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5 Problems with Atheist Ideas: Conflicts with Atheism Part II

Note–This piece is a follow up to Conflicts With Atheism Part 1: From an Indian-American Mom Raised Atheist. Read it here.

Get ready for an unpopular opinion:

Many atheists have the following (perhaps subconscious) attitude: “I was born into a religious family. I was wise enough to see the error in religion. Furthermore, I’m very intelligent, thus I know that belief in god(s) and religion is irrational, superstitious, and unscientific. I am so glad that I was able to see the light and extricate myself from the idiocy that is religion. Bravo, me. If only everyone could be so enlightened, the world would be a better place.” Yes, I know, this is a hyperbolic generalization and doesn’t apply to all self-identified atheists. Forgive me for expressing for the first time an admittedly nasty yet omnipresent feeling.

While most may not realize it, many atheists have a superiority complex. And yes, I know this subject has been explored to the point of exhaustion, especially when it comes to the Richard Dawkinses of the world (even South Park tackled it in a hilarious yet dystopian episode.) Nonetheless, I’m in a rambling mood. So here it is, folks. A non-exhaustive list of problems with atheism from the rare and curious specimen that is a 30-something American mom raised atheist by former Hindu Indian immigrant parents:

1. Condescending attitudes toward non-atheists and religious people. While I vehemently agree with atheist promotion of ideals like separation of church and state, civil rights, and a secular system of education for all, these ideals are not uniquely atheist! I know atheists, Christians, Hindus, Muslims, Jews, and others who passionately support these objectives. The remainder of the items on this list all tie back to this problematic superiority complex.

2. Seeing atheism as the only belief system compatible with embracing scientific consensus. Contrary to popular notion, being a scientist does not exclude one from

Anjaneyar temple, where 20th century mathematical genius Srinivasan Ramanujan worshipped.

holding religious beliefs. There is an erroneous idea, especially in secular American society, that scientists are necessarily atheist while religious folks prefer to teach creation in public schools and go to country music festivals and hoe downs on the weekends. Yeehaw. This is nothing but a caricature. For just one example, see this story on a study of scientists and religious affiliation presented at the 2014 AAAS conference.

3. Viewing atheism as a perpetually unadulterated belief system immune to ideology. I’ve repeatedly heard that atheism is not dogmatic. The American Atheists define atheism as nothing more than “a lack of belief in gods and supernatural beings.” Yes, atheism at this most purist level is not dogmatic. Yet the very same organization also endorses tenets that seem like the seeds of dogma.

The American Atheists describe themselves as follows:

“The only common thread that ties all atheists together is a lack of belief in gods and supernatural beings. Some of the best debates we have ever had have been with fellow atheists. This is because atheists do not have a common belief system, sacred scripture or atheist Pope. This means atheists often disagree on many issues and ideas. Atheists come in a variety of shapes, colors, beliefs, convictions, and backgrounds. We are as unique as our fingerprints.”

While they assert their non-groupthink individuality, they simultaneously embrace collective objectives and achievements including:

-“ to develop and propagate a social philosophy in which humankind is central”

-“ Held atheist conventions and gatherings throughout the United States, including “Atheist Pride” marches in state capitals”

Do you see the inconsistency? Promoting a central philosophy, holding conventions, and organizing marches seem like hallmarks of a cohesive ideological group. Moreover, to say that atheists are “as unique as their fingerprints” is to imply that members of any given religion are homogenous, and therefore inferior. Here’s that pesky superiority complex again.

4. The notion that atheism is a panacea. Yes, wars have raged for centuries over religious disputes, or clashes between religious groups. Still, it’s wishful thinking to believe that a world without religion would be a peaceful place. Also, the implication is that only religious beliefs hinder scientific and technological progress. For example, stem cell research was hampered by the religious right. Yet scour your list of friends, family, and acquaintances, and you may notice that anti-GMO and anti-vaccination proponents are also often atheist. Atheism does not make us impervious to pseudoscience or hindrance of progress.

5. Belief that raising children in religious doctrine is harmful, and therefore parents raising children atheist could not harm their kids. This is the last on my list yet definitely not least. Parents make parenting mistakes, not religions or lack thereof. People are entrenched in the mire of human nature. Atheism doesn’t free us from that mire. Atheists assert that a child isn’t born Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, etc.; s/he is coerced into a belief system at a non-consenting age. I’d argue that the same applies to children raised purely atheist. Any parent who deigns to interpret a yet unknown mystery in absolute terms is indoctrinating her child.

I must stress that I am not nor will I ever identify as religious or as having faith in deities. I won’t get into the myriad problems with religion, because it’s been played out and continues to play out among my circle of liberal, skeptical, like-minded folks. Let me assure you my fellow atheists, we haven’t won the enlightenment prize. Let’s not assume that the negatives of religion apply equally to all religious people. Let’s not become complacent and allow atheism to roll down the slippery slope of human nature into the hellfire of doctrine and condemnation of otherhood.

 

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Kavin Senapathy

Kavin Senapathy

Kavin Senapathy is a mom of two, co-Executive Director of March Against Myths, public speaker, Forbes contributor and author in Madison, WI. She is also co-author of "The Fear Babe: Shattering Vani Hari's Glass House". Follow her on Facebook and twitter @ksenapathy

13 Comments

  1. July 31, 2014 at 6:19 pm —

    “5. Belief that raising children in religious doctrine is harmful, and therefore parents raising children atheist could not harm their kids. This is the last on my list yet definitely not least. Parents make parenting mistakes, not religions or lack thereof. People are entrenched in the mire of human nature. Atheism doesn’t free us from that mire. Atheists assert that a child isn’t born Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, etc.; s/he is coerced into a belief system at a non-consenting age. I’d argue that the same applies to children raised purely atheist. Any parent who deigns to interpret a yet unknown mystery in absolute terms is indoctrinating her child.”

    YES.

  2. August 1, 2014 at 11:52 am —

    The superiority complex in #1 is my biggest problem with the atheists who take that attitude, because it’s so similar to many of the religious people they disdain a religious individual would say their belief system is the only one and anyone not subscribing to it is somehow lesser/evil/wrong and going to Hell. . .which is remarkably similar to an atheist who says disbelief is the only option and anyone not subscribing to their form of it is somehow lesser/wrong and an idiot. Of course, the gaggle of condescending atheists out there aren’t starting holy wars as part of that sense of superiority, but it’s always struck me as ironic how similar that particular type of atheist sounds to the people they disdain.

  3. August 1, 2014 at 6:01 pm —

    Thanks, Jenny! And Deek, absolutely. This is far-fetched, but who knows what generations will do to atheism over time? Maybe not holy wars, but factions with conflicts over who knows what isn’t outside of the realm of possibility.

  4. August 1, 2014 at 11:25 pm —

    While I agree with much of your post, perhaps the tone didn’t sit right with me. It seems that you’re arguing against a monolithic caricature of an atheist, and part of that argument involves criticizing that same caricature of stereotyping religious people. You put forth multiple stereotypes of atheists and argue against the centralized message of the American Atheists (which is an organization, of course they have an agenda and centralized message, what do you expect?) yet at the same time, you point out that atheism and being a scientist often don’t coincide and that some atheists support non-scientific things like anti-GMO and anti-vaccination. Which is it? Are atheists homogenous group thinkers or are they individuals with a variety of beliefs, some perhaps in conflict with scientific critical thought? It seems pretty obvious that atheism is not a complete panacea that will end all wars. Arguing against such an absolute statement or one such as “only religious beliefs hinder scientific and technological progress” is not very meaningful. Of course such extreme statements are not true. The world is complex and nuanced, as are humans, both religious and atheist.

  5. August 4, 2014 at 12:56 pm —

    Of course there’s the tendency of some atheists to see atheism as inoculating them from prejudice toward others or the exercise of their privilege–as the fedora subset of internet atheists shows.

  6. August 4, 2014 at 1:47 pm —

    faradn – So very true. In fact, there is a long thread on a specific facebook group tearing this piece apart, using terms like “strawman,” and notions that anyone thinking atheists *can possibly* have a superiority complex are themselves suffering from an inferiority complex 🙂

  7. August 4, 2014 at 5:40 pm —

    Hmm. For my own take on this:
    1. Yeah, some real problems with this.
    2. This is the only one I really object to. Why? Well, I can give at least one example that illistrates not so much a certainty I have that this one single factor it true, but a strong suspicion that it may be – there was some physicist a number of years back who decided to change up his research. Rather than consulting with biologists, or anyone else with expertise on the subject, he opted to allow his belief in psychic phenomena to lead him into trying to find a) coherent messages in incidental light flashes, caused by chemical reactions in cells, and b) actually thought that the Talking to the Dead guy was a believable enough “psychic” to use him as a test subject, when running his experiment to see if, somehow, the victim of Edward’s fraud was, unknowingly, transmitting information to the fraud himself, through light flashes, thereby validating both his hypothesis, and proving the existence of some form of “telepathy”.

    This is the problem I have with the idea of compatibility, and there are any number of other examples, even among those that don’t use spiritualism as a source for their strange ideas. People are really good at compartmentalizing, they will, quite happily, throw out the same rules that make them a good physicist, or chemist, or other “specialty”, when dealing with other fields of science, if they lack even basic understanding of some of their complexities, and this makes it blindingly obvious that,when dealing with things that are not easily measured, or examined, say.. phenomena attributed to ghosts, or UFOs, etc., there are not just potentially off in left field, but totally off the map entirely, no matter how good they are at their own specialty. Worse… there are cases where circumstances can, and have, derailed their own field, and led them down the rabbit hole, when confronted with something they don’t have a current explanation for, so find a merely convenient one, out of their belief system(s).

    So, are they compatible? Yes, right up to the moment they are not, at which point, there may be no way to put the rabbit back into the hat, because, once that happens, being wrong calls into question not just the science they are doing, but the underlying faith position that caused it to derail.

    So, yes, absolutely, you can do science and be religious, right up until it stops being science. Which makes “compatibility”, in this context incidental, much like not believing that aliens exist, but still enjoying the movie aliens. Only.. my single argument against the idea that, “A lot of people believe, but still do good science.”, is, “Compatibility is not the word you should be using here to describe the phenomena.”

    3. Ugh.. No kidding. The real irony here is the war, right now, between the dictionary atheists, who seem to all circle the wagons and whine about atheism expanding into things like opposition of misogyny, human right violations, and a long list of other things, which have, sadly, often been supported, or even invented by, the very thing that is supposedly being apposed. Its like they think disbelieving gods doesn’t, by extension, at all, mean that you have to appose the religious tenants of **some** of the organizations that claim to believe they are real. To which the other side, on this issue go, “Huh? Wait what?”, because, to us, this is like apposing the sale of guns, but not the right of people to shoot someone with one, or arguing that torture is a horrible thing, but claiming that the show 24 is your favorite, especially the episodes where they extract information from bad guys (by torturing them). I personally cannot comprehend the grand canyon sized disconnect involved with that kind of thinking.

    Well.. Any more than I can, frankly, comprehend the continued choice of those on the religious side to support organizations, including churches, because of the charitable things they do, or the name it allows them to keep for themselves, while railing against pedophile priests, or some group of hard line evangelicals, who just got praised by the self same organization(s), for being just their sort of people.

    Both views seem to have a problem with offering support to people they shouldn’t, because its somehow, to those that do, more offensive to them to deny those who flat out do not desire the same goals, or see the same problems, or want solutions, purely based on the fact that they use the same labels, and to appose them might damage the **label**.

    4. Sigh.. There may be some out there making this argument, some place, but ***no one*** I know does. The argument that is given is something between, “Religion wouldn’t be so bad if it was merely a hobby, instead of something to be pushed around.”, and, “Just because you can’t cure all cancers, and diseases, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t cure at least one of them.” I am kind of some place between those positions. But… a large segment of the press, and, to be frank, the religious communities, have heard, and repeated the idea that there is no nuance in this matter, at all, that its nearly impossible to convince someone that such a nuanced range of views exist, even when the come to someone’s blog, where the, “Its a cure all”, argument is discounted and rejected on a near daily basis.

    If you prefer – think of this as the theistic version of the, “science and religion are not compatible”, claim. And, like that claim, there are cases where its absolutely true, though rare, a much larger number of cases where it may be suspected, but isn’t, until/unless the atheist in question crosses the line, and falls off the map, and a great many cases where it is just flat out dead wrong.

    5. Sometimes religion, or specifically be beliefs held by some of those adhering to a particular faith, kill children, misinform them, teaches them hate, denies them access to certain knowledge, and can even harm them in ways that damage their future relationships, or place them (like with abstinence education), in a position where there ignorance, or misunderstand, or even intentional lies they have been told, place their lives, and futures at risk. In some cases, this can even be so extreme a dogma that it puts **everyone’s** lives and futures at risk. So… Yes, I do think that, **depending on the nature of the dogma**, and how heavily invested someone pushes a child into it, and how isolated they are made to be, so that they cannot see an alternative, in far too many circumstances for my comfort, sense of right and wrong, never mind justice and morality, hell yes it can be, and sometimes is, fundamentally harmful.

    It shouldn’t be something you are forced into, any more than its right to demand that you kid play sports, just because you did at their age. Children are vulnerable, not knowledgeable enough to make their own choices, and if taught religion, in the way it often is, it becomes not something they chose because their version is true/truer, makes sense, or any other sound reason for following it, but purely because, its what they where told, practically from birth to believe in. And, that is a horrible way to find and learn truth, or develop a moral compass, never mind escape one that was handed to you in a state of being already broken. The only way out is knowledge, which may lead to rejection of the whole concept, for many people. Which is why religions have, historically, fought for special privileges and protections, up to, and including, the right to exclude the children of his member **from** knowledge.

    So, again.. in far too many contexts… what other word applies, besides “harmful”?

  8. August 4, 2014 at 5:50 pm —

    I like what you say.
    I was born atheist and I had – to be honest, I still have – the “feeling” that I am right. Not too scientific! Although it helped with the superiority complex when I realized that belief systems are mostly hereditary. Also, stereotypes about Christians does not hold, in my experience they can be pretty mean and selfish, some drink a lot and have under-age sex, and some become very good scientists. Because they are as unique as their fingerprints… just like anyone else.

    • August 5, 2014 at 11:27 am —

      vvvv – It’s interesting that you say “born atheist.” The concept of being born Christian, Muslim, Buddhist or anything else is often criticized. I’m not sure whether I feel like I was born atheist. Does a blank slate lack belief in gods? Probably. In that sense, yes, we’re all born atheist.

      • August 6, 2014 at 5:26 pm —

        Oh, I simply meant that since everyone around me was atheist, becoming one could not be considered a choice or decision of any sort. But this is an interesting take. I would say we are all born religious, as we all want to make sense of the world and have control over it; religion offers meaning, and alleviates the stress of being powerless against suffering. (I wonder how atheist could I remain if my life stopped being nice..?)

        • August 6, 2014 at 11:50 pm —

          “(I wonder how atheist could I remain if my life stopped being nice..?)”

          That depends on if you “fall for” the comfort. There are a great many things people take comfort in, temporary or otherwise. More than half of the people I know from online, and some in RL used to think religion gave such comfort. They eventually realized that the only true comfort is acceptance. Religion just offered a bandaid, like drugs, or booze, in a way, and never actually changed anything for the better for them. There are a lot of false claims about “conversions” under pressure. Most seem to be lies, some are true, because the person never really thought about their lack of belief, and someone came along, with a promise, selling them faith, at a point where they where the most vulnerable to manipulation, and a some.. are reconverts, who “tried it out”, as though it was a pair of shoes, and found that there where things they where unwilling, unable, or too afraid, to accept, so ran back to the fold (and thus never truly gave up on belief to start with). But, the one absolute that seems to be the case is that the deeper invested in a religion someone is, the harder it is to abandon it, and, the more certain that they are, once out, that they will never go back, because, to them, its vastly hardly to re-believe something, simply because it would be more convenient, or more comforting, if it was true, than it was to give up something they believed simply because they saw no reason not to before.

  9. August 5, 2014 at 2:08 pm —

    Yeah, and that is really the only sense that counts, isn’t it? Without someone telling you that spirits, or gods, and controlling the world around them, at worst, they might invent them, at best, giving **good** explanations for why and how something works, they will abandon bad ones. The problem, with so many things, including btw the atheists who fall for BS like anti-GMO (assuming you mean the full blown absurd frankenfood version, not the, “These companies business practices are horrible and unjust.”, sensible version, is that, without a good explanation people with be satisfied with bad ones, and some people refuse to accept that their own minds are so easily confused, or confounded, that they have reached a bad one. And, still others.. refuse to accept a world in which they may never have an explanation for something, or the explanation is insufficient to satisfy them, or denies them a special status. If anything, even ex-evangelicals have said that this, and the idea that some spirit “wants” something from them, while never the less, when they where finally honest with themselves about it, having no clue, at all, what that was, where the two single hardest things to give up on. Heck, I still read fantasy novels, for the reason that I would love to live in a world where “magic” didn’t mean, “Make someone pay attention to the wrong hand, while you perform the trick with the other one.” But, I never needed that so badly that I convinced myself that I was psychic, or started looking to covens to join, or something. I prefer to see the world for what it is, and recognize that, if it is to change for the better, **I**, and other human beings, need to be the ones to decide how to do that. Too often, political, economic, traditions(by which I include cultural norms) *and* religious ideologies are, sadly, the biggest obstacles to even getting people to admit there is a problem, never mind that the solution has to come from some place “outside” their preconceptions.

    That said, Imho, faith is a political ideology, which we have granted unnecessary special status, and then called “truth”, instead of politics. When confronted with something that just flat out doesn’t work, at all, and never has, in the entirely history of someone’s religious positions (as in, even when literally everyone followed it, in the distant past, it still didn’t solve more problems than it created, or even actually solve the problem it was supposed to), the excuses given are indistinguishable from those presented by people who think their political, or economic views are similarly black and white, and “fixing” the problems is a simple matter of repeating the same, prior, mistakes, over and over again, while convinced it will work this time. Oh, and usually while flat out ignoring examples where something completely different does work, or even that they might have nearly the entirety of their reasoning backwards.

    No one is “born Christian” any more than they are “born conservative”, or “born capitalist”. The simple fact that no one who has not learned a religion ever recreates it from scratch, including its god, gives lie to the very principle that you can be. And, the fact that, if you find an obscure enough people, since they are still out there, not even belief in one great “creator” is something every culture has *ever* come up with just hammers more nails into an already sealed coffin.

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