Five Things All Atheists Should Know About Religion

If you want to critique organized religion, it helps to know what you’re talking about.

I’m an atheist who engages in secular activism and is active within the atheist community. I’m also doing doctoral work in the cognitive science of religion, and I’m sad to see so many atheists who have misguided and ignorant views about religion. Here are five things I wish more atheists knew.

1. Religion is not the sole cause of violence.

This view, endorsed by well-known atheists such as Sam Harris and Bill Maher, is often justified by referencing terrorist acts done in the name of Islam. But blaming religion for violence prevents us from seeing all that drives violent behavior, including social, psychological, and political factors.
Atheists who think religion causes violence could use an education in social identity theory and the process of radicalization. The process of how one’s beliefs (whether they are religious or not) can lead to violence is rather complicated, and reviewing the work of Scott Atran and Brooke Rogers would also be important to understanding such a relationship.

2. Religion is not a mental illness.

The likes of Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins claim that religious belief is a “neurological disorder” and “hereditary mental illness.” But while negative aspects of religious belief can exacerbate mental illness, that’s no justification for a sweeping generalization like “religion is a mental illness.” Mental disorders are by definition maladaptive, and simply believing in a higher power is not inherently maladaptive.
Plus, many studies reveal positive health benefits of religion, including reducing anxiety and creating a desire to help others. Religious belief can also help people explain the world and fulfill needs for attachment. Believing in God requires many of the same mental faculties that are automatic and implicit, making it cognitively natural.
Also, saying “religion is a mental illness” marginalizes those with actual mental illness and alienates potential religious allies.

3. Believing in God does not make you stupid.

It’s easy to name brilliant religious people who break this myth — Issac Newton, Soren Kierkegaard — but it is better to see what science suggests about the matter. Google-savvy atheists may be quick to mention how the research suggests a negative relationship between religiosity and intelligence, but such studies by no means indicate that religious people are stupid.
Defining intelligence is complex. Intelligence is multidimensional, and there are often cultural biases that go into measuring it. Intelligence tests often hail from a U.S. context where there is a strong link between religiosity and socioeconomic status, which creates a huge confounding variable.
Miron Zuckerman, the lead author of a recent meta-analysis investigating the relation between intelligence and religiosity, is quite explicit: “It is truly the wrong message to take from here that if I believe in God I must be stupid.” These findings do not suggest that religious people have less ability, but rather that people who fall under the study’s definition of “intelligent” have less of a need for religious belief and its practices.

4. Religion is not the root of bigotry.

Just as multiple factors contribute to violence, so multiple factors also contribute to bigotry. Take, for instance, sexism in the atheist community, which has been documented here, here, and here. This issue is exacerbated when atheists pretend they are championing women’s rights by calling out sexism in religion, but only do so to score points against organized religion. These issues will continue so long as the atheist movement is predominantly run by older white men.
Atheists who are exposed to harmful societal messages regarding gender can be just as likely to promote sexist ideals as religious people. As mentioned above, studies suggest that atheists have greater analytical thinking, but this certainly doesn’t make them immune to cognitive biases or engaging in unsophisticated thinking.

5. Religion is complex.

I think most atheists do comprehend this on some level, but they sometimes become intoxicated by their own biases and emotions.
Some examples of religious complexity: believers don’t always take their religious text literally; they disagree with their fellow believers on major points; there are various orientations of religious belief; and, some religions don’t even believe in gods (Buddhism, Taoism, Jainism, etc.). Additionally, there are many sociological, psychological, and political factors that intersect with religion and how it works in different regions and social groups.
I want urge my fellow atheists to engage in more sophisticated thinking when critiquing organized religion. When atheists propagate these sweeping generalizations and falsehoods, it makes them sound dogmatic, ignorant, and fundamentalist. Isn’t that what atheists say they are fighting against?


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