Before you anathematize…

The clash of religions is a frequent subject these days. Whether it’s really a thing, is another question. But when we talk of religions, civilizations, etc, very often the biggest constituency somehow gets omitted: the atheists. And they’re actually more numerous than any religion, including Christianity and Islam.

Take the US for example. Being an atheist is considered a stigma, a shameful stain on the reputation, one that could destroy entire political careers. Being “godless” is worse than being black, Muslim, or homosexual. A meager 37% of Americans would choose an atheist for president. Because atheists are considered intolerant, immoral and blind for the beauties of creation. And that is wrong. Very wrong. Why? Let’s see.

Claim: atheists believe that life has no meaning. Verdict: false. It’s exactly because the religious people fear the senselessness of life that they give so much importance to the afterlife, where they hope to find the happiness they’re denied here. Conversely, atheists consider life precious. Their relations with other people matter NOW, not after.

Claim: atheism is responsible for the biggest crimes against humanity. Verdict: false. I’ve often heard the argument that the atrocities of Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot were a natural consequences of their godlessness. In fact, the problem of communism, fascism or any other form of despotism, is not in that they reject religion but just on the contrary: they’re themselves inherently dogmatic, which makes them very similar to religion. And this facilitates their genocidal tendencies directed against other-thinkers.

Claim: atheism is dogmatic. Verdict: false. You don’t have to be dogmatic to be able to refute religious dogma. We all know Harry Roberts’ words, “I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours”.

Claim: atheists believe everything was created by chance. Verdict: only partially. In fact no one knows how the Universe was created. It’s not even clear if we could speak of beginning and creation at all, since these notions are related to the concept of time, and here we’re talking of the emergence of time and space itself. Granted, we may not know for sure which exact processes gave rise to the first life forms on Earth – but there’s strong evidence that the living world is a product of random chance PLUS the acting principles of evolution (random mutations combined with natural selection).

Claim: is unscientific. Verdict: false. There may be some scientists who are religions, but scientific thinking and the scientific process as a whole are inherently incompatible with religious belief. It’s quite telling that, while 90% of the American people believe tehre is a god, 93% of the members of the National Academy of Sciences think otherwise.

Claim: atheists are arrogant. Verdict: only some. I know, Richard Dawkins comes to mind. In reality though, in principle when the scientists don’t know something (like, how the Universe was created, or how the first living cell emerged), they’re prepared to admit it. Religions are different. It’s ironic that religious people who constantly wave their humility in everyone’s faces, at the same time assume the right to “know” everything about the universe, and the whole “truth” about all facts of the world. When atheists ponder their place in the universe, they try to use scientific facts. This has nothing to do with arrogance, it’s intellectual decency.

Claim: atheists are insusceptible to any spiritual experience. Verdict: false. Atheists are humans. And as such, they’re also capable of experiencing love, awe or piety, or reaching a state of ecstasy. They can also strive for experiences that break the boundaries of the rational. What they don’t do though, is to draw ungrounded conclusions about reality out of it. Some Christians get ecstatic by merely reading the Bible and praying to Jesus; same can be said about Muslims and the Quran. This may help them believe their life has been made better – which is fine. But what does this prove? The only thing it proves is that certain mental exercises and behaviors can have deep impact on human spirit. Hardly a surprise. We all know what the placebo effect is. But is that proof that Jesus is humankind’s only savior? Hardly. After all, millions of Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and even atheists have the same or similar experiences on a daily basis.

Claim: atheists believe that there’s nothing greater than the human mind. Verdict: false. In fact, atheists know the limits of the human mind too well. Let me remind that it is the atheists who admit we’re unable to know everything about the Universe. In the meantime, the major religions tend to trivialize the beauty and endlessness of the Universe.

Claim: atheists don’t think there’s anything useful in religion. Verdict: not necessarily. When we talk of religion’s positive effects, we shouldn’t forget that this isn’t proof of its correctness. It’s only proof that suggestion can have effects on society, both positive and negative. There’s a big difference between the consoling effect of being part of a larger community of like-minded people on one side, and objective truth on the other. By the way, religion’s overall positive effect is quite debatable. Christianity for example prescribes a number of questionable motivations for doing “good”. Because what’s more moral: to help the weak and the poor because you disagree with their predicament – or because you expect to be rewarded by a deity for helping them, or punished for ignoring them?

Claim: atheism is incompatible with morality. Verdict: very false. Take a person who has committed atrocities, for example. Do we really think they’d suddenly change their ways by merely reading the Bible or the Quran? Hell, (ha!) these scriptures are teaming with odes in praise of violence, both by man on man or by god on man. No, our morality does not come from religion. It comes from us following our moral intuition, which is likely a product of our biological features and social condition. Of course, in result of thousands of years of human inquiry into the issues of ethics and morality, these mores have been vastly refined. Scripture does contain lots of good lessons that are useful to society – these should be cherished for their ethical wisdom. But that doesn’t mean they were deigned upon us by a deity. No, they were all crafted by man.

The saddest thing is that in our presumably modern times, in the 21st century, false notions like the above continue to persist, and set the tone of the political discourse, and thus shape the social construct that we all live in – to everyone’s detriment. And I contend that these falsehoods shouldn’t be ignored, given a free pass, or be shown unnecessary tolerance towards. No, that’s the wrong approach. As Jon Stewart famously said in his farewell speech during his last Daily Show appearance, “The best defense against bullshit is vigilance. So if you smell something, say something”.

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