This past week Be Scofield wrote “5 Things Atheists Have Wrong About Religion” for Tikkun magazine. Even though Scofield makes a few valid points, his article as a whole is yet another work of nonsense and misdirection. The main thrust seems to be making atheists look like intolerant hypocrites despite his claim of seeking “genuine dialogue.” He seems to lack a clear understanding of the arguments/viepoints most commonly expressed by atheists. More tellingly, he does not seems to have much insight into the true nature or philosophical underpinning of religion as an institution. Out of his “5 Things” only one has any real substance, two are misrepresentations (AKA straw men), one is actually a myth of theists, and the final one is essentially true. It may not be pleasant and may even be presented in a somewhat crude manner but nonetheless has basis in reality. Scofield puts his list in descending order so I will do the same.
“5. Liberal and Moderate Religion Justifies Religious Extremism”
Scofield is correct in the assertion that there is no direct link between liberal and moderate religion and the more extremist forms. However, there are indirect links. Many, if not all, of the world’s religions are founded on sacred texts that are open to multiple interpretations. Many passages quite easily loan themselves to violent extremist purposes. Since religions by their nature are highly subjective no sect/denomination/form can claim to be the “true” or “authentic” faith. This is what atheists tend to attack. So long as religion is given a prominent role in society without question it will continue to breed extremism. Liberals and moderates may not intend to support extremism but if they continue to make religion a part of the public rather than private sphere they will in effect be aiding such abhorrent forms of faith.
“4. Religion Requires a Belief in a Supernatural God”
Actually, this is not a myth and atheists certainly don’t get it “wrong”. Scofield lists a number of “non-theists” who are in fact not non-theists. One example, the Deists, had been theists who happened to believe in a very specific and non-conventional form of the God concept. By definition, believing in God makes them theists. He also claims versions of the God concept that are “non-supernatural.” There are no such variations. By just about any definition of God it is a supernatural belief. There are no verifiable traits or elements of God within science or naturalism. Even the more atheistic religions contain supernatural elements. Scofield uses Buddhism, among others, as “non-supernatural” examples. The problem with this is that the central figure, Siddartha Guatama AKA “the Buddha”, of the religion is riddled with supernatural themes and mythical events. The basic tenants of the religion are also dependent on the supernatural. I would love to see someone try to explain Nirvana in scientific or naturalist terms.
“3. Religion Causes Bad Behavior”
This one is a rather ignorant and self-serving misrepresentation of a common atheist criticism of religion. Religion does not directly lead to bad behavior. Religion consistently encourages and condones bad behavior. Don’t believe me, look around and pay attention. When the latest spate of sex abuse scandals broke around the Catholic clergy what was the immediate response? Blame homosexuals and secularists. Pope followed up many of the church’s absurd responses with a variety of speeches, one that blamed all the suffering of the world on atheists and secularists. It is also somewhat ironic that Scofield includes a quotation from Hitchens that clearly spells out the position taken by many atheists. It makes me wonder whether he is capable of acknowledging nuances or whether the misrepresentation is intentional. In either case it Scofield who is “wrong.”
“2. Atheists are Anti-Religious”
This section is truly baffling. This is a “myth” held by many theists not atheists. So, how is it that we have it “wrong”? There are, of course, atheists who are hostile to religion but I am unaware of any atheists automatically assuming they have to be “anti-religious” in order to be considered atheists. I also know plenty of people who believe in God, therefore theists, that do not care for organized religion.
“1. All Religions are the Same and are ‘Equally Crazy’”
No one ever said that the truth has to be pleasant. All religions are loaded with all manner of supernatural silliness. There is not one that does not insist on being true regardless of lacking even a shred of objective proof. They all have and continue to make absurd claims about reality and then get upset when anyone has the nerve to challenge such claims. All tend to attempt to insulate themselves from intellectual critique. It is certainly true that if an individual tried to make the same type of claims that religions do the general public would rather quickly label them “crazy.” From this perspective how is it that religion should not be deemed crazy? It should also be pointed out that Scofield talks about conflating different ideas but here Scofield seems to be conflating individuals with institutions. He makes another odd reference to a fairly well known atheist, Greta Christina. Her article is rather clear about judging all religions equally and not confusing individuals with the groups to which they belong. It is another example where I cannot tell if he misunderstands or is intentionally misrepresenting the ideas and works of atheists.
Side note: As I finished typing up my thoughts on this article I noticed that PZ Myers has responded to it. I strongly encourage anyone with an interest to check it out. He is definitely more articulate than I am.