January 31, 2018

The Truth About Atheists: Correcting Misconceptions

Abstract art work
Abstract art work (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Lya (Escapee From the Meme Machine) visited a number of Christian message boards in an attempt to determine whether increased dialogue between atheists and Christians might have some value. Her post inspired me to take a look at the most common misconceptions Christians have about atheists. This is the first post in a 5-part series in which I will address the 10 most common misconceptions about atheists she uncovered, responding to two per post.

Misconception 1: Atheists hate god/are jealous of theists.

The first part of this claim is easy to address, at least on the surface, because it is not possible to hate something in which one does not believe. To say that I hate dragons assumes that I believe dragons exist. If I don't believe dragons exist, saying that I love or hate them is nonsensical. As an atheist, I do not believe in any gods. When a Christian singles out his or her preferred god and accuses me of hating it, I find the claim to be nonsensical. I'm not sure how to have positive or negative feelings toward something in which I do not believe.

If we recast this claim as "Atheists hate the Christian concept of god," we move in the right direction. Personally, I would not use the word "hate" in this context. However, I do disagree with the Christian concept of god. Moreover, I find it maladaptive and believe that it has been a destructive force, resulting in great conflict and suffering. The Christian bible describes their god as jealous, hateful, intolerant, insecure, and dangerous. This is not a concept to be valued. Still, I'm not sure it would be accurate to say that I hated it.

Are atheists jealous of theists? They are the majority in many nations, and that certainly brings some perks. At the same time, most atheists believe that theists are a misguided majority. Are we jealous of their ignorance? How about their need to seek consolation in an imaginary friend? Are we jealous of their ability to suspend rational thought in favor of blind devotion? If we were truly jealous, wouldn't we simply join their ranks? To oppose such a vast majority requires considerable courage. It is hard to imagine that jealousy could explain such opposition, especially when we risk so much by not going along with the popular belief.

Misconception 2: Atheists are arrogant and don't want anything "superior" to them.

Some atheists certainly are arrogant just like some Christians are arrogant. As for arrogance being a reason for disbelief, I would argue that the kind of arrogance this statement probably references follows disbelief and therefore cannot be a cause of it. That is, an atheist who believes that he/she is more rational than most theists generally does so because of his/her disbelief and not the other way around. Atheists should take some degree of pride in throwing off the mantle of blind conformity and embracing the world as it is and not as we might want it to be. Is this arrogance or taking pride in a specific accomplishment? Even if we decide to call it arrogance, I think we'd have to be clear that it follows disbelief.

There is at least one other way this claim could be interpreted. Maybe the Christians making this statement meant that only self-centered, elitist types become atheists. If we infer this intent in the above statement, we have to go no further than to show examples of the diversity among atheists. On average, we are better educated than the average Christian (level of education is inversely correlated with religiosity), but both groups are quite diverse. Many atheists have little formal education and would be described as far less elitist than many Christians. Besides, many atheists (probably most of us) became atheists only after being theists for a number of years.

On to Part II.

An earlier version of this post was written in 2006. It was updated in 2018 to fix typos, update links, and improve clarity.