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Common retorts to atheism debunked
Why it’s right to criticize religion, gods and all the rest

By George A. Ricker

In the most recent issue of Free Inquiry, author Sam Harris talks about his experiences at a recent conference he attended at the Salk Institute. His op-ed piece, titled “Beyond the Believers,” described some of the statements and actions by otherwise bright people who, according to Harris, “…proved themselves to be eager purveyors of American-style religious bewilderment.”

Harris, the author of The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, suggested there are four “retorts to atheism” that especially needed to be taken on by freethinkers and invited readers of Free Inquiry to send in their responses to those notions. Responses were to be kept to 200 words or less, and there is the promise of cash prizes, plus signed copies of his books.

I don’t normally enter contests, but I did enter this one. Unfortunately, my entries were not chosen. I offer them here for your consideration.

1. Even though I’m an atheist, my friends are atheists, and we all get along fine without pretending to know that one of our books was written by the Creator of the universe, other people really do need religion. It is, therefore, wrong to criticize their faith.

My Response: One might as well say, “Heroin users really need their heroin. Therefore, even though I get along quite well without it, it’s wrong to criticize their drug use.”

Whether or not people have a genuine need for their religions is an arguable proposition, but it has nothing to do with either the truth of religious claims or the right of others to criticize those claims.

Since religious beliefs sometimes lead people to commit actions that are harmful, not only to themselves but also to others, responsible members of society have an obligation to examine those beliefs and to evaluate them with the same standards used to evaluate all other ideas.

That religions are important to some does not give religious beliefs a free pass. Our respect for the rights of believers does not and should not automatically translate into respect for the beliefs themselves.

Nonsense is nonsense. It doesn’t become less nonsensical when it is proclaimed as an article of religious faith or just because some people claim a “need” to believe it.

2. People are not really motivated by religion. Religion is used as a rationale for other aims—political, economic, and social. Consequently, the specific content of religious doctrines is beside the point.

My Response: I doubt the victims of the terrorist attacks on 9/11 would find that argument persuasive. It is certainly true that religious beliefs sometimes provide cover for other aims. However, it is fatuous to suggest that religious ideas have no real consequences in the world.

How many people have become infected with HIV and died of AIDS in Africa and other nations because of religious bans on the use of prophylactics?

How many people will suffer and die from debilitating diseases that might be cured or prevented if the United States government stopped impeding the progress of stem cell research in this nation because of religious opinions?

How many gay and lesbian couples around the globe are denied the right to marry and form families because of religious objections to homosexuality?

How many children have received inferior educations because of the effort to disguise religious doctrine as science and force it into science classrooms and science textbooks? How many textbook publishers have redacted and edited their treatment of evolution and other scientific theories to appease religionists?

These are just a few of many real-world examples of the consequences religions and religious dogma have for humankind around the globe.

3. It is useless to argue against the veracity of religious doctrines, because religious people are not actually making claims about reality. Their claims are metaphorical or otherwise without real content. Hence, there is no conflict between religion and science.

My Response: There is very definitely a conflict between science and superstition. Religions often make claims about reality that are based on nothing more than superstition and the mythic lies contained in their holy books. Scientists cannot ignore attempts to substitute superstition for honest evidence or to sabotage legitimate scientific inquiry and raise an impostor in its place.

If religious people actually thought their claims were “metaphorical or otherwise without real content,” there would be no problem. Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of them do not.

Besides, some of the claims of religions can be tested and evaluated, and when that can be done, it should be done. Perhaps by demystifying religions we can mitigate some of the harm they do.

When religions claim to offer “the truth” about human existence, when they claim to present the ultimate answers for ultimate questions, when they attempt to make their dogmas the basis on which all humans should conduct their lives, then we have an obligation to examine, insofar as possible, the evidence on which those claims are founded.

We cannot allow religionists to offer declarations about reality, then retreat into unreality to avoid defending their positions.

4. Religion will always be with us. The idea that we might rid ourselves of it to any significant degree is quixotic, bordering on delusional. Dawkins and other strident opponents of religious faith are just wasting their time.

My Response: There really is no such thing as religion. There are only religions.* “Religion” is the name for a category of belief systems. Religions come to us in all sorts of shapes. Since what is meant by “religion” is always arguable, we may not lose the concept entirely. Some religions may last quite a while.

But religions change over time. Critics of religions may help to eliminate the more harmful aspects of religions and, consequently, defuse some of the flash points created in human societies by religious belief.

Human beings have discarded many ideas about the world and reality that were once thought permanent. Our societies are not fixed and immutable. They can and do change. At least, the ones that last do.

There is no reason to assume that religion is a permanent fixture of the human psyche or that the religions prevalent in our planet today always will endure.

Something we call “religion” may exist forever, but religions need not be the polarizing and divisive forces they are today. They need not dominate either societies or individuals. It’s hardly a waste of anyone’s time to try to bring about such a change.


These brief responses may form the nucleus of one or more longer essays in the future. The retorts to atheism are typical of the sort of fuzzy thinking indulged in by people who are more concerned with not offending people than with reaching any sort of meaningful conclusion.

If there is indeed a conflict between religion and science, it exists because religion picked it. Science is concerned about investigating the natural world and understanding how it works. Because scientists are constantly learning about the phenomena under investigation, the work of science is never done. It is always work in progress, and no one gets the last word.

But science which must conform its findings to the preconceptions and dogmas of the religious cannot function as science at all.

* The idea expressed here about there being no “religion” but only “religions” comes from an excellent book called Natural Atheism by David Eller. The book is published by American Atheist Press, and I recommend it without reservation.

© 2007 by George A. Ricker

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