15 May 2013

10 more things atheists wish Christians knew about them

The other day I came across this great video: an interview with Neil Carter, who participated in an interview at a church in Jackson, MS, in conjunction with the "National Interview an Atheist at Church Day", which is apparently a thing. The longer interview is here, but I enjoyed this excerpt in which he lists 11 things atheists wished Christians knew about them.



If you don't want to watch the whole video, they are:
  1. We have morals, too!
  2. You don't know us better than we know ourselves
  3. We don't deep down believe in your particular god (sorry, Ray Comfort)
  4. We don't hate your particular god 
  5. We don't all disbelieve because something bad happened to us
  6. Believing isn't a choice
  7. Most of us used to be Christians, too
  8. Quoting the Bible doesn't work like a Jedi mind trick
  9. We don't worship the devil
  10. Hell doesn't scare us; to us, it doesn't even make sense
  11. We aren't all anti-theists
The last one is sort of soft-ball accommodationism, but I think that's a good list. But over the last couple days several things popped into my head that I thought would make fine additions to that list. So without further ado, here are....


10 More Things Atheists Wish Christians Knew About Them

1. We don't think that nothing created everything

With a nod to the odious Ray Comfort, who uses this canard often, the most common "zinger" used against atheists is something like this: "If there's no God, then where did the universe come from?" as though it's a foregone conclusion that God must have created the universe.

The simple fact is that most atheists are agnostic regarding the origin of the universe. I don't know where it came from – or if it's even sensible to ask if it came from anything else at all, much less assume that it did. It's not a coincidence that when we look at some of the foremost cosmologists of our day – Lisa Randall, Brian Greene, Stephen Hawking, Alan Guth, Alexander Vilenkin, Brian Cox, etc. – they are overwhelmingly non-believers. That's because the origin of the universe – or even whether the universe had an origin – is considered an open question in science. We simply do not know. 

In fact, if there's any truism in physics, it's that we're more aware of our ignorance than we've ever been. It's possible, per Stephen Hawking, that the universe has no beginning nor is infinite in the past – that it simply "is". It's possible, per Guth and Vilenkin, that the universe emerged from a "quantum tunneling event" in what they call a "closed spacelike hypersurface". Oy. That's heady stuff. And that's okay! We don't have to have the answers. It's perfectly fine to admit there are big questions to which we do not know the answer. Being that the origin of the universe is perhaps the biggest question of all, we owe it that much more humility. 


2. Atheism is not a worldview

Many Christians seem to view atheism as another "channel" on the television of beliefs. But, as the saying goes, saying atheism is a religion is like saying "off" is a television channel. Atheism simply means that one does not believe in the existence of a god or gods. It says nothing about morals, meaning, cosmology, philosophical realism, or whatever else. As my blogger-in-crime Michael Hawkins often emphasizes, atheism is not normative.

Where, then, do atheists get things like morals, meaning, or their views on various philosophical issues? The answer is from subsets of those disciplines. For example, most modern atheists are humanists. All humanists are non-believers, but not all non-believers are humanists. All materialists are atheists, but not all atheists are materialists. Get it?

An atheist might likewise believe in a humanistic view of morality, or they might be moral nihilists (among other possibilities). You can't know just from someone saying they are an atheist whether they believe in objective moral values (a la Sam Harris), moral relativism, or moral nihilism. Since atheism is strictly descriptive, not normative, you can be an atheist and still take on any of these particular views.

Saying "I'm an atheist" is similar to saying "I'm a theist". A "theist" could be a Christian, a pagan, a Wiccan, a deist, a pantheist, a Buddhist, a Taoist, a Muslim, whatever. "Theism" isn't normative, either. So when someone says they're an atheist, you have to talk to them to understand their views on particular issues – and since we don't have some unifying doctrine or dogma, don't ever assume that one atheist's views is representative of others.


3. Atheists aren't (usually) certain that no God exists

Atheism and agnosticism are not mutually exclusive positions. Often, when an atheist "concedes" that they're not 100% certain there is no God whatsoever, Christians pounce: "Aha! You're really an agnostic!" (Case in point: Alister McGrath) The vast majority of atheists, though, are agnostic atheists, as this handy chart from another blogging compatriot of mine, Bud Uzoras, illustrates:
That's because a/theism deals with belief, while a/gnosticism deals with knowledge. We've heard the arguments for God's existence. Many of us used to be religious. And ya know what? We're not convinced. But any intellectually honest person will admit they can be wrong, simply because there is much that we do not and perhaps even cannot know (see #4).

Our degree of agnosticism tends to vary depending on the belief itself. For example, I'm quite confident that the god of Christianity is a fabrication of human minds, for a litany of reasons one can easily find throughout the archives of this blog. But I can't know for certain that no God of any kind exists. Perhaps there is a God that is so powerful that it defies human comprehension. In that case, God might exist but his/her/its existence is irrelevant to me. Or perhaps there is some argument for pantheism or heck, even Christianity, that I haven't given due consideration. My belief is based upon the best evidence available to me, and I've found the "God hypothesis" to be logically self-defeating and explanatorily vacuous. But I've never claimed to be absolutely certain of anything.


4. Atheist don't think they know everything

Continuing along that spectrum of a/gnosticism, most of us readily accept that the universe is filled with innumerable mind-boggling mysteries. There is much that we not only do not understand, but in fact may never understand. However, we also recognize that to use those gaps in our knowledge as places to insert a god is to commit the fallacy of an argument from ignorance

To me, the notion that "atheists think they know everything", coming from Christians, seems like the epitome of irony. It's Christians who, in my experience at least, often insist that they know God created the universe, that God is the absolute moral arbiter, that their interpretation of their religious text is the one correct one out of literally tens of thousands of denominations, that the creator of the universe speaks to them and gives them sage advice, and that our entire 14.8 billion-year-old and unfathomably vast universe was created with them in mind. That, to me, seems to demand far more hubris than atheism.


5. Atheists find meaning in the same things you do

Christians often speak as though without God, nothing matters. Take for example this comment from a lengthy discussion on Facebook:


 I've never quite gotten why it's so difficult to communicate this concept: sure, in the sense that Christians often talk about it, we don't believe in meaning. We don't believe the universe was put here with us in mind, or that human life possess some objective intrinsic value. But it doesn't follow that because we don't believe in objective meaning, that we cannot find both subjective and shared meaning. Atheists tend to believe that our lives are what we make of them. We have one chance to live, and we can spend it being bitter and destructive or sharing in peace and happiness. We find meaning in the same things that Christians do – in time spent with family and friends (and pets!), in wondrous admiration of nature, in enjoyment of the arts, in helping others, and all the myriad of other ways we can enjoy life.

And I'm not sure why that should be such a mystery. How we choose to treat others directly affects us. If we are dishonest, cruel and manipulative, we'll be ostracized and marginalized. And even we're able to stay a step ahead of the most direct consequences to such behavior, we'll have missed out on a litany of opportunities to experience friendship, knowledge, and happiness.

Rabbi Harold Kusher, author of the book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, has often expressed similarly pragmatic views: a man who always cheats on his girlfriends and wives might get away with it, but he'll never know the joys of a committed and loving relationship. Those who manipulate or exploit others might elude justice, but they'll never know what it is to have loyal and trustworthy friends.

In other words, we have all the reasons in the world to value this life. We don't need the promise of another one.


6. Atheists value your religious freedom

Reading the excellent blog Friendly Atheist, whose staff does an outstanding job of documenting the struggles of non-believers across the country, I'm often astounded at how easily the most simple message in the world is lost on many Christians: You don't get special privileges because of your beliefs.

Story after story finds children coerced by public school staff into sectarian prayer; state legislatures trying to erect monuments to their religion at courthouses or in schools, and insisting on leading hearings with Christian prayer; or even ostracizing soldiers who fail to conform to Christian beliefs. When we non-believers stand up to this kind of behavior, we're often branded the enemy of religious freedom and scorned as though we want nothing but atheism everywhere. Well, okay, we do want that, but we want it by people's own free will – not through legal coercion. What we want is simple – to get rid of religious privilege. No one's belief, particularly when tax dollars are involved, deserves special treatment. Our schools, our courthouses, our government and our military are mandated by the Constitution to be secular. Secular doesn't mean anti-religious or atheistic; it just means free from sectarian religious influence.

I'll never forget the uproar that happened when peaceful Muslim citizens in New York City wanted to erect a community center a few blocks from 9/11 Ground Zero. There was outrage and protest from Christians, who shouted that Muslims were the enemy. But across the atheist blogosphere was nothing but support for the freedom of those Muslims to build their community center within their legal rights. We want religious equality – not religious privilege, for ourselves or for anyone else.


7. Atheists get through hardship the same way you do

I frequently encounter Christians who have a difficult time so much as fathoming how any atheist can get through a difficult time – loss of a loved one, a failed relationship, tragic illness, whatever. When I was a Christian, I had the same thoughts. God was such a central part of my reality that I couldn't imagine how anyone could go through tough times without ending up on a ledge somewhere.

In the years since my deconversion, I've gone through plenty of tough times. And what I have found is that aside from abandoning my once frequent prayers, nothing else really changed in how I deal with hardship. I find solace in friends and family, sometimes seeking their counsel and other times just needing a shoulder to lean on. I spend time with my own thoughts, and let my toughest emotions run their course – as I've learned from experience they do. I try to gleam positive things from the experience, growing wiser and more resilient with each challenge.

Truth be told, I think that this is exactly how Christians get through tough times. I think that what Christians claim to be God's "voice" is little more than self-talk. They rely on the support of their families and friends, and they try to make the best out of bad situations. Whether God's voice is real or not doesn't really matter, as long as it's telling you the right thing.  


8. We don't have "faith" 

Much along the lines of confusing atheism with a world view, Christians have often (in my experience, at least) claimed that atheists have faith in one thing or another. They say we have faith in evolution, in scientific authorities, in the non-existence of God, or in materialism. I think a far more simple and accurate description of what we have are provisional assumptions.

That means that we've made certain assumptions based on our assessment of the evidence available to us. We've heard the arguments for God's existence and found them unpersuasive, so we operate on the assumption that no God exists – provisional, though, precisely for the reasons outlined in points three and four above.

I wrote some time back, for example, about why I subscribe to the view of ontological naturalism. Even many atheists are hesitant to subscribe to this philosophy, which is the belief that the material is all that exists. Christians often counter that we can't disprove the existence of the supernatural, so it's irrational to hold a positive believe in materialism (I know that's oversimplifying a bit, but it'll have to do for the space here). But when you view ontological naturalism as a provisional assumption based on the best evidence we have, and therefor an assumption that could be demonstrated as wrong, it's clear that it doesn't require "faith" – at least not in the sense of religious faith.


9. We've heard that one

I have an FAQ here on my blog, part of which is as follows:

I have an argument that totally undermines atheism. What do you have to say about that?
Please, use the search button. And the "New to the A-Unicornist?" tab at the top of the page. I've spent years talking with theists. I've read many apologetics books and heck, as a believer I spent many years making and defending those arguments. So before you trot out the cosmological argument, or the design argument, or the objective moral argument, or quote your holy book of choice, or say that atheists can't have any meaning in their lives and expect me to discuss it with you... use the search button. The archives are full of topical posts on just about every subject imaginable, many of which have very lengthy discussions in the subsequent comment threads. I'm not going to rehash the same arguments for every new visitor who comes along.
Often Christians who are new to the blog will find an old post and trot out their favorite apologetic arguments or even some Bible scriptures as though I've never heard them before. I have. Not only that, but practically every non-believer I know is intimately familiar with a great deal of Christian apologetics and Biblical exegesis. Being that many atheists come from a religious background, we're often quite knowledgeable about scripture, religious philosophy, and Christian culture. Give us the benefit of the doubt and listen to what we have to say (or read, as it were) for a bit first before electing to enlighten us.


10. We live normal, happy lives – and we're not that different from you

It may seem like we're "them". The unsaved, the unholy, the worldly, the god-haters... but the truth is that we just don't believe in the supernatural stuff that you do. We believe in lots of the same things that you do – like the importance of family and friends, in treating others as we would like to be treated, in the awesomeness of Star Trek, in the lameness of Nicki Minaj. In all seriousness though, it's important to remember that we have much more in common than we disagree about. We're sharing a small patch of earth on a tiny planet in a microscopic speck of the universe, and our needs, interests and values are often aligned.

We're not bitter at the world, resentful toward Christians, or angry at anything more than injustices that we think are well-justified in getting angry about. We're nice people who eat Chinese take-out and go to baseball games; who have friends, parents, and children of our own whom we love dearly; and who want a better world for all of us. We may not always agree on the best way to get there, but the sooner we stop fearing each other, the sooner we can get there together. 

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