February 3, 2006

The Truth About Atheists: Correcting Misconceptions, Part 3

Portrait of Galileo Galilei by Justus Susterma...
Portrait of Galileo Galilei by Justus Sustermans painted in 1636. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
In the third part of this series, I correct two additional misconceptions about atheists raised by Christians. If you missed the last part, it can be found here.

Misconception 5: Atheists just don't want to receive the truth.

Of all the misconceptions Lya uncovered, I find this the most interesting. It appears that both Christians and atheists are concerned with "the truth." The problem is that atheists tend to define truth as involving a high degree of correspondence with external reality, whereas Christians tend to define it as what they've been told or what they wish was the case. If we view truth as reflecting reality, the atheist has a huge advantage because theistic claims about the natural world are often demonstrably false.

A rational person discards religious doctrine which conflicts with external reality, but a believer must attempt to reconcile belief and reality even when the two are at odds. Attempts to reconcile what cannot be reconciled lead to a complete breakdown in logic and make for some bizarre claims (e.g., god creates pain and suffering so that we will have free will, to test our faith, etc.). It is because atheists are concerned with truth that we reject religious doctrine. Belief is based on faith and not on reality. Atheists recognize that faith, by definition, is not about truth.

To understand the meaning of this misconception, we should focus on the word "receive," for this an important clue as to the meaning of the statement. The Christian version of truth has to derive from the supernatural realm. It is not something we are supposed to seek. Rather, we are encouraged to open ourselves to it with the expectation that it will somehow just appear to us.

To the atheist, truth is not something which can be received. It is something that must be uncovered through the application of reason, logic, and the scientific method. Remember, science is not truth; it is a method for discovering the truth. Fortunately for atheists, the scientific method has proven itself to be the most powerful means of ascertaining the truth that humans have discovered.

Thus, I'd like to turn this misconception on its head as follows: Many Christians refuse to accept the verifiable truth provided by application of the scientific method, instead preferring to cling to ancient superstition.

Misconception 6: Atheists are bitter/angry.

Ah, the old angry atheist stereotype. Since I've already addressed the misconception that atheists hate theists/Christians/Christianity (see Part 1), I'll try not to repeat myself here. Are atheists bitter and angry people? This is an empirical question which can be confirmed or disconfirmed through...(gasp)...science. Without these data in front of me, I am going to speculate that there might be some truth to this statement.

An American atheist lives in a country where over 95% of the population believes in some form of god and something like 70% believe that angels and demons regularly visit the earth. What does this feel like? I compare it to the experience of a physician who visits a primitive village where the residents do not believe in germs, antiseptic, etc. and instead believe that all illnesses are caused by evil spirits. How frustrating that must be for the physician! That is how an atheist feels every day. Don't you think it is understandable for us to become a bit frustrated? Yes, I think that many (though certainly not all) atheists feel bitter or angry when they think about the destructive impact of the superstition with which we are surrounded.

If I've acknowledged some truth to this statement, how can I still call it a misconception? The statement implies that all atheists are bitter/angry people, and this is not the case. Many atheists find great meaning in our naturalistic worldview, believe that humans are capable of great things (even overcoming silly superstition), and strive to make the world a better place. Just because some of us are a tad misanthropic does not mean that this describes the majority. Many atheists are the most caring, compassionate, friendly, and open people you could hope to find. In fact, one could argue that this compassion for our fellow human is why it pains us to see them fall to superstitious nonsense!

On to Part IV.