The Third Best Mistake Made by Atheists

I find myself increasingly embroiled in debates about religion, but not with religious people. The hot new thing is for atheists to be in conflict with other atheists. I know, it’s not really new and it’s not as significant a problem as some doomsayers in the secular community would have us belief. However, I have been puzzled by some of the claims made by self-professed atheists and agnostics about religion.

I am going to focus on one claim in particular, which is usually made about the Bible. A good example of this claim is featured in Phil Zuckerman’s “The Top Mistakes Atheists Make“:

The Bible was written by humans. It has no other source. The evidence is clear on that front. And … given that it is a human creation means that it isn’t all good or all bad – but contains both. Its contents can be downright absurd, flagrantly unscientific, embarrassingly racist and sexist – not to mention painfully boring. But it also contains brilliant insights into the human condition, fun stories to entertain kids, and heady poetry. It even has solemn stretches of unbridled skepticism and existential angst. Check out Ecclesiastes.

It occurs to me that Zuckerman might be making an aesthetic point. Maybe he appreciates parts of the Bible, like Ecclesiastes, and he experiences a sharp pain in his groin when atheists condemn the hodgepodge as “a wretched, silly book, rather than seeing it as a work full of good and insightful things as well.”

I was distraught when I found out that one of my favorite American writers detested the work of one of my favorite English writers. Twain is quoted by Robert Underwood Johnson as saying “any library is a good library that does not contain a volume by Jane Austen. Even if it contains no other book.”

I hope there’s more to Zuckerman’s argument than disappointment that many atheists don’t share his appreciation for Old Testament aphorisms. Unfortunately, lists don’t allow for much in the way of clarification.

Atheists mock and laugh at religion, which upsets moderates and makes enemies of fundamentalists. Zuckerman should wonder why they would knowingly do this in response to any cultural system, let alone one that has reflected so much of humanity’s struggles with mystery and death.

When you’re part of a dominant group, you can take religion for granted. You can bask in the complexity of religious pleasure, aesthetic or otherwise. As a subordinate group, atheists have no such luxury and their deviance becomes an identity issue. They can’t afford to appreciate nuance and diversity because they are constantly being politicized in response to their marginalization.

Atheists don’t emphasize the “good parts” of the Bible because they are constantly butting heads with the bad parts, the consequences for which are much more severe than failing to shiver at Ecclesiastes 3:1-8. At best, atheists are reminded that eternal life is a possibility if they only make conciliatory offerings to a god. At worst, atheists encounter violent intolerance wedded to the twin diseases of tribalism and fascism.

If religious people kept their beliefs to themselves, perhaps the Scandinavian vision of secularity that Zuckerman privileges would find roots in other parts of the world. Until then however, atheists are confronted with the fact that Christians actually do believe the tenets of their religion and they are consequently compelled to share their fantasies, sometimes using silky words and sometimes with a cudgel.

This reminds me of Christopher Hitchens’s response to the question “If there is no god, why do you spend your whole life trying to convince people that there isn’t? Why don’t you just stay home?”