Fear of Atheism
So often I find myself harping on about the term “atheism”, what it means, what it doesn’t mean, and the implications, associations and misunderstandings that go hand-in-hand with the term “atheist”. It’s annoying to parrot on, but I hope this adds something to the conversation. For many, the atheist represents everything that is bad in the world; without god, only evil is possible. Without the guiding hand of god on your side, then things like rape, murder, incest, cannibalism, stealing, lying, and deliberately causing pain and suffering to small animals are totally acceptable. But of course, just a moment’s thought by the person claiming this and they will see that this is not true at all, and only a person living with delusions or living in denial would give these assertions a second thought. Whether you like it or not, herein lies the problem; delusion and denial.
It is possible to know one thing is correct, and still maintain through faith the opposite. This is called “cognitive dissonance“, and many who are religious suffer from this. George Pell, the Catholic Cardinal of Australia recently said on ABC’s program “Q and A” that he thought the story of Adam and Eve was just “… a very sophisticated mythology to try to explain the evil and the suffering in the world… It’s a religious story told for religious purposes.” He also claimed that the theory of evolution was quite feasible, although he showed some ignorance at the specifics of evolution, claiming man evolved from Neanderthal. (I am quite aware that we share DNA with Neanderthal, and we may have interbred with them, but to say we evolved from them is quite wrong.) This however goes against the catechism of the Catholic church, the rule book by which the bible is translated and interpreted, which states that the Adam and Eve story is crucial to the idea of knowing good from evil. “… we cannot tamper with the revelation of original sin without undermining the mystery of Christ.” It is the basis of the Christian claim of “God-made-man”, and the foundation that Christ is the redeemer, and the claim that god exists at all. Pell suffers from this very same cognitive dissonance stemming from what he believes based on his religion, as compared to what he sees as evidential in the world around him.
The belief that atheists are evil may not hold sway with people who know atheists in their daily dealings. Statements like “He’s an atheist? But he seems so nice!” or “Marty is an atheist, but don’t hold that against him,” are symptoms of the greater distrust of godless people. What is it then that gives atheism such a bad reputation? Atheists have never gathered under the banner of “atheism” to commit atrocities, have never fought a war for “atheism”, and have never cited “atheism” as the reason to persecute millions. An atheist is just like anyone else, and there are good and bad ones. There are smart and there are stupid ones. There are rational and irrational atheists. Atheism is not a character trait, it is simply this: “A” means “without”, and “theist” means “belief in god or gods”; “Without belief in god or gods.” You cannot draw a character assessment from this. And yet the word “atheist” brings about so much fear and resentment in today’s world that atheists have seemingly been branded as evil.
The stigma of atheism reaches right back into antiquity, but was particularly highlighted in the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. All of these religions state that the unbeliever is the enemy, and should be either shunned or killed. Christianity and Islam are the two major religions in the world, and if their holy books are to be followed to the letter by their adherents, then it’s no wonder that atheists are distrusted, whether they deserve the distrust or not. In the West however, the biggest distrust of atheism came from Stalinist Russia, who sought to destroy religion because Stalin himself saw it as an obstruction to his own self-glorification. Many millions of people were killed by Stalin and his armies, but none of this was done in the name of atheism. It was the power of theistic societies he wished to destabilise, and to destroy the faithful was his main weapon in subduing the people. Fast forward to The Cold War, the Eisenhower years in the USA, and we have the “Reds under the Bed” fear mongering, bolstered by the McCarthy “communist witch hunts”, which labelled the “filthy Russians” as an atheistic threat. The fear of the cold war arms race, the rhetoric used in telling the people of America that nuclear war could break out at any moment, and the added fear that Reds would infiltrate the government had the American people in a fugue state. One reaction to this was in 1956, when the words “In God We Trust” we’re added to all currency of the USA. Another was to add the words “Under God” to the American Pledge Of Allegiance. I wrote about this recently in my article “Atheism – E Pluribus Unum“.
The result of this for atheists people was twofold. Firstly the hatred of atheists, because they were associated with the red threat from Russia, became a mainstream phenomenon. Very much like the witch trials of the 17th century, where sorcery was blamed instead of godlessness, many were persecuted and even jailed, being labeled “Communist”. It’s because of this first point that the second is all the more interesting. Many lax Christians or even those who were questioning their faiths were pushed back into the closet of theism, forced to live their lives in a lie so as to be able to live in any “normal” way and not be chastised or possibly condemned.
In today’s America, the atheist remains as the least trusted group, even below murders and rapists, as this fear of godlessness is attached to an apparent lack of morals and ethics. Of course, no studies show a link between godlessness and a lack of morals. In fact, it has been suggested that, while religious organisations give more to charity (note: atheism has few organisations in comparison to religious institutions), a recent study showed that non-religious people are far more likely to donate their bodies to science, than religious people. This is not surprising really, since so many religions hold claim to the human body as sacred, whereas the non-religious hold no claim. This is a moral decision, to donate the body, no longer in use by its “owner” to the betterment of all society by allowing it to be studied. Add to this the fact that so many charities are religious in nature, and this can rub the wrong way against atheists, who would prefer their money to be used for the establishment of non religious or secular goals such as the establishment of schools and clean water for the poorer people of the world.
The delusion I speak of may not be directly related to religion itself, but may actually be bolstered by the tenets and dogmas of that religion. This perception of atheism comes not from whether or not a person believes in god; it stems from the delusion that atheism means “amoral” and is therefore inherently evil. I’m not sure how we can go about correcting this misconception except by example. If we show the world that atheists are not any different from the, except with relation to deities and superstitions, then what excuse do the believers have left at their disposal to condemn the atheist?
I’m willing to step past our differences, but I’m not sure that those who hold onto the god hypothesis are ready to face up to the implications of the idea that atheists are not evil. Atheists must be evil in order to make the opposite position, that of a theist, good by comparison. Once we disprove this, we actually disprove much about the religions themselves.