Arts book review

A formal challenge to myths about atheism

Two scholars debunk everything you got wrong about atheism, and then some

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The cover of Blackford and Schuklenk’s book, 50 Great Myths About Atheism.

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.

Simon almost 10 years ago

You criticise the support for Jesus Mo in the book yet you use the word "debunk" in your article. Use of "debunk" is highly offensive to my belief. I demand an immediate apology for your unnecessarily insensitive crossing of the line.

Intellectually Bored almost 10 years ago

It is unclear to me what the intended audience of this book is. Atheists are indeed often one of the least favourably viewed groups in most societies and this book does very little to change that. Not only because of the tasteless cartoons but also because it addresses some aspects as myths to debunk when in fact there is quite a bit of truth behind some of them.

Do we really need another book by Atheists for Atheists?

Stackpole almost 10 years ago

Would "Intellectually Bored" - post #2 - be so kind as to post at least some of the "quite a bit of truth" that he/she sees in "some of them". Thank you.

David Evans almost 10 years ago

You expected atheists to keep kosher and to be pious? When the members of the main religions don't keep each other's taboos, why would you expect atheists to?

Anonymous almost 10 years ago

Frankly, I'm in the HL Mencken camp:

"What [Roberto Perez-Franco]'s contention amounts to, at bottom, is simply the doctrine that a man engaged in combat with superstition should be very polite to superstition. This, I fear, is nonsense. The way to deal with superstition is not to be polite to it, but to tackle it with all arms, and so rout it, cripple it, and make it forever infamous and ridiculous. Is it, perchance, cherished by persons who should know better? Then their folly should be brought out into the light of day, and exhibited there in all its hideousness until they flee from it, hiding their heads in shame.

True enough, even a superstitious man has certain inalienable rights. He has a right to harbor and indulge his imbecilities as long as he pleases, provided only he does not try to inflict them upon other men by force. He has a right to argue for them as eloquently as he can, in season and out of season. He has a right to teach them to his children. But certainly he has no right to be protected against the free criticism of those who do not hold them. He has no right to demand that they be treated as sacred. He has no right to preach them without challenge. Did Darrow, in the course of his dreadful bombardment of Bryan, drop a few shells, incidentally, into measurably cleaner camps? Then let the garrisons of those camps look to their defenses. They are free to shoot back. But they can't disarm their enemy." - Aftermath of the Scopes Trial

No progress has been made by any aggrieved minority group through being obsequious and attentive to the sensibilities of the oppressive, superstitious, irrational majority.

And the Millennial generation, the largest in history (77 million compared to the Baby Boon's 75 million) seems to understand this, however Roberto Perez-Franco cannot.

Oh, and BTW - those cartoons aren't "tasteless" - they're hilarious, sharp-witted, and perceptive. No wonder the theists are so hostile toward them.

stan almost 10 years ago

The cowardly anonymous who wouldn't even post a name, posts this:

"No progress has been made by any aggrieved minority group through being obsequious and attentive to the sensibilities of the oppressive, superstitious, irrational majority."

The facts are not in his favor. First Atheists are not oppressed, they merely like to consider themselves "victims" for their own emotional purposes, which include inability to tolerate the beliefs of others. Second, Atheism cannot prove its own basic tenets, and neither can Materialism - the exact characteristics of superstition and irrationality. Third, Atheists have no attachment to any moral theory or theory of intellectual discrimination: they make up their own stuff. That is the antithesis of rationality, because it entails rationalization: the pursuit of premises which support their presupposed conclusion.

So Atheists are neither moral nor rational nor logical, because Atheism is merely a Void containing nothing except rejectionism and emotional infantilism.