Monday, September 28, 2015

Three myths about atheists

I don't think of myself as an atheist.  An unbeliever, sure, because I quite literally don't believe in the stuff that Catholics are supposed to, but I still show up to church, and I still hope there's a God out there.

However, I've read the same tired accusations against atheists time and time again, and I don't think they're true.  I want to tell you why.

Myth #1: Atheists have to have faith

It goes like this: How can anyone be sure there is no God?  They must have a lot of faith to believe a thing like that, when no one could ever disprove the existence of God!  I mean, you can't prove a negative, and maybe he's hiding somewhere.

Well, there are atheists and atheists.  "Strong" or "gnostic" atheists, who say they are sure there is no God, prove it philosophically, just like many theists do.  Generally it's some permutation of the argument from evil -- no omnibenevolent, omniscient, omnipotent being can exist, because otherwise this world wouldn't have so much evil and suffering in it.  That's not really a faith-based argument; they just find it illogical.

"Weak" or "agnostic" atheists don't claim to know one way or the other.  They just don't believe in God.  They've looked over the evidence of various religions, don't find any of them convincing, and so they don't have a belief in God.  They choose the word "atheist" to describe themselves like the others do, but it doesn't imply that they're sure about it.

Either way, it doesn't require "faith" to think that way, because faith is about maintaining a belief that is stronger than the evidence for it -- it's what bridges the gap between the uncertainty of the evidence and the certainty you are supposed to act with.  But atheists, in general, don't act like they're sure -- they say they're acting on the best information available and they'll change their mind if they get better information.  Most religious people don't say this.

Myth #2: Atheists have no rational ground for morality

I'm not talking about the tendency of people to say "atheists are evil sinners."  That's easy to disprove once you know a couple.  What I mean is the argument that atheists should be evil sinners, that if only they took their beliefs to their rational conclusions, they'd be killing people at random.

The first argument against this is that it's not a good idea to try to convince someone their ideas require them to do evil, because they might start doing evil rather than abandon their ideas.  That's why I don't try to convince progressive Muslims that ISIS is the real Islam, or tell Biblical literalists that they ought to be stoning gays.  I think they're too attached to their ideology to abandon it, and given that, I think if they've found a way to reconcile their ideology with a set of actions that don't hurt anyone, great.  I don't see how they can reconcile these things, to be honest -- if, to believe in a divine revelation, you have to pick and choose which parts to listen to, I don't see how God can be the author of it.  But perhaps there's something I'm missing.  The same goes here -- if an atheist is living a morally upright life without believing in God, why would you try to convince him not to?

The second argument is that following the Bible without listening to your conscience is just as disastrous as atheism without a conscience -- I mean, there's some awful stuff in there.  This is a good presentation of this argument; I highly recommend it.

The third argument is that, of course, there are some very clear grounds for morality even in atheism.  To put it simply, moral behavior is good for everyone.  We all benefit if we can trust one another to follow certain rules.  And if an individual wants to earn those benefits, the easiest way is to start by following those rules himself.  Not everyone needs to think about it that much -- we all have a conscience, Christians agree, so it shouldn't be a big surprise to learn that atheists don't generally want to do bad things in the first place.  I've written a lot about morality elsewhere.

Myth #3: Deep down, atheists know there is a God

This is the one where people say, "The Bible says that everyone knows that God is real!  So atheists who claim not to believe, deep down they know that God is real.  They just pretend to disbelieve so they can be justified in sinning."

That's just offensive.  You can look at someone who has struggled, prayed, wept, tried so hard to find a way to keep believing, and say "You're just lying."  It boggles the mind.  Obviously I don't know for certain that others aren't lying, but I know I'm not lying.  I can tell you that deep down, I don't know that God is real.  I would like there to be a God, but that's not the same thing.  

You could choose to disbelieve me, I suppose.  But why would I lie?  What do I gain from not believing?  The Catholic faith is not particularly hard for me -- it's comfortable.  95% of my friends are Catholic.  My family is Catholic.  Disbelieving means disappointing everyone I care about and gaining nothing.  Also, I would very much prefer to believe that someone powerful is watching over me, that all the suffering in my life has meaning, and that I will see all my loved ones again in heaven.  And what do I gain from it?  The freedom to watch porn without guilt?  I don't even want to watch porn!

The only reason I don't believe is because I am not sure believing is the right thing to do.  I have no emotional reason to believe, and I have no rational reason to believe.  I can't make myself believe, in the absence of either a feeling it's true or a rational conviction it's true, just from wanting to.

It just undermines all hope of a respectful conversation if you start from this approach.  To discuss anything with anybody, you have to assume they are telling the truth about their own experience, because you can't actually read minds.  If you're going to have a dialogue with an atheist, assume that they're a well-meaning person who wants to believe the truth and will believe you once you demonstrate the truth of what you're saying.  You might have to talk a long time, to figure out what sort of evidence they're looking for, and why they haven't sought out belief on their own.  And you should reassure them that you, too, are open-minded and will change your mind when offered sufficient proof.

Or is that something that you, as a religious person, are unwilling to say?  Do you have a sneaking suspicion that your religion is false, but you force yourself to believe because you're getting something out of it, or because you'd have to make big changes in your life if you allowed yourself to question?  Do you require an opposing viewpoint to meet an extremely high standard of evidence that you wouldn't expect your own views to pass?  If the answer is yes, how can you ask an atheist to be more open-minded than you are?

Now I hope that you, my readers, whether religious or not, do continue to engage with people who disagree with you.  Those conversations can be valuable both in increasing our understanding of one another and in reaching for the truth.  But please, if you're religious and want to talk to an atheist, leave these misconceptions at home.  They won't get you anywhere.

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