Christian author Christian Piatt recently wrote a series of articles on “Christian Clichés To Avoid”, which generated quite a bit of buzz in both the Christian and atheist blogospheres. It was a great read, even if (maybe even particularly if) you’re an atheist.
It was so good, in fact, it prompted me to start this series on “atheist clichés” we should also avoid.
These are a basically things I hear from other atheists all the time, in some cases even highly prominent figures in the atheist community. Some are weak arguments against religion (where similar but much stronger arguments exist). Some are statements that atheists make in an attempt to defend atheism, yet actually downplay the atheist position or even implicitly marginalize atheists overall. And some are simply things which are flat-out, demonstrably false.
As with most clichés, some of these sayings certainly have their uses, and—with the exception of those which are simply false—they can be perfectly appropriate for use in certain contexts. These are clichés to avoid, not clichés to completely stop using under all circumstances. So I’ll try to be clear, while discussing each one, which category they fall under, as well as what we should be saying instead.
“I don’t believe in God”. There’s obviously nothing wrong with saying this in casual contexts, particularly in the company of other atheists. But the problem is the way “believe” can be interpreted as whether you support a particular position, not just whether you believe in its existence. One can say they “don’t believe in” the death penalty, for example, but that says nothing about whether they believe the death penalty exists. And as absurd as that interpretation may sound, it plays directly into the mindset of countless religionists who claim that atheists know deep down that God exists, but we simply choose to “reject Him”. Also notice how the wording is subtly yet inherently biased in theists’ (particularly monotheists) favor, while making the subtle presupposition that the existence of their god–particularly the Judeo-Christian God–is somehow the default position. That’s why I prefer the slightly more wordy (but far more accurate) “I don’t believe in the existence of any gods” (of course, if you really want to get under a theist’s skin, there’s also “I don’t believe in the existence of your god”).
“(So and so) lost their faith”. Think about this for a second; what else is there that we refer to as a “loss” that isn’t something we’d like to have back? If you ask someone you 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 once had a smoking habit, but “lost it”? Simply saying “became an atheist” avoids that connotation.
“(So and so) actually believes…” (Examples: “Catholics actually believe the bread and wine literally become Jesus’ flesh and blood”; “Mormons actually believe magical underwear will protect them”; “young Earth creationists actually believe the Universe is less than 10,000 years old”). Unless we’re psychics we have no way of truly knowing if someone believes in the specific metaphysical claims of their religion (with the possible exception of suicide bombers). Even if they explicitly and publicly proclaim it, there is simply no way to know what private doubts someone may harbor, or whether they’re simply toeing the party line when it comes to professing their beliefs.
That’s why to say that a person or group “claims to believe” something is not only more accurate and more intellectually honest, but it subtly conveys the point that just because people claim to believe in absurd, ridiculous things doesn’t truly mean that deep down, they truly believe in those absurd, ridiculous things. And as Richard Dawkins points out, in many cases they probably don’t.
For the rest of the series: