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Friday, January 16, 2015

Myths of the Non-Religious

I prefer the term "non-religous," because it is accurate and describes various kinds of atheism, agnosticism, and secular humanism, without committing any individual to any particular position within this spectrum. Here are some myths about us.

1. We lack religious education.

Many of us have had extensive religious upbringings, and have wide knowledge of a diverse number of traditions other than our own. The non-religious tend to be better educated, on average. That is to say, a higher proportion of better educated people are non-religious. Being non-religious is often a conscious choice, involving extensive study of religion.

2. Our ethical shortcomings derive from our lack of religiosity.

We do have ethical shortcomings, like everyone else. It makes no sense to attribute these shortcomings to a lack of religion, or to attribute the flaws in religious people to their religion. In fact, one of the most frightening things is not that religion causes wars and other horrific things (which it does, by the way), but that in many cases it makes no difference. In other words, imagine the front in WWI, with French and British and German and Austrian soldiers shooting at each other. Some are Protestant, some Catholic, others Jewish. It is not a religious war, but religion has done nothing to alter it either. The non-religious and the religious soldier act exactly the same.

3. We worship science.

Some of us are scientists. I happen not to be. I do accept scientific conclusions when my layman's knowledge of them leads me to believe they are are well supported. Some non-religious people are scientifically ignorant or ill-informed. Some have a very basic understanding of some parts of science, but are still pretty much ignorant (like me). Scientists nowadays are highly specialized and don't have detailed knowledge of other highly specialized sub-areas of research either.

4. Lack of religion is the main motivating factor in our lives.

No. It could be for some, especially if one's lack of religiosity is recent and hard won. For the deeply religious, it is hard to imagine not being motivated by religion, hence the assumption (on their part) that a lack of religion is equally motivating.

5. We are hedonists.

This one is true, I have to confess. Non-religious people live for life's pleasures. Fine foods and wines, sex. Few of us are ascetic hermits. In this respect, we are profoundly different from religious people.

6...but we lack aesthetic sensibility and our lives have no meaning.

Since we see reality as a bunch of atoms swirling around, we cannot appreciate Picasso or Bach. This one is obviously true: there are no agnostics in concert hall and museums. Also, our lives are meaningless. We derive no meaning or satisfaction from personal and family relationships, political activities, hobbies, or work. Sarcasm aside, I don't happen to believe in MEANING in the cartoon version of the hermit on the mountain top, who knows the the meaning of life.

7. We are an organized group with leaders.

While I appreciate that some people have written popular atheism books, I haven't read much of that literature, and have varying opinions about the cogency of their arguments. My non-religion precedes the boom of popular atheism books. There are organizations of the non-religious, but I don't happen to belong to any of them.

8. We are obnoxious.

This is also very true. Our very existence is obnoxious to those who can't understand our lack of religiosity. If we speak out and make our existence known, this is also obnoxious. If we go so far as to criticize religion, in any way, then our obnoxiousness grows, by just that much. If we take a strident tone in this criticism, then we even more obnoxious (and so on).

9. We are misogynists.

Ok, you got me again. Non-religious people hate women. The cat is out of the bag. Seriously, though, this is a case where religion or its lack is not a determining factor. Religious liberals support equal rights for women, religious conservatives do not. Virtually all Abrahamic religions have been profoundly and unapologetically patriarchal until about half an hour ago, and some still are. If your church is progressive on all gender and sexuality issues, great for you. You should realize that it only became that way because of rising secularism. In fact, your moderate religion is only moderate because it supports liberté, égalité, and fraternité.

But you're getting me off track here. Non-religious people are as misogynist as they would be if they were religious, and for the same reasons. Suppose a socially awkward scientist tries to pick up a woman at an atheist convention and makes her uncomfortable, that's because he is inept, not because he doesn't happen to go to church.


Anonymous said...

Organized atheism in the US has a strong history of misogyny (which you can see unfold in the histories of pharyngula and other related blogs, or just by googling Rebecca Watson and following those trails).

Non-misogynist atheists tend not to join those organizations, and the organizations seem pretty similar to dogmatic religions in any case (similar to organized skepticism, with whom they have overlaps-- not actually skeptical or following the scientific method).

Jonathan said...

Organized religion in the US and everywhere else has a strong history of misogyny.

You don't even need to google this, because everyone knows this. The difference is that there is no logical connection between lack of religion and misogyny. Rebecca herself is a skeptic. Religion is misogynist in its actual doctrines, and only changed from that because of all that good enlightenment thinking.

I have never belonged to an organization of that type, and the post was not about that, except when I mentioned this as one of the myths: that nonbelievers have leaders and belong to such groups. In fact, most non-believers do not belong. Many are women as well.