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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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I’m in an open (and loving) relationship

 I’m in an open (and loving) relationship

By David G. McAfee and Holly Samel

 

 I belong to a minority group of people that many others think of as immoral or “sinful.” Members of this group often looked at scientific evidence, as opposed to cultural norms, to reach their current position. People in this group are also regularly forced to conceal or disguise their views for fear of judgment based solely on (undeserved) social stigmas. I’m not talking about being an atheist, childfree by choice, or even a feminist… I’m talking about the fact that I’m in a non-monogamous, “open,” relationship.

What does this mean?

An open relationship could mean just about anything, as it is interpreted by the participants, and non-monogamy refers to a whole host of lifestyles and relationship dynamics. For me, however, it’s pretty simple: I am socially monogamous and sexually open. I have a long-term partner to whom I am dedicated, but I’m not limited to one woman sexually. I don’t have multiple girlfriends and I’m not going to marry anyone – let alone have more than one wife.

This isn’t what every non-monogamous person does, but it’s what I’m doing now and I am happy. I take proper precautions to avoid sexually transmitted infections and pregnancies, all people involved are consenting adults who are made aware of the situation, and it has actually brought me closer to my partner. If we are happy, safe, and more honest in life, then nobody will care what we do, right? Wrong.

Reactions.

Publicly acknowledging my open relationship is still new to me–I haven’t really spoken to many people about it and I only changed my “relationship status” to reflect the change a little more than a week ago. Even after such a short time, however, I’ve already had some interesting responses. The first notable message was from someone who said he and his wife are themselves in an open relationship and that “being able to articulate this without stigma is often difficult.” I immediately thought of the similarities between the negative stereotypes associated with non-traditional relationships and those atheists face in many regions – and how I might be able to help.

The second jarring reaction I received after I mentioned non-monogamy as “natural” was from a Christian apologist with a podcast. In response to what he called an “endorsement of non-monogamous relationships,” the apologist said, “Add that to the list that includes things like abortion, infanticide, incest, etc.” He continued to compare non-monogamy, consensually sharing multiple sexual or romantic bonds, with bestiality, sex between humans and non-human animals.

In case that wasn’t bad enough, the third response I’ll mention really missed the mark. This comment came from a Facebook friend who saw my relationship status change and implied that I was seeking sexual favors online. He thought the fact that I was honest about the type of relationship that I have, and that my relationship isn’t similar to his traditional paradigm, meant that I was soliciting my fans for sex. He even compared my status change, which was for the sake of transparency and is only visible to my friends, with Richard Carrier’s recent blog post. In that entry, Carrier, an atheist author who is polyamorous, asks his fans if they want to go on a pre-planned date with him.

Needless to say, I was confused by the onslaught of assumptions and accusations. I have never lied to my partner about my feelings and I’ve never acted unethically by treating my fan page like a dating website, so it’s difficult for me to see these as anything more than uninformed attacks. In fact, in my mind, I’m not doing or saying anything that crazy. I’m simply acknowledging what scientists have known for a long time: human beings don’t naturally mate for life.

What does science say?

Richard A. Friedman, a professor of clinical psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College, recently pointed out that infidelity “lurks in your genes.” He noted that, while for some people one partner is perfectly fine, for others “sexual monogamy is an uphill battle against their own biology.”

“Sexual monogamy is distinctly unusual in nature: Humans are among the 3 to 5 percent of mammalian species that practice monogamy, along with the swift fox and beaver — but even in these species, infidelity has been commonly observed,” Professor Friedman wrote in a piece for the New York Times.

Noted relationship advice columnist Dan Savage has a similar view, also rooted in scientific understandings of human biology. He told astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson in a recent interview that, “we are not naturally monogamous; it is a difficult struggle for us.”

“No primates with testicles our size are monogamous, sexually monogamous,” Savage said. “The truth is if you make a monogamous commitment to someone you love, you will still want to have sex with other people. You will refrain from it. It will be difficult.”

Savage went on to reference sex writer Chris Ryan in saying that, in many cultures, adultery is met with the death penalty. We can’t say monogamy comes naturally to us as a species if we have to kill to enforce the rule, he argued.

“Well, no other species has to be threatened with death to do that which comes naturally to it,” Savage told Tyson during the interview. “We don’t point guns at dolphins and say swim. Right? But we point guns at each other and say don’t cheat.”

Forget what you’ve been told.

A lot of people are more comfortable sweeping subjects like this under the rug. They think that, because we have always been told things are one way, that there are no other options. But studying other regions of the world will tell you that many things are cultural and not so black and white. In many cases, we are governed not by facts but by social lies: rules, codes of conduct, or ideas that guide how we behave but are based on self-deception.

For example, do you think the color pink is really a feminine color? Do you agree that other cultures might find it masculine or even gender neutral? The fact is that we are told pink is a “girl” color and that blue is for boys, but those perceptions come from marketing – not reality. It is now a powerful connection in our minds, but that doesn’t make it an objective truth.

“Cheating” is another social lie – this one formed as a result of our jealous nature. We are told our loved ones are our property, that we shouldn’t share them with anyone else, and that cheaters deserve the worst possible punishments. These ideas are reinforced by movies, television, and other media, and are attached to religious views and marriage vows. These pre-conceived notions of what it means to cheat have even caused millions of divorces and even murders. But I don’t “cheat” on my partner because I don’t think we have to use society’s definition. I think cheating should be defined by the participants of any specific relationship and be based on desires and comfort levels.

Savage argues that social lies that surround cheating exist because we are given unrealistic relationship standards from day one.

“What we said, what we believed, what we’re told as children, is one day you’ll grow up and fall in love with someone and you’ll make a monogamous commitment to them, and that means you’re in love with them,” Savage said. “And when you’re in love, you won’t want to have sex with other people.”

But we know that, for many people, this just isn’t true. For them, no matter who they are with, sexual monogamy will always be a problem. Because humans are among a number pair-bonding animals that often have sex outside of their partnership, Savage and others often refer to us as a “monogamish” species.

Why speak out?

Non-monogamy is extremely common among humans and throughout the animal kingdom, but that doesn’t stop people from treating it like a perversion. In fact, according to a 2013 Gallup poll, 91 percent of Americans find marital infidelity “morally wrong.” That is higher than the percentage of people who opposed polygamy, human cloning, and suicide, according to the poll.

Savage says the negative stereotypes are reinforced by the fact that we only hear about the bad non-monogamous relationships and not the good ones.

“If a three-way or an affair was a factor in a divorce or breakup, we hear all about it,” Savage wrote. “But we rarely hear from happy couples who aren’t monogamous, because they don’t want to be perceived as dangerous sex maniacs who are destined to divorce.”

With all the negativity surrounding non-monogamy, despite the fact that it is such a natural and recurring concept throughout history, many people have decided to hide their true colors to satisfy the moral majority. But that doesn’t really solve anything for anyone else in that position. It won’t make it easier for them to talk about the issue because the social stigma remains strong. When asked why it’s important to speak out about this topic, I can’t help but think back to a quote from Mom, Dad, I’m an Atheist:

By telling people you don’t believe, you’re making it a bit easier for the next person who has to. You are making it that much easier for the next generation and helping to change the (very false) perception of atheism as something that is anti-god or even pro-evil. More than anything else, coming out as an atheist gives you the opportunity to educate believers — to show them that it is entirely possible to be morally good without believing that we are being policed by an all-knowing deity.”

I think similar reasoning can be applied to this subject.

I cheated and this is my punishment.

I cheated and this is my punishment.