December 1, 2006

A Big Misconception About Atheism

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In previous posts, I have addressed many common misconceptions about atheists, but an important misconception remains about the whole of atheism. This particular misconception is difficult to classify and appears to involve a synthesis of several of those which I addressed previously. It is used to stimulate fear, and I predict that it will become more popular as more atheists gain prominence. This misconception concerns what I will refer to as the "atheist agenda." It can be stated as follows:

Misconception: There is an atheist agenda which includes the complete eradication of religion, the systematic persecution of believers, and maybe even mass murder.

Lest you think that I am making up this misconception only to dispel it, I will direct you to this recent article in The Christian Science Monitor. As you can see, this misconception involves the belief that theism is the only thing keeping us from murdering each other. Nice view of human nature, isn't it? Of course, atheism is not synonymous with Communism, and the crimes mentioned in this article were not committed in the name of atheism at all.

As I have previously suggested, atheists are a diverse group without any common political position. Political organization has never been our strength, and you can find atheists throughout the political spectrum. In fact, we even lack uniformity in our stance on religion. However, our lack of a consensus position pales in comparison to a far more obvious issue: this misconception is based on a fundamental misunderstanding about the very definition of atheism.

Since I have addressed this elsewhere, I'll keep it brief here. Theism refers to the belief in a god or gods, and atheism is simply the absence of such a belief. Atheists do have something in common with each other - we would not answer "yes" to the question of whether a god or gods exist. That's it. Many atheists are not naturalists, not materialists, not liberals, etc. In fact, I've even encountered an atheist who rejects evolution! To assume that atheism entails any of these other beliefs, even naturalism, is a mistake. There is nothing to stop an atheist from believing in ghosts. Such a belief does not make anyone less of an atheist (although it certainly calls into question one's rationality).

Okay, so there is no atheist agenda. But let's consider the second part of the misconception anyway. If there was an atheist agenda, is there any reason to believe that it would involve the eradication of religion, persecution of believers, and mass murder? As for the eradication of religion, there are certainly some prominent atheist voices calling for this very thing. Some atheists clearly want to abolish religion; many others do not. I could imagine a scenario where religious belief is devalued, but I would be surprised if most atheists were bent on destroying it. Personally, I hope my fellow humans will outgrow religion, move beyond it, etc., but attempting to ban religion is not compatible with the value I place on freedom.

Of course, I'm not aware of any atheists who strive to persecute others or engage in mass murder. In fact, I believe that an ethical code based on secular humanism would be far more tolerant of human differences that would one based on religion. This is probably a subject better reserved for another post, but I'll refer the interested reader to Atheist Ethicist.