Revising Views on Atheism

Cartoon by Grave Caruvana

The public discourse on the role of religion in our daily lives too often lacks the voice of atheists, and mass media further silences atheists when it persistently upholds the tenet that an atheist would never be able to win the presidency in our country, in spite of the fact that recent polls by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life indicate that about a fifth of the US population identifies as non-religious and that it’s the largest growing segment of society.

“Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful” said Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger (3 BC – 65 AD). The claim that belief in God is universal is bogus, and to presume that the collective hypnosis of belief in deity has something to do with evidence for God or with the moral superiority of credulity is misuse of logic. The majority of humanity believed the Earth was flat before this was proven false by people who sought empirical ways to verify the claim. Consensus has nothing to do with truth or evidence or with ethics, as any survivor of the holocaust would testify.  A mob does not accurately dictate what is morally superior or right.

People in deeply religious societies are oftentimes routinely denied basic human rights.  Saudi Arabia denies women even the right to drive.  Uganda almost passed a Kill the Gays bill recently.  Afghani and Pakistani girls who attend schools have to fear for their lives.  An atheist should expect to be executed in many Muslim lands.  Nigeria is plagued daily by the most barbaric and obscene Christian-Muslim conflict, as well as burning of witches and slaying of children by their own Christian parents and pastors for witchcraft.  In heavily secularized and peaceful Sweden, a recent wave of rapes is tied to recent Muslim immigrants who feel that if women aren’t modestly dressed, they deserve to be raped.

Atheists are happier and saner than theists.  A report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found that Danish people, the majority of whom are atheists, are the happiest among 40 countries that were studied.  Other developed countries with high standards of living exhibit similar rates of disbelief, including Sweden where only 23 percent of the citizens say they positively believe in a God.

The statistical link between prevalence of religion and societal dysfunction in human societies is more than demonstrated in census data.  Gregory Paul has published several peer-reviewed papers on this, including The Chronic Dependence of Popular Religiosity upon Dysfunctional Psychosociological Conditions (Evolutionary Psychology Journal) and his brilliant, Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies, which was published in the Journal of Religion and Society.  In it, he found:
“… high rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion in prosperous democracies.  Higher rates of non-theism and acceptance of human evolution usually correlate with lower rates of dysfunction,and the least theistic nations are usually the least dysfunctional.”

The Global Peace Index (GPI) measures nations’ levels of peacefulness or violence.  Statistical data related to the U.S. states reveal similar correlations between religiosity and high crime rates, teen pregnancy rates, school dropout rates, etc. where the more secular states invariably exhibit more societal health than the more religious states.  Prison and divorce statistics also shed light on the prevalence of societal dysfunction in religious communities.  Atheists are much less likely to divorce than Christians and Jews.

Perhaps the association of religion and poverty can be linked to lack of access, at times even hostility, to traditional education among religious groups.  In heavily-atheistic Denmark, citizens can become doctors, courtesy of the state, thanks to free universal education up to college level whereas in the more religious U.S.A. anyone wanting to become a doctor would have to acquire tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt.  93 percent of the members of the Academy of the Sciences –some of our most brilliant minds– are atheists.

Furthermore, to generalize when speaking about atheists is always a mistake.  The great minds of both the right and left spectrum of politics, from Marx to Ayn Rand, were atheists also: they shared a superior intellect, but in the service of opposing worldviews.  Buddhism is an atheistic religion and the Dalai Lama does not believe in a personal god. Of all the mainstream religions, Buddhism has historically also been among the least violent.

Some theists claim that the burden of proof lies with the atheists.  This is an absurd claim.  It’s hard to begin to imagine what scientific experiment one would have to carry out to prove the infantile and imaginative events in the book of Genesis: would a scientist have to breathe into a man made out of mud in a lab and document whether it comes to life?  Create a woman out of a man’s rib?  If a woman could be cloned from a man’s rib, would that constitute proof of God?

Atheists have nothing to prove, it is the many flavors of theists who are proposing a hypothesis that does, indeed, require extraordinary evidence, aggravated by the fact that their supernatural claims are all mutually contradictory. Hindus believe in reincarnation, Christians believe in heaven but only if you believe in Christ, Muslims only if you believe in Allah, and then Mormons believe they’re getting their own planet with multiple wives in the afterlife … and that God is a human who lives in planet Kolob.  They cannot all be true, and if they all have been used by good people to perform good deeds ,then this only proves that 1) the wrong belief may inspire good and bad deeds and 2) good deeds have nothing to do with the right belief.

The idea that religion is what keeps people moral is not only false but it’s also dangerous as long as society continues assuming that religious leaders and institutions are above reproach, that we are not to require transparency of them as we do of other people and institutions.  It’s this assertion that has allowed Catholic priests to rape and later silence thousands of innocent children over generations while their followers and even authorities try to not see what is going on under their noses, afraid to insult the sensitivities of deeply sincere Catholics.

It is here that the role of atheists in the public discourse on the role of religion in our society becomes more crucial.  Atheists argue that it’s not only fair, but imperative, to require transparency from religious leaders, that people do not have to be docile and fear religious authorities, that people can raise objections if necessary, that this is healthy.  Lack of visibility for atheists and prevalence of deference to religious authorities has contributed to a generally passive and docile attitude that is too often mistaken for humility and for a virtue.  This false humility, and the false arrogance that atheists are often accused of, reveal a system of values that has little respect for empirical and scientific evidence and too much undeserved respect for religions that are ostentatious about a moral superiority that they sorely lack.

Studies suggest that people’s bias against atheists, who according to recent studies are the most distrusted and hated minority in America, invariably have to do with the people that have the bias and their unconscious unresolved issues, not with the atheists.  When theists assume their own moral superiority, it’s quite insulting for non-religious people, it’s tired and it’s baseless.  Seneca was right.  Credulity is not a virtue.  It’s dehumanizing and it’s no facsimile for true ethics.