Atheists: If We Want to Be Taken Seriously, We Should Try Better Arguments

Last year, The Washington Post ran an article entitled “Why do Americans still dislike atheists?” (it has only recently come to my attention).  Now, I am fortunate enough to live in Vancouver, Canada, so I have to admit that I have never been mistreated or harangued by theists, so I am a little cooler on the subject, but I understand that many American atheists do feel put upon by their religious compatriots.  So I decided to give it a read-through.  Now, being both an atheist and a philosopher (such conceit!), I am absolutely appalled by just how awful the arguments in this article are.  If one wishes to be accepted and taken seriously, it is best to use strong arguments.  This is true for any point of view and, in honesty, I want atheists and theists to make the strongest arguments possible  – whether or not there is a God, I surely want to get that right.  Unfortunately, the weakness of these arguments actually makes atheism look worse.  Because this is so, I am going to point out just which of the arguments I think are terrible and why they are terrible.

We needn’t look far – the first paragraph is ridiculous and the very first sentence is a howler:

Long after blacks and Jews have made great strides, and even as homosexuals gain respect, acceptance and new rights, there is still a group that lots of Americans just don’t like much: atheists. Those who don’t believe in God are widely considered to be immoral, wicked and angry. They can’t join the Boy Scouts. Atheist soldiers are rated potentially deficient when they do not score as sufficiently “spiritual” in military psychological evaluations. Surveys find that most Americans refuse or are reluctant to marry or vote for non-theists; in other words, non-believers are one minority still commonly denied in practical terms the right to assume office despite the constitutional ban on religious tests.

It is simply absurd and insulting to try to liken the difficulties that atheists face qua atheists to those faced by these other identified groups, whether historically or presently.  So far as I am aware, American atheists were never enslaved for being atheists, nor are they, as a group, frequent victims of targeted violence as are homosexuals and Jews.  It is perhaps true that it is difficult to be elected if one is an atheist, but this has never struck me as a terrible imposition for politicians – after all, aren’t such creatures renowned for their facility with, ahem, creative accounts of reality?  So far, the article is off to an exceedingly bad start.

It gets worse from there.  Although it begins by purporting to address the eponymous question (i.e. why Americans persist in disliking atheists), by the third paragraph it has devolved into something of an apologia for atheism, and a really horrible one at that.

On basic questions of morality and human decency — issues such as governmental use of torture, the death penalty, punitive hitting of children, racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, environmental degradation or human rights — the irreligious tend to be more ethical than their religious peers, particularly compared with those who describe themselves  as very religious.

It may well be true that atheists are more likely to come down on what the authors’ clearly believe to be the ‘right side’ of these issues, and so are more moral, but this presupposes that the positions atheists tend to take are the more moral ones.  Perhaps torture is brutal, tragic, and best avoided, but its morality is situationally dependent.  Perhaps the religious are right that death is the appropriate penalty for murder.  This argument does not demonstrate that atheists are more moral, just that they differ from the religious.

Here’s another howler:

Consider that at the societal level, murder rates are far lower in secularized nations such as Japan or Sweden than they are in the much more religious United States, which also has a much greater portion of its population in prison. Even within this country, those states with the highest levels of church attendance, such as Louisiana and Mississippi, have significantly higher murder rates than far less religious states such as Vermont and Oregon. [1]

That this passed the WP‘s editorial board is a small wonder, given its political persuasions.  Perhaps it is true that low rates of crime are correlated with irreligiosity, but is there anything else whatsoever that might explain the difference here?  What else besides irreligiosity is shared in common between Sweden, Japan, and US states like Vermont and Oregon, but not Mississippi or Louisiana?  Is the problem here that the United States is mired in religious ignorance, or is it that the US is religiously, ethnically, and culturally diverse, and that it has a history vis-a-vis one of its minorities – a minority that is disproportionately represented among the inmates of the US prison system – the consequences of which are still playing out today?

While many studies show that secular Americans don’t fare as well as the religious when it comes to certain indicators of mental health or subjective well-being, new scholarship is showing that the relationships among atheism, theism, and mental health and well-being are complex…  [S]tudies of apostates — people who were religious but later rejected their religion — report feeling happier, better and liberated in their post-religious lives.

Of course they do, but this fact proves nothing – if they had not been unhappy in the faith, why in the world would they have abandoned it?  The answer, of course, is that they wouldn’t have.  Similarly, I have known people who were functionally irreligious and then found their way to God and reported (and exhibited, from what I could see) improved mental well-being.  All this demonstrates is the old maxim “different strokes for different folks” – not that being an atheist will make anyone in particular happier.

Non-theism isn’t all balloons and ice cream. Some studies suggest that suicide rates are higher among the non-religious.

Wonderful, that infantile imagery, isn’t it?  But here is the question: why should one be an atheist at all?  Is it because it brings you particular life benefits (as does exercise), or is it because it’s the truth?

 On numerous respected measures of societal success — rates of poverty, teenage pregnancy, abortion, sexually transmitted diseases, obesity, drug use and crime, as well as economics — high levels of secularity are consistently correlated with positive outcomes in first-world nations. None of the secular advanced democracies suffers from the combined social ills seen here in Christian America. [2]

While this is all true, it is another instance of mistaking correlation for causation.  If we look at who tends to be strongly secular in America we will note that it is those who are middle-class and educated.  Such dysfunctions as exemplified in the quotation also tend to be conspicuously absent among the middle-class (since they lead to poorer life outcomes).  The middle-class is also more highly educated than the lower-classes and education is strongly correlated with atheism.  So does atheism prevent dysfunction, or does a lack of dysfunction put one in a better position to be educated (and thus much more likely to adopt atheism)?  I think the latter.

Similarly for strongly secular nations.  Their governance policies either more effectively discourage dysfunction or obviate the negative consequences of dysfunction, as well as making education more available to all members of society, leading to higher rates of atheism.

Negative stereotypes of atheists are alive and well. Yet like all stereotypes, they aren’t true.

Is the stereotype that ‘all stereotypes are false’ also false, then?  Perhaps there is a terminological difference here, where for the authors ‘stereotype’ means ‘false generalizations’ (which would be true but a tautology), but stereotypes are often true (albeit partial) and useful.

In summary: this article is pure garbage.  It does atheists no benefit for many reasons, e.g. it gets the reasons why one should be an atheist wrong, it does not provide any arguments that are good reasons to think atheism is correct.  And it does a lot of harm for one reason – it makes atheists look intellectually unrespectable.  Good arguments are always the way to go, both because opponents then have to deal with the strongest case and because then you know, to the best of your ability, that you have the right picture.  Atheists, take heed!


[1] Something worth noting here is the assumption that all religions are interchangeable in terms of their effects – which is patently absurd.  Why should Christianity as practised by northern Europeans have the same societal outcomes as Japanese Buddhism or Shintoism?

[2] Why the change in terms here from ‘atheist’ to ‘secular’?