Tuesday, September 04, 2007

John Humphrys - "Angry Agnostic" Spreads Misinformation About Atheists

reposted from Atheist Revolution

Monday, September 03, 2007

If you haven't yet heard about John Humphrys' new book, In God We Doubt, you will soon enough. This book is going to generate considerable discussion throughout the secular community. You see, Humphrys has decided to attack both believers and those mythical "militant atheists." Not surprisingly, he seems to have little idea what atheism means or what atheists believe (and do not believe) about religion.

The following is based on an excerpt of Humphrys' book printed in TimesOnline.

After recounting his unsuccessful quest to find a religion he could accept, Humphrys tries to make a case for agnosticism, or at least for the existence of agnostics:

What surprised me is how many think of themselves as neither believers nor atheists but doubters. They, too, are sincere. Devout sceptics (sic), if you like. And many of them feel beleaguered. I’m with them. SINCE starting to write my book, I have fallen into the habit of asking almost everyone I meet if they believe in God. And here’s the interesting thing: it was only the atheists who seemed absolutely certain.
This reflects the common misconception about the meaning of atheism we encounter time and time again. A theist is one who believes in some sort of god or gods. One who does not share this belief is an atheist. The people Humphrys wants to call agnostics are atheists who are reluctant to accept the label of atheism. Why? Because they do not say "yes" when asked whether they believe in any gods. By saying, "I'm not sure," they disqualify themselves from being theists. If they are unsure, then they do not believe in any gods and are thus atheists. It is not necessary to add the nonsensical step of requiring them to believe that no gods exist any more than it would be to differentiate between persons who (1) believe that unicorns exist, (2) do not believe that unicorns exist, and (3) believe that no unicorns exist.

Humphrys then provides us with seven erroneous stereotypes of what "militant atheists" supposedly believe. Never mind that there is no such thing as a militant atheist or that Humphrys has already demonstrated that he does not understand atheism. Here is his attempt to "sum up the attitude of those militant atheists who seem to hold believers in contempt:"
  1. Believers are mostly naive or stupid. Or, at least, they’re not as clever as atheists.
  2. The few clever ones are pathetic because they need a crutch to get them through life.
  3. They are also pathetic because they can’t accept the finality of death.
  4. They have been brainwashed into believing. There is no such thing as a “Christian child”, for instance – just a child whose parents have had her baptised.
  5. They have been bullied into believing.
  6. If we don’t wipe out religious belief by next Thursday week, civilisation as we know it is doomed.
  7. Trust me: I’m an atheist. I make no apology if I have oversimplified their views with that little list: it’s what they do to believers all the time.
After erroneously claiming that we believe these things, Humphrys shows why we are wrong on each point. The problem is, with the exception of a variation of #4, I've never encountered an atheist who believes any of these things.

1. Atheists recognize that most believers are neither naive nor stupid (at least not any more so than the rest of us). We do point out the irrationality of their beliefs, but Michael Shermer has convincingly demonstrated that this has nothing to do with intelligence. We recognize that there are plenty of brilliant believers and stupid atheists out there. It isn't about being clever; it is about allowing one's worldview to be informed by reality.

2-3. Atheists recognize that religious belief serves many different functions in the lives of individual believers. We do not consider believers "pathetic," and while we agree that religion can be a crutch for some people, we do not generalize this to all believers. Many believers meet other needs through religion (e.g., belonging, coherence, etc.). Pascal Boyer certainly recognizes this. It is natural for humans to experience anxiety around death. We do not view believers as "pathetic" for having the same death anxiety we all have. Many of us do view belief in afterlife as wish fulfillment, but this does not make anyone pathetic - it simply reminds us that religion is a human-made tradition.

4. I would not say "brainwashed," but I would say "indoctrinated." Believers have been very honest about the importance of indoctrinating children in their beliefs as early as possible. They recognize that critical thinking is the enemy of faith, and they want to get to the children before critical thinking skills are in place. And yes, there is no such thing as a "Christian child." However, there are many children who are raised Christian, Jewish, Muslim, etc.

5. Bullied? Hardly. Any developmental psychologist will tell you that bullying is far from necessary. The child innately trusts his or her caregivers. This is a necessary survival mechanism. Some form of bullying might become necessary in adolescence, but it is rarely involved in the religion of children.

6. I have never encountered a single atheist who thinks that religion could possibly be eliminated in his or her lifetime, much less within a week. Religion has been with us from the beginning, and it is not going away anytime soon. Besides, most atheists are not interested in doing anything to abolish religion. Rather, we'd like it to retreat to the private sphere where it gradually declines as more and more people discover that their lives are more meaningful without it.

7. If I cannot answer a convincing "yes" to the question of whether god(s) exist, then I am an atheist. That is what atheism means. Does this mean that I must be 100% certain I am right? Of course not! As for atheists having oversimplified views, my experience has been that many atheists are better versed in religion than the average believer. You have to remember, we are the most despised and distrusted minority in America. I think it is safe to say this is not something we do lightly.

Those of us who celebrated the works of Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens, Dennett, Boyer, Shermer, and others knew that it was just a matter of time before we'd have to confront books loaded with misconceptions about atheism and what atheists believe. That time appears to have arrived. Let's be prepared.

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