Thursday, March 03, 2011

An Atheist Meta Myth

The Center for Inquiry is launching a Living without Religion campaign. This is the latest tit-for-tat skirmish in the oh-so-tiresome billboard wars. Personally, as purely a matter of tatse, if I must see a billboard I'd rather see a 3D cow telling me to Eat Mor Chikin than either a Christian or atheist billboard.

The message is rather bland—to the point of sleep-inducing:
"You don’t need God-to hope, to care, to love, to live."

For whom is this message intended? I can't decide. Is it intended for atheists? That seems odd. Is there a large number of atheists who are sad about being atheists? It doesn't seem so to me. At least I never met an atheist who admitted to such.

Or is it intended for Christians—if so, to what end?

I guess I think it is intended for Christians. Consider this blurb from the CFI press release:
"With this campaign, we are aiming to dispel some myths about the nonreligious,” said Ronald A. Lindsay , CFI president & CEO. “One common myth is that the nonreligious lead empty, meaningless, selfish, self-centered lives. This is not only false, it's ridiculous. Unfortunately, all too many people accept this myth because that’s what they hear about nonbelievers."
This is a meta-myth. A myth about a myth. Atheists seem to be in love with the idea that we spend our time denigrating, fearing, and misrepresenting them.

Show of hands: how many of you—when you do hear something in church about the group atheists (which I contend is many orders of magnitude less frequently than atheists imagine) actually hear something closer to this:

It is shameful that you cannot tell Christians from atheists—many of whom are far better than we are at charity, caring for the poor, parenting, preserving marriage, etc…

rather than anything resembling Ronald A. Lindsay's fantasy?

If I ever heard a pastor say anything about "empty, meaningless, selfish, self-centered lives" he was almost certainly chastising Christians, not insulting atheists.

I have heard--far more often-- pastors attempting a call to action by comparing Christians unfavorably to atheists--as opposed to saying anything along the lines of: they're a miserable lot, they are.

Lindsay and other atheists love to perpetuate the meta-myth that Christians perpetuate an unfavorable myth about them. Part of the rather strong atheist persecution complex.

As for the billboards—I think a solution is that Christians and atheists should get together and fund a billboard that we can both agree with. I propose:
If you are an atheist pretending to be a Christian, STOP RIGHT NOW!!. It's OK to come out of the closet.
Like Ronald Lindsay, Jerry Coyne, gets it bass-ackwards, unsurprisingly buying into the meta-myth.

Jerry--we rarely think about you at all. When we do, it is most likely to mock your obtuseness, not to claim you live an immoral, meaningless, unfulfilling life.

UPDATE: Okay, next time I have a glaring spelling error in the title someone please let me know! I feel like I've been walking around all day with a piece of spinach stuck between my two front teeth.


  1. Wasn't this exactly the substance of Doug Wilson's debate with Christopher Hitchens?

  2. chris,

    Was it? It's been a while since I looked at that debate.

  3. Yes - he was using a presuppostionalist approach.

    In fact, isn't this argument just the other side of the arguments made in books like Mere Christianity for the existence of God/the truth of Christianity.

  4. Chris,

    I'm missing the boat. I am not using a presuppostionalist approach here--nor do I see what this has to do with arguments for the existence of God. I'm just pointing out that we don't, in fact, perpetuate the myth that "the nonreligious lead empty, meaningless, selfish, self-centered lives."

  5. I'm just saying that there are a number of Christian apologists who base their presentation on the idea that things like hope, care and love all presuppose or point to a certain type of God (Lewis, Wright and others).

    And some apologists - including a few who have publicly debated prominent atheists - who make the argument that atheists who believe in these things are not being consistent (Doug Wilson, John Lennox and others).

    In that context, the original message makes a certain sort of sense.

  6. Ahh... now I see where you are coming from.

  7. But even those who make that moral argument don't argue that "the nonreligious lead empty, meaningless, selfish, self-centered lives." Save for "meaningless", and even there the claim is one of consistency within the worldview, as has been pointed out.

    Loving, living, caring, being unselfish, etc as a nonbeliever is not what's questioned. ("Hope" is questioned, but even then it's aimed at a particular type of hope. The atheist can hope the Yankees win their next game.)

  8. Dave: I debated the Indiana head of CFI on Fox 59 Face-Off here:
    Thought you might find it amusing-

  9. Mike,

    Thanks, that was fascinating.

  10. Anonymous11:55 AM

    I am an atheist who is sad about being an atheist.

    And I see a different miscommunication going on with these sorts of billboards and slogans. The only times I’ve heard Christians speak about atheism and “nihilism” (let’s roughly say) in the same breath, it has not been to argue that all or most atheists think and live like nihilists. That would be bigoted, and also empirically false. What I’ve heard instead (and said in the past, when I was a Christian myself) was that atheism philosophically entails nihilism, i.e. if there is no God, then there is no ultimate morality and no ultimate meaning to life. This is not bigoted, is not empirically false, and I haven’t yet heard any sufficient escape or refutation. I know the ethics of Kant and Mill, but Hume’s is-ought problem lets all the air out of them. Etc.

    So Christians express a proposition along the lines of “atheism philosophically entails nihilism,” and atheists answer back with a proposition along the lines of “atheists can be happy and nice.” There seems to be a bit of a breakdown in communication.