Atheists Should Stop Trying to Destroy Religion

Atheists Should Stop Trying to Destroy Religion

By David G. McAfee, author of The Belief Book

I’m an atheist who studies religion. You might think that seems contradictory, but to me it makes all the sense in the world. I’ve never been religious, but I have always enjoyed learning about how religions start and spread, how they interact with and influence one another over time, and the psychology behind the ideas themselves. I’m incredibly interested in beliefs and myths and understand that there are good and bad aspects of faith, so imagine my surprise when people assume I want to “destroy,” “obliterate,” or “abolish” religion altogether just because I’m not a believer.

I partly understand the assumption because I know a lot of non-believers who want to do exactly that. I’ve heard people, who often call themselves “anti-theists” and who others might call “Fundamentalist Atheists” or “New Atheists,” refer to religion as a “cancer” that they want to surgically remove from humanity. But calling religion a cancer implies that it is always bad in all circumstances – that it isn’t beneficial to anyone and is dangerous in all its forms. Can we really say that’s the case for religion?

Rape or religion?

I consider myself a fan of a number of works written by Sam Harris, a neuroscientist and author often referred to as one of the “Four Horsemen of the Non-Apocalypse,” but he said something I think was off in a 2006 interview with The Sun Magazine. He is quoted as saying, “If I could wave a magic wand and get rid of either rape or religion, I would not hesitate to get rid of religion.” He went on to explain that “more people are dying as a result of our religious myths than any other ideology.”

While I agree with Harris that religious extremism is dangerous, I don’t think religion itself is inherently evil and I certainly wouldn’t say it’s worse than rape. Religion isn’t a crime or a violation – it’s a tool. It’s been used to justify violence and bigotry, yes, but (due to the contradictory nature of holy texts) it’s also used at times as a means to promote well-being and reinforce positive ethics.

To answer the rape or religion question simply, think about all of the instances in which you think rape is completely acceptable and then compare that to the number of times when religious people are harmless. Think of your friends or relatives who quietly practice a religion without affecting others because it makes them feel good or because it provides a sense of community. Rape always causes harm – there are times when religions do not.

Wiping out religion.

While Harris’ scenario was hypothetical, magical, and – he admitted – inflammatory, there are many people who actively seek to destroy faith-based belief systems entirely. Some anti-theists hope to outlaw faith by enacting some sort of (unenforceable) thoughtcrime legislation, others think ridicule alone will completely eradicate supernatural beliefs, and a small number of these anti-theists want to end religion so badly that they see violence as the answer.

Recently, I was approached by a self-described anti-theist who suggested that killing every single religious person – man, woman, and child – was a viable “cure for religion.” This would be almost negligible if it were just a one-off occurrence, or if the person was saying it for shock value, but I’ve heard this proposal a number of times and this particular individual stressed his military background and demanded a logical rebuttal to his position. I told him that killing all religious people to end religion isn’t just a disturbing thought, it also wouldn’t work.

The urge to believe.

As someone who studies comparative religion, the idea of obliterating faith-based practices through genocide is especially confusing. It is well established that religion itself is a cultural universal and that it likely has or had evolutionary benefits, so why wouldn’t new religions arise after the mass deaths? History and anthropology tell us that new systems would arise, and they would look a lot like the old ones with different names and stories.

You can’t remove religions by force, either by banning them or by killing those who believe, because the feelings and circumstances that caused us to create them have remained largely unchanged for hundreds of thousands of years. The urge to believe still exists inside the minds of people, as does our desire to know “the unknown.” The fact is that we will probably never completely outgrow religion. We are prone to superstition, organization, and wishful thinking — and religions are often forged when those tendencies are realized.

Pascal Boyer, Henry Luce Professor of Individual and Collective Memory at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, says his research suggests that “atheism will always be a harder sell than religion because a slew of cognitive traits predispose us to faith.”

Is Religion on the Ropes?

The Pew Research Center recently released a report indicating that “the Christian share of the U.S. population is declining, while the number of U.S. adults who do not identify with any organized religion is growing.” This is good news because it shows that people are less likely to identify with a restricting dogma, but it doesn’t mean religion is coming to an end any time soon. In fact, more than 70 percent of American citizens still identify as Christians while the “unaffiliated” make up only 22 percent and atheists only three percent.

That isn’t to say religion will always be as strong as it is today, however. Tufts University Professor Daniel C. Dennett, another one of the so-called “Four Horsemen,” recently argued that “the future of religion is bleak.” I agree with the thrust of his article – that there is a rising tide of secularism in the age of information – but even he clarifies that this won’t mean an end to religion.

“If this trend continues, religion largely will evaporate, at least in the West,” Dennett wrote. “Pockets of intense religious activity may continue, made up of people who will be more sharply differentiated from most of society in attitudes and customs, a likely source of growing tension and conflict.”

What can we do?

So, if you can’t enact a successful prohibition on religious ideas, and it won’t work to kill all believers, how do we fix the issues that stem from or are justified by religion? We work to reform religion – to fight against the aspects of it that are harmful and allow people to practice those that aren’t – and promote secular religious education to help people better understand religions and how they arise.

I, for one, don’t hate religion. It’s not that black and white for me – I don’t have to either endorse all actions done in the name of religion or condemn its practice entirely. I hate religious extremism, but I don’t hate meditation or meditative prayer; I hate that religious ideals have consistently impeded science and invaded secular governments, but I don’t hate food drives and soup kitchens; I hate the “God is on our side” mentality and that millions of people think that religion is necessary to live a happy and moral life, but I don’t hate peaceful religious practices or people who happen to believe differently.

Are all religious people extremists? Are they all against science and in favor of knocking down the wall of separation between Church and State? Do they all hate people who believe differently because they’re evil? The answer, in each case, is “No.”

Fundamentalism as a common enemy.

Religion is not something you can simply erase; it’s an integral part of our history and (for better or worse) it will help shape our future. Religion was man’s first attempt to explain the unknown and it continues to be an inspiration for major (charitable and horrific) acts around the world every day, so it will likely exist for the foreseeable future. But does it have to exist in a stagnant state as it has for thousands of years? Many people, whether they identify with a tradition or not, think we can change religion for the better.

When reformation (and not extermination) is the goal, we atheist activists can find common ground with many believers. I know many Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists who would agree that fundamentalism within their respective religions is a problem that needs to be stopped – just as most atheists I know would never advocate violence against believers.

There are other areas of agreement between the rational but largely silent non-religious and religious majorities. I think most religious people and most non-believers, for instance, oppose things like Young Earth Creationism being taught in science class and are in favor of things like same-sex equality. If we work with open-minded religious people, we may be able to reduce religious extremism without eliminating anyone’s freedom to believe or worship and without killing anyone. I think it’s worth a shot.

Ultimately, you have to decide: do you think belief in god(s) is our biggest problem right now? Or organized religion? Or, like me, do you see scientific illiteracy and civil rights as the key issues?

Can we debate religion in a friendly manner?

Can we debate religion in a friendly manner?

David G. McAfee is a Religious Studies graduate, journalist, and author of The Belief Book, a children’s book explaining the origins of beliefs and religion, and Mom, Dad, I’m an Atheist: The Guide to Coming Out as a Non-believer. He is also an editor for Ockham Publishing and a contributor to American Atheist Magazine. McAfee attended University of California, Santa Barbara, and graduated with bachelor’s degrees in English and Religious Studies with an emphasis on Christianity and Mediterranean religions.

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18 responses to “Atheists Should Stop Trying to Destroy Religion

  1. dmcomedymagic

    A very well thought out presentation of responsible thinking. You covered it perfectly.

  2. I am not trying to destroy religion, I just wish they would quit trying to force their beliefs on me. And that especially includes trying to encode their beliefs in our laws.

  3. There is some disingenuousness in this article. For instance, it misreads Sam Harris as though in the “getting rid of rape vs. religion” magic wand scenario Harris is saying that all religion is wall to wall bad. As opposed to Harris (hypothetically) being willing to get rid of the good and/or benign elements (which Harris often makes note of) *along with* the bad because the bad of religion may outweigh the actual wall to wall bad of rape. I don’t know how to measure that, but the point should be made clear. And it isn’t. It makes it seem as though Sam Harris might be in the “kill all religious people” camp or close to it.

    Sam Harris is often used as a counterpoint to the “nice” and “sensible” middle ground here, as though we can’t find Harris saying exactly the same thing. Harris *also* thinks that reform is more likely than mass deconversion to atheism and he’s currently writing a book with a moderate Muslim on that topic. He recognizes that his message has no hope of succeeding in the fanatical Muslim world and that empowering moderate Muslims is the more likely path to near-term success. This message would be hard to miss if you follow Harris so either McAfee doesn’t follow Harris that closely or he just wants to conveniently misrepresent himself look like the more sensible option.

    And are atheists supposed to be religious reformers? Are we supposed to pretend to be liberal theologians? No. The article seems unclear.

    So how exactly does history tend to generate more of the moderates and liberals? Was it by all the critics shutting up or dumbing down their messages? Or was it by the critics telling the truth and the more fanatical religious people settling for half-way? Ultimately you can’t push a rope and you have to let the religious people invent their own moderate retcons.

    McAfee also seems to be ignoring that there are people who specifically want and need out of religion. And that “reforming” religion is not the message for everyone. So direct criticism of religion is always going to be a moral good. So sorry, you have to put up with those stinky, staunch and loud New Atheists who are going to (occasionally) end up telling your nice Christian grandma that she’s not probably going to heaven.

    The bottom line is that there are ways of getting to a “we can work together with moderates and liberal religious people” message that don’t entail misrepresenting Sam Harris or throwing him under the bus. He’s an incredibly thoughtful guy and he at least deserves to be disagreed with based on his actual positions.

    • Cogent argument. Makes me wish to be the talking donkey ( 5th horseman). I need to be less vituperative in my comments and exercise restraint. Totally agree on Sam Harris point as folks seem to desire misrepresenting of him to see their name in print perhaps. Better to be thought a fool than open your gob and confirm it. This is my first trip on DGMcA site and enjoy the exchange.

  4. My grandmother likes to say that I hate Christianity and that I need “life lessons” instead of that “evolution crap”. She then goes on to talk about how I’m evil and want to destroy her religion.

    This fight began after she showed me a crappy Facebook test to see if you are a psychopath. One of the questions read “do you believe in survival of the fittest and only the strong survive”. I told her that the test was fake and explained where the idea of that line came from, The Origin of Species. She didn’t like that too much, and then went on a rant about how evolution was wrong….

    She is wrong,I could care less if religion dies or not. All I want is more intelligent people in the world. If their faith is destroyed in the process I do not see how that is a bad thing.

  5. Interesting article, David. As you know, I’m an anti-theist of sorts, but not a “militant” one. I would never promote violence as the means of quashing or replacing any ideology. Look how well that worked for the Christians during the Crusades. No, I don’t advocate that we “destroy” religion. I advocate that we abandon it.

    Religion is a global and historical, ubiquitous phenomenon, absolutely. But it isn’t the first time that a global idea was bad or wrong. Slavery was a more or less global industry that persisted for hundreds of years. But there came a time in social ethics where it became clear that the practice is unsupportable.

    The “Flat Earth” idea has been around for centuries, and some people cling to it today, but it is a vanishingly small minority. My position is that a belief in religion, a god(s), the soul and an afterlife is similar to that pervasive belief in a flat Earth. Pervasive, commonly held, even deeply treasured – but nevertheless wrong. Belief in the supernatural is simple error. The action of the imagination regarding the unknown. I see atheism as a paradigm shift in the way we look at the world.

    Belief, for a theist, is an emotional confidence in what you WANT to be true. Atheism is the understand that what you want doesn’t dictate reality. Belief, for an atheist, is therefore confirmatory. You believe what you know to be true, whether you like it or not.

  6. Replace the word religion with witchcraft throughout the article. “I, for one, don’t hate witchcraft. It’s not that black and white for me …” Actually it is. We should look at religion with in the same way that we now view witchcraft. When religion is a historical oddity, society will be that much more civil.

  7. Why do we need to all do the same thing? I think the reason most of us are atheists is because we appreciate the freedom to live our lives as we see fit, free from dogma. If that means you want to be an aggressive advocate for your lack of belief in a deity, or you want to just quietly go about your business that’s entirely your call.

    I’m not sure what is accomplished by telling atheists what they should or shouldn’t do. Unlike theists, we are free to define ourselves on our own terms, not by the beliefs or actions of other atheists.

  8. I don’t want to outlaw religion, but I don’t simply want it to “reform”, either. Given the option between fundamentalism and moderate religion, I’ll take the reform, but why can’t we just destroy it? Not by force, but by education. It doesn’t deserve respect, and it shouldn’t be encourage to persist just because it won’t be bothering non-believers. It’s flat-out untrue, and teaches people that they don’t need justification for believing things, which turns out poorly in other areas, like anti-vaxx or climate denial nonsense.

  9. Atheists have already destroyed the religion socially & politically with the help of science, some so-called philosophers and so-called religious scholars who have polluted religions with wholesale corruptions. Besides the education system all over the world is atheistic be it physical, biological or social sciences. However the issue concerning the change of education system from atheistic physical sciences to theistic physical sciences is being taken up with Governments all over the world and to start with the issue has been taken up in India. Please read it at https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/adopted-paradigm-physics-incorrect-shafiq-khan?trk=prof-post and this scientific perspective is confirmed by a scientist of MIT which you could see at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eQVm8RokoBA.

  10. Pingback: Response to “Atheists Should Stop Trying to Destroy Religion” by David McAfee | Religion and Politics

  11. “Ultimately, you have to decide: do you think belief in god(s) is our biggest problem right now? Or organized religion? Or, like me, do you see scientific illiteracy and civil rights as the key issues?”

    Belief in god(s) *IS* scientific illiteracy.

  12. James Chistenson

    David, thank you for admitting that you know atheists who have admitted that they would like to kill believers.

    I have known this for some some. After all, when atheists have actually had political power that is what they have done.

    I think the main reason more of you don’t say this is because you don’t have any real political power. Yet.

  13. Very Well done, thoughtful and respectful.

  14. http://www.examiner.com/article/not-all-nonbelievers-hate-religion

    While I can sympathize a bit to some atheists who want legislation banning religions. I think that doing so doesn’t make atheist better than those religious fanatics. If we factor that the three abrahamic faiths are the perfect specimen for evolution, it becomes more important that we need to look at what these man made sacred texts mean for they are not only impregnated with meaning, it shows how human thought and knowledge evolved. After which, we can prune out and cut the pathological ends of this big religious tree.

  15. Daniel P watson

    I don’t believe that religion has been stagnant for thousands of years, it has evolved over thousands of years, it has branches on it’s own tree of life. Dan

  16. Not only will killing theistic people be disturbing, but largely hypocritical. Many atheists decry religion for being responsible for thousands to millions of deaths. And while that can be dubious due to bastards using it for their own ends, countering it death with death is just horrifically hypocritical that I would think that some atheists are just sociopaths looking for another excuse to be absolute monsters.

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