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.
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.
I’m reposting an intriguing question I encountered on G+. The original post is first, including a beautiful picture as well as a comment by Sam Harris, followed by my response.
Should we respect all Beliefs? Here’s an interesting take by Sam Harris…
Consider for a moment this notion that you should respect other people’s beliefs. Where else in our discourse do we encounter this?
When was the last time anyone was admonished to respect another person’s beliefs about history, or biology, or physics? We do not respect people’s beliefs; we evaluate their reasons.
Harris’ take on this is thought provoking and tempting to follow, isn’t it? My response is below.
We don’t need to respect people’s beliefs. We do need to respect people. It’s fine, and very desirable, to critique a set of beliefs. That’s fundamentally different than criticizing a person for their beliefs.
If you critique beliefs by analyzing them and pointing out deficiencies as well as strengths, especially in a process of dialogue, then you gain understanding of the framework in which those beliefs exist, and you also allow the person holding those beliefs room to engage you openly and examine their beliefs if they’re willing. If you criticize the person, then you shut down the possibility of dialogue and place them in a defensive stance, focused on defending themselves and their beliefs.
What do you think?
Here’s a link to my reshare of the original post – https://plus.google.com/+ChristopherLamke/posts/jBEWpqBvbdV – The comments on mine and especially the original are worth reading if you’re exploring this topic.
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself;
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
Walt Whitman – Leaves of Grass
This is a great truth. Understanding it frees us to recognize who and what we are and to see the same in others.
See this LifeHacker article for a brief discussion
This is a short video, but it’s very helpful in explaining why religion, western monotheism in particular, is fundamentally regressive and will continue to slow if not reverse humanity’s progress. In our current increasingly precarious position, the fantasy of religion may delay our action on climate change, disease control, or some other vital issue long enough that we will become extinct. The earth will of course continue on without us.
I am very conflicted by religion. On the one hand, religion allows many people to give meaning to their existence, in a way that no scientific or humanist set of ideas can. The majority of people are incapable of accepting a non-religious set of ideas as their source of meaning, and it seems cruel to deprive these people of this source of peace and even joy, despite the unquestionable damage religious beliefs do to both individuals and humanity.
The damage religious belief has done; to humanity, animal life, and the earth; over the ages is the other, perhaps more compelling side of this conflict. Is it right to allow individuals to subscribe to a fantasy that causes them to value their fellow humans more or less based on their beliefs or nationality, or to love or hate them based on immutable traits such as race, skin color, gender, or sexuality? We can argue about whether religion is merely strongly correlated with or an actual cause of this harm.
My study of history tells me that belief in the supernatural, and the abandonment of reason and compassion that accompanies this, is a generally negative trait and should be replaced with something more positive. The open question is whether anything can serve for these people as an effective replacement for religion. What can we provide to the masses of humanity that’s as accessible, highly structured, and compelling as religious belief? How do we compete with a fantasy that assures each person that he’s part of a well planned whole, that there is a reason for everything, that no matter how things look in the present, all will turn out well in the end, and that this end includes an eternal continuation of life?
Alan Watts talks briefly about asking yourself what you desire, and pursuing the answer you gain. He also notes the consequences of failing to ask that question, or failing to pursue the answer.
No man is an Island, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.
This famous text is from John Donne’s series of meditations and prayers on health, pain, and sickness (written while Donne was convalescing from a nearly fatal illness) that were published as a book in 1624 under the title Devotions upon Emergent Occasions. This text is from Meditation XVII.