And here I was, trying to do the right thing


I just ran across three dismaying accusations against me and my fellow non-believers. Here I have been trying to live a moral life, and it suddenly turns out that all this time I’ve been a shifty, anti-intellectual devil worshipper, bent on world domination.

I swear it aint so. You are wrong about me.

Anyway, here are the three accusations.

One. I am a devil worshipper.  Greydon Square is an African-American rapper whose atheism provokes hostility from his fellow black Americans, who are predominantly enthusiastic Christians. In a 2007 interview with the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe podcast, he described an argument with a woman who accused him of being a “devil worshipper”. An hour of discussion failed to convince her of the absurdity that someone who did not believe in god could possibly believe in the devil. (Yes, I know, 2007 makes it old news. I was catching up on some old SGU podcasts.)

Two. I am untrustworthy. In December, 2011, news broke about a University of British Columbia study that probed students’ attitude toward atheism. The study found that religious students did not expect atheists to act morally: this particular group of students viewed atheists as untrustworthy as rapists.

Those two accusations are old and easily dispatched. The third is new.

Three. We atheists are out to rule the world. (After all, many of us are mad scientists.) In his oddly-titled book I Don’t Believe in Atheists, author Chris Hedges accuses outspoken atheists of a bucket-full of crimes including racism (“They divide the world into superior and inferior races….”), fascism (“…they call for …violent utopianism.”) and promoting mass murder (“They argue …that some human beings, maybe many human beings have to be eradicated to achieve this better world.”) Hedges compares atheists with fundamentalist Christians, who base their ideology on a set of unalterable dogmas. (“[Outspoken atheists] are anti-intellectual….They see only one truth: their truth.”)

I am not surprised by Greydon Square’s experience or the results of the UBC study. Believers — especially fundamentalist believers — see religion as the sole source of morality. Atheists, having rejected religion, must therefore lack morals. Apparently, without God’s guidance, we would run amok, killing and stealing.

Really, Christian? Is that what you are like under your Christian exterior? Is the only reason that you are not a career criminal the fact that it would displease God? I hope not. Happily, I know not. The Christians I know are decent people. But their decency issues from their intelligence and humanity, not from their religion.

So much for objections one and two. Atheists have heard them before.

But Hedges’ breathtaking accusations are another thing entirely. What bothers me most is his depiction of atheists as violent racists intent on imposing an ideology on the rest of the world. Where did he get that from? It took me a while to come up with an answer to that question. Then it struck me. Hedges is a career journalist; the new atheists he is criticizing (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Dan Dennett and Christopher Hitchens) are academics.

Now, academia is not the bucolic repose of bespectacled, absent-minded professors that many imagine it to be. It is a noisy arena where ideas fight to the death. Submit a paper to an academic journal and it goes to a panel of referees; their job is to probe the paper for flaws. Present your ideas at a conference, and expect pointed questions and criticisms. In that way, weak ideas and conjectures without support in reality are shot down. The strong — the logically consistent arguments based on evidence — survive.

Most of the time, the interchange of ideas is polite. But it can be heated. And to a non-academic that can seem like hostility. I suspect that Hedges is taking the new atheists personally. To him, the passionate advocacy of atheism sounds like a declaration of war. It’s not. All these writers are doing is what academics do.

Dawkins, Hitchens et al. are setting atheism on a solid intellectual ground. In so doing they justifiably criticize religion, something that dismays believers, whose dependence on unexamined faith is threatened. And nowhere do the atheist authors advocate racism or violence. That threat exists only in the minds of those who rely on unexamined faith.

Don’t take it personally.

Footnote. Why does Hedges’ title I Don’t Believe in Atheists strikes me as odd? Because it is like saying “I don’t believe in donuts”. It makes no sense: atheists exist just as surely as donuts exist. What Hedges means, of course, is that he doesn’t believe in what atheists have to say. I am sure that, as a journalist, he could find a succinct way of putting that.

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About aharmlessdrudge

Way back during the late Bronze age -- actually it was the 1950s -- all of us in high school had to take a vocational test to determine our interests and, supposedly, our future careers. I cannot remember the outcome, but I do recall one question that gave me pause. "If you were to win a Nobel prize, would it be in literature or in physics?" I hesitated over the question: although I enjoyed mathematics and science more than English class, I did have a couple of unfinished (and very bad) novels hidden away at home. I cannot remember what I chose back then, but the dilemma followed me to university, where I switched from mathematics to English and -- after a five-year stint in journalism -- back to mathematics. I recently retired as a professor of statistics. Retirement. What a good chance to revive my literary ambitions. I have finished a novel -- more about that in good time -- and a rubble of drafts of articles about mathematics and statistics is taking up space on my hard disk.
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