Seven Common Misconceptions About Atheism (1998)

Keith M. Parsons


[This lecture was originally delivered to the Houstonians for Secular Humanism on October 18, 1998.]

Atheism has long been the target of hostility. In the Laws, Plato recommended various degrees of punishment for atheists. Thomas Aquinas held that unbelievers should be "shut off from the world by death." John Locke's famous doctrine of toleration stopped short with atheists. In the Eighteenth Century, David Hume, perhaps the greatest philosopher ever to write in the English language, was denied a university post because he was suspected of atheism. As recently as the Nineteenth Century, atheists in Britain could be prosecuted for blasphemy. In the United States during the 1950's, "atheism" was practically synonymous with "communism." It is small wonder that a doctrine so despised has been the object of calumny. Even today many misconceptions about atheism persist.

 I think the seven most common misconceptions about atheism are the following:

1) Atheism implies that life is absurd or meaningless.

2) Atheists, since they lack a conception of heaven or hell, have no motivation to be good.

3) Atheism is the claim that no gods exist. Atheism therefore must prove a negative, but it is impossible to prove a negative. Therefore, atheism is an impossible doctrine.

4) Atheists, agnostics, and other nonbelievers are a tiny minority, a "fringe group" within the overall population. Therefore, their interests and arguments can be largely ignored.

5) Atheists are intolerant. They are prejudiced against religious people.

6) Atheism undermines patriotism and good citizenship. America was founded on Christian principles, so atheism undercuts the very foundation of American civilization.

7) Atheists are guilty of scientism, the deification of science.

Some of these misconceptions are popular mostly among the uneducated or semieducated. Number three, for instance, is a common pseudointellectual gambit, especially popular with nineteen year olds who have had one or two philosophy courses and read a lot of Josh McDowell. Others of these are held by some very educated and sophisticated people. I shall consider these misconceptions one by one.

(1) Does atheism imply that life is absurd? Prominent philosopher and Christian apologist William Lane Craig thinks that it does. For the atheist, human life is just an infinitesimal moment before the eternal grave:

If God does not exist, then both man and the universe are inevitably doomed to death. Man, like all biological organisms, must die. With no hope of immortality, man's life leads only to the grave. His life is but a spark in the infinite blackness, a spark that flickers, and dies forever. Compared to the infinite stretch of time, the span of man's life is but an infinitesimal moment; and yet this all the life he will ever know .... For though I know now that I exist, that I am alive, I also know that someday I will no longer exist, that I will no longer be, that I will die. This thought is staggering and threatening: to think that the person I call "myself' will cease to exist, that I will be no more (Craig, 1994, p. 57)!

One hardly knows where to begin in commenting on this remarkable passage. I guess my first impression is one of monumental egotism. Surely there is something monstrously egocentric in thinking that my life is of such transcendent significance that I should be an exception to cosmic law--that my ego should survive when planets, stars, and galaxies are no more. As for anyone who really worries about the ultimate "death" of the universe, the best advice would be "Get a life!"

More to the point, the implied premise of the above passage is extremely dubious. Why should life have to be everlasting to be meaningful? Why not draw the reverse conclusion and say that, since we know that life is fleeting, we should strive to experience all the meaning we can within that short compass? The message we should draw from our knowledge of our mortality is this: You have a limited number of days, hours, and minutes. Therefore you should strive to fill each of those days, hours, and minutes with meaning. You should strive to fill them with learning and gaining wisdom, - with compassion for the less fortunate, with love for friends and family, with doing a job well, with fighting against evil and obscurantism, and, yes, with enjoying sex, TV, pizza, and ballgames.

What could Dr. Craig say to those of us for whom the above-mentioned sorts of goods--family, friends, learning, compassion--paradigmatically constitute the meaningfulness of life? I guess he could say that we are only fooling ourselves. We think that our lives are meaningful when in fact they are absurd and pointless. I don't know what to say to someone who insists that my life is meaningless when it seems to me to be rich with meaning. I suspect that he is implicitly defining "meaning" in a question-begging way. More likely, I think that the denial that life is meaningful for atheists is an expression of simple arrogance.

(2) Since atheists do not believe in heaven and hell, what motivation do they have to be good? As Bertrand Russell noted long ago, anyone who asks this question must have no concept of disinterested goodness. It is not clear that the question of what motivates morality really needs an answer. Isn't virtue supposed to be its own reward?

Maybe, though, it is too optimistic to expect people to be good without a carrot and stick. What can atheists say to the person who says "What's in it for me?" when admonished to be good? What can atheists offer to compare with the bribery of heaven and the terrorism of hell?

Atheists can reply with reference to an authority older than the New Testament: Aristotle. Aristotle said that the human is a "political animal" and that the only creatures who can live apart from society are beasts or gods. Hermits are very rare, and are almost always sociopaths or religious fanatics. Humans then, are by nature gregarious. We find our personal fulfillment only in relations with other people. Further, genuine well-being, eudaimonia for Aristotle, is achievable only through the practice of virtue.

Why be good? Because being good--living virtuously--is the only way to a fulfilled, self-actualized life. By living virtuously we sustain those vital social relations-friendship, family, community--without which life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. Vice leads to misery. Scrooge and the Prodigal Son were made miserable by their vices. Generosity, which lies in the mean between the opposite vices of stinginess and prodigality, promotes happiness.

But wasn't Aristotle wrong in this? Aren't the evil often happier than the good? Doesn't virtue proverbially go unrewarded? Isn't it often perversely the case that "no good deed goes unpunished?"

True, life is unfair. The good often suffer, and the evil often die old, rich, and impenitent. But it is not going too far out on a limb to assert that mean, rotten, nasty people usually have miserable lives. Prison is not a pleasant place. Even if they are clever enough to avoid prison, bad people usually have bad lives. They may have sycophants, but few real friends. They can buy sex from prostitutes or trophy wives, but they seldom know true love. Their neighbors won't speak to them and their children abandon them. They may die rich, but they die alone.

The specter of eternal punishment is a bit too much for atheists to take, but atheists do have ready answers for those who demand "What's in it for me?" Besides, all the efforts of fire-and-brimstone preachers have not succeeded in making hell real for most people. The fear of a miserable life in the here-and-now seems a better motivator.

(3) Sophomoric critics of atheism often charge that atheism is committed to proving the negative proposition "no gods exist" and, since allegedly no one can prove a negative, this shows that atheism is an absurd doctrine. The first thing to note is that it is often possible to prove negatives. Euclid proved that there is no highest prime number. I can prove that my bicycle is not in the basement by going downstairs, turning on the light, and looking around.

Well, what about the claim "gods do not exist?" Can that be proven? No, I don't think I can prove that Zeus, Odin, Yahweh, Quetzalcoatl, etc. do not exist any more than I can prove that unicorns do not exist. But not every rational belief has to rest on proof. We deny the reality of many things, not because we can disprove them, but because there is simply no point in postulating their existence. Why don't we believe in Aristotelian Prime Movers any more? Because there is no need for them in our current understanding of the physical cosmos. Likewise for gods. The atheist simply doesn't see that gods need to be invoked to explain any aspect of the world; we now have better explanations. Even where no accepted physical explanation currently exists, atheists see no reason to invent a "god of the gaps."

Furthermore, most atheists think that there is evidence against the existence of one god in particular--the God of theism. I think that the existence of a plethora of apparently pointless evils is good evidence against the claim that an all-powerful, all-good being created the universe. Even if this evidence does not amount to proof, it is strong support for the claim that God does not exist.

If, therefore, there is no good reason to think that God does exist, and one or more good reasons to think that he does not, it is clearly more reasonable to believe that God does not exist than to believe that he does. In this case, atheists are eminently justified in denying the existence of God, even though they lack a decisive disproof.

4) A recent letter in the Op/Ed section of the Houston Chronicle dismissed nonbelievers as a "fringe group"--a tiny minority of the population. The implication is that if there are only a few hundred or so atheists or agnostics in the United States, then they must be cranky extremists like flat-earthers or alien abductees. Of course, this objection commits the ad populum fallacy; truth is not determined by the number of its adherents.

Let's play along, though, and see if nonbelievers are truly a "fringe group" within the population.

According to a recent Gallup poll, 96% of American adults say they believe in God. However, this figure is less helpful than it appears since it does not indicate what the respondents meant when they said they believed in "God." No doubt the vast majority understand by "God" the traditional, supernatural deity of orthodox Christianity or Judaism. Surely, though, there are a good number of New Age types and others who mean something entirely different when they affirm belief in "God." Often they mean something like "the God within each person." Then there are many Unitarians and other "liberal" Christians who would affirm belief in God, but who interpret "God" as a metaphor or some other thoroughly "demythologized" concept. In other words, the actual content of the beliefs of many who say they believe in God is probably tantamount to atheism or agnosticism.

Let us accept that only four percent of the adult U.S. population does not believe in any God or gods. This is probably an underestimate, for the reasons given above, but let us accept it for the sake of argument. According to the 1997 Statistical Abstract of the United States, the population of the United States is about 265 million. If we define "adult" as those 20 years old and older, the adult population of the United States is -about 189 million. Four percent of 189 million is over 7.5 million. According to the 1997 Statistical Abstract, the total number of United Methodists in the United States is about 8.5 million. Thus the number of adult nonbelievers is nearly equal to the total number of United Methodists, the second-largest Protestant denomination. Some fringe group.

Of course, America is a notoriously religious country. If we extend our view worldwide, the percentage of people who don't believe in gods increases dramatically. Many millions of people in Japan and China do not believe in gods. Even if only 1% of the world's people believe in no gods, surely a gross underestimate, that is still 60 million people--hardly a negligible number.

5) Are atheists intolerant of religious people? About ten years ago I addressed an article to the claims of Christian apologist J.P. Moreland. I claimed that atheists did not harangue people on street comers or visit schoolyards to hand out tracts. In general, I claimed, atheists believe in "live and let live" and, unlike fundamentalist zealots, make little effort to proselytize.

Moreland took me to task, saying that he could "only marvel" at my claim that atheists generally were not intolerant of believers. At the time, I could only marvel at his marveling. In the meantime, I'm sad to say, I've encountered some very obnoxious atheists who seem to take delight in attacking any expression of religious belief, no matter how innocuous. So I must concede to Moreland that, yes, atheists can sometimes be as offensive and obnoxious as the most bigoted Bible-thumpers.

In general, though, are atheists intolerant of religion? What does it mean to be "intolerant of religion?" Am I intolerant because I oppose the teaching of "Scientific Creationism" or mandatory prayers in the public schools? Am I intolerant because I oppose the use of public property or the allocation of taxpayer dollars to promote religious belief or support religious institutions? Am I intolerant because I oppose the political agenda of the Christian Coalition? I guess if these things make me intolerant of religion, I'll just have to accept the label.

Let's remember that many of those who hurl charges of intolerance at atheists are themselves our culture's most notable exemplars of intolerance.Despite the fundamentalists' nauseatingly hypocritical claims to "love the homosexual" while "hating his sin," the hysterical attacks on gay people by the Religious Right are symptomatic of a profound, visceral hatred. Besides, fundamentalist activists represent what Eric Hoffer called "The 100% mentality." If you don't support them 100%, then not only are you wrong, you are evil, literally "of the devil." With people like that it is damned difficult not to be considered intolerant.

6) Can atheists be good citizens? Wasn't America founded on Christian values? The short answers to these questions are "yes" and "no" respectively. Despite the old saying, there have indeed been atheists in foxholes. Nonbelievers participate fully in all the positive aspects of American life, including military service and jury duty. They pay taxes, struggle to raise decent, law-abiding kids, and contribute money to charity and time to volunteer work. There is simply no evidence whatsoever that atheists are any less honest, hardworking, or patriotic than anybody else.

But isn't atheism an anti-American ideology, opposed to the Christian foundations of American society? The best answer to this question is another question: What Christian foundations? The Constitution of the United States is a thoroughly secular document. There is nothing, absolutely nothing in the Constitution that justifies any claims about American polity or law being based on religion. If fact, the chief opposition to the Constitution during its period of ratification came from religious groups who opposed it as "Godless."

Well, aren't the conceptions of democracy, human rights, and human dignity grounded in the Christian tradition? No. Democracy was invented by pagan Greeks. The concept of "rights" is a product of thinkers of the Enlightenment who reacted against the Christian view that those who dissented from established dogma should be burned. As for the notion of human dignity, what kind of notion of human dignity can be grounded in a dogma that regards humans as worthy of eternal damnation?

7) Finally, does atheism deify science? Are we guilty of "scientism?" As with the question of intolerance, I would like to give a personal answer. I regard science as the noblest of human enterprises. The struggle to understand the cosmos, in the face of the subtlety of nature and the malignity of human obscurantism, is a great task worthy of our richest praise. Further, I believe that science is a rational, progressive enterprise that has illuminated many things previously shrouded in darkness. I strongly oppose the efforts of "postmodernists" to debunk scientific discoveries as mere "social constructs" and to dismiss scientific methods as arbitrary "rules of the game." I reject relativist epistemologies that regard science as just another form of discourse, no better or worse than poetry, theology, or Polynesian mythology. I also reject antirealist philosophies of science which deny that science can ever "tell it like it is" but can only achieve "empirical adequacy." Do these commitments make me "scientistic?" If so, once again, I gladly accept the label.

However, certainly do not regard science as the only thing valuable in life, as my above comments about the meaning of life show. But what about "other ways of knowing?" Isn't it scientistic to insist that science is the only way of knowing, and don't atheists often make this or similar claims?

I'm curious about these "other ways of knowing." What are they? Revelation? Well, I don't see that the possibility of revelation should be excluded a priori. Mark Twain had it right though when he pointed out that what is revelation for you might be only hearsay for me. The point is that if knowledge is to be shared, if it is to become property of the community, it must be public knowledge. Private illuminations, personal intuitions, and mystical enlightenment are not to be disparaged--indeed, science itself, at least in the context of discovery, often depends on hunches, inspired guesses, even prejudice. But to convince others, in the context of justification, we simply cannot appeal to subjective experience. Science has developed many tools for testing claims and has sharpened those tools to a fine edge. Where those tools can be applied we would be fools not to use them, but of course not every question vital to human life can be answered with the tools of science. I guess whether we are scientistic or not depends on whether we try to apply the tools of science where they are inappropriate. Exactly where we should draw the line is a matter of philosophical debate, and philosophers, even atheist philosophers, disagree widely here.

In conclusion, I hope I have addressed the main misconceptions about atheism. I'm sure that my answers will not satisfy those for whom atheism is a terrible bugbear. Of course, many people pursue a political or ideological agenda that requires them to disparage atheism. For people of good will however, perhaps atheism can be seen not as an exotic or extreme doctrine, but as a reasonable way to make it through this vale of tears called life.

"Seven Common Misconceptions About Atheism" is copyright © 1998 by Keith M. Parsons. All rights reserved.
The electronic version is copyright © 1998 by Internet Infidels with the written permission of Keith Parsons. All rights reserved.