Saturday, October 08, 2016

50 "myths" about atheism

Recently I was thumbing through 50 Great Myths About Atheism (Wiley Blackwell, 2013), by Russell Blackford and Udo Schüklenk.

As you can tell from the title alone, it's a PR exercise designed to dispel allegedly harmful stereotypes and prejudices about atheists. However, the book suffers from a central dilemma. On the one hand, there's the vexed question of how to define atheism in the first place. On p3 they say:

George H. Smith adopted a very broad view of atheism as simply "the absence of religious belief." According to this approach, any person who does not believe in the existence of any god or gods is literally an atheist. For the purpose of this book we take a similar approach. 

Let's be clear on what this implies. According to their preferred definition, their operating definition, an atheist or atheism is consistent with any belief or practice apart from the singular exception of belief in the existence of a god or gods. Now, let's compare that to some of their "myths" about atheism:

Myth 7 Atheists See No Good in Religion 

Myth 11 Atheism Robs Life of Meaning and Purpose 

Myth 12 Atheism is Depressing 

Myth 20 Without God There is No Morality 

Myth 21 Atheists are Moral Relativists 

Myth 23 Atheists Deny the Sanctity of Human Life 

Myth 24 If There is No God We are Soulless Creatures 

Myth 26 Atheists Can’t be Trusted 

Myth 27 Many Atrocities Have Been Committed in the Name of Atheism 

Myth 31 Atheists are Intolerant 

Myth 32 Atheists Want to Ban Teaching Religion to Children 

Myth 33 Atheists Want to Strip People of their Beliefs

Myth 34 Atheists Want to Ban Religion from the Public Square 

Myth 43 Atheism Implies Scientism 

Notice that atheism is consistent with every one of these "myths" about atheism. Each one of these can be true of atheists. Indeed, an atheist could subscribe to every one of these "myths" about atheism. 

Since nothing in their definition of atheism rules them out, in what sense are these "myths" about atheists or atheism? 

Perhaps the authors would say atheism doesn't entail any of these beliefs or practices. But even if we grant that contention for the sake of argument, atheism does not entail the denial of any of these beliefs or practices. These are all compatible with atheism or atheists. 

Moreover, that's not just a logical possibility. There are actual atheists in each category. There are atheists for whom the "myth" is an accurate description. And not just riffraff, but important representatives.

So the "myth" boils down to the banal qualification that these descriptions aren't universally true for every self-identified atheist. At best, they think popular stereotypes overgeneralize about atheists. But that's not a very catchy title or selling point. 

In addition, a book like this is intended to promote a favorable image of atheism and atheists. To that end, it will lowball atheists who take their position in a more intolerant or nihilistic direction–whether moral nihilism, existential nihilism, or both. But what if that's just taking atheism to a logical conclusion? Even if many or most atheists did not espouse nihilism, atheism can still imply nihilism. They stop short of going all the way because the consequences are far too bleak. Likewise, intolerant atheists are bona fide atheists. 

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