There has been this article going around internet called “5 Myths Atheists Believe About Religion” by Be Scofield that has caught a few people’s attention. A couple of my friends shared it on Facebook, and people like PZ Myers have written blog posts about it. Ever since reading the article, I’ve been wanting to respond to it because I feel that it is really lacking in substance. Here are the myths and my responses to them.
5. Liberal and Moderate Religion Justifies Religious Extremism
This idea is a complicated one which I don’t know if anyone has done any justice to; especially Be Scofield. I think that liberal and moderate religious believers can help justify what I consider religious extremism by claiming to be members of overarching religious institutions and tithing to those institutions. For example, a liberal Catholic who doesn’t believe in a lot of the Catholic church’s position on social issues such as homosexuality, birth control, and abortion but attends church and tithes justifies these extreme positions by adding to their numbers and financing them. Does this mean that these believers are terrible people? Of course not, but they are supporting an organization which holds extreme positions that often cause suffering across the world.
Scofield makes some bad analogies to prove that this is a myth and later makes an analogy to government to make his case. I didn’t think that this his analogies were very good, but Sastra in the comments of Pharyngula makes an analogy that I think is very apt. Sastra uses “absolute monarchy based on the divine right of kings” to illustrate how this myth might not be a myth. Sastra explains that people may try to use the fact that there are “good kings -- kings who were tolerant, virtuous, compassionate, and eager to listen to the will of the people” to justify the existence of absolute monarchies and say that “it's wrong to condemn absolute monarchies as if they were all the same.” But nobody is saying that there aren’t good kings, but the main problem is the system itself. And that’s the same problem with religion. The system of religion itself just isn’t that good. Read her full comment itself to clear up any confusion.
4. Religion Requires a Belief in a Supernatural God
This may be a myth but it is a superficial myth. Sure, religion doesn’t technically require belief in a supernatural God, but I would argue that it requires belief in something supernatural to be called a religion. And for the sake of argument, let’s assume that religion doesn’t require the belief in anything supernatural. Would this change the fact that the majority of religions on the planet require belief in the supernatural and most religious people believe in the supernatural? No, it would not. Non-supernatural believing religions would such a tiny and insignificant minority that it would make sense to just assume that when people were talking about religion and religious believers, they are talking about the supernatural variety.
I think the main problem here is that Scofield is making the definition of religion incredibly wide that almost anything can fit within it. Was Thomas Jefferson really religious? Or did he just think that Jesus was an extraordinary person who provided us with some good moral insights? Can you say that is a person is religious if they do not subscribe to the party dogma of that religion? If so, then what is the difference between a religious person and a non-religious person. I think that a set of beliefs that involves dedication to a particular doctrine or dogma and includes the belief in some sort of supernatural entity or entities or metaphysics is a more coherent and gives us a clear indication between people who are religious or non-religious. Those who do not fit within this definition of religion belong to either an ideology or a philosophical tradition.
3. Religion Causes Bad Behavior
I don’t know if this qualifies as a myth because I don’t think there are really that many atheists that think that religion causes bad behavior. Because of this, I think this is really a strawman that Scofield is setting up to easily knock down. Perhaps most atheists think that religion contributes to bad behavior or gives excuse for bad behavior. Bad behavior is first and foremost a human problem, but religion can set up the stage to allow bad behavior to become something that is justified and even praised. I think this what atheists really mean when they criticize religion.
2. Atheists are Anti-Religious
I would say that this is a myth that religious people have about atheists rather than a myth that atheists have about religion. I don’t think I know any atheists who think that to be an atheist that you have to be anti-religious (whatever that means). I do think that the majority of atheists are against religious faith as something that should be used to justify a person’s positions. I also think that atheists, by definition, don’t think that any theistic religion is rationally justified. Atheists, of course, may be part of atheistic religions and believe them to be true.
While we’re talking about myths, the belief that atheists are people who “assert that god does not exist” is a pretty common myth that religious people have about atheists. Atheists are simply people who lack a belief in any gods. Or to put it in other words, an atheist is someone who answers “no” when asked whether or not he or she believes in god. There are many people out there who assert that the probability of god existing is very small, and I don’t think we should not include them as atheist simply because they don’t “assert that god does not exist.” This may be Scofield’s personal belief about what atheists are, but I don’t have any reason to accept his definition.
1. All Religions are the Same and are “Equally Crazy”
This myth comes from a Greta Christina article called “Are All Religion Equally Crazy?” Greta Christina eventually answers that she thinks they are. And I disagree with Greta Christina on this one. First, I don’t like the use of the word “crazy” here because I don’t think it accurately conveys what she means (maybe does though, but it definitely doesn’t accurately convey what I mean). I prefer to use the term “implausible.” The main reason I don’t think they are equally implausible is because some religions build upon other ones and add even more assumptions and beliefs into the mix. For example, I would say that Mormonism is more implausible than Christianity because it adds a whole lot more assumptions and metaphysical baggage to what is already contained within Christianity. I think adding this extra layer of stuff makes it much more implausible than Christianity. If you take something that is already implausible and add even more implausible stuff to it, I think you have made it more implausible. This same argument can be used when comparing Judaism and Christianity. Christianity adds more implausible baggage to Judaism and, hence, is more implausible. I don’t think that this makes Judaism or Christianity even remotely plausible, but it does make them less implausible when compared to other religions in the same family.
But I don’t think Scofield’s position is correct either. Because at the end of the day, nearly all religions rely on the same irrational system to arrive at their beliefs, faith. And they all have beliefs that are equally implausible. The only variable is how many they have. And that numerical variable is what causes one religion to be more implausible than another one even though the beliefs themselves are equally implausible. These beliefs that are not justified on by logic, evidence, and reason. And this is the position that most atheists take issue with in regards to religion. Martin Luther King and Osama Bin Laden may have widely different views on God and religion, but they both justify their implausible beliefs by faith. This is what religions have in common. They both act on those beliefs in incredibly different ways, but that doesn’t change the fact that their religious beliefs are justified by the same method.
I’m not exactly sure what the purpose Scofield had in mind when writing this article, but if it was show most atheists that they were wrong about their position and beliefs about religion, I don’t think he made a very good case. I think his arguments are basically a bunch of strawmen that don’t accurately portray what most atheists actually believe about religion. At the end of the day, it seems like Scofield is projecting his beliefs about atheists onto atheists instead of exposing supposed myths that atheists hold about religion.