Not This Time…

Recently, an old friend posted a link to an article titled How Atheism Can Make the World Better By Tearing Down Religious Irrationality” by Amanda Marcotte. Although I had other plans for this week’s post, I felt that responding to the contents of the article was perfectly in line with my reasons for this blog. I would first encourage everyone to read the article. If you are reading this, but not the article that inspired it, then you are doing a disservice both to yourself and the writer. It is important to read the article in its entirety, rather than interspersed with my comments as you will find it here. I hope that I am committing no error with the way I have reprinted Ms. Marcotte’s handiwork (which is separated by my comments, but otherwise not edited or changed in any sense, to include the original hyperlinks), but if I am, please let me know and I will immediately correct the error. I was so inspired by the article because it was well written, and yet so full of misconceptions, misrepresentations and clichéd – yet erroneous – statements that I felt it was important to provide a critique.

I feel that it is important to make a few points at the outset. First, the word “Christian” is only found once in the article, but the descriptions of the “religious” are implicitly directed at Christians, so I feel no reticence at responding as if Christianity was the intended target. Obviously, atheists do not believe in any god, whether Jehovah, Baal or Vishnu. However, it is the descriptions of the condemned behaviors that are so indicative of humanist objections to Christians. Secondly, each of the points addressed could be a book of their own, so I have attempted to use mainly Biblical refutations, since that is what our faith is based upon, whether we follow the Bible’s exhortations or not. Finally, I have not posted this entire response in the comments of the original article, because that space belongs to its creator, although I have linked to this page there, and do not feel that signifies any encroachment on my part. It is only fair that the author be made aware of such criticism. Again, please read the article before reading my response.

(Original excerpts from the article are presented in italics and in “blockquotes” to allow for easier reading and differentiation.)

Few groups are as vilified as atheists.

I didn’t get very far. The mere use of the term “few” does not release the writer of the obligation to be factual; while it is a nebulous term that corresponds only to a small number (which in terms of the possible number of “groups” could still be quite a “few”), I can think of twenty right off the top of my head that are more vilified, including Christians. Even particular groups of Christians can be found vilifying other Christians that do not behave the way the former feels is proper. In fact, atheists have found themselves appreciated by large segments of the population for their “intelligent, scientific, and skeptical” worldview – particularly in western culture. It is, however, a frequent atheistic act to claim the martyr’s role in society, proclaiming the idea that the atheist is seeking only to free the world from the constraints of traditional religious close-mindedness that resists the advance of technology and progressive thought, while being subjected to the “slings and arrows” of an oppressive patriarchal authority.

They tend to be viewed as party poopers bent on dismantling the cherished beliefs of “people of faith.” While that element of the atheist community does exist–as is verified by the endless websites and books dedicated solely to tackling the logical flaws in religious claims–the reality is that the growing movement of outspoken atheists have far more on offer than winning arguments with people who believe in a god. Atheism is also a burgeoning social justice movement that looks to tear down the social structures that have perpetuated injustice for millennia.

If you are writing about atheism’s role as a path to a better society by serving as the antithesis of religion, then it is not particularly credible to attribute millennial injustices to religious social structures without conceding the fact that there is not a single secular or pagan society that did not commit overwhelming atrocities and injustices on its people. Also, it is a commonly held belief that atheists are looking to host the party, freeing people of rigid doctrines and moral constraints. It is the hateful reprisals and vulgar diatribes that are so disdained by the general populace.[1]

Just as feminists take on the patriarchy, peace activists fight the ideology of war, civil rights activists and abolitionists dismantle the traditions of racism, and humanists erode authoritarian hierarchies, atheists are standing up and saying that the human race needs to evolve beyond religion. And it’s this social justice model that’s invigorating a new generation of atheists to move beyond just quietly disbelieving into openly challenging religious irrationality.

Blame the religious right for pushing atheists in this new, more political direction. The past couple of decades have seen an explosion in fundamentalist energy and power.

It is interesting to read this claim amid the rampant atheist proclamations that faith is enduring a slow death under the glare of scientific and philosophic scrutiny.

The immediacy of the fundamentalist threat to science, education and human rights starkly demonstrates that the problem of religion extends beyond its inherent irrationality. Many atheists who find endless proofs against god tiring find themselves drawn to organized atheism as a weapon against this religious threat to liberty and free inquiry.

I am “offended” by this section in two very different ways. Primarily I am offended by the “endless proofs” statement. First of all, you cannot have proof against the existence of anything. This is a fundamental “rule” of scientific discovery. So it is immediately a meaningless statement. However, even if you allow what seems to be the point, the idea of a “religious threat to science, education and human rights” would be laughable if it were not so serious an idea. For every religious leader that advocates censorship of a secular novel, there is an atheist educator who suppresses any jot or tittle of the vast evidence for creationism and against philosophical naturalism.[2] I have often cited my personal difficulty with getting atheists and agnostics to listen to any evidence whatsoever. But more on this in a moment.

Even though many liberal religious people exist, at its base, the argument between god believers and atheists is roughly the same argument as that between conservatives and progressives. Liberalism is rooted in the humanist tradition, which demands that society and government prioritize human needs and desires, using the tools of rationality and evidence toward those goals. Conservativism values hierarchy and tradition and rejects evidence-based reasoning in favor of arguments from authority. The imaginary god provides the perfect conservative authority; a completely evidence-free, ultimate authority that can make pronouncements believers are expected to simply submit to. Submission and faith are built into even the most liberal Christian traditions, in direct contrast to the humanist philosophy of questioning and demanding evidence.  

Here Marcotte makes a few seemingly innocent classifications that confuse politics and ideology with religious faith and intellectual pursuits. Even the substitution of the word ”progressive” for “liberal” is merely a euphemistic twist of phrase. She begins with the statement that “many liberal religious people exist,” and then proceeds to portray “god believers” – even the most liberal – as members of a group that eschew thought, logic and evidence for a mindless acquiescence to authority. While a clever bit of propaganda, it ignores the vast evidence in favor of [a] God and the endless pursuit of knowledge by a multitude of Christians, not to mention the Biblical praise of wisdom and knowledge (Proverbs 8) and directive to be prepared to defend the reason (read: intellectual basis) for our faith (1 Peter 3:15). The entire field of apologetics is devoted to the search for – and presentation of – evidence that by definition is found outside of faith, while simultaneously supporting (and being supported by) that faith.

It is a common epithet from the mouths of atheists that “there is no evidence to support Christian beliefs” while ignoring the vast trove of evidence. In fact, I was once told to “show… some scientifically proven evidence… If you could there would be no atheists.” This is a common mantra, but an ignorant one. There are plenty of instances of people ignoring even obvious truths out of self-interest and pride. When truth infringes on the way we want to live our lives, we tend to look for an opportunity to ignore that truth.[3]

Again, Marcotte has taken small bits of conventional wisdom about political ideologies and extrapolated them into the foundation of faith. It is quite true that (political) conservatives are often lacking in their promotion of social justice, while I would make the claim that liberals are often lacking in their promotion of moral values. The problem as this relates to political affiliations is that it is easier to hitch your cart to morality than social justice if you have to make a choice, because social justice involves some serious “leg work.” It is important to note at this point that this is a flaw in the imperfect individuals that make up the church rather than the foundation of Christianity itself. There is no lack of the promotion of social justice contained in the Bible; in a revolutionary and momentous statement during Jesus’ final ministry before His crucifixion, He detailed how His followers should behave as the administrators of justice to the “least of these” (Matthew 25:31-46). In fact, even a rudimentary parsing of Jesus’ statements on this issue will be more than sufficient to illustrate the Biblical doctrines.

The vast amount of humanitarian work performed throughout the world by, through, and for the church cannot be ignored in this regard. Even the distaste some have for the accompanying ministry and proselytizing should not diminish what can only be regarded as unparalleled and world-changing. If the argument is put forth at this point that religion is cause for untold suffering and mayhem, I would respond that it is pride, hate and greed that produced those under the guise of religion. There is no suggestion from Jesus or the apostles that Christianity should be spread by force or guile.

Humanism has given birth to progressivism by opening up space to question some of the oldest prejudices: the belief that men are better than women, that gays are “unnatural,” that different skin colors or ethnicities automatically means different roles and mental abilities, that people are wealthier because they’re more deserving, that kings rule by divine right. When you start asking hard questions of these other beliefs, you often discover that the rationale for all of them tends to circle back toward “God said so.” By questioning this most fundamental of beliefs, that there is a god and he’s making the rules, we can call into question the illogic of all these other beliefs.

Despite the atheist movement’s emphasis on proofs against supernatural claims, many, if not most people who join the atheist movement came to atheism because they were questioning other beliefs and traditions. Certainly this was my path. I never really “believed” in god growing up, but I didn’t identify as an atheist either. I just didn’t think about the issue much. Feminism compelled me to start looking harder at religious arguments against women’s equality, and in doing so, I realized that without a forceful response to religious irrationality, feminist progress would be stymied. And so I started engaging logical arguments supporting what seemed self-evident to me, that there couldn’t be any gods, and therefore no supernatural beings whose authority can be invoked when anti-feminists lack real-world evidence for their claims.

I have addressed these last two paragraphs together, but will focus primarily on the first, since the second is essentially an extension of the previous gender inequality statement. In the former, Marcotte is again mistaking the actual behavior of Christians with the tenets espoused by the Scripture they claim allegiance to. As if anyone, even in his best moments, consistently follows his most cherished beliefs. There are many atheists who have found themselves praying in moments of dire need in spite of their disbelief, or have committed suicide in spite of the fact that they hold the value of life on Earth as the ultimate possession. This entire paragraph is full of prejudices that, in the context of the article, are propagated by theists. Discussing these in reverse order, I will begin with the divine right of kings, which was never a Biblical directive. The greatest king of Israel, David, did not inherit the throne, and God chose the Judges that ruled the nation and elected them through His people. God is the King of Israel, and the choice of an earthly king by the people was in direct contradiction to God’s design.

The religious promotion of the idea that people are wealthier because they are more deserving needs only a single phrase to be discounted: “Blessed are the meek, because they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5). I will add one more from James 5: “Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries that are coming upon you! Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver are corroded, and their corrosion will be a witness against you and will eat your flesh like fire.” This is not exactly an endorsement of the stature of wealth.

There is absolutely no truth to the belief that the Bible espouses one race over another. While antebellum Americans, Civil Rights-era demagogues, and even until recently Mormons may have tried to interpret passages this way, this was never a belief held by the church at large. In fact, God is “not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9) and “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). There is no hint of racial, cultural, or social classification.

Although homosexuality is a very controversial subject, it is irresponsible to avoid the discussion out of a fear of being offensive. The Bible is clear on the subject of homosexual acts,[4] in which the original Levitical laws denounce such acts as “an abomination” (Leviticus 19:22). And while the sacrifice of Christ has freed Jews from the constraints applied to Old Testament Israel, and Gentiles were never under that law in the first place, Paul makes it clear in Romans that such acts are still forbidden. It actually seems more odd to me that atheists would find homosexual acts natural, since the humanist beliefs clearly find all desires and activities to be based on individual survival and propagation of the species, neither of which lend themselves to a genetic predisposition to homosexuality. The Christian doctrines of equality across all walks of life and love for every man are much more accepting of individual weaknesses (if homosexuality can even be categorized as such) and sinful proclivities. I am not claiming that this is how it works in practice, only that the typical atheist position on homosexuality is as inconsistent with the atheist worldview as the hateful speech and actions committed by some Christians is with the teachings of Jesus and the apostles. The fact is, Paul tells us in his letter to the Romans that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” There is nowhere in the Bible or honest Christian doctrine that claims homosexual behavior to be any worse than any other sin, and it is a detriment to the Church that so many members tend to seize on this one idea while ignoring their own pride, lust, deceit, hate, et al. In addition, it would seem that a feminist viewpoint would find it an attractive idea that homosexuality is wrong simply because it deprives the relationship (society, the world, etc.) of the “natural use of the woman.” (I understand that the term “use” is sure to be offensive, but here it is referring to the gifts and abilities that only a woman can bring to the table.) I am certain that this paragraph will be seized on much more vociferously than the rest, however the issue cannot – and should not – be avoided as a result of this fact.

There is absolutely no difference between any two people on this planet in God’s eyes: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). This is merely part of the final proof against the paragraphs cited above. Gender roles in Christianity receive a great deal of criticism, and phrases such as “the head of a woman is her husband” (1 Corinthians 11:3), “he [man] shall rule over you [woman]” (Genesis 3:16), and “Wives, be subject to your husbands” (Ephesians 5:22) are often cited as descriptions of Biblical testament to the inferiority of women. First of all, these are often taken out of context, but that is not particularly relevant here. The fact is, the Bible sets clearly defined roles for women and men in both society and marriage. It is useless to pretend that men and woman are “equal” in the sense of interchangeability and differentiation; men and women are intrinsically different.[5]

One can rightly say that women are the weaker sex, but only if they are referring to physical strength; while many women are stronger than me, the average man is physically stronger than the average woman, and denying the fact in the pursuit of “equality” is preposterous. The idea is that men and women are different, and suited to different roles. As in the footnoted quotes before, there is no use setting up the man as the bearer of children when he cannot, in fact, have children. The biblically defined roles are established to make the best use of the “different” capabilities and strengths of men and women. Ultimately, a relationship consists of two people, and it is only when the two disagree that the idea of a “head” must arise, because there is no third party to mediate. Therefore, God established that the “tie” should be broken by the man. And, as C.S. Lewis so eloquently put it, “even a woman who wants to be head of her own house does not usually admire the same state of things when she finds it going on next door.”[6] In terms of the relationship between men and women, God directs husbands to “love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for it.” In other words, husbands should dedicate their very lives to the benefit of their wives, to the point of the ultimate suffering and death. This is not the picture of inequality, but rather roles defined in order to utilize the natural interdependence of the sexes to effect the most ideal relationship possible. Women are consistently praised and adored throughout the Bible, and any interpretations that negate this fact have their foundation in deceit and perversion of the facts.

I’m far from alone in this. Last November, when I spoke on feminism and atheism at the annual atheist/skeptical conference in Springfield, MO, I met dozens of young and eager atheists. A solid majority of them had come to the movement after feeling oppressed by religion. Some people had grown up in fundamentalist communities whose backward beliefs about gender and sexuality drove them to start asking questions, while others had dealt with conflicts between their own love of science and the claims of religion. Still others had mostly dealt with moderate or even liberal churches, but were disappointed by the way even the most liberal religions discourage hard questions. In other words, these people began from a position of valuing progressive ideals, and those values led them to the atheist community. 

When Marcotte mentions the “majority [that] had come to the movement [atheism] after feeling oppressed by religion,” she is highlighting an unremarkable fact: namely, that humans do not like the idea of being told what they should and should not do. We want to do what we want to do, and our pride and selfishness make any moral code (regardless of how often we recognize it within ourselves) unattractive and oppressive. There is a freedom to be found in atheism, but it is a freedom from any sense of responsibility, judgment (self- or otherwise), and hope. It leads to arrogance, delusion and hedonism: the placing of oneself at the top of the mountain, free from any constraints. Fortunately, there are very few who take atheism to this logical destination; the moral code that God has ingrained in us typically supersedes even our most deviant selfishness. And when people speak of “even the most liberal religions” they are usually referring to the New Age/spiritual faiths and the mystical cults (Scientology, Mormonism, et al). These certainly discourage hard questions, one group because their foundations assume either unknowable or relative truths, the other because any honest investigation into their claims would rapidly disintegrate their membership. The God of the Bible implores us to search for the truth. The Bereans were called “noble” because they “searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11). Jeremiah 28 and Deuteronomy 18 tell us that we will know a genuine prophet, because the things he prophesies will come true. There are hundreds of very specific prophecies (unlike those of Nostradamus and his ilk) in the Old Testament alone that came true many hundreds of years later in the exact way foretold. And again, the vast proliferation of apologetics proves the lie in this statement.

Online atheist communities find their secular values make a sort of “pure” atheism that’s largely apolitical and impossible to maintain. The popular atheist/skeptic website Skepchick started mainly to highlight women who support atheism, rational inquiry and science, but over time the site made a turn toward the explicitly feminist, in part because of the constant drumbeat of fact-free claims about women’s roles being made by religious figures in the media. Links between atheism and progressivism have also been easy to make for proponents of gay rights and sexual liberation, as demonstrated by recent research showing that those who lose their faith and embrace atheism report an improved sex life.

I will only say here that the “research” attributed here is far from objective, as is claimed by the writer of the article that contains the poll himself. I am not claiming that there is no evidence out there to support the idea, but this supposed research certainly is not.

But atheist progressives shouldn’t feel limited to arguments about gender and sexuality when linking their atheism to broader issues. There’s plenty of room for an atheist environmentalism — since there’s no afterlife, we should prioritize taking care of the one world we do have. Or an atheist economic liberalism — since there’s no such thing as “providence,” it’s our responsibility to care for the poor and the needy.

Economic liberalism has little to do with social justice. It is specifically directed at little to no government involvement in capitalistic pursuits. There are parallels to libertarianism, which is stark in its belief that there should be no government aid to the poor and needy, since it is the goal to maximize individual freedom, thereby allowing individuals to decide whether assistance is necessary. All of the major religions (and many of the minor ones) compel followers to help the poor and needy, regardless of the promises of “providence.” In terms of conservatism and environmentalism, we are told that God created the Earth and all things in it, and that he pronounced them “good” (Genesis 1). His creation is a reflection of his character, and we should thus be stewards of it, not masters of it, believing ourselves free to desecrate it as we see fit. And Psalm 104 is a hymn dedicated to the beauty of creation. We can find much more justification in taking care of an earth that is a perfect gift from God (the Christian viewpoint) than from some remote feelings of obligation towards an unforeseen future population to whom we have some vague affection based on our own lack of hope (the atheist viewpoint).

Atheists are only by limited by our imaginations in seeking ways to make our lack of faith as central to our view of a just world as religious people make their faith central to their worldviews.

Amanda Marcotte co-writes the blog Pandagon. She is the author of It’s a Jungle Out There: The Feminist Survival Guide to Politically Inhospitable Environments.

This article was full of ideas and statements that sound nice and progressive and are easy to agree with, but contain little to no veracity or are simply banal repetitions of atheist mantras. Too often these things go unchallenged, and people are left to believe that they are accurate. It is easy to post a link to such an article, and even easier to ignore it if you don’t agree with what it has to say. It is important for all of us to keep everyone honest, including me. If you think I am incorrect in anything I have stated, please say so. That is how this whole system is supposed to work; writers who desire no feedback should stick to books, not blogs.

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FOOTNOTES:

[2] An enjoyable documentary on the prevalence of this type of behavior within the scientific educational establishment is Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed hosted by Ben Stein (yes, that Ben Stein).
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[3] For instance, there are a number of scientists whose lives are based on the acceptance of naturalistic evolution, and are willing to ignore any hint of the multitude of “difficulties” present in the theory. Their pride and dependence on the veracity of the theory preclude them from lending any credence even to proven scientific facts that are contrary to their established belief. That is blind faith. In addition, people often live on statistical cliffs, where they deem the probability of a particular result to be sufficiently low wherein they can engage in activities that are directly contrary to common sense, not to mention the negative experiences of others. The behavior of many helmetless motorcyclists on highways is indicative of this. They simply feel the reward is worth the risk. This is the inverse of Pascal’s Gambit.
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[4] I emphasize “acts,” lest we confuse the prohibition of the acts themselves with any doctrine against homosexual inclinations or predispositions. I personally believe that in the vast majority of cases homosexuals are born homosexual, and I do not find any evidence to convince me otherwise. There is great difficulty in this dichotomy, and I have to fall back on my belief that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God, and therefore can only contain truth, regardless of how uncomfortable that truth may sometimes make me feel. I will simply continue to treat my gay friends and family as I always have: with love, respect, and understanding. The tenets of love, faith, and salvation by grace are the central themes of Christianity, and other issues should not be raised to their level, regardless of the fervor with which they are debated.
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[5] Such professions inevitably lead to the type of absurdity such as found in Monty Python’s “Life of Brian,” where the following dialogue takes place:

Stan: I want to have babies.
Reg:
You want to have babies?!?!
Stan:
It’s every man’s right to have babies if he wants them.
Reg:
But … you can’t HAVE babies!
Stan:
Don’t you oppress me!
Reg:
I’m not oppressing you, Stan. You haven’t got a womb! Where’s the fetus gonna gestate? You gonna keep it in a box?
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[6] Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity: a Revised and Enlarged Edition, with a New Introduction, of the Three Books, The Case for Christianity, Christian Behaviour, and Beyond Personality. New York: Collier, 1960.
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