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[RELIGION] 10 Myths & Truths About Atheism

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  • madchinaman
    10 myths -- and 10 truths -- about atheism By Sam Harris, SAM HARRIS is the author of The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason and
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 25, 2006
      10 myths -- and 10 truths -- about atheism
      By Sam Harris, SAM HARRIS is the author of "The End of Faith:
      Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason" and "Letter to a
      Christian Nation."

      SEVERAL POLLS indicate that the term "atheism" has acquired such an
      extraordinary stigma in the United States that being an atheist is
      now a perfect impediment to a career in politics (in a way that being
      black, Muslim or homosexual is not). According to a recent Newsweek
      poll, only 37% of Americans would vote for an otherwise qualified
      atheist for president.

      Atheists are often imagined to be intolerant, immoral, depressed,
      blind to the beauty of nature and dogmatically closed to evidence of
      the supernatural.

      Even John Locke, one of the great patriarchs of the Enlightenment,
      believed that atheism was "not at all to be tolerated" because, he
      said, "promises, covenants and oaths, which are the bonds of human
      societies, can have no hold upon an atheist."

      That was more than 300 years ago. But in the United States today,
      little seems to have changed. A remarkable 87% of the population
      claims "never to doubt" the existence of God; fewer than 10% identify
      themselves as atheists — and their reputation appears to be

      Given that we know that atheists are often among the most intelligent
      and scientifically literate people in any society, it seems important
      to deflate the myths that prevent them from playing a larger role in
      our national discourse.

      1) Atheists believe that life is meaningless.

      On the contrary, religious people often worry that life is
      meaningless and imagine that it can only be redeemed by the promise
      of eternal happiness beyond the grave. Atheists tend to be quite sure
      that life is precious. Life is imbued with meaning by being really
      and fully lived. Our relationships with those we love are meaningful
      now; they need not last forever to be made so. Atheists tend to find
      this fear of meaninglessness … well … meaningless.

      2) Atheism is responsible for the greatest crimes in human history.

      People of faith often claim that the crimes of Hitler, Stalin, Mao
      and Pol Pot were the inevitable product of unbelief. The problem with
      fascism and communism, however, is not that they are too critical of
      religion; the problem is that they are too much like religions. Such
      regimes are dogmatic to the core and generally give rise to
      personality cults that are indistinguishable from cults of religious
      hero worship. Auschwitz, the gulag and the killing fields were not
      examples of what happens when human beings reject religious dogma;
      they are examples of political, racial and nationalistic dogma run
      amok. There is no society in human history that ever suffered because
      its people became too reasonable.

      3) Atheism is dogmatic.

      Jews, Christians and Muslims claim that their scriptures are so
      prescient of humanity's needs that they could only have been written
      under the direction of an omniscient deity. An atheist is simply a
      person who has considered this claim, read the books and found the
      claim to be ridiculous. One doesn't have to take anything on faith,
      or be otherwise dogmatic, to reject unjustified religious beliefs. As
      the historian Stephen Henry Roberts (1901-71) once said: "I contend
      that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you
      do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods,
      you will understand why I dismiss yours."

      4) Atheists think everything in the universe arose by chance.

      No one knows why the universe came into being. In fact, it is not
      entirely clear that we can coherently speak about the "beginning"
      or "creation" of the universe at all, as these ideas invoke the
      concept of time, and here we are talking about the origin of space-
      time itself.

      The notion that atheists believe that everything was created by
      chance is also regularly thrown up as a criticism of Darwinian
      evolution. As Richard Dawkins explains in his marvelous book, "The
      God Delusion," this represents an utter misunderstanding of
      evolutionary theory. Although we don't know precisely how the Earth's
      early chemistry begat biology, we know that the diversity and
      complexity we see in the living world is not a product of mere
      chance. Evolution is a combination of chance mutation and natural
      selection. Darwin arrived at the phrase "natural selection" by
      analogy to the "artificial selection" performed by breeders of
      livestock. In both cases, selection exerts a highly non-random effect
      on the development of any species.

      5) Atheism has no connection to science.

      Although it is possible to be a scientist and still believe in God —
      as some scientists seem to manage it — there is no question that an
      engagement with scientific thinking tends to erode, rather than
      support, religious faith. Taking the U.S. population as an example:
      Most polls show that about 90% of the general public believes in a
      personal God; yet 93% of the members of the National Academy of
      Sciences do not. This suggests that there are few modes of thinking
      less congenial to religious faith than science is.

      6) Atheists are arrogant.

      When scientists don't know something — like why the universe came
      into being or how the first self-replicating molecules formed — they
      admit it. Pretending to know things one doesn't know is a profound
      liability in science. And yet it is the life-blood of faith-based
      religion. One of the monumental ironies of religious discourse can be
      found in the frequency with which people of faith praise themselves
      for their humility, while claiming to know facts about cosmology,
      chemistry and biology that no scientist knows. When considering
      questions about the nature of the cosmos and our place within it,
      atheists tend to draw their opinions from science. This isn't
      arrogance; it is intellectual honesty.

      7) Atheists are closed to spiritual experience.

      There is nothing that prevents an atheist from experiencing love,
      ecstasy, rapture and awe; atheists can value these experiences and
      seek them regularly. What atheists don't tend to do is make
      unjustified (and unjustifiable) claims about the nature of reality on
      the basis of such experiences. There is no question that some
      Christians have transformed their lives for the better by reading the
      Bible and praying to Jesus. What does this prove? It proves that
      certain disciplines of attention and codes of conduct can have a
      profound effect upon the human mind. Do the positive experiences of
      Christians suggest that Jesus is the sole savior of humanity? Not
      even remotely — because Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and even atheists
      regularly have similar experiences.

      There is, in fact, not a Christian on this Earth who can be certain
      that Jesus even wore a beard, much less that he was born of a virgin
      or rose from the dead. These are just not the sort of claims that
      spiritual experience can authenticate.

      8) Atheists believe that there is nothing beyond human life and human

      Atheists are free to admit the limits of human understanding in a way
      that religious people are not. It is obvious that we do not fully
      understand the universe; but it is even more obvious that neither the
      Bible nor the Koran reflects our best understanding of it. We do not
      know whether there is complex life elsewhere in the cosmos, but there
      might be. If there is, such beings could have developed an
      understanding of nature's laws that vastly exceeds our own. Atheists
      can freely entertain such possibilities. They also can admit that if
      brilliant extraterrestrials exist, the contents of the Bible and the
      Koran will be even less impressive to them than they are to human

      From the atheist point of view, the world's religions utterly
      trivialize the real beauty and immensity of the universe. One doesn't
      have to accept anything on insufficient evidence to make such an

      9) Atheists ignore the fact that religion is extremely beneficial to

      Those who emphasize the good effects of religion never seem to
      realize that such effects fail to demonstrate the truth of any
      religious doctrine. This is why we have terms such as "wishful
      thinking" and "self-deception." There is a profound distinction
      between a consoling delusion and the truth.

      In any case, the good effects of religion can surely be disputed. In
      most cases, it seems that religion gives people bad reasons to behave
      well, when good reasons are actually available. Ask yourself, which
      is more moral, helping the poor out of concern for their suffering,
      or doing so because you think the creator of the universe wants you
      to do it, will reward you for doing it or will punish you for not
      doing it?

      10) Atheism provides no basis for morality.

      If a person doesn't already understand that cruelty is wrong, he
      won't discover this by reading the Bible or the Koran — as these
      books are bursting with celebrations of cruelty, both human and
      divine. We do not get our morality from religion. We decide what is
      good in our good books by recourse to moral intuitions that are (at
      some level) hard-wired in us and that have been refined by thousands
      of years of thinking about the causes and possibilities of human

      We have made considerable moral progress over the years, and we
      didn't make this progress by reading the Bible or the Koran more
      closely. Both books condone the practice of slavery — and yet every
      civilized human being now recognizes that slavery is an abomination.
      Whatever is good in scripture — like the golden rule — can be valued
      for its ethical wisdom without our believing that it was handed down
      to us by the creator of the universe.
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