A formal challenge to myths about atheism
Two scholars debunk everything you got wrong about atheism, and then some
50 Great Myths About Atheism
By Russell Blackford and Udo Schüklenk
Russell Blackford and Udo Schüklenk have written a volume discussing a selection of fifty “myths” about atheism that they say are commonly held by the public. I will comment on the substance of their efforts below, but first I have a huge bone to pick with the cover someone designed for this book. Why the radioactive violet background? Do you really need seven colors to spell the word “atheism”? Now on to the important stuff!
Blackford and Schüklenk have compiled a list of fifty claims that are “if not straightforwardly false, at least seriously and demonstrably misleading.” To convince the reader that these “myths” are not straw men created by the authors only to be demolished, multiple instances of each myth are documented using representative sources, from prestigious scholars to anonymous Internet comments. Once each myth’s existence has been established, the authors proceed to dissect its parts and refute what the misconception.
Although some of the myths are admittedly better than others, a few are just plain ridiculous and unlikely to interest the kind of person drawn to the level of discourse presented in the book. For example, a person that honestly buys into the claim that “Atheists worship Satan” (myth 10) is not tolerant enough to be convinced by rational argumentation. On the other hand, a few other myths are more subtle. Some are so pervasive that they are likely held by relatively smart and educated people, like myth 27, “Many atrocities have been committed in the name of atheism.” But most of the myths fall in between these two extremes, with statements that are irrelevant (“Atheism is depressing”, #12), ridiculous (“Atheists have no sense of humor”, #13), gratuitous (“Atheists are arrogant”, #30) or prejudiced (“Atheists are intolerant”, #31).
The authors deserve recognition for their exhaustive efforts of documentation. Personally, I feel for them. They dug through piles of writings and utterances from the likes of Dinesh D’Souza, acting as if such nonsense was worthy of a serious response, and then went point by point through the material to provide a thoughtful and rational response. This undertaking must have been masochistic, but it was necessary. Blackford and Schüklenk were compelled to catalog and refute these claims in order to “encourage more fairness to atheists,” which, as they report, “constitute the most disliked among marginalized groups” in the U.S.
I do think, however, that the spirit of benevolence toward atheists that the book presumably pursues is undermined by the unfortunate inclusion in the book of a series of comics from “Jesus & Mo” peppered throughout the text. These cartoons depict the founding figures of Abrahamic religions having tongue-in-cheek philosophical and religious conversations in what I only care to describe as less than kosher settings, and with not necessarily pious intentions. Regardless of whether the cartoons are funny or clever, a book that seeks to combat prejudices against atheists should, in my opinion, be more careful in its choice of tone, lest they undo some of their hard work for the sake of cheap laughs.
I have been an atheist for a long time, and criticizing a particular choice of a particular book does not make me a closet deist While I praise the authors’ efforts to bring greater understanding to the general public about what atheism is and is not, I regret they lacked the good judgment to do so through a book that showed to others the same respect and benevolence they are hoping to inspire in the general public’s perception of atheists.