So, an atheist kills a bunch of religious people, and the religious can now cite an example that shows that their religion isn’t that bad after all.
Not so fast.
Atheism vs Theism
Both Atheism and Theism are simply opposing philosophical positions. Any other system’s metaphysical philosophy is ‘atheistic’ if it rejects theism.
A particular theism might be vary vague – “I believe there is one, and possibly more gods, but I don’t know whether any of the religions are true …”.
Or it might be specific yet still ‘other worldly’ – “I believe that there must have been a creator god, but I have no idea what he intends for us, and I offer no moral guidance based on my belief that there is a god.”
Or it might be committed to the variable claims about the god or gods of a particular religion, which may have many sects.
Atheism is pretty much opposition to these sorts of theism, usually on the grounds that there is no evidence or reason to believe specific claims, or support the level of hopefulness that the ‘spiritual’ seem to be clinging onto. In this respect Atheism is a negative position: it simply rejects the claim that there are gods.
Note that Atheism does not assert that there are definitely no gods.
Some atheists might assert that there are absolutely no gods, but that isn’t much better than asserting absolutely that there are gods. You might call such an atheism a ‘faith’ based atheism. But if you take the trouble to pin atheists down they generally agree that they do not hold such a strong opinion, but merely act as if they do because that’s often easier to express.
But this acting as if there are no gods is a fair position to take. Christians act as if there are no Norse gods. They act as if there are no fairies or Santa. (Note that playing along with such fantasies for the fun they provide for children isn’t acting with true belief.)
Religions are a subset of Theism …
[Agnostics may not deny the existence of god, but they don’t positively assert there are gods either.]
Religions take the basic philosophical position of theism, thinking there are some teleological entities that created our universe, and add many more specific claims:
- Our god is the only god.
- Our god cares about us.
- Our god dictates our moral codes.
- Our god wants us to punish people that don’t follow his codes.
- Our god wants us to punish people that don’t believe in him.
- Our god doesn’t want us to eat pig meat and thinks it a moral obligation that we don’t.
- Our god wants us to punish people that have sex outside the specific type of union sanctioned by our god (monogamy for Christians, up to four wives, but one husband for Muslims)
- Our god will not remarry divorcees – old school Catholic; god changes his mind sometimes; he’s fickle; or humans decide he changed his mind.
Most religious people are born into, indoctrinated into, their religion. And the religion may provide many social benefits if it’s a large religious community.
But there can also be great costs for those that simply cannot continue to believe. In some more fundamentalist communities, ex-believers can be ostracised, might suffer social and economic hardship if rejected by the community, and might even risk death. If the religion prescribes death for apostates, as is the case for Islam, then even if the religion isn’t the state authority, believers are easily persuaded to take it upon themselves.
The list of additional beliefs on top of basic theism, including the many moral prescriptions and proscriptions, is long. It depends on the religion, the sect within the religion, and the personal willingness of individuals to follow the rules of the religion.
This becomes a little tricky for the religious that try to divert criticism away from their religion, when opinions differ so widely within:
- God changes his mind often, it seems, judging by how religious opinions change.
- Individuals make up their own minds what they take from their religion … you’d think the religious would therefore appreciate how atheists make up their own minds about morality.
- The greatest opponents to a particular religious believer’s views are … other religious people. Islamic terrorism? Many victims are other Muslims, for being the wrong type of Muslim.
The variety of religious belief is often greater than the difference between Atheism and a particular Religion. Modern Anglicans that accept secular liberal democracy, have no problem with homosexuality, even in the church, are for full gender equality, and gender identity. They have much more in common with the social and political leanings of many atheists, than with even their fundamentalist Christian brethren, let alone than with people of other faiths.
And yet, the religious stick together. It only takes the whiff of an atheist with a strong opinion for the ‘interfaith’ community to band together in offended outrage. And let anyone speak out about the Islam of the Islamic extremists and even moderate Muslims will come to Islam’s defence as much as agree with an atheist that there might be a problem with the religion.
[Update 5/12/2017] There was greater outrage that Trump retweeted a lead figure one of Britain First’s outspoken anti-Islam activists than at the content of the videos the activist posted. One was ‘fake news’, but the other two were of Muslims persecuting others. Despite the acts of the Muslims, this was actually seen as anti-Muslim bigotry. Take a moment. Here’s the upshot: every tweet condemning German neo-Nazis is anti-German bigotry; every tweet showing and condemning videos of Britain First are anti-British bigotry, and by extension, anti-Muslim bigotry, since, as is belaboured painfully, British Muslims are British. This is the state of play in 2017, where any criticism of Islam is interpreted as ‘Islamophobia’, ‘anti-Muslim bigotry’ … and yes, ‘racism’.
Political Ideologies of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, …
Whenever an atheist argues with Christians or Muslims, it’s not long before we get the Hitler, Stalin, Fascism, Nazism, Communism line thrown at us. And no matter how often it’s pointed out that this isn’t a valid argument, it still keeps on coming up. Often from the same people that have had this pointed out before.
Political ideologies can of course cross boundaries of Atheism-Theism. Christians can be socialists. In the 70s it was quite common for Islamists to lean towards socialism … maybe they hadn’t realised how far right Islam really is … or maybe they had.
And, Hitler was not an atheist. He might not have favoured the established churches that opposed his thugs, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t religious. Many Nazi ideas were based on the old Teutonic ideals of religiously motivated knights.
Communism? Don’t think that political ideology stops you believing in a personal god … it just becomes less convenient and maybe a little dangerous to admit to one, but Communism does not preclude theism.
These political ideologies tell us little about the wide variety of atheists. The Atheism that some political ideologies might embrace informs the ideology with nothing other than the fact that there is no evidence for any god.
Religious Political Ideologies
Some political ideologies are religious ones.
And most religious ideologies are political – they are inherently so because they dictate the behaviours of people, and that’s a very political thing to do. And they usually have a lot to say on social issues … not all good. Homophobia, sex outside marriage, modesty, … religions can be obsessed with sex, particularly with regard to women, and if feminism isn’t a political matter I’m not sure what is.
It is possible to believe in a religion and treat it as an entirely personal belief system that determines how you live your own life, without you making any claims about what it implies for anyone else.
But this is rare. Most religions, and especially religious organisations, are very keen on telling: religious believers how they should act; non-believers that they are anything from misguided to evil; the religious what they should do to the non-believers: killing apostates, bombing abortion clinics, punishing people for blasphemy (the modern version is imprisoning people for ‘hate speech’).
Christianity, as supposedly expressed by Jesus, is a “render unto Caesar” kind of religion – a reasonable basis of separation of church and state. However, the Catholic church in Rome put a swift stop to that. Christianity, especially through many bishops and popes, made state business very much church business. The US continues this tradition by distorting the intentions of the founding fathers and making it the godly nation the founding fathers tried to avoid – they’d seen enough of that in Europe.
Islam is very specifically, inherently, by design, a political ideology. Only Muslims can hold certain offices of state. Muslims and non-Muslims are taxed differently.
Many Muslims will try to pull a fast one by telling you that Islam insists that Muslims follow the laws of the the land in which they find themselves … where Muslims are a minority that does not hold power. But Islam also requires Muslims to spread Islam … which means it would eventually become a majority. This is why many opponents of Islam also oppose too much immigration from Muslim countries.
Of course many Muslims don’t want a dominant Islam any more than non-Muslims do. Many escape the domination of Islam of their homelands, and are quite happy to live in secular democracies where they can practice their religion in peace.
But then we also see a lot of duplicitous language from supposedly ‘moderate’ Muslims that think homosexuality should be illegal, and make excuses for their more extreme brothers and sisters (“Nothing to do with Islam”).
In Europe the atheists and secularists have been opposing the power of the church for centuries, letting the humanistic principles take precedence. There’s still plenty of religious protectionism that goes on – a refusal to give up the reigns of power, as diminished as they are. Why the heck do Bishops get seats in the UK House of Lords – and why is there even such an unelected house still?
But I’ve seen and heard much more of the stranglehold religion has in some parts of the US, where the mark of a good plumber is whether he’s a good Christian or not. “In God We Trust” – indeed they do.
So, religions are political, and as such are as fair game for criticism and ridicule as any non-religious political ideology.
And being offended when religions are criticised is just one more political tool the religious try to pull. It may be a genuine feeling, and so they try to give it moral weight. Hence, critics of Islam are labelled haters of Muslims.
But, realising that atheists tend not to be impressed by the special pleading for the religion, that atheists aren’t taken in by the piety, the hurt feelings, what are the religious to do? Compare their religion to atheism? They can’t. They are not comparable.
So, religious friends, you can’t really compare Atheism with your religion.
You can compare Atheism with Theism, if you’re talking only about the philosophy, reason, evidence, to support either case.
But you can’t compare Atheism as such with Christianity or Islam. Yes, I know that atheists argue against Christianity and Islam, but they do so on two quite separate grounds:
1 – A disagreement with the underlying theistic claims of your religion. If your religion relies on a claim that there is one or more gods, and there isn’t, then 2 is irrelevant. But, we humour you anyway and so …
2 – A disagreement with the moral assertions that you think your imaginary god has prescribed. It’s not like we disagree with all your moral positions, we just hold those we agree on for different reasons, for which we don’t need an imaginary god. But those Humanist atheists also find many of the moral guides of religion to be immoral, barbaric at times, and remnants of ancient codes of conduct prescribed at the time of the religion’s inception.
The thing is, Atheism prescribes no moral position whatsoever. It really is merely the rejection of your unsubstantiated claims about your god.
And this, of course, leads to another failure to understand atheism: “Atheists have no morals. They are nihilists.” Not so.
We have morals. We just don’t think some imaginary friend dictates them; and we very specifically reject many of the immoral codes that gods supposedly do dictate.
But you’re nearly right. it’s not our atheism that determines our morals, it’s something else.
Many atheists find other reasons for their morality – many simply acknowledging that harming others isn’t nice. People and animals don’t like to suffer harm, so we prefer to minimise that. It seems a very simple idea, but it’s amazing how far you can go with just that basic starting point. And it also avoids the need to punish people for daft reasons – such as for having sex outside marriage, for not being heterosexual, for drinking, for working on the Sabbath.
[In the UK the Shops Bill 1986 was defeated; the Sunday Trading Act 1994 eventually introduced limited Sunday trading … so strong was Christianity’s hold over British life. Now we’re finding we have to start again, with Islam.]
Many atheists want to live by their own moral ideals, and many collect these ideas about living a moral life into a set of codes. It’s not that these codes are necessary, but they are helpful in declaring some minimal set of behaviours we agree to abide by.
And one example of such a guide is the Humanist Manifesto. Take a look at it. You’ll find no diktats about women being lesser than men, or how to deal with the evil of homosexuality, or what the best way is to kill apostates. Humanists don’t have to look for ‘nuance’ and ‘scholarship’ to explain away inconvenient passages ‘revealed’ through some desert warlord or hippy.
So, if you want to carry out any comparisons I’d suggest you try these:
– Atheism vs Theism
– Humansim vs Christianity, Islam, …
You might find that many atheists tell you they don’t belong to any Humanist organisation, because they would rather not belong to any group that sets their ethical standards for them, as they can figure it out for themselves. They have a point. We are free to decide our own moral codes, and put them to the test in our societies.
My personal subscription to Humanism is one of convenience, and support for many of the programs of Humanists UK (formerly British Humanist Association).
Other atheists might join other groups of common interest, such as the many secular and skeptical societies around the world. Ex-Muslims have a shared experience that brings them together in various groups – often with the added benefit of providing a safe community to those ex-Muslims that are still at risk from their families.
Let that sink in, and imagine a child of Humanists being ostracised, forced into marriage, threatened with death, killed. I don’t know of any such incident. Has one ever made the news?
The next time you’re arguing with atheists on Twitter, they are unlikely to be Nazis. So when you pull the “What about Hitler, Stalin ..” it’s a Straw Man. If you want to argue for your religion, why don’t you try coming up with good reasons for it, not excusing the bad stuff by dragging in some irrelevant comparison.
And for pities sake, give up on trying to defend the indefensible. Your religious texts are full of ancient stuff that really doesn’t stand up to our moral standards today. Some religious passages are outright contraventions of the human rights that most people would want to sign up to. Stop defending that crap with ‘nuance’ and ‘scholarship’ – it makes you look like damned fools that are fooling no one but themselves.
And that atheist killer you want to call a terrorist because you’re sick of hearing about Islamic terrorists? Could be they are genuinely crazy, or have some motive other than their hate for religion.
And even if they carried out the heinous act because they hate religion and religious believers, there’s no Atheist Bible, and nothing in the Humanist Manifesto to suggest they should … unlike your religious books. Not even The God Delusion, Letter to a Christian Nation, or any of the New Atheist books.
If some killers that are atheists really are killing for atheism, there’s nothing in atheism, or Humanism, that can be removed that would stop them. There are no doctrines we can reject. There’s no “Believers are children of Satan” sermons going on. Pointing out the problems with religion doesn’t automatically create Atheist Killers. Sadly it does all too often create killers of atheists.
But, hey, if someone has a terrorist agenda, against believers, for atheism, then pretty much all humanist atheists will oppose them. I’ll happily denounce any such terrorists. But I won’t be able to point to any atheist texts that has incited them. I can only point to Humanist texts that are very short and very explicit in their opposition to doing harm. There is no Humanist Prophet whose example I should follow that includes his beheading of enemies.
The Humanist Manifesto is so clear in rejecting doing harm to others there’s no way you can mistakenly or otherwise derive some crazy idea that it’s a good idea to kill believers.
This cannot be said of the books of Christianity and Islam. Alongside all the lovely stuff is some seriously dark and immoral doctrine.
Look, if you want to call some atheist killer an atheist terrorist, knock yourself out. Any disagreement from atheists will be on a technicality, not for some fear of having to explain away our inconvenient texts. Let me help you out with A Guide To Terrorists For Idiots.