Top 10 Misconceptions about Atheism and Atheists
Of all the various segments of the population that have been traditionally considered as “beyond the pale” in American society, perhaps no other group has remained as heavily proscribed and ignored as those who register no faith in any religious tradition. While other groups have been grudgingly extended a modicum of civil representation, atheists still tend to remain unloved and unacknowledged.
While Christianity and, to a lesser, extent, Judaism are regarded as the cornerstone of Western civilization, atheists are regarded as something less than desirable. Many religious people believe atheists are no better than servants of the Devil, while others regard them in the same league as Communists, Nazis, or even as allies of radical Islam. In short, although the population of atheists is steadily growing, it remains radically misunderstood.
10. For An Atheist, Life Is Simply Meaningless…Then You Die
Many people seem to believe that, for an atheist, life is simply a meaningless series of random events, punctuated by meaningless activity, a few empty distractions, and followed by the long, dreamless sleep of eternal oblivion. In other words, atheism equates with debilitating nihilism in the eyes of most believers, and it is precisely this nihilism that forms one of their strongest arguments against unbelief.
It is true that many atheists, from Jean Paul Sartre to Samuel Beckett, have certainly spoken of the ennui, uncertainty, and existential “nausea” that comes with the realization that no benevolent Providence rules the affairs of mankind. However, while such terror stricken thoughts may form a part of the initial rejection of religious belief, it is by no means mandatory to believe that the majority of atheists are content to remain at such a dismal initial point.
Indeed, for most atheists, the fact that life is short, very temporary, and very uncertain means that it must be held as extremely precious while it lasts. Consequently, many atheists tend to be among those that are most inclined toward solving serious social issues, such as political tyranny, gender inequality, world poverty, and the like.
From Bob Geldof to Louis C.K., many atheists and agnostics have been among those who are most inclined to give their time and effort to charitable initiatives and organizations. Events such as Live Aid could hardly have been possible under the aegis of the world’s major churches, scornful as they are of “immortality” and any charitable activity not conducted without their supervision.
9. The Most Hideous Crimes In Human History Have Been Supervised By Atheists
One of the most often repeated misconceptions concerning atheists is that it is has been they who have committed the most shocking and massive crimes against humanity in all of recorded history. The examples of Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Pol Pot are regularly brought to the attention of atheists, and their sordid deeds are used as a catch all smear against unbelief in the benevolent God(s) who control human destiny.
Unfortunately, no stalwart of organized religious belief, in any of its myriad of forms, has ever been able to give a completely satisfactory answer to the question of just how and why any supposedly all loving Deity would allow such things to happen.
The standard answer given by Christianity, that the Devil is in charge of human history while Great Jehovah looks on with just enough interest to register the scene but not enough to intervene against his infernal machinations, is beginning to wear thin.
As to the undeniable truth that many confirmed atheists, such as the above mentioned Stalin, Pol Pot, and their like, did commit many horrific crimes, it is also interesting to note that Stalin himself was a former seminarian, and that many of the others also had strong religious upbringings.
What went wrong? Why did they turn away from God in the first place, and why was it left to mankind to chastise and correct their egregious errors? In short, when “atheists” wreak havoc among mankind, why does God turn a blind eye and deaf ear to it?
8. Atheism Is Every Bit As Dogmatic As Any Standard Religious Belief
One of the most recent arguments that theists have been known to advance against atheists is the curiously paradoxical theorem that atheism is, by its very nature, every bit as dogmatic as any standard theistic belief. Indeed, many theologians have taxed atheism with being a mere drone to the dogmatic beliefs laid down by Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietsche, and the ilk over a century ago.
In short, their contention is that atheism is every bit as dogmatic and exacting of orthodoxy from its “believers” as any conventional religious system – and is, therefore, a religious system in itself. This line of argument, that atheism is a religion, is especially popular among the newer generation of Protestants, but is also fairly popular among conservative Catholics.
Theists take the line of argument that atheists simply parrot the logical paradoxes and partisan arguments invented by figures such as Marx, John Stuart Mill, and Bertrand Russell, without adding anything original of their own. In this way, they seek to popularize their contention that modern atheism rests upon nothing more than hearsay and “arguments from authority”, the same set of pillars that all theism rests upon.
Unfortunately, what the theists seem to (or prefer to) forget is that scientific knowledge is increasing all of the time, week by week, day by day. Figures such as Neil DeGrasse Tyson are respected scientific authorities who are slowly but surely proving that the most accurate model of the Universe simply leaves no room for belief in all knowing, all providential Deity and his host of miraculous offspring.
7. Atheists Believe That The Universe Is Blind, And Simply There By Chance
The previously stated charge leads naturally into the next major argument against atheism that is advanced by most theists, i.e., that atheists believe that the universe is blind, and simply there by the merest and most transitory of chances. This is perhaps traceable to the ancient atomic theories of the Greek philosopher Epicurus, but there have been other, more modern exponents of this essentially atheistic theory.
Religious believers will go on to assert that only belief in an all knowing, all loving, and all judging Creator can give meaning to the Universe, man’s place within it, and his own conduct as a constituent thereof. They will point to the many religious codes, most famously the Ten Commandments, as proof that only the purposeful revelation of God could suffice to give mankind a set of rules to live by.
Of course, they conveniently ignore the fact that Christianity, as attested to in the New Testament, owes a great deal to philosophical ideals that were expressed centuries before the time of Jesus by the great Stoic and Platonist philosophers of ancient Greece.
Indeed, there are more than a handful of allusions to the “vanity” of the philosophers in the writings of Paul, which certainly suggests that, from the very beginning, they were regarded as formidable foes by the infant Church and its first generation of self-appointed spokesmen.
What was the source of this insistent hatred against Greek philosophers? Could it have been that the early Churchmen realized from the beginning that their enemies would be found primarily among those who were educated in philosophy and thus most equipped to meet their supernatural claims with dismissive scorn?
6. Atheists Are Arrogant, Contrary Naysayers Who Exist To Make The Rest Us Miserable
It is true that there have been many atheists, from the days of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, straight down to the like of Richard Dawkins today, who do seem to be less than tactful concerning their own philosophical position vis-a-vis the beliefs of others. Yes, many atheists do seem to be cranky, irascible know it alls who seem more concerned with shattering the illusions of theists than sparing their feelings while doing so.
Meanwhile, has anyone ever conducted a close reading of the Bible, or any random group of ancient Christian writings, and noticed a discrepancy between the way the various writers present themselves as humble members of a despised and outlawed community, the “lowest of the low”, and the manner in which they simultaneously pride themselves on knowing facts about the Deity, the Universe, and the Earth that no philosopher or scientist of the time made similar claims to know?
Isn’t it interesting that an “arrogant” scientist will take great pains to back his or her claims up with diagrams, documents, and mountains of evidence? Hardly a single scientific theory, no matter how ultimately fallacious and discredited, has ever appeared without a great deal of accompanying documentation.
Meanwhile, the Christians can point to a Holy Bible, compiled somewhat haphazardly over the centuries, and augmented somewhat later still with a book of testimony concerning the doings and sayings of a figure that no other reliable document seems to recognize the existence of.
5. Atheists Are Closed Minded Sociopaths Who Are Dead To Emotion
One of the longest lasting and most damaging misconceptions concerning atheists is that they are bitter, spiteful, sociopaths whose minds are so narrowly closed that they are essentially dead to all emotion, empathy, and spirituality.
Obviously, this can’t be true of an entire segment of society whose members now number in the millions. Yet, there are many people who do believe that the adage coined by Dostoevsky, “If God isn’t real, then all is permitted”, reigns supreme over an atheist’s conception of the world.
The truth is atheists have an excellent sense of humor, as well as an abiding sentiment of empathy and understanding toward their fellow humans that plenty of theists, including those who claim the best knowledge of how to benefit mankind, seem to lack.
Indeed, plenty of atheists, agnostics, and (historically speaking) deists have been at the forefront of countless movements and initiatives that have benefited mankind enormously. One need only think of the Declaration of Independence, framed largely by agnostics and deists, and then contrast it with the written laws of any “Christian” state that preceded it.
4. Atheists Believe In Nothing That Can Exist Beyond The Limits Of Human Understanding
Many theists have charged atheists with the somewhat bizarre notion of being able to believe in absolutely nothing that can exist beyond the limits of human understanding. That is to say, they believe that atheists are simply incapable of comprehending the possibility that it is not possible for human beings to know everything that the universe and its wonders contain. Naturally, for a theist, the greatest of these unknown qualities is “God”.
The truth is that atheists tend to believe in the wonders of science and the cosmos, and simply do not need a providential Deity to control such natural wonders. When one considers the vastness and complexity of the Universe and all that it contains, this should be more than enough to set one’s mind reeling with awe. How much more convincing does such a scenario become if one is required to believe that a man with a puppet master’s skills controls the action behind the scenes?
The truth is that, unlike theists, an atheist is not required to believe that all the secrets and riddles of the Universe are contained in a book, or are revealed to only the devout believer at some nebulous time after they leave this life. Instead, the majesty of the Cosmos is revealed, a tiny bit at a time, to all mankind via the medium of science.
It is certainly true that science is a far more demanding and painstaking medium of revelation than the “inspirations” of the Biblical prophets. It is true that there is no instant payoff, no ultimate secret that is immediately revealed to the believer. But, in the long run, the benefits that scientific research and testing have conferred upon mankind certainly outweigh the dubious gifts bestowed by religions.
3. Atheists Ignore The Benefits That Religion Has Brought To Mankind
Perhaps one of the most malicious charges that theists level against atheists is the supposed ignorance of unbelievers concerning the various benefits that religious belief has conferred on mankind.
For example, Christians can point to such undoubted master works of human achievement, such as the Sistine Chapel, the Hagia Sophia Cathedral, and the many great works of art that were commissioned by the Popes and Cardinals during the Middle Ages and Renaissance.
Of course, the Christian church has also the small matter of the Inquisition to add to the total account of its gifts to mankind. Tens of thousands of heretics, witches, and (incidentally) plenty of innocents were liberated from their bodies during the centuries that this cleansing initiative of the Church held sway over Europe.
Contrary to popular belief (especially among Protestants), the Lutheran Reformation did not end such witch hunts. In fact, such luminaries of the cause, such as Melanchthon, Calvin, and especially Luther himself, were firm believers in devils, demons, and their concourse (and intercourse) with humans. Thousands more were consigned to the dungeons and the flames on suspicion of trafficking with the Devil and his infernal legions.
One should also keep in mind that the Church very famously resisted the theories of Copernicus and Galileo regarding the correct path of the Earth, moon, sun, and planets. In fact, the Church failed to admit its error in this regard until 2008, and has still not taken full responsibility for its persecution of the famous scientist.
As such, for all of the material benefits that the Church brought to mankind in its earliest years, there are centuries of needless persecution and bloodshed that it has yet to answer for, and perhaps can never truly (or sincerely) atone for.
2. The Position Of Atheism Can Give No Basic Ground For Morality
Of all the various charges that theists of all types have laid at the feet of the atheists, perhaps one of the most (literally) damning is the accusation that morality can not be conceived, much less practiced, by one who has no grounding belief in the authority of a divine Creator.
The theists can point to their various books containing their law codes, from Hammurabi and Moses all the way to the Sermon on the Mount and the various utterances of Muhammad that are scattered throughout the Koran. They can quote all of the various parables, precepts, and outright commands, and thus derive an authoritative basis for their moral commands and resulting judgments.
For example, the Bible and Koran both make very clear and authoritative statements regarding the institution of human slavery. The Bible expressly condones slavery. So does the Quran. Since the Bible contains the holy books of both Judaism and Christianity, it is thus quite easy to see that all three of the major monotheistic religions are unquestionably quite relaxed concerning the right of one man to own another.
It’s interesting to note that all of the progress that mankind has made regarding the abolition of slavery, in both Europe and the United States, has been at the express behest of secular forces. The Civil War decided the issue in America, with no help or encouragement from any major religious establishment.
Indeed, in the South, many churches stood with Wallace at the school house door to try to block the rise of civil rights and the end of segregation. In the 21st century, their
bete noire is gay rights.
1. Atheists Are No More Than A Tiny Minority Of The Population
When religious authorities of all religions attempt to “seriously” calculate the number of atheists in the United States, they always seem to err on the side of conservatism., i.e., they purposely underestimate the true number of those who live their lives without belief in any religious principles. So how many atheists really exist in the United States?
A very interesting survey puts forth the quite credible proposition that as many as one quarter of the total population of the United States may well be presently composed of atheists or, at the very least, agnostics.
The survey concluded that 73 percent of its respondents affirmed that they possessed a strong belief in a Deity. However, of the remaining 27 percent of recorded responses, 18 percent indicated that were atheists or agnostics, while the remaining nine percent indicated that they were unsure how to answer the question.
The results of this poll were staggering, to say the least, and seem to indicate a rapidly growing segment of Americans who are simply unmoved by, or uninterested in, the possibility of the existence of a benevolent Creator.
In the end, no matter how strenuously or craftily the religious fundamentalist element of our society attempts to downplay the existence – or the growing influence – of agnostics and atheists, the truth seems to be that this influence is only increasing as the decades roll by. While the above mentioned survey is hardly definitive, it should be noted that others have been conducted since then which only serve to confirm this general conclusion.
Is There A Future For Peaceful Coexistence Between Believers And Atheists?
In light of these recent discoveries, it may well be asked whether there is a future for harmonious dialog and peaceful coexistence between atheists and religious believers. While it is certainly hoped that there will be no defining clash between the two camps, it is regrettably true that ancient traditions tend to die very hard, particularly those that have entwined themselves like creeping vines at the very root of society.
However, as the years roll by, there does seem to be some hope that the obsolete institutions of organized religion are slowly beginning to feel the pressure of reason as it impinges upon their sphere of “sacred” authority. Slowly, but surely, the old errors are coming to their end.
While it is true that the end of religious belief hardly signifies the end of error in all its various forms, it is at least evident that mankind is slowly but surely registering a real advance in its level of critical thinking.