I have always been an atheist. My parents made it pretty clear: From a young age I knew we were Jewish, and we did not worship or believe in God. (Apparently, I was less clear on the distinction between the two, which led to me being enrolled in Hebrew School until I could differentiate them.) I have no “atheist conversion story,” although I could tell the story of how I became a skeptic some time.
That is a different article, however. The point I am trying to make is that I am happy as an atheist. I have never felt any particular need to be anything other than an atheist, never felt that I wanted to be anything other than an atheist, and never felt that I was missing out on anything by being an atheist.
Being an atheist is a huge part of who I am. I could not stop being an atheist without completely revising my outlook on the world. Becoming a believer would not be as simple as switching the “God” switch from “Yes” to “No.” In order to believe that God (or gods, or an impersonal supernatural force that comprised a privileged reference frame from which to view questions of morality and value) exists, I would have to redefine my understanding of the word “exists” to be able to include things not made of matter. I would have to redefine my definition of “true,” my definition of “evidence,” my definition of “reality.” I would have to completely revise the way I view the universe, and to get there, I would have to completely destroy the way I view the universe.
And beyond the existential distress of utterly transforming my worldview, there’s the social distress, too. Would such a drastic change influence the way my friends see me? Would it change my relationship with my fiancee? Depending on which religion I turned to, would it hurt my relationship with any of my family members?
No matter how it happened, becoming a believer would be an extremely stressful and painful experience. I’ve been told, by people who have done it, that the other way around is just as traumatic.
Greta Christina posted last month  that, “For many atheists, our main goal is persuading the world out of religion.” She goes on in the same post to establish herself in favor of that position:
We don’t want to see this happen by law or violence or any kind of force, of course. But we think religion isn’t just mistaken. We think it’s harmful. Some of think it’s appallingly harmful. Some of us think it’s inherently harmful: that the very qualities that make religion unique are exactly what make it capable of doing terrible harm. What’s more, we see religion as not just hurting atheists. We see it as hurting billions of believers. So we’re working towards a world where it no longer exists.So, according to Greta Christina, her primary goal as an atheist is to make most of the world’s population suffer the trauma of losing their faith, so that they can then be better (read: more Greta Christina-like) people with truer (read: more similar to Greta Christina’s) beliefs. And I should be okay with this, because she promises not to use legal coercion or violence to bring it about.
I am not okay with this.
For starters, I am a skeptic. I demand truth claims be backed with empirical evidence. So: Where is the empirical evidence that religious belief is harmful, either to believers or non-believers? I want a serious study here: A comparison of abuse of power in religious institutions to similarly structured secular institutions, say, or of domestic abuse rates between religious and non-religious households, corrected for factors known or suspected to influence abuse rates not directly attributable to religion (such as authoritarianism, substance abuse, and abuse rates in past generations). Give me hard, empirical data that religion is harmful--that bad religious people would be less bad if they were atheists, that good religious people would be better if they were atheists, that suffering religious people would suffer less if they were atheists.
Then prove that it is always better to be atheist than religious. Show that there is never a person better off as a religious person, never a person whose religious faith makes the world around them better. Because if there is even one such person, then a world with universal atheism is worse than a world of pluralistic belief.
I find it absurd I have to make this argument. Somehow, large numbers of otherwise clearly very intelligent atheists are able to avoid seeing the blatant irony and hypocrisy of insisting, with no evidence whatsoever, that belief without evidence is harmful.
Second of all, I like diversity. Diversity is powerful and useful. In most fields of endeavor, empirical data and truth are not of primary importance; you can do data entry equally well regardless of whether you understand electronics or think your computer is powered by tiny gnomes. Without religious perspectives in particular, art, literature, music, and architecture would be sadly diminished. Imagine a world with no Sagrada Familia, no Angkor Wat, no Eddas, no Lord of the Rings, no Bach… the list is unfathomably long.
It is clear that, misapplied, religious faith is a hindrance to scientific and technical endeavors--creationism proves that. However, the existence of non-religious anti-science movements such as global warming denialism and the anti-vax movement call into question whether it is actually religion that is the problem, or clinging to demonstrably false, harmful beliefs in the face of overwhelming evidence, which hardly seems an exclusive problem of the religious. Meanwhile, the existence of religious scientists in large numbers (one 2007 study found that more than a third of biologists and psychologists believe in God or gods) suggests that religious faith is not an insurmountable obstacle to scientific endeavor, if it is even necessarily an obstacle at all (which I regard as, at the very least, not proven).
Third, and most importantly: You do not have a right to make others suffer for your beliefs.
No one has that right. Ever.
If Greta Christina’s assessment of religion were correct--if all religious belief is both false and inherently harmful--then religion would be not only a mental illness, but the most widespread mental illness in history. But even if that were true (and I do not believe it is), you do not have a right to cure people by force unless they are demonstrably an immediate danger to themselves or others.
I cannot reiterate this enough: Proselytizing is yet another word for making people suffer in order to transform them into what you think they should be, for no other reason than because they are not what you think they should be.
What Greta Christina advocates--what any atheist advocates when they suggest “increasing the numbers of atheists” as a laudable goal, what any adherent of any religion advocates when they suggest “increasing the number of members of my religion”--is evil in one of its purest forms.
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