Attitudes of Atheists toward Religion

October 12, 1997. Attitudes of atheists toward religion.

Nonbelievers call themselves by a variety of names, and have
formed a plentitude of organizations (despite their small numbers). I
think this is due to the range of attitudes they have on crucial
issues, foremost among them religion.

Recently, on an email discussion list, I read one man's comment
that he preferred the American Humanist Association to the Council for
Secular Humanism, because the AHA has a more friendly and tolerant
attitude toward religious folk, while the CSH membership has more
"militant atheists". I was bemused, because the CSH is a long way from
being the most militant organization out there. The people in the
American Atheists disdain the term "humanist", regarding it as a
cowardly evasion. Neither is the AHA the most "religion-friendly" of
all nonbeliever groups; I am not an expert on that end of the spectrum,
but I get the impression that there are groups barely distinguishable
from the Unitarian Universalists. The UU's, since they are totally
noncreedal, are a church that an atheist can belong to, and some do.
(Also, I have recently become aware of the Universal Pantheist Society,
which technically makes no claims that an atheist would dispute.)

This spectrum of attitudes comes, I think, from the fact that
religion itself is a very mixed bag, and people's knowledge of it, and
personal experience of it, will cover the whole range of possibilities.

The religious approach to ethics is one of obedience to the will
of God, where "God" or "the Spirit" is imagined, in greater or lesser
degree, as a Cosmic Parent. Accepting the protection and guidance of a
Cosmic Parent gives a certain kind of emotional relief, and it is not
NECESSARILY a bad approach to ethics. Parents are genetically related
in equal degree to all of their children, and their children are
equally kin to each other. So, it would be natural and expected that
a Parent Of All would want all of said children to treat each other
well, not only maintaining peaceful and cooperative relations but
showing benevolence and caring beyond the claims of simple equity. For
a large number of "rank and file" believers, this is what religion is
like. Besides providing an extended family, emotional comfort, and help
in times of trouble, church is often a place of beautiful art and
music. Where else do people sing? This is the "sweetness and light" of
religion, and a lot of atheists, while rejecting the supernatural,
still remember it and miss it, and respect those who practice it.

However, we reject it. Some, merely because it is false. Others,
because it is bait for the hook. Jesus said, "Come with me, and I will
make you fishers of men." This was plain speech. The clergy are
fishermen, and you are the fish. The bait is the sweetness and light,
and the promise that you and your loved ones will never die. The hook
is obedience.

Obedience is not NECESSARILY a bad approach to ethics; it depends
entirely on what (or who) you obey, and what your chosen authority
orders you to do. But it is an immature and unreliable approach. It is
easily hijacked by con artists and swindlers, power-seekers and

Ethics is about maintaining peaceful and cooperative relations
with your neighbors, practicing justice and promoting benevolence
beyond the claims of equity. Clergy have often claimed to own the
field, saying that religion is the only possible source for ethics. But
this is only one more falsehood. Humans all are still kin to each
other, even if all their ancestors were mortal. There are plenty of
reasons in this world to do justice and love mercy. We do not need
Santa Claus or the Bogeyman to give us morality.

Religion is built around obedience to the will of God. There are,
broadly speaking, three kinds of religion, depending on where you get
your news about what God wills. Orthodoxy, where your ultimate
authority is one or another living prophet; Fundamentalism, where your
ultimate authority is scripture, written by one or another dead
prophet; and "liberal" religion, "take what you like and leave the
rest", where your ultimate authority is your own conscience.

Prophets are those who are deluded enough, or boldly dishonest
enough, to set themselves up as the local representatives of God. Being
human, they may give out bad teachings, and may exploit their position.
Understandably jealous and fearful, they suppress questioning and
independent thinking among their followers and cast competing prophets
as devils and servants of the Cosmic Enemy, the Great Satan. From this
follows all the bloody history of religion. Instead of leading people
to treat each other as kin, religion historically has led them to treat
selected others as "enemies of God". Such enemies have been held to
deserve whatever suffering you can inflict on them and more, until and
unless they submit and obey.

Contrary to its claim to be the source of all morality, religion
has sponsored and endorsed sectarian warfare, genocide, torture,
persecutions of lesser sorts, slavery, male supremacy, inquisitions and
thought control; even for the obedient, it has sponsored self-
censorship, self-abnegation, self-mutilation, rejection of medical
care, suppression of rational inquiry and scientific education. Priests
have been allied with kings and dictators throughout history, using
religion as a tool to keep exploited people quiet. Religion has
perpetrated a wholesale swindle on the human race, diverting large
amounts of time, thought, and wealth to appeasing a ghost, and the
ghost's local representatives. It has perverted the field of ethics,
severing it from any connection to the consequences for real people in
this world, denouncing as sinful any attempt to apply human thought to
moral questions.

The more you know, or have experienced, of this side of religion,
the more militant an atheist you are likely to be. These evils are not
securely in the past. Many continue today, and even the worst ones
could return. They are potential in any "revealed" religion. The more
seriously people take any particular "revelation", the more harm it is
likely to do.

So, some atheists are aware mostly of all the well-meaning people
in the churches, who would make fine neighbors and friends, even if
they are a bit deluded about metaphysics. Others are aware mostly of
the threat and the swindle that religion represents. What would a
balanced and constructive attitude be?

Even the most bitter of atheists should be able to see that not
all religions are equally bad. If a religion is without infallible
prophets, without infallible texts, without devils, without
excommunication, it is likely to avoid the worst kinds of harm. If it
teaches that all people are kin and must be treated as kin, even if
they are NOT nicely obedient, and allows, even encourages, people to
use their minds to figure out what the cosmic Parent Of All WOULD want
them to do in particular situations, it is even likely to be a positive
influence. There are some such "good religions", for example the
Society of Friends (Quakers). In the United States, we owe our freedom
of religion to the influence of Deists like Franklin, Jefferson, and
Paine, who worshiped a Creator-God deduced by reason, and who rejected
"revealed religion" and "priestcraft" as vigorously as any atheist
could wish.

At the same time, the empathic agnostic and the diplomatically
silent should realize that religion is not a harmless game. In the
U.S., the harm has been reduced by the separation of Church and State.
But there have always been some who put the Bible above the
Constitution, and sought to restore the old order of divinely anointed
government, with themselves in charge. Today, the theocrats are on the
march, keenly desiring to resume the persecutions of yesteryear.
Anyone, believer or nonbeliever, who wants to keep their freedom of
conscience, should understand that those who make claims of infallible
revelation are aiming to rule the Earth. "Every knee shall bow, every
tongue shall confess." To keep our freedom, our reply must be "If God
wants me to do something, he should tell me, not you." Revelation must
be criticized, de-sanctified, literally desecrated.

Freedom of conscience is what we must uphold, and the use of
reason to solve conflicts and problems in this world. Those who claim
to act by the Infinite Authority of God are the enemies of reason and
of freedom. The American revolutionary Ethan Allen wrote a book,
"Reason the Only Oracle of Man." Upholding the use of reason is a
revolutionary act. Anyone willing to uphold freedom of conscience and
the use of reason should be taken as an ally, whatever their particular
beliefs may be.

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Comment by deletedsoul on March 8, 2010 at 1:16pm
As an additional note, I think it is very important for non-believers to continue to assemble and form a sense of community. It doesn't even have to be about anti-religious activism. Even simple things like community betterment programs, mentoring and outreach, or even simply getting together for some fun - we need to be able to provide an alternative to the "sense of community" that church offers. Only then will we be able to nudge those who hold on to their churches for that reason alone toward enlightenment.
Comment by deletedsoul on March 8, 2010 at 10:06am
I've been called unhappy, bitter, angry, savage and a whole plethora of other descriptors when in discussions with people concerning faith. Yes, I do take more of a hard-line attitude toward religion, because I have both experienced and can see the potential harm religion can cause. However, I can see the benefit that religion provides to some people.

One case from personal experience I can attest to is my mother-in-law. She lives alone in a small community, where her access to the outside world is limited. No internet, no close neighbors, and given that she hasn't lived there too long, no lifelong friends to visit. She is a member of the LDS church (Mormon), thus has a pretty close-knit "church family" that was ready made when she moved to the area.

Now, I know the potential harm in the LDS church. They are fairly strict with their bylaws, especially the things you can or cannot do in fear of excommunication. In addition, the beliefs of her faith has caused her stress in some relationships, specifically in relation to her children who rejected the faith, and more recently, a gay daughter. Her faith causes her to reject the logic and she follows the creed of a church who incessantly tries to interfere in legislative decisions that affect primarily non-members.

In spite of all the "harmful" issues with the Mormon church, I know that it gives her a sense of community, and a sense of belonging to something greater than herself. That doesn't keep me from having debates with her over faith, and I hope that someday she will start to use more logic when it comes to what she accepts as truth.

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