Common Atheist Mistakes

by Luke Muehlhauser on March 26, 2009 in Criticism of Atheists

Every man, wherever he goes, is encompassed by a cloud of comforting convictions, which move with him like flies on a summer day.

Bertrand Russell

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?

Pro-atheist myths

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.

Bad scholarship

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.

Dogmatic materialism

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.

  1. 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. []
  2. The real Galileo story is told in chapter 10 of Dinesh D’Souza’s book What’s So Great About Christianity. []
  3. See Mark S. Smith’s Untold Stories: The Bible and Ugaritic Studies in the Twentieth Century. []
  4. 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. []
  5. 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. []
  6. 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. []

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{ 42 comments… read them below or add one }

MountainKing March 27, 2009 at 1:22 am

Even though youre right to criticise atheistic special thinking I think it is helpful to use the term “atheism” in a more specific way. It might be better to see “Atheism” and “Theism” as the uppermost terms in a scheme, restricted ONLY to the question whether god/gods exist or not. No matter how you answer that question theres no moral codex, no laws, no interpretation of history included. You have to go a step down and split the two sides into Christianity/Judaism/Islam/Wicca or Marxism/Secural Humanism/Anarchism and so on. These are world views with certain rules and laws and behaviour according to them, that are either atheistic or theistic but are NOT “Atheism” and “Theism”.

That´s why you can´t really use Stalin or Mao to attack “Atheism” (which is a very popular christian argument) when they attack a secular Humanist because in that case you could use islamic suicide-bombers to attack christianity or witchhunting to attack Judaism because theyre all done by “Theists”. None of these things strictly follows from one of the answers to that one question. So I think that at least Dawkins sentence is actually correct in the same way that theists don´t do evil things because they think there is a supernatural being in general (it could be a deistic god) but because they believe in a very special god with rules and concepts for the people that have to be enforced for the sake of all. Neither the evil actions of atheistic or theistic people should be automatically traced back to their respective basic decision about the existence of god(s) to make a moral judgement.

Even Harris isn´t completely wrong, I think it depends on how you define religion. It doesnt have to include a supernatural being or transcendency even though it is most likely the case. In a broader sense you can define it by using rituals and symbols, higher truths and a special view on human history, it is absolutely possible to include marxism/communism just as well as national socialism.

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tinyfrog March 27, 2009 at 1:25 am

“Some of the biggest killers of the 20th century were atheists: Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot, and Mao Zedong (Hitler’s religiosity is debatable ).”

There are a couple things to say about this: you mention in the notes that “Stalin,Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, or Mao Zedong … directly targeted religious people, institutions, and buildings” While it's hard to know exactly how many people died under these leaders, as I understand it, the majority of deaths under Mao were due to bad economic policies (the farm collectivization in 1958-1962), which lead to starvation. This had nothing really to do with atheism at all. If you're going to talk about the biggest 20th century killers being atheists, I think you need to parse it more carefully. For example, you can't really argue that their atheism was responsible for the starvation deaths that they caused. (In fact, I think communism has a great deal in common with early Christianity – the way they shared everything. Had things been slightly different, historically, communism could've been strongly linked to Christianity and still would've caused death by starvation.) On the other hand, to the extent that these leaders intentionally killed people (either for their religion or otherwise), then you can begin to make arguments involving their atheism. I just think that saying “Some of the biggest killers of the 20th century were atheists” implies too much of a connection.

To state it another way: let's say that I made the statement “The biggest killer in my town was a Christian.” You ask, “really, how did that happen?” I respond: “well, he hooked up the natural gas line badly and it blew up a school, killing 20 kids”. In this example, it's true that the guy was responsible for more deaths than any other person in town, and yes, it's true that he was a Christian. But, there's no real connection between being a Christian and those accidental deaths. If some other guy intentionally killed someone – I'd consider the murderer to be far worse because he did it intentionally, even though the body count was lower.

Also, Hitler was definitely religious. I'm not sure that I'd categorize him as “Christian” exactly – his ideas seemed to be some mixed-up version of Christianity that doesn't really have that much in common with people's normal understanding of Christianity. For example, Hitler would praise Jesus, but make bizarre claims that Jesus was actually fathered by a man from europe. He condemned Paul and his teachings, and claimed that Jesus' “true teachings” were twisted by people like Paul. It's almost like Hitler wanted to hold on to the label “Christian” and believe in “god”, but wanted to reject many of the New Testament teachings.

“The real Galileo story is told in chapter 10 of Dinesh D’Souza’s book What’s So Great About Christianity.”
Do you have another source for that? I'm asking because I don't actually trust Dinesh D’Souza’s version of events. (It actually strikes me as odd that you express skepticism towards, say, Dawkin's version of events, but then accept Dinesh D’Souza’s – since he's a well known pro-Christian writer.) Admittedly, I have read that Galileo was a jerk to the Pope, and that brought him a lot more trouble. I'm just doubtful about the Christian apologist's version of events.

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tinyfrog March 27, 2009 at 2:44 am

One other thing I was going to add was that all of the biggest “20th century killers” did have one thing in common: a belief in utopianism. I think the drive to create utopias is bad because they are unattainable. Utopianism drove the farm collectivization programs of the communists. It drove them to persecute religious people (because communism viewed them as “the problem” standing in the way of the utopia). It drove Hitler to kill the Jews (because the Jews were “the problem” holding back the German people). Over and over, killings were used to get rid of the people standing in the way of “achieving the utopia”. The drive to achieve the utopia ultimately caused them to discount human life or view some people as evil for standing in it's way.

You can quickly see this utopianism in the labels these leaders used. Hitler with his “1,000 year Reich”, Mao's “Great Leap Forward”. Pol Pot talked of “restarting civilization” in “Year Zero”. Communism, in general, is cast in a utopian light.

Beware of utopianism.

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tinyfrog March 27, 2009 at 3:09 am

“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. The real percentage of atheists in prison is more like 15% – 30%, a number actually greater than their percentage in the population.”

The source you cited doesn't contain the 15%-30% number you use. And according to your source, only 0.209% listed themselves as atheists, but “a full 20% of the respondents either answered “none” or provided no response to the question on religious affiliation”. I'm sure you can see the problem with labeling these people as “atheists”.

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exrelayman March 27, 2009 at 6:22 am

I am pleased to see you apply critical thought to atheistic thought as well as theistic thought. The careful thinker must scrutinize his own thinking as mercilessly as he does other's thinking. I would have enjoyed catching you going overboard in your critique of Ehrman. Then I could charge you with 'Misquoting Ehrman' (groan).

I do question your point of footnote 10. I don't see how any such comparisons could precede the gospels, as there would not be 2 stories to compare.

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anselm March 27, 2009 at 8:50 am

I haven't researched Mao, but the millions of starvation deaths under Stalin in the Ukraine are definitely considered to be deliberate mass murder by historians (see http://www.ppu.org.uk/genocide/g_ukraine.html). Similarly with Pol Pot in Cambodia (see http://www.ppu.org.uk/genocide/g_cambodia.html).

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lukeprog March 27, 2009 at 9:31 am

I couldn't agree more that the real comparison is between atheism/theism, and perhaps Christianity vs. secular humanism or metaphysical naturalism or something like that.

Re: Stalin and Pol Pot. What I'd like to say is that the atheism and anti-theism of Stalin and Pol Pot contributed to their motivations for slaughtering religious people. In the same way, many religious killers did not kill because their religion told them to specifically, but because their religious beliefs contributed to their motivations for killing certain people.

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lukeprog March 27, 2009 at 9:34 am

I agree with pretty much everything you've written.

No, I don't trust Dinesh as a historian, either. He just provides the easiest summary of the story I could find, and his version of events fits with what you find if you do even the most basic historical research in neutral encyclopedias.

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lukeprog March 27, 2009 at 9:34 am

Indeed, they are considered deliberate mass murder, but not mass murder by way of atheistic motivation. Only the specific attacks on religious people were atheistically motivated. Starvation kills everyone, not just the religious.

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lukeprog March 27, 2009 at 9:36 am

Sorry, what are you saying about footnote 10? I don't get it.

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lukeprog March 27, 2009 at 9:45 am

I should have explained this more in a footnote. Also, I should have checked the source again. I wrote this article about 6 months ago and I don't see where I got “15%-30%”, either. I'll edit this.

But you may want to read the paragraphs surrounding the bolded line “the segment of the prison population which self-identifies as non-religious is approximately twice as large as found in the general population.”

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anselm March 27, 2009 at 10:08 am

I agree to a point, but to the extent that their murders were part of a plan to “cleanse” society of “pre-Marxist” elements to facilitate the construction of Marxist-Leninism (a key feature of which was societally-imposed atheism), then the murders were atheistically motivated. Though it is true that in the process, all “traditional” parts of society (shopkeepers, religious groups, land-owning peasants, etc.) were targeted.

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Mike J March 27, 2009 at 10:43 am

My common sense atheism comes down to this: Is there any evidence of the existance of god? The answer is a resounding no. There is conjecture, and theory, and stories, but no real tangible evidence. The noise around the main issue is contenscious and debateable, but in the end, the question is simple to answer. There is no proof of god. None, zero, zilch, nyet, nadda. All the other stuff is simply put there to “test an atheist faith” ;)

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exrelayman March 27, 2009 at 11:37 am

Maybe we are both misunderstanding. I didn't get footnote 10. I thought it criticized comparisons of gospel stories to preceding myths because such comparisons came after the creation of the New Testament. So I am wondering, how could you expect a comparison of 2 stories before one of the 2 (the New Testament) even existed? It is quite possible that I am misunderstanding what you are saying. Perhaps you meant that those elements of the Osiris/Horus story (rather than comparisons of the 2 stories) are subsequent to the New Testament. Funny how language can trip us up.I do concur in deploring the lack of rigor in Zeitgeist.

BTW, I needed to see the link about the destruction of the library at Alexandria. It's destruction has been sloppily attributed to Cyril and Theophilus by much atheist literature. Things are seldom as simple as presented by those with an agenda. As with you (I think) my desire is to know what is true, rather than defeat anyone's argument for theism. If I am wrong, I want to be corrected. This is part of why debates have little value to me. Convincing and winning supersede truth as an objective. Rhetoric and debating skill count for more than truth.

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lukeprog March 27, 2009 at 12:19 pm

Sure. And can we at least agree that from the moral goodness of adherents to various worldviews, nothing follows about the truth of the (non-moral) claims of those worldviews?

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lukeprog March 27, 2009 at 12:20 pm

Indeed.

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anselm March 27, 2009 at 12:23 pm

Yes, we are in total agreement (Wow!) Mahatma Gandhi, for example, is one of my moral heroes, whose example puts most Christians to shame, yet I don't believe his metaphysics, etc., are true

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lukeprog March 27, 2009 at 12:31 pm

I agree about debates. At least they are one step more useful than only reading one side. And I'm glad you care about truth, not just whatever “defeats” the other viewpoint.

Re: footnote 10. What I'm saying is that if we had sources from 300 BCE of a Horus who rose on the third day, had 12 disciples, etc. and we knew that these things were read by first century Jews, we might suspect that early Christians plagiarized part of the Horus story for their own myth. On the other hand, if the earliest sources claiming these things about Horus are from AFTER Jesus, and we know that the people who wrote the Horus stories knew about the Jesus stories, we might suspect that the writers of Horus' accounts plagiarized the Jesus story. Of course, it's always possible that people believed these things about Horus before Jesus came around and we just don't have the earliest sources; but we can't know that without the evidence.

Does that make sense?

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lukeprog March 27, 2009 at 12:32 pm

Good. So many Christians and atheists argue from apparent morality to metaphysical truth, and it is a huge waste of time. Dinesh D'Souza and Christopher Hitchens come to mind.

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Alden March 27, 2009 at 1:05 pm

But there is evidence of God, you just fail to recognize it. You apparently have pre-defined what evidence you would accept – “real tangible evidence” – but I doubt you would accept that. What justification do you have for your criteria? Can you logically support that?

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evil_bender March 27, 2009 at 1:53 pm

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.

Theoretically, I agree with this, and the universe is certainly surprising! But we use reason, evidence and science to interrogate. It's hard for me to imagine what “supernatural” things we could find–since once we had solid evidence of the “supernatural” we could study it, and it would arguably not be supernatural at all.

I think it's perfectly reasonable to begin with the assumption that “supernatural” entities (that is, those immune to observation and not operating within natural laws) don't exist, since even if they do exist, by definition they can't be studied.

Of course, that comes down to the difference between methodological and philsophical naturalism.

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exrelayman March 27, 2009 at 4:10 pm

Well, I didn't help by citing footnote 10 when I meant footnote 11. Apologies, I think you figured your way through my goof. So, although Horus antedates Christ, the particular elements cited in Zeitgeist may be late accretions to the earlier story, deriving from the later story. Or not. Right now 'I don't know' is the best I can say about that, but for sure have no inclination to trust Zeitgeist about it. How entrenched it was in my head that the Horus story was first caused me to not get your point.

So to lay this to rest. I no longer have any questions about that footnote, and thanks for helping me get this straight.

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exrelayman March 27, 2009 at 4:56 pm

Lukeprog,

Apologies if I am stepping in where not wanted. I assure you that I do not mean to get involved in an endless string of argumentative posts with Alden. I have seen such and detest them.

Alden,

My desire is to know the truth. If God be true, I want to know, and you have the chance to help me to know. There are different kinds and qualities of evidence, but no 100% positive knowledge to be had. Even logic itself must be assumed by all of us who use it. I am persuaded by what I consider a vast preponderance of evidence that the Christian God does not exist.

Now as you came to an atheist blog, admittedly under the apprehension that “I doubt you would accept that”, why be here? Nonetheless as you have come here, perhaps you would venture to present some of the evidence which you assert exists. Let us evaluate your evidence. I will get beyond mere assertion also, so you can evaluate my evidence, but only if you lead off.

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anselm March 27, 2009 at 8:32 pm

I seem to recall from their debate that they weren't really arguing from moral behavior to truth, but were disputing the separate issue of whether “religion poisons everything,” with Dinesh arguing that Christianity has done more good than harm in the world and Hitchens arguing the opposite. In my opinion Dinesh gets the better of that argument, but it has nothing to do with which view is true (since Christianity in theory could be false but produce good effects).

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lukeprog March 28, 2009 at 8:22 am

No, the footnote number actually changed, because one of my earlier footnotes didn't turn into a footnote like it was supposed to, so I fixed it, which bumped #10 to #11.

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lukeprog March 28, 2009 at 8:24 am

exrelayman,

Jump in wherever you like! The only time I will moderate comments is if they are quite vicious towards a person.

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marcion March 28, 2009 at 10:55 am

“Also, Hitler was definitely religious.”

One of Hitler's slogans was “No God but Germany and no gospel but the will of the people.” Does that sound religious? Its actually marxists–the state becomes God and the will of the people (actually, the state) becomes the word of God. How anyone with half a brain could still be saying that Hitler was religious in 2009 I do not know. Unless you are moronic enough to consider worshiping GERMANY as a real religion.

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marcion March 28, 2009 at 10:59 am

And the whole thing about “For example, Hitler would praise Jesus, but make bizarre claims that Jesus was actually fathered by a man from europe.” The deal was that Hitler claimed the whole thing was an allegory about the Good German and that Jesus was not really a Jew but the Uber German and that's why the Jews killed him because they hate Germans. All these claims were ANTICHRISTIAN. Whereas he attacked the Jews by killing them, he attacked Christians by radically reinterpreting their religion into a POLITICAL tool, making Germany into God and Jesus into the Incarnation of GERMANY. So, in the end, Germany died on a cross for you, and now its your turn to die for Germany, and also we're going to pay those Jews back for crucifying US (because Jesus was all of Germany). Do you see how this is not really religion, but just political mind games?

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marcion March 28, 2009 at 11:00 am

“To show that atheists are morally better than Christians, some atheists claim that less than one percent of imprisoned Americans are atheist,…”

Because once they get in there they pretend to be “born again” so they can get parol!!!!

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marcion March 28, 2009 at 11:03 am

“My common sense atheism comes down to this: Is there any evidence of the existance of god? The answer is a resounding no.”

That's just idiotic, frankly. It is obvious that there is a God from the mere existence of everything. What there is no evidence for is the claim that this God has ever spoken to anyone or provided a revelation. Atheists truly are fools. Theists who don't believe in claims of revelation are wise. Theists who believe in revelation are dreamers.

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torcant March 28, 2009 at 1:09 pm

I think your ideas about Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens are your “comforting convictions”

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lukeprog March 28, 2009 at 1:50 pm

Do you not like it when I criticize atheists for making bad arguments?

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marcion March 28, 2009 at 3:58 pm

How dare you show that there are stupid people in every philosophical system and that not everyone who is in your own philosophical system is so for enlightened reasons (if any are). Grr!!!! :)

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FrodoSaves March 28, 2009 at 9:24 pm

I enjoyed your post. It's definitely a wise idea to be brought back down to earth every now and then, lest we lose ourselves in the arrogance that can accompany our intellects.

I do however slightly take issue with your characterization of the hat trick of 20th Century tyrants, Stalin, Pol and Mao. If we're being intellectually honest, then yes, I think it would be true to say that they were atheist in a narrow legalistic sense. However I don't find that description useful as I think it obfuscates the motivation behind their misdeeds. Saying “Stalin was an atheist and caused the deaths of millions” is strictly speaking true, but it's no more informative than saying “Roosevelt was an American President and caused the deaths of millions.” Both are inflammatory because they suggest causation which isn't necessarily there. With Stalin, Mao, and Pol, atheists and theists alike are guilty of co-opting incidental elements of their reigns with the tragedies they caused. I say 'incidental', and in general I think it's true. I disagree with your contention that “their genocides were motivated specifically by their opposition to religion,” because they were motivated by something far broader than just religious antipathy. Behind each was a nexus of idealism, and it is this – ideals – which chiefly motivated millions of murders, and it is ideals which cause atheists and theists alike to be blind when they squeeze the facts of these historical events into their own agendas.

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toweltowel March 29, 2009 at 11:15 am

“More importantly, their genocides were motivated specifically by their opposition to religion. They didn’t want religiously neutral or pluralistic societies. They wanted to destroy religion, and specifically targeted religious people in their massacres.”

I worry about the honesty of this statement.

The major atrocities of 20th century Communism weren't motivated by opposition to religion, as far as I know. The Ukraine famine or the Great Leap Forward, for example, weren't motivated by opposition to religion. It's the destruction of churches and temples and persecution of clerics that was motivated by opposition to religion. Atheism could only be blamed for (relatively!) minor atrocities, given that it is irrelevant to the major ones.

And even if we confine ourselves to the anti-religion campaigns of 20th century Communism, it's unclear that atheism can be blamed. Why? Because there is an enormous difference between unadorned atheism (a philosophical position on the existence of God) and official state atheism (a totalitarian political agenda). Not only does the first provide no support for the second, but most atheists are strongly opposed to official state atheism, as they support the Enlightenment values of religious toleration and freedom of worship (look at nations like Sweden, the Czech Republic, and Japan). Moreover, when we look at the motives of those who supported official state atheism, it's unclear how much is opposition to religion as such and how much is opposition to religion as a social institution that might stand in the way of totalitarian reform. If official state atheism is motivated merely by lust for power, then it has no strong connection with any typical atheist mindset.

By way of comparison, note that theism and atheism are on equal footing here. It's hard to blame unadorned theism for atrocities, because theism by itself has no moral or political implications whatsoever. It is only when theism becomes tied to a big crazy ideology that it becomes dangerous. Likewise for atheism: by itself it's a harmless philosophical position, and the danger only comes when it is embedded in something like totalitarian Marxist-Leninism.

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lukeprog March 29, 2009 at 2:07 pm

What I'd like to say is that atheism contributed to the motivation for genocide, in the same way that religious beliefs contributed to the Crusades or 9/11. Obviously, from bare Christian theism it does not follow that one should kill disbelievers, and it doesn't follow from bare Muslim theism that one should fly buildings in to planes. But just as religious belief was a big part of the motivation for the Crusades and 9/11 (such that these wouldn't have happened without religious belief), atheism was part of the motivation for Stalin and Pol Pot to target religious believers in their genocide.

Or perhaps it's more accurate to say that atheism did not contribute to motivation for Stalin's genocides, and religion did not contribute to motivation for the Crusades and 9/11? But that doesn't seem right…

What do you think?

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toweltowel March 29, 2009 at 11:12 pm

First, I draw a distinction between major atrocities and relatively minor atrocities. Yes, atheism may have contributed to terrible persecution of the religious. But why think it contributed to the major atrocities, like genocide and forced collectivization and artificial famines and political imprisonment and torture and murder? Weren't those atrocities pursued for completely unrelated reasons (with persecution of the religious only occasionally showing up as a blip on the periphery)?

Second, I wouldn't blame atheism for the sins of a corrupt political ideology with no natural connection to atheism. Consider Salafi jihadism. This is a movement whose doctrine and practice is framed exclusively in Islamic categories of thought. It is clearly a religious movement, a version of or interpretation of Islam, and thus it is reasonable to worry about whether natural tendencies of Islam are revealed in it. Indeed, we might start worrying about all exclusivist religions with a holy book and a holy land. But even though Salafi jihadism includes theism as a central element, we cannot call it a version of theism: your average nonreligious theist would find 99% of its crazed ideology unrecognizable, whereas your average Muslim would recognize every warped bit of it.

The same goes for 20th-century Communist totalitarianism. This is a political movement whose doctrine and practice is framed exclusively in Marxist catgeories of thought, a version of or interpretation of Marxism, which inspires worry about whether natural tendencies of Marxism are revealed in it. Indeed, we might start worrying about all revolutionary political utopianisms. But even though it includes atheism, we cannot call it a version of atheism: as before, all atheists but Marxists would find its crazed ideology unrecognizable.

In short, we cannot blame mere theism or mere atheism for the sins of these ideologies, we can only worry about Islam and other religious movements or Marxism and other political movements. The ideologies may include theism or atheism as a central element, and they may inspire atrocities in the name of theism or atheism, but they have added so very much unrelated ideological material that we cannot see theism or atheism as implicated in their crimes.

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lukeprog March 29, 2009 at 11:20 pm

Yes, I'll have to think more about this…

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lukeprog March 30, 2009 at 8:12 pm

I decided I agree with you. I removed that section from my post above. Here it is, for archival purposes:

<h3>Excusing atheist murders</h3>
In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins says that “atheists may do evil things but they don't do evil things in the name of atheism.” ((Page 278.)) Sam Harris does one better. He actually blames religion for atheist crimes: “Consider the millions of people who were killed by Stalin and Mao: although these tyrants paid lip service to rationality, communism was little more than a political religion.” ((The End of Faith, page 79.)) Philosopher Daniel Dennett even transforms super-atheist Joseph Stalin into a believer: “Was [Stalin] an atheist? …in a certain sense he wasn’t an atheist at all… He believed in God… and the God’s name was Stalin.” ((This quote is from a debate between Dinesh D’Souza and Daniel Dennett. See video of it here.))

How’s that for special thinking? Those are some entertaining mental gymnastics, but let’s be fair. Some of the biggest killers of the 20th century were atheists: Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot, and Mao Zedong (Hitler’s religiosity is debatable ((In Mein Kampf, Hitler wrote “I am convinced that I am acting as the agent of our Creator. By fighting off the Jews, I am doing the Lord's work.” During a speech on April 26, 1939 he said, “Secular schools can never be tolerated because such a school has no religious instruction and a general moral instruction without a religious foundation is built on air; consequently, all character training and religion must be derived from faith…. We need believing people.” In private statements (see Hitler's Table Talk) he was critical of Christianity, though he still referred to Providence.)) ). More importantly, their genocides were motivated specifically by their opposition to religion. They didn’t want religiously neutral or pluralistic societies. They wanted to destroy religion, and specifically targeted religious people in their massacres. ((Any book on Stalin,Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, or Mao Zedong will show how they directly targeted religious people, institutions, and buildings. BTW, a short overview of atheist genocides that disagrees with my position is Lessons of Atheist Dictatorships by Christopher Orlet.))

True, they were also motivated by other things (Marxism, communism, agrarian utopianism), but religious killers aren’t motivated only by religion, either. ((Many things motivate believers and atheists who do evil things. Money, power, and political ideologies almost always play a role. Even the 9/11 terrorists weren’t motivated only by religion, as Robert Pape argues in Dying to Win.))

It’s sad to see so much time wasted debating this issue, because it is totally irrelevant to which worldview, if either, is correct. I would never argue that Christianity is false because Christians have done bad things. That would be like saying the earth can’t be round because Hitler believed so and he was evil.

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Reginald Selkirk April 10, 2009 at 10:12 am

<i>First, I draw a distinction between major atrocities and relatively minor atrocities.</i>

I like to point out that the human population of the Earth is growing, since medical science has done such a wondrous job of enhancing the human lifespan. Therefore it might be more interesting to look atrocities as a percentage of the existing population, rather than as raw numbers. By this measure, Cain was a terrible criminal, having murdered one fourth of humanity. This pales in comparison to Yahweh’s great flood, which killed all of humanity except for eight or ten people, Noah, his wife, their children and their children’s spouses.

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Kyle March 29, 2011 at 11:05 am

I don’t have too much time atm, and may come back to write more, but I don’t necessarily agree with your interpretation of Dr. Sagan’s quote. Excuse me for saying this, but I don’t really understand how you interpret that “The cosmos is all there is, or was, or ever will be” as his stating that there is only matter in the universe, I believe is what you were getting at? Please correct me if I misunderstood you.

Unless there is more to the quoted text than you have shown (if so, please provide), but I believe a better interpretation would be that everything that is out there is all there ever was, is and will be, including the “dark matter” and “dark energy.” Basically that matter and energy cannot be created or destroyed (whether or not dark matter and dark energy are governed by the same physics as matter, should they exist, is unknown, I will say). Or, that he was talking about just the “normal” matter in the cosmos is all that there is, was, or ever will be.

I will agree with you on the “Bad Scholarship” areas, provided they are true to the best of your knowledge. I will, however, see if I can do my own research, as I don’t simply want to “take it on faith,” if that could be applied. I, however, have not heard of the first argument before, and have only heard the second once, but it included more examples of Christianity taking pagan traits. Again, more research is needed on my part.

I will say there are things I agree with and don’t agree with, but it is true that atheists should look to their own ideas as logically as they look at those of the religious.

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Luke Muehlhauser March 29, 2011 at 11:25 am

Right, I’m just including dark matter and energy as a subset of ‘matter.’ But I don’t want to argue about definitions.

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