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Religious Tolerance logo


An essay donated by Susan Humphreys

"An Atheist defends Religion"

(Part 1 of two parts)

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church building It struck me as odd that I, an Atheist, would feel the need to defend Religion. Is Religion worth defending? Is it even defendable? Why aren’t the preachers and the priests actively defending it? I have an answer for this last question in a later paragraph.

David Silverman, president of American Atheists has published a new book, “Fighting God, An Atheist Manifesto for a Religious World”. 1 I first ran across a commentary about Mr. Silverman’s arguments on the Religion Dispatches web site “How Not To Defend Atheism, by Vlad Chituc. 2 This commentary was by someone who wasn’t thrilled with what Mr. Silverman had to say. I knew I had to get a copy of the book and read it for myself, and draw my own conclusions.

I’d like to start by making it clear, I am an Atheist. I am what David Silverman calls a Conclusionary Atheist. 3 See pages 18 and 19. I know that the God, Gods, Goddess, and Goddesses that humans believe in is/are nothing more than a figment of their human imaginations. And I can show why I know this is true.

But, that is not my purpose with this essay. I have done this elsewhere and will be happy to discuss my arguments with anyone that is interested. To start with they can read the essays I have written for this web site in the Atheist and God sections of the Visitors Essays menu. 4 Or anyone can dig through the archives of the Charleston, Illinois Journal Gazette-Times Courier newspaper for the many Letters to the Editor I have written over the last eight years.

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I am writing in defense of Religion, not in defense of Theism. I think there is a difference between the two, one that Mr. Silverman doesn’t, in my opinion, see or understand. I also by the way think this is why the Priests and the Preachers aren’t speaking up in defense of Religion. They also see the two as one. I am also writing because I think Mr. Silverman is fighting a straw dog or a scapegoat. (Use whichever term you prefer).

I understand that Religion is a tool. Like all tools the person using the tool can use it to accomplish good, productive tasks or the person can use it to accomplish not so good, destructive tasks. The latter is what we see happening with ISIS and some other groups within Islam now in the Middle East. Mr. Silverman has fallen into the same trap that many Americans have fallen into, they blame the Religion not the humans that use the Religion, the tool, to accomplish their deeds.

Books are also tools. Years ago I got into an argument with an Atheist on the American Atheist web site. The other person was calling the Bible EVIL and wanted to ban and burn all copies. I pointed out that books aren’t EVIL, they are simply collections of Ideas. Ideas aren’t EVIL. Even God is an idea, a figment of human imaginations. People choose to use books, ideas, Religions, God/Gods/Goddess/Goddesses, the Doctrines and Dogmas of their particular Church, for good purposes or for not so good or even EVIL purposes.

Mr. Silverman is fighting the wrong battle. He has misplaced his anger. I think the Psychological term is transference. When a person isn't up to confronting the real problem, they oftentransfer their anger or fear to something else -- to something that is safer to confront.

To give him some credit, he makes some valid and very important points. Unfortunately they get lost in the vitriol, the hate. There is a serious problem with those that believe that their religion gives them the right to “break the law” or that it “justifies special privilege” p. 36. There is a problem with those that try to justify and sanctify their words and actions by claiming they come from God not from their own Egos. p. 39 Freedom of religion is endangered (for all of us, believers and non-believers) by those that insist their religious beliefs give them the right to interfere with the rights (secular and religious) of other people. p. 40 As you get further into the book he continues to make important points and voices serious concerns.

Mr. Silverman starts with definitions, which is a good thing. Language (definitions of words) can be and are real barriers to communication.

On page 6 Mr. Silverman defines Atheism as “absence of a belief in the existence of a god or gods.” I agree with this definition.

On page 9 he says “Religion is about a belief in a god, not a general philosophy on how we humans should behave or treat each other.” He explains his definition more fully on pages 16 and 17. Here I disagree. He is claiming that Theism and Religion are one and the same. (I am capitalizing both words to make them stand out, this may not be stylistically or grammatically correct usage but I don’t want them to get lost in the sentence.)

Later on, he talks about the importance of using words that are clearly understood, and I agree. We use a lot of euphemisms in our attempts to appease our opponents or appear less antagonistic and end up confusing everyone. Yet he is using religion in a very narrow sense that is not understood by the general public.

I will be honest I don’t have a good, absolutely clear definition of Religion. I do accept that the non-Theistic religions -- Buddhism and Secular Humanism (for example) -- are religions, not just “a general philosophy on how we should behave or treat each other.” That shows, to me at least, a gross misunderstanding of the teachings and purposes of Humanism and Buddhism. They aren’t just “secular clubs” akin to the Sierra Club, your local Historical Society or Chamber of Commerce.

I also have a problem with his claims, on page 2 for example where he says he is NOT a militant Atheist. Time and time again he uses language of the militant, “raise a fist…” p. 27, talks of “being in a war” p. 21, of “taking religion down” p. 4, “I see the with hatred for religion, ….” P.32. I don’t think he is a violent man, and I don’t think he is calling for violence against religious people. But as he says himself the words we use and their meanings or implications are important.

He insists he is “talking here about fighting religion, not religious people” p. 29. He says religious people are “mostly nice people”, they are “liars or victims”, p. 21, “all believers are victims, having been brainwashed…” p. 30 On page 25 he calls religious beliefs “ridiculous” and says he doesn’t respect them.

He doesn’t understand that for some religious people, their religion is as much a part of who they are as their ethnicity or physical characteristics. You can’t separate the two, you make derogatory remarks about the one and you are making derogatory remarks about the other. If you fight one, you are fighting the other. I am not saying this is a good thing, just that this is the way most of us react. Psychology 101. Later I realized he does understand this. On p. 89 he says:

“As a result, even if you correctly criticize the religion, they will take it as if you’ve attacked them personally.”

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In several places he says he does not respect Beliefs. On page 83 he goes into a lengthy argument about this issue of Respect. Then at the end of the argument he says, “ But giving reverence to religion….” Here is his problem. Respect and Reverence are NOT the same thing.

Respect actually is not the appropriate word to use when you are talking about Beliefs. Beliefs are either built around true information or they are built around false information. You either accept them or you reject them. We offer Respect for people. Beliefs are not to be Respected or Disrespected they are to be Believed or Disbelieved.

He is also guilty of the “pot calling the kettle black”. He writes in p. 30:

“Most religionists are subjected to brainwashing/indoctrination (same thing) from infancy…”.

ALL children, even the children of Atheists are subjected to “brainwashing”. ALL of us are taught our parents values and beliefs, taught their conception of right and wrong, how to behave, what clothes are appropriate to wear. ALL of us, religious and non-religious, are “brainwashed” in our childhood. Childhood is the time for indoctrination in the ways of your kind, whether you are a marmoset, an elephant or a human. Biology 101.

About being victims, I have a real problem with this terminology. It is true Victims don’t choose what is done to them. The car accident happens; they can’t prevent it. They are attacked by a mugger; they can’t prevent it. Can you be a victim if the harm you do to yourself is self-inflicted?

As adults we all have the choice to accept or reject the “brainwashing” we received as children. Religious people and non-religious people have freedom to make their own choices and we all do. NONE of us have bought into everything our parents taught us. By the way, this is how religions evolve over the centuries. Each generation incorporates their understandings -- what they have learned from parents, teachers, books, television, movies, watching and talking with friends and neighbors -- into their belief system; their understanding of the world and how it works.

I think it is important to distinguish between the pathology of a person who is totally under the control of a “cult” and is incapable of thinking or acting for themselves, and the majority of religious people who are honest, upright citizens, fully capable of making their own choices.

On page 33, he says “Religious people aren’t evil. They are damaged.” On page 34, “We’d prefer, if possible, to free the victims from their affliction, and as nice people, we want to do so, but failing that we have to fight against victims.” He doesn’t say fight “for” the victims.

“Fight against victims”, is what the Old Testament called for with the treatment of sinners. This is what our secular judicial system calls for with the punishment of criminals, throw the bums in jail and let them rot. Jesus, in the Bible, calls for a different, more enlightened approach in the parable about the stoning of the adulteress. He said:

“Let he who has not sinned cast the first stone.”

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This topic continues in the second part.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. book cover David Silverman, "Fighting God: An Atheist Manifesto for a Religious World," Thomas Dunne Books (2015). Available in hardcover, Kindle, MP3, and Audible formats. Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store We selected this book for our Recommended Book for 2016-JUN.
  2. Vlad Chituc, "How not to defend Atheism," Religion Dispatches, 2016-JAN-15, at: http://religiondispatches.org/
  3. An Atheist can be defined as anyone who is without a belief in the existence of a single, dual, or pantheon of deities. Silverman defines a "Conclusionary Atheist" as a person who has gone further and concluded that no deities exist.
  4. See links to her essays on Agnostics and Atheists and God. For a full set, go to the visitors' essays section, enter <ctrl F> and search for Humphreys.

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Original posting: 2016-FEB-22
Latest update : 2016-FEB-22
Author: Susan Humphreys

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