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Monday, 19 January 2015

The Unthinking Atheist

There's a peculiar phenomena I see frequently on the interweb - people who think that because they are atheists, they must be better people than those of a religious leaning. These people believe that any sort of faith is the source of all evil, and that if only everyone would just stop believing things the world would be a better, happier place.

Such people range from the very, very stupid sort who can't spell, to the extremely erudite and learned (i.e. Richard Dawkins). All of them share the conviction not only that there are no supernatural deities, but that no-one else should believe in them either. While most atheists simply go about their lives not believing in magical deities, this most peculiar variety spend an awful lot of time trying to unconvert people from their faith and frequently hurling vicious abuse at anyone who dares question them.

There are two quite unrelated triggers for this rant/essay. One is that I've just finished reading The Science of Discworld IV. For readers unfamiliar with the series, they're not books about the astronavigation skills of world turtles - rather, they use Discworld as a sort of lens through which to examine real-world science. And in this instance there's also a strong philosophical leaning (which is considerably more interesting than in the previous two books) that directly relates to much of what I want to blather on about here.

Obligatory world-turtle shot.
I thought about writing a full review of the book, but it's only one-half of the trigger. The other is the horrific killings at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo (I'll only be tangentially referring to that though, and, lest there be any doubt let me state JE SUIS CHARLIE). So I'll be referring to SODIV frequently, but I've got my own ideas to explore as well.

What I want to raise attention to is partially the abusive, hate-filled attitude of certain atheists (a provisional label that I'll return to later) , and partially the closely-related issue that many atheists feel they no longer need to question whether religion is a good thing. For them, it is an absolute certainty : any religious ideas, even those which are very moderate, are inherently bad and must be stamped out. That they are so disgusted with religion that they feel free to openly hurl hatred at its participants is, err, testament (see what I did there ?) to their fundamentalist non-faith. Yet their unquestioning insistence that religion in any form is wholly bad, whilst they simultaneously claim the blind faith they suppose is required by religion is a major part of its many, many flaws, looks very strange indeed.

Obviously - but it doesn't hurt to emphasis this - I'm not talking about the vast majority of atheists here. Certainly my (ostensibly) atheist friends outnumber my religious or even agnostic associates considerably. Yet, bewilderingly, the sheer number of people who hold religion as a scapegoat for all the world's ills is simply too large to attribute them to being the occasional internet troll. No, unthinking atheism is a thing, and it needs to be dealt with. In principle, this could also apply to agnosticism as well, but I've yet to see a single example of this in practise. Anyway "The Unthinking Atheist" is a sexier title.

In this first half I'll examine some mistaken ideas people have about atheism being somehow a more logical, natural position. I'll also be putting in a stalwart defence of agnosticism, because it's my blog and I can if I want to. However, if sophistry and petty linguistic disputes aren't your thing, feel free to scroll down to the second section, wherein I tell Johnny Antitheist to take his bigotry somewhere else. You'll miss the bit about the invisible goat though, which would be a shame.

Atheism and anti-theism

SODIV makes a very eloquent case that science is not a belief system, "it's a disbelief system". Which is true. I've already expounded my views on science and wacky ideas at length here, so I won't repeat them, but the opening chapter of SODIV pretty much repeats a lot of what I said. What they develop much further is a passionate case for atheism being fundamentally different to a religious viewpoint, and they argue persuasively that science and atheism are not alternative religions :

"A UFO believer, for example, may argue that not believing in UFOs is merely another kind of belief. Namely, a belief that UFOs don't exist. However, when virtually all of the alleged "evidence" for UFOs turns out to be mistaken, or false, the contrary position isn't a matter of belief at all. Zero belief in UFOs is not the same as 100% belief in the non-existence of UFOs. Zero belief is an absence of belief, not an opposed form of belief."

Now, as far as science goes, you won't get any argument from me. But can we apply this to atheism ? I'm not convinced, as we shall see in a moment. The authors make another very important point, but, curiously, fail to examine its implications in any detail. They note that some scientists are absolutely convinced about things they really have no business being convinced about :

"There are some who like certainty; they like to know just where they are. They tend to get their knowledge, their beliefs, from authoritative sources : the Bible, the Q'ran, textbooks [my emphasis], or the practises of their profession. They know that those who disagree with them are wrong, and sometimes evil.
Over the years we have found, somewhat to our surprise, that many scientists are also like this... There are biologists who know that the most important feature of any organism is its DNA... There are physicists who know that the Universe is made up of these particles, with these constants and mechanisms."

Here we have examples of scientists accepting non-religious ideas on faith. Yet, what the authors only barely hint at is the fact that neither science nor, more particularly, atheism, are shields against blind faith. Somehow, they have failed to realise that while a genuine total lack of belief is possible, it is also absolutely possible to hold (in a sense) the opposite stance.

If there is good evidence either way, then a belief that UFOs don't exist is subtly, but importantly, different from a lack of belief that UFOs exist. Proponents of the first stance will seek to refute any evidence of UFOs - photographs of flying saucers, they immediately say, must be fakes - whereas those holding the second viewpoint will be persuaded either way - they will (or at least could) consider carefully if a photograph stands up to expert analysis and only then form an opinion.

Agnosticism is very explicitly this lack of belief - it is skeptical (that is, inquiring) of claims both for and against. Atheism is much more of a grey area. Often it too is, more or lesssimply a lack of belief - many atheists just aren't interested in the subject. And that's fine. For some, it's the marginally stronger statement that God probably does not exist, and that's as far as they go. But for many others, it's not skeptical at all : it's a form of denial, an anti-theism, a resolute conviction that any religious ideology is not only wrong, but a Bad Thing.

Is atheism a religion ?

Antitheists (a term that is badly needed in common usage) deny this. They claim that they're merely atheists, that they don't have a belief system and that they're different to those of a religious ilk. Actually, there's a whole spectrum of possibilities. Certainly, the authors of SODIV do not fall into the hate-mongering variety I'll return to later, nor are they unthinking - they have considered the evidence carefully (one of them trained as a Rabbi) and found it wanting. Their conclusion is that God doesn't exist, but not necessarily that all religious beliefs are bad. However, they're utterly convinced that their conclusion must be the right one, which is rather stronger than their professed claim merely not to believe in God. They're also none too satisfied with agnosticism :

"Many religious people try to reject atheism as another form of belief, with the natural position being what they call agnosticism. They then interpret that stance as the view that the chances of God existing are about 50-50. So by being neutral, you are already halfway towards agreeing with them."

Worryingly, that's the only mention of agnosticism in the whole book. Yet I doubt most agnostics would agree the chances of God existing are 50-50. The whole point of being agnostic is that you don't know. That doesn't necessarily mean you think the chances are even (though some do), it can instead mean you think you can't even assess the probability. They continue :

"The default is to disbelieve. An atheist is not someone who believes God doesn't exist. It is someone who doesn't believe that God does exist."

Sir Terry, were it up to me, I'd take all of that hack Rowling's ill-gotten gains and deliver her fortune to you in cash in a great big truck. But you're dead wrong about this one. Firstly, a lack of belief (by itself) is widely accepted to be agnosticism, while someone who lacks belief in God and also believes God doesn't exist is called an atheist. I'm sorry, but that's just what the words mean. Redefining them in this particular way is a big mistake, which I'll return to in a moment.

Secondly, the ignorance of the existence of antitheists is a major problem : failing to acknowledge them undermines a lot of the rhetoric about atheism being the more rational position. It might be if atheism were really a true lack of belief - but it isn't, that's agnosticism ! And I agree, that should indeed be the default. Once evidence is presented (whatever kind of evidence that may be), we may form an opinion and, if we are so inclined, switch from agnosticism to theism/antitheism.

Suppose I were to tell you that there is an invisible hairy goat who lives on my head and farms mushrooms. You'd think I'd gone stark raving mad, obviously. But, until I told you about said goat, you were agnostic about its existence - you totally lacked any belief in a mushroom-farming invisible goat. The instance I told you about it, however, you became an atheist with respect to the head-dwelling goat : you believe it doesn't exist, maintaining agnosticism would be crazy. And in this case, your belief would be entirely, 100% correct. That's the point. Belief isn't inherently wrong or irrational. There's nothing inherently wrong with atheism, but there's no point pretending it isn't a belief.

Sometimes believing in things is right, sometimes it's wrong. Sheer belief neither makes a thing true nor untrue.

Many atheists choose to dismiss the possibility of God existing as you can't prove a negative - a sensible, rational philosophy, if you don't think there's any evidence. But there are also antitheists who are better described as being people who BELIEVE, with the same righteous fire normally associated with religious fanatics, that God does not exist. These people are convinced that everyone else must share their view and are on a mission to unconvert people. They have no problem in attacking anyone and everyone who disagrees with them. Just as a Creationist will dismiss any evidence of evolution, so antitheists will dismiss any suggestion that religion has ever contributed anything to society.

So the question, "Is atheism a religion ?" actually has a simple answer. Many (most) atheists aren't religious at all, nor is it necessarily a religious viewpoint. But for some of the more extreme antitheists, it absolutely is. It is this small but significant subset which concerns me here. Atheism itself is not a religion, but some people are giving a damn good try at making antitheism into one. If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck.... And I don't mean the sort of mainstream liberal-socialist duck- err, religion common in modern Europe (but for some reason much rarer in the US) - rather, the non-faith of antitheism is usually much closer to the extremist fundamentalism they profess to oppose most vehemently of all.


As is no doubt already apparent, definitions matter. It should also be obvious that, as usual, things are better defined as a continuous spectrum rather than discrete categories, but we do need categories to simplify things. SODIV have, by their extreme conviction that there is no evidence whatsoever for the existence of deities, thrown a spanner in the works. Their definition of "atheist", which is far closer to the conventional "agnostic", is not what's usually understood by the term, which is more like "antitheist".

Now, as an agnostic, I admit to some bias against using "atheist" to mean "lack of belief". I greatly prefer the standard, widely-accepted definitions :
  • Fanatical theist : Someone who believes in the existence of a deity or deities and insists that their existence is a certainty.
  • Theist : Someone who believes in the existence of a deity or deities.
  • Agnostic : Someone who lacks belief in both the existence and non-existence of deities.
  • Atheist : Someone who believes deities do not exist.
  • Antitheist : Someone who believes deities do not, and cannot, exist.
SODIV''s definition of atheism is a hair's breath from agnostic. It's true that as an atheist, you lack belief in deities. But if you don't qualify that with the additional statement "and I believe they don't exist", then you're for all intents and purposes an agnostic. Atheists, in my experience, do hold this second statement to be true - removing it would make them agnostics, which neither they nor agnostics want. And the reason we have separate terms goes far beyond pedantic hair-splitting.

The thing is, redefining atheist to only mean a lack of belief is highly disingenuous : it implies that it's only possible to believe in things, not against them. This means you've effectively declared the non-existence of deities to be such an absolute certainty that you can't even acknowledge other points of view. Which makes you an antitheist rather than an atheist in the usual sense. And yet few atheists would say they are absolutely certain no deities exist (see below), so I think the standard definitions are better. They certainly involve less semantics and, as a bonus, define a nice clear spectrum of positions. I'll be using them throughout the rest of the post.

Even SODIV acknowledge that, unlike the case of an invisible goat, they can't disprove religious beliefs :

"Science can't disprove religious beliefs. Nothing can. That's the problem... But the inability of science to disprove religious beliefs does not make it a belief system... When presented with extraordinary hypotheses, disbelief is not the opposite of belief. It is the default, neutral stance : "I'm not interested in playing this game, it makes no sense."

There's that ambiguous word "disbelief" again. If they mean "lack belief", then I agree - but that's agnosticism ! If they mean, "believe they do not exist", then that's atheism, but I don't think that should be the default stance, because it certainly isn't neutral. For some reason I cannot fathom, they seem hell-bent on ignoring agnosticism whilst desperately trying to promote its virtues. Which is a shame, because if they'd understood what agnosticism means they I could have made this post a lot shorter.

Antitheism vs Atheism vs Agnosticism

Relatively few people are convinced by agnosticism as an alternative to atheism. One argument often made against it is that by analogy, it makes no sense to be agnostic about whether Santa Claus exists. And that's true, just as with the goat... but in that case there's a far more sensible, falsifiable alternative argument : it was your parents putting the presents under the tree the whole time. So of course it makes no sense to be agnostic about Santa, unless you're six and only just beginning to understand how the world works.

I mentioned earlier that agnosticism is a sensible position if there's no evidence, or equal evidence both ways, with regard to an issue. Now, I don't propose to tell you if that's the case for the existence of God* or not. Make your own decision with regards to the evidence. If you think it supports God's existence, go ahead and believe. If you think the evidence is against God, be an atheist. If you're not sure, here's why I favour agnosticism.

* Remembering that there are many definitions of "God". The kind of people who take every word of the Bible literally are simply nuts - a classic antitheist mistake is to assume that this is what all religious people do. Certainly there are better, falsifiable alternatives to a God who constantly intervenes to cause mass flooding and hurricanes and what have you. But deities in general, such as a prime mover ? That is a much stronger, less convincing statement.

Santa Claus is a poor analogy. A better one would be something much more controversial, like climate change - at least, climate change science as it was 30 years ago, or as it is perceived by the public today. Scientists 30 years ago were very uncertain as to whether humans were causing global warming. There are several positions anyone could have chosen at the time :
1) Agnostic : Wait and see. More evidence is needed. Believe nothing.
2) Atheist / theist : Choose to believe that humans are not the cause of global warming.
3) Antitheist / zealous theist : Choose to believe that humans are not and cannot be the cause of global warming.

Do I need a reason for this ? No, I don't think so.
Obviously, I've given the theistic perspectives the wrong opinions (and given them the same as the atheist/antithesit) for dramatic effect. Of course, it's conceivable they would choose to believe the exact opposite - but at the time, this would be a completely arbitrary decision and for the wrong reasons. Admittedly, I'm not sure what the equivalent theistic position is with regard to Al Gore.

The important thing is that antitheism and extreme theism both reach "certain" conclusions, in their own minds. Their system of thought is essentially the same - it's based on what they want to believe, not the actual evidence. When evidence is lacking, the agnostic position is the most rational. Of course, both the more moderate theist and atheist will be willing to change their minds if sufficient evidence is presented - those are perfectly sensible viewpoints too. But zealous theists and antitheists will not, and those people are the dangerous ones.

Ultimately, even agnosticism is another opinion - an opinion that the evidence is equal, or cannot be judged. However, it's very rare (verging on "never actually happens") for an agnostic to say, "I'm uncertain and I think everyone else should be too." Far more often it is confined to being a personal point of view : "I can't make up my mind about this, so I don't see why I should try and change anyone else's." In contrast, someone who is convinced by evidence to hold a firm opinion one way or another is far more likely to want to persuade others to share that opinion.

People naturally assess evidence in different ways, hence they reach different conclusions. For some people, being a theist is the only view that makes sense (if they've had a religious experience, for example). For others, the concept of a supernatural deity running the show just doesn't cut it, and so these people can't be anything other than atheists. Agnostics, meanwhile, are content to remain uncertain given insufficient evidence. To me, this is better than atheism because it completely avoids making what I see as an irrational judgement. Of course, anyone who really does think the evidence is actually against the existence of deities should be an atheist.

But evidence, of course, is not proof. When something is proven beyond all doubt, it makes no sense to believe otherwise. If God decided to raise the dead tomorrow, no sane atheist would cling to their beliefs - but antitheists would. It's harder to disprove the religious beliefs, but if, say, science could find a simple alternative explanation to God (i.e. to explain why there is something rather than nothing), a lot of theists would abandon their faith - except for the most zealous. The moderates on both sides are people worth engaging with - the most extreme are beyond all hope. The problem isn't with people having opinions, it's people who've mistaken their opinions for facts.

Or as Stephen Hawking put it : "Ignorance allows you to learn. Knowledge does not."*. If you've decided to believe that deities doesn't exist, then you've closed your mind to the possibility that they do. If you're agnostic, you are no more committed to believing in them than atheists, but you're also not denying the alternative. In that sense, agnosticism is the most skeptical and inquiring of the possible viewpoints.

* That is why doubt (unless it becomes all-consuming), particularly self-doubt, is not a weakness, nor necessarily a state of fear of uncertainty, but a tremendous strength and even a source of comfort.

Agnosticism doesn't say that people should or shouldn't believe. All it says is that given the current evidence (or lack therefore), anyone who claims they are certain of the existence (or lack thereof) of God may be mistaken. It doesn't say their beliefs are definitely wrong, only that they're wrong to be certain of their beliefs. To me, this is quite different - and far more accommodating - than actually pronouncing judgement on the beliefs themselves. Saying, "you're certainly wrong" is very different from, "you're wrong to be certain".

Well, after that extremely lengthy preamble, I think we're finally ready to get to the heart of the matter.

APPENDIX : Feel free to skip ahead unless you're an enthusiast and really enjoy debating the nature of atheism.

In a very interesting discussion, a couple of points were raised on whether atheism is a belief :
1) Re : the mushroom-farming invisible goat - isn't that like saying you can believe in tables ? Your definition of belief could apply to anything, making it meaningless.
Hopefully readers won't get that impression when reading this in its proper context. Of course you can't believe in tables, because their existence is a certainty. But you can believe in things for which evidence is lacking which are later proved to be true. Hence the point stands that sheer belief neither makes a thing true nor untrue.

2) It's a logical absurdity to say you can believe that things don't exist. It's like trying to prove a negative; you can't distinguish between things which have no existence. Therefore you can only lack belief that they do exist.
I never really established what the questioner was driving at here. Belief is not necessarily at all logical. You might not be able to prove a negative, but you can still believe one. And certainly it's possible for the human brain to believe in specific non-existent things. Another way to phrase it, if you really insist that belief has to be in something, would be to say that someone who believes God does not exist is someone who believes God is fictional.

After thinking it over, I wonder if the questioner is a non-native English speaker slightly misinterpreting the word "exist". This is colloquially understood to mean, "have physical reality" - if I tell a child that Santa doesn't exist, they will know I mean, "Santa is imaginary". These two statements are identical in contemporary English. I would speculate that the questioner was trying to use "exist" in a very much stronger sense, to include the concept as well as the thing itself. In that case, telling a child that Santa doesn't exist is obviously a logical absurdity, because of course the concept of Santa most certainly does exist.

EDIT : After thinking it over some more, I realised that this is completely absurd. It's perfectly possible for things to not exist : buildings get knocked down, people die, things burn, bombs explode - all of these stop existing. So in when evidence is lacking as to whether something exists or not, it's perfectly possible and valid to hold the opinion that it does not exist, because non-existence is a real state. That things which don't exist can't be distinguished from one another is wholly irrelevant.
Or to put it another way, this idea is like saying, "I'm not saying I believe Elvis is dead. I simply lack belief that he is alive".

So yes, atheism absolutely can be a belief that deities don't exist. Note the emphasis. I am absolutely NOT trying to say that all atheists are believers of a different sort - not at all. The rest of the article, however, if focused on that subset that are believers.

The Unthinking Antitheist

It should be abundantly clear by now that agnostics don't like certainty. So I'm not going to claim that antitheism is wrong, only that its adherents should be put on the same intellectual pedestal as six-day Creationists. A belief that there cannot be a supernatural deity responsible for everything is as daft as saying that there must be one.

I first became fully conscious of this peculiar brand of ideology on social media. Any very popular space image post by one of the big players (NASA, ESA, ESO, etc.) inevitably causes someone to make a religious comment. These range in strength from the incredibly moderate ("God's Universe is amazing !") to the purely vile off-tropic trolling ("ALL UNBELIEVERS WILL BURN ! I AIN'T KIN TO NO APE !"). What I noticed, though, was that no matter how polite the religious statement was, the response was always the same : a vitriolic attack on religion, its followers, and often directed at the commenter themselves. Not once have I seen anyone - even moderators - say, "Please don't bring religion into this as it only causes trouble."

The most common, mildest example goes something like this :

"Wow, another amazing example of God's creation ! How can anyone doubt God's existence ?
yeah right leave your fairy stories out of this, take your sick ideology somewhere else"

After which a flamewar swiftly develops. Both the theist and antitheist can behave with varying degrees of outrage and stupidity.

Sometimes the comments are crueller, telling the theist to, err, depart rapidly, possibly while committing an impossible act of self-intercourse. Occasionally, they cross the line into full-on, unprovoked abuse, suggesting, for example, that the theist must be a drug-abusing child molester merely for professing a belief in a deity.

Once, I attempted to interject and suggested that making such comments was unwarranted. This was greeted with claims that it was "just a response to having religion rammed down our throats", and for that reason their comments were, somehow, not hateful at all. As if ramming anti-religion down people's throats was somehow intrinsically better. Of course, in their minds it is better, because they are absolutely certain the theists are wrong.

Now, personally, I find people spontaneously spouting "this is obviously an example of the magnificence of God" to be incredibly annoying. No-one says that when a natural disaster happens. But to respond to a comment about how wonderful the Universe is, which doesn't attack anyone or anything or do anything except profess admiration and awe, with hate-filled bile... well, if you're also going to claim that religion is bad because it causes people to hate each other, and atheism is better because it's more tolerant...

What these particular antitheists are is prejudiced, pure and simple. They fail to realise that many believers accept and tolerate other beliefs. They assume the stereotype of an unthinking, sheep-like believer applies to all of them, little aware that it is a far better description of themselves than it is of many of the faithful. It is an assumption which is as blindly unquestioning as anything religion has come up with.

Now, don't get me wrong - there is a whiff of "don't question this" in religion, sometimes. My teachers in primary school were certainly guilty of this, on occasion. Their lesson from the story of Doubting Thomas and Rahab* in Jericho was quite clearly, "Don't question God". Yet, in my school at least, the lessons from religious assemblies never, ever, not once strayed into classroom lessons. Never was I taught that the Bible should be taken literally, and I certainly wasn't taught that it has the slightest bearing on science. And, of course, the existence of theology completely disproves any notion that scripture is beyond interpretation or doubt.

* I remember this one quite distinctly : Rahab was instructed to hand a red cord in her window so that the invaders would know her house was to be spared. My teacher's interpretation was that this seems like a strange thing to do, but Rahab didn't question it Because God. A much simpler explanation is that it's a simple, discrete way to let the soldiers know which house was hers.

It seems pretty common knowledge that the religion/science debate is considerably more heated in America than in Europe and that a far larger proportion of Americans believe the literal truth of the Bible. This may well be true, but it doesn't make any sense whatsoever to assume that a love of a possibly fictional deity makes them all a bunch of craven paedophiles. That's just silly.

Antitheists lack of inquiry goes beyond making assumptions. When presented with evidence that actually no, the medieval Church didn't really hinder science all that much, their response is to close their ears and sing LA LA LA LA LA quite loudly. Well, that's what I like to imagine they're doing. What they're more overtly doing is refusing to read this post. Usually they just ignore me completely. But in one memorable case, the response was a massively determined effort to really justify not reading it. The most interesting argument was that he might be "brainwashed". Other arguments were that it was too long, just a book review, and - of course - that he didn't need to.

Right, so you're saying that your more skeptical point of view is so insecure that you might be brainwashed by an agnostic scientist's book review ??!? That you already know the right answer and don't want to be deceived into believing the wrong one ? Don't you know who you sound like ?

I might have accepted the response, "we're just not going to agree on this". I accept that people sometimes feel that they're not in the mood to have their world view brought into question; can't expect people to question everything all of the time (I never read pro-Creationist ravings, for example, or anything about the healing power of crystals*). There's the old maxim about not keeping a mind so open your brains fall out, which is usually very sensible. But if you're going to say, "my viewpoint is more rational, I won't read your article in case it changes my mind", well, what can I say ?

* Though if I'd deliberately waded into a debate on whether the Bible is literally true, I'd feel compelled to read any arguments I wanted to respond to. To be disinterested in the debate is fine - just don't go into one determined to say, "here's the truth, I already know it, no need to even look at anything YOU losers agree with". Either engage in discussion, or don't get into discussion at all.

Moreover, I would hope that saying, "Actually, though I don't believe in God myself, I think you'll find that the medieval Church did allow science, here is the evidence [not proof !]" would be perceived quite differently to saying, "You're going to HELL but I will pray for your soul". Suggesting that the medieval Church wasn't as hostile to science as is popularly supposed isn't a total dismissal of anti-theism. Equivalently, while I won't read Creationist articles, I might read something if someone said, "Well, clearly the Earth is billions of years old, but here's an article about why we might have got the exact age wrong by about 10% or so."

It's clear that for at least some antitheists, they have been so indoctrinated into believing that religion is an evil thing that they won't even hear any evidence - no matter how moderate - that suggests otherwise. Things which should by rights be controversial have become articles of anti-faith; they have become the intellectual equivalents of those they detest the most.

This unscientific attitude of refusing to consider evidence is sometimes expressed more directly :

Yes, science gives you a rational, falsifiable alternative to invoking God as the direct, magical cause of all things - but this is the classic mistake of antitheists of assuming that all religious people believe that's what God is. The literal interpretation of the Bible has been questioned since the late Roman era - almost since the New Testament's very inception. As SODIV note, science cannot disprove religious beliefs, especially when those beliefs are open to interpretation.

Galileo famously quipped, "the Bible tells us how to go to heaven, not how the heaven's go." It's certainly true that many Christians do take the Bible literally, especially in America (even though it refers to the "four corners of the Earth", which if taken literally is as monumentally stupid as you can get). But that isn't the whole story. For many people, science has about as much to say on the existence of God as political theory does about which is the tastiest sort of cheese.

Once you become accustomed to the stench of this cheese's financial
austerity, you're rewarded with its rich taste of social justice.
Another example : antitheists who use religion as a scapegoat for everything. Most notably in one discussion, as being the cause of just about every single war (even, death (!)) in history. Did you know, for instance, that Hitler and Stalin were Christians ? No ? Well, good, because they weren't. But that's what certain antitheists would have you believe. Even the Romans were deemed to be on a pseudo-crusade, which is of course simply wrong (see Caesar's Gallic Wars, for example). Revisionist history in extremis - it's not skepticism, it's straightforward denial of the facts.

Not all antitheists are the same, of course. Religious belief is but one axis of the rich, multi-dimensional tapestry that is the human condition. Some, as I've outline above, are hate-filled, obnoxious creatures. Others are more subtle.

That may be true, but having seen so many hateful, unprovoked, personal attacks, I find it very difficult to believe. It's also a metaphor that can easily be extended. Cancer is something you want to destroy to save people from. The evidence is pretty clear that most antitheists have exactly the same attitude about religion -  they're certain they're correct, so they have to save people from their mistaken beliefs*. Apparently we're just supposed to trust that their beliefs are the right ones. Remind you of anyone ?

* Though in one memorable case I encountered an angry individual adamant that he didn't care about converting anyone, "only pointing out their BS" (and I don't think he meant their Bachelor of Science degrees). He also had no scruples whatsoever about making the debate personal and insulting. Umm... isn't that called trolling ?

Another, slightly better meme :

Generally good advice. The same could be said for antitheism though. I prefer the Oatmeal's How To Suck At Your Religion. My only issue here is "keep it to yourself". Now, I know memes and comics have to keep things short, snappy, and above all funny - and the Oatmeal is very, very funny. But this throwaway line has slightly sinister (though almost certainty unintended) implications.

What exactly does "keep it to yourself", or "don't wave it around in public" mean ? Presumably, this is not supposed to mean, "never ever talk about your religion in public under any circumstances". That would be extremely strange. Surely, toleration is not supposed to mean suppressing free speech, but rather accepting that other people have different points of view and are entitled to express them ? Because if you don't agree with that, you're saying that religion should be somehow exempted from free speech.

Antitheists are only too happy to spout their criticism and verbal diarrhoea, so it seems curious to me that they desire the religious to shut the hell up. You can't allow free and public expression of antitheism or atheism but forbid it for theism - that doesn't make any sense at all. Free speech surely necessitates at least some very basic level of toleration of different opinions. Criticise, judge, condemn, insult - these are fine, but do not suppress.

Which leads me onto a meme I have nothing but wholehearted agreement with :

Quite so. Fanatics who preach terror absolutely deserve mockery, insults, and stinging rebukes (but more importantly jail sentences) at every opportunity; if your response to a cartoon is to massacre people (or condone such actions), it is self-evident that you deserve every insult you get.

Unfortunately, antitheists hold that all religious followers are as bad as the extremist minority, even those who hold toleration and compassion in the highest regard. But, having done my utmost to convince you, dear reader, that antitheism is a very silly thing indeed, I have to unequivocally demand its right to exist. Not just because some religions need criticising, but because, like Creationists, not every antitheist is a hate-filled nutcase. To assume so would be discrimination. That in no way prevents criticism of the ideology, however.

Pope Francis and some Muslims have recently said that freedom of speech shouldn't mean freedom to insult. On the contrary, that is exactly what it means, as I describe in detail in the comments here and here. The short version is that insults (particularly towards ideologies rather than individuals) are not the same as abuse (which society already has laws in place to deal with), and without harsh, sometimes painful criticism, society cannot grow. And, as I said above, if you're going to allow freedom of religious expression, you must also allow freedom of anti-religious expression, and vice-versa.

I am not saying antitheists shouldn't be allowed to criticise religion, as this article would have you believe. I am not even saying that they shouldn't be allowed to make personal, vindictive attacks on extreme theists (at least, no more than the level where society would deem it to be a hate crime). I am saying that when they resort to abusive, personal attacks in response to entirely peaceful religious comments, I can't take them seriously any more. It's equivalent to the activities of the disgusting Westboro Baptist Church.

Calling someone a paedophile, or a rapist, or a murderer, without justification, isn't a critique of religion. It is a comment that exists solely to inflict pain and suffering on someone because their beliefs are different. At best it's an insult, at worst it's abuse. Surely, we've got to recognize that abuse can come from anyone, no matter their ideology, and react to it accordingly. You don't get a free pass for being an atheist.

As I said right at the start, many antitheists feel that they are intrinsically better than theists. This the most sinister, even dangerous aspect of the whole shebang. For instance, there's the popular idea that atheists don't kill in the name of their un-faith. Which is true, as far as it goes.

Many atheists seem inordinately proud of the fact that atheists don't go around murdering people who aren't atheists. Well, good for you. Thank you ever so much for not murdering me today (SLOW CLAP). You know who else didn't murder me today ? Everyone ! Absolutely no-one killed me today at all. It was great ! I worry for the sanity of anyone proud that they're not a murderer.

The direct implication is that atheists must be better people. This is strongly reinforced when I read nonsense like, "religion is the major [or even sole] cause of all the world's suffering". Ridiculous. Leaving aside that there are many ways to harm someone, atheists do kill - look at the major dictators of the last century. Sure, they don't kill in the name of atheism, as fanatics do in the name of religion. Fine. Point conceded. Most atheists stop there, but a few appear to believe that atheism somehow prevents them from causing harm to others, which is flat-out nonsense. Worse, it's dangerous nonsense, because when you think every problem is the result of one scapegoat, it prevents you from seeing the real, complex causes.


Just in case I haven't made this point enough, not all atheists or antitheists are horrible people, any more than all theists are. My main point is that some atheists, but more particularly antitheists, are virtually indistinguishable from religious fanatics :
  • They believe. They do not merely lack belief. This is demonstrated time and time and time again by their statement, "God doesn't exist" - which is profoundly different from saying, "I don't believe God exists".
  • Their hatred of intolerance leads them to a hate-filled intolerance of anyone with beliefs different to their own.
  • They feel justified in abusing those who don't share their beliefs, even when the "provocation" is an entirely reasonable statement.
  • They refuse to consider evidence that contradicts their beliefs.
  • They want free speech for their beliefs, but not for those of others.
  • They want to convert people to their beliefs.
  • They think their beliefs somehow automatically make them better people.
Sure looks like a pretty nasty religion to me. Star Trek Enterpise ("Cold Station 12") had a neat summary of why this thinking like this is so dangerous :

Alright, I won't suggest that antitheists are Daleks, out to literally destroy everyone who disagrees with them. But an argument can be made that they are Cybermen (or Borg to stick with the Trek analogy) - they want everyone to be like them. They may not use physical violence to get what they want (indeed, they probably really do abhor physical violence - though some comments I've seen are so hateful I'm not so sure about this), yet the notion that mental, emotional harassment is also a form of violence doesn't seem to have entered their wildest dreams.

Yes, some religions have done worse. Fine. But the notion that this gives antitheists a free hand to treat even the most moderate of the religious as though they were terrorists, and somehow culpable with the crimes of the extremists, must be rejected absolutely.

There's a ever-present human tendency to respond to extreme viewpoints with opposing extreme viewpoints. While this may be a perfectly natural thing to do, it is not necessarily the correct one. Scathing contempt for the savagery of religious extremists is one thing - it is quite another to suggest that somehow all religions are complicit with fanaticism. Moderate theists and atheists all hold the extremists to be abhorrent, it is not necessary to adopt the counter-position to oppose fanaticism.

Moreover, pitting an antitheist against an extremist would achieve little more than getting two monkeys to hurl faeces at each other - it's difficult enough to unconvince extremists anyway, but presenting them with the opposing view is only likely to make them defend their beliefs. Essentially, antitheism exacerbates the problem rather than alleviating it.

At the very least, antitheism has an image problem. Rather than defining themselves as people opposed to religious ideology, they appear to be little more than people who hate religion. As I've said before, I've had far more civil discussions with staunch theists than I have with those who, as a scientist, I'm supposed to have more sympathy towards. Yet when I hear this group saying nothing except how evil all religion is, when I see them wilfully ignoring evidence, and when I fail to hear a single positive message from them, I find it hard to give them any more credence than any other hate group.

I'll end with a quote from the Q'ran, which sums up my thoughts on religious toleration quite nicely.

"The truth is from your Lord, so whoever wills, let him believe; and whoever wills, let him disbelieve."


  1. Hey. Firstly i want to say that this was a very interesting read. I dont know why there are not more comments on these blogs as they are always good thought provoking reading.
    From your definitions i would probably fall in the atheist category(as in i chose to believe that there is most likely no supreme being(s).Even tho i accept that there is no concrete evidence for or against such being (s) existing. I basically choose the "easy" way for my own peace of mind. And i am open about that fact).
    At the same time i do however find myself guilty of (some) of the antitheist behaviour you discribe here. I feel some of it can be justified by the reaction you experience just by "coming out" as an atheist to some people here (being asked if you believe in god and answering carefully: no i do not) as well as how religion is pushed onto you on a regular basis from a young age. Both directly: for example: I was on one occasion handed flyers detailing crackpot theories as to why the theory of evolution cannot be true and therefore god must be the truth. Explained in a manner seemingly intended to confuse people without a basic knowledge of said theory. And indirectly: for example: feeling uncomfortable partaking in religious traditions( where you have to say stuff) is not socially accepted. I guess these and other things have gradually turned me from a passive atheist to a more active one because of necessity.
    About the world would be better without religion part i dunno. Perhaps yes perhaps no. Imho there is evidence for both cases. But i guess i should be more respecting of others views and not treat them as they treat me. Sorry if this got ranty. I share most of your views.
    Disclaimer: English is not my primary language.

    1. Wow, I never expected this to actually be useful for anyone !!

      One thing I should try to do better is understand where people are coming from. In some countries there appears to be a very much more straightforward view of science/religion in general : you either practise one of them or the other. In such places, assuming that anyone who believes in God is automatically in favour of creationism and against evolution makes a lot of sense. Since I was taught a far more moderate view ("God exists, now back to science class") it's difficult for me to empathise with this. I have to make a conscious effort to remember that anyone shouting against someone saying, "I love God !" probably isn't actually against that idea per se, but all the consequences of that idea if it's taken to extremes. For me, the extreme view was always seen as ridiculous, but in other places it's the norm.

  2. 1) Agnostic : Wait and see. More evidence is needed. Believe nothing.
    2) Atheist / theist : Choose to believe that humans are not the cause of global warming.
    3) Antitheist / zealous theist : Choose to believe that humans are not and cannot be the cause of global warming.

    Here you confuse your own subjective opinion to add in a context that is completely unrelated. More concise would be the probability that something is true or not. Agnostics think it is as probable god exists or not. Atheists start from facts and conclude it is much more likely god doesn't exist. Anti-theists give 0% probability god exists. However with global warming there is no metaphysical context. Global warming is a fact. The uncertainty is to what extent it is caused by human interaction. FYI I refer to myself with none of these words. I find it equally pointless to consider myself a non-smoker as a atheist, as I don't think either is a norm to start from. Who describes oneself with characteristics of what one is not, I ask myself. In that context I don't like saying I am an atheist. As for global warming, I am indecisive. Polution however is a clear problem. The usage of fossil fuels is the largest pending change required, and should be a global focus. Likewise we will need technology that allows us to use the same matter for multiple objects to relieve earth from using all its resources. For example why have 5 different glasses, each for a specific task. You could say, just use 1 for all purposes, if not it is the consumption that currently is causing this strain on the planet. If we could change objects from one shape to another however, consumption changes in principle to creativity. I am stepping away however from the content of this blog, thanks for the eloquent wording.

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    2. "Here you confuse your own subjective opinion to add in a context that is completely unrelated."
      I think you have misunderstood the point of the analogy. It doesn't really matter if it's global warming or relativity or the existence of bacteria or any other scientific conclusion - the point is to compare behaviours when evidence is lacking, but then more evidence/proof comes along and something is decisively shown to be true. Theists start from facts and conclude that God exists. Atheists start from facts and reach the opposite conclusion. Antitheists/fanatics conclude the probability is 100% certain and never change their minds when this is shown to be incorrect.

      "However with global warming there is no metaphysical context."
      A fair point, however it's ONLY an analogy. All analogies have limits. In this case, the point of the analogy is to compare beliefs and behaviours resulting from evidence, not to assess which one is actually correct.

      "Global warming is a fact. The uncertainty is to what extent it is caused by human interaction."
      I quite clearly stated this is in the post - you yourself quoted this !!