JR'S Free Thought Pages
Cogito, Ergo Atheos Sum
God is everywhere. The notion of God and references to God permeate our culture in so many ways that most non-believers have become oblivious to its ubiquitous nature.
Long before we have achieved any modicum of intellectual autonomy most of us are taught to believe in God, the efficacy of prayer and a prodigious mythology of religious doctrine. Anachronistic absurdities such as the Lord’s Prayer and Bible readings have been removed from our public schools, but the education system has done little or nothing to nurture an environment of skepticism and free thought. It has refused to introduce any meaningful critical thinking programs and has merely continued with its didactic teaching methods and traditional role as purveyor of docility and the status quo, providing incubators for cranking out “another brick in the wall”. Most private schools are even more deplorable in stifling individuality and, in my view, are simply more efficient vehicles at churning out mindless religious and cultural automatons.
Newspapers and other mass media discharge “god talk” ad infinitum. Natural disasters are explained away as “acts of god”, fortuitous events are referred to as “miracles”, politicians rarely make utterances without references to God, you see the Jesus fish on the back of cars, billboards in farm fields and crucifixes on your co-workers, athletes pray before games and thank God for victories, it’s in the lyrics of our National Anthem and even on our currency. The onslaught of religious verbosity, rhetoric and allusion in our culture is like an everlasting blitzkrieg on the intellect from all fronts. In order to defend ourselves we need, in addition to conceptual clarity on religious language, some understanding of the relevant issues.
Eskimo: "If I
did not know about God and sin, would I go to hell?"
- Annie Dillard
Before exploring the particulars of atheistic beliefs and arguments, it is important to clarify what is meant by the word "atheist". The expression “theist” refers to a person who believes in god or gods. The prefix "a-" in the word "atheist" signifies "without" and hence "atheist" literally means "without belief in god or gods". A prevailing misconception about atheism, particularly among Christians, is that an atheist is one who expressly denies the existence of god or gods. Although this common misinterpretation is a subset of atheism sometimes referred to as “strong atheism” it is not the correct definition of atheism in the broader sense. Neither is it consistent with dictionary conceptions of atheism. Genuine atheists do not assert that god does not exist. If this were the case then Christians would be atheists in the sense that they deny the existence of Allah, Zeus, Shiva, Odin and Thor. In short: theism is a belief; atheism is a lack of belief. When one understands the innocuous nature of this conception it is somewhat mystifying why many people are so sensitive about the issue of belief or disbelief in god.
I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours - Stephen Roberts
One is either a theist or an atheist – there is really no legitimate compromise position. If a person possesses a belief that god exists, he is a theist; if the belief in god is not does not exist, he is an atheist. So, when someone identifies themselves as an atheist, all one can assume is that they lack belief in the existence of any god or gods. This analysis can be applied to belief about the existence of any other entity or phenomenon. One either believes in astrology or he does not, one either believes in an “afterlife” or he does not and one either believes in universal gravitation or he does not.
Why do these misconceptions occur? Why do so many theists, in particular, insist on this restrictive narrow sense of atheism? Why do they contend that since they are holding to a belief in the proposition “God exists”, then anyone who does not agree with them must be holding to the negation of that claim, “God does not exist”? This is a serious misunderstanding not only of basic logic but also how human belief systems function.
In my view, the primary reason for this narrow conception of atheism is that it allows the one making the claim, namely the theist, to shift the responsibility for assuming the burden of proof. In this instance Logic 101 comes to the rescue of the atheist in the sense that the burden of proof for anyone making an extraordinary claim must remain with the claimant. In a court of law, for example, the defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty. In other words, when a person is charged with a criminal offence, it is not up to the defendant to prove that he did not commit the crime. This is common knowledge to any intellectually aware junior high school student.
This very same perversion of logic was used by the United States during the “weapons of mass destruction” inspection fiasco during the prelude to the recent Iraqi War in the spring of 2003. When there was almost universal condemnation of a proposed pre-emptive attack on Iraq from the international community and it became quite evident that there was no such weapons to be found by the United Nations inspection team, the United States deviously created a scenario by which the onus was shifted on Iraq to prove that they did not have any such weapons. This created a state of affairs by which the American attack on Iraq became a fait accompli.
The Oxford philosopher Antony Flew has articulated this logical fallacy in his many writings on atheism. A "presumption of atheism", argues Flew, should govern debates between atheists and theists just as the presumption of innocence rules over the debate between defence and prosecution. If the theist cannot demonstrate that his belief is reasonable and justified, then atheism automatically becomes the default position.
My presumption of atheism is closely analogous to the presumption of innocence in the English law; [...] ...the onus of proof...is up to the theist: first, to introduce and defend his proposed concept of God; and, second, to provide sufficient reason for believing that this concept of his does in fact have an application. - Antony Flew
There is also a tendency among some theists to make the error of focusing only on the specific god in which they believe, failing to recognize the fact that atheists don't focus on any particular god. Atheism circumscribes all gods and an atheist can often approach different gods in a variety of ways, depending upon what is demanded by the nature and attributes of the god under discussion.
Thus, when someone claims that a person is an atheist because they "deny the existence of God," we may point out the fundamental errors and misunderstandings implied by such a statement. First, the expression “god” has not been clearly defined - so what the atheist is supposedly denying cannot be automatically assumed. The theist cannot boldly assume that whatever conception he has in mind is necessarily consistent with what the atheist has in mind. Second, as I have previously pointed out, it is not the case that whatever conception of god has been agreed to the atheist must automatically deny its existence. Finally, it may turn out that the concept of God expressed by the theist may be unintelligible due to vagueness or incoherence and not qualify as a candidate for either belief or disbelief. Hence, many exchanges between atheists and theists are mere exercises in futility because the primary conceptual problem of “god” has not been resolved. Unless and until that happens, no serious and productive rational debate can take place.
Most atheists I have met consider themselves realists, embracing a scientific world view that rejects supernatural claims and comforting fictions about an afterlife with some benevolent supreme being that will care for us after we die. To the atheist, all knowledge is fallible and subject to new evidence and arguments and if they were confronted with compelling evidence for the existence of a deity, they would willingly change their minds. There is overwhelming evidence for a natural world and the mortality of all living things as explained by science. Everything we know about consciousness implies that minds and thoughts are a product of material, finite brains and there is nothing to suggest that there is some non-material soul that continues to exists after our death.
Woody Allen, in one of his angst ridden moods, said "If God would only give me a clear sign, like a large deposit in my Swiss bank account?" There is a peculiar sort of argument common among theists concerning God's strange reluctance to make a definitive appearance. The theistic reply to this disturbing fact is often the invocation of the principle that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” Sometimes this is couched in the form of a challenge: “Well, you can’t prove that God doesn’t exist, can you?” The answer to that is, No, you can’t prove that God doesn’t exist any more than you can prove that Santa Claus does not exist. But as I have mentioned earlier, people who don’t believe God exists don’t have to prove God doesn’t exist; the burden of proof for the existence of something as extraordinary as God rests with the claimant. Indeed, it is hard to see what other evidence there could be for something not being there other than the failure to find any evidence that it is there. Something which does not exist leaves no mark, so it can only be an absence of marks of its existence that can provide evidence for its non-existence. Further, this sort of absence really is strong evidence for absence.
I think that in philosophical strictness at the level where one doubts the existence of material objects and holds that the world may have existed for only five minutes, I ought to call myself an agnostic; but, for all practical purposes, I am an atheist. I do not think the existence of the Christian God any more probable than the existence of the Gods of Olympus or Valhalla. To take another illustration: nobody can prove that there is not between Earth and Mars a china teapot revolving in an elliptic orbit, but nobody thinks this sufficiently likely to be taken into account in practice. I think the Christian God just as unlikely. - Bertrand Russell
The Accountability of Atheism
The mere fact that someone doesn't happen to believe in any gods is, for the most part, inconsequential. If atheism is to have any intellectual or moral force, it must come equipped with a strong rational basis. Those reasons cannot simply be found in critiques of religion or arguments against theism. They must be grounded in formal logic and rationality as well as a general program of open-mindedness, skepticism, and critical inquiry.
To argue with a person who has renounced the use of reason is like administering medicine to the dead - Thomas Paine
In his book The Case Against God, George Smith has referred to such a program a "habit of reasonableness." Unreflective and unthinking atheism is no more rational than unthinking theism and atheists are capable of being as unreasonable and irrational as the most rabid theist. The bona fide atheist must maintain a balanced posture of open mindedness and skepticism. He must embrace a spirit of scientific inquiry and avoid taking dogmatic positions on all controversial topics.
The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts - Bertrand Russell
What this means is that we must not focus simply on what we think; instead, we should focus on how we think and how we actually arrived at the beliefs we presently hold. This is the essence of free thought and the scientific temper - the ability to come to independent conclusions on contentious issues without relying on authority, tradition, or emotion to decide what to believe. Skepticism and critical thinking skills are vital dispositional attributes in a democratic society and they must be learned and put into practice. We are not born with skills in logic and critical thinking and although innate intelligence is a great facilitator, it is far from sufficient. This means not just being "reasonable" in one area like religion or politics – critical inquiry and skepticism must be practiced across all aspects of human endeavor, especially those areas where we have an emotional or personal investment in what we believe. It is with those aforementioned beliefs that we tend to be most vulnerable to self deception and wishful thinking.
The essence of the liberal outlook lies not in what opinions are held, but how they are held: instead of being held dogmatically, they are held tentatively, and with consciousness that new evidence may at any moment lead to their abandonment. This is the way in which they are held in science, as opposed to the way in which they are held in theology. – Bertrand Russell
Attacking or even tactfully criticizing religion is rarely very effective on those holding deeply held beliefs and tends to occupy the time of too many atheists. There is an old adage that one should never carry on a debate with a fool, particularly in public, since the mere fact of participation lends credibility to the issue being contested. In addition, if an audience is present their views are almost invariably in sympathy with the theist and they very likely are unable to recognize the distinction between a cogent argument and a fallacious one. This is the problem often confronted by scientists when they foolishly engage in debates with Creationists. In any event, assaults on religion even within the context of a lively rational debate will usually not generate changes in peoples' beliefs or behavior. A more effective approach is to incorporate such critiques within a general program of skepticism, logic and critical thinking.
Broad encouragement of the wider use of reason and logic in all areas of life at least has a chance of creating changes that will have a positive impact for democratic societies. Encouraging a disposition to skepticism in others may eventually get them to approach their religious beliefs in a more critical manner, even if religion is never actually discussed. Critical thinking programs are seriously lacking in our schools in spite of the efforts of university philosophy of education departments to get their excellent curricula implemented. Excellent critical thinking programs have been around for several years including courses in secular ethics and getting these programs into the schools would surely be a good place to start. However, the primary obstacle is the fact that religious criticism is one of our culture’s sacred cows. In recent years many school boards have become dominated by evangelical Christian fundamentalists who, among other things, ban books and attempt to bring creationism into the science classes. In my own community the Christian dominated school board has spent several million dollars attempting to ban three very well written books which were designed to enlighten students on the realities of gay families. In addition to ever-increasing problems within the school system, analysis and critiques of religion in the media are not only virtually non-existent but corporate newspapers and television stations, in particular, are major purveyors of pseudoscience, religious obscurantism, mysticism, and New Age nonsense.
If we can't think for ourselves, if we're unwilling to question authority, then we're just putty in the hands of those in power. But if the citizens are educated and form their own opinions, then those in power work for us. In every country, we should be teaching our children the scientific method and the reasons for a Bill of Rights. With it comes a certain decency, humility and community spirit. In the demon-haunted world that we inhabit by virtue of being human, this may be all that stands between us and the enveloping darkness. – Carl Sagan [from "The Demon Haunted World"]
Thus, an atheism which is both morally and intellectually meaningful is one which is deeply submerged in a scientific world view and which is part of a general program of skepticism and critical inquiry in all areas of life.
Atheists who want to have a positive impact should make every effort to become a role model of rationality and ethical behavior. Although no one has ever been killed in the name of atheism it remains a difficult path, primarily because of the merciless unjust discrimination and persecution of atheists by mainstream religions, particularly Christianity and Islam. The very word “atheist”' often conjures up images of an immoral, threatening misanthrope - an apostle of destructive cynicism and pessimism. The source of most of this hostility is attributable to the efforts of religious zealots who advance the inane fallacious notion that there exists a necessary logical connection between belief in God and ethics.
In the face of this mythology, referred to by some as the “evil atheist conspiracy”, it becomes even more important that the rational atheist be continually vigilant and equipped to take on the role of the devil’s advocate by questioning the status quo of popularly held beliefs and what passes for "conventional wisdom". And it must be stressed again - an atheist who questions mainstream religious premises, but not political or social ones, is not really a freethinker or someone who has truly adopted a habit of “reasonableness." Consequently, a logically and morally consistent atheist must frequently adopt the posture of an iconoclast in his culture, tenaciously calling into question many popularly accepted ideas and cultural norms.
To reiterate: the difference between atheism and theism has no great moral or intellectual significance. What is significant, however, is the methodological difference between the use of skepticism, reason, logic, and science on the one hand and credulity, irrationality, dogmatism, intuition, and mysticism on the other.
On the issue of human conduct, it can be strongly argued that religious ethics are based entirely on the notions of an expectation of reward and fear of punishment, thus reducing morality to mere prudence. There is no rational basis for the perception promoted by theologians that there is a necessary logical connection between belief in God and morality. It is not only naïve, but blatantly false. It’s simply not the case that if there isn’t a God, social chaos will ensue. Humans are social animals who prefer to live with each other and are likely to recognize that in order to do so, whether or not there’s a God, they have to devise some rules, such as not arbitrarily clubbing each other over the head, and institutions to support those rules. Of course, there’s no guarantee that people, left to their own devices, will produce a democratic, egalitarian moral order, but then, people left to God’s devices have produced more than their share of moral tyrannies.
Moreover, there is no evidence that theists are better behaved or more ethical than non-believers. Not only have psychological studies failed to find a significant correlation between frequency of religious worship and moral conduct, but convicted criminals, when compared with the general population, are much more likely to be theists than atheists. Six of the seven states in the USA with the highest crime rates are in the Bible Belt and there are surprisingly few non-believers in prison. In study a few years ago of 85,000 convicts, only 150 were avowed atheists – less than 2%. In a more recent study it was found that 50% of those in prison are Catholics compared with 25% in the general population and atheists comprised only .2% - that's one-fifth of one percent compared with 10% in the general population! Although one cannot draw any strong inferences from these studies, they are interesting stats nevertheless. In many European countries religion plays a much smaller role in people's lives than it does in countries like the United States where levels of violence and social dysfunction are significantly higher. Were a lack of religion any sort of cause of violence, then we would find higher amounts of violence in countries like Sweden and Denmark rather than Ireland and the United States, where both religion and violence are ubiquitous in daily life.
If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed. - Albert Einstein
Facts like these must lead any rational person to consider religion as a solution to our ills - real or perceived - with deep skepticism. As history has shown, religion has in fact done even more to promote base inhumanity especially when it has become aligned with ruling political powers. It has been a common pattern throughout human history that wherever religious dogmas have gained worldly influence or domination, violence was abetted rather than diminished. Even if a person were to successfully argue that none of the violence was caused by religion, the fact would remain that religion not only failed to stop it, but has actually served as a useful mechanism for those perpetuating it. The arguments are strongly supported by historical evidence and by merely observing the root cause of most conflicts that are taking place even in the world today. One only needs to examine the barbarous history of the Crusades, Inquisition, Protestant Reformation and numerous wars of religion resulting in the extermination and persecution of peoples of different race and religion. The Christian missionary zeal of the British and Spanish conquerors of the Americas, for example, ultimately resulted in the slaughter of tens of millions of indigenous peoples over a period of several centuries. Religiously based conflicts continue today in places like the Middle East, Kosovo and Northern Ireland. The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York on September 2001 were quite clearly religiously motivated but so were the subsequent American led retributive assaults on both Afghanistan and Iraq. In his speeches George W. Bush, a fundamentalist “born again” Christian, relentlessly invokes God and uses religiously charged language - even imprudently using the word “crusade” on one occasion, emphasizing his reliance on faith and prayer as the forces that guide him in his political decisions.
The Credibility of Agnosticism
Many people who adopt the label of agnostic reject the label of atheist because there is a common perception that agnosticism is a more "reasonable" position while atheism is more "dogmatic," ultimately indistinguishable from theism except in the details. Although agnostics may be inclined to believe it and theists may sincerely reinforce it, this stance relies upon more than one misunderstanding about both atheism and agnosticism. As I have mentioned earlier, these misunderstandings are only exacerbated by continual social stigma and discrimination against atheism and atheists based on a fiction mainly attributable to Christians who over the centuries have wrongly depicted atheists as somehow morally depraved. Hence, those who are forthright in stating that they indeed do not believe in gods are still scorned and held in contempt in many parts of the world particularly in countries with zealous religiosity like the United States. "Agnostic", on the other hand, is perceived to be more respectable and agreeable.
Once a person understands what it means to be an atheist, it becomes evident that agnosticism is not a "third way" between atheism and theism. The presence of a belief in a god and the absence of a belief in a god exhaust all of the possibilities. Agnosticism is not about belief in god but about knowledge - it was coined originally to describe the position of a person who could not claim to know for sure if any gods do in fact exist. Generally, when evidence is either lacking or insufficient for belief in X, we must infer directly that X does not exist. This maxim not only applies to the question of God’s existence but to other existential propositions as well. When evidence is sadly lacking that there exists a Leprechaun, Unicorn or Santa Claus, we are compelled to conclude directly that no such being exists.
In order to understand the historical pretense for agnosticism one needs to return to the nineteenth century and Thomas Henry Huxley, a celebrated scientist and defender of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution from the barrage of attacks by the Church at the time. Huxley coined the word “agnostic” as someone who believes that knowledge in a particular realm or subject is unknowable. Hence, from a theist’s perspective agnosticism asserts that some or all knowledge of god cannot be grasped by the human cognitive apparatus. The atheist, on the other hand, might argue that the god concept is unintelligible. Some agnostics do in fact claim that god can never be known while others argue that knowledge of god cannot be gained at the present stage of human evolution and intellectual development.
Because the term "agnosticism" does not make a statement about the existence of god, agnostics can be classified as either theists or atheists. An agnostic theist claims that god's nature is unknowable, but nevertheless still believes that god exists. An agnostic atheist takes this uncertainty one step further, claiming that knowledge of both god's existence and nature cannot be comprehended by man.
It is important to note that agnosticism can only be considered as an alternative to atheism if an atheist is erroneously defined as one who denies the existence of god. Once atheism is correctly defined as the lack of belief in god, the agnostic must choose to be either a theist or an atheist. Moreover, atheism is not a dogmatic position in the sense that if science were to discover compelling evidence of a god, the atheist - being a rational person - would have to concur and become a believer. A more general criticism of the agnostic position is the fact that there are an infinite number of hypothetical beliefs we could possibly hold for which there is little or no evidence and which are non-falsifiable.
Thus far, three facts have been established. First, atheism is defined as the lack of belief in god, not a positive belief that god does not exist. Second, one is either a theist or an atheist; there is no third option. Finally, the burden of proof rests on the theist, since the theist is the one making the claim. It is important to realize that to engage the theist in a philosophical dialogue is generally an exercise in futility. Faith, by its very nature, is impervious to evidence and argument. One of the few exceptions would be if you have a willing audience and wish to enlighten that audience.
The Evil Atheist Conspiracy
As mentioned earlier, misconceptions and stereotypes plague atheism. Atheists are often associated with dishonesty, cruelty, pessimism, communism, and a variety of other perceived unfavorable characteristics that have absolutely no relevance to being an atheist. Most of the myths and transparent fallacies leveled against atheists are extremely negative in nature and have been created and perpetuated by Christian theologians, zealots and apologists. Many atheists even whimsically refer to themselves as “godless heathens” or “pagans”. Although Jesus is often portrayed as the ultimate example of love and tolerance, his compassion seems to mysteriously vanish when atheists are concerned. In the Gospels Jesus threatened that nonbelievers will be thrown "into the furnace of fire" where "men will weep," (Mathew 13, 40-42), and Paul informs us that Jesus shall be
Revealed from heaven…in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance upon those who do not know…the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They shall suffer punishment of eternal destruction…. - (II Thessalonians 1. 7-10)
Many Christian theologians feel that Jesus' vengeance upon heretics will not arrive soon enough so they take it upon themselves to denounce and vilify those unbelievers who have not accepted Christ as their “personal savior”. Televangelists with 1-800 telephone numbers are particularly vehement in their rants about the “evils of secular humanism” as the root cause of cultural decline and society’s ethical vacuum. There is nothing new about these attempts by Christians to set up atheism as the scapegoat for all of humanity’s problems. The most important Christian theologian in history, Thomas Aquinas, wrote that "the sin of unbelief is greater than any sin that occurs in the perversion of morals," and that atheists should "be exterminated from the world by death."
The tolerance, compassion and unconditional love of Christians can often be overpowering and awe-inspiring!
The irony of it all is that Christians have much more to fear from the myriad of competing religions than they do from atheists. This is particularly true in the United States where religion saturates every aspect of the culture and where, according to recent Gallup polls, atheists make up less than 10% of the population. In most European countries non-belief makes up on average 50% of the population and inane proposals such as teaching creationism in the science class do not even appear on the radar screen.
At least in countries where democratic institutions are in place, the atheist of today no longer has to fear death or relentless persecution. Nevertheless, atheists are still depicted by many theologians and religious fundamentalists as a source of moral corruption and evil. There may be no official condemnation of atheism within the government, corporate world, or social institutions, but unwarranted prejudice and bias against atheists still pervades every facet of our culture. The number of people claiming to be atheists or humanists is extremely small and since they have also been effectively marginalized by the dominant culture, their influence on societal norms is basically nil. When is the last time you saw a serious critique of religion in the corporate media or heard of an admitted atheist getting elected to public office?
I don't know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. - President George Bush Sr. (1987)
It is important that people understand the minimal but complete definition of atheism. There is no way of life or universal outlook associated with atheism. There is no official atheist Bible, atheist Church or international missionary movement of atheists. Atheists come from all cultures and social classes, practice all professions, and assume a wide variety of positions on politics, social issues, morality and ethics. Atheist organizations also tend to be small, loosely organized and have little or no political clout. For example, the Canadian Humanist Association has a membership smaller than that of most Baptist church congregations. These facts fly in the face of the ranting and raving of televangelists such as Pat Robertson, Oral Roberts and Jerry Falwell and Christian proselytizers such as Tim LaHaye that humanism and atheism represent some global evil conspiracy that is sending us on the road to perdition.
Perhaps one of the vilest tactics used by theologians is to view atheism as a disorder induced by some sort of vile psychological dysfunction. Christians often refer to atheists as “lost souls”, frequently expressing pity and informing them that their skepticism and lack of belief in god are manifestations of some serious existential angst or bankrupt philosophy of life. Atheism will quickly be linked with a depression that can only be remedied by taking Jesus into one’s heart and finding the path to God. If the atheist is young, he is rebellious or immature - if the atheist is old; he has become cynical or bitter. On the other hand, Sigmund Freud in The Future of an Illusion condemned religion as an “illusion” and a “childhood neurosis”. As an illusion, religious beliefs are based on wishful thinking and an unwillingness to face the stark realities of life and as a neurosis, religion is a pernicious, puerile and corrosive mental disorder requiring a lifelong father figure.
The most disturbing proposal of the theist, however, is that one can not find genuine happiness without the help of God and religion. This idea is delusive and totally disregards the notion that people are autonomous agents and can find meaning and happiness in life by appealing to their own intellectual and creative capacities. Most religionists, on the other hand, deny this worldly possibility and attempt to entice unbelievers with the promise of comfort and security from a caring “heavenly father”. The ultimate reward for the obedience and docility of their converts is the guarantee of a life after death. Monotheistic religions such as Christianity and Islam, in particular, aggressively employ this form of bribery to compensate for the logical shortcomings and implausibility of their foundations. They argue that the sense of direction and companionship one receives, the consolation when a loved one dies and the consolatory knowledge about their own afterlife all justify the unquestioned acceptance of religious dogma.
The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one. - George Bernard Shaw
There is something feeble and contemptible about a man who cannot face the perils of life without the help of comfortable myths. Almost inevitably some part of him is aware that they are myths and that he believes them only because they are comfortable. But he dare not face this thought! Moreover, since he is aware, however dimly, that his opinions are not rational, he becomes furious when they are disputed. - Bertrand Russell
Intellectual and Ethical Considerations of Atheism
Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd. – Voltaire
The path followed by many atheists in arriving at their position of disbelief in god is a prolonged intensive philosophical and intellectual inquiry. In the end they ultimately reason that disbelief in god is, from the perspective of common sense and consistency with other beliefs that they hold, more plausible and intellectually acceptable than belief. In other words, most genuine atheists arrive at the atheist position following a long process of nagging doubt, philosophical introspection, rational deliberation and intellectual anxiety over challenging inculcated cultural norms.
But surely the most unsavory aspect of appeals to God and his divine will is that it constitutes a terminus to all further inquiry and an affront to one's intellectual integrity. Whether any proposition, such as the existence of god, should be accepted depends on only one criterion: the truth of the proposition. Atheists reject belief in god because they feel that such belief is unjustified due to conceptual problems, implausibility and a lack of evidence. Moreover, all the efforts to prove the existence of God have been abysmal failures with each attempt having been refuted by philosophers and contradicted by scientists. Reflective people may have other grounds for belief in God, but these hinge not on any conception of having sound reasons familiar in science, logic or philosophy. Specifically, if a person wishes to preserve epistemic veracity he must not confuse reasons with motives. Reasons are more than just glandular activities; they are more than personal postures assumed because of emotional inclinations - however fervent.
Beliefs are private matters and we can all believe what we please. My primary concern is that whatever beliefs one does hold should be recognized for what they are. Either they rest upon rigorous arguments, tight logical inferences from plausible premises and consistency with incontrovertible experiences of what are the facts of this world - or they rest on something else, such as fear, insecurity, love, hate or other psychological appeals which all humans have in abundance and attempt to deal with in various ways.
But, the importance of atheism extends far beyond the recognition and subsequent rejection of a dubious proposition.
Faith may be defined briefly as an illogical belief in the occurrence of the improbable. – H. L. Mencken
Appealing to the incomprehensible will never increase our comprehension – Carl Sagan
Atheism is an important phenomenon because theism has been and continues to be a dominant force in the world. Even prior to the birth of Christ, religion played a central role in cultures throughout the world. Interestingly, Christians were labeled as atheists by the ancient Romans because they denied the Roman divinities. During the subsequent two thousand years the significance of religion has become even greater. Christianity has molded, influenced and often controlled political leaders and governing bodies, shaped countries, and dictated moral and intellectual doctrines to the masses. It has caused innumerable wars, and countless innocent people have been tortured, raped, and murdered in its name. Religions, particularly the monotheistic variety such as Christianity and Islam, have been the primary authors of the history of the world, and have indoctrinated, directed and oppressed the inhabitants in those regions of the world where they had political influence or military domination.
Religion does great harm by placing vitally important issues, such as morality, meaning and happiness, beyond the realm of human input and responsibility. Many theists argue that a person can only be happy if he surrenders to the will of god, and that morality can only be achieved through blind adherence to ethical absolutes. Rather than encourage intellectual investigation of these areas of human endeavor, religion demands that people accept immutable doctrines and rules of conduct without question. This is perhaps the most dangerous facet of religion: it is antithetical to the spirit and meaning of democracy in the sense that it discourages skepticism and rational inquiry and replaces it with conformity and blind obedience to the authority of immutable doctrine.
Atheism certainly does not eliminate morality or happiness from one's life. Instead, it eliminates morality based on superstition and taboo and a happiness that depends on an external authority or that can only be achieved through unquestioned acceptance of unfounded orthodoxy. Without religion, moral doctrines must be justified by rational investigation and by examining real and practical standards and their consequences. And while happiness for the religionist can only be found in the promised “afterlife”, atheism encourages its followers to seek happiness in this earthly existence (quite a novel concept). Success will not be realized through idle prayer or superstitious ritual. Instead, if person wishes to improve his worldly predicament, he must appeal to his own creative and intellectual abilities and aspire to create a satisfying and meaningful life. Christians seem to maintain that serving god's will is what gives them purpose in life, but I hardly think that this is commendable or admirable. Mindless obedience might be praiseworthy in horses, dogs and other domesticated animals, but it certainly does not offer much dignity or self-respect for adult humans. Moreover, it is highly questionable whether or not a tyrannical; supernatural entity which demands such uncritical obedience is worthy of any respect at all. People embrace religion I suspect because they are tormented by the prospect of an uncaring contingent Universe with nothing supporting it. But by postulating God they have simply added another mystery to the pre-existing mystery of the Universe itself. But this simply sets up the dilemma of an infinite regress and still leaves the unpalatable and puzzling prospect of nothing supporting God. I also suspect that the fear of death is a primary attraction of religion with its puerile enticement and promise of heaven and eternal bliss. I honestly think that if we could escape death, religion would be rendered redundant and permanently relegated to the intellectual rubbish pile. In my view what is frightening is not death, but the process of dying. The prospect of an afterlife, although a highly unlikely proposition, is a tenuous one since there are an infinite number of logical possibilities including an afterlife without a deity. As Woody Allen put it “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work, I want to achieve it by not dying.” In any event, Allen goes on, “There are worse things than death. Have you ever spent an evening with a life insurance salesman?”
The Moral Consequences of Atheism
"A man's ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death. [Albert Einstein, Religion and Science, New York Times Magazine, 9 November 1930]
"If the only basis of morality is
God's decrees, it follows that they might as well have been the opposite of what
they are; no reason except caprice could have prevented the omission of all the
"nots" from the Decalogue." [Bertrand
Russell, Human Society in Ethics and Politics (1962) p. 38]
I suspect that the most lasting obstacle to the acceptance of atheism is a lingering belief by many that such acceptance would be morally, politically and practically disastrous. The presence of this perception can be attributed mainly to the persecution and denigration of atheists and religious skeptics over the past 2000 years by the hegemony of the two monotheistic leviathans of Christianity and Islam. Many humanists refer to this scandalous defamation, which continues to this day, as the "evil atheist conspiracy." Christian proselytizers who continually rant about the "evils of secular humanism" have much more to fear from competing religions than they do from secular forces of humanist groups. The Humanist Association of Canada, for example, has a membership that is smaller than most Baptist Church congregations.
Secular v Religious Morality:
There are four main kinds of view about the general nature and status of morality. The first of these sees moral rules and principles, whatever other functions they may serve, as being essentially the commands or requirements of a god (or gods), backed up by the promise of rewards and the threat of penalties either in this life or in an afterlife. The second (Kantian, rationalist, or intuitionist) sees moral principles as objectively valid prescriptions, formulated or discovered by human reason or intellect, and autonomously authoritative, independently of any god. If someone who holds this view also believes that there is a god, he will see the goodness of this god as consisting in his exemplifying these independent principles. A third view is that there are objectively valid principles as the second view maintains, but they are in some way created and sustained in existence by a god. The fourth, an approach favored by the great Scottish philosopher David Hume is a sentimentalist, subjectivist, or naturalistic view is that supports the idea that morality is essentially a human, social construct; that moral concepts, principles, and practices have developed by some process of biological and social evolution. Their origin and persistence are due somehow to the fact that they enable human beings, whose natural situation includes a mixture of competitive and co-operative forces, and a need for co-operation, to survive and flourish better, by limiting the competition and facilitating the co-operation. But morality is not, on this view, necessarily understood in this light by those who adhere to it: it is possible that its adherents should hold one of the other three views, and yet that a correct description, from the outside, of their thinking and conduct should be given by this naturalistic account.
Now if some adherent to a morality has held either the first or the third of these views, so that he has seen morality as essentially dependent upon some god, then it is indeed possible that if he then ceases to believe in that god his adherence to that morality will be undermined: hence the immediate moral consequences of his atheism may be deplorable. This is a good reason for not tying moral to religious teaching at a time when religious belief is itself fragile. The point is well made by Richard Robinson’s story of a priest saying to a pair of well-behaved atheists, ‘I can’t understand you boys; if I didn’t believe in God I should be having a high old time’. But if either our second view (of an autonomous objective ethics) or our fourth (naturalist or sentimentalist) view is correct, there is no reason to suppose that such undermining will be either a lasting or a general effect of the decay of religious belief. Indeed, it is hardly even necessary that either of these views should be correct: it is enough that they are available to the atheist. But in particular if the fourth view is correct, then morality has a genuine causal source of its own. It is basically a matter of feelings and attitudes, partly instinctive, developed by biological evolution, and partly acquired, developed by socio-historical evolution and passed on from generation to generation less by deliberate education than by the automatic transmission of cultural traits. Since it has such a source, quite independent of religion, it is certain to survive when religion decays.
However, this may seem to be too abstract, too a priori, an argument. Is there any better, more empirical, evidence about the contrasting moral consequences of theism and of atheism? The only simple answer to this question is that there is no simple answer. Neither theists nor atheists have any monopoly of either the vices or the virtues. Nor is any statistical survey likely to establish a clear causal tendency for religious belief, or the lack of it, to encourage either virtue or vice. This is partly because the determination of what is to count as virtue or as vice, or of the relative importance of particular virtues and vices, is itself relevantly controversial; this is one of the issues on which believers and non-believers are divided. Another reason is that there are indefinitely many degrees of belief and disbelief. But even if we confined our survey to an agreed core of virtues on the one hand and of vices on the other, and to unequivocal samples of theists and atheists, any statistical results would still be indecisive. For if there were, as I suspect there would then be, some positive correlation between atheism and virtue, this would still not establish a causal tendency for atheism as such to promote virtue. It could be too easily explained away by the fact that, other things being equal, there is likely to be a higher incidence of disbelief among the ‘wise and learned’, for the reason hinted at by Hume in his essay on miracles.
Since there is little prospect of reliable direct empirical evidence, we must fall back on some general considerations. What differences would it make to morality if there were, or if there were not, a god, and again if people associated, or did not associate, their morality with religious belief?
The unsatisfactory character of the first, divine command, view of morality was pointed out by Plato, whose objections have been echoed many times. If moral values were constituted wholly by divine commands, so that goodness consisted in conformity to God’s will, we could make no sense of the theist’s own claims that God is good and that he seeks the good of his creation. However, it would be possible to hold coherently that while the goodness of some states of affairs—for example, of one sort of human life as contrasted with others—is independent of God’s will, it is only his commands that supply the prescriptive element in morality. Or they could be seen as supplying an additional prescriptive element. A religious morality might then be seen as imposing stronger obligations.
Both these variants, however, as Kant pointed out, tend to corrupt morality, replacing the characteristically moral motives—whether these are construed as a rational sense of duty and fairness, or as specific virtuous dispositions, or as generous, co-operative, and sympathetic feelings—by a purely selfish concern for the agent’s own happiness, the desire to avoid divine punishments and to enjoy the rewards of God’s favour, in this life or in an afterlife. This divine command view can also lead people to accept, as moral, requirements that have no discoverable connection—indeed, no connection at all—with human purposes or well-being, or with the well-being of any sentient creatures. That is, it can foster a tyrannical, irrational, morality. Of course, if there were not only a benevolent god but also a reliable revelation of his will, then we might be able to get from it expert moral advice about difficult issues, where we could not discover for ourselves what are the best policies. But there is no such reliable revelation. Even a theist must see that the purported revelations, such as the Bible and the Koran, condemn themselves by enshrining rules which we must reject as narrow, outdated, or barbarous. As Hans Kung, perhaps the world's best known living theologian says, ‘We are responsible for our morality’. More generally, tying morality to religious belief is liable to devalue it, not only by undermining it, temporarily, if the belief decays, but also by subordinating it to other concerns while the belief persists.
There is, indeed, a strain in religion that positively welcomes sin as a precondition for salvation. Jesus himself is reported as saying ‘1 am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance’. Luther says that ‘God is the god of the humble, the miserable, the oppressed, and the desperate’, and that ‘that pernicious and pestilent opinion of man’s own righteousness ... suffereth not God to come to his own natural and proper work’. And William James reports (at second hand) an orthodox minister who said that Dr Channing (the eminent Unitarian) ‘is excluded from the highest form of religious life by the extraordinary rectitude of his character’.
It is widely supposed that Christian morality is particularly admirable. Here it is important to distinguish between the original moral teachings of Jesus, so far as we can determine them, and later developments in the Christian tradition. Richard Robinson has examined the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) as the best evidence for Jesus’ own teaching, and he finds in them five major precepts: ‘love God, believe in me, love man, be pure in heart, be humble’. The reasons given for these precepts are ‘a plain matter of promises and threats’: they are ‘that the kingdom of heaven is at hand’, and that ‘those who obey these precepts will be rewarded in heaven, while those who disobey will have weeping and gnashing of teeth’. Robinson notes that ‘Certain ideals that are prominent elsewhere are rather conspicuously absent from the synoptic gospels’. These include beauty, truth, knowledge, and reason:
<![if !vml]><![endif]>As Jesus never recommends knowledge, so he never recommends the virtue ‘that seeks and leads to knowledge, namely reason. On the contrary, he regards certain beliefs as in themselves sinful ... whereas it is an essential part of the ideal of reason to hold that no belief can be morally wrong if reached in the attempt to believe truly. Jesus again and again demands faith; and by faith he means believing certain very improbable things without considering evidence or estimating probabilities; and that is contrary to reason. (Robinson, p. 149)
Jesus says nothing on any social question except divorce, and all ascriptions of any political doctrine to him are false. He does not pronounce about war, capital punishment, gambling, justice, the administration of law, the distribution of goods, socialism, equality of income, equality of sex, equality of colour, equality of opportunity, tyranny, freedom, slavery, self-determination, or contraception. There is nothing Christian about being for any of these things, nor about being against them, if we mean by ‘Christian’ what Jesus taught according to the synoptic gospels.
The Jesus of the synoptic gospels says little on the subject of sex. He is against divorce. He speaks of adultery as a vice, and perhaps includes in adultery all extramarital intercourse. The story of the woman taken in adultery, which is of a synoptic character though it appears in texts of John, preaches a humane and forgiving attitude towards sexual errors. Jesus shows no trace of that dreadful hatred of sex as such which has disfigured the subsequent history of the Christian churches ... (p. 149)
Robinson goes on to comment on the morality of the Bible:
Newman said that when non-Christians read the Christian Bible ‘they are much struck with the high tone of its precepts” (Sermon on John xiii. 17). That is contrary to my experience. I shall never forget the first time I read the Old Testament after I had acquired the habit of independent judgment. I was horrified at its barbarity, and bewildered that it had been widely held up as a store of ideals. It seemed to describe a savage people, fierce and brutal, no more admirable than the worse of the savage cultures that anthropologists describe to us today, and a great deal less admirable than the gentler cultures they report.
Nor will Newman’s words fit the impression made by the synoptic gospels. They are a beautiful and fascinating piece of literature; and they preach the great precept ‘love thy neighbour’. But this precept is overshadowed in them both by the harsh unloving behaviour of the preacher, and by its absolute subordination to the unreasonable commands to love God and believe in Jesus, (pp. 150-1)
Robinson urges us to reject these commands and the associated values of piety, faith, and improvidence. He reminds us that ‘many of man’s most terrible actions have been done out of piety, and that piety is responsible for our shameful wars of religion’. He also characterizes the view that belief, or disbelief, can be sinful as a ‘blasphemy against reason’. He says that we should accept the precept to love our neighbours, ‘extended as Jesus perhaps extended it to love of all humanity, and still further to love of all life, as he certainly did not extend it’ (p. 152), and such consequential attitudes as generosity, gentleness, mercy, and the observance of the golden rule. However, we might well query (though Robinson does not) the precise command to love your neighbour as yourself. This seems unrealistically to prescribe a degree of altruism that is in general not humanly possible, and so to make of morality a fantasy rather than something that people can seriously try to practise and can ask of one another. Robinson does query the injunction to be pure in heart, and also the call for humility: it is better to make true estimates both of oneself and of others, and not lie about them, though in public ‘the right choice will usually be to refrain from drawing attention either to our superiorities or to our inferiorities’ (pp. 153-4).
The later tradition of Christian ethics has tended to add to Jesus’ teaching some deplorable elements, such as hostility to sex, and many more admirable ones, such as concern with justice and the other requirements for the flourishing of human life in society, and ideals of beauty, truth, knowledge, and (up to a point) reason. But it has in general retained the concern with salvation and an afterlife, and the view that disbelief, or even doubt, or criticism of belief, is sinful, with the resulting tendencies to the persecution of opponents—including. of course, the adherents of rival Christian sects and rival religions — the discouragement of discussion, hostility (even now in some places) to the teaching of well-confirmed scientific truths, like the theory of evolution, and the propagation of contrary errors, and the intellectual dishonesty of trying to suppress one’s own well-founded doubts Many people are shocked at the way in which the Unification Church (‘the Moonies’) entraps converts and enslaves their minds and emotions; but the same methods have been and are used by many more orthodox sects. Religion has, indeed, a remarkable ability to give vices the air of virtues, providing a sanctified outlet for some of the nastiest human motives. It is fashionable to ascribe the horrors of Nazism to an atheistic nationalism; but in fact the attitudes to the Jews which it expressed had long been established within the Christian tradition in Germany and elsewhere (sanctioned, for example. by Luther’s writings, and the Old Testament itself reports many atrocities as having been not merely approved but positively demanded by God and his spokesmen. And while, following Robinson, I have spoken here particularly of Christian ethics, it is only too obvious that Islamic fundamentalism displays today, more clearly than Christianity has done recently, the worst aspects of religious morality. We do not need to go back in history to illustrate the dictum of Lucretius: Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum (So great are the evils that religion could prompt!) By contrast, there is a long tradition of an essentially humanist morality, from Epicurus to John Stuart Mill and modern writers such as Peter Singer, including Richard Robinson himself, centered on the conditions for the flourishing of human life and stressing intellectual honesty, tolerance, free inquiry, and individual rights.
There are, then, some marked dangers in a distinctively religious mobility. But they are dangers only, not inevitable consequences of associating morality with religion. We can echo, in reverse, Kung’s concession: it is possible for even a religious believer ‘to lead a genuinely human, that is humane, and in this sense moral life’; even theists are not necessarily narrow-minded dogmatists, intolerant persecutors, or propagators of timid credulity and a crudely calculating selfish version of morality itself. Even within Islam there have been thinkers who have tried to develop its humane and liberal tendencies, and to tone down its cruelty, intolerance, and its unfairness between the sexes, though at present their influence is in decline.
But are there no corresponding dangers in a distinctively non-religious morality? Admittedly, there are. As Robinson says, the Roman Catholic Church is only ‘The second most intolerant and active body in the world today’ (p. 216). Communist parties are expressly anti-religious, and profess an overriding concern with human welfare, but they are also intolerant, ruthless, and, once in power, they too make virtues of tyranny and persecution. And one must recognize that the Catholic church, despite its own illiberal tendencies, sometimes contributes significantly to the resistance to tyrannical states, whether communist or not. More generally, humanist moral thinking is prone either to illusions about necessary progress or to an over-optimistic voluntarism - that is, to assuming that “we” (whoever that may be) can make or remake the world as we would wish it to be, forgetting that the interplay of many different purposes is liable to result in the fulfillment of none of them.
An alleged weakness, not of non-religious moralities in general, but specifically of moralities explained and understood in the naturalistic way outlined above, is that different groups of people can develop different moral views, which will produce conflict when these groups are in contact with one another, and that there is, on this basis, no clear way of resolving such conflicts. This is true. But it is not a distinctive weakness of the naturalistic approach. Absolutist arid objectivist moralities, including ones with religious attachments, also differ from one another, and there is no clear way of resolving their conflicts either. That each party believes that some one morality is objectively right is no guarantee that they will be able to agree on what it is. Indeed, conflicts between rival absolutists are likely to be less resolvable than conflicts between those who understand morality in a naturalistic way, for the latter can more easily appreciate the merits of compromise and adjustment, or of finding, for the areas of contact, a ius gentium, a common core of principles on which they can agree.
Another supposed weakness is this: it may be thought particularly difficult to derive any respect for non-human life, any valuing of nature in general, from a purely secular, human, approach. But it is worth noting that Robinson, for example, specifically includes among his ‘atheist’s values’ a ‘love of all life’ (p. 152; see also pp. 186-7). In fact there is no question of deriving a morality from the facts of the human situation. What we can do is to understand how moral thinking can develop and what functions it serves; and we can also understand how it naturally extends itself beyond a quasi-contractual system by the operation of what Hume called ‘sympathy’.
In contrast with any such real or supposed weaknesses in non-religious morality, we should note its distinctive merits, in particular its cultivation of a courageous realism in the face of the less palatable facts of life—and of death. But we need not dwell on this merit, since, as we have seen, it is dramatically recognized in D. Z. Phillips’s attempt to take over, in the name of religion, the traditional non-believers’ attitude to the loss of one’s friends, the attitude of coming to terms with such loss without either denying it or suppressing it. The non-believer comes to terms with the inevitability of his own death in a similar way. Kung has likewise tried to take over in the name of religion the traditional non-believers’ view of morality itself: ‘We are responsible for our morality’. Robinson says that ‘The main irrationality of religion is preferring comfort to truth’ (p. 117). Phillips and Kung are implicitly recognizing this traditional weakness in religion, and arc proposing that religion should follow atheism in doing without it.
In Phillips, the moral take-over bid is linked with a strong tendency to disguised atheism on the theoretical side, and Kung’s concept of God is so complex and so indeterminate that his position, too, may not be really so far removed from atheism. Should we then object to such takeovers? So long as the position adopted is, in substance, atheistic, what does it matter if it is called religion? After all, Epicurus was willing to postulate happy and immortal gods safely isolated from all contact with human affairs; Spinoza was willing to speak of Deus sive natura, identifying nature with God; and even Hume proposed a compromise:
The theist allows that the original intelligence is very different from human reason: The atheist allows that the original principle of order bears some remote analogy to it. Will you quarrel, Gentlemen, about the degrees, and enter into a controversy, which admits not of any precise meaning, nor consequently of any determination.
Today, however, it is more honest and less misleading to reject such compromises and evasions, which can too easily serve as a cover for the reintroduction of characteristically theistic views both on the intellectual and on the moral side.
Alternatively, is there any merit in R. B. Braithwaite’s approach, in retaining the religious ‘stories’ as a psychological support for a morality, while explicitly rejecting any suggestion that they arc factually true? This we might allow, provided that the morality they support is not of the kind we have been criticizing as distinctively religious. Apart from their other faults, such moralities have a tendency to be dangerously over-optimistic. Particularly in the field of international affairs, leaders who have too strong or too fundamentalist a faith may pursue policies which they know to be reckless, in the expectation that God will prevent the worst and—and for humanity, final -disasters. The recent actions of the Bush administrations pre-emptive attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq are a case in point. Such reliance would be quite different from the ‘fundamental trust’ which Kung has reasonably advocated on purely human grounds. There are inevitable uncertainties in human affairs. Machiavelli speculated that ‘fortune is the ruler of one half of our actions, but... she allows the other half, or a little less, to be governed by us’ Damon Runyon put it more briefly: ‘Nothing human is better than two to one”. If so, the only reasonable plan is to do the best we can, taking all possible precautions against the worst disasters, but then to meet the uncertainties with cheerful confidence. Trust in God and keep your powder dry’, understood as Braithwaite might understand it, may be good practical advice. But to trust God to keep your powder dry for you is the height of folly.
 "The United States is the most religious of all the industrialized nations. Forty-four percent of Americans attend church once a week, compared with 27 percent in Britain, 21 percent in France, 16 percent in Australia, and 4 percent in Sweden. Yet violent crime is not less common in the United States--it's more common. The murder rate here is six times higher than the rate in Britain, seven times higher than in France, five times higher than in Australia, and five times higher than in Sweden. Japan, where Christianity has almost no adherents, has less violent crime than almost any country....Within the 50 states, there is no evidence that a God-fearing populace equals a law-abiding populace. The Bible Belt has more than its share of both praying and killing. Louisiana has the highest churchgoing rate in the country, but its murder rate is more than twice the national average. The same pattern generally holds in the rest of the South..." - Steve Chapman in Praise the Lord, Pass the Ammo.
source of data on religion and morality is statistics on religious beliefs of
prisoners compared with beliefs of the general population.
indicates that theists are more than 40 times more likely than atheists to end
up in prison. We should not read too much into this large number, however, since
it is influenced by many factors. One consideration is that atheism is
positively correlated to such things as educational attainment, higher scores on
intelligence and achievement tests, and higher income, while crime is negatively
correlated with these things. Religion, on the average, is
apparently not a positive moral force. A vastly superior moral framework is
provided by secular humanism which uses human reason and empathy to construct
moral values. Humanists believe that morality should be based on human values,
not arbitrary edicts from an imaginary god.
 R Robinson, An Atheist’s Values (Oxford University Press. 1964: paperback Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1975). P 137- ‘The story is no doubt apocryphal. This book as a whole gives a very full answer to the question of the moral consequences of atheism.
 Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, Section 10; cf.
 Plato, Euthyphro
 Matthew 9; 13. The passage from Luther is quoted by James on pp. 244 s of The Varieties of Religious Experience (see n. 1 to Chapter 10, p. 178, above) and the story about Dr Channing in n. 1 on p. 466 of the same work.
 E.g. On the Jews and their Lies, in Vol. 47 of Luther’s Works, edited by H.T. Lehman (Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1971), pp. 121-306, recommends the burning of synagogues and of the Jews’ houses, confiscation of their books, forbidding of worship and teaching, or alternatively expulsion of the Jews from the country.
 E.g. Joshua 8, 10. and 11; Samuel 15
 De Rerum Natura, Book I, line 101
 See J. L. Mackie, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, pp 193-95
 David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Part XII
 The Prince, Chapter 25
Religion as the Enemy of Truth
The main irrationality of religion is the preference of comfort to truth. - Richard Robinson
Religion has never encouraged freedom of thought or promoted the intellectual virtues. In fact there is not one word in praise of the intellect in the Bible and many influential Christian theologians such as Martin Luther referred to reason as the “devil’s harlot” and “god’s worst enemy”. Christianity demands that its adherents unconditionally accept scripture as the “word of god” and encourages faith rather than reason, logic and critical thought. Even worse, the Bible is totally void of humor!
It is to be believed because it is absurd. - Tertullian, Church "Father
The good Christian should beware of mathematicians and all those who make empty prophecies. The danger already exists that mathematicians have made a covenant with The Devil to darken the spirit and confine man in the bonds of Hell. - Saint Augustine
Since any attempt to question or undermine theological beliefs represents a threat to Christianity, it has been a notorious suppressor of free thought and hindrance to scientific endeavor and advancement. Many of history's greatest scholars were persecuted for proposing theories that contradicted religious doctrines. Ironically, the Church often recognizes the validity of these new theories and accordingly makes minor adjustments to its doctrines, although it usually does so hundreds of years after the fact. The Vatican’s accommodation to evolutionary theory just a few years ago was to reluctantly accept the theory with the qualification that the whole process of natural selection was orchestrated by God. Unfortunately for Galileo, Copernicus, Bruno and many other of history's intellectual pioneers, this change of Church policy comes too late to reverse their sentences of imprisonment, exile, or death.
To assert that the earth revolves around the sun is as erroneous as to claim that Jesus was not born of a virgin. - Cardinal Bellarmine, trial of Galileo, 1615
Christianity still clings to myths that no thinking person with a scientific world view could possibly hold. Claims for the virgin birth, transubstantiation, the resurrection and a host of other paranormal phenomena and so-called miraculous events are not only unproven, but preposterous. They are scarcely better than claiming that Hitler was not killed but was spirited by his disciples from the bowels of the earth, where he plots his return and ultimate revenge or that Elvis did not really die but was abducted by aliens who are deviously planning for his resurrection and earthly return to save Rock and Roll from the degradation of Rap. However, religious myths persist in spite of their irrationality because they have been inculcated by a wide variety of powerful cultural and societal mechanisms. But I still fail to comprehend how anyone can be convinced of anything as outlandishly preposterous as an Almighty God who created the Universe and each human one by one, intervenes on behalf of the prayers of his flock, cherishes our “immortal souls” and holds a place in everlasting paradise for those who simply believe in Him. Not a shred of empirical evidence has been discovered in support of these claims even though scientists can observe stars that have been around for billions of years, can observe microscopic bacteria and viruses and have progressed far enough in their knowledge of genetics to clone living organisms. Of God we have no trace except the testimony of religious texts thousands of years old and the faith of millions of followers who have convinced themselves of Pie in the Sky. If I inform my Christian friends that I believe in the Invisible Flying Pink Unicorn they would not only think I am afflicted by an overactive imagination, but that I’m a crackpot simpleton who belongs in an asylum for the mentally deficient. But if I told them I believed that Jesus was the son of God, that he died for my sins and that since I have accepted him as my personal saviour my non-material existence called the soul will be transported to an ethereal place called Heaven after I die, I would be considered perfectly sane.
Obviously many people have a deep psychological need to believe in these myths which provide them with comforting palliatives to the harsh inequities and injustices of the world and carry immense emotional payoffs not only in this life but in the promised hereafter. But of all the thousands of religious sects in the world it is no accident that the overwhelming majority just happen to endorse the one that is sanctioned by their parents and culture. The fact that religious beliefs are almost entirely determined by familial and cultural forces should, on its own, be sufficient for serious scepticism concerning the veracity of any religious claims. For example, if you are born and raised in Iran it is highly unlikely you will end up a Christian, Buddhist or Jew.
All thinking men are atheists. - Ernest Hemingway
The irrationality of religious beliefs consists in them being groundless, and inconsistent with other beliefs that we know to be true. - David Stove
One man’s theology is another man’s belly laugh – Robert A. Heinlein
Religion as the Enemy of the Masses
The collaboration of religion with political power in allowing the cultural elite to oppress the common people is unrivaled by any other societal institution. Throughout history, religion and governing bodies have conspired to maintain their domination over the lower classes. If the masses are impoverished, they are told it is so because God intends for them to live in poverty in this worldly existence but economic justice will be served up in the hereafter. If a tyrannical ruler wields unlimited power, the people are lead to believe that his authority has been sanctioned by God. And we are told that suffering is “good for the soul” and builds character. Yes, He does work in mysterious ways - but whatever God wills must be for the best in the “long run”.
Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the philosophers as false, and by the rulers as useful. - Seneca
Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich. - Napoleon Bonaparte
Religion is the opiate of the masses - Karl Marx
There was a time when religion ruled the world. It is known as the Dark Ages - Ruth Hermence Green
The greatest period of widespread ignorance and poverty in recent European history was the Dark Ages, which took place from approximately A.D. 800 to A.D. 1400. Not coincidentally, the Dark Ages was also the period when the Catholic Church reached its pinnacle of influence and power. For over 600 years, human intellectual and social progress waned and in many cases reversed, as tens of millions of Christian peasants across Europe were brutally oppressed by an unchallenged alliance of the Church and Feudal Lords. It was only as the power of the Church weakened, partially due to free dissemination of ideas made possible by the invention of the printing press, that humanity finally rescued itself from intellectual and cultural privation. Slowly people realized among many other things that the feudal society in which they were expected to work like slaves and in times of war serve as cannon fodder for their indulgent feudal lords was not, as their priests had informed them, ordained by god and sacrilege to challenge. Once they saw through the demagoguery and abuse by those who oppressed them and were enlightened by liberal ideas of Renaissance thinkers, it was freedom and justice that they sought. The Renaissance and Scientific Revolution that followed was a testament to man's ability to think, act and create independently of the absolutism of the holy triad of God, Church and State.
Wherever, in the historical record, persecution and genocide are found, religion is typically a major player. During the Inquisition, for example, millions of Jews and Moors were executed and expelled from their homelands for a period of over 300 years. Christian crusaders to the Middle East slaughtered Jews and Arabs mercilessly. When no warriors remained to fight the wars of God, the children and elderly were conscripted and sent by the thousands on suicidal missions. In Salem, Massachusetts, at the end of the 17th century, a Puritan society executed scores of "witches" who were purported to be in collusion with Satan. The chronicle of religious barbarity and oppression is long and would require volumes to record and for the sake of brevity I have just mentioned a paltry few.
It is perhaps inherent in human nature to persecute and torture, to oppress and kill, but it is the idea of God that allows man to do so with such incredible efficiency and self-satisfaction. Evil is perpetrated by humans, but the most potent and insidious manifestation is that which is inspired by religion. As I write this we hear every day of terrorists acts committed in the name of religion, particularly in the Middle East. George W. Bush, the born again Christian American president has attacked, bombed and terrorized both Afghanistan and Iraq in recent months, destroying their infrastructure and leaving these countries in utter chaos. Most recently he has been rattling his swords by threatening Syria and Iran with the same treatment. It is no accident that these countries are Islamic.
In my view the rejection of theism is a step that must be taken by the vast majority of humans if the dream of a peaceful world of intellectual and spiritual prosperity is ever to be realized.
The Theologian is an owl, sitting on an old dead branch in the tree of human knowledge, and hooting the same old hoots that have been hooted for hundreds and thousands of years, but he has never given a hoot for progress. – Emmet F. Fields
Check out the "Atheist Fools" video on You Tube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fdVucvo-kDU
Addendum ---------- A Little Atheist Humor
I’m a dyslexic atheist. I don’t believe in Dog
An atheist is a person with no invisible means of support
Atheism is a Non-Prophet Association
The best site on atheism of which I am aware is: http://www.positiveatheism.org/
A more general site on secularism and humanism is: http://www.infidels.org/
An very clever satirical site on Christianity is: http://www.landoverbaptist.org/
Catholicism for dummies: http://youtube.com/watch?v=VABSoHYQr6k