Atheists Against Religion – Misconceptions

Some theists seem to get the wrong impression about atheism and atheists, with regard to the extent and type of opposition to theism and religion. I think this occurs because several issues become conflated in discussions between theists and atheists. Some theists seem to think that atheists want to abolish religion or censor it; but they are confusing the following: genuine desire to stop some religious practices and privileges; the desire for a secular state; and intellectual disagreement on the validity of religious belief.

They are all issues that should be considered separately.

Opposition To Faith Schools
The objection to faith schools is because of their indoctrination of young minds and the fact that one faith view is projected. Most humanist atheists want schools to be secular, which only means no religious or other world view bias (not even atheism), not the censorship of religion. We actually want education to include information about all religions and other world views and basic philosophy in a non-biased here-it-is make what you want of it sort of way. There’s no requirement to impose the atheist or humanist world view above others.

My children attended a Roman Catholic school, which preached RC Christianity. Both my children said that when they compared notes with friends at a state school the coverage of other faiths was quite different. The Roman Catholic school had given feint acknowledgement to other faiths whereas the state school was more open about discussing the variations of the details of the different faiths. I don’t know to what extent a difference in teachers played a part, and I’ve no detailed experience of other faith schools. But in principle I’m opposed to the promotion of a particular faith.

Faith schools breed division. This I know from my personal school experiences, where a predominantly CoE state school backed on to a Roman Catholic school – pupils were always at war, and though most pupils probably weren’t particularly religious, the religious difference was a focus of difference. This inevitable divisiveness has also been commented on with regard to Northern Ireland many times. In Oldham there is currently a plan to form a mixed academy to replace the current Christian dominated school and Muslim dominated school in areas that resulted in race/faith/culture riots ten years ago.

Abolishing Religion
The wish by atheists that religions did not exist is just that, a wish. Not necessarily that religions never existed – there is no requirement to change history. The wish is that religions would begin to fade away – starting with the most obnoxious elements of each religion, because we think in the long term society will be better when religion has gone. Note, that isn’t saying atheist humanism is the cure for all ills.

And this wish isn’t expressed in any political sense. There is no way in which humanist atheists want to censor or ban religion or religious thought. The very nature of atheist humanism, or in this context secular humanism, is that the state should not be involved at all in personal world views, and that everyone should be free to choose their own world view. There are many unknowns about the universe, regarding its origins and its makeup. The God hypothesis is a reasonable one, so given the free-thought imperative of secular humanists there is no requirement to stop people believing in God.

Secular State
The political desire for a secular state is not a request for censorship, it’s the request for the removal of a religious bias and privilege that is already present. What’s the alternative to removing bishops from the House of Lords as religious political posts? Add more bishops representing every faith in proportion to the faith adherents? Add atheists specifically because they are atheists? What about Wiccans and followers of other belief systems? A Lord of New Age? No, the most equitable route is to remove all posts relating to religion and have people there on merit or by election – depending on the desired make-up. This then does not prevent religious leaders being members; they would simply be members for some other reason: hopefully, merit.

The wider issue of a state church is slightly less significant to me, though many British Muslims might disagree. We have a lot invested in our culture associated with our churches, armed services, state events, etc., that currently have a close association with religion. I’m in no hurry to see these go since they are quite benign, colourful and culturally of historic interest, in terms of the state. I don’t, for example, have an issue with traditions that date back to more feudal times, such as the monarchy and knighthoods and so on. They just need disassociating from the executive branch of the state.

Intellectual Opposition
The intellectual objection to theism, as opposed to particular religious organisations that implement the varieties of theism, is purely that, an intellectual one of the understanding of the philosophy and science of it all. Again the free-thought nature of secular humanism supports the unrestricted examination of all philosophical views and wants to engage freely in debates about these issues. Historically it has been religion that has wanted to censor views and interfere in the free thinking, free expression and free action of others that don’t agree with the religion.

It’s a bit rich for anyone associated with these ancient religions to accuse atheists of censorship – it couldn’t be further from the truth for atheism, while at the same time most religions don’t have a good record on censorship.

Anti-religion is the opposition to some or all religions. Personally I am strongly anti-religious when it comes to the more dogmatic religions.

There are many aspects of Islam, such as it’s political desire to dominate that is such an important and freely expressed part of that religion, and the discrimination inherent in Islam against non-Muslims in Islamic state governance. These are inherent parts of Islam, given that they are stated in the Koran or Hadith. Islam would have to go through a radical change for me not to be anti-Islam. But there are probably many Muslims who would like to see such change, and I’d support them in that without wishing to have them give up non-political or otherwise humane aspects of their faith. If some Muslims think atheists have an unfair view of Islam then they need to start making their more moderate voices heard, not only by atheists, but by the more radical Muslims.

There are many aspects of fundamentalist Christianity that make me anti-those sects too, such as the intense indoctrination of children into psychologically damaging beliefs about being sinners and being damned to hell. I am less anti-liberal-Christianity, though I do disagree with its ideas on intellectual grounds. Other atheists may have a more blanket anti-religious stance.

Atheists generally do want to stop faith schools, political privilege, any particularly unfair practices, and to work towards a secular state.

Atheists generally are willing to debate theism and atheism on intellectual philosophical grounds.

Atheists may also be happy to see the back of religion. But one of the main principles of free-thought humanist atheism is the right to practice ones own belief system, and so we would want to defend anyone’s right to belief, as long as the practice of that belief is not contrary to the freedoms of other people.

My personal feeling is that I have no problem with self-funded religions and places of worship. I quite like some aspects of the CoE; I like to visit old churches; I enjoy some religious music, though I have no interest in the content of any songs or hymns; I like to visit grand cathedrals and mosques. I suppose my interest is atmospheric and historic. I have fond memories of some vicars from when I was young in the Boys Brigade – even our local tyrant vicar was fair. So, other than the issues above I’m not that anti-religious.

And I enjoy a good argument.

So, in general atheists don’t want to burn theists at the stake, stone them or decapitate them, or condemn them to hell or whatever the atheist equivalent might be (which according to some theists would be for them to become atheists). Live and let live – if only the religious would.

4 thoughts on “Atheists Against Religion – Misconceptions

  1. “The God hypothesis is a reasonable one”

    Really? How so? It is nothing more than an emotion based belief. There is no evidence for it. It is nothing more than a primitive projection of human beings limited perspective onto the universe borne out of a tendency to look for patterns and assume intelligent agency. It is no more valid than any other appeal to magic and should be treated as such. The fact that human beings are still discussing it is down to emotional factors and the scariness of life because there is no more evidence for god now than there was 1000 years ago, which was none. The set of possible answers other than god is not even known and there is no way to evaluate the probabilities. This makes it utterly pointless to even consider the issue of gods.

  2. Hi Simon,

    “It is nothing … no way to evaluate the probabilities.”

    I agree with tall that.

    “This makes it utterly pointless to even consider the issue of gods.”

    In practical terms, I agree.

    But any particular imaginative speculative idea outside the range of what we can examine can be explored in the imagination.

    The general notion of there being something outside or beyond this universe in some sense is not an uncommon one, even in speculative theoretical physics and cosmology.

    The notion of complex systems being self-aware and acting as agents is one we have concocted to describe ourselves, but I see no evidence of an dualist magic, and so we appear to be biological automata that with some complexity of internal process become these self-aware agency machines.

    While we have a handle on the scale of processes within this universe that go from the inert to the intelligent we have no idea what limits their are to the natural processes that cause self-awareness outside our universe. So, to imagine their might be such entities is no more speculative than there not being – unless you can come up with something that demonstrates why there should not be such things.

    The gods of the emotion based beliefs you speak of seem clearly, from history, to have arisen by an extrapolation of what we see in ourselves. But once the idea has been had it seems reasonable to say, OK, these gods are invented by us, but what is actually determining that something like that is not possible?

    In that vague sense it’s just another concept. It is no more than imagining that intelligence might take forms we are not aware of. It’s no more strange than other philosophical ideas, such as solipsism.

    So, the ‘hypothesis’ is in the sense in which Laplace used it. He had no need for it, and nor have I. But I’ve no refutation of the idea. So I have no need to disprove it.

    It’s enough to say there is zero evidence for it and, in that context, to argue against the religious when they make claims about particular gods.

    As a humanist I’ve no need or desire to stop people believing things I have no way of refuting. It’s only the practical application – the impositions of the religions – that matter, in practice.

    Further more, I don’t think it’s necessary of even helpful to pretend such ideas are refuted. The strength of a science based atheism for me comes from not requiring that I dismiss ideas out of hand, and not dismiss ideas totally that I cannot disprove. The contingency of our knowledge is a strength, in that through it it is far easier to argue for the contingency of the knowledge claims of theists, and from there we get back to empiricism being the best route to knowledge.

    This set of posts describe this in more detail:

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