Review: 50 Great Myths About Atheism

50 Great Myths About Atheism
By Russell Blackford and Udo Schüklenk
Wiley Blackwell | 2013 | 288 pages


"There is an old saying about propaganda -- probably not a myth -- that a falsehood repeated often enough will eventually be taken as truth." -- Russell Blackford and Udo Schüklenk

I am a member of the least trusted group in America. No, not because I'm a book reviewer -- or, worse, a novelist (novelists are known liars, you know) -- but because I am an atheist. According to a series of studies conducted by Will Gervais at the University of British Columbia, the religious distrust atheists more than members of other religious groups, more than gays, and more than feminists. The only group they distrust as much as atheists are rapists. Rapists -- not Wall Street Bankers or late-night TV pitchmen, but rapists! Forty-five percent of them also wouldn't vote for an otherwise qualified presidential candidate if he or she happened to be an atheist. And, for God's sake (if I may be so bold), don't ask them to welcome an atheist into the family via marriage. Lock up your sons and daughters, the heathens are a comin'!

Having been an atheist since my teen years, and not terribly religious before that, I am not surprised by this. I have dealt with misconceptions about atheists and atheism for years. But, considering myself to be a trustworthy individual, and not necessarily liking to be aligned with rapists, you will excuse me if I'm a bit annoyed by it. It's but a small annoyance -- I live in a fairly liberal and tolerant area of the country and commune mainly with fairly liberal and tolerant people. But for people in other parts of the country -- such as the aptly named Bible Belt -- not to mention other countries with other religions that are even more suspicious of non-believers, I can imagine the misconceptions can lead to situations well beyond the simply annoying. From estrangements from family and friends, for example, to free-flowing fatwas.

And the distrust, indeed the dislike, of atheists has been growing of late, possibly due to a bunch of not previously declared atheists suddenly "coming out of the closet," following the lead of their gay brothers and sisters, who are now more trusted than they -- which bodes well for atheists coming out of the closet. That closet door was opened by quite a few writers on the subject in the last decade, but most famously by the ironically dubbed "Four Horsemen," Richard Dawkins, David Dennett, Sam Harris, and the late -- but still incredibly eloquent -- Christopher Hitchens. These gentlemen have all irritated the religious by refusing to show them undue deference, and by considering them as just ordinary shopkeepers in the marketplace of ideas peddling wares that should be as much subject to consumer reports as the wares in any other shop full of ideas.
Not receiving the respect and deference one feels one is naturally (or possibly supernaturally) owed has a tendency to cause one to distrust, dislike, and dis the one not doing the respecting and deferring.  Which leads to -- to put it nicely -- misconceptions. Not so nicely, one might be tempted to call them lies. But that, I feel, would be wrong. For these misconceptions seem to be sincerely believed. Given that, the best term then may well be, myths.

And given that, 50 Great Myths About Atheism by Russell Blackford and Udo Schüklenk has appeared at a very good time indeed.

Russell Blackford is a well-known public intellectual and philosopher in Australia, the holder of several Ph.D.s, Conjoint Lecturer in the School of Humanities and Social Science at the University of Newcastle, and a prolific writer on such subjects as secularism in governments, transhumanism, and science fiction. Udo Schüklenk is a Professor of Philosophy at Queen's University in Canada, a renowned bioethicist, and served as the Chair of an international expert panel drafting a landmark report on end-of-life care on behalf of the Royal Society of Canada.  

If we were ruled by myths we would be concerned that 50 Myths would be a double dose of thick, academic, philosophic, possibly tortured language meant to clarify but that only muddied. I am happy to dispel any such myth and report that Blackford and Schüklenk's collaboration has given us an intellectually rigorous yet compositionally relaxed book. It is clearly written, clear-headed, and amusing on occasion (especially with the inclusion of comics from the Jesus & Mo website). It is simply organized, as the title indicates, with the authors taking on the 50 Myths one by one. They are all considered by the authors to be true misconceptions about atheists and atheism, as opposed to well-considered opinions that may be negative towards atheists for sincere, even if wrong, reasons. Despite being atheists themselves, the authors give each myth dispassionate consideration, finding fault with the false assumptions and tortured logic of the myths, but never with the myth holders themselves, which is equivalent to the Christian concept of hating the sin but not the sinner. I cannot, of course, give a summary of all 50 myths in the space of a book review, but let me consider the more egregious ones covered by Blackford and Schüklenk.

There is Myth 19, that old chestnut -- indeed, that old war horse -- "There are no atheists in foxholes." Blackford and Schüklenk do a fine job here of laying out the facts. There are indeed atheists in foxholes, in fact there is a Military Association of Atheists; in fact non-believers in the American military outnumber Jews, Muslims, and Hindus. And yet, adherents of those religions in the U.S. military have dedicated chaplains, whereas the U.S. Congress still will not vote to allow non-religious chaplains to serve the needs of non-religious soldiers, sailors, and airmen. This also despite the fact that a Catholic chaplain who served in Iraq complained that soldiers were not coming to his chapel as much as he expected them too. They also point out that many well-known Christians, such as former President George W. Bush, were never in foxholes in the first place because they managed to keep themselves out of war. In Bush's case, of course, this was only true until he became the  Commander-in-Chief. But then, there are no foxholes in the White House.

What they don't do is speculate about how such a myth came about outside of assuming that the myth was intensified during World War II when it became an oft-stated "truism." I've always speculated that the religious just assume that anyone facing the possibility -- indeed probability -- of death-real-soon would naturally turn to God (who, of course, is on their side) for protection. As blatant a bit of psychological projection as I can think of. But the authors have not given themselves the luxury of speculation, preferring to refute through facts and critical analysis the assertions within the myths. Still, if they had wanted to be less rigorous they might have answered the myth "There are no atheists in foxholes" with the flippant answer, "Maybe that's because atheists don't tend to start wars." Which would have led them to Myth 27, "Many atrocities have been committed in the name of atheism.

That's the one where the religious try to defend the past atrocities of their religions (wars, pogroms, witch hunts, inquisitions, putting clothes on naked natives) by painting atheism with the same brush, naming Hitler (of course), Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot as the perpetrators of atheist atrocities in the 20th Century.  Blackford and Schüklenk handily refute the idea that the atrocities these men committed, which were indeed various hells on earth, were committed in the name of atheism. They point out that there is no evidence that Hitler, although not traditionally religious, was ever an atheist. And, most of the generals down to the privates who carried out Hitler's orders were most likely, like most of their generation, nominally religious if not devout worshipers.

 There may, indeed, have been no atheists in German foxholes. And the Holocaust? "While the roots of the Holocaust are complex, traditional Christian anti-Semitism undoubtedly played a part, creating the mindset in which the persecution of the Jews and the Holocaust were conceivable." As to Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot, official atheists all, Blackford and Schüklenk makes it clear that none of what these men did followed from "... mere atheism, and instead far more comprehensive political and economic ideologies were relied upon." In other words -- and this is a point I wish they had made clearer--Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot did not get the authority to do the horrible things they did from atheism, but rather from  "...apocalyptic thinking and comprehensive worldviews..." which "... seems to hold true for both religious and nonreligious adherents of particular totalitarian ideologies."

Of course the religious who hold these myths about atheists might say that even if these butchers of the 20th century didn't get their authority from atheism, their total lack of morals because they were atheists allowed them to kill willy-nilly. Unfortunately, though, the religious would then have to answer why atrocities in the name of religion happen when the religious men who commit them professedly have morals.
Which leads us to Myth 20, "Without God there is no morality."

Just recently about 10 or 12 members of Atheist United, a community of atheists in Los Angeles, were participating in the annual AIDS WALK LA to help raise money for AIDS research. They walked proudly under an AU banner and had on AU tee-shirts. Someone, seeing they were atheists, yelled out at them, "Where do you get your morals from?"  It was, of course, a rhetorical question, more statement than query. The irony of this being yelled out at a group who were, at that moment, giving of their time and effort to benefit others less fortunate than they, seems to have been lost to the yeller.

This myth that those who do not believe in a god or gods have no basis for personal morals is the most pernicious of the 50 myths that Blackford and Schüklenk cover. It is certainly the source of the distrust mentioned above.  The authors, both well versed in the history and current practice of moral philosophy, truly shine here in the logical, rational light they bring to the question. I will not summarize their arguments here, but suffice it to say the reader comes away with an understanding that "... morality serves the needs and desires that human beings actually have. That is why moral standards will remain even if belief in God no longer prevails."
Despite the desires of many religious leaders that the recent rude awakening (if I may put it as they well might) of atheist consciousness in the last decade would just go away -- it is not likely to anytime soon, if ever. So they most likely will persist in disseminating these 50 great myths about atheism.  Blackford and Schüklenk have provided a wonderful corrective to that persistence. Their arguments dispelling the myths are calm, well-reasoned, and easy to grasp, but never argumentative in a way that would give succor to some of those myths, such as that atheists are arrogant, strident, and antagonizing. For all that, this book is most welcome into the marketplace of ideas.

This reviewed first appeared in Neworld Review.