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Answering the Ten Myths About Atheism – Part I11 min read

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Sam Harris, anti-religionist atheist, published a list of ten myths about atheism – and many atheists point to these as straw men that Christians use against atheism.  However, while some of their accusations may be true, I contend that (1) much of his logic does not follow, and (2) he has created  straw men, and misrepresented the Christian critiques of atheism.

Before I get into my response, let me allow that there may be many Christians who actually DO use the straw men Sam Harris outlines below.  However, I would argue that such Christians do not represent the true teachings of Christianity, nor the perspective of more educated, logical Christians.  Rather, it may reflect the knee-jerk responses of the immature who have yet to actually have developed a consistent apologetic.

And by definition, there are more mature people than immature, for three reasons.  First, it is human nature to be lazy and not mature.  Second, since more people become Christians all the time, and new converts can be zealous, there is a constantly growing and replenished pool of newbies with big mouths.  Third, as I outlined in Why Most Churches Suck, modern churches perpetuate spiritual infancy through their own stoopid practices  (primarily emphasizing passive attendance at weekly preaching as central to the Christian life, rather than being in relationship with other believers who are practicing the personal disciplines of the Christian life).

1. Atheists believe that life is meaningless.

Damn, starting out with a straw man already! The Christian contention is not that atheism leads to meaningless, but the subjective approach to morality associated with secularism and atheism logically leads to meaninglessness because it follows that if all morals and values are subjective, then it is foolish to say that anything has ultimate meaning.  This is entirely logical, though the link between morality/values and meaning probably needs more elaboration.

But if an atheist would agree that some things have objective worth and meaning, then the link between atheism and meaningless is non-existent, as Harris claims.  But let’s look at what else Harris says.

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.

Yes, this is true.  They believe that meaning can only be assigned within their master story (the biblical narrative), but as George Fowler adeptly mentions in his books Stages of Faith and Becoming Adult, Becoming Christian, all faith systems (including “godless” ones like atheism) have a master story through which they make sense of life’s vagaries and assign meaning.  Atheists also have a master story, though one that denies knowledge or existence of the afterlife, and assigns all meaning within the context of this life and the limits of reason.

Atheists tend to be quite sure that life is precious. Life is imbued with meaning by being really and fully lived.

The phrase “fully lived” begs the question of meaning, so is a bit of meaningless (pun intended) rhetoric.  What he should have said is more around living up to one’s potential, and living in the way that gives us the most pleasure (this is not by definition hedonistic or ethically bad, since even self-sacrifice can be pleasurable).

Our relationships with those we love are meaningful now; they need not last forever to be made so.

I think he misrepresents Christianity as teaching that relationships only have meaning in an eternal sense.  This is another straw man, IMHO.  Again, here, however, he re-explains their master story – “there is only this life, and that context is enough for us to assign meaning.”  So in a real sense, I agree with Harris on this – it is possible to assign meaning within an atheist world view.

Atheists tend to find this fear of
meaninglessness … well … meaningless.

I think this statement, though meant to be funny, is disingenuous.  The whole reason he is defending atheism against the accusation of meaninglessness is because they don’t like such an accusation – that is, they have a fear of meaninglessness, or at least, a fear of being thought to have such a “problem.”

Overall, however, I agree with Harris – the accusation that atheism is a world view that demands meaninglessness is a myth – but if one’s atheism includes only subjective value and meanings, then the accusation of a worldview that leads to meaninglessness does have some merit.

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

Well, I have certainly made this claim, so let’s examine his defense of atheism.

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.

While I agree with Harris that these systems functioned too much like religions, what he is missing is that any time you have a system of rules empowered by an authority, and one that purports to answer religious questions (Is there a God?  What is God like?  What is the nature of man?  What is wrong with the world?  How do we fix it?), it is by definition a religion.  What this means is that anytime atheism is enthroned as the state ideology, it will function as a religion.

Notice that he does not deny that such regimes are atheist (though if given more room he might). He is agreeing with their hard stance against, even their persecution of, faith.  How revealing. 

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.

True.  But while you might argue that atheism is not the direct ideology that teaches eugenics, I would argue that these other evil ideologies, which had atheism as one of their foundational pillars, ran amok because of atheism’s inability to provide a framework for meaning, it’s inability to answer man’s need for God, and the vacuum it created in suppressing religion. In such a vacuum, nationalism or some other unhealthy ism MUST fill the void.

There is no society in human history that ever suffered because its people became too reasonable.

No doubt.  But while atheists rely only on reason, their stance on the reality of God is not reasonable, esp. because it makes claims about God’s absence that it can not prove.  I would further argue that no nation based solely on reason has ever flourished (unless you count communism/socialism), and that, like the founders of America, I would argue that no nation could flourish without a virtuous people, and such pervasive virtue is impossible without religion and faith.  The founders were students of history, and spoke with wisdom and authority on this issue, and created our excellent form of government based on those assumptions.

3. Atheism is dogmatic.

Well, before I even look at Harris’ arguments, I have to say that I agree that atheism is NOT dogmatic, except in one thing – it’s affirmation that it is sure that God does not exist.  That is a dogmatic statement of faith.

An atheist is simply a person who has considered this claim, read the books and found the claim to be ridiculous.

So, no positive evidence is offered, just rejection of the claims of others.  How can he write with a straight face that atheism is not dogmatic?  What a joke!

He then goes on to quote one of the most unreasonable pieces of empty rhetoric I’ve read in a long time.

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.”

I was unable to find a good dissection of this piece of cr…creative polemicism, so I’ll do my best to explain why the conclusion made by this atheist is a non-sequitur, though my ability to argue philosophy is limited – I wish I was familiar with the more classic arguments here.

The contention that a man who believes in one god is an atheist because he believes in less than two gods is not only technically incorrect, it assumes that the logical jump from polytheism to monotheism is the same as going from monotheism to atheism. However, the logic to make these jumps is entirely different.

The reasons monotheists find fault with polytheism are many and varied.  But in a nutshell, these reasons are (1) the logical stance (only one God can be omnipotent, but then again, there’s the Trinity ;), and (2) the revealed stance (the bible is a believable authority that makes authoritative claims).  And of course, these points are arguable, but the point is that the “logical” argument for atheism (and as said above, it’s really a statement of faith that God does not exist) is a very different argument – and it does not rely on the revealed truth from any authority.

The polemic trick the atheist is playing on his own mind, and trying to play on us, is to reduce the argument to a simple mathematical equation, and then once we have accepted this false premise, to merely subtract one more and say “see, it’s the same thing, only I’ve used the same logic that you use to exclude polytheism, and excluded monotheism!”

The problem is, it’s not the same logic, and questions of philosophy, faith, or morality do not boil down to mathematical equations. But to the atheist whose entire epistemology is based soley on reason, and who can not make use of intuition, faith, revealed truth, or the assumption of objective moral and spiritual law, I am not surprised that the best argument that Harris can rely on is the inappropriate reduction of such decisions to mathematical metaphors.

So, in conclusion, Harris’ statement that atheism is not dogmatic is wrong for two reasons.  First, some atheism, notably “hard atheism”, atheism DOES make dogmatic claims without evidence, chief of which is that God does not exist, and atheism’s disdain for faith puts this belief, even if denied, into action.   And to buttress this errant claim, Harris relies on an illogical metaphor that attempts to deceive us into thinking that the logical jump from poly- to monotheism is the same as that from mono- to atheism, which is quite plainly a reductionist mistake, if not a creative but purposefully deceptive lie.