Blogs

I'm an atheist but...

Of all the questions I fielded during the course of my recent book tour, the only ones that really depressed me were those that began "I'm an atheist, BUT . . ." What follows such an opening is nearly always unhelpful, nihilistic or – worse – suffused with a sort of exultant negativity. Notice, by the way, the distinction from another favourite genre: "I used to be an atheist, but . . ." That is one of the oldest tricks in the book, practised by, among many others, C S Lewis, Alister McGrath and Francis Collins. It is designed to gain street cred before the writer starts on about Jesus, and it is amazing how often it works. Look out for it, and be forewarned.

I've noticed five variants of I'm-an-atheist-buttery, and I'll list them in turn, in the hope that others will recognize them, be armed against them, and perhaps extend the list by contributing examples from their own experience.

1. I'm an atheist, but religion is here to stay. You think you can get rid of religion? Good luck to you! You want to get rid of religion? What planet are you living on? Religion is a fixture. Get over it!

I could bear any of these downers, if they were uttered in something approaching a tone of regret or concern. On the contrary. The tone of voice is almost always gleeful, and accompanied by a self-satisfied smirk. Anybody who opens with "I'm an atheist, BUT . . ." can be more or less guaranteed to be one of those religious fellow-travellers who, in Dan Dennett's wickedly perceptive phrase, believes in belief. They may not be religious themselves, but they love the idea that other people are religious. This brings me to my second category of naysayers.

2. I'm an atheist, but people need religion. What are you going to put in its place? How are you going to comfort the bereaved? How are you going to fill the need?

I dealt with this in the last chapter of The God Delusion, 'A Much Needed Gap' and also, at more length, in Unweaving the Rainbow. Here I'll make one additional point. Did you notice the patronizing condescension in the quotations I just listed? You and I, of course, are much too intelligent and well educated to need religion. But ordinary people, hoi polloi, the Orwellian proles, the Huxleian Deltas and Epsilon semi-morons, need religion. Well, I want to cultivate more respect for people than that. I suspect that the only reason many cling to religion is that they have been let down by our educational system and don't understand the options on offer. This is certainly true of most people who think they are creationists. They have simply not been taught the alternative. Probably the same is true of the belittling myth that people 'need' religion. On the contrary, I am tempted to say "I believe in people . . ." And this leads me to the next example.

3. I'm an atheist, but religion is one of the glories of human culture.

At a conference in San Diego which I attended at the end of my book tour, Sam Harris and I were attacked by two "I'm an atheist, but . . ." merchants. One of these quoted Golda Meir when she was asked whether she believed in God: "I believe in the Jewish people, and the Jewish people believe in God." Our smirking critic substituted his own version: "I believe in people, and people believe in God."

Religion, he presumably thought, is like a great work of art. Many works of art, rather, because different religions are so varied. I was reminded of Nicholas Humphrey's devastating indictment of an extreme version of this kind of thing, quoted in Chapter 9 of The God Delusion. Humphrey was discussing the discovery in the mountains of Peru of the frozen remains of a young Inca girl who was, according to the archaeologist who found her, the victim of a religious sacrifice. Humphrey described a television documentary in which viewers were invited . . .

" . . . to marvel at the spiritual commitment of the Inca priests and to share with the girl on her last journey her pride and excitement at having been selected for the signal honour of being sacrificed. The message of the television programme was in effect that the practice of human sacrifice was in its own way a glorious cultural invention – another jewel in the crown of multiculturalism . . ."

I share the outrage that Humphrey eloquently expressed: -

"Yet, how dare anyone even suggest this? How dare they invite us – in our sitting rooms, watching television – to feel uplifted by contemplating an act of ritual murder: the murder of a dependent child by a group of stupid, puffed up, superstitious, ignorant old men? How dare they invite us to find good for ourselves in contemplating an immoral action against someone else?"

It would be unfair to accuse our critic in San Diego of complicity in such an odious attitude towards the Inca 'ice maiden'. But I hope at least he will think twice before repeating that bon mot (as he obviously thought of it): "I believe in people, and people believe in God." I could have overlooked the patronizing condescension of his remark, if only he hadn't sounded so smugly satisfied by this lamentable state of affairs.

4. I'm an atheist, but you are only preaching to the choir. What's the point?

There are various points. One is that the choir is a lot bigger than many people think it is, especially in America. But, again especially in America, it is largely a closet choir, and it desperately needs encouragement to come out. Judging by the thanks I received all over North America, the encouragement that people like Sam Harris, Dan Dennett and I are able to give is greatly appreciated. So is this website, as I heard again and again. My thanks, yet again, to Josh.

A more subtle reason for preaching to the choir is the need to raise consciousness. When the feminists raised our consciousness about sexist pronouns, they would have been preaching to the choir where the more substantive issues of the rights of women and the evils of discrimination against them were concerned. But that decent, liberal choir still needed its consciousness raising with respect to everyday language. However right-on we may have been on the political issues of rights and discrimination, we nevertheless still unconsciously bought into linguistic conventions that made half the human race feel excluded.

There are other linguistic conventions that still need to go the same way as sexist pronouns, and the atheist choir is not exempt. We all need our consciousness raised. Atheists as well as theists unconsciously buy into our society's convention that religion has uniquely privileged status. I've already mentioned the convention that we must be especially polite and respectful to a person's faith. And I never tire of drawing attention to society's tacit acceptance that it is right to label small children with the religious opinions of their parents.

That's consciousness-raising, and atheists need it just as much as anybody else because atheists, too, have been lulled into overlooking the anomaly: religious opinion is the one kind of parental opinion that – by almost universal consent – can be battened upon children who are, in truth, too young to know what their opinion really is.

5. I'm an atheist, but I wish to dissociate myself from your intemperately strong language.

Sam Harris and I have both received criticism of this kind, and Nick Humphrey probably has too, for the quotation given above. Yet if you look at the language we employ, it is no more strong or intemperate than anybody would use if criticizing a political or economic point of view: no stronger or more intemperate than any theatre critic, art critic or book critic when writing a negative review. Our language sounds strong and intemperate only because of the same weird convention I have already mentioned, that religious faith is uniquely privileged: above and beyond criticism. On pages 20-21 of The God Delusion I gave a wonderful quote from Douglas Adams on the subject.

Book critics or theatre critics can be derisively negative and earn delighted praise for the trenchant wit of their review. A politician may attack an opponent scathingly across the floor of the House and earn plaudits for his robust pugnacity. But let a critic of religion employ a fraction of the same direct forthrightness, and polite society will purse its lips and shake its head: even secular polite society, and especially that part of secular society that loves to announce, "I'm an atheist, BUT . . ."

I am the Rational Response Squad

What am I? I am the Rational Response Squad. I think like every Rational Responder, because I utilize, well, rational thought. Just like every Rational Responder, I have chosen to reject the backwards, superstitious ideas which are irrational. As with every other Rational Responder, I have rejected the common values of Christianity, and have embraced a new way of thinking. This rejection to which we have committed ourselves to embodies a thought that, more or less, follows the rational skepticism in the bible. For this reason, I have included a synopsis of the bible, in my own words, but in our own thoughts. (Let it be known that the most irrational points in the synopsis below have been numbered to let theists ponder on these irrationalities.)

Dissident1's picture

Church of Atheism

There are, like, two churches of atheism here in Texas that I know of. I have often considered this to be rather absurd. I mean, what would a preacher of atheism have to preach on? Is there a holy textbook telling what the nongod dictates to the unbeliever?

However, I do understand a certain amount of the reasoning behind opening a church of atheism. The general populace of the United States seems to hold that only those who adhere to some sort of religion have rights in the US. They then state that everyone must believe in some sort of "higher power". They then afford no legitimacy to those things spoken by someone who does not profess some sort of religious belief.

DelphicRaven's picture

An Atheists Cause

I have never really thought about it until I really read and heard a lot of what Richard Dawkins has to say. Crazy how that happens... it takes someone else to make me see things a different way.

I was watching a video of a question-answer session he had on Youtube the other day which really got me thinking. He stated in there (somewhere) that atheists are really one of the last major groups in the United States still facing serious discrimination and degradation due to their beliefs or lack thereof. The really sad part of that sentence is that to be an atheist in this country means that you must be "in the closet" in a lot of respects.

Dissident1's picture

Intelligence and being intelligently designed

Humans generally consider humans to be rather intelligent, at least by human standards. This is primarily because the standard is set by humans.

Looking at this, we can see that computers were designed by our human intelligence. All computers that are manufactured and marketed by a company run by humans tend to process data in exactly the same fashion. This enables us to create programs that work the same on all systems.

Looking at humans, however, we find that all humans do not process information the same way. Many cannot even follow simple directions on the highway. There is a great deal of diversity in the way that humans think about things, and many different ways of interpreting data.

aiia's picture

How to make something look as if it exists

Something to Ponder When Dealing With Xians
Hugh Fogelman

Abraham Lincoln used to ask this question: "How many legs does a horse have if you call its tail a leg?"

What do you think the answer is? Some people say 5, or 4 or 3, or 1 or trying to outsmart the person who asks the question, zero.

But the answer Lincoln gave is "4." Calling "a tail" a leg does not make it a leg. A leg has definite properties. A leg is very different from an arm, or hip, face, or back.

When I first heard this I thought it was just a joke. But Lincoln had serious reasons for asking the question.

This Just In

I'm happy to find this site. Anything that Dr. Dawkins supports is good enough for me as a starter. There is so much to say, and yet, I would like to lurk a bit and think about the best way to contribute. Thanks for creating the site.

GlamourKat's picture

Hey Baby, Can You Bleed Like Me?

Hey Baby, Can You Bleed Like Me?*

by Kat S.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Blood.
Bleeding.
Normally it's a bad thing. When humans bleed we're in pain, we're injured, things are not right.
Except for 49-51% of the population. For almost a week out of every month.
We're women, and we bleed. It's a natural thing. Hell, as you read this there's a very good chance that a woman is near you or in the same house or apartment, and she's bleeding RIGHT NOW. Bleeding from her vagina. *gasp*
So many men reel in horror from this. We're not allowed to talk about our periods. It's "gross" and "dirty".

ragnarok's picture

Truth is Truth

For 26 years I have refused to believe in a divine being of any sort, and I am glad that there are others who agree with me. Although I severed my connection to the alleged-godhead at the age of 12 in a fit of pique, I have used logic, history and rational analysis to continually come to the same conclusions and maintain my vigil against the God-fearing among us.
Upon admitting that I am an atheist, I experience a range of responses; anything from the old and trite utterance, "There are no atheists in foxholes," to the intentionally patronizing "That's okay, Jesus loves you anyway." Undoubtedly at some point, all of you will experience things like this, but I caution you to not become angry.

Dissident1's picture

Lock and Load

Why are there so many laws keeping honest people away from guns and attempts to avert ownership of guns in the U.S.? Could it possibly be that the U.S. government wants citizens that are wholly reliant on the government to protect them?

Gun control laws do not prevent people from obtaining and carrying guns. They do allow people who fear the retribution of governing authorities into victims of those who do not. As a rule, someone who wishes to go out and shoot someone doesn't want that person to potentially shoot them. They want unarmed victims. Thus, someone who is armed and ready will be more able to fight back against a potential murderer than someone who isn't.

Syndicate content