How Atheists Sell Themselves Short

I didn’t come from a religious family, and never had any form of organized religion. Which is not to say I was raised as an “atheist” per-se, but while growing up religion was never really an issue in my family, and my parents simply never really talked about it. Instead, they allowed me to make my own decisions about what to believe, which naturally in retrospect I am extremely thankful for.

So, with that being the case, I thought I’d go for a slightly different approach and share with you something I’ve been thinking about lately, which is how we, as freethinkers, secularists, atheists, and humanists tend to “sell ourselves short” so to speak, when speaking about ourselves and our beliefs, often in ways that we may not even realize.

For example, I’ll often hear people say that “Non-religious people can be moral too”, or “You don’t need religion to be a good person”. Which, of course, is absolutely true. But saying we “can” be moral implies that, as a general rule, we’re not. And saying that you don’t “need” religion still suggests that religion might make us better people than we already are.

Yet the truth is that when compared to the religious, freethinkers are statistically more “moral” than virtually any other demographic group. In the United States, on a per-capita basis we commit less crime, have lower rates of divorce, have lower incidence of teen pregnancy, higher levels of education… And the same holds true when you break it down worldwide; the nations in the world with the lowest religiosity have the least crime, the lowest corruption, and the highest standards of living in the world. By virtually any objective metric you can think of, freethinkers are statistically more moral than the religious, not less. And all without any fear of infinite torment in the afterlife, and no expectation of any metaphysical rewards for simply being the best person we can be.

Another thing I often hear, when it comes to religious claims (or religion in general) is that it “doesn’t make sense”. And it’s true there are countless religious claims which don’t make sense, and can never make sense. But I’ve always felt that saying something “doesn’t make sense” sounds a little too close to “I don’t understand it”, the kind of thing one might say when trying to grasp advanced calculus, not just things which are inherently nonsensical.

But as is probably case for most, if not all the people in this room, we’re probably here today at Houston Oasis because we do understand traditional religion, and we speak from a position of having too much information on the subject, not too little. So that’s why I find myself catching myself, and instead of saying the concept of the trinity, for example, “doesn’t make sense”, I say it’s incoherent. Instead of saying that the concept of an infinitely loving God punishing people with infinite torment for finite sins “doesn’t make sense”, I say that it’s paradoxical, not to mention immoral. To me that sends a much stronger message–that the issue isn’t with us, it’s with metaphysical claims that directly contradict what we know to be true about the reality we live in.

And finally, I also often hear people referring to themselves, as having “lost their faith” after they’ve left religion behind. But think about this for a second. What else is there that we refer to as a “loss” which isn’t something we would like to have back? If you ask someone how they’ve been lately, would they ever say “I had a really bad cold but I lost it a few days ago”? Would someone ever say they used to have a smoking habit, but “lost it”? Of course not. People lose money. They lose car keys. They lose sanity. But as freethinkers, we didn’t “lose” religious faith. Instead we gained reason, we gained a richer, fuller understanding of reality. And that’s something I would encourage all of us to be proud of.

Further Reading:

Society without God by Phil Zuckerman

Nonbeliever Nation: The Rise of Secular Americans by David Niose

The God Virus by Darrel Ray

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One thought on “How Atheists Sell Themselves Short

  1. Very, very well said. I arrived here via your list of cliches (which was good), but I’m glad I read further. Your first two points, “By virtually any objective metric you can think of, freethinkers are statistically more moral than the religious, not less.” and “we’re [atheists] because we do understand traditional religion, and we speak from a position of having too much information on the subject, not too little.” are particularly important.

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