January 22, 2006

The Truth About Atheists: Correcting Misconceptions, Part 2

Holy bible bookIn the second part of this series, I correct two similar misconceptions about atheists raised by Christians. If you missed the first part, it can be found here.

Misconception 3: Atheists have never experienced religion.

This is a rather strange misconception for two reasons. First, the overwhelming majority of atheists I've encountered were theists (usually Christians) at some point in their lives. Many were raised in Christian households, attended church, etc. Virtually all Christian denominations are represented in their backgrounds, ranging from liberal forms to fundamentalist versions. In most cases, their previous experience with religion was anything but fleeting, as they often identified as theists for several years or more. In fact, many were the strong, unquestioning sort of believers today's fundamentalists seek.

The second reason I say that this is an odd misconception is that Christianity is such a central component of U.S. culture that everyone residing in this country has experienced its influence throughout their lives. This influence is inescapable, as believers make up the vast majority. Thus, even the rare individual who was never a theist was still exposed to religion throughout his/her development.

Misconception 4: Atheists have never read/don't understand the bible.

Where do I start with this one? It is well known that many Christians have never read their entire bible and that many more have little to no understanding of it. It appears that many base their understanding of the bible on what their clergy tell them. Moreover, even for those who regularly read and study their bibles, most live in ignorance of how and when their bible was written. In fact, I suspect that very few are aware of the historical evidence which contradicts the claims which are at the core of their religion (see The Jesus Puzzle: Did Christianity Begin with a Mythical Christ? Challenging the Existence of an Historical Jesus).

Without exception, every atheist I have known says that direct encounters with religion (i.e., exposure to believers, church, and religious doctrine) was instrumental in the path to atheism. Most have read the Christian bible many times and tend to be much better informed about the historical evidence which contradicts much of it. As one example of a commonly used resource for atheists studying the bible, check out the Skeptic's Annotated Bible.

In this discussion, it must be acknowledged that Christians and atheists read the bible in very different ways. Christians approach the bible with the assumption that it was divinely inspired (at least). Atheists tend to approach the bible with a genuine intellectual curiosity. We want to know what it says in order to understand the power so many ascribe to it. We often approach it with the awe and respect it deserves as one of the most important mythic texts of all time. We seek to learn from it, and by reading it, we hope to learn more about our fellow citizens. However, many of us soon become disgusted with what we find. The god depicted in the Christian bible is not worthy of worship or admiration. This is a petty, vindictive, and cruel entity, perhaps the greatest literary villain ever created.

On to Part III.