Saturday, June 30, 2007

Preaching Atheism

Every once in a while, atheists bring up the topic of whether atheism should be “preached” the way other religions are – whether atheists should be going to the effort of converting others to their point of view. Some object that one of the things they dislike so much about religion are the efforts its followers go into to convert others. They have such distaste for it, they hate to do this themselves.

However, a look at the claims I have been making over the past week about the wrong of teaching religion to children provides an argument in favor of promoting atheism – though it argues most strongly in favor of a type of indirect promotion.

In order to discuss the issue of teaching atheism, I need to address what it means to say that one is teaching (or promoting) atheism. Quite simply, I am going to define it as telling somebody that the proposition P, where P = “There is at least one god” is almost certainly false. (I do not hold that atheism is the lack of a belief in God. Any definition that classifies rocks and cats as being atheists is misusing the term, typically for rhetorical purposes.)

Almost Certainly

The phrase ‘almost certainly’ is important here. A great many advocates of theism accuse atheism as being another type of faith. They portray atheists as saying that it is certainly the case that no God exists, and that this cannot be known without having perfect knowledge of every fact in the universe, or on the basis of faith. Therefore, they argue, atheism is just another religion.

Those who use this argument show the same type of intellectual recklessness that I accused Michael Behe of in “Epistemic Negligence in Teaching Religion. It’s a false claim – a lie – and the type of lie that people use when they are more interested in power and glory for themselves than in truth. It is, indeed, ironic that the public advocates of atheism are accused of criticizing a straw-man version of religion, and yet we hear almost no criticism of those who repeatedly use this straw-man version of atheism. It is yet another example of the double moral standard we live under, where the ‘morality’ of theists is found in the fact that their wrongs simply are not counted.

Anyway, if it is true that the proposition ‘there is at least one god’ is almost certainly false, and if false beliefs cause people to make mistakes that interfere with the fulfillment of their desires, then it is a benefit to know that this is true. However, this benefit is proportional to the mistakes that are prevented by knowing this truth. If these harms are minor, then there is reason to focus instead on teaching beliefs that have greater importance – greater impact. However, if this proposition has the greatest impact, then teaching it should be a priority over other, less consequential, propositions.

The Value of Teaching Atheism

Ultimately, I see no particular value in teaching people that it is almost certainly the case that no God exists, period, with the existence of God being the focus of attention. Saying that no God exists does not imply anything about what does exist. Saying that there almost certainly is no God to tell you what is morally obligatory, permissible, or prohibited says nothing about what (if anything) is obligatory, permissible, or prohibited. Because so little follows from, “It is almost certainly the case that no God exists,” there are a great many propositions that are more important to teach than this one.

The proposition “at least one God possibly exists” is also a very weak claim. Any other view that one can imagine – except a view that say that it is not the case that at least one God probably exists – is compatible with this view. For example, it is compatible with the view that there was once a God who set of a ‘big bang’ which ultimately resulted in the existence of humans as a result of a set of natural laws that this creature established at the start of space/time.

A Focus on Harms Done

Because of the weakness of these propositions tells us that we have better things to do with our time – more important issues to write about. More important than the claim that a God exists are facts regarding global warming, regarding the use of drugs (including cigarettes and tobacco), regarding how to do math, regarding hurricane, tornados, tsunamis, forest fires, house fires, proper use of safety equipment, nutrition, propositions associated with one’s chosen vocation (or relevant in making an informed choice about a future vocation), pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease, or all transmitted disease for that matter, and so on.

This fact is that many who believe in God go far beyond the simple statement, “At last one God exists.” They go on to add a huge list of additional premises, and those additional premises are causing a great deal of death and suffering. With respect to these other premises – those that really do lead to harm – it is now much more reasonable to demand that they put their beliefs on a much more solid foundation or be held in contempt because of the harms they do to others in the name of (their view of) God.

For example, global warming will likely thwart a great many future desires. It is very important to get people to know and understand the propositions relevant to the significance of this threat. However, there are those who dismiss the problem of thwarting future desires because they hold that those future desires will not exist, or the effect of global warming on those future desires will be thwarted (or outweighed) by The Rapture or some other end-of-the-world scenario.

Against such person, I have no problem with somebody saying (when it is true), “Your religion has turned you into somebody who will do more harm to your fellow human than any Nazi or Soviet soldier. Global warming will do far more destruction than any of these evils, and your refusal to defend your fellow humans against this threat in the name of God is no different than refusing to stand up to Hitler or Stalin in the name of God. That makes you a truly evil person, and all of those who will come to be harmed, and all those who care about those who will be harmed, will have reason to despise you because you thought that your God told you to stand by and do nothing to help or protect them.”

The same is true of anybody who takes a position against embryonic stem cell research in the name of God. “Your religion has made you far more dangerous than the followers of Osama bin Laden or any Crusader or Inquisitor in human history. A suicide bomber can usually take out only a few people. In exceptionally rare cases, one can kill hundreds. It is possible that, some day, the losses from a single attack may be in the millions. However, you and those who think like you do will rack up a list of victims in the hundreds of millions to billions. You will rack up these victims in the name of God. If the evil in a religion is tied to its body count, yours clearly qualifies as one of the worst.”

There are also the facts, discussed earlier in my post “Religion and Bad Desires”, where children who are taught religion are often taught false beliefs and false desires that will make them a threat to themselves and others as are taught to spend their lives pursuing an end that will never be realized. They sacrifice so much (that is harmless to themselves or to others) in the name of preserving their chance for an afterlife that they will also never have – because no afterlife exists. Because their life in this world is made less than it would have otherwise been, and the promised afterlife never happens, we have religion promoting that which is bad without delivering any real-world good to compensate.

These are just some examples of the real-world harms that real-world people are being made to suffer for the sake of an entity that does not exist.

That is the main point of this argument. It is meant to shift the focus on the religious debate to the fact that, in those cases that matter the most, it is the case that, “Your religion is making you a dangerous person who has decided to devote his live to options that add death and suffering to the world.” It ranks religious beliefs according to the amount of death and suffering they contribute to, and goes most strongly after those that cause the most death and suffering.

It seems, to me, to be a more reasonable focus.


Ron Hager said...

I say: "It does not bother me that people believe in a god or two, but I am very opposed to religion."

People should believe what they want, but they should also allow others to do the same. Preaching anything gets in the way of that.

Preachers of Religion or Atheism should be exiled to some other planet. Then it will be a lot quieter here.

Psychols said...

What is the objective of trying to teach religous people that religion is probably wrong? Is there compelling evidence, beyond Hitchen's anecdotal stuff, that American religious folks really do foster mid east turmoil to prepare the way for the second coming? Do they ignore global warming because they expect the rapture soon? If these are just assumptions then the debate you start may do little more than anger or offend those you seek to help.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

the crater lake hermit

I can't tell if your comments are in agreement with what I wrote, or not.

I have written that 'preaching atheism' is most worthwhile when it is directed against policies that cost people their life, health, and well-being.

There are certainly some things more inconvenient than having advocates of a particular point of view in our society - when the advocates of contrary points of view are pursuing policies that spread death, disease, and conflict.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


There is compelling evidence that some Christians support conflict in the Middle East, and that some Christians do not take global warming seriously because the rapture is near.

Indeed, many evangelical Christians believe that the world will end in their lifetime. It would be insane to assume that this has no effect on their attitude towards policies that will have an effect after they die.

It is, of course, bigotry to say, "Some religious people do X because of their religion, which is bad, so all religion is bad."

I do not use this argument.

I use the argument, "Some religious people do X because of their, which is bad, and those people should be condemned for it."

In other words, condemnation is only appropriate for those who are guilty, but condemnation is appropriate for those who are guilty.

Psychols said...


My initial question neither agreed nor disagreed with your position, it just sought clarification. It is an appealing argument. Those who promote dangerous or harmful policy in the name of religion should be challenged by both atheists and people of faith.

Global warming: Religion typically doesn’t instruct people to be irresponsible in worldly matters. So-called Green Christians say that biblical emphasis is on stewardship. People who ignore the problem while they await the Rapture should be challenged but I think they are going to be more receptive to people of the same faith than atheists. Religion teaches the faithful to ignore non believers (sometimes called the “fools”).

The Middle East: Hitchens contends that some people believe that replicating the signs of Armageddon will hasten the Rapture but there doesn’t seem to be much compelling evidence that such people influence world affairs. It sounds a bit like conspiracy theory and really weird conspiracy theory at that.

Embryonic Stem-Cell Research: Your argument is appealing here. Many mainstream churches say that life begins at conception. I don’t really understand how they came up with it because I know if no religious text that would justify it but come up with it they did. It suggests that embryonic stem cells are human life. The destruction of human life for research purposes is abhorrent so it follows that embryonic stem cell research is abhorrent. It is difficult to be “tolerant” of this religious teaching because it is likely to increase death and pain As someone who would identify himself as a Christian I struggle with Christian churches endorsing a policy that increases pain and death.

Condoms in Africa: Your suggestion appeals here too. Years ago I advised my kids to refrain from sex if they could and to use a condom when they couldn’t. I am not sure why so many churches don’t take the same approach. In some respects it is the most compelling of situations because there cannot be much debate that condoms in Africa would alleviate so very much pain and death.

I suppose I agree with most of what you have said. Unless I am mistaken, you don’t condemn religion. That would just alienate people of faith. Instead you challenge and condemn harmful action that may stem from religious interpretation. Do I have it right?

Alonzo Fyfe said...


You are correct to note that I do not condemn religion per se.

If I condemned a person for thinking that something is true that I think is false, I would have to condemn everybody that exists. And they would all have to condemn me.

So, I look at what other people believe and ask, "Does this make that person a threat to myself and others?"

The proposition, "God exists", taken by itself, implies very little. It does not make an individual a threat to others.

On the other hand, the proposition, "A god exists that commands that I kill all who do not believe in him," or "A god exists that commands that I stand in the way of others obtaining medical care that could save their life or cure an injury," makes the individual a threat to others.

This is the criterion I go by and that I defend in this blog.

However, my reason for not condemning religion per se is not because it would alienate people of faith. My reason is that condemnation is justified when it is used as a way to inhibit harmful desires. Believing that a god exists simply is not the type of thing that warrants condemnation.