I spent about five years as an atheist. I know there are many atheists who think that I wasn't a "real atheist" because I eventually turned back to religion. I accept this criticism. Maybe I wasn't a real atheist, but what I learned as an atheist and from atheists is something I would never want to give up. I think that theists need atheists, and I still find myself nodding along to what atheists say in criticism about theism in general.
Some of what I hear atheists say about religion:
- You cannot prove that God exists. None of your faith-based experiences about God are real scientific "proof." Stop trying to argue about this.
- Look at the money. If your religion is enriching a very small population at the top of the religion, it's not a religion -- it's a Ponzi scheme.
- What is your religion doing to help people in real life, not just in the after-life? Are you actually doing what it takes to make the world a better place here and now for the poor, for the disenfranchised, for everyone?
- The history of your religion is suspect. There is a bunch of weird crapola in the history of just about every religion, including founders and other religious leaders who are just plain whacko, crazy, or conmen. Stop trying to hide this and find a way to deal with it.
- When your religion operates to enable abuse by those in power, there is something seriously wrong with your religion and possibly with your God.
- When your religion is about telling people to be obedient, to follow others in lock-step, to ignore their own doubts or questions, then perhaps it is more a cult than a religion.
- If your religion gives you permission (or encouragement) to force your beliefs or practices on others or to refuse to listen to their complaints of not being heard, then consider that your religion is just an excuse to be a jackass.
- Does your God favor certain groups over other groups (racial groups or gendered groups or any groups)? Is part of your religion about being superior to others? Again, consider that this isn't a religion, but a social club and not a very nice one.
- If your God denies science and science-based education, my question is: what is He afraid of people learning?
- Is your religion about punishment or about living better every day? Is it about pointing fingers or about making up reasons that people are suffering or is it about digging in and stopping the suffering?
All of these questions can be painful. Almost every religion looks bad when forced to deal with the criticism of atheists. And almost every religion can be improved by taking these criticisms seriously.
For me personally, letting go of the defensiveness of my religion has freed up a lot of energy to actually live it more fully. I am no longer interested in trying to proclaim the truth of the Mormon gospel to others. I don't care if people have heard claims about Joseph Smith being a pedophile or think the origin stories of the Book of Mormon are just plain silly. I stopped trying to convince people that I'm not being controlled like a puppet by the leaders of the Mormon church.
Instead, atheism has taught me that I need to focus on the here and now. I need to make the world a better place and if my religion isn't helping me do that, then something needs to change, my religion or the way I live it or the way I understand it. If my religion is causing suffering to marginalized people, then I need to rethink it. If my religion can't handle scientific criticism, then it's wrong. If God has to be protected from people who use logic to refute him, then is He really so very divine?
Bring on the criticism of religion! Criticism doesn't destroy religion. It makes it better. It makes us better. It teaches us where we have blind spots, and what past assumptions need to change in the future. It challenges us to be better people and to give up things that we once clung to but don't need anymore.
I'm not sure if atheists need theists. I've generally found the atheists I've met to be moral and deeply thoughtful people. They don't seem to need religion to treat people well or to find meaning in life. And more power to them if that's true for them. For me, I still find religion useful, as long as I see it as it truly is, and I thank atheists for making me do that.