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Problems With Atheism
How would you react if someone you respected and held in high regard told you they were an atheist? I had the pleasure of talking with several atheists recently. I say it was a pleasure not because they were atheists, but because they were very intelligent and compassionate individuals who helped me learn something about how they see things and about my preconceived ideas of atheism. I had always thought of atheism as a cold, intellectual, utilitarian way of thinking with little joy or emotion at all. I couldn’t have been further from the truth. Atheists are just ordinary people like you or me who believe that there is no God. That does not mean they are immoral, blood thirsty, arrogant, dog-eat-dog individuals.
I realized that although I had many opinions on atheism, I had never actually talked to an atheist about their beliefs. If I am sure that there are plenty of others like me, whose preconceived notions of atheism could be updated. I know this to be the case by simply going on Facebook and seeing a few posts by Christian friends of mine. I saw some jokes about how April Fool’s day should be called Atheist Day, because the Bible says anyone who doesn’t believe in God is a fool. This was a simple and harmless joke, but it belies a viewpoint that needs some updating.
I have heard so many arguments against atheism that, when given a logical examination, just don’t hold up. One of the first arguments I hear is that belief in God is good and creates a stabilizing effect on society. Does it really? How many sincerely religious people through the ages have sacrificed their children to gods? How many people died in the coliseums and arenas throughout history in the name of religion? How many virgins must be sacrificed to gods before the blood of the innocent appeases them? How many suicide bombers have to kill innocent people before a belief in God is pointed to as a possible cause?
The Christian might argue that yes, these other religions are detrimental to society and reduce global stability. I would agree with them but then ask them to take a look in the mirror at their own belief system. I was raised to believe that the end of the world was near. The effects of this belief are harmful to the psyche of those individuals as well as for generations to come. Why should I get a college education if the end of the world is just around the corner? Why should I care about the environment if the world is about to be destroyed with fire? Why should I invest in a retirement plan if the second coming is about to happen? These were all thoughts that I had on a regular basis as a fundamentalist Christian. I can’t speak for all Christians, but the people around me exhibited behavior that indicated they had similar thought patterns.
This way of thinking is not just another way of looking at things. It is detrimental to our entire society. If people don’t believe that we need to plan for future generations, then a lax attitude is simply unavoidable. When people are willing to pollute the environment because the earth won’t be here much longer anyway it leaves problems for future generations. When people don’t plan for the future and then reach retirement age, they become a problem for society because they have to be supported in some way. All of these issues are real problems that and end time world view promotes. Not to mention that this lazy way of thinking doesn’t really line up with the teachings of Jesus.
Jesus urged people to feed the hungry and clothe the poor and those are still tenants of the Christian faith. Pollution has the potential to create more destitute hungry people than the world has ever seen. I am of the opinion that if Jesus walked the earth today he would speak out against the greed that creates poverty and suffering in many parts of the world. I am convinced that Jesus would be a conservationist and teach us all to think about the impact our actions have on our fellow man. While I love the teachings of Jesus I believe that Christianity has sadly gotten far bigger than the simple, humble, homeless teacher who it claims as its founder.
Another argument for God and religion is that a belief in an afterlife can be a comfort to those who have lost loved ones or are facing death themselves. I would agree that a belief in an afterlife can be a comfort but just because a thought is comforting that does not make it true. The fact is, that belief in an afterlife has caused people to commit terrible atrocities believing that by destroying another person’s flesh they could save their soul. Suicide bombers have a very strong belief in an afterlife and they murder innocents in the name of God. There are even far right-wing Christians who believe that it is better to murder an abortion doctor than to allow him to abort fetuses. I am convinced that these fanatics would not be as willing to face the death sentence if they did not believe in an afterlife. With those facts in mind it is safe to say that belief in an afterlife is at best a double edged sword that causes as many problems as it solves by comforting people.
Another argument I have heard against atheism is that without God we would have no morals or that atheists are immoral people. The latter is just patently untrue. I have read the writings of many atheists and spoke with several others and I have found them to be some of the most moral, compassionate people I have ever met. I do not believe that atheists are moral because they are atheists but most atheists are humanists, and humanists definitely follow the golden rule.
The other argument that we need God to be moral is not as simple as it sounds. What morals are we talking about? Are we talking about biblical morals? Do morals really come from the Bible? If we examine the Old Testament we can find scriptures that tell us to stone children who disobey their parents, or seem to encourage slavery (this includes the sexual slavery of young girls as per the instructions of Jehovah or the priesthood on several occasions). There are scriptures that say we should even stone people who work on the Sabbath.
There is a story in Numbers Chapter 15 where the Children of Israel carried out this commandment with brutal thoroughness. This man was just picking up sticks on a day named as holy. Does God really approve of making widows and fatherless children because someone gathered firewood on a specific day of the week? Would a just God really be so petty as to have someone’s brains bashed out for breaking one of His rules? Is this a God of love and mercy?
This is just one more example of the detriment that fanatical belief in an afterlife can cause. I have actually heard Christians try to justify God in this instance by saying life is God’s to take, and we shouldn’t question His reasons. That kind of mentality also led to the Spanish Inquisition. The priests of the Spanish Inquisition believed it was better to destroy someone’s life and save their soul than let them live. Those men were sincere in their beliefs, but sincerity is not enough. All religions need to value human life more than the God of the Old Testament did. The Old Testament is definitely not moral by modern standards, and to a humanist who actually believes in freedom and justice, it is downright disgusting.
Moving on to the New Testament, we see that there seems to be more respect for human life, but not as much as there is now. There are some very good lessons in the teachings of Christ and of course Jesus gave us the Golden Rule, right? Well, Jesus didn’t come up with this idea on his own and may have got it from the Old Testament teaching of, “Love thy neighbor as thyself” (something that the Old Testament Jews didn’t put into practice unless their neighbor was a fellow Jew). This idea seems to have been common in Greek culture, and makes an appearance in The odyssey. It was also taught by Buddha, Confucius, Lao Tzu, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle all before Jesus.
The teaching of “Do unto others what you want them to do to you” is a very moral code and one I try to live by, but the Bible doesn’t have a monopoly on this idea. The idea is a simple concept that actually lies at the basis of human existence. We need other humans to survive.
The village is a prime example of how humans have had no other choice but to be nice to their neighbors in order to survive. Humans learned quickly that they needed each other in order to withstand attacks from wild animals or even other humans. Of course these morals have evolved the more that society has evolved (or has society evolved because morals evolved?). If Humans had not banded together our race would not have survived. In fact, the humans who wouldn’t band together didn’t survive and therefore didn’t pass on their genetics. You might say cooperation and care for fellow humans actually is a genetically controlled behavior that we are hard-wired for.
Of course there are rare exceptions where humans exhibit radical and unstable behavior. Theists often point to them as examples of why atheism is bad (this argument only works if the erratic person was an atheist of course). The argument that Hitler and Stalin were both atheists (Hitler actually professed to be Roman Catholic for most of his life) so therefore, atheism is bad, is a common one. As Richard Dawkins has said, “Hitler and Stalin both had mustaches but we don't say it was their mustaches that made them evil.” To believe that atheism is the reason these men did terrible things is a complete misnomer. The real problem was they were very likely mentally ill and had no compassion for fellow humans.
This behavior was also exhibited in the men who went on the Crusades. Crusaders slaughtered men, women, and children whether they were armed or not. It is estimated that over two hundred thousand people died in the Crusades; many of them were women and children. This is not as large a number as were killed by Hitler or Stalin, but still a massive amount of people died because of ignorance and religious bigotry. I could argue that most of the wars throughout history have been fought over religion and therefore theism causes people to go to war and commit atrocities. It would be unfair to say that all of these atrocities were committed because the people committing them were theists. It is just as unfair to say that atheism leads to holocausts.
Oddly enough, most of the Christians who tout the Bible as being moral would also seek to deny gay people the same rights that are afforded to every other American. They claim that marriage needs to be defined as a union of a man and woman and that homosexuals do not have the right to get married. This is obviously not a case of “doing unto others” since, if the roles were reversed and only homosexuals were allowed to marry, they would be yelling their heads off about how unfair it was that heterosexuals couldn’t marry.
One of the morals that people learn from the New Testament is that God is going to send homosexuals, prostitutes, thieves, liars and many more people to hell to be tortured for their sins. Where is the empathy that Jesus expressed to the woman at the well? Where is the forgiveness and compassion that He showed to the woman who was caught in adultery? This is another example of how Christianity almost immediately began to vary from its founder and his teachings.
The most ridiculous pro theist argument I have ever heard was, everyone has to worship something. Christians choose to worship God and atheists choose to worship themselves, or science. The underlying implication is that we are naturally religious and have to worship something. This is a case of getting the cart in front of the horse. We are taught to worship. Children raised in Christian homes are indoctrinated from a young age to do as their parents do, and believe as their parents believe. This is indoctrination, and it really holds our culture back. Children are, by definition, born atheists. They are born without preconceived ideas. Their minds are pure and blank, and their first educators are their parents. Children view their parents as someone who holds absolute knowledge. This makes the parent the first god a human has. This is incredible power and should not be taken lightly.
If an atheist sets out to raise a child as an atheist, they are just as wrong as someone who tells their child that Christianity is the one true religion. Children should be raised to be critical thinkers who can figure things out on their own. Then they can choose to worship God if they want. Giving someone a choice of who they want to become is the greatest gift that any human can give to another human.
I have heard atheists accused of being too lazy to make religion work. This is an incredibly arrogant and ignorant judgment. How does that attitude work with the Golden Rule? The truth is far different. I have a friend who used to be a fundamentalist minister. He told me that he would pray for God to make Himself real to him. He begged to hear God speak back to him when he prayed. One day he came to the realization that he was just talking to himself, and no one was out there listening.
My experiences are very similar to that. I always saw people around me getting, “Touched by God” and I so badly wanted to experience what they were experiencing, but I just never could. I would pray for hours on end to hear a “Still small voice”, but it never happened. I spent all of my childhood and my adult life up until the age of thirty trying to set aside my logical mind and be someone I was not capable of being. I hated myself for my lack of faith. I prayed for faith. I tried to force myself to have faith, but faith never came. Finally I gave up on religion and gave in to my logical mind. I can honestly say that since I have decided to be myself and stop denying my logical mind, I am a much happier person.
All in all, there is a great misconception about atheists in the United States. People perceive atheists to be arrogant, unloving, uncaring, selfish, elitist individuals. This perception could not be further from the truth. All of the atheists I have met, and the others whose books I have read, are actually very caring, gentle people who want the best for the entire human race, which is more than I can say for many Christians I have met. The atheists I have encountered are actually some of the most moral people I have ever met.
Atheists do not want to destroy the Bible. They just want to place it in perspective. To an atheist, the Bible is just a book. It is neither good nor bad. It is what you do with the information contained inside the book that determines if it is right or wrong. If you use that book to control people or judge people, then it is still not the book that is bad but the person doing the judging or controlling who is bad.
The Bible is a beautiful piece of literature and has many good lessons in it. It has influenced our language and culture immensely. We can’t just throw it out and ignore it, and I have not heard an atheist advocate that we do that. They just argue that it needs to be kept in perspective.
Meeting and talking to atheists has really shifted my paradigm and opened my eyes to a whole new culture that I once judged without having any actual knowledge of it. I decided that I want to raise awareness about the discrimination they face on a daily basis. Atheism in the United States is treated as if it is a disease. These people are just ordinary people who are good citizens with very strong morals. It is truly amazing what can happen if you stop seeing groups and start meeting individuals who are a part of the group. Atheist is just a label. They are people just like everyone else and deserve to be treated with the same respect and dignity that needs to be afforded to anyone else.
Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion