Atheist critiques of religion

Atheist critiques of religion are mostly valid, insofar as they are true. I think the atheist critique does religions a great service – it’s like having an independent auditor to look at your work and check for shoddy bits. So how does Paganism measure up to the atheist yardstick?

Critique 1: “It’s all irrational”

Yes, of course it is. The emotions, spiritual experience, love, awe, wonder – these are not cognitive responses to the world, so are by definition not rational.

However, my religion has to be compatible with reason and experience. When it goes beyond the empirical evidence, those bits are marked “working hypothesis” and “conjecture”.

There are degrees of irrationality; not all “woo” is equally irrational. Just because I posit the possibility of earth energies as a working hypothesis to explain certain experiences that I have had, does not mean that I also believe in ley lines, homoeopathy, or other forms of “woo”. I’d quite like to believe in homoeopathy, but having examined the evidence against it, can only conclude that it doesn’t work.

Critique 2: “The moderates give shelter to the extremists”

That is not even true. The moderates do not “give shelter” to the extremists. The moderates get out there and protest against the extremists (e.g. Standing on the side of love; Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice). And get killed for it (e.g. James Reeb, and Tennessee Valley UU church).

The moderates and liberals try to present a more loving, inclusive, and reasonable faith, but most of the time it doesn’t even get noticed by the media. How can this be “providing shelter” to the fundamentalist nutters, when we call them out on their bullshit ALL THE TIME but are drowned out by their strident bigotry?

Critique 3: “Religions persecute non-believers”

The Roman Empire persecuted the early Christians; however, this was in the name of the state religion of emperor worship (because Christians wouldn’t make offerings to the genius of the emperor), rather than in the name of paganism as such.

Modern Pagans do not persecute anyone, and religion in general has made great strides in interfaith dialogue. However, there are still too many fundamentalists, and we need to guard against any fundamentalist tendencies emerging in Paganism.

This is a valid critique of religions. There has been far too much persecution over the centuries.

Critique 4: “The universe doesn’t look as if it was created by a deity”

Agree strongly. Deities (if they exist) are an emergent property of the universe, not the other way around.

Other liberal religions (such as the UUs) have redefined their view of the Divine to mean the ground of all being. Apophatic theology (such as that put forward by the Christian theologian John Scotus Eriugena in the 9th century, who pointed out that God doesn’t exist) has long stated that the Divine cannot be described by any physical terminology.

Critique 5: “Dogma and doctrine get in the way of experiencing the world directly and are in conflict with reason and empirical evidence”

Agree strongly. Pagan religions are non-dogmatic; it’s up to individuals to decide what they believe, based on experience and reason. I have occasionally heard people say, “We do it this way because of tradition”. That is completely bonkers when the tradition is only 50 years old. No-one should do anything just because it’s traditional; there should always be a valid reason behind it, like “because it works”, “because it makes me feel good”. (Always subject to the proviso that it harms no-one else, of course.)

Critique 6: Religions indoctrinate people

Fundamentalist religions indoctrinate people; liberal religions don’t. In a survey carried out by Covenant of the Goddess (an American Pagan organisation) in 2005, 49% of respondents indicated having no children, and of the remaining 51%, only 27% (i.e. approximately 13% of the total sample) said that they were bringing their children up as Pagans. 52% of those with children said they were bringing them up in a multi-faith environment; 9% said ‘another faith’; and 12% said ‘none’. Even those brought up as Pagans might not choose to practise a Pagan tradition as adults – I have met many children of Pagan parents who did not go on to be Pagan themselves, though many of them seemed to have absorbed Pagan values (of the sort mentioned above) from their upbringing.

Pagans are free to make up our own minds about how the world works. There are atheist Pagans, naturalist Pagans, humanist Pagans, pantheist Pagans, polytheist Pagans, duotheist Pagans, henotheist Pagans, animist Pagans… and unclassifiable / “it’s complicated”.

Critique 7: “Liberal religion is just moving the goalposts”

One aspect of the atheist critique of religion that has me completely baffled is the objection to classifying the obviously mythical aspects of religion as a metaphor. The philosophers of ancient Greece knew that the stories of the gods of Olympus were metaphors. The Eastern Orthodox Church was saying in the 4th century CE that the Garden of Eden story was a metaphor. It’s not dishonest to say that the obviously metaphorical bits of mythology are not literally true. I have always said that Pagan mythology is metaphorical, and so do most Pagans – indeed, I dare say the most devout hard polytheist would say that the stories of the gods are not literally true.

The tendency to insist on everything in the Bible being literally true is something that only became really popular in the late nineteenth century (according to Karen Armstrong, anyway, who admittedly sometimes looks at religion through rose-tinted spectacles). So the idea of seeing the stories of religion as allegorical is older than the idea of taking them literally. It’s not a new thing invented specially as a defence against atheist critiques. Indeed, the rise of atheism (which wants to take the stories literally in order to debunk them) seems to go hand-in-hand with the rise of fundamentalism (which wants to take the stories literally and believe them).

Many atheists seem to assume that in order to do religion properly, you have to take every last jot and tittle of its creed as part of a monolithic system, and if even one crack is introduced, then the whole edifice will come crashing down. But why shouldn’t people of religion also use scientific method, deductive reasoning, and so on in order to think about things? And if science successfully disproves a religious claim, then surely the honest thing to do is to admit that the claim is false? The Dalai Lama was once asked what he would do if science proved that reincarnation didn’t exist. He answered that he would advise Buddhists not to believe in it any more.

Any questions?
If you have any other critiques to offer, or questions, please post them in the comments.


37 thoughts on “Atheist critiques of religion

  1. “Indeed, the rise of atheism (which wants to take the stories literally in order to debunk them) …”

    Critique 8: Some religious people oversimplify atheism in order to make rhetorical points.


      • 1. Atheism didn’t “rise” with modern fundamentalism, unless you take the position that fundamentalism is over 2,500 years old across multiple cultures.

        2. Many of us come directly out of god-as-metaphor traditions. I’m not an atheist because I suffer from the misapprehension that Pagans or Christians treat myth literally. I’m an atheist because I think those metaphors and allegories are often misleading.


      • (1) Atheism is indeed as old as religion itself. I should have written “the rise of New Atheism” or “the recent upsurge of interest in atheism”.

        (2) That’s very interesting, but I would venture to suggest that it’s unusual (but that suggestion is based on anecdotal rather than statistical evidence). I have come across an awful lot of people who assume that we must take our myths literally and that it is somehow dishonest to admit that a myth is a metaphor.


      • Most atheists I have met seemed to be unaware that there were any non-literal, non-fundamentalist religious traditions. Atheist critiques seem largely directed at American Protestant traditions or sometimes Islam, and rarely even acknowledge that other religious viewpoints exist.


      • Replying to Christopher Scott Thompson…I completely agree with you! The arguments many atheists have against these singular religious traditions don’t translate to -other- religious traditions, because the components they argue against aren’t found universally among -all- religions. I have posited that in order to reject -a- religion, one must understand it first, rather than reject it based on an understanding of an entirely different religion, as rejection of one isn’t properly a rejection of any others.


      • “Most atheists I have met seemed to be unaware that there were any non-literal, non-fundamentalist religious traditions.”

        Many of the atheists I have met are members of those traditions.


      • Hi CBrachyrhynchos,
        I’m curious, how is it you find the mythical metaphors and allegories misleading? I enjoy discussing myths and would be interested in your atheist, and non-literal, point of view on them. 🙂


      • Many of those metaphors involve a fair bit of projection of human cultural ideas onto things that are distinctly non-human and incomprehensible, or even human diversity. Take for example the idea of masculine and feminine as broadly applicable metaphors. That metaphor breaks as applied to many human beings who don’t experience gender that way, much less fungi that have five different sexes, androgynous algae, self-propagating plants, or, weirder still, organisms whose gender involves mutualistic relationships involving multiple other species.

        And that’s not even touching the equally complex realms of the non-biological, formal, or philosophical. To say that being is Being is one thing. To say that it’s *a person* with likes and dislikes, prophetic speech, children (mortal or immortal), and a relationship is another thing altogether.

        None of this is beyond the pale for religion. If it’s reasonable to consider deus a metaphor then it’s reasonable to doubt (which is the essence of atheism, not denial) the relationship between signifier and signified in that metaphor. Negative theology, the stripping away of those metaphors until you’re left with questions and uncertainty is an ancient practice.

        Or to define it in a positive way, atheism for me is a practice and ethos based on the provisional adoption of a monist mystery that defies metaphor and personification. There’s no need to reject other views, and the insistance that we do so is a fairly explicit double-standard (as well as forcing conflict metaphor on relationships that may not apply.)


      • I agree completely about the imposition of the gender binary being a crap metaphor, CBrachyrhynchos. Indeed, both Christine and myself have written quite a lot (here and elsewhere) criticising that particular metaphor and the harm it does.


    • Critique 8: Some religious people oversimplify atheism in order to make rhetorical points.

      And some atheists oversimplify religion in order to make rhetorical points. However, if I have over-simplified here, perhaps you could point me towards a more nuanced version of that statement.


  2. Basically, all I got out of what you wrote is Liberal and moderate good, fundy bad.

    You do a disservice to the faith of the fundamentalists. They have a rich, passionate(yes Passionate, which is why they are so fervent) take on their religion. There is nothing bad or deserving of the title bigotry, for believing and living your faith, even if that faith goes against peoples political principles.

    I think your point would have been made more succinctly, without the hidden critism of fundamentalism.


    • By definition, fundamentalism doesn’t mean passionate, it means, to strictly take a literal interpretation, or to strictly adhere to fundamental doctrine. While I’d agree with you that liberal religion doesn’t hold universal, moral high ground over other flavors, agreeing or disagreeing with the concept of fundamentalism must be done on the merits of its actual definition. Plenty of pagan traditions and practices are passionate as well. It is also a mistake of the original author to characterize (or give the impression that) all pagan traditions as liberal, as many are culturally conservative, and are even friendly to doctrines in some cases. See Reconstructionist traditions to see how conservatism can play a role in pagan faiths.


      • I think you can have doctrines and still be socially liberal, and not have very many doctrines and be socially conservative. I think that there’s not a very tight correlation between the amount of dogma and social conservatism.


      • As a concept that is fine, but in observing people I would posit that there is a noticeable correlation between those pagans professing to be liberal and those who oppose doctrine and dogma, and between those who profess cultural conservatism and those who adhere to a clear doctrine or dogma.


  3. “Indeed, the rise of atheism (which wants to take the stories literally in order to debunk them) seems to go hand-in-hand with the rise of fundamentalism (which wants to take the stories literally and believe them).”

    Thank you so much for this!


  4. Interesting article concept with high and low points for me. On the high note, I completely agree with the final paragraph speaking to allegory and metaphorical understanding versus literal interpretations of myths. It always frustrates me when the atheist point of view mocks the literalist religious point of view for belief in the the stories literally, and then debunks them by that same literal interpretation. If the literal is seen as ridiculous, why not discard it altogether then, and make a point based on a different view of the works in question? That seems more reasonable to me than does remaining within the realm of the ridiculously literal in order to posit that such belief is, in fact, ridiculous. It requires very little of the actual critical thinking they are claiming to employ to simply retort, ‘well, it -can’t- be true!’ It’s like third grade ‘nuh-uh!,’ ‘yuh-huh!’ playground arguments which contain no substance. Adults claiming to be the thinking ones should do better than this.

    On the low notes, one of the first paragraphs has the author claiming that she posits theories based on experiences, which are naturally subjective, and then she discredits homeopathy as ‘woo’ that ‘doesn’t work’ based on ‘reading evidence against it.’ It seems in some areas she values experience, and in others she does not, thereby writing off the potential experiences of others by deciding for them what is or is not ‘woo’ based on how she interprets objective material. I don’t see how she can reasonably have it both ways. Plenty of people have had positive experiences with homeopathy and don’t need others to place them in a ‘woo’ category when they demonstrate their judgement isn’t coming out of their own experiences with the remedies. I also find the discarding of the ley lines concept to smack a bit of her own fallacy of taking a concept literally and then discarding it on only literal merits. It is a concept which -could- be interpreted in metaphoric ways to symbolically describe felt and perceived energies, even while that might not be its overt definition. Options are possible nonetheless.

    I also take a bit of umbrage in the short rant against ‘tradition.’ There is a reason -why- a tradition is built up as it is, or evolves into its presently known form, which is, as the author claims to prefer as a reason to do something, because ‘it works’ or it ‘feels good.’ ‘Tradition’ is the accumulation of what others in the past have experimented with to create what will feel like a meaningful experience, whether it is designed to ‘work,’ ‘feel good,’ create connections, or speak through specific symbolic language and action to the powers of choice. ‘Tradition’ does not even necessarily mean set in stone, as personal experiences allow one to gather information which might lead to tinkering and tweaking of said traditions in order to evolve them. Following tradition means attempting to understand how it was created and why, to discern what is language is, and learn how to speak it, to see for oneself if the results are as they are claimed to be. When experiences fall short, the knowledge gained can be added to the accumulated mix that has created tradition thus far, adding a new dimension to it. It is meant to be a living thing preserved by a people which speaks a uniquely meaningful language to them, carried with thanks to those who came before who contributed what they did, and carried carefully to those who will come after, as an important legacy of what has been known and created up to that point. It deserves more honor than the author gives it, even if some are rather new at this point; everything was new at some point. The trick is learning how it is meant to be valuable.

    This is a thought-provoking concept for an article and may inspire me to work on one myself. Thanks for sharing.


    • “It always frustrates me when the atheist point of view…”

      THE atheist point of view, because after all, we’re all stacked on the same rock looking through one set of binoculars at a single bluebird.


      • Assuming you’re being facetious here, but forgive my turn of phrase, as the popular atheist rhetoric I have heard has tended to follow a singular trajectory. I suppose it must be true though, that there are varied and multiple points of view within atheism as there are in other branches of theology. I’d be interested to know, do you feel your particular atheist position differs in any way from the mainstream atheist ideas presented by those such as scientist Stephen Hawking, or political comic Bill Maher? Even my atheist friends express the same commonly-heard viewpoints often publicized, so I’m unaware of any nuances in the overall atheist community.


      • Since I don’t watch Maher, I can’t really speak about him. And my familiarity with Hawking is likely a decade out of date. I don’t find his recent statements that a naturalistic universe is possible, or that he is mortal to be particularly outrageous. I don’t think a comprehensive cosmological theory would be broadly compelling, and I disagreed with some of his statements about alien contact. Those are disagreements shared by some atheists of my acquaintance, who variously agree or disagree with just about anything published by or about an atheist.

        What’s mainstream? I don’t know. Ebert’s essay about how he doesn’t believe in a personal god, but does not wish to be identified made the rounds earlier this week. Before Dawkins’s tweet and Harris’s pout became big news, a collaborative essay including de Botton and Al-Khalili was a hot topic of discussion. Are Stedman and Higgs mainstream? Batchelor and Hutchins unfortunately are not mainstream, but should be a data point in this discussion. What about Pratchett, Adams, Sagan, and Vonnegut? Atheism+, the New Humanism, and atheist interfaith organizations? Most atheists of my acquaintance are quiet about it, or are participants in welcoming congregations.

        I can’t take mainstream for granted because I’ve always been pointing out the inadequacies of mainstream views of my life, sexuality, religion, and ethics.


      • There’s nothing outrageous about believing in a naturalistic universe or that death is the end.

        When I said “the atheist critique”, I was referring to the collective atheist discourse about religion. I read quite a lot of atheist blogs and gathered my paraphrased critiques from blogposts and comments that I have read. Of course different atheists have different views, they’re individuals just like everyone else; but there is an atheist discourse around religion which tends to repeat the same arguments a lot.

        And yes there are atheist Pagans, atheist UUs, atheist Christians, atheist Buddhists, and probably atheist Jews too. And Buddhism has no creator deity either.


      • Good points, and thanks for elucidating your perspective. Can you tell me what Atheist+ means?

        As to Yvonne’s reply, there are definitely atheist Jews; because their tradition is held by scholars, scholarly discourse is a part of the tradition, and as it is also an ethnicity, one can be either a practicing or non-practicing, atheist Jewish person. I appreciate the way their community is open to that position as part of its overall theological diversity.


      • Atheist+ is a group of people who have responded to instances of sexism, racism and homophobia within some sections of the secularist / atheist / skeptic community, and determined to make that community welcoming, inclusive, non-racist, non-sexist, and non-homophobic. It has caused some controversy within the atheist community, perhaps because everyone hoped that the movement would automatically be LGBT-friendly, women-friendly, and minority-ethnic-friendly.


    • Good point about the homoepathy and the ley lines, Erin.

      I also take the view that tradition is evolving and dynamic and based on what works for people over time. What I was criticising was the kind of people who say you must do something because it’s traditional, and don’t actually offer any other reasons.


      • I would say then that your quibble is with those who bandy tradition about without full discourse on it, rather than with tradition itself, which is designed to lead to the kinds of satisfying experiences you were outlining. Glad that you appreciated my points about homeopathy and ley lines. Thanks for being open to them, Yvonne.


      • Oh yes – I have never had a problem with tradition when it’s the fluid and evolving variety you described. It is blind adherence to tradition for the sake of it that I object to. In fact, I am thinking of writing a blogpost with my thoughts on tradition, and would very much like to quote your comment, which expresses it very well.


      • I am happy to be quoted, sure. Blind adherence to tradition sounds more like the blind faith many fundamentalist branches of monotheisms encourage, more than any sense of tradition, which is designed to evolve over time to meet its peoples needs.


      • Honestly, I have has *protracted* arguments online with people who want adhere to “the tradition” and don’t care if it is excluding someone, because it is the tradition and therefore one must adhere to it.


  5. It’s hard to ask an outside group to form an accurate opinion of us when we ourselves can’t do it. My atheist sister likes my practice but i doubt she has an opinion on Paganism at large because what does Paganism mean anyway. I do disagree with your comments in point 2 – our moderates do shelter our extremists as much as any other faith umbrella. We have groups that hate people based on their race, their gender or gender identity, and their religion. Hating Christianity seems to be a badge of courage for some Pagans. I’ve heard and seen more liberal Pagans apologizing for and trying to explain the views of our fringe and that’s it right there – sheltering the extremists. If someone within our community says all men are rapists or Christian bashes the apologists come pouring out of the woodwork.


  6. Excellent article. While I second the previous commenter’s note that atheism too can be oversimplified, I think it’s unavoidable to some extent and you’ve done a fairly good job of capturing the critiques of the most vocal types of atheist critics.

    I especially appreciated that you mentioned allegorical views of religion are not new. I wouldn’t agree that they are older than literal views, but they go at least as far back as Axial Age Greece, in my opinion.

    There are two parts (Critiques 1 and 4) where you might elaborate more to make the responses a bit stronger.

    The response to Critique 1 says: “my religion has to be compatible with reason and experience. When it goes beyond the empirical evidence, those bits are marked “working hypothesis” and “conjecture”.” Conjecture is fine, but the thing about a working hypothesis is that a) it must be falsifiable, and b) a person ought to make a good faith effort to try to falsify it. In my experience, there are many Pagans who take this attitude as a sort of license to believe whatever they want, without ever attempting to put their beliefs to the test. For those people, it might be better to follow your example in the immediately preceding paragraph and just embrace the irrational nature of it, or else begin to actively test their assertions in a methodologically rigorous way.

    Second, Critique 4 aptly addresses the way most atheist critiques of this sort go, concentrating on a Creator deity outside nature. This is probably because atheists tend to go after the Abrahamic religions, and have formed their arguments accordingly. Paganism doesn’t usually posit either a Creator or deities that are outside nature. However, in the spirit of self-critique, in might be worthwhile for Pagans to reformulate the argument to fit themselves better, and see what happens. If deities are not outside nature, perhaps “emerging” from within it as you mention, what does that mean? Does that mean they should have some kind of physical substrate or effect on physical things that can be measured? If so, then why not start to looking for it? If not, and they are not measurable, then does it make a difference whether they are inside or outside of nature? In terms of verifiability, which is what atheists really tend to care about in making Critique 4, wouldn’t they be in the same boat either way? So perhaps Critique 4 might apply to Pagans after all, albeit in modified form.

    I think an atheist critique of religion might go something like that. Pagans could benefit themselves by using such critiques to work out ideas in greater clarity.


    • Good point about the falsifiability aspect of a hypothesis. I was kind of assuming that the hypothesis is not really falsifiable or 100% confirmable (in which case I guess it’s not a hypothesis – darn), or at least not in a way that would satisfy a rationalist skeptic.

      For more elaboration on the theme of deities, see my earlier post, Deities and divinity.

      When I hypothesise that deities are emergent, I mean in the same way that mind is emergent from brain. In that instance, the physical substrate is the brain. In this case, it’s the universe. But the universe is non-biological and the brain is biological, so maybe it’s a bit of a stretch. But yes, the mind can be said to leave physical traces in the brain — when a neuron fires, chemicals are exchanged across the synaptic gap. In the case of the universe, would there be any way of distinguishing between the passing of a deity and a non-preternatural physical event, though? Hmm.


  7. “Honestly, I have has *protracted* arguments online with people who want adhere to “the tradition” and don’t care if it is excluding someone, because it is the tradition and therefore one must adhere to it.”

    Yvonne, the reply button on your comment was lacking, so I moved my reply here. My question to this is, which tradition do you mean, and who are its people? When -a people’s- needs shift, they will gradually shift their tradition along with in order to meet -their- needs, although it will likely happen at a relatively slow rate.

    But insofar that traditions are meant to meet the needs of -their people-, they aren’t all designed to -include everybody universally-; if someone is not a part of the people of a given tradition, then it is not the role of the tradition to automatically shift to meet that individual outsider’s needs. I might be welcome to witness a particular traditions’ rite, but not participate in it unless I am a member of the people of that tradition- for example, I can’t participate in most Indian ceremonies unless I am a member of the tribe giving it, and I cannot take communion in most cases unless I am a member of the church providing it. Those traditions aren’t going to expand or change in order to include me as an outsider, and I wouldn’t expect them to.

    Similarly, as a tradition belongs to a people, a collective, it will take more than the changing needs of just a small percentage of its members to enact a shift in the entire tradition; a critical mass will be needed to bring that about over time. As the people’s needs do effectively change over time, so will their traditions.


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