Tuesday, November 5, 2013

5 Myths about Atheism

I do not seek here to convince anyone to become an atheist. Instead, I wish only to discuss what atheism actually is and to dispel the all too frequent misconceptions regarding it. Many persons of religious persuasions assail atheism without truly understanding it. What they attack is not atheism as such, but rather a straw man constructed by themselves and consisting of every possible idea that they do not advocate. Much pointless negativity and intolerance might be avoided if only individuals of all intellectual persuasions became aware of the actual ideas of which atheism consists, the reasons for which many adhere to it, and common misconceptions held regarding it.

Myth 1:Why do atheists hate god?

The word "atheism" originates from the Greek "atheos," meaning "godless." There is no hatred or even dislike of any god or gods implied in either the word or its origins. Atheism is not the same as antitheism, or opposition to gods and to those who believe in gods.

Atheists do not actively despise any god, in part because it is difficult to despise what one does not believe to exist. Many monotheists make the mistake of alleging that atheists hate their God in particular. But if someone were to suggest that atheists hate Vishnu or Zeus or Thor or Amon-Ra, such allegations would clearly be recognized as empirically false. Many atheists not only do not hate those deities; they enjoy reading myths and stories where such deities play an active role. In many such stories, the gods even behave in an admirable manner - and most atheists are ready to acknowledge this. What, then, would make the Christian or Jewish or Muslim God so different in their eyes?

Indeed, absolutely nothing in an atheist's worldview needs necessarily prevent him from reading the texts of the monotheist faiths and deriving from them similar utility, enjoyment, and moral instruction to what he might derive from Hindu, Greek, Norse, or Egyptian mythology.

When atheists read about gods, they evaluate the gods as literary characters. Those literary characters may behave admirably or not - and it is up to the individual atheist to judge the individual literary god in each particular case. What atheists are not ready to do, however, is to evaluate the morality or immorality of particular actions in a text based solely on whether any god performed or abstained from them, praised or condemned them. Atheists are ready to condemn the Old Testament God's command that Saul exterminate the infants of Amalek just as they are prepared to criticize Athena's decision to turn Arachne into a spider for being a better weaver than the goddess.

Myth 2: Atheists hate those who believe in a god.

Atheists do not believe in any gods, but virtually all atheists believe in the existence of some kind of moral standards for human behavior. Since they do not believe in any gods, they do not believe that moral standards originate from gods. Thus, in an atheist's view, whether somebody else believes in a god is as irrelevant to that person's morality as his color of hair or his preferred flavor of ice cream. What is relevant, however, is whether an individual's actions show him to be a fundamentally good and moral person. Many atheists will disagree regarding what this means, but they will concur that an individual's religious convictions are not a determinant of his moral character. Again, those who condemn theists simply because the latter believe in a god are not atheists, but rather antitheists.

If a person's religious convictions have nothing in common with his adherence to the atheist's moral standard of choice, then the consistent atheist will disregard religious convictions altogether when forming his judgments of others. An atheist is often as likely to find good people among the religious as among fellow atheists - and he might often prefer the company of some of the former to that of some of the latter.

Atheists do not necessarily dislike any particular religion or its adherents. What atheists detest, however, is religious bigotry, hypocrisy, and intolerance. Whenever any group of individuals seeks to impose its views on others by force or uses the rhetoric of religion as justification for coercing, expropriating, and tyrannizing over others, the conscientious atheist will be outraged - as he should be.

Myth 3: Atheists advocate socialism, totalitarianism, or the welfare state.

While it is true that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels did not believe in any god, atheism as such has no necessary implications in the political realm - other than perhaps an opposition to any integration between church and state, which is a stance shared by many religious individuals as well. There do exist socialist atheists and welfare-statist atheists, but there also exist conservative atheists, libertarian atheists, and atheists adhering to virtually every other political creed.

Indeed, atheism is much older than virtually any prevalent political philosophy of our time. The first known famous atheist was the ancient Greek thinker Diagoras in the late 5th century B. C. In more recent times, atheism was espoused by such thinkers as the Enlightenment thinker Paul-Henri Thiry, the Baron d'Holbach (1723-1789), the analytic philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), and Ayn Rand (1905-1982), the founder of Objectivism. Truly, atheists are historically represented within a tremendous range of political and philosophical movements - and it is impossible to classify all atheists under a single political or ethical umbrella. Indeed, the disagreements among atheists as to what constitutes moral behavior or a proper social order can often exceed in their extent the disagreements between some atheists and some religious individuals on these issues.

Nothing prevents an atheist from adhering to a philosophy of individual rights, limited government, and free markets. Murray Rothbard, one of the 20th century's most prolific free-market economists and libertarian political theorists, was an atheist - as is the psychiatrist Dr. Thomas Szasz, who opposes state control over individuals' "mental health."

Indeed, according to columnist Alan Caruba, "American atheists are more likely to object to abuses of power by government than most people... Conservative and Libertarian political values, smaller and less intrusive government, fiscal prudence, laissez faire capitalism, and individualism would seem to suit most, but not all, atheists better than some form of socialism or one-world government philosophy."

Myth 4: Atheists do not believe in objective moral standards.

There exist numerous ways to arrive at an understanding of morality without any reference to a deity. One can employ natural law theory- as exemplified in the works of Aristotle, John Locke, and Murray Rothbard. Alternatively, one can espouse utilitarianism-as did Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill - argue for the evolutionary origins of morality in the manner of Herbert Spencer and Friedrich Hayek. Like the Enlightenment philosophers and Ayn Rand, one can see morality as originating from rational self-interest. One can follow the empiricist consequentialism of Milton Friedman and try to arrive at morality by observing the outcomes of particular actions and human institutions. Or one can deduce it from first principles like Rene Descartes. Alternatively, like William James, one can conceive of morality as a set of rules that happen to "work" in a pragmatic sense.

"Morality Does Not Require Religion" provides further discussion of why a belief in any god or gods is not required for an individual to behave morally. "Incentives for Moral Behavior" examines the real-world motivations of individuals of a broad variety of persuasions - religious or otherwise - to act morally.

Myth 5: Atheism is a religion.

Not only is atheism not a religion; it is not even a philosophy or worldview. Atheism is simply a negative - a disbelief in a deity. It does not imply a positive creed of any sort. Atheists disagree extensively amongst themselves regarding metaphysical questions such as whether the universe had a beginning in time or whether it always existed. They disagree regarding epistemological issues such as the proper sources of and criteria for human knowledge. Atheists range from strict deductive rationalists to complete empiricists to those who reject the empiricist/rationalist dichotomy altogether. The only epistemological idea atheists agree on is that truth cannot be obtained through divine revelations or commandments. However, some atheists will acknowledge the tremendous value and truth contained in the moral systems accompanying many religions. Nothing necessarily bars an atheist from adhering to some or most of Christian or Jewish moral teachings. If he agrees with them, however, it will not be because God told him to, but because he perceives other extra-religious justifications for these ideas and standards of conduct.

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