An AlterNet article by Amanda Marcotte helpfully gathers “10 Myths Many Religious People Hold About Atheists” and purports to debunk them. It is a fascinating look into the brain of an atheist. Let’s look through her myths and see how they hold up. (At the Gregorian Institute, I have come up with “Six Myths about Atheism” of my own.)
“Myth” 1: “There are no atheists in foxholes.”
About this myth, Marcotte says first: “This myth irritates atheists, because it tries to make a virtue out of preying on people’s weaknesses … If you heard a marketer brag that he targets people who’ve been diagnosed with terminal illnesses … you’d think that person had no morals at all.”
Realizing that she has just condemned cardiologists, oncologists, hospice care nurses and prison chaplains for having no morals, she hastens to add: “Beyond concerns about manipulation are the concerns about accuracy. … Many religious teachings aren’t actually that soothing at all if you take a step back and look at them clearly.”
I think her fundamental error here is pretending “there are no atheists in foxholes” is a religious claim. It’s not. It is observed behavior.
People tend to turn to God at difficult moments. We certainly saw that in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. And at Columbine High School. And the Oklahoma City Federal Building bombing. I saw it personally during the relatively minor 1989 earthquake in San Francisco.
Or maybe atheists think the “God Bless America” signs after 9/11 were a “mass hallucination” like the Resurrection appearances of Christ.
“Myth” 2: “Atheists are just angry with God.”
Writes Marcott: “Atheists often point out the logical inconsistencies of many religious beliefs — such as the belief both that God is all-good and all-powerful, but he somehow also allows evil to exist — and believers use that to conclude that atheists are angry with God. We aren’t. You can’t be angry with a being that you don’t believe exists. I’m no angrier with God than I am angry with Zeus.”
She’s right; you can’t be angry at a made-up being. But you can be angry at significant Missing Persons in your life. Many people are angry at the father who abandoned them when they were young; the politician or officer of the law who is supposed to be keeping their neighborhood safe, but isn’t there; the lover or best friend who lost interest in them.
Her concern that “God is all-good and all-powerful, but he somehow also allows evil to exist” sounds suspiciously like that kind of disappointment.
At any rate, I don’t know if we religious folks consider atheists mad at God. I think that atheists just don’t want to let God be God. If God is God, and we are not, then we won’t understand him any better than my 4-year-old understands me; in fact we will understand him far less. Atheists want God to be small enough to fit into their heads. But that would be no God at all.
“Myth” 3: “Atheists are aggressive and rude.”
Marcotte writes: “Objectively speaking, believers commit transgressions against good manners far more than atheists. But atheist arguments tend to disturb believers more than arguments for God disturb atheists, so atheists get an unfair reputation for being rude, even when they are merely outspoken or unapologetic.”
This one is silly, of course. Amanda Marcotte is an atheist writing against God in a historically and predominantly Christian country, with historically and predominantly Christian rulers. And she is not in jail. Religious believers have not fared so well in officially atheist countries like Albania in its communist days, when the regime literally destroyed gravestones to get rid of Christian symbols. Talk about rude!
Now, we can grant her that not all religious believers are polite: Neither she nor I could be writing our posts openly in a country ruled by Islamic extremists.
But I’ll take the hit for that small number of religious countries, and apologize for them, just to be magnanimous. And she can take the killings perpetrated by atheist regimes in the 20th century, which produced a mountain of body-bags that dwarfs millennia of religious killings.
“Myth” 4: “Atheism is a white dude thing.”
“That men such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins get most of the media attention devoted to atheism only reinforces this myth,” she says.
I will flat-out agree with her here. The Chinese atheists who slaughtered whole families and drove the Church underground were not “white dudes.” Nor were the Mexican atheists who shot priests and hung little boys. Atheists have a proud multicultural tradition indeed!
“Myth” 5: “Atheism is just a faith like any other.”
“I always flinch in embarrassment for the believer who trots out, ‘Atheism is just another kind of faith,’” she writes, “because it’s a tacit admission that taking claims on faith is a silly thing to do. When you’ve succumbed to arguing that the opposition is just as misguided as you are, it’s time to take a step back and rethink your attitudes.”
Consider the two positions of atheists and believers. If we both came upon a castle in the woods with a fully stocked pantry and pretty china and a television that gets CNN, it wouldn’t take any faith at all to say, “Intelligent beings made this.” But it would take a great leap of faith to believe that an unusually robust landslide created it all out of chaos.
We have a world that is ordered, beautiful and features life-forms much more complicated than a cable TV. It doesn’t take faith for me to posit a creator; it is just a logical deduction from the evidence. But atheists say it was created by an unusually robust landslide. “And, um, lightning. And maybe a geyser spurting at just the right moment. And, like, a tornado type thingy,” they quickly add.
And we flinch in embarrassment for them.
“Myth” 6: “Atheists don’t have a moral code.”
I like her first point: If religion is the only thing keeping you from becoming Ted Bundy, then there is something wrong with you.
But then she gets into shaky statistical territory: “If anything, atheism correlates to better behavior on average. Atheists are under-represented in prison, for instance, and more religious nations have higher rates of violent crime, teen pregnancy, early adult mortality and even abortion.”
For those numbers to work, you need a population of self-reporting atheists which spans cultural and economic classes. But the fact is, the only people writing “atheist” on surveys are a group of college-educated folks who want to make a point out of their belief. And I will agree with her: Most of these people are safe to have in your neighborhood.
“Myth” 7: “Atheist lives are bleak and lack meaning.”
Most atheists actually find our lack of belief in a supernatural being makes it easier to fill our lives with meaning and joy,” she writes. “Since we don’t believe in an afterlife, many of us find ourselves more motivated to make the most out of the time we do have instead of looking to the next life to make us happy.”
She does a bait-and-switch here. She asserts that she finds meaning in life, but then marshals evidence for “joy”: “we make the most out of the time we have.”
But no one claims that atheists don’t party hard enough.
What we claim is that, while they party, they are soulless growths reacting to random stimuli on a cold piece of rock hurtling through the darkness of empty space, trying desperately to distract their attention from the abyss of emptiness that will annihilate them a moment later when they die.
Which brings us to …
“Myth” 8: “Atheists are hedonists who don’t understand the true meaning of love.”
Here, Marcotte makes four points:
- 1. That she is pro- abortion.
- 2. That atheists are not crippled by Christian sexual phobias.
- 3. That atheists really do love.
- 4. That Christians have high divorce rates.
I thank her for numbers 1 and 2. They discredit her claim that this is a “myth.”
Her number 3 needs to be filled out more: Does she mean atheists chemically bond with animals of the same species? Or does she mean something spiritual by “love”?
Number 4 is an ouch and a scandal for my side, I grant her, but it is not really relevant to the question of whether or not atheists are hedonists.
“Myth” 9: “Atheists have no way to cope after losing loved ones without the belief in an afterlife.”
“Atheists have every right to be skeptical of the argument that belief in the afterlife quiets the pain of grief,” she writes. “After all, many religions teach that the dead person could be burning forever in hell, which can cause far more anxiety than relief. I imagine the nothingness of death is much like the nothingness that existed before birth.”
Once again, I grant her arguments wholesale. First, that Christians shouldn’t be so cavalier about death: We need to pray for these people (and what a comfort that is!). And second, I grant that all that is left after death to an atheist is “nothingness,” and congratulate her for being comforted by that.
“Myth” 10: “Atheists are out to destroy Christmas.”
Watch how Marcotte proves her own “myth” in this case.
First, she says atheists “have no plan to make war on the holiday, beyond simply requesting that the government obey the First Amendment by not promoting Christianity above other beliefs, no matter what time of year.”
In other words, “War on Christmas? Don’t be silly! We just want Christmas to have no legal rights in our nation’s ubiquitous public institutions! Or at Target either, while we’re at it.”
Second, she says: “In my experience, non-believers have some of the best Christmas celebrations around. You can get a tree and decorate it in punk-rock style, or put up a pro-atheist sign in your yard surrounded by festive Christmas decorations. My family tends to prefer all-night poker games for Christmas … Or you can choose to have ‘Christmas’ in July and save yourself the expense and headaches of holiday travel.”
In other words: “Destroy Christmas? Don’t be silly! We just want to desecrate it, profane it and make it an entirely arbitrary expression of personal tastes!”
In the end, as I’ve said before, I appreciate articles like Marcotte’s. It is healthy and good that atheists are noisily making their claims. When atheists voice their positions, we can actually address them — and strengthen our own faith in the process. Click over to the Gregorian Institute to see my attempt to do just that with my own “Six Myths About Atheism.”
Tom Hoopes is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., where he teaches in the Journalism and Mass Communications department and edits the college’s Catholic identity speech digest, The Gregorian.