A Conversation on Atheism and Extremism

The idea of atheism is so easy to understand, but seems to be misunderstood by most. I attribute that misunderstanding to a combination of lack of education and willful (possibly unconscious) misunderstanding due to the threat atheism poses to theistic belief systems.

I’m going to begin posting interesting conversations I have on religion, including atheism, for the potential benefit of others. This conversation began with my posting of the Oatmeal comic below.


oatmealExtremists

Commenter: Oh… I thought the atheist extremist was one killing off 25% of the population in the genocide of Cambodia in the seventies, or one causing starvation and death for millions in the Soviet Union under the collectivisations of Stalin. But ok, there are extremists of different kinds.

Me: You’re expressing a very common misconception.

As the comic points out, atheism isn’t a prescriptive worldview, like Christianity and Islam. Atheism is descriptive, not prescriptive. So atheists are free to do whatever they want. As the comic notes, atheists tend to be well educated and peaceful people who love science. The causation flows the other way, of course. People who are well educated, peaceful, and love science tend to reject religion because it doesn’t conform to their understanding of the world and doesn’t serve their needs.

Your examples depict totalitarian socialism, not atheism. Atheism was only a part of those movements because they were anti-theistic. The leaders persecuted religions for the same reason they persecuted specific cultures, intellectuals, and artists, because the leaders considered them threats to their absolute power.

Hopefully this clarifies things.

Commenter: I thought we were talking about extremists. Are you really claiming that Christians and Muslims in general are not educated and peaceful?

Me: You’re misrepresenting my points, or perhaps misunderstanding me. I’ll restate in simpler terms.

1. Atheism doesn’t tell you what to do. There is no such thing as an atheist extremist. It’s nonsensical to have someone have an extreme lack of belief.
2. There are certainly anti-theists, but those are generally people who hate one or more religions, often the middle eastern monotheistic ones. Atheism does not cause anti-theism.
3. There are totalitarians, but atheism does not cause totalitarian thinking.

Commenter: I do not think I misunderstand or misrepresent. However, I think Oatmeal gives a twist for humorous purposes, which you seem to think reflects reality.

Talking about extremists there have historically been virulent anti-religous movements, inspired by quotes like “religion is the opium of the people.” These extremists were inspired by atheism and atheists movements, and they caused the deaths of millions. This kind of atheism does tell you what to do.

I do not know what you mean by “atheism does not cause anti-theism.” Surely anti-theism and anti-religiosity would not be possible without atheism. It is a necessary (but not on its own sufficient) condition to create extreme anti-religiosity.

Likewise, religion is not a sufficient condition to cause religious extremism.

Oatmeal uses humour – I sure smiled a brief moment, but it is not by any means a representation of reality.

And stepping on the border of Godwin’s law: imagine if the atheist Russians Communists and unreligious German Nazis had been overtaken by moderate religious figures. WWII would simply not have taken place.

Likewise WWI would not have take place if people had not had the nationalist fervour they had, and if they instead had been inspired by moderate religion.

Me: Because you insist on erroneously defining atheism and interpreting history to support your faulty worldview, I don’t see an advantage to continuing this conversation. Good bye.


I wish I could say the willful misunderstanding and ignorance of history displayed by this commenter was rare, but it’s the rule rather than the exception. The above is not at all my best writing, but I think it’s clear enough that I’m presenting the conversation verbatim so you can see what actually transpired.

The original G+ post I used as the basis for this post can be found here.

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