It’s no secret that the atheist community has had some bad press, and religious apologists were bound to notice sooner or later. The atheist community has become “shambolic” with scandals and internal division, according to a column by Denyse O’Leary, a Catholic intelligent-design apologist from Canada (there are so many contradictions in that sentence!).
She begins by writing about the harassment allegations against Lawrence Krauss:
But then how can we ground good and evil in a world ruled by blind nature? Atheist spokespersons sound convinced that the right opinions and the right policies will make people virtuous. Then they discover that they, the very creators and purveyors of said opinions and policies, are not virtuous.
O’Leary appears to think that every atheist should be unfailingly good. (She has high expectations for us.)
But why does she think that? Her Christian theology certainly doesn’t say that, and as far as I know, it’s not a claim we’ve ever made for ourselves, either. I can’t see what the argument is, unless it’s just ha-ha-take-that point-scoring. She doesn’t come out and say that the bad behavior of individual atheists discredits atheism as a philosophy or movement, but she seems to want to hint at it.
It would be false to say that every atheist is better than every religious person, just as it would be false to say the opposite. However, it’s not false to say that giving up religion does, on average, make people morally better.
As I wrote recently about the astounding hypocrisy of anti-refugee Christians, evangelical and even mainstream white Christians in the U.S. have become hostile to the idea of taking in refugees escaping war or persecution, while the nonreligious support it by huge margins.
The nonreligious are more opposed to torture, to war, to violence, to corporal punishment. We were hugely in favor of LGBT rights from the beginning – something that churches are still fighting a rearguard action against. We’re also more pro-choice than any other demographic.
But morally better doesn’t mean perfect. Atheists are human beings like everyone else, and we’re not immune to the old prejudices that are still widespread in society. We absorb them consciously or unconsciously and find ways to rationalize them within our belief system, just as religious believers do.
Just recently, we saw Paige Patterson, former head of the Southern Baptist Convention, backpedal on old, sexist comments he made about wives submitting to violent husbands. Soon afterward, Patterson was fired from the presidency of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary when it emerged that he had tried to silence a rape victim who came to him for counsel.
There was also Roy Moore, who came from a culture where abusive patriarchy is the norm and acted accordingly. Should we be surprised that his beliefs about good and evil didn’t make him “virtuous”?
And since Denyse O’Leary identifies as Catholic, I’m sure she knows of the many examples from that area I could cite. What better example than the Roman Catholic church could there be to prove that a grandiose moral framework doesn’t prevent people who hold to it from committing the most revolting crimes?
None of this is intended to excuse atheists for the sexual predators among us, but this is neither a specifically atheist problem nor a specifically Christian problem, but society’s problem. It happens in politics, in the media, in Hollywood, in finance, in industries of literature, art and food. No one is exempt, no matter their politics or their ideology.
O’Leary continues, responding to a blog post by Eiynah of Nice Mangos about her disappointment with movement atheism:
She worries about the fact that some prominent atheists are attracted to the intellectual dark web, “an alliance of heretics” making “an end run around the mainstream conversation” (New York Times). The dark web includes figures like Jordan B. Peterson,, Steven Pinker, and Bret Weinstein,) who want to discuss research findings and contemporary events without the muzzle of political correctness. New atheist Sam Harris, a dark webber, has recently been accused of “pseudoscientific racialist speculation” by assorted progressives. Why? Having finally read sociologist Charles Murray’s controversial book on IQ, The Bell Curve (1994), Harris doesn’t think it is mere “racist trash” but an argument from a body of data that a scientist like himself should answer.
Now O’Leary has a problem, because the things that Eiynah is criticizing the atheist community for are apparently all things that she agrees with. O’Leary clearly feels sympathy for conservatives who whine that “political correctness” is keeping them from being as full-throatedly racist or sexist as they want. (As usual, they mangle the facts in service of this claim: Harris didn’t “answer” Murray’s racist argument, he endorsed it. And far from “prefer[ring] that the book be denounced unread”, Murray’s critics give a detailed account of what’s wrong with it, which Harris dismissed.)
That being the case, shouldn’t O’Leary praise atheists like Sam Harris for coming around to what is, from her perspective, the right viewpoint? But that seems to be a bridge too far for her. The best she can do is the “atheists are in disarray!” argument which treats the existence of controversy as an inherent weakness.
And that is where the atheists face a brutal choice: to remain honest truth seekers, they must part company with serious progressives. For example, atheists believe that it is true that there is no God. Serious progressives believe that all “truths” are constructs created by power-seekers.
O’Leary sprinkles her column with links to the stories she’s discussing, but wouldn’t you know it, the links disappear right at this part. She doesn’t name even one of these “serious progressives” who believe there’s no such thing as objective truth. This is one of those zombie lies that conservatives repeat among themselves endlessly, as if they could prove it by mere repetition in the absence of evidence.
And even if she could name people who hold this opinion, why would it matter? If atheists do believe in objective truth, are we obligated to give up that belief because others feel differently?
Last but not least, O’Leary falls back on the reliable apologist tactic of complaining that atheists are mean to them:
At one time, it was taken for granted that atheists had the right to behave that way toward theists. But traditional theistic religion has much less power in society than formerly. So a question arises, why it is still socially OK for atheists to spew hate and scorn unchecked?
Is O’Leary seriously arguing for a “mercy rule”?
Even if we grant that there’s a point at which a religion becomes such a powerless minority that it would be cruel to mock them, Christianity is nowhere near that point, not in the U.S. and not in the Western world in general. They still exercise vast political and cultural power. They control the American government and have the ear of the current president.
It’s true that they’ve lost a few major cultural battles, especially over same-sex marriage, and younger generations are growing up less religious than ever, but those are almost entirely self-inflicted wounds. If Christians kept to themselves and didn’t fight to impose their beliefs on others through the law – oppressing LGBT people, denying women the right to choose, dismantling science education, censoring books, funneling tax money to churches – they wouldn’t be facing such fierce opposition. To complain about the opprobrium they brought on themselves with their own actions is the height of hypocrisy.
Image credit: seier+seier via Wikimedia Commons, released under CC BY 2.0 license