Answering The Big Questions – Atheist Groundhog Day


Alex Gibson,  friend of the MSS and board member of the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies, drops in to offer his thoughts on the same old arguments faced by atheists:

Right, I’ve just finished watching Chloe’s sterling performance for AHS on the BBC’s “The Big Questions” (it’s on iPlayer) and am chewing my own arm in frustration. I am absolutely sick and tired of the sheer amount of time wasted on programmes like this dealing with basic, basic misunderstandings about atheism and weak poorly-reasoned arguments that have been bludgeoned to death about a million times in print and on television. Enough! From now on, if you ever want to discuss religion with me – or just generally – you should take these three points as read. They are done, over, talked to death, and repeating them will make you look like an idiot.

1) “Atheism is intolerant because it sees itself as a neutral position, and wants to remove religion from the public sphere”
Your problem here is just common-a-garden ignorance of basic terminology. What you’re describing there is a natty thing called secularism, which protects people of all denominations by not privileging any. Removing the ten commandments from courts, stopping faith schools getting public funding, campaigning for an end to bishops in the House of Lords – discrimination against Christians? No, it’s stripping away centuries of privilege. Really, for it to be discrimination, you’d have to be losing rights that other people have rather than losing ancient feudal powers resulting from hundreds of years of total cultural dominance. Consider it this way. In a free society you are able to choose to support any of hundreds of political parties, from the Lib Dems to the Monster Raving Loonies, even to the BNP if you really feel the need. So, say the Tories are in power and they decide that from now on they’re going to have 26 Conservatives permanently sitting in Parliament who cannot be unseated, and have all the voting rights of regular MPs. Public outcry would undoubtedly follow, but can you honestly say with a straight face that Tories would have a genuine reason to be offended by this? Do you honestly believe that removing these 26 unelected partisan figures from Parliament would constitute anti-Tory discrimination? Of course you wouldn’t. This is pretty much the situation with the bishops in the Lords and it shouldn’t be acceptable to anyone – not to atheists, not to Christians, not to people of any other faith; it shouldn’t even be acceptable to the bishops themselves, and they’d say so if they weren’t enjoying the extra power.
So to sum up:
Atheism: not believing in a God
Secularism: not allowing any religious belief or lack thereof to be privileged in government to protect them all. It prevents the passing of laws that restrict the freedom to worship and stop one sect being able to legislate itself into permanent power.
If secularism were the same as atheism, we’d be pushing an atheist agenda instead of one where the state has no opinion on the whole debate. When was the last time you saw a recklessly secularist government pushing for atheism as opposed to just taking away unwarranted privilege?
2) “Atheists say religious belief can make people do evil things, but so can atheism! Just look at Pol Pot/Stalin/Hitler etc”
Fucking hell. This one is buried and rotting the ground and has been for years. It seems like no matter how many times you explain this to people, they just tune it out and keep on repeating it. It’s like a goddamn virus! Let’s put it simply:
Atheists: follow their own conscience, aren’t told what to do by a supernatural entity, personally responsible for their own actions
Religionists: are given rules that they are not allowed to break by a supernatural entity, which allows the absconding of responsibility to someone else
Dictators like Stalin and Pol Pot did not carry out their atrocities because they were atheists. They did not do them in the name of atheism. They did what every dictator does and dismantled opposing sources of power for their own ends. In many cases the alternative source of power was organised religion, but this was not out of some atheistic imperative to wipe out the religious! Compare this to religious texts, many of which demand blood sacrifice, genocides and all sorts of discrimination. The crusades were carried out in the name of Christianity. The oppression of women and homosexuals in Iran is carried out in the name of Islam. The genital mutilation of millions of babies is carried out continuously in the name of Judaism. Millions of people across the world are HIV positive and will die of AIDS in the next decade because the Catholic Church believes that contraception is sinful.
Here are some stories that have recently been in the news, where awful crimes have been perpetrated and then justified with religious belief, or have been carried out because of religious belief. I see about three of these every day. I challenge you to find similar cases where people have committed crimes in the name of atheism, or because Richard Dawkins told them to.
http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/32191966/?GT1=43001
http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/breaking/6548023.html
http://www.politics.co.uk/opinion-formers/press-releases/children-and-family/british-humanist-association-anti-witchcraft-conference-attacked-by-christian-church-in-nigeria-$1315424$365873.htm?
3) “Your arguments are infantile because you know nothing about theology”
Sorry guys, I know you’ve spent your life studying it, but if you don’t believe in God then theology is a crock. It doesn’t matter how intricate and powerful your ‘discoveries’ might be but to paraphrase PZ Myers: “science doesn’t care”. I could posit the existence of living, breathing Haggises in the wilds of Scotland. I could write books about the quality of their tartan, their mating calls, explanations of how they are able to hide from human eyes due to excellent camoflauge. I could describe with pinpoint accuracy their ability to use complex tools, their fondness for water and their average weekly diet. But you know what? If I couldn’t provide even basic evidence that they existed at all then the rest is just bullshit. If you reject a premise because it is entirely unsupported by evidence, then everything you have deduced and developed over the centuries is unsupported too. It all rests on the question of whether God exists or not; if he doesn’t then theology is bunk. This one also seems not to die, but it needs to be put down swiftly. It’s a rubbish argument.
It absolutely boggles me that these three arguments get rolled out even on TV programmes by people who are meant to be seriously intellectually committed to this debate. So next time, take these three lines of arugment as read, because atheists are sick of them. They’re lazy, and ignorant, and really really boring to counter. It just eats up time that could be spent debating more interesting issues.

1) “Atheism is intolerant because it sees itself as a neutral position, and wants to remove religion from the public sphere”

Your problem here is just common-a-garden ignorance of basic terminology. What you’re describing there is a natty thing called secularism, which protects people of all denominations by not privileging any. Removing the ten commandments from courts, stopping faith schools getting public funding, campaigning for an end to bishops in the House of Lords – discrimination against Christians? No, it’s stripping away centuries of privilege. Really, for it to be discrimination, you’d have to be losing rights that other people have rather than losing ancient feudal powers resulting from hundreds of years of total cultural dominance. Consider it this way. In a free society you are able to choose to support any of hundreds of political parties, from the Lib Dems to the Monster Raving Loonies, even to the BNP if you really feel the need. So, say the Tories are in power and they decide that from now on they’re going to have 26 Conservatives permanently sitting in Parliament who cannot be unseated, and have all the voting rights of regular MPs. Public outcry would undoubtedly follow, but can you honestly say with a straight face that Tories would have a genuine reason to be offended by this? Do you honestly believe that removing these 26 unelected partisan figures from Parliament would constitute anti-Tory discrimination? Of course you wouldn’t. This is pretty much the situation with the bishops in the Lords and it shouldn’t be acceptable to anyone – not to atheists, not to Christians, not to people of any other faith; it shouldn’t even be acceptable to the bishops themselves, and they’d say so if they weren’t enjoying the extra power.

So to sum up:

  • Atheism: no belief in a God
  • Secularism: not allowing any religious belief or lack thereof to be privileged in government to protect them all. It prevents the passing of laws that restrict the freedom to worship and stop one sect being able to legislate itself into permanent power.

If secularism were the same as atheism, we’d be pushing an atheist agenda instead of one where the state has no opinion on the whole debate. When was the last time you saw a recklessly secularist government pushing for atheism as opposed to just taking away unwarranted privilege?

2) “Atheists say religious belief can make people do evil things, but so can atheism! Just look at Pol Pot/Stalin/Hitler etc”

Fucking hell. This one is buried and rotting the ground and has been for years. It seems like no matter how many times you explain this to people, they just tune it out and keep on repeating it. It’s like a goddamn virus! Let’s put it simply:

  • Atheists: follow their own conscience, aren’t told what to do by a supernatural entity, personally responsible for their own actions
  • Religionists: are given rules that they are not allowed to break by a supernatural entity, which allows the absconding of responsibility to someone else

Dictators like Stalin and Pol Pot did not carry out their atrocities because they were atheists. They did not do them in the name of atheism. They did what every dictator does and dismantled opposing sources of power for their own ends. In many cases the alternative source of power was organised religion, but this was not out of some atheistic imperative to wipe out the religious! Compare this to religious texts, many of which demand blood sacrifice, genocides and all sorts of discrimination. The crusades were carried out in the name of Christianity. The oppression of women and homosexuals in Iran is carried out in the name of Islam. The genital mutilation of millions of babies is carried out continuously in the name of Judaism. Millions of people across the world are HIV positive and will die of AIDS in the next decade because the Catholic Church believes that contraception is sinful.

Here are some stories that have recently been in the news, where awful crimes have been perpetrated and then justified with religious belief, or have been carried out because of religious belief. I see about three of these every day. I challenge you to find similar cases where people have committed crimes in the name of atheism, or because Richard Dawkins told them to.

3) “Your arguments are infantile because you know nothing about theology”

Sorry guys, I know you’ve spent your life studying it, but if you don’t believe in God then theology is a crock. It doesn’t matter how intricate and powerful your ‘discoveries’ might be but to paraphrase PZ Myers: “science doesn’t care”. I could posit the existence of living, breathing Haggises in the wilds of Scotland. I could write books about the quality of their tartan, their mating calls, explanations of how they are able to hide from human eyes due to excellent camouflage. I could describe with pinpoint accuracy their ability to use complex tools, their fondness for water and their average weekly diet. But you know what? If I couldn’t provide even basic evidence that they existed at all then the rest is just bullshit. If you reject a premise because it is entirely unsupported by evidence, then everything you have deduced and developed over the centuries is unsupported too. It all rests on the question of whether God exists or not; if he doesn’t then theology is bunk. This one also seems not to die, but it needs to be put down swiftly. It’s a rubbish argument.

It absolutely boggles me that these three arguments get rolled out even on TV programmes by people who are meant to be seriously intellectually committed to this debate. So next time, take these three lines of arugment as read, because atheists are sick of them. They’re lazy, and ignorant, and really really boring to counter. It just eats up time that could be spent debating more interesting issues.

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  1. #1 by Mike on August 3, 2009 - 13:43

    I can never watch The Big Questions, because of this sort of stuff. I always end up grinding my teeth by the end of the episode and they never give enough time for the discussion to develop.

  2. #2 by AlexMagd on August 3, 2009 - 16:56

    It’s mainly Nicky Campbell’s fault; the guy is not only horrendously biased but he shoots from one person to the next every 30 seconds to get another view in, instead of actually letting debates develop. The show in question is here:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00lyxlm/The_Big_Questions_Series_2_Episode_28/

  3. #3 by Marsh on August 4, 2009 - 00:16

    Dammit, I’m sure I included the iPlayer link when I posted! Cheers for the heads-up Alex – I’ve edited to have it in place now.

  4. #4 by Andy on August 11, 2009 - 00:39

    That’s a great “go to” article for a skeptic, newbie or otherwise. really gets the ball rolling. But I particularly like the writing style. good well reasoned content with plenty of “in your face” vitriol.

  5. #5 by Colonel Molerat on August 20, 2009 - 17:01

    Gosh, Alex, you’d better cut out all of your atheistic religious intolerance and learn some theology, or you’ll end up like Pol Pot, the way you’re going…

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