10 Myths About Atheists?

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.

But for each atheist apologist she linked, I can link a Christian one making the opposite argument  and building the contrary case.

“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.

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81 thoughts on “10 Myths About Atheists?

  1. Francis says:

    Isn’t it also possible that the nature of God precludes “proof” in the way that humans might understand it? For example, in human relationships people are capable of loving one another. If one person constantly says to the other, “well, prove that you love me”, the relationship is quickly destroyed. If we believe that the nature of God is Love, then “proof” is not only elusive but actually erodes the possibility of relationship. In the Christian view, we are made for love and relationships. Faith might actually be a necessary ingredient in the equation.

    1. Michael F says:

      You touch on the heart of the matter. It says in the bible (I don’t remember where) that no-one can come to Jesus, except by the Holy Spirit. Proofs and evidence may help solidify belief, but anything can be denied, if it is not what you wish to hear. I think Jesus, in the gospels, mentions the need for, and rewards, faith more than anything else (the Samaritan woman, the centurion, etc).

  2. Roy M says:

    Hey everybody — I just wanted to give kudos to all of the really fine comments people have made on this thread over the last few days. Because my work has me hopping, I’m not going to have time to post any longer. But I think it’s important to note how much I’ve enjoyed the arguments and discussion, even in the face of some very important disagreements. Francis, Eva, and Michael F have especially impressed me with their commentary and insights. And, of course, a big thanks to Tom for posting the original message.

    Best wishes!

    -Roy

  3. Michael F says:

    I’m rather surprised that after 5 days and 68 comments, St. Thomas Aquinas’ Five Proofs have only even been hinted at once. It would make it simpler to refer to them, instead of trying to come up with the same arguments yourself. And even atheists (at least the ones I’ve met, and the ones who wrote the textbooks I’ve read) respect Aquinas as one of the greatest thinkers of the Middle Ages. Anyway, here’s what he thought: http://www.mnstate.edu/gracyk/courses/web%20publishing/aquinasfiveways_argumentanalysis.htm

      1. Tom Hoopes says:

        Yikes. I’m glad I’m on Aquinas’ side! Thanks for the link, Roy.

      2. Michael F says:

        Roy, I hate to say this, but whoever wrote those refutations was really reaching. They attempt to attack not only Aquinas’ proofs of God (which, I will admit, are deniable, as is any argument), but also basic laws of physics, by saying “oh, this is why Aquinas REALLY made his five proofs”, and then dismissing the majority of his arguments. For example, take the refutation of argument one. It starts out by assuming that Aquinas’ idea of motion was based on Aristotle (a logical assumption). From there, it starts to make jumps from one conclusion to the next, leaving the reader with no clear idea as to why the jump was made (it starts talking about a Greek word that means both “wind” and “spirit”, which I could not find in Aquinas’ argument). Then it goes on to say that Aristotle was wrong in his concept of motion: “Newton proved it so. It is not motion itself that requires action; but rather, it is changes in motion.” This also is a correct statement. However, it goes on to say that 1: since the proof was based on Aristotle, and 2: Aristotle was found to be wrong, therefore the proof is incorrect. This is not the proper path for logic to follow. The proper path would be to compare the proof against Newton’s laws of motion, which it doesn’t (at least not that I read). I will skip the part about radioactive decay, first because this comment is starting to get long-winded, and second, because the author only touches on it, without going very far in-depth. The last part of the refutation, however, is by far the most important. It says that physicists have discovered that there was, indeed, a beginning, and the world could not be explained without it. It goes to great lengths to emphasize that there was nothing: “There was no time. There was no space. There was no cause. There was no effect. There was no there. There was no when. No artifact of reality existed.” I wonder, then, how can something come out of nothing? Why has it only happened once, on a scale far beyond our own physical world? Indeed, physics, time, matter, biology, EVERYTHING would have had to come out of nothing. And why, after all the argument against the proof, do they stop right when confronted with the very thing that Aquinas explains, with no explanation of their own, unless you consider this to be an explanation: — “In other words, the question ‘what caused that?’ is philosophically vacuous; it is meaningless. Time is an artifact of matter, its motions, and its changes in physical state. There simply is no before. This, in and of itself, is enough to deny creation of cause, because cause presupposes temporal arrangement of things. In the absence of time, cause is not relevant. This does not cause us to stop wondering. Nor should it. But it does mean that when we wonder we have to think differently.” — I could not find the logical path they followed, based on the facts they stated, that would lead them to such a disconnected conclusion. I would love to write my analysis of the refutation of the second proof as well, but this comment has become far too long-winded.

        1. Roy says:

          Michael — I don’t want to insult you here. I think you’re right to question the author’s somewhat flippant denial of Aristotle’s theory of motion without going into more detail about the superiority of Newtonian Laws. But couldn’t we agree that we can be fairly certain that Newton’s Laws are nevertheless a more developed expression of motion (on the non-quantum and non-relativistic scales, anyway) than Aristotle’s? I’m not denying your criticism there, but I guess I’d give the author a bit more of a break seeing that Newtonian physics has clearly won the day. We’re not teaching Aristotle’s Physics in our high school textbooks, and I’ve haven’t seen mention of it in any of the professional journals of late. Secondly, as to your criticism of what the author claims about the scientific account of the beginning of the universe. I’ll reply with a couple of points: 1) It’s quite arguable that, as you say, “something can’t come from nothing.” Certain quantum particles do appear to arise from a vacuum. 2) Remember that cosmologists are not certain about the absolute beginning. They have accounts of the very early universe (within milliseconds after the singularity), but not before that. There are hypotheses about a multiplicity of universes, including the “bubble universe” hypothesis, and also including a hypothesis that our universe grew from a singularity out of another universe. And so on. I’m not a cosmologist, but I follow the lay literature carefully, and I know that these ideas are taken very seriously, but have not of course been proven in any substantive way. 3) Most importantly, I think you describe the author’s idea about a “category error” quite well. We can’t think of the universe as a “thing” subject to cause and effect like all of the objects in the universe. You are free, of course, to continue wondering. I would just maintain that you’re not free to think that reason and evidence are on your side when you posit that the Christian God was responsible for the creation. We probably just don’t know how the universe began at this point, so the most reasonable position would be to remain cautiously agnostic about any claim. Nevertheless, the 5 alleged “proofs” simply don’t stand to criticism.

          1. Michael F says:

            I will agree that Newton’s laws are much more accurate. One of my hobbies involves aerospace, and the entire subject is based on Newton’s laws of motion. That is not the reason I disapprove of the author on that point. As far as Aquinas’ proof is concerned, however, there is little practical difference between Aristotle and Newton. Aristotle requires action to start and maintain movement, Newton requires action to change movement. Either way, an outside influence must be present. Now, as to something coming from nothing, we come right back to Aristotle. He believed a very similar (if not the same) thing, that living beings could be spontaneously formed out of nonliving matter. It was the accepted explanation all the way until 1859, when Pasteur demonstrated it was false. I think the same thing will eventually happen regarding quantum particles coming out of a vacuum. Science has by no means discovered everything. Lastly, I will say that I do think reason is on my side, because reason has not given me a better answer. I don’t think evidence is currently on anyone’s side, because I don’t think there will ever be enough physical evidence to prove one way or another. If, as you say, we don’t know how the universe began, then I am free to believe what I will about it. I see no reason to be cautious.

    1. Michael F says:

      It seems the link does not work. However, thanks to Google, they are very easy to find. I would encourage anyone reading this to look them up, if you haven’t already.

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