Is Religious Belief a Virus and Why Atheism is not the Antidote

religion is for fools

I hate Twitter. I am not a fan of having 140 characters at a time discussions and I think many “discussions” on Twitter quickly devolve into the equivalent of two monkeys throwing shit at each other. I tweet every time I post a new blog and I try to “engage” those who respond on Twitter, but I am convinced that a lot of people never read one word of the post they are responding to. They seem to respond to the title rather than the substance of the post. I do not get into Twitter flame wars and I tend to ignore or block anyone who displays childish, trollish behavior.

Apologists for Christianity and atheism roam the internet seeking out opportunities to abuse the opposing side. I have watched with amusement countless unprovoked Twitter wars between Christians and atheists. Each side thinks they have the upper hand and is “winning” the war.

Yesterday, a denizen of the atheist Twitterverse sent me a tweet about Should We Respect the Religious Beliefs of Others? This post has receieved a lot of attention and some atheists are not happy with my approach to religion and those who practice it. Of course, this is not new. I have been branded an accommodationist, a denier of the one holy atheist faith, and a closet Christian.

The above mentioned atheist tweeted the following about religious beliefs:

Absolutely not! They should be publicly ridiculed and shamed until they cease to exist.

I responded with one word, WHY?

The atheist responded:

because religion is a virus. It’s dangerous. Never mind bronze-age thinking that doesn’t apply in today’s world.

I want to focus on notion that religious belief is a virus that atheism is the antidote for. It is bad enough that this atheist thinks the religious should be shamed and ridiculed, but it is even worse that they think religious belief is some sort of harmful, deadly virus that must be eradicated. I don’t want to get into the philosophical or biological arguments for or against religious belief. If you want to investigate further please read:

What I want to focus on is notion that religious belief is a virus that must be eradicated.

The first problem I have with this argument is that it lumps all religious people together.  Doing this makes it quite easy for the atheist to dismiss the beliefs of billions of people. All religious belief is a virus and the antidote is atheism. Most atheists who think this way usually conflate all religion with fundamentalist religion. (specifically fundamentalist Christianity)

Five or so years ago,  I drove to Fort Wayne with a friend of mine to hear atheist Robert M. Price speak. In his speech Price said positive things about Christianity. During the Question and Answer time, one young atheist, full of hostility towards Christianity, stood up and challenged badgered Price over the positive things he said about Christianity. According to this atheist, in 2,000 years Christianity had not done one good thing. Not one.

I was astounded to hear this atheist talk this way and I later wrote about in on my blog. I think it is ludicrous to suggest that Christianity has not done one good thing in its 2,000 year history. While we can certainly debate whether the good they did/do outweighs the bad they did/do, only a person blinded by hate for Christianity can fail to see that Christians, through the sects and churches they are a part of, have done many good things. (regardless of what we may think of their motive for doing so)

The second problem I have with this kind of thinking is that atheists have yet to prove to me that atheism is an antidote for the Christian virus. I am of the opinion that atheism offers little when it comes to life, morality, and ethics. Atheism is, and always will be:

The rejection of belief in the existence of deities

Atheism is not a worldview, a moral system, or a way of life. It is simply “the rejection of belief in the existence of deities.” The problem the atheist movement has is that many atheists never move  beyond this statement. They spend all their time arguing/debating/attacking Christianity rather than developing a comprehensive worldview, complete with a standard of morality and ethics.  They need to intellectually grow up and start thinking about what a post-religion world might look like. Are we sure the world would be better off if everyone became an atheist? I am not convinced.

When I tell someone I am an atheist, what does this statement tell the person about me? Not much. All they know is that I don’t believe in God. (and here in America God is defined as the Christian God) They know nothing about my morals, ethics, or beliefs. They know nothing about how I view the world. This is why it is important for me to tell them that I am not only an atheist but I am also a secularist and a humanist.

It is my humanist beliefs that give my life a moral and ethical foundation, a foundation atheism can not provide. Perhaps this is a good spot to remind readers of what I call the humanist ideal (from the Humanist Manifesto III) :

Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.

The lifestance of Humanism—guided by reason, inspired by compassion, and informed by experience—encourages us to live life well and fully. It evolved through the ages and continues to develop through the efforts of thoughtful people who recognize that values and ideals, however carefully wrought, are subject to change as our knowledge and understandings advance.

This document is part of an ongoing effort to manifest in clear and positive terms the conceptual boundaries of Humanism, not what we must believe but a consensus of what we do believe. It is in this sense that we affirm the following:

Knowledge of the world is derived by observation, experimentation, and rational analysis. Humanists find that science is the best method for determining this knowledge as well as for solving problems and developing beneficial technologies. We also recognize the value of new departures in thought, the arts, and inner experience—each subject to analysis by critical intelligence.

Humans are an integral part of nature, the result of unguided evolutionary change. Humanists recognize nature as self-existing. We accept our life as all and enough, distinguishing things as they are from things as we might wish or imagine them to be. We welcome the challenges of the future, and are drawn to and undaunted by the yet to be known.

Ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience. Humanists ground values in human welfare shaped by human circumstances, interests, and concerns and extended to the global ecosystem and beyond. We are committed to treating each person as having inherent worth and dignity, and to making informed choices in a context of freedom consonant with responsibility.

Life’s fulfillment emerges from individual participation in the service of humane ideals. We aim for our fullest possible development and animate our lives with a deep sense of purpose, finding wonder and awe in the joys and beauties of human existence, its challenges and tragedies, and even in the inevitability and finality of death. Humanists rely on the rich heritage of human culture and the lifestance of Humanism to provide comfort in times of want and encouragement in times of plenty.

Humans are social by nature and find meaning in relationships. Humanists long for and strive toward a world of mutual care and concern, free of cruelty and its consequences, where differences are resolved cooperatively without resorting to violence. The joining of individuality with interdependence enriches our lives, encourages us to enrich the lives of others, and inspires hope of attaining peace, justice, and opportunity for all.

Working to benefit society maximizes individual happiness. Progressive cultures have worked to free humanity from the brutalities of mere survival and to reduce suffering, improve society, and develop global community. We seek to minimize the inequities of circumstance and ability, and we support a just distribution of nature’s resources and the fruits of human effort so that as many as possible can enjoy a good life.

Humanists are concerned for the well being of all, are committed to diversity, and respect those of differing yet humane views. We work to uphold the equal enjoyment of human rights and civil liberties in an open, secular society and maintain it is a civic duty to participate in the democratic process and a planetary duty to protect nature’s integrity, diversity, and beauty in a secure, sustainable manner.

Thus engaged in the flow of life, we aspire to this vision with the informed conviction that humanity has the ability to progress toward its highest ideals. The responsibility for our lives and the kind of world in which we live is ours and ours alone.

The humanist ideal is what provides me with a view of how I want the world to look. It provides the parameters for how I want to live my life and how I want to engage others around me. Standing on a street corner screaming I am an atheist might feel good, but it does little to change the world for good.

Look, I understand the anger some atheists have as a result of being misused, abused, and attacked by Christian fundamentalists. I share their anger and frustration over Christian fundamentalism’s war against justice, fairness, science, and freedom. But, suggesting that all religious belief is inherently harmful, a virus for which atheism is the antidote, helps no one. It makes the atheist out to be no different from the  fundamentalist.

I have my own misgivings about how fundamentalist Christian parents indoctrinate their children at an early age, about how they teach them to think about the world. It troubles me that children often don’t choose a religion but a religion is chosen for them by their parents. But, don’t we all do this? Whatever our beliefs and values are, don’t we teach them to our children? I don’t know of any parent that treats their child as a blank slate and allows the child to write whatever they want on the slate. Parents have an obligation to teach their children how to think and how to navigate the world. If parents don’t teach their children, others will. From the moment a child is born, they are faced with countless beliefs, ideas, and values competing for their allegiance.

Like most atheists, I want children to be taught to think critically. Instead of being told what to think, I want them to be taught how to think. But, as every parent knows, there is a limit to allowing a child to think for themselves. Parents have an obligation to care for and protect their children until they are ready to fend for themselves. So, if a 12-year- old girl uses her “critical” thinking skills and decides she wants to be sexually active with the 16-year-old neighbor boy, should her parents allow her to do so? Of course not, because there is more to life than just developing the right thinking skills. Maturity comes with age and experience, and until a child is mature enough to survive on their own, their parents have an obligation to protect them.

Since we live in a world that is dominated, influenced, and controlled by religion, should our children not be exposed to religion? (as I mentioned in a previous post, I think every high school student should be required to take a class in philosophy and world religions) If we don’t expose them to religion then we make them vulnerable, easy targets for cults and proselytizing religions. I see no harm in a child attending the local religious social club with the parents. As long as they are not aggressively evangelized, they will be fine.

Like it or not, most children will graduate high school with a borrowed system of beliefs. Taught by their parents, extended family, teachers, culture, and peers, they will begin life with what others have taught them. As they  get older, they will begin to develop their own system of beliefs. They will likely hang on to some of what they have been taught and abandon or reshape the rest. Every person must determine for themselves what they REALLY believe. Thanks to the internet, young people have a limitless source of information to consult as they develop their own beliefs. Atheists have to decide if they want to be a source of information for inquiring minds or just another billboard advertising a truncated, intolerant atheism.

I think humanism is the best hope for the world and this is why I try to engage the religious. Nothing is gained by getting into Twitter or Facebook wars with Christian zealots. They can’t be reached, but there are millions of people who can be reached and they should be our focus. The hold that fundamentalism has on a family can be broken in one generation. All it takes is reaching one person with the gospel of humanism. Once they see that humanism is the best hope for the world, the fundamentalist “virus” can no longer replicate and it dies. The person may become an atheist but maybe not. Maybe they will become a religious humanist or a liberal/progressive Christian, or maybe they will  say that they are spiritual. It’s their journey and wherever they end up is where they need to be. And we atheists need to be OK with that.

Comments (22)

  1. ami

    I really liked this post. Particularly this.

    “Atheism is not a worldview, a moral system, or a way of life. It is simply “the rejection of belief in the existence of deities.” The problem the atheist movement has is that many atheists never move beyond this statement. They spend all their time arguing/debating/attacking Christianity rather than developing a comprehensive worldview, complete with a standard of morality and ethics. They need to intellectually grow up.”

    Yep. Instead of wasting time trying to convert people (and that’s really how I see it) just… live your life. Think about the world, your place in it, and try not to be an asshole.

    Which is, by the way, my religious creed.

    Try not to be an asshole.
    Doesn’t require belief or non-belief in a deity.

    And I think if more people just tried not to be an asshole, we’d all be in a better world.

    1. Steve

      Couldn’t agree more!

  2. Aram McLean

    I can’t remember if I’ve already posted this thought on your site yet, Bruce, but it clarifies the change in my thinking over the last while.

    I’ve come to a place in my life where I realize that railing on about the troubles religion has caused over the centuries doesn’t make any actual sense. I’m also the first to admit that many religious people have done plenty of wonderful things over the years.
    Rather I now see religion as simply being an extension of the tribalism which all humans were encompassed in until recently. Wars and death happened not because of ignorant religions, but because of ignorance in general.
    It is only in the present that religion is unique in demanding to be taken seriously without evidence. This is behaviour from the childhood of our species. It inspires self-righteousness, self-pity, and self-hatred.
    We can do better than this.

    1. NeverAgainV

      I think it’s allright to bring up the troubles religion has caused….lest we forget and history repeat itself.

      1. Steve

        Do you also bring up the troubles athiests have caused? Or do you not see the Maos and Stalins of the world that way?

        1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

          And the current Mao or Stalin is?

          1. Steve

            I don’t know if there is one on that scale, although I think there are a lot of wannabes. I’d guess Middle East though.

            My basic point, which I’m sure you know, is that religious folks aren’t the only ones causing problems in the world. As you noted, Atheism isn’t a moral system. Yet, we hear about the Crusades all the time but somehow Mao’s Great Leap Forward and gulags get a pass.

        2. NeverAgainV

          Don’t know if that question was for me Steve but when I read this comment:

          “railing on about the troubles religion has caused over the centuries doesn’t make any actual sense.”

          what came to my mind was -silencing-, don’t talk or speak negatively about abusers, abuse or injustice. So, for me it’s not just the religious I really meant that I think it’s OK for people to speak out about what they believe is an injustice/trouble – religious or not.

          1. Steve

            It was more or less a general question to point out that while the oppression of humanity certainly occurs in religious circles, it’s not the only place that happens.

            I agree that it should be pointed out wherever it occurs but I don’t think that always happens, and secularists are sometimes just as guilty as the religious.

            As Bruce noted, atheism isn’t an antidote. I think we would do well to remember that.

          2. Aram McLean

            The key word in my sentence is ‘railing on’. Of course we should remain aware of what can happen when ignorance takes the reins. But focusing on religion as being the only source of death and destruction is a mistake, in my opinion.

  3. sgl

    yeah, enough of those bronze age religions! time to upgrade to a modern religion. like mormonism. or scientology. ;)

  4. davewarnock

    As I have de-converted, I have sought to avoid the A tag. It carries so much baggage with it. I decided I like the term “humanist” better. I don’t want to be identified by what I don’t believe in, but rather by what I do believe in. And I believe in humans. I believe we are good and decent, for the most part.

    The lie that Christianity spreads- that we are “born bad” and in need of saving- it does a great disservice to every person alive today. When I was a Christian, calling someone a secular humanist was about the worst thing you could call them. That meant that they believed that they were the center of the universe instead of God. The horror!

    But I have come to see that humanism is a wonderful concept- valuing all humans and seeking to be the best one I can. The universe is the center of the universe, and we are simply humans, sharing it with other life forms. And God is not there. Nothing scandalous about that!

  5. Pingback: Self-Righteousness Made Easy

  6. Kat

    Waaaaay back before I deconverted, my best friend and I came up with the True Meaning of Life: “Don’t be an asshole.”

    Really, I think that ought to cover it, but I love the Humanist Manifesto’s emphasis on dignity and compassion — it tells you how not to be an asshole.

    Good stuff.

  7. theObserver

    The term ‘militant atheist’ is tossed around too easily to take seriously…. but some atheist cultural warriors do adapt the same tactics as the soviet League of Militant Atheists. The only missing element is state support.

    I subscribe to the #humanist community on google+ but it’s really just another religion bashing forum. The positive element of humanism is not emphasized nearly enough.

  8. sgl

    since a couple people mentioned assholes, a proposed extension to the rule..,
    a clever phrase from Anne Lamott, from her book “grace (eventually)”
    (haven’t read the book, link is to the blog i heard about it)


    I remembered my secular father’s only strong spiritual directive: Don’t be an asshole, and make sure everybody eats.


    (some of you might also like: )

  9. Steve

    Well written, Bruce! You’re one of the few atheists I’ve encountered who doesn’t defend atheism with the religious zealotry normally attributed to fundamentalists. Sadly, it’s hard to tell them apart sometimes–just a different set of absolute doctrines, argued the same way.

    That’s why I have a hard time claiming the title. I ‘deconverted’ along the same basic time trajectory as you (from what I heard on your recent podcast) but still think of myself as agnostic. I like the concepts of the humanists but, human nature being what it is, think that has problems with it’s implementation as well.

    On the whole, don’t be an asshole seems to cover a lot of bases. As a race, we’d be in a much better position if we’d adhere to just that.

    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      Atheism is a very small part of what I believe. While it takes on a bigger than life size in my writing, this is only because I write so much about Evangelicalism. It is humanism that is the meat on my atheist frame. It drives and informs my political, social, economic, moral, and ethical beliefs. Like all systems of thought, it is fallible and subject to change.

  10. Hooligan Hobo

    I have found that it is when atheist communities try to move beyond “athism is just the lack of belief in gods” that things start to go wrong. The Atheism+ fiasco is case in point. It seems for the most part to be comprised almost exclusively of the kind of atheists Bruce is objecting to. The inclusion of a kind of outrage seeking social justice warrior strain has not done the community any favours. They market themselves as inclusive. There is no minority they won’t attack and villify others for. The result is a group of intolerant idealogues who routinely excommunicate members who fail to pass an ideological test of one kind or another.

    I came to the conclusion years ago that certainty is the problem, not religion per se. Religion is very good at being certain and this is what makes it dangerous in my view but certainty in any ideology is very dangerous.

    Religion is not a virus. It is wish-thinking. Everyone does it do one extent or another. The major issue I have with religion is that it works very hard to make this wish-thinking a binding structure and an intolerant ideology. Always a bad idea.

    1. Steve

      Excellent perspective, HH! Thanks!!

    2. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      I totally agree with you on atheism+. I was a critic of it from the start because I saw in it the same tendencies I saw in Baptist fundamentalism. Their attacks on anyone who disagrees with them is shameful and has only served to further divide the atheist community. (if there even is an atheist community)

  11. Angiep

    I was not raised in a religious family by any means, but I was definitely taught morality, consideration for others, and social graces. I became a Christian in my teens (later an atheist), and my observation over the years has been that Christians don’t have ANY sort of corner on morality. So I don’t think a person has to have “something to believe in” or to wear a label such as “Humanist” to be a good person, or to be fulfilled in life. Social mores would exist even in a totally non-religious society. (Do we actually need the ten commandments? Every society has its version of what defines behavior as acceptable and not acceptable.) As for the term “Humanist,” I agree with everything Humanists stand for, but again, I don’t need the title. To me it places humans at the pinnacle of creation, just like Christianity does, but I feel that every living being on the planet deserves a good life — not just humans. I don’t necessarily feel that I have to live my life in service to other humans before I can be fulfilled. I totally love the “Don’t be an asshole” idea. What a wonderful world it would be if everyone lived up to that simple standard.


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