Responding to “The Three Mistakes Atheists Make” August 14, 2014

Responding to “The Three Mistakes Atheists Make”

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, writing for the Huffington Post, explains the three most common mistakes atheists make.

The problem is they’re not really mistakes at all.

1. They dismiss, often with contempt, the religious experience of other people.

Yoffie’s argument is that we don’t take religious people seriously enough when they say they’ve had divine experiences. He doesn’t mention that many of us had those religious experiences ourselves back when we still believed in God. We could speak in tongues, we knew God was talking to us, we felt an aura of sorts. Those feelings, we realized later, were entirely in our minds. So it’s not that we’re dismissing those beliefs now — we know people have them — but we aren’t going to pretend like there’s a real connection being made between them and God. And we can still get those feelings by listening to great music, or meditating, or being around someone we love.

There are ways of making that clear without coming off as an asshole, but it’s never easy to point out that someone else’s heartfelt experiences aren’t on solid footing.

Just look at all those books written by people who were close to death and visited Heaven. When they were debunked, people were angry.

Is it possible that most (if not all) religious experiences aren’t divine at all?

2. They assert that since there are no valid religions but that religions do good things, the task of smart people is to create a religion without God — or, in other words, a religion without religion.

This is a controversial view, even among atheists — that we need to create some sort of atheist “church.” Not many people have been making this case at all. It’s confined primarily to a handful of philosophers and a number of atheists who seek a community without the supernatural glue. And the latter group is especially adamant that they’re not creating a Godless religion.

I don’t believe we don’t need these “religions without religion,” but more power to those who want to be part of a larger group and have the organizing skills to make it happen. Yoffie says this is impossible because you need ritual and faith to strengthen those bonds. I say it’s too early to tell; we’re only beginning to see what these types of communities look like in the Internet age. In any case, the number of people who are interested in joining these groups are a small fraction of atheists as a whole.

And do religions do good things? Religious people often do, sure, but religion as a force for good is, at the very least, debatable. If faith groups have done more good, it’s likely because they have incredible access to money, resources, and people, not because there’s something special about faith itself.

3. They see the world of belief in black and white, either/or terms.

Talk about a straw man…

Yoffie thinks atheists have a binary view of religious people: They believe in the supernatural (idiots!) or they don’t (we’re so smart!) and that’s all that matters. But that’s rarely the case in practice. There’s a clear difference between fundamentalists, strong believers, casual believers, and people who call themselves spiritual-but-not-religious (and everyone in-between). Many of those people are on our side on legal issues and matters of social justice — they’re natural allies. If they believe in the supernatural, sure, I have no problem saying there’s no evidence for any of it — but you’d be crazy to treat them the same way just because they harbor some belief in a higher power.

Sam Harris even alluded to the problem with that sort of binary thinking earlier this week:

One very dangerous blind spot engendered by generic “atheism” is a default assumption that all religions are the equally bad and should be condemned in the same terms. This is not only foolish, it’s increasingly dangerous. Anyone who is just as concerned about the Anglican Communion as he is about ISIS, al-Qaeda, and rest of the jihadist menace needs to have his head examined.

As a commenter on the site says, Yoffie and many other religious people are guilty of three mistakes of their own:

  1. They dismiss, often with contempt, the spiritual experience of other people who do not share their religion.
  2. They assert that there are no valid religions other than their own.
  3. They see the world of belief in black and white, either/or terms.

But even I wouldn’t go so far as to claim all religious people think like that. I know better than that.

(Image via Shutterstock)

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