My problem with capital “A” Atheism, part one: not enough critical thinking

The ideas for this blog have been sloshing around in my head for a while, and I think I’m finally ready to get them out there for comment.

Let me introduce myself. My background is that I’m an atheist who no longer likes to admit to being one. I’m increasingly reluctant because there’s a minority of very vocal, very uncompromising atheists who are beginning to dominate public perception of atheism. My world view is very different to theirs, so I would be keen to avoid the association.

To be clear, I’m not talking about atheists in general. I am an atheist. Most of my friends are atheists. I’m not talking about active humanists or passionate scientists (I also have friends in both of those categories). I’m talking about atheists who dislike religion so intensely that it overrides their normal sense of what is polite or tactful to say to others. I’m talking about the kind of atheist who can quite happily have a civil conversation with an adulterer or heartless businessman, but will immediately round on the nicest person you could hope to meet if she happens to mention that she goes to church. When making smalltalk with people I don’t know that well, I’ve actually started pretending to be an agnostic. I’m not. I’m an atheist.

Purely for the sake of being concise, for the purpose of this blog, I’m going to refer to that small subset of atheists as capital “A” Atheists. If you know of a better terminology, then please feel free to suggest it. I’d love to get and respond to some reader comments here, and think it would be great if this blog could be a focal point for civil debate, rather than just a soapbox for me.

Of course, it depends how much attention the blog gets. I know I’m not the only atheist in my social circle who feels this way. If the capital “A” Atheists are serious about winning people over to their view, then I’d suggest that alienating fellow atheists like me is a sign that they might be laying it on a bit too thick.

So, here is my first (not only) objection to capital “A” Atheism.

To a layman like me, it all seems a bit unscientific.

Don’t freak out and hit “reply” just yet. Let me explain.

The capital “A” Atheists are generally very good – impeccable, even – at being scientific. Especially when it comes to questions like where the Earth came from, or how humans evolved from amoeba. However, their approach to the question of religion – specifically, the question of whether it’s harmful – seems to be more emotive than rational.

To be clear, I’m not contesting the science behind the claim that religion is false. I’m talking about the claim that it’s harmful.

First of all, the idea that it is harmful is a fine working hypothesis. You only have to look around to see that it might be true.

So test it. Scientifically. Let’s have some studies where the only variable is religion (or, if those studies have already been done, let’s base the discourse on them, rather than fist-waving and spittle). Surely, the question should be this: all other things being equal, are religious people more likely to suffer, or cause suffering, than atheists are?

Or is it the case that other socio-economic factors cause the problems, and religion is just a way of talking about things that muddies the waters?

I would be impressed if the capital “A” Atheists were routinely making arguments like the following – which, by the way, are entirely the product of my own imagination:

“A peer reviewed study showed that, all other things being equal, people brought up in a religion are more likely to report being unhappy, more likely to have a criminal record, and more likely to earn less than the local average wage.”

“According to a peer reviewed study, the absence of a religious upbringing was a strong predictor of adult success and happiness, second only to being brought up in a wealthy household. On average, using nine different measures of quality of life, the children of engineers performed best in adult life, and the children of religious ministers performed worst.”

“A peer reviewed study suggests that people are twice as likely to be killed in the course of religious violence than they are to have their lives saved by a religious charity. The global cost of religious strife may be three times greater than the amount raised by religious charity work worldwide.”

Sadly, when it comes to the claim that religion is harmful, arguments like the following (which I did not make up) are more common:

“Science flies you to the moon. Religion flies you into buildings.”

Considering how few people have flown to the moon or into a building, this is anecdotal evidence at best. I guess it suggests a direction for further study, but beyond that, it’s just an inane soundbyte. Like so much anti-religious rhetoric, it’s guaranteed to make the existing fanbase whoop and cheer while everyone else just groans and puts the football on.

The problem is, you can argue almost anything with selective statements like that.

“Science gives you Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Religion gives you the Salvation Army.”

You can even show that the UK is better than Austria:

“The UK gives you Radiohead and Misfits. Austria gives you Hitler and Josef Fritzl.”

The problem with anecdotal evidence is, unless you use it to suggest avenues for proper scientific research, it’s actually an enemy of science. I certainly don’t think the capital “A” Atheists should be encouraging people to watch the News at Ten and reach lazy conclusions about how religion is the cause of all the wars, etc., etc.. Any line of thought that begins with “everybody knows…” or “everyone can see…” is in urgent need of proper testing. Personally, I would take the Capital As more seriously if they encouraged people to think deeply and with healthy scepticism about all claims – even the ones that they themselves are making about the harmfulness of religion. Sadly, it seems they’d rather gloss over the very real subtleties of this debate with (at best) over-simplistic soundbytes about how religion “flies you into buildings.”

I’d love to bring some genuine critical thinking to the question of whether or not religion is harmful. As a sceptic, I’m not going to assume that it’s bad for people to (very selectively) believe things that aren’t true, if it gives them a warm glow to do so. And if I’m being asked to accept that religion is harmful, I won’t accept anecdotal evidence cherry-picked from the billions of religious lives being lived worldwide.

By the way, if you know of any objective scientific studies about the effect of religion, then I’d genuinely love to hear about them. Please feel free to comment on that (or anything) below.