What Atheists Are Getting Wrong

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Life is hard.

For many life is a boring and laborious stumble from misadventure into misery, and the reward at the end can be one of the unenviable trio of agonizing pain, debilitating disease, or eternal oblivion. For many there is an unwillingness to entertain such a desolate existence or an inability to absorb the full brunt of tragic events unassisted, and so a window through which to view such events is constructed. Some construct this screen from drugs or alcohol, and some will navigate their lives through the prism of religion.

Others may have an existence untouched by tragedy, but it is a rare few who manage to avoid any moments of anxiety, doubt, or despair. In many parts of the world death, disease, and starvation are commonplace. Even in the modern Western world with consistent access to medicine, food, shelter, and warmth, everyday tragedies do occur: a phone call from a school administrator telling you that your daughter has been killed by a lone gunman while at school; a grandfather discovers that his son has been killed and then ten months later his grandson is killed riding the motorcycle he inherited from his dead father; the wrestler who, with a broken body, a failed marriage, and an addiction to alcohol, can no longer see the point of continuing with a life that holds no interest; a young man, abused by a stepfather, leaves home and lives on the streets, prostituting himself for money to fund a drug habit that makes life barely tolerable. There is no safety valve with tragedy, no mechanism that kicks in to prevent further misfortune—so can anyone be critical of a person who does not wish to experience the full force of life and prefers instead to view existence through the fogged lens of religion? Even systems that are in place to alleviate a dependency on external supports like drugs or alcohol only replace them with the crutch of religion, which at its most basic requires no outside stimuli and whose cost is not financial.

Atheism can replace this need for an artificial reality, but atheists misunderstand why people are religious, and through this misunderstanding the solution goes unrealized.

One tested method of religious rehabilitation used by atheists is to identify passages in the Bible that are insufficiently robust to logical inquiry and then to ask, if one statement is ridiculous, why any of them should be followed. But quoting scripture is irrelevant. Religious fundamentalists are disinterested and know the scripture well enough; the moderately religious have already dismissed whole tracts of the Bible that don’t apply to a modern society or to their own personal feelings. The religious, who are, for instance, homophobic, are simply looking for a higher authority to justify their increasingly unacceptable views. Quoting scripture will not change minds and neither will the condescending manner in which the quotes are often given.

A more moderate approach was offered by Bill Nye after his debate with creationist Ken Ham in 2014. When interviewed by Bill Maher, Nye stated, “I respect [Ken Ham’s] passion” although Nye described Ham’s views as “wrong and unsupportable.” On the other hand, Maher asserted that “stupid people are everywhere.”

People are religious for three main reasons: because their parents or guardians were religious (as in the case of Ken Ham), some tragedy in their life has led to the use of religion to help them through the grieving process, or they seek a community to which they can belong in a world that can often seem hostile and isolating. And when someone is asked to abandon their God, what are they being asked to do? Not just admit that they have believed in a non-existent deity for their entire life, but to state that their parents were wrong, to explain to their children that they have been brought up falsely and that their dead sister may not be in heaven, or to abandon a tight-knit community based on a shared faith. This cannot be done by condescendingly mentioning what the Bible says about the wearing of clothes woven from two kinds of material (Leviticus 19:19) or how stupid someone is to believe that Noah’s flood and the Tower of Babel are historical fact, especially when what they take most from a religion is a sense of community; the feeling that, regardless of what happens in life, there is always someone who cares for them, even if it is a supernatural being; and that when this life is over some good is waiting if they tried to be a good person.

In short, what atheism needs to do is offer the religious that sense of understanding and community they get from their religion. A drug addict is not helped by someone lecturing that their drug habit is killing them or that they are an idiot for taking drugs by showing the damage being done; they know this already. They need to be offered a viable alternative to what they will be leaving behind. If atheism has a genuine desire to replace religion as a modern thought-system to help people cope with the frequent harshness and banality of reality, it needs to temper its sense of superiority and instead focus on the aspects that the religious will be leaving behind: community, security, and optimism.