Monday, September 24, 2007

Why do atheists speak out? This is why.

The post-Dawkins/Harris/Hitchens backlash continues as more petulant Christians come out of the woodwork with their increasingly desperate smears of the character of atheists. Here's a typically asinine screed from some Christian prat writing for some news site in Arkansas. It was so full of perfect bilge that I felt compelled to take off the gloves and haul this little turd out to the woodshed, which I did in the following letter to the editor. It's too long for them to print, surely. My hope is it will be so deliciously ranty that whoever it is on their editorial staff who reads these won't be able to resist forwarding it to the writer, one John Terry. In any case, once your stomach has recovered from reading his twaddle, enjoy my bitchslap which follows.

Having just read John Terry's ignorant and reactionary screed against atheists posted to your website on 9/22, this atheist felt he simply had to respond. I have often pitied people who hold the kinds of blinkered and philistine views Mr. Terry holds. But I am not the sort of person to let his calumnies go unanswered. Hopefully he will find this letter educative and instructive, though I doubt it. The fundamentalist mind is nothing if not hidebound. It is, however, precisely the kinds of views Terry expresses in his editorial that have prompted long-silent atheists to feel motivated to speak out and say "Enough is enough!"

Terry first begins by deriding atheism as a belief in "nothing." Right from the start, in doing so he ensures his entire editorial will be based on false premises and baseless preconceptions of atheists rooted in ignorant stereotypes. Terry, blind to anything but his own indoctrination, asks, "If no God exists, what is there to get passionate about?" Golly about a little thing called real life? Perhaps Terry ought to get off his knees and up on his feet. He'll be able to see reality a lot more clearly from up there.

Atheism is simply the rejection of the belief in deities. The alternative to believing in invisible sky gods is not "nothing," it is everything. It is an appreciation of the beauty and wonder of the natural world as revealed to us by science and reason. As Mr. Terry's religious indoctrination sadly seems to have blinded him to these beauties, one can pity him. But he shouldn't be so arrogant as to assume that those who do not believe in his superstition of choice are de facto nihilistic. As I and other atheists of my acquaintance have discovered, once one emancipates oneself from the shackles of religious dogma, whole new vistas of intellectual wonder open up to you. You are free to question and explore and learn, but most important is what you are freed from: irrational fears.

Terry does say one thing partially right, when he mentions, "Contrary to the apparent belief of atheists, their nonbelief is not a danger to Christianity, nor to individual Christians. Nor does it change the existence of God."

Actually, I don't know of any atheists who consider atheism a "danger" to Christianity, though all atheists do recognize the danger religion poses to rationalism, independence, education, human rights, and peace. Sadly, we understand all too well the degree to which Christianity's dogmas and delusions have become woven into the very fabric of modern culture, and that it will take nothing short of another Enlightenment to turn us away from our present slide into a new Dark Age. Terry is also right in that atheism does not change the existence of God. It simply acknowledges that Terry's God's existence is no more plausible than the existence of Zeus, Thor, Shiva, Amun-Re, or Cthulhu. If Terry wishes me to renounce my atheism and join him in being what he gushingly calls "a child of God," then he ought to offer rational arguments and evidence for this being's existence, rather than spewing supercilious invective and facile emotional appeals. Maybe the fool does say in his heart there is no God....but the wise man says it out loud.

Terry is so ignorant and myopic on the subject of atheism that he offers up examples of perceived problems atheism poses which are simply risible.

First, he seems to think there is something bad about an atheist being left with "no wisdom but his own (except the wisdom of men) and no hope of a life beyond this one." That Terry and believers like him so fear death that they must cling to such a hope is, I suppose, understandable. But part of the process of reaching emotional and intellectual maturity is understanding that life is a finite experience, and that finitude is precisely what makes life precious. It is important to remember here that Terry's entire life has been informed by his indoctrination into one particular set of religious superstitions that enforces its authority over its followers through fear and guilt. Thus it is difficult, if not entirely impossible, for him to comprehend that there are millions of rational nonbelievers in the world who simply aren't wracked by the same existential fears that plague him. In any case, for the atheist, the "problems" Terry thinks we face aren't problems of any kind.

As for relying on the wisdom of men: well, without any proof of a God's existence, why should I rely on anything else? By relying on their own intellect and reasoning, atheists possess the capacity to learn from mistakes, to adapt to new circumstances and be receptive to new knowledge and discoveries. This would seem to me to be a better way to live one's life than to adopt the strident dogmas of a religious belief founded only on wishful thinking and "faith" (a process which seems to be all about the glorification of one's ignorance), buttressed by fear.

If, as Terry implies, it is the God of the Bible whose "wisdom" I should prefer, I confess to being puzzled by the idea that I should consider a being who consigns anyone who does not worship him to his satisfaction to an eternity of agonizing torment as "wise," when my own, pitifully inadequate notions of human wisdom tell me that a being like that is by definition a horrendously wicked and evil tyrant. Any God who refuses to make his existence unambiguously clear, and then is willing to consign individuals to eternal torture simply for doubting his existence, can only be unutterably evil, and the fact that Christians think that such a God is a paragon of all that is good is a view that quite simply perverts any meaning the notion of "goodness" could possibly have. For a Christian to hold such a view and still think he is "better off than the atheist" reveals the intellectually and morally corrupting force of Christian "faith" more powerfully than any atheist critique ever could.

Second, Terry laughably asserts that "the atheist may be able to persuade others (I knew of one situation like this where an older man concentrated on young people) that his unbelief is really true. This might consign those he persuaded to the same fate that is in store for him." What fate is this, I wonder? The Christian "hell," a concept that — as I have explained in detail above — could only be the creation of a morally bankrupt and evil belief system that seeks to ensure compliance through terror and intimidation because it lacks actual facts to support it? If this is what Terry means, then color me unimpressed. Threatening atheists with punishments that do not exist does not, to put it mildly, carry a lot of weight, and if anything, simply confirms what we already know to be religion's most egregious moral failings. To stifle free inquiry and a person's curiosity and sense of discovery by telling them that rejection of the received dogmas is punishable by damnation is perhaps Christianity's most loathsome crime against humanity. However, if, as Terry asserts, I can persuade someone that nonbelief is the way to go, then I can only be happy that I've done my part, however small, in helping someone liberate themselves from superstition's crippling shackles.

Finally, Terry makes an assertion that is simply dispicable. He implies that, lacking belief in God somehow means atheists all somehow think they are their own gods, and thus "without restraint, he may become a pedophile, a murderer, a thief, or any other kind of a deviant you can think of. Or he might just become one who lives inward, with no concern for the people or things around him. There are tragic examples of such people."

How dare you, sir?

MAY I remind you that the most recent pedophilia scandal to shock the world was not perpetrated by atheists, but by the Catholic Church? MAY I remind you that the people who crashed airplanes into buildings were not atheists, but fanatical Moslems? MAY I remind you that virtually all racist hate groups operating in the United States today are religious in focus, from the KKK all the way down to such groups as the "World Church of the Creator"? As for atheists as people turning "inward, with no concern for the people or things around him," who are these people? Who are the "tragic examples" that you claim to have heard of? Since, by your own admission, you say you have only known "no more than two dozen" atheists, how can you possibly feel justified in smearing the character of hundreds of millions of atheists worldwide, in particular smearing them by accusing them of the very crimes that have famously been committed in recent years by the religious?

I'll tell you how you can feel justified in doing it. Your beliefs are misanthropic and divisive. Religion enables hate by convincing one group of people that, because they are the devoted followers of such-and-such an invisible sky fairy, that all non-followers of said being are by definition evil, and must be viewed with suspicion, dread and loathing. The nonstop invective against atheists you spew in your article is a testament to such brainwashing. You don't know any atheists, you say (except for a small handful against whose disbelief you lamely shield yourself by flattering yourself that they're really believers who just won't admit it), but somehow you know we're all "deviants". Gee, thanks very much. That must be some of that "Christian love" I keep hearing about.

Terry's pomposity and arrogance know no bounds. He stupidly asserts that "unless the avowed atheist is prepared to account for the universe, for man in all of his complexities, and life in general, he certainly is not prepared to declare that 'there is no God,'" while completely overlooking the fact that he is in no position to declare that there is a God unless he is able to account for that God...and account for it with hard, independently verifiable and testable evidence, not just a string of Bible quotes. Remember, just because there are certain questions that science has yet to answer does not mean the religionist is justified in slapping down "Goddidit" as the all-purpose default "explanation". An explanation that has no explanatory power is no explanation at all.

Terry here is simply committing the common logical fallacy of "shifting the burden of proof." Despite what he thinks, it is not my responsibility to demonstrate to him that his deity of choice does not exist. It is his responsibility to demonstrate to me that it does. If he fails to do so, I will continue to refrain from believing in this being, just as I refrain from believing in Zeus, Thor, Set, et al.

Remember, the only claim atheism makes is that we do not believe in a God. Every time a believer asserts there is a God, and fails to meet his burden of proof, the atheist successfully meets his. In point of fact, science actually does offer a great deal of what Terry says atheists must offer as explanations — though I suspect that, as a religious fundamentalist, Terry reflexively rejects most modern science. Still, there is much left to learn, and the joy of learning, much less the freedom to learn, is one of the greatest benefits from living the rational, secular life, away from the simple-minded catch-all non-answers of religious dogma.

One difference I can say with confidence I have observed between atheists who are scientifically-minded and religious fundamentalists is that the atheists almost always have a passion for knowledge and a profound degree of dedication to understanding the truth about the world as the discoveries of science can reveal it, while the more religious a person is, the less intellectual curiosity about the world they generally have, smugly satisfied that their ancient holy book has it all figured out for them.

This is painfully evident all throughout Terry's editorial. Nowhere in the piece does Terry give atheists any indication that being as devout a Christian as he is does anything to satisfy intellectual curiosity and provide a fulfilling understanding of life and the world we live in. However, Terry's editorial does show a surfeit of smarmy, egoistic preening. Terry's Christianity may not tell him anything meaningful about the real world, but it allows him to puff himself up and declare himself a superior breed of human to all of those "deviant" atheists, and that's all he requires from it. Thanks, but I'd rather be a proud adherent to rational, secular philosophies that encourage my intellectual growth, than to a shallow superstition that acts as a band-aid to my insecurity by letting me say "Nyah nyah, I'm better than you."

As for Christians being the only people who help others, well, this is simply more snide self-flattery on Terry's part. He does not know me, but if he did, he would know of all of the charitable work I have done in my life (in terms of both money and personal time donated), how I have gone out of my way to be supportive of my friends and a good and productive member of my community. The atheist organization to which I've belonged for years does regular charitable works, inculding highway cleanup and participating in blood drives.

As Terry clearly does not wish to be disabused of his anti-atheist bigotry, then if he did know about atheists doing those things, he would probably make up some twaddle about how this shows we're all really godly people at heart, or something. I have news for Terry. A truly moral and philanthropic person does not engage in charity and acts of helpful human kindness simply because one hopes for a bright, shiny reward from one's sky-father. One does so because virtue is its own reward. The smile on someone's face I see when I have helped them at a time they could not help themselves is all the reward I need. And it is so much more meaningful than the reward Terry imagines his God will bestow upon him in some dreamed-of afterlife. Because, unlike the promises of Christianity, a person's smile is real.

I feel highly confident that I am not "misguided in my thinking" to hold these views, any more than I am "misguided" not to believe in invisible sky gods. If Terry still thinks I am misguided, then he is welcome to persuade me. However, on the slim chance he reads this, I must advise him that the way to persuade me will be through strong arguments which apply rigorous standards of evidence, and not pitiful, self-aggrandizing cheap shots and empty rhetoric that do little to prove Terry's points to the thinking skeptic, though they certainly seem to do much to shore up Terry's ego. I can imagine, what with all of us "deviant" atheists finally willing to come out and stand up to the ignorance and sanctimonious posturing of the religious, Terry's ego needs a lot of shoring.


  1. Hear hear...

    That is so good I wish I had written it.

  2. Such lovely prose. I'm pleased we're on the same team. :)

  3. "without restraint, he may become a pedophile, a murderer, a thief, or any other kind of a deviant you can think of." Because athiests apparently don't believe in going to jail.
    Good Post!

  4. Great response. Unfortunately I think it would go straight over his head. These faith-heads are indoctrinated to the point where thought is no longer necessary.

  5. Blood drives? I bet you drink the blood of good Christians, you nasty atheist, you.

    Well done. I like the bit about virtue being it's own reward. Not long ago I was approached in a minimart parking lot by a woman and her daughter who were struggling with a flat tire. It was dark, cold, raining AND they had jacked the car up incorrectly and were trying to loosen the lug nuts while the car was jacked. Yikes. I was late for an appointment, but changed the tire for them, getting soaked in the process. But they were so relieved to be mobile again that they offered me money. I declined, saying simply that I was happy to help.

    Even though I was soaked, had gotten my pants filthy, and was late for my appointment, I had made someone's life a little less crappy that night. I felt great. I helped someone. I am an atheist.

    Screw you, Pastor Terry.

  6. Maybe the fool does say in his heart there is no God....but the wise man says it out loud.

    Oh! My! Dog! The whole thing was great but this line in particular is just perfect.

    You probably won't change that poor guy's mind but if nothing else you definitely put a smile on my face. Thank you.

  7. Excellent post. Better than PZ and Revere. I emailed John Terry the text of your post and the URL, inviting him to join the discussion. I wanted to be sure he didn't miss it. If you object, I apologize.

  8. Well said. Well said indeed. A more thorough deconstruction of ignorance I have not seen in a while. I'd been planning to write something in response to that particular article, but I think you've said it all.

  9. NAL: No objection whatsoever. We'll see if Mr. Terry hides behind his pulpit or not.

  10. Well said.
    can I print this out and carry it around as a reference?

  11. Very good.

    I also did a post featured on my own blog Exercise in Futility and cross-posted at God Is For Suckers and I e-mailed it to Mr. Terry.

    First I would print one or two paragraphs of his column, then I would respond to it, then post the next part of his column, and then I would respond to that.

    Thus far he has not e-mailed me back nor posted a response on my blog. I think he is in a state of shock from all the irate responses he got from those of us in the atheist blogosphere. Keep up the good work!

  12. What a typical atheist response...

    ...intelligent, articulate, reasonable, and yes Rev Terry, passionate.

    Briefly about me: When I am not molesting children, robbing or murdering (OK, I want to know who leaked our club's secret agenda to Rev Terry!), I work as an occupational therapist in a rehab hospital. I chose this profession because of the pure, ingenuous joy I experience daily in seeing a person's life get a little bit better as a result of my work. The thanks I get from patients and their family members brings me a joy that far surpasses anything I experienced religiously as a xtian (tainted, as you pointed out, by the expectation of nirvana brownie points or the command of an invisible sky daddy.)

    In my spare time, I paint and draw--two things I am very passionate about.

    All this I manage to do, while still "believing in nothing."

  13. Congratulations. Excellent response that will probably fall on deaf ears, I hope they publish it.

  14. Fantastic post! I truly hope Terry and other fundamentalist bigots read it! I was reading this clenching my fist thinking "Yeah! Take that! Get in there!"

    There's nothing better than seeing an ignorant arrogant fundie getting, for want of a better expression, his arse handed to him on a plate.

  15. "As for relying on the wisdom of men:"

    You neglected to point out that all religions require that the faithful rely on the unwisdom of men.

    Good post, good points.

    Was it published?

  16. I LOVE you, man!
    That was the best diatribe i've read in a looooong time!

  17. What is it about logic that creates so much fear in the theist? I may never know the answer to that, but an even more puzzling problem is why they seem to be so good at logical fallacies.

  18. Why not condense it to a few salient sentences so that the editors could print it?

    If you condense your point to something brief and cogent enough to print and your response does make it to print, in a small but effective way, it gets a real (not strawman) atheist viewpoint some column inches.

    You have a voice; use it effectively so it can be heard.

  19. Well, considering how widely read and praised this post has become, I think it's been very effective. I wasn't so much concerned that the Arkansas paper's site publish my response as a LOC so much as I was hoping someone on their staff might forward the email to Terry himself. Maybe they did, maybe they didn't. But so far, three other letters to the editor castigating Terry have been published by them, so other folks are ably responding over there.

    My intent was always to take Terry's blather apart piece by piece in exhaustive detail, the better to illuminate just how wrong-headed and stupid he is. It's almost always the case that a little bit of bullshit takes a lot of detergent to wash out...and in the case of Terry's piece, it wasn't just a little bit of bullshit. That I've reached hundreds of other atheists with my rebuttal, and inspired many of them to respond to Terry themselves and be more diligent in general about the presence of ignorant scum like him out there, is good enough for me.

  20. You may notice that Terry says: "[Atheists] might just become one who lives inward, with no concern for the people or things around him."

    This is one of the dangers of atheism.

    Theists, on the other hand, devote their entire lives to God, and will never be distracted by the petty dealings of people around them. What the world around them is like is of no concern, since it's temporary and quite brief in duration. Other people around them are important only to the extent that they accept Christianity; if they do, your only concern for them is to make sure they don't doubt it, and if they don't, your only concern for them is to make them convert at any cost. After all, this life is quite short and eternity is forever; the only thing that matters in this life is whether you're a Christian or not.

    That's why theism is clearly better than atheism.

    (I'd originally intended to point this out as something you should have covered in your own post, but your blog doesn't allow anonymous comments and I don't like to go out of character as O'Brien.)

  21. Jeez, Martin! Look at this thread! Way to go!

  22. While there was certainly much truth to your response to the disturbingly close-minded pastor's editorial, I'm afraid I disagree with certain points you raised in your response. Firstly, I don't think the burden of proof is upon the believer to refute atheism. My view of God (largely influenced by Kant) necessitates that God's existence can neither be established nor refuted by science. It is transcendent. Science deals with the workings of the material universe, and God is not an element of the material universe. Thus science and God have nothing to do with each other. Stating that science supports atheism is for me the equivalent of saying that musical theory proves that cats make better pets than dogs. The one simply has nothing to do with the other. The separation of science and religion was championed by Francis Bacon (who was both a Christian and a scientist) centuries ago. He, like many great scientists since (Newton and Einstein, to name just two), realized that a belief in God, in and of itself, poses no threat whatsoever to intellectual freedom. Bigotry and superstition can manifest themselves in countless ways and I think it is unfair to judge all believers based on the bigotry of a few fundamentalist jerks. This blanket judgment of all believers as close-minded is not dissimilar to the religious fanatics' denunciation of all atheists as pedophiles and murderers. I myself have no objection to atheism. I realize that many atheists are motivated by a passion for truth and a real concern for humanity, just as I am. The only difference is that I believe there is a transcendent being, whereas they do not. I think we should forget the pointless squabbles about whether there is or isn't a God and focus on more concrete issues, such as ethics and morality. More important than who believes in what, is the question of who DOES what. And here I agree with the atheist's accusations that many of the worst of humanity's crimes have been carried out in the name of organized religion, especially Christianity. However, is is simply not true that these crimes are a necessary result of believing in a deity. Stalinist Russia was an officially atheist society and the human rights record there was not exactly outstanding. The fact is, neither belief nor unbelief is inherently "good" or "evil". I personally believe in God, but I have no intentions of committing genocide, suicide bombings, or any other act of violence in God's name. I guess my point is that perhaps atheists would do better to attack the real problem, which is not, in my opinion, belief in God. If atheists and moderate believers focus on ethics and what we can (and I do think we can) agree are fundamental ethical principles, then we have much better chance of actually fighting the real enemy. And hopefully we can move towards a society where a person's personal views on the existence of God will be largely irrelevant.

  23. Firstly, I don't think the burden of proof is upon the believer to refute atheism. My view of God (largely influenced by Kant) necessitates that God's existence can neither be established nor refuted by science. It is transcendent. Science deals with the workings of the material universe, and God is not an element of the material universe.

    And I just think you're flat wrong here. First off, the issue is not that "the burden of proof is upon the believer to refute atheism". The premise of your statement is false, in that it implies the atheist is the one making the positive claim that requires refutation. The correct understanding of the matter is that it is the theist's burden of proof, not to refute atheism, but to establish the truth of theism in the first place.

    You also seem to have fallen into Stephen Gould's trap of "non-overlapping magisteria" in regards to this whole idea that God is somehow a concept that is outside the purview of science. You should understand that science is nothing other than the name of the process under which people obtain knowledge. Theists claim that God is the creator of all that exists. Given that claim, how can God's existence possibly not be a scientific question, and how can it be possible that "God is not an element of the material universe" if he is responsible for the material universe's existence? The theist who holds this view needs to explain, if God is not part of the "material universe," exactly what it is God is part of. (It's all well and good to use adjectives like "transcendent," as long as you explain what that means in this context, and aren't just using it as a synonym for "we can't examine it, so don't try.") And how does the thiest come by an understanding of that? If it's simply "faith," how is that any different than "I'm just making this up"? By what criterion do you establish the truth-value of a statement like "God's existence can neither be established nor refuted by science," if not a scientific one? (After all, like it or not, even that is a scientific statement.) If there is no criterion, why should I trust its reliability and verifiability?

    Sorry, but I'm afraid that people who take your (and Kant's and Gould's) view of God are simply committing the special pleading fallacy.

    I agree that what people do is, in the end, more important than what people believe. But if we were lucky enough to live in a world where everyone who held religious beliefs simply treated them as personal issues and made no attempt to influence or impose their beliefs on other people, let alone global politics and science education, we wouldn't be having this discussion. The real world we live in is one in which religious beliefs do motivate the behaviors of religious people towards others who don't share their religion. And that behavior is quite often violent and deadly.

    While it may be true, strictly speaking, that evil acts are not necessarily a result of one's theism or atheism (though in the case of theism I'd say the risk is greater — Dawkins' assertion that theism alters one's definition of "good" and "evil" is quite true; look at the way so many religious people reflexively consider nonbelievers, homosexuals, and in many cases racial minorities to be "evil" just because of who/what they are), in the real world today, there are a number of people who are doing bad things to other people expressly because they believe it's what their God wants. Perhaps what we ought to be addressing is not belief alone, but how belief alters one's view of others and of right and wrong when that belief takes a fanatical, fundamentalist, dogmatic form. Just because one holds an irrational belief doesn't mean it's going to cause one to act irrationally...but it actually happens that way too often for comfort, and that's where the hazards of belief lie.

  24. Just a heads up that your blog post here was just featured at's atheism forum:

    Good job!

  25. What a fantastic article. I am jealous of your prose sir! I am now following your blog and wanted you to know that I am in London so your article is obviously reaching far and wide.



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