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Phil Zuckerman

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The Top Mistakes Atheists Make

Posted: 02/14/2011 1:42 pm

I've been studying atheists, agnostics, XTC fans, and various other types of secular folk out there for quite some time. I've also read most of the anti-religious books that have been published ever since Sam Harris kicked things off with The End of Faith.

And I must say, I've got a few criticisms for my God-denying brothers and sisters out there.

Or perhaps, more specifically, some pointers.

For if you really think that a secular worldview is superior to -- or at least more rational than -- a religious one, and if you really think that the world would be a better place if people didn't believe in supernatural deities, nasty demons, or chubby cherubs, I would suggest a little self-examination. A lot of you out there are making some serious mistakes.

Here they are:

1. Insisting that science can, or will, answer everything. When Bill O'Reilly or your Baptist in-laws ask you pointed questions like: "How did the universe get here?" or "What caused the Big Bang?" or "Why is there something instead of nothing?" don't insist that science has the answer. It may not -- ever. It is far better to simply say that we don't know everything, and may in fact never know everything. There will always be some mysteries out there. Just say: "Yeah -- it is quite a profound puzzle. No one knows the answer. But just because we don't know the answers to everything, doesn't mean we then automatically accept some made-up possibility."

2. Condemning all religion, rather then just the bad aspects thereof. Religion is man-made. It is socially constructed. It grows out of human culture. As such, religion inevitably contains, reflects, and reveals all that is within the realm of humanity: the good and the bad. It is like any other facet of human civilization: some of it is noble and inspirational, much of it is nonsensical and even dangerous. But to condemn it all as poisonous is to be in serious denial.

3. Condemning the Bible as a wretched, silly book, rather than seeing it as a work full of good and insightful things as well. The Bible was written by humans. It has no other source. The evidence is clear on that front. And similar to point two above, given that it is a human creation means that it isn't all good or all bad -- but contains both. Its contents can be downright absurd, flagrantly unscientific, embarrassingly racist and sexist -- not to mention painfully boring. But it also contains brilliant insights into the human condition, fun stories to entertain kids, and heady poetry. It even has solemn stretches of unbridled skepticism and existential angst. Check out Ecclesiastes.

4. Failing to understand and appreciate "cultural religion." There are tens of millions of people out there who are part of a religious tradition, but don't actually believe in the theological teachings thereof. They go to church, they get bar-mitzvahed, they identify with a religious tradition, and yet they are basically atheists, agnostics, or skeptics at heart. Why do they stay religious? They like it. They enjoy the traditions, the songs, the rituals, the community. These people should be seen as allies, not enemies. And every time we condemn their religion as idiocy or wickedness, we simply turn them off. Religion is not a black or white thing. Neither is secularity. There is a lot of gray out there. Deal with it. Appreciate it.

5. Critiquing God as nasty, wicked, and immoral. There is no point in critiquing a deity that doesn't exist. There is no need to catalogue the horrors, hypocrisies, or genocidal tendencies of a god that is imaginary. The reason we don't believe in God is simple: lack of evidence. That's it. Stay focused people.

6. Focusing on arguments against the existence of God, rather than working to make the world a better, more just place. People who believe in irrational things will rarely change their minds by listening to rational arguments. And yet atheists expel so much sweat constructing philosophical, scientific, or logical arguments against the existence of God. Think this will change people's minds? Perhaps. But only rarely. What really lowers levels of religiosity, the world-over, is living in a society where life is decent and secure. When people have enough to eat, shelter, healthcare, elder-care, child-care, employment, peacefulness, democracy -- that's when religion really starts to lose its grip.

7. Arguing about morality in the abstract. Don't get sucked into arguments about "Can we be good without God?" Don't try to convince theists that secular morality is actually more rational and, well, more moral. Rather, just insist that morality is ultimately revealed and shown through human action and deed. And we can plainly see that the least religious countries and states are generally the most moral, peaceful, and humane, while the most religious countries and states are the most crime-ridden, corrupt, and socially troubled. End of discussion.

8. Not having more kids. The sociological evidence is clear: religious parents tend to have religious kids and secular parents tend to have secular kids. The demographic data is unambiguous: religious people have far more kids than secular people, with religious fundamentalists having the most kids of all. And the highly religious societies on earth tend to have the highest birthrates, and the most secular nations have among the lowest. So if you really want a godless world, better get busy.

9. Always making top ten lists. It is so "Old Testament." Let's start going with top nine lists instead. Nine is divisible by 3. And 3, they say, is a magic number.

 
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