01 May 2011

In defense of nontheists

Excerpts from an op-ed piece in the Washington Post:
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 nontheists; in other words, nonbelievers are one minority still commonly denied in practical terms the right to assume office despite the constitutional ban on religious tests...

Is this knee-jerk dislike of atheists warranted? Not even close.

A growing body of social science research reveals that atheists, and non-religious people in general, are far from the unsavory beings many assume them to be. 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...

As individuals, atheists tend to score high on measures of intelligence, especially verbal ability and scientific literacy. They tend to raise their children to solve problems rationally, to make up their own minds when it comes to existential questions and to obey the golden rule. They are more likely to practice safe sex than the strongly religious are, and are less likely to be nationalistic or ethnocentric. They value freedom of thought...

As with other national minority groups, atheism is enjoying rapid growth. Despite the bigotry, the number of American nontheists has tripled as a proportion of the general population since the 1960s. Younger generations’ tolerance for the endless disputes of religion is waning fast. Surveys designed to overcome the understandable reluctance to admit atheism have found that as many as 60 million Americans — a fifth of the population — are not believers. Our nonreligious compatriots should be accorded the same respect as other minorities...
One of the writers of this piece is the author of the book Society Without God, which I reviewed here two years ago.


  1. My karma ran over my dogma!

  2. I would describe myself as very religious (uh-oh), but I really don't understand the hate and intolerance that is directed toward atheists (or nontheists?). It's infuriating to me when "religious" folk are intolerant and unkind. I try to encourage them to frown upon those who would do people harm, not people who have a differing view.

    I don't like it when people say that my religion is a hoax or that God is a lie, but I've found a great many atheists who just say, "I hold that God doesn't exist" and that's that.

    I hope one day we can all just be able to say that we hold that God does or doesn't exist, nod at each other, and move on with our lives.

    And anyone who supports hate, oppression and torture under the guise of some religious dogma is a charlatan of the worst sort.

  3. I once "confessed" to a good friend - a rational, educated, politically progressive Christian woman - that I held a basically atheistic worldview. She looked suddenly horrified and replied "What are you, an axe murderer???"

    Hopefully some day religious folk will cease to equate a belief that "God" is in fact a fictional character with some sort of moral depravity.

  4. It's a common saying among gays that if every gay person in the world suddenly turned blue, most folks would be shocked at how many there actually are (and how many they personally know, without realizing it). I suspect that if all atheists/nontheists/humanists suddenly turned blue tomorrow, the world would be even more shocked.

    And far better off.

  5. A few days ago, my co-worker told me--with utmost heartfelt sincerity--that she was suprised that I'm not a Christian. The reason? I'm too nice.
    I finally got her to admit that she based her opinion of atheists on a person she once knew who was a jerk and just happened to be an atheist. I told her assholes come in all colors (or in this case religions/no religion).
    I'll never understand why some believe their religion has a monopoly on being good and virtuous.

  6. Apologies to whomever this may offend.

    I live in Australia which compared to the USA is very secular. In fact, if anything the political bias lies in the other direction... Political figures who are religious are more often viewed with suspicion and trepidation than their atheist counterparts, like our current prime minister. The leader of the opposition, Tony Abbott, is strongly religious and is often questioned about it because of the perception that he is going to let his religion influence his rationality on matters such as homosexual rights, abortion, safe sex, gender equality, and so on.

    There was a minor media fiasco when Abbott revealed his views on virginity for girls being a 'gift' that should be treasured until marriage, and also when he described his own feelings about homosexual people - he said he was 'threatened' by them. The criticism is due, in my opinion. Religion has no place in politics, and if he is going to let his faith influence his policy then he shouldn't even be attempting to run for office. This may be my bias coming to the fore; I think Abbott is a homophobic, misogynist dinosaur whose ilk seem to have missed the social enlightenment we have seen over the last 50 or so years.

    I have to say that in my view, it seems that the USA is hysterical on the issue of religion. Many has been the time that I've shaken my head and let my jaw drop a little at the level of zeal exhibited not just by christian arch-conservative extremists, but even by the mainstream media and commentators throughout American society. It's flabberghasting.

    For the record, I am not an atheist, I maintain that atheism and any form of positive theism (i.e. "no god(s) exist(s)" and "some god(s) exist(s)" respectively) are both patently irrational positions. I subscribe to both positive agnosticism and ignosticism.

    There is a lot of intolerance on both sides of the matter, with both taking the moral high ground. I am intolerant of intolerance in either case, but I get extremely annoyed when my rational arguments in opposition to dogma are labelled 'intolerance'. It seems that many religious people take the view that criticism of something they identify with is direct criticism of them as people. It does not follow.

    Where do you weigh in on the matter Stan?

  7. Jim, my maternal grandparents were deeply religious immigrant Norwegians; my grandfather was shocked to find our family's pool table ("a tool of the devil") in the room where he had to sleep when he visited (but accepted our relative secularity good-naturedly).

    I was baptized and brought up Lutheran, and was active in the social functions of the church through my collegiate years, thanks to having an anti-Vietnam-War pragmatic pastor for those years.

    Some years later when my sister committed suicide and the church doctrine suggested she might therefore be excluded from the company of heaven, that rattled my mother's faith to the core, and we all separated from active church participation.

    After grad school the bosses I had in my work years were about evenly divided among Christians, Jews, and Muslims, and same with the students I taught. But for the most part these were alcohol-drinking Muslims and bacon-eating Jews, so religious differences were matters of intellectual curiosity rather than socially defining factors.

    I suppose I view moderate religions as very useful social constructs and beneficial additions to the community of man, but I have little regard for the fundamentalist sects of all three Abrahamic faiths.

    I find my God in the natural world, the infinite cosmos, and the intrinsic good will of men.

  8. I didn't mean to pry so deeply, but thanks for telling me that, I can very much respect all of it, I derive my sense of spiritual profundity from the very same sources, I just label it under a different name :-)

    To me, you and I seem very similar in many regards (religious nordic background included), but our societies seem very different. I was hoping to get your view on that difference if I could, I would love to hear some perspective from the inside, especially from as wise a pedagogue as yourself.

  9. Count me one for the no god team. I exist trying to offer the idea that you can be good without the threat of hell or promises of sky cake. But while discussing my campaign, I have been told that my actions are not my own and are simply some god forcing an infidel like me to do good for his chosen people... Yeah, ummmm, your welcome?

  10. Jim would be an "atheist" under the most appropriate definition of the term, which simply means a lack of belief in God (i.e., not a theist).

    Under this definition, everyone on earth is either a theist (positive belief in a deity or deities) or an atheist (the lack thereof).

    Thus, an atheist can also be agnostic (i.e., somebody who believes that it is impossible to know whether a deity does or does not exist).

    Based on Jim's description of himself, he would be an agnostic atheist.

  11. atheist (plural atheists)
    1 - One who does not have a belief in the existence of God, god, Gods or gods.
    2 - Especially, one who does not have any religious belief; an irreligious person.
    3 - One who believes that no deities exist.

    It really does depend on which definition you choose, neither is more correct than the other... The onus is on the speaker/writer to provide context to clarify their position.

    I prefer to use the term agnostic not as a subset of atheism but as separate, I feel it's more useful that way, since finely defining terms exist to refer to all stances not including a belief in god without assertions that one does not exist.

    Also, since ignosticism transcends the actual concept of god/gods, I feel it's separate all together from either theism or atheism. When pressed, I identify more as ignositc than anything else.

  12. As an atheist it doesn't matter whether others believe in a god or no, they can worship goats for all I care. All I ask of them is that one, they don't try to ram their beliefs down my throat, and two, that they do not try to influence the laws of this country to favor their religious beliefs.

    If their beliefs make them good people who show up for work each day, keep their kids off the streets, don't beat their wife and kids, pay their taxes, and leave me alone that is all I can ask of anyone. The problem is that most religious people, esp. the evangelicals, can not keep their beliefs to themselves and that is where the trouble starts.

  13. I really don't understand the anger displayed by non- believers in this modern culture. If there is anybody forcing religion down peoples throats I don't see it happening.
    As for the statistics stated in this article I would need more proof than just someones statement here.
    It's disturbing that in current times it seems that whoever shouts the loudest and has the biggest tantrum is the ones who get their way.
    A lot of people are crying about equal rights , but the truth is you are all spoiled rotten brats and if you don't get your way you have a fit.
    I was an atheist most of my life and then I witnessed a miracle that changed my life. If I could share that experience I would.
    So all I have left to say is that I think all the anger I see these days toward religion really comes from hearts that are missing the love of Christ. Amen !

  14. Samuel:

    "If there is anybody forcing religion down peoples throats I don't see it happening."

    Perhaps you ought to be looking more closely, then. A good organization like Americans United for Separation of Church and State would be happy to enlighten you about the violations of the First Amendment that occur every day in the United States.

  15. To Samuel -

    "The Boy Scouts of America (BSA) in the United States takes a hard-line position, excluding atheists and agnostics."

  16. So thank God for the first amendemnt and our right to freedom of religion , freedom of speech and the press and peacable protest.
    I'd be happy to keep my belief in God to myself , if atheists would like to keep their nonbelief to themselves.
    I am also grateful for our right to have private and public organizations whatever the individual requirements are for membership like "Boy Scouts of America". If you don't like God in it your welcome to start your own youth organization.
    And finally , if you believed you had found the cure for cancer would you want to share it with the world ?
    Well I believe I have found the cure for death in the person of Jesus Christ! Sorry if that offends anyone.
    Thank you and God Bless you !

  17. Personally, I feel that I HAVE to believe that there IS a God, and that there will be a life after death, period. The reason for this is consider the men who actuated 9/11. Since they are now dead, we (the mortal world that is) cannot punish these men. And so I have to believe in God, because thusly those men would then have to face God's Justice. Otherwise they essentially get away with what they have done.

  18. Not to come off as abusing your views, dabris, but that's odd 'logic'. I can just as easily come to a 'punishment' conclusion without belief in any god. If there is no god, no afterlife, no eternity, nothing supernatural and this is the only chance we get at existence then they made the most foolish choice imaginable. They threw away their one 'lucky' chance at life on a violent delusion. They ceased to exist. Nothing good came of it. Their lives and the lives of their victims ended forever for no good reason. Religion was the underlying cause and I can't imagine finding comfort in another aspect of that disgusting cause. You believe they'll be eternally punished. They believed they'd be rewarded eternally. There's equal 'proof' and 'justification' for both views.

  19. You're wasting your breath, Blithery. Didn't you see their entire justification for having faith? It's all about revenge, whitewashed as "punishment": My God will get you!! Sheesh, already!

  20. 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

    Oh my gosh, is that loaded. That's like saying

    "On basic questions of morality and human decency —- issues such as as dancing, swearing, staying married, tithing, and abortion -- the religious tend to be more ethical than their irreligious peers."

    You can't judge ethics by focusing on the specific controversial issues where Christians disagree with liberals on what is ethical. Take a group of behaviors that both groups agree are ethical, like paying your child support, and judge the groups on those.

  21. @ Noumenon:

    There are a great many religious people who see torture, the death penalty, racism, etc. as inhumane and antithetical to their religious values. It's the percentage of intolerant, authoritarian, militant, sanctimonious, and myopic religious people who bring down the the score for the faithful.

  22. In my experience, the people who loudly proclaim themselves to be "Christian" do not act in the ways that Jesus taught. I have questioned a few and am told that as they have taken Jesus Christ as their personal savior, it doesn't matter how they act. They're already saved. So that excuses any action, no matter how contrary to the teachings of their "Savior".

    I have come to despise religion because of the fundamentalists of all three Abrahamic religions. They have no right to force their beliefs on the rest of us. Maybe I should emigrate to Oz. They sound sensible.

  23. I'm a non-theist. I believe in science and reasoning. I don't like to hurt people, I'm a vegetarian, I don't condemn people for their beliefs and for the most part I feel that I am more well rounded as a person than others who are theists. I may not speak for all non-theists when I say this but I only become hostile toward another and their religion if they encroach on my beliefs first.

  24. BTW atheist is different than agnostic.

    Agnostic: neither believes nor disbelieves in God.

    Atheists: strictly do not believe in God.

  25. "Those who don’t believe in God are widely considered to be immoral, wicked and angry."

    That just isn't true. I think all people, in some strange way, want to feel slighted and play the victim. The idea that atheists are the last great persecuted minority is absurd.

    "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."

    What does one consider moral, and what does an atheist ground those beliefs in. That is the relevant question, the idea is not that atheists are terrible people incapable of behaving well socially, the question is, in an atheistic worldview, how does one know he or she is doing the right thing. How can any thinking atheist say something as goofy as this "On basic questions of morality...the irreligious tend to be more ethical than their religious peers," not because atheist can't be well behaved, but rather, what use of reason and logic can lead to a value judgment of morality.

  26. To the anon who thinks that morality can't be deduced by logic and reasoning (or common sense). If that were actually true, then how would we be able to tell which parts of the Old Testament are morally abhorrent? We know it isn't morally right to kill children who disrespect their parents, but the bible expressly endorses this punishment. Therefore, we must be making this contrary value judgment based on logic, reason, or common sense.


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