This piece was originally published on AlterNet.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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, 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.