Myth-bustin’ bad arguments about atheists

This apologist for religion, James Scofield, has written a bizarre essay titled 5 Myths Atheists Believe about Religion. It's a peculiar screed that assumes atheists are somehow aliens outside religious culture, looking in uncomprehendingly, needing some kind of correction in our perceptions — more so than the religious members of our culture, who are privileged to possess the true and secret information we do not have. Never mind that here in America we are deeply entangled everywhere in religion, tripping over it in our media, our politics, our commerce, and that many of us were brought up deeply immersed in a faith. None of that matters; Mr Scofield will condescendingly explain to us all the profound universal truths of religion that we have somehow missed.

In order to do this, unfortunately, he has to muddle up errors about the atheist position, and further, intentionally misrepresent religion. The end result is a garbled mess that says nothing at all about atheist ignorance but says a heck of a lot about Scofield's desire to defend a meaningless, abstract religion, even if he has to lie to do it.

So here are his five "myths" rebutted.

  1. Liberal and Moderate Religion Justifies Religious Extremism. His criticism of this idea rests on arguing that this doesn't apply elsewhere, and makes a series of irrelevant comparisons: a pediatrician isn't responsible for Nazi medical experiments, liberal democracy isn't responsible for totalitarianism, Dennis Kucinich isn't responsible for George Bush.

    Scofield has completely missed the point. Liberal religion isn't blamed for promoting illiberalism, it's guilty of promoting religion. Nobody is arguing that the antithesis is responsible for the thesis, but that liberal religion and extremist religion hold something in common: the abdication of reason in favor of faith. They are both philosophies that undermine critical thinking. And without that safeguard of demanding reasonable evidence for propositions, they're left vulnerable to bad ideas.

    You want a better comparison? The religious are like the anti-vaxers. They don't directly cause the disease, but they do provide a susceptible field of defenseless individuals who can breed stupid and dangerous beliefs.

  2. Religion Requires a Belief in a Supernatural God. Why, look at Buddhism, and Unitarians, and Thomas Jefferson! And some people "describe God as the natural order".

    This is a familiar and contemptible dodge, pure and simple. Let us pretend all atheists believe all religious people are Pat Robertson; therefore, when we mention someone who is not Pat Robertson, the atheists are routed! Huzzah!

    So what about Pat Robertson? And Tony Perkins? And John Boehner? And the local Catholic priest? And the kid in his Lutheran confirmation class who is told he must believe God came to earth as Jesus, and you must believe this story or go to hell? Are these not religious people?

    If those believers really did just consider their god a metaphor for the natural world, we wouldn't be having a problem here, now would we? This pretense that criticism of religious gullibility can be dealt with by a tactical denial of the reality of religious belief is absurd and dishonest.

  3. Religion Causes Bad Behavior. Scofield's evidence for this is the claim that atheists like to list evils done in the name of faith or by the failthful and then denounce religion as the cause. Strangely, he then cites Hitchens explaining that religion is only a reinforcer of a very human tribalism that is the actual root cause. So apparently this isn't a myth held by atheists. How strange then to say it is!

    He doesn't get the real problem here. Religion claims to be a source of morality; many believers go so far as to claim that it is the source for morality. The point of describing the evils isn't to claim religion is the exclusive cause, but to show that a primary claim, that it encourages greater morality, is patently and empirically false. The Hitchens quote is right in the mainstream of atheist thought.

  4. Atheists are Anti-Religious. In this "myth", Scofield lectures atheists on what atheism really means. He decides that he, not Greta Christina who wrote that "Atheists, by definition, don't think any religion has any reasonable likelihood of being true", is the privileged arbiter of the definition of atheism. And to back that up, he cites a personal friend at seminary who says he is an atheist but thinks that "religion has a lot to offer."

    Argument by confused and inconsistent buddy is not very persuasive. I think I'll trust the ideas of prominent atheists over that of a pair of incoherent seminarians who want to apologize for religion.

    He is right in one thing: you don't have to be anti-religious to be an atheist. I am. A lot of us are. There are many different ways to be an atheist, but I'm afraid one consistent thread is that they're all going to reject supernatural explanations for our existence. And that belief is incompatible with religions, which are in practice all about unnatural nonsense. It is perfectly fair to point out, though, that many atheists choose to simply ignore religion, rather than oppose it directly.

  5. All Religions are the Same and are "Equally Crazy". To Scofield, all atheists equate Martin Luther King with Osama Bin Laden, and see no difference at all between different religions. To back that up, he again quotes Greta Christina, who recently wrote that she found Mormonism crazy, and couldn't find any reason to believe that older, more established religions are any less crazy. Which, to anyone with half a brain, is obviously rather different from saying that all religions are the same.

    All religions are not the same. But all religions are crazy; there's no other way to describe a dogma that seeks to explain the nature of the universe while ignoring the reality of that universe. This one isn't a myth. Greta Christina put it very well when she wrote this bit Scofield even quotes:

    But all religions are out of touch with reality. All religions are implausible, based on cognitive biases, and unsupported by any good evidence whatsoever. All of them ultimately rely on faith -- i.e., an irrational attachment to a pre-existing idea regardless of any evidence that contradicts it -- as the core foundation of their belief. All of them contort, ignore, or deny reality in order to maintain their attachment to their faith.

    Waving Thomas Jefferson and Martin Luther King and all Buddhists (as if Buddhism was a platonic ideal) at us doesn't save Scofield, and doesn't contradict what Greta Christina wrote: where people reject dogma and supernaturalism they are rational, and in those parts of their lives where they bow before a god or a belief or an ideology, they are plainly crazy, in the informal sense of the word. You can be a tolerant, liberal, generous, kind-hearted Christian who rejects fundamentalism, and that does not grant your goofier beliefs protection from criticism.

At the end, Scofield piously declares that we have to move beyond these myths and misunderstandings…but these are myths that he has either perpetrated himself, or are actual significant divisions between the atheist and theist positions that he wants to wave out of existence. He has contributed nothing to knowledge about our respective positions, because he doesn't want to acknowledge that there are sincere and principled disagreements — differences that are insuperably deep. Atheists will not accept the widely held beliefs of the religious that there is a supernatural, personal force influencing their lives. We will not accept faith as a substitute for evidence in any way. We will not pretend that your beliefs in magical forces or unseen involved entities is in any way rational or supported by science.

To Scofield, I would say that atheists will willingly cooperate with theists, but only as long as they don't gabble that freakin' loony bullshit at us…and we know that most religious people are smart enough that they can set aside the baseless pieties and magical crap in conversation. You will not achieve reconciliation by asking us to believe religion isn't as insane as it actually is; that will be reached only by realizing that religion must at least temporarily be set aside while working with the reality-based community. That is, us. Not you. As your sloppily reasoned, inane piece of so-called myth busting reveals.


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