February 17, 2006

The Truth About Atheists: Correcting Misconceptions, Part 4

It has been awhile since I posted Part 3, but I haven't forgotten. In the fourth part of the series, I consider the next two misconceptions about atheists raised by Christians.

Misconception 7: Atheists just don't want to admit they sin.

Like many of the misconceptions I've reviewed so far in this series, this one reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the meaning of atheism. Since "sin" is a theistic concept, it has very different meanings for atheists and theists. Our notion of sin is that sinful behavior involves doing something that violates our moral code (i.e., secular humanism). Harming someone without provocation would be an example. However, calling such an act "sinful" does not carry any different meaning to us than referring to it as "bad behavior." You see, atheists base our sense of right and wrong on reality-based notions and have no need to posit supernatural rewards and punishments. I refrain from harming others because I have a deep respect for my fellow humans and seek to treat them in ways I wish they would treat me. No invisible judge is necessary.

If we assume for a second that the word "sin" in this misconception simply refers to "bad behavior" and does not carry the extra theistic baggage, the original statement would sound something like this, "Atheists just don't want to admit they do bad/immoral/unethical things." This revised statement needs only two responses to put it to rest. First, anyone with a decent grasp of history and capable of rational thought will readily agree that far more bad behavior has been committed (and continues to be committed) in the name of religion than in the name of atheism. Second, when it comes to the question of not wanting to admit such behavior, theists have the market cornered. Ever hear the expression "holier than thou?" Theists in general, and Christians in particular are masters of concealing their bad deeds, excusing them through false rationalizations, or absolving themselves of blame through meaningless "confession" rituals.

Regardless of which definition of "sin" we use, this misconception is easily revealed as just that. In fact, I suspect that atheists are generally more likely than Christians to acknowledge bad behavior. Why? Because we don't get to pretend it didn't happen. We have to live with it and address the consequences in the real world.

Misconception 8: All atheists support abortion/evolution/liberal politics/communism/fascism/etc.

Use of the word "all" quickly reveals this statement as an absurd overgeneralization on its face. However, in fairness to the feeble-minded folks who came up with this one, I'd like to replace "all" with "most" or "many" so that I have something more to discuss here.

To begin, one must acknowledge the presence of conservative atheists who tend to vote Republican, favor free-market capitalism, and oppose abortion and social welfare programs. Their politics are far from liberal, and it is common to find that their only difference from conservative Republicans is their atheism. Their presence is not widely known, but there are out there. In fact, I have come in contact with several through their blogs (see here for an example).

Turning to the charge of communism and/or fascism, there is much we could say. Some argue that communism itself became a sort of religion, but even if you don't buy that, it is impossible to argue that freethought (a hallmark of modern atheism) was encouraged under Soviet communism. Others point out that atheism had virtually nothing to do with the acts committed under communism. It is likely that this misconception is rooted in the fear that atheism will somehow lead to communism.

The question of fascism always reverts to Hitler. Christians seem to be convinced that if one fascist (Hitler) was an atheist, then all of atheism is somehow discredited. Was Hitler an atheist or a Christian? I'm not sure the answer is even relevant to this misconception. What is relevant is whether the majority of atheists today are in fact fascists. I am not aware of any evidence that would support such a claim. Again, freethought is clearly not going to be encouraged under fascism. Again, the list of religiously-motivated atrocities is long enough that even Hitler's despicable acts are eclipsed.

To conclude, I'll make a much simpler point. The overwhelming majority of atheists living in America today are neither communists nor fascists. Since one cannot prove the negative, the burden is on Christians to either demonstrate that most American atheists are communists or fascists or to concede that this is simply another misconception.

On to Part V.

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