that. The assertion of rights and the purpose of the movement is their belief that the behaviors of others is not right and that something should be done about it.
    Marxism is part of the Hegelian philosophical school that believes massless collective identities such as nation states, classes and races imbued with rights that supercede those of the individual. It has an eschatology and a mystically powerful dialectic.

  6. 6
    Robert B

    @ Africangenesis:
    Practically every system or theory of ethics since Plato has “prescribed behavior for others.” Every code of law since Hammurabi has done the same thing and backed it up with threats of force. There are political/legal limits on who can prescribe what behavior by force, and social guidelines on who can prescribe what behavior by argument and reason. But the basic act of saying what people should do is entirely uncontroversial.
    Similarly, every ethical or political school in history has had charasmatic leaders and people who believe in it strongly. When you say “evangelism” in this context, I gather you mean “trying to convince others to your point of view,” which is also pretty universal (and, incidentally, vital to the political process in a democracy.) And while I don’t agree with absolute rules for what to do in ethics, ethical principles and objectives are almost always phrased as absolutes. See: “We hold these truths to be self-evident…”
    Your basic point seems to be that if non-religious philosophies make the same kind of mistakes that religions do, we should reject those philosophies. That’s a good idea. But the things you mention aren’t mistakes, nor are they specific to religion, they’re what everyone with an opinion does all the time.
    What you’re doing here is like denouncing baseball as being essentially a religion, because baseball players wear hats, and the Pope wears a hat.

  7. 7

    @Robert B.,
    The “philosophies” go beyond “trying to convince others”, the seek to impose their views by force. The truths the founders held to be self evident, were to be free of such people. Most religions as practiced in America are benign compared to these philosophies as expounded these days.

  8. 8

    The “philosophies” go beyond “trying to convince others”, the seek to impose their views by force.

    That’s not really characteristic of most of the things you listed. Marxism has the worst history of using force, but the rest of them tend strongly towards far more benign tactics, with the exception of some extreme fanatics at the edge (i.e. some of Greenpeace, some of PETA, and… well, actually I can’t think of any examples of extremist humanism or extremist Gaia-belief, but I’m sure they both have at least a few jerks).

    The assertion of rights and the purpose of the movement is their belief that the behaviors of others is not right and that something should be done about it.

    For the majority of animal rights activists, that something is writing angry letters, boycotting stores, and holding protests. This is a pretty low threshold for “impos[ing] views by force”!
    We can’t use the presence of fanatics as a way of deciding which belief systems to denounce, because every belief system, whether true or false, whether sensible or incoherent, has some ridiculous frothing fanatics.
    So: it has to be about the content, not the means of delivery, unless that means is actually violent, not merely aggressively outspoken.

  9. 9
    Seth Strong

    I like this post but I couldn’t find a like button anywhere.

  10. 10
    UC Icaarus

    Thank you
    This will be added to my go to collection for directing people instead of re-answering the same question a million times
    Thank you

  11. 11

    You seem quite reasonable, are you from Pittsburgh by any chance? How many reasonable dsimon’s can there be? If so, I’ll contact you as my human identity via another channel.
    It isn’t just extreme humanism or gaia believers that want to impose their morals by force. Humanists have been active in promote sex and diversity education in the public schools and with compulsory education many who had different values and few means had little choice before homeschooling gradually became a accepted option. The gaians have generally bought into the global warming fears and support imposing cap and trade type solutions through government coercion. If these positions don’t seem fanatical to you, perhaps that is a demonstration of how difficult it can be to see things through someone elses eyes.

  12. 12

    Africangenesis, I’ve never been to Pittsburg, you’re thinking of somebody else.
    Regarding education: at some point, if we have a standard curriculum (which we certainly should for public education), some things will end up in it and some things won’t. I sympathize with those who feel trapped into sending their children to schools they don’t like, so I support home-schooling, private school vouchers, and similar systems which allow school choice. However, when it comes to actually setting the public school curriculum, some stuff gets in and some doesn’t; it’s not coercion to put sex ed in schools any more than it is to put science in.
    Regarding environmental regulation: this is in the category of things that government is properly there to deal with, as a smaller part of a legal system designed to protect people from being hurt by others. If you disagree with whether or not a particular environmental regulation is a good idea, that’s one thing, but it’s not effective to say that government should exert no “coercive” force to protect the environment, any more than to say that police should exert no force to stop crimes in progress.

  13. 13

    Regardless of what you think it is the proper role for government to fulfill, the issue was whether these groups and philosophies seek to impose their values on others by force. They embrace propagating their values with government means that would cause great concern about separation of church and state if they were traditional religions instead of other religious type value systems.

  14. 14
    Fat Cow

    What a boring conversation, you two !! C’mon, step it up here, I’m falling asleep.

  15. 15

    Africangenesis, the implication of the standard you’re using is that government shouldn’t do anything whatsoever! Anything government does, it does because some people thought it was a good idea and petitioned it effectively enough. Should government avoid performing any action or setting any policy if the impetus behind that change comes from any kind of named group?
    Religious beliefs are singled out as specially prohibited from government endorsement or discrimination because they’re best handled as personal beliefs. That doesn’t apply to issues like environmental regulations, school curriculum standards, or economic policies. People certainly strenuously disagree with each other on those issues, but the disagreements are on matters of objective fact and prediction, on what choice will provide the best result for everyone, not on irreconcilable differences in matters of personal faith.

  16. 16

    @Fat Cow: What a dull complaint! Come on, you can come up with a more poetic way of expressing your kvetching. I’m yawning here.

  17. 17

    government should protect from outside attacks, it should protect us from each other, and most of all, it should protect us from itself, by adhering to checks and standards imposed upon its power. If you ask for more from it then you are asking for trouble and you are mooching off of others.

  18. 18

    @africangenesis, environmental regulation and financial regulation definitely qualify under your list. Education doesn’t, but regardless since public schools do currently exist, their curriculums are part of the government’s duty as long as that continues to be the case. Even a big debate on the existence of public schools wouldn’t justify locking down all public influence on the oversight of government-ran schools still operating. That would violate our right to representation.
    It’s crucial that citizens be able to petition the government for changes in how it sets laws and regulates public projects. I still don’t see how such petitioning is coercive.

  19. 19

    Regarding item #3, I find it difficult to imagine that Jews would have been persecuted as much as they have if it weren’t for the pervasive notion that the Jews were notionally responsible for the death of Jesus Christ. And even if we can point to some very mundane motives underlying the Crusades, it’s doubtful they would have gathered the same degree of popular support if it weren’t for the claim that “God wills it.” And would have Osama bin-Laden’s getting bent out of shape at the American military presence in Saudi Arabia been quite as vehement if not for the status of Mecca and Medina as “holy cities”?
    Sure, for every atrocity that has been committed in the name of religion, we can point to underlying mundane motives, but I don’t think anyone can honestly argue that inserting a religious aspect into the conflict doesn’t facilitate and exacerbate such behavior by allowing the perpetrators to assuage their objections and salve their consciences with the idea they were doing God’s work.

  20. 20

    I’d like to remark, by the way, that upon first seeing the term “deepity,” I thought it was a portmanteau of “Deepak” and “deity”; that is, the kind of vague, impossible-to-disprove (and impossible to distinguish from non-existent) oh-so-sophisticated model of deity Deepak Chopra claims to believe in.

  21. 21

    …portmanteau of “Deepak” and “deity”…
    I Love it! that isn’t the definition, but maybe it should be! Maybe it could be a new word: “Deepakity”. e.g:
    “You are not the drop in the ocean, but the ocean in the drop.”
    “You must find the place inside yourself where nothing is impossible.”
    So not all deepities are deepakitites, but all deepakities are deepities…

  22. 22

    Steerpike, reminds me of all the “wise sayings” from The Sphinx in Mystery Men.
    “To learn my teachings, I must first teach you how to learn.”
    “He who questions training only trains himself at asking questions.”
    “When you can balance a tack hammer on your head, you will head off your foes with a balanced attack. ”
    “The Sphinx: Your temper is very quick, my friend. But until you learn to master your rage…
    Mr. Furious: …your rage will become your master? That’s what you were going to say. Right? Right?
    The Sphinx: Not necessarily.”

  23. 23
    Mijc Osis

    I find the way you assume to speak for all atheists somewhat disturbing. It reminds me a lot of the way a member of a sect (Catholics for instance) will speak of their religion as thought it is a universal agreement among all forms of it.

    Oxford dictionary
    Belief in the existence of a god or gods, specifically of a creator who intervenes in the universe:
    there are many different forms of theism
    A person who disbelieves or lacks belief in the existence of God or gods:
    Disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods.
    late 16th century: from French athéisme, from Greek atheos, from a- ‘without’ + theos ‘god’.

    Mirriam Webster
    belief in the existence of a god or gods; specifically : belief in the existence of one God viewed as the creative source of the human race and the world who transcends yet is immanent in the world
    athe·ist noun \ˈā-thē-ist\
    a person who believes that God does not exist
    Full Definition of ATHEIST
    one who believes that there is no deity

    Encyclopædia Britannica Concise.
    View that all observable phenomena are dependent on but distinct from one supreme being. The view usually entails the idea that God is beyond human comprehension, perfect and self-sustained, but also peculiarly involved in the world and its events. Theists seek support for their view in rational argument and appeals to experience. Arguments for God’s existence are of four principal types: cosmological, ontological, teleological, or moral. A central issue for theism is reconciling God, usually understood as omnipotent and perfect, with the existence of evil.

    Critique and denial of metaphysical beliefs in God or divine beings. Unlike agnosticism, which leaves open the question of whether there is a God, atheism is a positive denial. It is rooted in an array of philosophical systems. Ancient Greek philosophers such as Democritus and Epicurus argued for it in the context of materialism. In the 18th century David Hume and Immanuel Kant, though not atheists, argued against traditional proofs for God’s existence, making belief a matter of faith alone. Atheists such as Ludwig Feuerbach held that God was a projection of human ideals and that recognizing this fiction made self-realization possible. Marxism exemplified modern materialism. Beginning with Friedrich Nietzsche, existentialist atheism proclaimed the death of God and the human freedom to determine value and meaning. Logical positivism holds that propositions concerning the existence or nonexistence of God are nonsensical or meaningless.

    You have for some reason redefined Atheist as a synonym of materialist, whereas the majority of atheists I have met are not materialists at all, tho they are commonly less open about this.
    Dismissing the idea of some creator god who is constantly interfering with the world when it is in the state it is in as ridiculous, seeing what Epicurus saw 2,300 years ago, and witnessing the obvious lack of any effect of supposedly being filled with god does not mean we arent skeptical with regard to existence of some kind of spirit in the world
    Many of us feel that we have more physics to find – an energy of consciousness perhaps, some king of entanglement, or that dark energy and matter we cant find or the dimensions of string theory may hold clues to things that connect us.
    Many have not found satisfactory explanations in the science and engineering we have studied for the experiences that we have had that we believe should be impossible and therefore hold an open mind to evidence of what the heck connects us, why conscious will seems to have effect (when not accompanied by opposing will of course – that’s basic physics)
    Even true Buddhists are atheists, rejecting the concept of any deity or controlling entity and placing all the consequences of your actions on yourself, believing that there is a patter of energy within us that can escape physicality – some of us wonder if this might fit with the physics we are now discovering.
    We crave evidence, and do so with an open mind, and are happy with ‘I dont know’. and eager to fill the gaps in our experience with rational evidence – we are waiting to find out what he heck it is but lean to a Gaian like energy embodied in everything, something which people anthropomorphised as pantheist spirits and deities and even the evidence of a god controller but which are just part of the physics of existence.

    Please, please don’t stereotype all Atheists as materialists, Use the words Materialist Atheist when that is what you mean. It is hard enough being a rationalist and atheist without being sidelined by your own team. We are all out to show the world that rational thought and ethics makes for a better humanity than archaic rules and instant absolution. We al believe in personal responsibility..We all believe in science, and the quest for evidence and understanding, just some believe we have more t learn than others. But lets embrace that difference and not sideline each other, lets unite in the quest for a rational, peaceful world. Materialists and spiritualist atheists alike,,

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