Inspired by a comment I made in my last article, I’m making a listicle of common atheist sayings, many of which I had objections to even when I was involved in the atheist movement.
I want to stick to quotes that I’ve actually heard atheists repeating and paraphrasing multiple times. And, it’s pretty hard to come up with a list like that, because any search for atheist sayings just turns up much more obscure quotes, voted up by… whoever hangs around websites that collect quotes. So, I’m sure I missed a few, and if commenters identify a bunch then I might make another listicle.
Before I get to the list proper, let’s start with a grumpy take on atheist quotememes. This is an image search for “atheist sayings”:
Atheists sure like quotes in overwrought fonts next to shadowed grayscale faces of celebrities. This felt worthy of parody, so I amused myself by making a Pikachu meme.
I’m sure Pikachu said something really deep, it’s just that we can’t understand it. Now, onward to the list.
6. Atheism is a non-prophet organization.
I’m sure this pun was funny the first time I heard it, but that was so very long ago it’s hard to remember.
Atheists sure liked to boast about how they didn’t have any prophets or leaders. However, I observe that an image search for “Christian sayings” turns up nearly zero faces of celebrities, so you might say that atheists–at least the ones who repeat quotes–traded prophets for a different kind of celebrity worship.
5. That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence
Philosophers might recognize this as the discredited theory of Positivism–but theory aside, it’s a useful practical principle. If someone arrived at a viewpoint for emotional or cultural reasons then the most effective way to persuade them might be through emotional appeals or changing the culture. Indeed, emotional appeals and cultural changes are how I think the atheist movement achieved most of its success. Although, it sure seems like half the time atheists were deriding emotional appeals as totally worthless and wrong.
4. Atheism is a religion like bald is a hair color
-Mark Schnitzius (source)
When I took an introductory course on the history of religion, the definition of religion was something we discussed in the first week. It’s really hard to find a definition that includes all the commonly known religions, and yet excludes things like baseball and activist groups. As long as I’ve known it, the atheist movement has shown little interest in really investigating the definition of religion, except insofar as they can use it to explain why atheism is not one. And it’s true, atheism is not a religion by any reasonable definition.
But I put forth to you, theism isn’t a religion either. Theism is a religion like “having hair” is a hair color. Theism is a belief that can be a component of a religion, but is not itself a religion. Likewise, atheism is a belief that can be part of a religion, but is not itself a religion. At this point, the hair analogy fails because it suggests that atheism cannot be part of a religion. Many religious traditions around the world are atheistic, and I wouldn’t necessarily object if some atheists decided to start their own non-supernaturalist religion.
3. When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called a Religion.
-Richard Dawkins, who falsely attributed it to Robert Pirsig, who said something a bit different.
Not only did the atheist movement systematically fail to define “religion” in a reasonable way, they also systematically failed to address the ableism underlying all this language about delusion and insanity. Here, Richard Dawkins suggests that religious beliefs are like the delusions of mentally ill people, but unlike mentally ill people, are given a greater (and undeserved) degree of respect. The implied assumption is that people with mental illness do not deserve respect.
In retrospect, Dawkins is simply saying that religious beliefs are egregiously false, and egregiously false beliefs don’t deserve respect. But the comparison to mental illness seems uncalled for, when there are plenty of other egregiously false beliefs that we generally wouldn’t compare to mental illness. Like say, climate change denial. Or homophobia (despite “phobia” being unfortunately included in the name). I guess the comparison to mental illness has the “emotional appeal” factor going for it.
2. We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.
-Richard Dawkins, paraphrasing an earlier saying of unknown origin
Admittedly I like this quote. It reminds us that there are a lot of other religions we don’t bother arguing over, or even try to minimally understand, because without the cultural support hardly anyone seems to think they’re worthy of consideration. Which accurately describes how I feel about the proposition that Christianity is true.
Wait, wait, let me put my grumpy face on.
This quote elides some important differences between the attitude that atheists have towards religions, and the attitude religious people have towards religions not their own. For instance, it is common for religious people to believe that other religions are arriving at the same God, but by different means. (Even when the other religions don’t have gods, but cultural imperialism means we don’t need to understand foreign cultures in order to make bold statements about them.)
1. With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil – that takes religion.
In context, Steven Weinberg alleges that Frederick Douglas said he was treated worse when his master underwent a religious conversion. Wait, so I’m confused. Before Douglas’s master converted, he was a good person… who was behaving well? Really? A slave owner?
What this quote basically amounts to saying, is that religion is the only kind of systemic evil, and everything else is caused by individual bad actors. Including slavery.