“I’m Not an Atheist But…”

I’ve been pretty fortunate; after 38 years of living in Texas, I’ve only encountered blatant anti-atheist bigotry in person a handful of times.

And while I could do a whole write-up about what happened in those encounters (maybe another day), here’s what I found most interesting: Most of those encounters were with people who were/are atheists themselves.

Now I suppose I should back up a bit and clarify what I mean by that. Each of these individuals identified as “agnostics” and explicitly rejected the atheist label while they made incredibly derogatory and blanket characterizations of “atheists”… Yet they also made it explicitly clear that they themselves did not hold any beliefs in the existence of gods, thereby being literally “without theism” and making them also—by definition—atheists.

Now I realize what I just said raises a controversial issue. American Atheists President David Silverman recently took some heat after saying on CNN that those who use labels for themselves such as “agnostic” or “humanist”–while refusing to identify as “atheists”–are “lying” (though in Silverman’s defense, he later said his words were edited to the point of misrepresentation).

And I can understand why the “forcing” of labels onto those who refuse to adopt them is a legitimate concern: If someone in good faith explicitly refuses to adopt a label which indicates a particular ideological position (or in some cases, a whole slew of ideological positions), it’s poor form to force that upon them and essentially say “No, you do subscribe to that ideology (or set of ideologies), despite the fact that you claim not to.” (I add the “in good faith” modifier to make exceptions for cases where the rejection of a label is blatantly self-serving and disingenuous, e.g. white supremacists who reject that label).

But comedian Aziz Ansari provided a counterpoint recently, when he said, regarding feminism:


And I’m inclined to agree as far as feminism is concerned (though of course, the overwhelming majority of those who reject the feminist label tend to have a pretty skewed definition of what the word means).

But notice that the point Ansari makes regarding feminism also applies to the “atheist” label, and even more so. Because atheism isn’t an ideology at all; there isn’t an associated set of beliefs, principles, doctrines, etc. which comes along with the adoption of the term. To be an atheist simply describes your lack of belief on one specific point—the existence of gods. And provided that someone has made clear their position on that one issue, to describe them as an “atheist” isn’t even really a matter of subjective discussion, but rather a simple statement of fact according to their own stated position.

Really, I’m not even sure “label” is even the right term to use when it comes to the word “atheist”. If you describe someone as being “left-handed” because they write with and predominantly use their left hand for fine motor tasks, are you “labeling” them as a left-hander, or are you simply referring to them as what they are by definition? What of describing someone who holds U.S. citizenship as being an “American”? Or someone who has two legs and walks upright as being “bipedal”?

Provided that someone in their own words professes that they don’t believe in the existence of any gods, how is it any different to call them an atheist?

It’s really not.

Yet as simple as this may seem, even brilliant people like Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who can be right on virtually every other issue, manage to get it horribly wrong.

Now it’s important to note that this logic doesn’t necessarily apply to other terms which are often used synonymously with “atheism”. Humanism, for example, actually does entail a set of principles and ideological positions, and is far more than simply an objective descriptor of one’s position on one specific issue. So it makes sense that if someone chooses to explicitly reject the “humanist” label/identity (for example, if they disagree with certain humanist principles, even if they agree with the overwhelming majority of the rest), it would be wrong for others to ascribe that label to them against their wishes.

But to call someone an “atheist” who–according to their own words–doesn’t believe in the existence of any gods? It’s simply expressing a tautological truth, like calling a doctor who treats skin diseases for a living a “dermatologist”, and no matter how much they may dislike the use of the word it doesn’t change the fact that they are one.


Why, When it Comes to Religion, the Ends ALWAYS Justify the Means


One of the great philosophical debates (and the first thing you learn in any Intro to Philosophy class) is about deontological vs. utilitarian morality: Are “right” and “wrong” a result of certain actions being inherently right or wrong (killing and stealing are wrong in principle) or is it determined based on the consequences of those actions (killing and stealing are wrong because of the harm they do to others)? Or, in even more simplified form, when it comes to “right” and “wrong” do the ends justify the means?

Traditionally, these two approaches to morality seem to line up pretty closely with debates surrounding religious vs. secular morality. Either we should obey the commandments because God commands us to, since through his divine authority he has determined what is “right” or “wrong” via cosmic fiat, and going against those divine dictates is, quite simply, wrong (Euthyphro’s Dilemma be damned), or we should follow secular/humanistic ethics, which generally consider right/wrong to be based on the real-world consequences of our actions, meaning in some cases it may be permissible–even morally obligatory–to perform acts which may otherwise be considered “immoral” (a parent stealing medicine to save the life of his child, for example).

Traditionally, this leads to the notion that secular/humanistic/utilitarian ethics means that the ends justify the means, and as long as the final outcome is beneficial the methods you use to get there are ultimately irrelevant (think Watchmen’s Ozymandias).

But it seems to me that in a way, this dichotomy is precisely backwards, and not only do the “ends justify the means” when it comes to traditional religious morality, but they do so to a literally infinite degree, and that’s for one reason: Because the traditional concepts of “Heaven” and “Hell” introduce the element of infinity to the equation, with notions of everlasting infinite torment or everlasting infinite bliss; and when you perform the cost/benefit analysis on anything involving infinity, the answer is always similarly infinite (math nerds like me might point out exceptions like series of infinite sums which converge on finite numbers, but obviously that doesn’t apply in this case).

So what does that mean? It means that any amount of harm you do to anyone—lying, killing, even torture or mass murder—pales in comparison to the harm you can inflict on someone by causing them to go to hell. Infinitely so. Even increasing the odds of someone going to Hell by a miniscule fraction of a percent is still a transgression of infinite harm, since even .00001% of infinity is still infinity.

And the same goes for heaven; no matter how much good you may do in the world, it will be infinitely trivial compared to even one act which increases the odds of someone reaching Heaven.

Even more disturbingly, the flipside is also true: any action, no matter how abhorrent, is perfectly acceptable in the Heaven/Hell equation, and the ends ALWAYS justify the means provided that the end goal is helping others reach heaven or avoid hell since that end goal is literally a positive of infinite value.

Of course thankfully, with the exception of religious extremists, nobody really applies this logic to their day to day lives, or actually considers these implications and takes their beliefs to the logical extreme.

And we all should hope it remains that way.

Follow-up: Sacrificing One’s Soul

One of the Most Disgusting Prayers You’ll Ever Hear (Yet Nobody Thinks Twice About)

Since the recent horrific tragedy in Nepal, we’ve already seen countless examples of Christians seizing on the opportunity to promote their ideology, largely through public proclamations of prayers—specifically prayers asking for the (largely-Hindu) survivors to repent and accept Jesus.

These predatory “soul vultures” have been harshly condemned in the atheist media (and to a lesser extent in the mainstream media), and rightfully so. But this brings to mind another type of prayer that’s a little closer to home, and is similarly (in some ways even more) deplorable, yet so common, almost universal, that I doubt most people even give it a second thought:

Think about when there’s a missing persons case and an unidentified body is found. What’s the most common prayer you’ll hear?

“I’m praying it’s not him” (or her).

But think about the implications of that for a second. What they’re essentially saying is, “I knew there was already one person who’s missing, and very likely dead. But now I’m praying that there’s at least one person who IS dead, AND someone else who’s missing, and very likely dead.”

They’re essentially praying for ~1.9 deaths as opposed to 1.0 deaths, just for the possibility that the person who IS dead isn’t the one they’re hoping for.

“But surely what they really mean is they’re praying it’s not him/her AND praying that he/she is still alive”, one might say. Ok, well in that case they’re still praying for one person to be dead over another. Is that really that much better?

“Please God, kill this person I don’t know.”

And I really don’t mean for this to sound insensitive, since the people quoted saying this are usually the severely traumatized loved ones of those who are missing. And I can understand how in such a moment of extreme grief it’s natural that they would pray for any possible outcome other than the discovery that their loved one is dead. So I’m willing to give them a pass.

But what about the people who have no such connection, or any connection to the victims at all? Check out the comments section of any article about a missing persons case where a body is found, and you’ll see random people chiming in with the same prayer. It’s basically the default prayer in such a situation, much like “I’m praying for the family” might be for a typical story involving a family tragedy.

And almost certainly, these people simply mean it as such: as a gesture of support that they probably consider to be a sincere expression of kindness. But that doesn’t change the fact that they are quite literally praying for more death, or at the very least praying for someone to be dead who wouldn’t have been otherwise.

Write an Atheist (Prisoner)

I recently found out about a website called writeaprisoner.com, a website which lets you do exactly what it says; it’s actually a lot like a dating website, with photos of each person, self-written bios which read just like dating website bios, and a detailed search function, just like a dating website. And one of the parameters they allow you to search by is… religion.

So I decided to run some searches, curious to see how the percentages break down in terms of atheists/agnostics vs Christians vs. other religions. Before we get into the results (which were quite interesting), there were a few caveats regarding the data which became immediately apparent:

  • Many of the “religion” options are obviously not mutually exclusive, with some of them actually going “three levels” deep (e.g. Baptists are also Protestants, and Protestants are also Christians). For purposes of what I’m interested in though, that’s pretty much a non-issue since all of the Christian denominations clearly fall under the umbrella of “Christianity”.
  • Another category is called “Non-Denominational”, which–here in America at least–is often used (somewhat disingenuously) as a synonym for fundamentalist evangelical Christianity. Which of course is only “not a denomination” in a technical sense; their core doctrines of Biblical literalism, strict inerrancy, salvation by faith, political conservatism, overemphasis on Paul, and underemphasis on Jesus are really just as much of a “denomination” as any other (granted you’ll find some N.D. churches which don’t fit this mold, but those seem to be in the minority). Either way, N.D. Christians are still encompassed within “Christianity”, so ultimately it doesn’t really affect the Christian vs. non-Christian breakdown (though I admit it’s possible that not all of the N.D.’s understood the term to mean “non-denominational Christianity”).
  • Slightly more problematic is the category of “N/A”, which could conceivably mean anything from an atheist to a non-religiously affiliated theist, much like the “None/Unaffiliated” category that you’ll typically see on religious surveys. So certainly some of the “N/A’s” could be atheists/agnostics who reject the label for some reason or another, though it would be sheer speculation to guess how many that could be. However, as is the case with the N.D. category, the site allows for the specific options of atheist or agnostic to be selected for those who identify as such, and the numbers I’ll be comparing against also include the “Unaffiliated” category, so regardless of how many of the “N/A’s” may actually fall under one of the other categories, it will still be an apples-to-apples comparison.
  • Obviously the people who have signed up to participate as prisoners are not a random sampling of the prison population, so this is far from a truly “scientific” analysis. Such is life.

So, on to the data. The first thing that jumps out: The percentage of atheists and agnostics is virtually nonexistent. Among the 8,353 male prisoners, only 33 identify as atheist and 81 as agnostic, making for a combined 1.3%. Among the 728 female prisoners, only three are agnostics and one is an atheist, for a combined percentage of about 0.5%. Overall, only .37% (about a third of 1%) of all of the prisoners explicitly identify as “atheists” (and interestingly, the numbers of atheists/agnostics in this sample, as miniscule as they are, are actually significantly higher than those from prior surveys of the prison population).

Here are the combined numbers in one chart:


So how does that compare to the general population? According to the 2012 Pew Research poll, 2.4% of all poll participants in the general population identified as atheists while 3.3% identified as agnostics. Those percentages have grown dramatically since 2007, when the numbers were 1.6% and 2.4% respectively. While it would be tempting to use the latest figures (and doing so would certainly be more favorable towards atheists/agnostics), obviously the participants in writeaprisoner.com weren’t all arrested/convicted after 2012, so a more fair comparison would be to use the older figures (such as 2007).

And when we look at the 2007 numbers, what we find is that “atheists” are under-represented by a factor of about 77% (in other words, only 23% as many atheist prisoners as you would expect) and atheists/agnostics are under-represented by about 69%. Christians, meanwhile, are also moderately under-represented, by about 24%. Perhaps no group is as under-represented as Hindus, however, who make up only .0044% of those on in the sample, despite making up about .04% of the U.S. population (i.e. under-represented by about 90%).

The difference then, comes almost entirely from those in the N/A and “Spiritual” groups, (and to a lesser extent Muslims) which are vastly over-represented compared to the general population (a combined 29% in prison vs. 12% outside). This is also consistent with other crime/prison studies which have also found that those towards the “middle” of the theistic spectrum tend to commit the most crime, while the highly devout (i.e. regular churchgoers) and the highly secular (i.e. “committed” atheists, and to a lesser extent those who identify as “agnostics”) commit the least.

It’s worth noting, however, that there is another likely explanation for the huge number of N/A’s among the prisoner sample. While the percentage of “unaffiliated” in the general population was about 12% in 2007, the demographics of the unaffiliated nationwide skews drastically towards younger age groups, which also tend to commit the most crime. So it’s not surprising (in fact, it would be expected) that you would also see a larger percentage of them in the prison population too.

Of course, this factor also makes it even MORE remarkable just how few atheists and agnostics there are in that same prison population, given how much those skew towards the younger demographics as well.

Bottom line: Despite the fact that 45% of all Americans claim that a belief in God is necessary to be moral, and despite the widespread belief that atheists lack any objective moral standards (or, according to some, any moral standards at all), these numbers further affirm what we’ve known for quite some time now: that statistically speaking, atheists actually commit the least crime of just about any demographic group (which happens to be the case not just in America, but globally as well).

Can History “Prove” a Miracle?

The overwhelming consensus in secular circles seems to be no, that whether or not a supernatural and miraculous event occurred in the past is simply outside the purview of history, and history is literally incapable of establishing an event as being “miraculous” in nature. But is that really the case?

Imagine if we were to simultaneously discover hundreds of ancient documents, unearthed from all around the world, each one dated conclusively to approximately 2,500 years ago, and each document corresponding with one of the civilizations which possessed writing during that time (including ones which had no possible means of communication with each other). Each document is written in the native language of that civilization, and on each one the message is essentially identical: “On this day, every single person in our region received a psychic message, which said to write down these numbers, and said that one day thousands of years from now we would understand the meaning of the numbers”. And when you take all of those hundreds of number strings from the different civilizations and assemble them into one long string, it matches the digits of pi starting at the billionth digit…

Yeah, it doesn’t really look 2,500 years old. But we’re talking miraculous documents here.

Of course, there’s a big difference between the above scenario and the supernatural claims in, for example, the Bible. No number of historical attestations could possibly prove the resurrection of Jesus actually occurred, right? Well let’s consider the following scenario. Instead of four grossly contradictory and plagiarized accounts written decades after the fact by anonymous sources (i.e. the Gospels), imagine if we had consistent, clear, signed accounts by known historical figures who claimed to be witnesses to the crucifixion and the resurrection, and each claimed to have spoken with Jesus afterwards firsthand. And imagine if, in these accounts, Jesus told them that while he was dead he visited God, who told him to provide each of his disciples with a different string of numbers, and each of these numbers were recorded in the documents, and when you assemble those numbers into one long string…

Such a scenario wouldn’t necessarily prove that Jesus was the Son of God or any such nonsense, but as much of a staunch atheist and proponent of naturalism as I am, if documents such as those above were discovered I would be more than willing to admit that something supernatural/miraculous occurred, based simply upon those documents alone.

Now to those who have read this blog in the past it should be rather obvious, but just to be absolutely clear: I’m not saying any of this to suggest that we should give greater credence to the Gospel accounts, or somehow be more “open-minded” to the possibility that Jesus was resurrected. Quite the opposite. What I’m saying is that it is possible–at least in principle–for “history to prove a miracle”, in the sense that it is possible to prove anything, through historical means or otherwise (in other words, not proof with absolute 100% certainty, but sufficient proof to establish a claim as true). And instead of just dismissing the “historical” claims of supernatural events in the Bible with a simple hand-wave, these hypothetical scenarios show just how high that bar should be in order to meet the evidentiary standard of historical proof for a supernatural event. And they show just how far the Bible’s gospel accounts fall short of reaching that bar.

Atheist Clichés to Avoid – Part 7

“You can’t reason someone out of a belief they weren’t reasoned into.” I really could have included this in Part 1 as the very first entry, since this may well be the single most insidious, self-defeating, and quite simply wrong (and yet despite all this, maddeningly common) cliché in the entire atheist lexicon. Matt Dillahunty once served up as thorough an eviscerating of this cliché as one could possibly imagine, to which I have very little to add. But on a personal note, I will just say that I’ve spoken with hundreds of atheists about their “deconversion” stories, and I can count on one hand the number who were not “reasoned out” of religion, regardless of what their initial reasons for believing may have been.

“It is easier for a rich man to go through the eye of a needle than for him to enter the kingdom of heaven”. While not as egregious an example as the “slay them before me” passage, this is also an example of a Bible verse that’s often unfairly taken out of context when attempting to point out the absurdity of the Bible, or simply to make the claim that the Bible says the rich cannot enter heaven. After all, the passage immediately following it makes clear that it’s intentionally describing a physically impossible scenario in order to make the point that even seemingly impossible things are possible “with God”. There are plenty of actual errors, absurdities, and contradictions in the Bible. This isn’t one of them.


“If there’s a god, why does he allow so much evil and suffering in the world?” For many atheists (and theists), this is the big one. Even Bart Ehrman–who has perhaps done more than anyone else to educate the public about the Bible’s countless flaws and contradictions–cites the Problem of Evil as the main issue which led him away from theism. But the Problem of Evil is only a disproof of the traditional Judeo-Christian notion of an omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent God, not all “gods” in general. And such a god concept is no more probable than a “god” which is apathetic (or even evil), or a god which has limited power. If anything, the traditional god concept is inherently LESS probable (if not impossible) simply due to the logically contradictory nature of having mutually exclusive attributes, which renders the Problem of Evil something of a moot point. In other words, while we have plenty of reasons to disbelieve in the existence of gods, just because God may be an asshole (which the God of the Bible certainly is) doesn’t mean he doesn’t exist.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. The problem with invoking this phrase to dismiss religious claims is that it implies that the claim in question has “ordinary” evidence going for it, but simply lacks “extraordinary” evidence. But that’s FAR too generous when it comes to most religious claims, which typically fail to meet even “ordinary” standards of evidence (and in many cases lack any evidence whatsoever beyond an unsupportable claim of divine revelation).

For the rest of the series:

Atheist Clichés to Avoid – Part 1

Atheist Clichés to Avoid – Part 2

Atheist Clichés to Avoid – Part 3

Atheist Clichés to Avoid – Part 4

Atheist Clichés to Avoid – Part 5

Atheist Clichés to Avoid – Part 6

Atheist Clichés to Avoid – Part 6

“Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John”. What are the four Gospels of the New Testament? Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John of course. Which matches their order in the Bible, and matches the order they were written in according to the Catholic church and Christian tradition. The only problem: It’s wrong. And not only is it wrong, but the fact that it’s wrong is surprisingly devastating to the credibility of the gospel accounts and the Bible overall. And yet, despite this, you will often (if not always) hear even atheists referring to the gospels in the “stock” order, thereby perpetuating the myth of when they were actually written, and obscuring–however slightly–precisely what the church has tried to obscure.

In actuality Mark was written well before Matthew (which copied extensively from Mark), yet Mark has no birth narrative; it mentions nothing of Jesus being born of a virgin; it has the fewest miracles, the least-grandiose miracles, and presents the most “human” characterization of Jesus. Even the way Jesus speaks in Mark is dramatically different than in the later gospels. And perhaps most damning, Mark does not even contain a “resurrection” of Jesus per-se (Mark ends at the discovery of an empty tomb, and mentions nothing about Jesus appearing to anyone afterwards; of course that didn’t prevent early Christians from tacking-on a resurrection story to Mark, many years after it was written).

All of these issues are far less problematic if Matthew was written first, and if Mark were simply a condensed account of the “original” gospel… which is precisely the excuse that Christian apologists claim. But for Mark to be the first gospel account, and for it to leave out such critical details? That’s much harder (and probably impossible) to explain without acknowledging that those elements were later fabrications.


Mark, Matthew, and Luke never got to do this.

“I have better sources of morality than a 2,000 year-old book”. I’ll often hear people emphasize how ridiculously outdated the Bible is by referring to it as “2,000 years old”. But not only is that not accurate, it actually does the Bible a favor by obscuring the fact that the Bible’s origins do not even come close to coinciding with the events that it purportedly describes. In actuality the books of the New Testament were written beginning approximately 50 CE (decades after Jesus’ death) and were finished at some point in the 2nd (perhaps even 3rd) century. The books were then collected into what we now know as “the Bible” at some point well into the 4th century.

Obviously calling the Bible a “2,000 year old book” is much easier to write and say than “a collection of books written somewhere between 2,800 and 1,960 years ago which were collected for the first time in their current form about 1,650 years ago”. But the use of the “2,000 year old” shorthand suggests that the Bible goes all the way back to the lifetime of Jesus–as if it provides a contemporaneous account of his words and deeds–as opposed to being separated from them by at least a full generation. And by doing so, the Bible’s critics are unintentionally implying a greater degree of legitimacy to the Bible than it actually deserves.

For the rest of the series:

Atheist Clichés to Avoid – Part 1

Atheist Clichés to Avoid – Part 2

Atheist Clichés to Avoid – Part 3

Atheist Clichés to Avoid – Part 4

Atheist Clichés to Avoid – Part 5

Atheist Clichés to Avoid – Part 7