Atheists Must Not Self-Censor

Edward Tabash

Beginning around 2006, an internal debate accelerated among nonbelievers regarding how aggressively we should argue against religious claims. Some argued for moderation; for instance, Jeff Nall (in The Humanist, August 2006) expressed disapproval of what he called “antagonistic atheism.” Yet since then, we have seen the impact of such works as Richard Dawkins’sThe God Delusion, Daniel C. Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great, and Victor Stenger’s God: The Failed Hypothesis. These books joined Sam Harris’s 2004 The End of Faith to form a significant corpus of assertive new manifestos for atheism that received unprecedented public attention.

In my view, there is no reason whatsoever for atheistic arguments to be muffled. I defend a more aggressive stance of arguing forcefully and publicly that the supernatural claims of religion are untrue. Society is better off for having literature such as the works mentioned above. Society is better off when exposed to arguments against the existence of a supernatural being and against the supernatural generally.

By contrast, I view as counterproductive the stereotypical “self-hating atheist” who—maybe even subconsciously—buys into an unexamined presumption that somehow it is actually more correct, appropriate, and polite for nonbelievers to be less aggressive than believers in publicly promoting our worldview.

Other atheists may not disapprove of more assertive arguments on principle but think that we need to adopt a more restrained approach on tactical grounds, perhaps because the dominant religious culture is still so formidable that our current efforts to chip away at it need to be more subdued. I disagree. Moreover, I would argue that if nonbelievers face social disapproval because we exercise the same rights to assert our worldview as do religious proselytizers, then this social disapproval in and of itself becomes part of the phenomenon of social repression that we must work to overcome.

If we continue to self-censor, the social climate for accepting atheistic viewpoints won’t improve on its own. We atheists must push the envelope of what is socially acceptable for us to say in disagreeing with religious beliefs. Otherwise, we stand little chance of either creating a more receptive environment for our views or reducing the current level of hostility that ordinarily greets the expression of our ideas.

None of this entails insulting religious people. It does require that we not dissemble in expressing the reasons why we believe that arguments for the existence of a supernatural being are false.

Religious Beliefs and the Hatreds They Cause Are Not Harmless

Now, some might ask why this even matters. Why bother promoting atheism to the general public? In fact, there are multiple reasons:

1. The hostility that so many people harbor toward atheists is, itself, a symptom of prejudice, a retrograde immaturity that the human community badly needs to overcome. A society in which most still distrust someone who views the world as natural rather than supernatural—that refuses to laud those who have the courage to follow the evidence wherever it leads—is not an intellectually healthy society.

2. If the universe is a closed physical system with no nonmaterial intelligent beings in charge of it (as, I assert, the evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates to be true), this reality needs to be brought to the public’s attention.

3. The pervasive sense in our society that morality must be grounded in the dictates of a supernatural being is a horrific misconception that demands vigorous challenge.

4. Historically, religion has been anything but a harmless and benevolent set of mythologies. Over the centuries, countless people have been killed because of disagreements over what will happen to them after they die.

5. In most societies known to us that subjected women to officially mandated subordination, religion has been the culprit.

6. The opposition to equal rights for people romantically attracted to others of the same gender also stems from religious dogma.

7. When activists began to seek greater personal sexual freedom, starting in the 1960s, the opposition to such an enlargement of liberty was motivated by religion.

8. From the nineteenth century to the present day, religion has been the virtually exclusive source of opposition to the full range of family planning options.

9. Finally, for the past few decades in the United States, television preachers have lined their pockets with incredible sums of money by claiming to offer their viewers a path to salvation. They further enhance both their revenues and their status as moral authority figures by leading their followers in condemnation of others who are supposedly engaging in various types of sins.

It can readily be seen how much damage God beliefs have caused throughout history, and how much damage these beliefs continue to cause. (By contrast, no society has ever subjected women to formal second-class citizenship because of a desire to act in conformity with the commands of the hydrogen atom!)

Religion’s Stranglehold on Society Will Not Abate on Its Own

Having presented reasons for the importance of taking atheism to the general public, I want to focus on why a more assertive posture is necessary. Again, religious dogma’s stranglehold on the moral compass of society will not abate on its own, without a powerful countermovement.

Whether we are dealing with athletes who credit Jesus with some just-concluded spectacular performance on the playing field or someone claiming to have received special dispensation from God because he or she was the sole survivor of a plane crash—totally ignoring the clear implication that this must mean God intended for all the others to die—society generally considers it morally praiseworthy to accept these claims automatically. Yet, the use of evidence and reason to independently conclude that no God exists is considered morally defective. This is the total reverse of what will be needed if rational thought is to prevail.

To allow religious believers to determine what is socially acceptable for us to say about their beliefs is to let the fox guard the henhouse. We don’t see major spokespeople for religious views offering to temper what they say about nonbelief in order to avoid giving offense to atheists. No movement devoted to reforming and changing the beliefs of a majority of society—or to lessening the majority’s hostility toward those who dissent from a pervasive belief—has ever succeeded by restraining itself so that the full force of its justifying arguments becomes muted. It merits repeating in this context that our criticism of religious belief systems need not constitute ridiculing the believer. If a believer insists that any criticism whatsoever does constitute ridicule, then we must point out that, first, this is not the case and, second, that such an accusation functions as a mask for that believer’s true motive, namely, to silence critics of the religious beliefs in question. The purveyors of religion relish nothing more than for nonbelievers to be intimidated into arguing against religious claims in a softer, less critical fashion. Believers striving to defeat atheistic arguments can scarcely be trusted to advocate for what is best for nonbelievers when they urge us to take what they define as a more diplomatic approach. If the religious can claim to hate the sin but love the sinner, as many do, we have just as much right to assert that we have the ability to discredit the belief system while still cherishing the believer as a brother or sister human be

We also must be vigilant not to fall into the trap of feeling that we must affirm that we don’t want to come across as antireligious. Consider the last pope, Benedict XVI. He was sharply, explicitly critical of nonbelief. He never tempered his statements by saying that he didn’t want to appear anti-atheist. As long as we are not trying to abolish the legal rights of believers, we have every right to explain why we regard their beliefs to be mistaken and harmful and should not refrain from saying so.

Why Do Only the Religiously Penitent Receive Public Forgiveness?

One of the major candidates for president in 2012, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, once said that he couldn’t trust someone who didn’t pray and that one cannot have judgment without faith. We nonbelievers know that the courage to admit that one does not pray to an imaginary creature is a positive moral asset, not a sign of moral inferiority. Those who have studied philosophy and science and concluded that the universe is natural, not supernatural, have exercised the best judgment, not the worst. Yet a public figure such as Gingrich can cast such unfair and unjust aspersions upon us atheists, even though he has been guilty of adultery and asked one of his wives for an open marriage—actions that traditional religious believers might be expected to deplore. Members of the general public will sooner forgive Gingrich for these moral flaws than give us atheists a fair hearing regarding the reasons for our nonbelief.

The longer we hold back from delivering our arguments with full force, the longer it will take for us to make public headway—and the longer it will take for us to begin to dismantle the horrendous general public prejudice against non-belief and nonbelievers.

Moreover, Gingrich’s plea for forgiveness for his past marital transgressions has gained traction with the public substantially because he touts his conversion to Catholicism as the key to his absolution from past “sins.” The public, by and large, buys into the unjustified notion that a church that has been riven by the most horrendous child-abuse scandals—and that stands as the major institutional enemy of contraception, even in a world as overcrowded as ours—still somehow possesses sufficient holiness to be able to erase the effects of past sinful behavior by its adherents.

Atheists Are No Threat to the Legal Equal Rights of Believers

We atheists would be a threat to the religious if we attempted to use the law to take away their freedom to worship and to proselytize their beliefs. This is not what we do. Our purpose is to secure the legal equality of everyone, believer and nonbeliever alike. We just don’t want the religious to enjoy more government-conferred benefits than we have. We merely want the same rights to express our views in public that they enjoy. As long as we are devoted to the legal equality of believer and nonbeliever, we pose no threat to religious freedom. If religionists see us as a threat when we speak and debate in public, that’s their problem. Just as we have no right to silence the expression of religious points of view, they have no right to silence the expression of atheistic points of view.

In a society that truly regards free speech as a core value, the way for the religious to deal with our arguments is to attempt to respond to them with arguments of their own.

Every fair-minded person should be happy with our First Amendment system in which no one can invoke the police power of the state to silence an opponent but must rely on meeting speech they find offensive with counterarguments.

The Application of the Empirical Method Should Be Uniform

There is no reason miraculous claims that most people would not believe in an other-than-religious context must be given a special pass just because they allegedly occurred in the furtherance of a conventionally accepted religious belief. Those who believe that humans were miraculously created in our present form and that all of the outlandish magical events described in the Bible actually took place probably would not believe that people, today, can foresee the future or are able to project their consciousness outside their bodies and read a series of numbers written down in an adjacent room. Again, claims asserted by religion should not be evaluated by a different, less stringent standard just because of their religious nature.

On the contrary, we are fully justified in subjecting the claims of religious apologists to the most exacting analysis and scrutiny. It is those apologists who should be on the defensive about why the supernatural events they claim are true deserve greater credibility than other types of supernatural claims, not us. In April of 1823, Thomas Jefferson, the retired third president of the United States, wrote to John Adams, the retired second president of the United States. Jefferson said: “And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.” Jefferson thus addressed the central issue we are now dealing with. Why should the myths of Christianity be considered any more believable than stories about ancient Roman deities?

When religious believers protest that atheists and other nonbelievers are “bashing” them, they are really trying to obtain some kind of special insulation for their mythologies, in preference to other mythologies. Again, we must avoid the syndrome of the self-hating atheist who still buys into the notion that religious beliefs deserve a greater exemption from critical examination, doubt, and ridicule than other types of beliefs. If the religionist can get away with claiming to hate the sin and not the sinner, we can properly claim—and much more credibly—to be able to ridicule the superstition and not the superstitious.

Presenting Atheistic Arguments to the General Public

Philosophical sophistication varies throughout society. In any given discussion, the appropriate depth of argument will vary with the audience. However, even though the extent to which one’s arguments should be philosophically sophisticated will depend on the pool of listeners, that doesn’t mean that we ever have to scuttle the basics. Although many people in our culture have unreflectively bought into society’s default position that religious claims are entitled to special exemption from the rigorous scrutiny applicable to the examination of any other supernatural belief, we can begin to chip away at this notion. We can begin to discuss with anyone the uniformity of reason and evidence. We can explain how all miraculous assertions must be subjected to the same stringent level of inspection, whether the subject is astrology or the resurrection of the dead. We may not reach everybody. However, the more people we talk to, the more seeds of doubt we plant regarding the factual validity of religious claims.

This is why university debates on the existence of God are so crucial to causing doubt in the minds of students. Students treat such debates as some kind of absorbing intellectual heavyweight fight. For those few hours, they are completely focused on the arguments. Because they are attentive to the debate as it takes place, a competent atheist debater can get students to consider arguments to which they might not otherwise pay attention.

Confronting Evil

We can further challenge religious claims by dealing with the enormous amount of evil and suffering that humanity faces on a nonstop basis. We don’t have to be timid when confronted with apologetic claims that God moves in mysterious ways and that a being so far superior to us may have reasons we can never understand for allowing so much pain. If God wants us to believe in her/his/its existence and
yet hides from us evidence of the supernatural and explanations for tragic occurrences, this is inconsistent with the idea of an all-powerful being who wants a relationship with us. This “divine hiddenness” is far more likely if atheism is true than if theism is true. Accordingly, we are epistemologically justified in not believing that such a deity exists in the first place.

Also, if God exists and is all-powerful, then that God must confess that even with infinite power, he/she/it could not have prevented even greater evil without allowing the horrendous suffering in question. Or, God must then argue that a great good, a good desirable enough to justify such egregious suffering, could not have been brought about in any other way than by permitting the horrendous suffering that did occur. Either way, this is a pretty high hurdle for a supposedly omnipotent being, who can do anything.

The Moral Propriety of Our Asserting Our Arguments Is Clear

To insist that religionists deserve some special polite leniency—a leniency not extended to adherents of any other kinds of belief systems—is to make a judgment about political expediency and not one based on facts. There is no sound reason to stifle the full force and effect of arguments against the existence of God. When the religious say publicly that everyone will go to hell for not believing as they believe, we are justified in publicly explaining why there is no heaven and hell in the first place. If we are accused of being “angry atheists” just because we exercise the same right they do to present our arguments, we can charge our accusers with being “angry religionists” who are incapable of being happy as long as they know that others are enjoying liberated lifestyles, free from superstitious dogma.

Edward Tabash

Edward Tabash is a constitutional lawyer in the Los Angeles area and chair of the board of directors of the Center for Inquiry. He is recognized for his legal expertise pertaining to the separation of church and state. He is also one of the more well-known atheist debaters in the United States.