a simple atheist wish list for the real world

September 29, 2010

In light of yesterday’s post about the CFI’s schizophrenic views on atheism and accommodationism, and its bizarre approach to dealing with the media’s narratives in the great atheism vs. religion debate, I thought this might be a good time to take a step back and reflect on what it is that atheists realistically want. Obviously not being considered amoral monsters as they’re stereotyped by pious con men, or derided for refusing to have sentimental views on an invisible, intangible entity because they see no proof for its existence would be a very good start. But beyond that, what is it that would make atheists happier with the world around them? While I’m just one person and certainly can’t lay claim on representing all atheists, here’s my wish list for how the world would treat religion, science, and tell the difference between harmful dogma and sound, real world reason.

1. Real world facts should trump dogma. Despite the decades of accumulating statistics, medical research, and exhaustive studies, we still have policies based on an idea of piety that made sense before the Medieval period. Catholic preaching and anti-scientific conspiracy mongering are directly contributing to the death toll of HIV and AIDS in Africa, placing more importance on Bible verses than on fellow humans. Spiritual alt med woo tries to make people think of terrible diseases as a "spiritual challenge to be welcomed," rather than something to be excised and treated with cutting edge medical technology. When dealing with real world and immediate problems, we should be wondering what evidence there is for the recommendations we’re given, what technologies and treatments exist to remedy the condition, and how to solve the problem rather than the musings of a creature we can’t see, to whom we can’t talk, and whose existence is inferred from how a priest or a religious devotee feels. If you really think whatever problems we face right now are a divine test, it’s your right to do so, of course. But for the love of FSM’s meatballs, follow tangible evidence to solve them.

2. Religion should not render you immune from criticism. Whenever someone brings up religion to defend a particularly nasty action, people should have the right to be appalled. Doing something because you believed you were commanded to do so by a deity doesn’t mean that what you did is right, and we should be allowed to take issue with that. Calling someone a person of faith, or pretending that there’s some hidden, deep morality in a questionable action just because religion is invoked should be completely meaningless. In any court that tries to establish a defendant’s moral character with a testimony of how often he or she attends church should be treated the same way we would consider how many times someone visits a car wash. Obviously, if you do something wrong, the blame should rest with you and trying to shift it to the supernatural is just a way out. And if your beliefs and the actions you take based on those beliefs are harmful to someone, or encourage the kind of irresponsible behavior that could get someone hurt or in trouble, they deserve to be ridiculed without any of the critics having to be subject to mewing about "respect for faith." Religion doesn’t make good people. Good people raise and nurture other good people, regardless of religion or lack thereof.

3. Religion should not be a justification for violence. Unfortunately, every day there’s a story about someone being killed thanks to faith-based violence. And while modern theologians might offer vague platitudes about a divine morality and human unity via religion, the reality is that faith is often what puts a wedge between us. In the world outside a trendy philosopher’s office, ritualized, religion-enabled violence is all too common and it ends countless lives on an all too regular basis. No one can take away your religious beliefs, but if you think a quote in a holy book gives you the right to take someone’s life or physically brutalize him for not offering what you feel is the proper relevance to your dogma, you should be considered a dangerous maniac rather than an enlightened follower of whoever you worship. And should you actually harm someone, or infringe on the rights of any other human being, you should be hauled to court to stand trial for what you’ve done without getting the kiddie glove treatment from local, equally pious authorities who give you a wink, a nod, and house arrest for a week for your religiously inspired crimes. This is less of a problem in the secular West, but in nations obeying religious laws, this is a constant issue. Of course, there’s always the Vatican’s approach to kids that should be sending courts and authorities on an arrest spree across Europe and America if not for the same artificial religious immunity we just mentioned standing in the way…

4. Religion should not be a tool of authority. While in secular states religions have no real sway on paper, in all truth, the power of religious institutions and their ability to project themselves into politics is obvious. If not for theocratically-oriented institutions and their followers, we wouldn’t have prayers against legislation, and a consistently flawed and failing sex-ed policy proven countless times to be far worse than comprehensive,  scientifically backed curricula. We give religious organizations a free pass on taxes and then go on to lavish undue respect on people who threaten us with hellfire and supernatural punishment should we fail to obey them. Why? How does one earn such reverence by demanding it through threats and do it so well? I know the truth of the matter is that there will always be a religion of some sort out there, but the point is not to let beliefs trump common logic, good science, and the basics of human decency. Churches, temples, or mosques can demand that they be obeyed, but that doesn’t mean we have to do it. That’s the whole point of atheism. Just to be able to doubt, ask for proof, and refuse to follow along with something that makes no sense to you, or is a blatant and inherent violation of human rights to free will and well-being. When you enjoy religious texts for the sake of personal comfort, purpose, and solace, that’s one thing. But when you dictate that all around you feel the same comfort, purpose, and solace you feel, and do as you tell them, that’s when we have a problem.

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  • Bruce Coulson

    This all sounds too rational for the real world. Although I suspect thoughtful people of faith (and yes, they do exist) would have little to no problem with your wish list.

    Since faith, or belief, has been a part of human society for all of recorded history (and probably for some time previously; indeed, possibly for as long as we’ve been human), it has been necessary for governments to compromise with religions.

    This has rarely been one-sided; indeed the founders of the U.S. made significant advances towards having religion as a part of society…but not a part of government. There have always been efforts to re-negotiate that compromise in favor of religion; so far, these efforts have been mostly unsuccessful.

    But I cannot imagine a time when that compromise, and tension, would not exist. All that can be done is to continue to educate people that faith and science do not have to be on opposite sides; that it is possible to accept both facts and faith. And hope that enough people eventually accept this.

  • badbass9

    To 1) slowly but surely science wins out. Just as Gallieo and Ptolemy. At this point in our existence, the Judeo-Christian sects(for lack of a better term, bear with me) are grasping at their last holds on societal control. Islam has resorted to violence. If you’re not Muslim and defend them, read the Qa’ran. Then tell me how wrong I am. Yes, I have. And not in bits and pieces. Education is the key. The smarter people got, the more “scientific” knowledge they accepted.

    2) If it’s wrong, it’s wrong. “The Devil made me do it” is just as lame as “Oh, I was drunk at the time.” Son Of Sam was instructed by a dog. The same ridicule he received should be thrown at “God told me to.” And if something doesn’t make sense, it shouldn’t be respected.

    3) My God is better than yours. To prove it, I’ll kill you. Islam, anyone.

    4) I adhere, loosely I admit, to Zen Buddhism. The Christians I know think I’m an atheist on the path to Hell. Some go as far as saying I’m a Godless pagan. I don’t lie, cheat, steal, or break any of the social conventions. I know a couple of Muslims. To them I’m an infidel, worthy only of a disgraceful death. The funny thing? I don’t tell any of them how to live their lives. Nor do I predict their necro-destination. Or even care. Everyone needs something to believe in. One of the traits that make us intelligent beings. What makes us stupid are the individuals who take that need, to control us. I’ll forever be astonished at how many allow that control. And if you think I’m being intolerant of these religions, get a clue. I don’t care. I’ve made my choice, and left the rest behind. My circle of friends and aquaintances is quite large. I don’t get offended by their beliefs. And they’ve learned, over time, not to impose their beliefs upon me. Just as I don’t upon them. It’s like brown shoes. You wouldn’t catch me wearing them, I don’t care if you do.

  • John Smith

    “When you enjoy religious texts for the sake of personal comfort, purpose, and solace, that’s one thing. But when you dictate that all around you feel the same comfort, purpose, and solace you feel, and do as you tell them, that’s when we have a problem.”

    Personally, it’s with people demanding the right to believe things for personal comfort that I have a problem with. I don’t have any problem with those who debate their religion with me, because if they genuinely think they have logical reasons for believing they’re right, then why shouldn’t they try to persuade other people about it? I try to persuade other people about things that I’ve decided I have reason to believe. But if they say, “Every belief is just as good as every other belief”, well no, either there’s a God or there isn’t, either Jesus is his son or he isn’t, either Muhammed was his prophet or he wasn’t. People are welcome to try to convince me of their view on those questions, and I’ll either agree or argue back, but they can’t say that both views are just as good as long as they make you happy. One must be right and the other wrong. They shouldn’t just believe whichever they like best. They could claim the matter can’t be conclusively proven, but they should still believe something because they think it’s what the evidence leans more strongly towards, not because it makes them happier.

    Of course, this works both ways. Interestingly, looking at discussion forums often shows emotional and irrational responses quite frequently among atheists as well as theists. While it can’t be said for sure whether the online community is representative of the world in general, and although it’s just an anecdotal observation, I get the impression that atheists and theists alike show a roughly similar disposition toward basing their views on emotion – that they take different views primarily based on their differing emotional needs or on what they have found to best fulfill those needs.

  • badbass9

    @ John Smith. I don’t know your leanings and I don’t disagree with your opinion. I am, however, struck with your comment, “one must be right and the other wrong”. This is what drives religious intolerance and warfare. Roughly 40% of the world’s population follows some variant of Taoism. They don’t believe in your God, so they’re wrong? North and South American cultural religions are Poly theistic. Are they wrong? The answer is not so black and white. Religion and culture are forever intertwined. Again the shoes. Black, brown, white, or none at all. It doesn’t change the ability of the person. Only the character. There are times when I wish everything was obviously black or white. We wouldn’t need lawyers then, would we?

  • Greg Fish

    Yeah, I’m with badbass on this one.

    Saying that one person must be right and the other must be wrong when not talking about scientific and empirical matters is not at all useful. A lot of believers choose to believe because it makes them happy so yes, one religion is as good as the other if it serves it’s intended function: making them happy.

  • MFC

    Excellent post. You were able to articulate in words everything I think about the subject.


  • Fabian

    I’m gonna have to agree with John Smith here.

    If we’re talking about vague or poorly defined ideas (“Does there exist an all-encapsulating energy which is part of all of us?”), then there is no wrong or right answer, just because of the fact that it is ill-defined. We don’t even know what we’re trying to answer. But when the questions become less subtle and more direct (“Is there a god which requires us to follow this very specific set of rules?”), then there obviously is a right or wrong answer. “Yes, he does exist” or “No, he doesn’t” are in direct contradiction. How can the mythology described by Islam, Judaism and Christianity all be correct at the same time?

    No, at most only one religion can be correct (there can’t be many gods and just one god; reincarnation cannot be possible if we go to heaven or hell after we die). I don’t understand why it’s still socially unacceptable to directly question the tenants of monotheistic religions and say that most, if not all, are just plain wrong if taken literally.


    PS: Loving your blog, Greg. Keep up the good work!

  • Stutz

    I think badbass9 and Greg have exhibited the kind of muddled thinking common among people trying to sound open-minded. First, they didn’t pay attention to what John Smith said, which was that there are right and wrong answers to simple statements of fact, even if they happen to be religious statements, e.g., “either there’s a God or there isn’t, either Jesus is his son or he isn’t, either Muhammed was his prophet or he wasn’t”. If Taoists don’t believe in god, they are in fact wrong if that god really does exist, badbass. I am an atheist, and if the Christian God exists, then yes, I am wrong. Religious intolerance needs to be resisted, but have to punish unacceptable behavior itself; we can’t do it by just deluding ourselves that we’re all somehow equally correct. Just because we may not be able to answer religious questions with certainty, it does not mean that these questions do not have answers. Exactly how many teaspoons of water are in the ocean right this second? Can anyone answer that, given that it would be next to impossible to measure? Given this, can we just say that twelve, 50 thousand, and 2.7*10^35 are all equally correct answers? Of course not.

    gfish, I’m surprised that the author of this article is with badbass on this one. Don’t simple fact-claims qualify as at least empirical in principle, even if they happen to be religious? The statement “God exists” is a scientific claim because it is either true or false in this universe. (If you’re saying that he exists outside of space-time, then that might be non-scientific. But something outside of our universe “exists” in a only in a nonsensical, irrelevant way until the moment it enters our universe to have any interaction with us, such as answering prayers, performing miracles, burying dinosaur fossils, etc.)

    It may be true that “one religion is as good as the other if it serves it’s intended function: making them happy”, but that, again, was not what John wrote, nor was it his point. I think his point was just the opposite: that happiness is BESIDE the point. He plainly said: “they should still believe something because they think it’s what the evidence leans more strongly towards, not because it makes them happier.” I mean, assuming you’re an atheist–seeing as how you wrote this article–are you just an atheist because it makes you happier? Or is it because there is no convincing evidence for religious claims?

    Sam Harris has a ton of great points to make about moral relativism, epistemology, etc as they relate to atheism, some of which I’ve stolen here, especially in his new book The Moral Landscape, which I recommend.

  • Dimondwoof

    Here is my biggest problem with the “let everyone believe what they want, no matter how irrational it is” point of view: they don’t. As long as there is religion, there will always be the zealots that want to push that religion on other people. And half the time, they don’t even know they are doing it. A good example is my brother. He insists that he is NOT one of those mormons (I refuse to capitalize the name of any religion) that forces his religion down other people’s throats. He also considers himself a patriot. The music that plays when you try to call his phone is “proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free…”. Then he turns around and votes yes on Prop 8, saying that he had to “vote his conscience”. Then when you try to talk to him about the conflict, he just simply refuses to talk about it.

    The single most dangerous aspect of religion, IMHO, is brain patterning. When you learn to accept something, not only despite the lack of evidence, but despite the mountains of evidence against it, and against all reasonable, rational thought, how can that pattern not spread through the rest of your thinking? A perfect example of this is the question of whether Obama was born in the US. The reason so many of the right wing still bring it up is because they want to believe that disqualifies him from being president. There is no actual evidence that he is not a natural citizen, and there is evidence that he actually IS a natural citizen, but because the religious right has learned to believe things simply because they *want* them to be true, this allows them to believe other things that are not true without question. Or, worse yet, they have learned to fabricate excuses to justify their beliefs. And these people vote, so that flawed view of reality is pushed on the rest of us every single day.

  • jekyl1

    I think the reaction to John smith’s comment was based around the phrase, “one must be right, and the other wrong.” The sentence causes confusion because it could be interpreted that John is saying that “either Christianity is right and Islam is wrong. Or Islam is right and Christianity is wrong.” and I don’t believe that is what he is saying. It seems to me that the phrase is actually referring to the initial statement, “either there is a god or there isn’t.”

    So, in that sense, if Christianity is wrong, it doesn’t mean Islam is right. They can both be wrong. In fact, all religions could be wrong. Especially in the event that there is no god. And even if they are wrong, that still doesn’t prove that there is or isn’t a god.

    In my opinion, the concept of religion is akin to fables. I believe religion was created by man to keep order and teach morals. I think it’s been distorted, from day one, in order to divide, conquer, and self-serve, but I think the idea of a book about how to behave is great. The problem is it’s all way outdated and generally misused. And, really, in this day and age, do we need it? My strong opinion is, no. Good education and parenting is what we need. Most everyone knows right from wrong. Most everyone knows that happiness is better than sadness. Most everyone knows helping others, not hurting them, is the right thing to do.

    Religion is an outdated tool. We don’t continue to use wooden ships, alchemy, sundials, or tape recorders, do we? No, we progress. It’s time we progressed past religion.

  • Let’s hear from Paul. I’m so confused about right and wrong religious views, I’m on the verge of coming down with the nervous fidgets.

    Greg, do you suppose this thread represents a winnowing of idiots off this blog. If everyone is going to be so erudite, I’m probably going to have to leave too. I’m clearly out of my league.

    I’m an atheist because it makes me feel better. My step grandmother took me to a Baptist tent revival when I was nine. I listened to that crazy shit for maybe half an hour, then I got up and walked out; saying to myself, as I left, “If that’s who God is, fuck Him! I will not kiss that arrogant bastard’s ass if it costs me my immortal soul! How’s that for an arrogant nine year old bastard?

    Earlier I had dropped out of Catholic kindergarten when it dawned on me that the Nuns were as mean as snakes, and the Father in charge was so scared to of them that facts made no difference whatsoever. Whatever a Nun said was gospel. Even if she was lying through her teeth to protect her favorite little weenie pet and get me a good straping for having punched his lights out. You see, I had developed a bad taste for religion at five.

    Needless to say, I was delighted to find that there were serious arguments for the proposition that there is no god. I was much relieved. My atheism is strictly personal. I do not proselytize; even my kids are not atheists.

  • Paul

    “Let’s hear from Paul.”

    Me? How did I become the authority on religious arguments? And I can’t even spell erudite… Wait, this isn’t gonna end up with a religion based around me, is it? I’m not sure I can handle the pressure.

    On a less serious note:

    I did like John Smith’s point. It reminds me of something I’ve heard online, a religious troll sniping “I get a laugh imagining you atheists squirming if your precious science ever proves the existence of God!” Whereas , as John noted, the opposite is true. Even if some scientific experiment actually proved the existence of a god or gods, at most only one religion can be right.

    As an atheist it would just be another freaky/awesome scientific discovery, if the evidence is there, I’d eventually accept it. In a way, I’d still be an “atheist”, I’d just believe in “it” or “them”, the same way I believe in Germans, or protons, or other galaxies.

    But what about religion? What if they were suddenly testable?

    “God loves us all!” “Well, no, we asked, and they ‘re not bothered either way.”

    “The bible is the word of God!” “Again, no. They say these bits are good advice, but the rest is just political propaganda from 700BC and 100AD.”

    “God sent his only son to die for our sins!” “Well, yes and no, while the Jesus thing was an experiment they were running, they say sin is purely a human social construct.”

    “Our immortal souls live on after we die! But only those who believe [something] will get into heaven!” “Well, if you look at these results, there is an afterlife for humans and higher mammals, but your fate depends on your strength of character, not your beliefs.”

    IMO, if the things religions preach were scientifically demonstrable, they wouldn’t be recognisable as a religion.

  • Bruce Coulson

    As an agnostic, it certainly would be interesting if someone could actually prove the existence of a divine being (or beings). I’d want to know a lot more.

    But as Paul noted, actual proof of divinity might not make anyone in the religious community happy, because they might all be proven wrong. Centuries of doctrine discredited overnight, and vast libraries of theological speculation rendered null and void? Talk about your tests of faith…