We’re one week into 2014, and many New Year’s resolutions are still being made (while others have already been abandoned).

I confess I’ve often rolled my eyes at the seeming emptiness of some New Year’s resolutions, but that’s no reason to trash the concept altogether. Although Valentine’s Day is often observed through empty consumerism, it’s still an opportunity to express love for others and reflect on the importance of human relationships. Similarly, despite all the money wasted on unused gym memberships, the New Year can be an impetus to pause, reflect, set new goals, and work toward them.

It’s often said that the trick to effective New Year’s resolutions is to set achievable goals. I have many hopes for humanity—and though they may not all be fulfilled in my lifetime, some are eminently realistic. For example, here are two false ideas I think we can easily lay to rest in 2014:

  1. People can’t be good without religion or God.
  2. Religious believers are unintelligent.

So as people consider their aspirations for 2014, here are a couple of simple goals I hope we might all work toward.

1. Theists, stop calling atheists immoral

Of course, not all theists think that atheists are immoral. But considering how often the claim is put forth, the privileged position that theists hold in our society, the sense of alienation that many atheists feel, and the negative views many Americans have of atheists, it is a real problem.

Theists are welcome to their perspectives on morality, but to claim that atheists cannot possibly be moral is to attack our character. And the problem extends beyond passive beliefs—this claim has been rhetorically weaponized and is frequently employed to discredit and “other” atheists in the public square.

For example, take this recent claim from Sarah Palin: “The logical result of atheism, a result we have seen right in front of our eyes in one of the world’s oldest and proudest nations, is severe moral decay.”

Note that she’s not just sharing how Christianity grounds her framework for morality. Nor is she inviting nontheists to explain how we find meaning and inspiration in our moral lives. She is dismissing the very possibility of atheist morality.

Erick Erickson

Fox News contributor Erick Erickson in 2011. Photo by Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons. (Image source)

And she is far from an outlier. A few weeks ago, Fox News contributor Erick Erickson quite literally dehumanized atheists in the following tweet: “I’ve largely moved toward the NT Wright view that as people move further and further from God, they [become] less than human.” Similarly, last month Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert said, “When a nation’s leaders honor that God, that nation is protected. It’s only when it turns away that it falls.”

Those who say that atheists can’t be moral are either ignorant of, or choosing to ignore, the many civic contributions made by atheists. And by claiming that atheists aren’t moral, they erase the good works atheists do every day by volunteering their communities, donating to charities, and treating those around them with kindness—and this erasure stings all the more considering that the atheists are actually sometimes turned away from contributing to charitable efforts.

This attitude is harmful to theists, too. It makes it harder for atheists to consider the perspectives of theists, or join with them in efforts for the common good. Moreover, the idea that people only do good because of God or religion is, I think, insulting to everyone involved: not only does it suggest that nontheists can’t be moral, but it also implies that the only thing stopping religious people from acting selfishly or harming others is because God said not to. That isn’t the case for the theists I know, so let’s stop implying that it is.

2. Atheists, stop calling believers stupid

Of course, not all atheists dismiss theists as intellectual inferiors. But some do. These atheists probably do not constitute the majority, but they are often quite vocal. (The Onion even parodied this perspective recently.)

It wouldn’t be fair to generalize based on the content of comment sections or message boards, where such statements are more commonplace—but this attitude is also reflected in the words of some of the most prominent atheists.

Richard Dawkins, for example, regularly tweets about “faith-heads”—a term better suited for playground taunting than the halls of Oxford—and his Twitter profile picture features Dawkins in a shirt bearing the slogan, “Religion: Together we can find the cure.” And he is far from alone in implying that religion is a disease of the mind, or a mental illness or disorder (a truly problematic parallel, I think), or that those who believe in God are generally less intelligent than those who do not—such as when Bill Maher said on msnbc that “religion is a neurological disorder,” or when prominent atheist blogger PZ Myers said that religious people “have something profoundly wrong with their brains.”

Such claims are often framed in condescending, derogatory terms. Ariane Sherine, founder of the UK atheist bus campaign, recently wrote about this phenomenon in a piece entitled “The scathing slurs of my fellow atheists make me despair.” In it, she describes how she often sees atheists describe believers as “‘idiots,’ ‘morons,’ ‘imbeciles.’”

Such insults are, I think, clearly unfair. You can think that a person is profoundly wrong about something without making the jump to considering that person unintelligent. (Or claiming they have a mental disorder—though that is perhaps a distinct discussion for another piece.)

Now, some atheists might defend the idea that atheists are more intelligent than theists by citing a 2013 study that found a negative relationship between religion and intelligence. But the University of Rochester’s Miron Zuckerman, who conducted the study, argued against those who have tried to use the study to suggest that religious believers are unintelligent.

“It is truly the wrong message to take from here that if I believe in God I must be stupid… [Instead] we say it is possible that having a high level of intelligence provides similar functions to what religion provides” for people who adhere to a religion, Zuckerman said. And while some studies have suggested that on average atheists have slightly higher IQs than theists, critics have responded that these studies neglect to account for a “complex range of social, economic and historical factors.”

But that’s not even my primary concern. Aside from the fact that there are obviously many highly intelligent theists, and the fact that the claim that atheists are on average more intelligent than theists is tenuous at best—what does denigrating and dismissing theists as “‘idiots,’ ‘morons,’ ‘imbeciles’” accomplish? Does it make theists more willing to consider the positions of those arguing for atheism? I doubt it. Does it open people up to challenging anti-atheist bias? Surely not. Is it ethical? I don’t think so.

Just as the claim that nontheists aren’t moral hurts religious believers, this dismissive attitude toward theists hurts the atheist community. If atheists write theists off as unintelligent, or as unworthy of being treated as our intellectual equals, we also dismiss the opportunity to learn from them. And we miss out on the opportunity to share our perspectives with the people we are dismissing.

In conclusion

Survey any number of religious people and you will find people of striking intelligence, wit, and courage. Do the same with atheists and you will find some of the warmest, most compassionate people you’ll ever encounter.

There is diversity of thought and action among both atheists and theists, and it’s not constructive to broadly generalize about either group. The companion claims that theists are stupid and atheists are morally depraved are both incorrect, and they actively harm people.

Imagine what we could achieve if we moved beyond name-calling and making dismissive statements about the “other,” and instead put our heads and hearts together to heal our shared world.

Let’s find out by working together this year to rid society of these harmful ideas.

45 Comments

  1. NOPE.

    Oh, am I supposed to give a thoughtful response? :P

    Yes, it is disturbing to hear religiosity equated with mental illness. With what low esteem must fellow atheists with mental health struggles think we hold them! Plus, (a)theism is but a fraction of the full breadth of who we are as people, and to flatten individuals into a single binary is rather anti-humanist.

  2. I think it would be helpful to distinguish the claims:

    (1) Atheists as individuals cannot be moral; and

    (2) The rise of atheism in a society leads to a decline in general morality.

    I agree that (1) is clearly untrue, if we define morality in the everyday sense of helping the poor, respecting the rights of others, etc. Religious people just have to look around to see that (1) is not true.

    However, (2) is less easy to dismiss. I myself am unsure of whether or not it is true, but, at any rate, (2) seems like an empirical claim that should be tested by historians, sociologists, or other experts. Interestingly, even an atheist might affirm (2), if, for example, the atheist believes that religion–while false–in some way induces moral behavior by promises of reward and punishment or in some other way.

    So, even if we swear off saying (1), is it still OK to wonder about (2)?

    • Randy Burbach

      Take a look at the rate of imprisonment in this country. What group has a far lower percentage in jail than in the general population? Atheists. Take a look at the countries with the lowest crime rates. What do they have in common? They have the highest percentage of non-believers in their population. While these correlations aren’t causation or proof that atheist are MORE moral, the correlation disproves your second postulate

    • Chris, J T Eberhard called you a “dishonest little shit” on The Friendly Athesit blog and Mehta did not moderate it, although he moderates comments.

      Atheists are immoral, and that ain’t gonna stop.

  3. Well, given the responses of a couple of people on this thread, it seems that even though atheists are not immoral and theists are not stupid, there’s no shortage of small hearts and small minds.

    You can lead a horse to water, but sometimes he’ll piss in the river just out of spite.

  4. I think that the concept of “religious people are stupid” stems from the fact that so many deeply religious people refuse to believe proven science and, instead, cling to the information in a book written 2000 years ago. It certainly is possible to be religious without being stupid, just as it’s possible to be religious without believing that the earth is 7000 years old and we’re all descended from Adam and Eve. Based on my conversations with numerous believers, it’s possible to have faith in God AND faith in science. It’s the people who ignore what science says that are so easily labeled as stupid.

  5. in general, I agree with what Chris has written here. And I’m very tired of being hated and called immoral because I can’t believe in something without reasonable proofs or arguments for its existence.

    • “I can’t believe in something without reasonable proofs or arguments for its existence.”.

      Sure you can. Do you believe that the human moral conscience, as described in Romans 2:14-15, originated via unguided naturalistic evolution?

      If so, then you indeed have bought into a “without reasonable proofs or arguments” example. Indeed, atheism itself does not seem rational.

      • There is overwhelming evidence that evolution explains just about every quality of the human body and its brain. And belief should only follow a determination that the evidence is true. Evolution of human body and mind is clearly proven. There is REASON to believe that the consciousness evolved in the same manner.

        Evidence is exactly what is missing in any discussion regarding any gods.
        There isn’t a shred of evidence that any gods exist.

  6. Cat Sittingstill

    This looks to me like a false equivalence. Theists insulting us is much much more common than us insulting theists. It is up to you, of course, but it would please me if you spent your time fighting for fairness for us instead of perfection for them.

    • Maklin Deckard

      Agreed. Sounds like our ‘Fatheist’ blogger is more on the faith side than the atheist side. He seems far more concerned with the bruised feelings of theists than helping advance the cause of non-believers in the face of theist harassment..

      After all, theists have condemned and harassed atheists since the first person declared non-belief. Its only RECENTLY our numbers have been high enough to push back….where was good ol’ Chris and his common ground when it was one-sided vitriol from theists directed at non-believers?

  7. Maklin Deckard

    “Let’s find out by working together this year to rid society of these harmful ideas.”

    I am going to state a viewpoint that is not going to be well-received here, but here goes…

    Let’s don’t, Chris. Or more accurately, let the faith-heads go first as a show of goodwill. Let them reign in their crazies (the Hagee’s, the Fishers, the Robertson’s who have said far worse than Dawkin’s ‘faith-heads’) FIRST. I don’t expect you to understand this, since you play at the edges of ‘faith’ as a humanist ‘chaplain’ but I have had a LOT more experience with Faith-Heads in places far removed from the enlightened coasts and elite universities (try spending most of your life in the rural Midwest and Southern US).

    Until a few years ago, I never pushed back, tried to play nice, tried to stay well away from religion as a topic of discussion. And what did I get for my trouble? Direct religious questioning by faith-heads and then horror when they didn’t like the answers. I’ve had every character aspersion, insult and foul name you can think of hurled at me by so-called ‘good Christians’ when they discover I do not attend church…and it only got worse if I let slip I was Atheist. I’ve lost friends and family merely for not ignoring reality and believing the same as a faith-heads. I finally had enough.

    Now, I have NO intention of playing nice with faith-heads…experience says that just encouraging them to be even ruder…all in the name of the ‘great commission’ and ‘saving’ you of course. By pushing back as I have over the last few years, sometimes HARD, I have gotten them to leave me be for the most part and take their delusions elsewhere and badger other people.

    I have been called an anti-theist, and that is correct….I was made an anti-theist by theists and their relentless attempts to force me to conform. I am not a humanist, and I have no use for priests, ministers or chaplains who want to sing kumbaya and work for common ground….faith-heads have a LONG way to go to prove to me they deserve being treated as anything but gullible rubes with a mean streak to anyone outside their tribal belief systems.

    • I have to agree with you. Once they found out I was atheist, my Catholic in-laws looked down on me like I was a stinkbug. They finally attacked, en masse, on Christmas Day, listing everything they didn’t like about me from the past TEN years! I’m done playing nice. I have no use for willfully ignorant, superstitious morons. (And yes, I do understand that not all believers fit that description.)

      p.s. on New Year’s day my MIL texted me, “May God fill you with his blessings.” Unbe-fricking-lievable!

    • “Let them reign in their crazies (the Hagee’s, the Fishers, the Robertson’s who have said far worse than Dawkin’s ‘faith-heads’) FIRST. I – See more at: http://chrisstedman.religionnews.com/2014/01/08/hopes-2014-end-atheists-immoral-believers-stupid/#sthash.b5SlEupB.6yPBWIYN.dpuf”

      I live in Canada. How am I supposed to do that? Especially with your stupid (<-having fun here) First Amendment? No one can rein them in. So I guess you set your test deliberately up for failure.

      Scientism, positivism and social evolutionism are all demonstrably failed theories of human evolution, just as stupid as creationism.

      PSI am pantheist. So, what does that make me?

  8. A truce between believers and atheists? Why?
    We’ve barely begun.

    I owe my intellectual freedom to other atheists who opened up my eyes to reality that Christianity was nonsense.

    If you believe nonsense, expect to be challenged.
    And…Expect to defend it.

    • See, that’s what I like. Good honest down-to-earth atheism. And I’m not being sarcastic. The fact is that if atheism is true, then Christianity honestly IS nonsense. And if Christianity is true, then atheism must necessarily be nonsense.

      There’s nothing wrong, nothing hateful, about simply being honest with each other.

  9. Earold Gunter

    Chris, Great thought provoking article. I had a hard time concentrating on my work after reading it though, so I’ll blame you for my lack of productivity today.

    Although I understand that you want peace, and I think just about everyone does, it just simply will not work as long as their is religion, in my opinion.

    The reasons is that the definition of peace isn’t the same for everyone involved.

    For the religious peace means they continue to run our lives with rules from their beliefs, and we kowtow to them. This is sort of like what the Borg may consider as peace; resistance is futile.

    For non-believers, peace mean we get to live in a world not ruled by people who hold beliefs that are simply founded on nonsense.

    I agree that civility in discourse can and should be improved because not being civil does not get any believer to start thinking, it just gets their backs up. This does not take us towards our goals. Honestly, the religious do more for the cause of atheism than atheists do.

    However, for those who come off nasty, or even worse, crazy sounding, I have nothing but contempt, and have no desire to try to get them to think as they are usually way past the point of logic and reason anyway.

    Also, it is most often not possible to not offend a believer when you tell him, even nicely, that you think he believes in a fantasy. For those who are not militant, I usually urge them to actually read their holy text, without the blinders of faith, if possible.

    From my perspective, I would rather that you used your last sentence, “Let’s find out (if we can) by working together this year to rid society of these harmful ideas.” as a rallying cry for all non-believers, with the thought of harmful ideas being religion.

    Better pic though.

  10. My instinctive feelings are the opposite: I tend to think religion often leads to immorality (as Paul of Tarsus pointed out) and many people who label themselves atheist are involved in severe intellectual errors, profoundly misunderstand science, and ignore the most intellectually incisive spiritual writings in favor of easily attacked straw people. A plague on the judgmental and arrogant of both houses.

    That’s the instinct I fight against. In my better moments I love all you guys.

  11. Inclusive Atheist

    I dont think he put that atheists are move intelligent thing to rest. I read excuses/needs more study but not a denial of the facts. That study was done by Pew. Its a scientific study. in order to be science it has to be provable and repeatable. He actually said religion can be replaced by intelligence.

    We dont have enough kind atheists representing us. We have ppl with snarky, hateful, demeaning, messages toward Christians that make all of us look bad. It shouldn’t matter that some Christians want to plant their crosses and statues all over land that belongs to all of us and if we don’t like it (as several notable ppl have said lately) we can just get on a plane and leave the country. In the first 300 years of this country different strains of xns summarily executed each other for believing different. I have met some that would do that again if they could.

    • There is no polite or gentle way to say “Sorry, but your religion isn’t real.”

      Atheists look mean even when they are being nice! We Athiests can’t win the popularity contest. But we are correct. There is no evidence that Gods are real.

      Atheists ARE NOT mean. They are trying to spread freedom.

    • “Atheists”can be pretty brutal. Soviet Union, China etc. I put quotes because they basically made a religion of materialism and the state. Nevertheless they flew an atheist flag. Since I may be swept up in whatever regime doesn’t like the fact that I consider atheism an empirical hypothesis subject to falsification rather than the actual truth I have my own fears. I mean evolution by natural selection does not explain everything which is why it’s interesting, but tell some people it is in fact just a theory they look at you like you are thumping a bible and calling for the burning of witches.

      • Maklin Deckard

        You don’t quite grasp what a theory is. Or the difference between a hypothesis and a theory.

        “A hypothesis attempts to answer questions by putting forth a plausible explanation that has yet to be rigorously tested. A theory, on the other hand, has already undergone extensive testing by various scientists and is generally accepted as being an accurate explanation of an observation.”

        So when you say ‘god did it’ instead of evolution, people are indeed going to look at you like a crackpot…we’re so far past the hypothesis stage on evolution. It all comes down to scientific study of the fossil record, biology, etc vs the words of prophets an a book of bronze age tales written long after the events in question, by multiple authors and translated by committee. I’ll take science of theist gullibility. Theistic belief wouldn’t even qualify as a hypothesis, since it lacks the required plausibility with talking snakes, arks, resurrection, heaven and other nonsense that would appeal to the uneducated bronze age mind in a world where everything you didn’t know and didn’t know how to figure out was magic or gods.

        By your logic, we might start falling up tomorrow, because ‘gravitational theory’ is just a theory.

        • Gravitation is a perfect example. That masses act a certain way seems clear; what best explains it is the point of theorizing. I am not sure that’s been settled at all. Einstein changed several centuries of thinking about gravity; they’ve been searching for gravitons; quantum gravity was; the rage a few years ago. Working gravity into the standard model is still an outstanding question. Darwin’s original theory or hypothesis which under his view seemed to require constant gradual change over vast times just didn’t match the record, modifications were proposed and are being debated. It does not matter whether it is a grand explanation which we call a theory or a more modest limited idea we call an hypothesis. It is all about stating an idea, figuring what it predicts and then following those predictions for a deeper understanding or to find they are wrong and need to be jettisoned modifiedfor.

          As for the belief in the factual veracity of stories there has been a long standing proposition and practice in many traditions that when observed facts contradict what is the text, the facts prevail and the story is investigated for what the author was trying to communicate with the particular fiction. Bible and manuscript studies have gotten extremely scientific and some are very interesting. If you don’t buy what fundamentalists say and let fundamentalists set the terms of the debate and let them make claims about the writings which the writings themselves don’t make, but look at them as historical evidence of something, they turn out to be fascinating. Ideas, evidence and testing is a major part of many religious traditions and for thousands of years. And some of the factual claims may be true. Why should any report of “spooky action at a distance” be dismissed as obviously false?

      • Soviets made the state the religion. Stalin took the place of ‘czar’ to the Lord. Pol Pot and Hitler pulled a similar trick.

        It is a boorish slander to call them ‘Atheist’ states.
        These regimes were religious in all the important ways.

        Only the US Constitution is truly Atheist as it invokes no God and clearly does not rely on one.

        • That sounds a little like Christians who claim their particular criminals weren’t really acting in a Christian manner. Atheists do bad things too. I think the Constitution takes no position on this question. Unlike the Declaration!

          • “religious” is what “religious” does.
            The soviet state was a religious state, the job of a Czar is to intermediate between humanity and God. Look it up.
            It was not lost on the Russians that Stalin appointed himself in that role. The same is true today in North Korea, the most “religious” country in the world.

            Yes, atheists do bad things. But they almost never go to prison.

            To do NIGHTMARISH things you need Religion.

            “If you belief in absurdities, you will commit atrocities” – Voltaire

  12. Since you refused to post my original comment, let me try it another way.
    You’re sitting on the fence looking longingly behind you toward what you used to have, while knowing that reality is in front of you. You don’t seem to be able to get off the fence and move on.

    Humanist Chaplain is a stupid title. It’s like herbivore carnivore.

    You’re trying to get people on both sides to pretend that the fence doesn’t exist, but it does. Religion and reality will never meet. They can’t.

    Faith is the concept that something must be true because there’s no evidence. The lack of evidence is the basis for the belief. In the world of reality (one side of the fence), yes, that’s stupid.

    I too am a former evangelical christian. I too am now atheist, and I too am gay. I have been an atheist for more than 30 years. This concept of bridging the gap is stupid. I have no time or patience for delusions of gods. I have no time or patience for anyone who tries to influence my life based on their mythology.

    Chris, are you a fairly new atheist? That would be my guess since it’s quite common for people to have difficulty letting go of the many years of brainwashing they’ve endured. It’s difficult to let go of the fears of hell that have been plaguing you since you were a child. It’s difficult to let go of the fear that this is the only life you’ll have. It gets better with time. The fears and delusions fade.

    • Mac

      I respectfully disagree, and think Chris is going in positive direction.

      There have been Unitarian humanist clergy for over a century. Today many, perhaps most, Unitarian Universalist clergy are humanist. Visit them sometime, you might like them. (I myself am a UU dropout, having become a nothing.)

      • Maklin Deckard

        Got dragged to a couple UU meetings by a friend who is ‘spiritual but non-religious’ (basically he can’t let go of the last of the ‘woo woo’ beliefs and declare himself atheist). I didn’t care for them at all. Personally I think a more appropriate name would be Universalist Fence-Sitters. EVERYONE there seemed to want church without a god…same flim-flam, same homilies …just no mention of JC and the sky daddy.

        And all their speakers talked like Christian apologists of ministers…..take longwinded paragraphs to say what you can in fewer words, hoping to lose you in the rhetoric. This seems to be a tactic I see in a lot of blogs by pro theists and on theist radio shows. When asked for proof they ramble on for 10 minutes, quote a lot of verses, speak like they swallowed a Theological seminarian’s dictionary, and then fold their hands and smile like they made sense. I guess I expected, after all the glowing comments I have read over the years about UU-ism, a more rational and focused group. I got theist woo-lite.

    • I think you might be wrong about religion and reality never meeting: it seems to be a statement that in order for it to be true it is either by virtue of the way you define the terms, for instance defining religion as believing in unreal things, or it is a prediction about facts which implies a claim that you know every relevant fact and the future. It could be testable as a hypothesis which would require seeking out ways in which the prediction might be false. That openness and self-criticality is an important part of a “scientific” approach, is it not. “Religious” folk in so far as they conclude that nothing will ever change what they themselves have determined to be true, act the same way. Now it may be the case that there will never be a meeting, but the first thing to do in order to find out one way or the other is precisely what Mr. Stedman suggests: stop clouding our minds with preconceptions that we dearly want to hold on to but actually have no basis in reality. How else do we find out what’s really going on?

  13. I don’t think that simple belief in the existence or non-existence of a God / gods is useful criterion to correlate with intelligence. The first (obvious) point is that the word “God/gods” means a lot of different things in different religions / contexts. Some God/gods are honestly silly, others are like the Prime Mover. The second point is that freedom of religion and expression are not enjoyed by all cultures. There may be very intelligent people who are simply afraid to admit doubt. The third point involves postmodern views of constructivism: that we create meaning and value out of these cultural constructs. Arguably, belief in the existence of God/gods is not nearly as important as what value/meaning this construct confers to one’s life. There may be very intelligent people who think there is a Mind that is behind the universe, and yet it doesn’t make one whit whether or not this person is wrong.

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