Every man, wherever he goes, is encompassed by a cloud of comforting convictions, which move with him like flies on a summer day.
Atheists are humans like everybody else. They find comfort in “knowing” they are right. Absolute certainty feels good. Atheists can slip into special thinking just like believers can. In fact, it is quite natural for our brains to hold contradictory ideas at the same time, and we must all fight that urge. Earlier, I wrote about Four Common Christian Mistakes. In this post, I want to highlight some common mistakes in atheist thinking.
Blaming religion for everything
Religion is not the root of all evil, but some atheists like to think it is. Richard Dawkins did a TV documentary about religion called The Root of All Evil1, and the subtitle of Christopher Hitchens’ latest book is How Religion Poisons Everything.
Obviously, many evils – including the atheist genocides mentioned above – do not come from religion. Evil can come from greed, power, poverty, shame, desire, good intentions, love, anger, drugs, and many other sources.
And I find it hard to believe that religion poisons everything. Does religion poison math? Renaissance art? Sailing? Hats?
Every people group retells history in a way that favors itself. Liberals and conservatives, socialists and anarchists, Christians and Buddhists, hockey fans and NASCAR nuts – we all have some myths that make us look good. Atheists are no exception.
To show that atheists are morally better than Christians, some atheists claim that less than one percent of imprisoned Americans are atheist, even though atheists represent 10% of the population. Such statistics are either made up or based on a questionable 1925 study. In truth, “the segment of the prison population which self-identifies as non-religious is approximately twice as large as found in the general population.”
Some atheists claim that Muslims destroyed the library of Alexandria, the greatest treasury of knowledge in the ancient world. Supposedly, Muslim crusader Umar proclaimed that “the books will either contradict the Koran, in which case they are heresy, or they will agree with it, in which case they are superfluous,” and then burned the library. That makes for a good story, but history shows it probably didn’t happen that way.
Other atheists say the idea of Jesus as God did not arise until 300 years after Jesus’ death, at the Council of Nicea. But both Christian and secular sources show that some people worshiped Jesus as a god much earlier.
And finally, to exaggerate the historic conflict between religion and science, atheists say Galileo was tortured by the church for claiming the earth went around the sun. In fact, Galileo offered false proofs of heliocentrism, lied blatantly in court, and was sentenced to an honorable detention where he continued scientific work on other subjects.2
These and other atheist myths hinder the search for truth and the conversation between believers and non-believers.
There is a lot of bad and dishonest scholarship from both Christians and atheists. For now, let me point out two instances of bad atheistic scholarship.
Atheists often point out that the word for God in Genesis 1:1 is elohim, the plural of el. Thus, they say, it should be translated as “In the beginning, the gods created the heavens and the earth,” revealing Judaism’s pagan roots. Now, it’s probably true that elohim was borrowed from the earlier Canaanite religions, where the term was used to denote a pantheon of gods.3 But in this verse and hundreds of others, elohim is used with a singular verb, bara. Here, elohim could be a collective noun for a singular God of many persons, much like we say “The United States is full of fat people” instead of “The United States are…” Also, it is probably an instance of plural majesty, a Hebrew way of showing greatness by pluralizing a noun, as when Job 40:15 refers to behemot, meaning the greatest of all beasts (the singular for “beast” is behemah). It would be nice for atheists if the first verse of the Bible betrayed Judaism’s polytheistic origins, but a careful reading of the Hebrew shows no such thing.
Another example. The conspiracy theory documentary Zeitgeist4 argues that Jesus was just a made-up mix of other ancient gods. For example, it claims that the Egyptian god Horus was born of a virgin, adored by three kings, was baptised at age 30, had 12 disciples, walked on water, was crucified and buried for three days, and was then resurrected. In fact, if you read any sources on Horus that aren’t specifically trying to draw parallels to Jesus, you’ll find that nearly all these claims are simply false.5 So are most of the other claims made in this section of the movie.6 Still, these claims are repeated widely by many atheists, including Bill Maher in his movie Religulous.
Some atheists start with the Carl Sagan’s assumption that “the cosmos is all there is, or was, or ever will be.” Everything is matter. Nothing is supernatural.
They may be right. I do not expect to find evidence of the supernatural. But we must be open to discovery. The universe is a surprising place.
In fact, scientists recently discovered that only 4% of the universe is matter and energy – at least, matter and energy as we have always understood them. The other 96% of the universe consists of stuff we know almost nothing about – “dark matter” and “dark energy.” This stuff may not be supernatural, but it sure is unnatural!
Lewis Thomas wrote, “The greatest of all the accomplishments of twentieth-century science has been the discovery of human ignorance.” Almost everything we once thought we knew has turned out false, and we often discover truths that our intuitions despise. Dogmatism and absolute certainty do not belong in limited human minds.
Atheists should look at religion and atheism with the same common sense.
- To be fair: in an interview with Reginald Finley, Dawkins said that he wanted to call it The God Delusion, and that “no one thing is the root of ‘all’ anything… religion is not the root of all evil…” Still, many atheists think all or most evil comes from a single source: religion. To me that is absurd. [↩]
- The real Galileo story is told in chapter 10 of Dinesh D’Souza’s book What’s So Great About Christianity. [↩]
- See Mark S. Smith’s Untold Stories: The Bible and Ugaritic Studies in the Twentieth Century. [↩]
- Watch it online (if you must). These is also a sourced transcript of the movie, something I would love to see done for every documentary. [↩]
- Or, sources validating the comparisons come only after the New Testament was written, indicating that Horus myths adopted these ideas from the New Testament, not the other way around. [↩]
- A few general similarities between Jesus and other gods do exist, for example the life-death-rebirth theme. But most of Zeitgeist’s parallels are simply false. These myths appear to have been invented by Gerald Massey and Edward Carpenter, whose erroneous works are cited by almost everyone who echoes Zeitgeist’s claims. A few YouTube videos might help, here and here. [↩]