Atheism and Diversity: Is It Wrong For Atheists To Persuade Believers?

This piece was originally published on AlterNet.

Do atheists hate diversity?

Is the very act of atheist activism — the act of trying to persuade people that atheism is correct, the act of working to change the world into one without religion — is this an act of attempted conformity? Are atheists trying to create a drab, gray, uniform world, where everyone else is just like them?

It’s probably pretty obvious that I think the answer is a big fat “No!” (Probably said in the Ted Stevens voice.) But it certainly is the case that many atheist activists — myself among them — are working very hard indeed to persuade religious believers out of their beliefs. Not all atheists do this, of course; many have the more modest goals of religious tolerance and separation of church and state, including tolerance of atheists and recognition of us as equal citizens. But a good number of atheists are, in fact, trying to convince religious believers to become atheists. I’m one of them.

And since many believers see this as an intolerant attempt to enforce conformity — particularly believers of the progressive, ecumenical, “all religions perceive God in their own way and we have to respect them all” stripe — I want to take a moment to address it.

The Intolerant Bigotry of the Germ Theory

Probably no god
If there’s one single idea I’d most like to get across to religious believers, it would not be, “There is no God.” Or even, “There is probably no God.” I want believers to reach that conclusion on their own. Upon being awestruck by my brilliant arguments, of course… but ultimately on their own, after thinking it through, after looking at the reasons for belief and the reasons for atheism, and finally concluding that atheism makes more sense and is more consistent with what we know about the world. I don’t want people to stop believing in God just because I say so.

If there’s one single idea I’d most like to get across to religious believers, it would be this:

God failed hypothesis
Religion is a hypothesis.

Religion is a hypothesis about how the world works, and why it is the way it is. Religion is the hypothesis that the world is the way it is, at least in part, because of immaterial beings or forces that act on the material world.

Religion is many other things, of course. It’s communities, cultural traditions, political ideologies, philosophies. But those things aren’t what make religion unique. What makes religion unique, among all other communities/ philosophies/ etc., is this hypothesis of an immaterial world acting on the material one. It’s thousands of different hypotheses, really, positing thousands of immaterial beings and/or forces, with thousands upon thousands of different qualities and temperaments. But all these diverse beliefs have this one hypothesis in common: the hypothesis that there is a supernatural world, and that the natural world is the way it is because of the supernatural one.

Religion is not a subjective opinion, or an ethical axiom, or a personal perspective. (These things can be connected with it, of course, but they’re not what make its unique core.) Opinions and axioms and personal perspectives can be debated — but ultimately, they’re up to each person to decide for themselves. Religion is none of these things. Religion is a hypothesis. It says, “Things are the way they are because of the effects of the immaterial world on the material one.” Things are the way they are because God made them that way. Because the Devil is making them that way. Because the World-Soul is evolving that way. Because we have spiritual energy animating our consciousness. Because guardian angels are watching us. Because witches are casting spells. Because we are the reincarnated souls of dead people. Whatever.

Seeing religion as a hypothesis is important for a lot of reasons. But the reason that’s most relevant to today’s topic:

If religion is a hypothesis, it is not hostile to diversity for atheists to oppose it.

It is no more hostile to diversity to oppose the religion hypothesis than it is to oppose the hypothesis that global warming is a hoax. The hypothesis that an unrestricted free market will cause the economy to flourish for everyone. The hypothesis that illness is caused by an imbalance in the four bodily humours. The hypothesis that the sun orbits the earth.

Arguing against hypotheses that aren’t supported by the evidence… that’s not anti-diversity. That’s how we understand the world better. We understand the world by rigorously gathering and analyzing evidence… and by ruthlessly rejecting any hypothesis that the evidence doesn’t support. Was it hostile to diversity for Pasteur to argue against the theory of spontaneous generation? For Georges Lemaitre to argue against the steady-state universe? For Galileo to argue against geocentrism?

And if not — then why is it hostile to diversity for atheists to argue against the hypothesis of God and the supernatural world?

How is it any more anti-diversity for atheists to argue against religion, and to try to persuade other people to change their minds about it, than it is for anyone to argue their case against any other hypothesis, on any other topic?

Now. Many believers will argue that religion doesn’t fall into these categories. They’ll argue that religion can’t be proven true or false with 100% certainty… and that therefore, it’s reasonable for people to believe in any religion that appeals to them. (And that it’s unreasonable for anyone to make an argument against it.)

But… well, for one thing, that’s not entirely true. Many religions, from young-earth creationism to astrology, do make testable claims. And every single time those claims have been rigorously tested, they’ve folded like a house of cards in a hurricane. They can’t be disproven with 100% certainty… but almost nothing can, and that’s not the standard of evidence we use for any other claim.

Much more to the point, though:

When you start seeing religion as a hypothesis?

The fact that it’s unverifiable suddenly stops being a defense.

In fact, it’s completely the opposite. The fact that religion is unverifiable becomes one of the most devastating arguments against it.

Popper- Logic of Scientific Discovery
One of the most important things about a hypothesis is that it has to be falsifiable. If any possible evidence could be used to support a hypothesis — if your hypothesis will be shown to be true whether the water in the beaker gets hotter, gets colder, stays the same temperature, boils away instantly, turns into a parrot and flies out the door — it is an utterly useless hypothesis. If any event at all can be fitted into it, then it has no power whatsoever to explain past events, or predict future outcomes. It is, as they say, not even wrong.

And that’s just as true of religion as any other hypothesis. If any outcome of, for instance, an illness — recovering dramatically for no apparent reason, getting gradually better with medical intervention, getting worse, staying the same indefinitely, dying — could be explained as God’s work… then the God hypothesis is useless. It has no power to explain the world, or to predict the future, or to tell us how our behavior will affect the outcomes of our lives. It serves no purpose. (Except, perhaps, psychological ones.)

The fact that religion is unfalsifiable doesn’t mean we have to accept it as a reasonable possibility. It means the exact opposite. It means we should reject it wholesale.

And it is not anti-diversity for atheists to point this out. Any more than it’s anti-diversity to point out how any other hypothesis is unfalsifiable, or unsupported by evidence, or directly contradicted by evidence, or in any other way mistaken and flawed.

A New Model for Diversity

I know that a lot of people will still have problems with atheist activism. Even if they know in their minds that atheist activism is fair and reasonable, they still have a strong, instinctive reaction against it. For a lot of people, it just seems like religious intolerance to say, “Your religion is wrong, and I think you should change your mind about it.”

And I think the problem comes from how we think of diversity.

Historically, we pretty much have two models of dealing with religious beliefs that are different from ours. We have (a) intolerant evangelism and theocracy — forcing religious beliefs down other people’s throats, through social pressure at best, through legal strictures and even violence at worst. And we have (b) uncritical ecumenicalism: the idea that all religions are at least a little bit true, that they’re all part of a rich, beautiful spiritual tapestry, that they’re all perceiving one little piece of the truth about God… and that even if they’re not, it’s intolerant religious bigotry to criticize them or try to persuade people out of them. It’s a model created largely in response to intolerant evangelism and theocracy… and therefore, it’s a model in which any criticism of any religion automatically gets slotted into that ugly category.

Atheism is offering a third option.

We’re offering the option of respecting the important freedom of religious belief… while retaining the right to criticize those beliefs, and to treat them just like we’d treat any other idea we think is mistaken.

The atheist movement is passionate about the right to religious freedom. (With the notable exception of a few assholes on the Internet. Name me one movement that doesn’t have its share of assholes on the Internet.) We fully support people’s right to believe whatever the hell they want, as long as they keep it out of government and don’t shove it down other people’s throats. We see the right to think what we like as a basic foundation of human ethics, one of the most fundamental rights we have — and we have no desire whatsoever to overturn that.

Yet at the same time, we see the right to free thought and free expression as including the right to criticize other people’s thoughts and forms of expression. We passionately defend people’s right to believe what they want… but we defend with equal passion our right to think what we want about those beliefs, and to say so in the public square. We express our disagreement in a variety of ways — some more polite and respectful, some more insulting and mocking — but we damn sure think we have the right to express it.

And we see no reason to treat religion with any more deference than any other idea. We see religion as — yes, you guessed it — a hypothesis about the world. We see it as a hypothesis that has never once in all of human history been shown to be correct. We see it as a hypothesis that at the very least has been falsified numerous times, and at worst is unfalsifiable and should be therefore rejected on that basis alone. And we see no reason to treat it any differently from any other deeply flawed, completely unsupported hypothesis. We see no reason not to criticize it, to ask hard questions about it, to make fun of it, to point out flaws in it, to point out the good evidence contradicting it and the utter lack of good evidence supporting it… and to do our damndest to persuade people out of it.

Most atheists would probably be okay with a world that included religion, as long as it was tolerant of other beliefs and stayed the hell out of government. (Some of us are skeptical about whether this is possible… but we’d be okay with it.) Many of us even enjoy some of the rituals and traditions of religion, as long as they don’t involve actual religious belief (a la secular Judaism). But yes, many atheist activists would like humanity to eventually give up on religion. We think religion is a mistaken idea about the world. We think we can make a good case for that position. We think it’s entirely reasonable to try to persuade people that we’re right.

And this is not an attack on diversity.

It is a defense of reality.

Atheism and Diversity: Is It Wrong For Atheists To Persuade Believers?
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11 thoughts on “Atheism and Diversity: Is It Wrong For Atheists To Persuade Believers?

  1. 1

    I concluded one of my classes yesterday with what turned into a sappy love-letter to life. I had spent the year teaching them a different way of looking at the world than they had gotten from any other class (or so they tell me); included in this was one very simple, yet monumental difference (one that biologists should have no problem with, but I have not actually seen any data on it), namely that it does not benefit us to look at the world in terms of “averages” (or, relatedly, prototypes) and “deviation” from those examples, but rather as dynamic populations where variability is every bit as important as central tendency.
    At one point early in the semester, a student had argued “there’s no such thing as perfect”. In this closing, I saw her nodding and smiling when I said “anyone who says there is no such thing as perfect, has never had a baby. All babies are perfect.”… of course, I did allow that a good many parents may not agree, and that their reaction was part of the variability that makes up the spectrum of life.
    I have been called “the most spiritual person I have ever met” by more than one person… I always disagree. “Spirituality”, and all our religious terms, come from this hypothesis you speak of, an attempt to explain the universe before we even had the slightest inkling of how incredibly vast the universe really is, and how infinitesimally it can be observed. All the religious vocabulary of wonder and awe pale in comparison to the Hubble pictures, or scanning electron micrographs, or (let’s face it) a newborn baby or a first kiss. I am not spiritual, because the world is, the universe is, every person is, much much more magnificent than a mere word like “heavenly” can fit. God is much too small. Heaven is much too small. Reality can hold thousands of gods, quite comfortably, and decide to dismiss them at will. Now *that’s* power.
    This was supposed to be a short comment. I think your writing style is contagious. I hope so.

  2. vel

    I am one of those atheists would like to see religion removed from the world. My reason is that religion is riddled with lies and hypocrisy, to the point I find that one cannnot exist without the others. Those two things are to always be fought against and we have examples in the extreme: the hypocritical creationist who willfully spreads lies about science and insists that his myth is “true” but uses all the modern conveniences made by the same science he decrys; the theist who is so sure that his “god” is the true one and that anyone who disagrees is a liar and less than human but has no evidence to show himself not just as much a liar.

  3. 3

    Wow, Greta, I *am* impressed — you got Cuttlefish to write a comment in prose! ;^D
    Seriously, this is an awesomely written article. My only concern is that it may be addressing an argument that seldom, if ever, is presented against us; I, for one, have never heard a religious person complain that atheists were “anti-diversity” (only that we were anti-God, anti-morality, Antichrists, and so on).
    However, by approaching the issue as one of diversity, you manage to address the complaints about atheism from all the various shades and hues of religion in a unified fashion that works for all of them, so it also works for addressing the complaints about atheism from each of them. That’s what I call efficiency.
    Also, there’s a lot about social diversity that has nothing to do with religion, but derives from other aspects of various cultures (sometimes entangled with religion, but not necessarily inextricably so); an all-atheistic world would be no less culturally diverse than an all-Christian world (and probably more, since it would not have all the superstitious hangups demanding conformity that religion, not atheism, tends to promote — as shown by the fight for full civil rights for GLBTs, to name just one example).
    ~David D.G.

  4. 4
    When people talk about “defending diversity” it sometimes helps to highlight just what that means.
    Now that story isn’t about religion, instead it is about a cultural practice which is disgusting, but the same principle applies.
    We can’t criticise that while championing cultural diversity – we want that practice to be changed, and the culture which led to it has to change too.
    And consider this, the defenders of culture argue that the actual cultural practice is kidnapping a woman and holding her prisoner until she finally agrees to get married.
    As opposed to selling children into what amounts to sex slavery.
    Does that leave us with a case of “Oh, well that’s all right then”? No. It doesn’t. It really, really doesn’t.
    If something is wrong we can’t just say “DIVERSITY!” and that ends the arguement. Otherwise we end up saying “DIVERSITY!” to some pretty nasty stuff.
    And the exact same thing applies to the religious. You cannot hide your religion behind diversity because when you get right down to it, being different doesn’t stop you from being wrong.
    And what actually matters at the end of the day is not some rich tapestry of opinions each maintained distinct and inviolate. What matters is “Is this right?”

  5. 5

    Based on this theory, should we all just make up our own personal gods & mythologies, instead of adopting the ones that are already popular? Then things would be really diverse…

  6. 6

    I’m not into religion in the “organised” sense – dogma, that is. But my faith is something that’s verifiable BY ME, in my heart, my mind. It’s what I live by, and I am not impressed by anyone – atheist or hardline religionist – telling me that my experiences are wrong and theirs are right. I’ve been agnostic-verging-on-atheist. I am now probably roughly definable as spiritualist, for want of a better term. I live my reality and it’s a damn sight happier and more fulfilling than the way I felt before. The type of atheists who dismiss it as “woo woo” or prattle about unicorns and so on are just as closed-minded as fundamentalist “be born again or burn in hell” Christians. I know they’re not representative in either case – blogland does tend to attract extremes – but I don’t have much use for conversionists of any stripe.

  7. 7

    I liked your article. You made one statement though that is hard for me to understand: “We see it as a hypothesis that at the very least has been falsified numerous times, and at worst is unfalsifiable and should be therefore rejected on that basis alone.” Since religion has been falsified a bunch of times, doesn’t that mean it IS Falsifiable. Just because people continuing believing in it does not make it unfalsifiable. Just as vaccine-deniers and creationists continue holding to their beliefs does not mean their respective hypotheses are unfalsifiable. It simply means people can’t accept the reality and cling to their beliefs most likely due to the confirmation bias. But otherwise it was a great article and it’s certainly fine for us atheists to stir the religious pot every now and then.

  8. 8

    Since religion has been falsified a bunch of times, doesn’t that mean it IS Falsifiable.

    It depends on the belief. Some religious beliefs are falsifiable, and have been falsified — such as all of life and the Universe being brought into existence 6,000 years ago over the course of six days. Other religious beliefs are not falsifiable — such as the deistic god who created the universe and set it into motion but has never since intervened in it in any way.
    The beliefs that are unfalsifiable should be rejected because they are unfalsifiable. The beliefs that are falsifiable should be rejected because… well, they’ve been falsified.

  9. 9

    While there are many times when I want to grab a believer by the shoulders and shake their beliefs out of them, I have a hard time letting myself be okay with persuading other people to think what I think. While I obviously think that atheism is the right way, I hate it when people of other faiths try to convince me to think how they think. It’s a “Do as you would be done by” dilemma. I can’t make myself do something that I would hate having others do to me. Sure, I have debates with people of all religions, and I present them with my ideas and facts, but at the end of the day I have a hard time telling someone to their face that I think they’re wrong.

  10. 11

    All persuasion is a numbers thing. The numbers are not in our favor when we deal with the religious, because we are dealing with memes that were imprinted before the person was capable of reason and thoughtful discrimination, and before they were even able to know that another possibility exists.

    So, the only way you will EVER get a reasonable percentage of offspring of the religious to “devert” – other than the token few outliers who were probably on the edge of losing faith when they talked with you – is to take children away from their parents and religious relatives until they’ve achieved an age and level of education that permits a proper choice.

    That’s actually happening in places where the State intrudes earlier and earlier in childhood, with pre-pre-school and state-sponsored daycare, etc.

    So, in that sense there’s hope that the religion problem could eventually take care of itself.

    UNfortunately, … well… it’s the state. Indoctrinating passive little tax-paying robots. It’s not religion-religion, but it’s a big-brother substitute religion. Whether we like it or not, it won’t be all that long before we find out if it’s better than having kids forcibly indoctrinated into religious belief.

    As the saying famously goes: “Give me the child before age 7, and I’ll give you the man [or woman].” Truer words…

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