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In 2014, let’s stop saying “atheists are immoral” and “believers are stupid”

Imagine what we could achieve if we moved beyond name-calling and making dismissive statements about the “other,” and instead put our heads and hearts together to heal our shared world.

Erick Erickson in 2011. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons/Gage Skidmore

We’re one week into 2014, and many New Year’s resolutions are still being made (while others have already been abandoned).

I confess I’ve often rolled my eyes at the seeming emptiness of some New Year’s resolutions, but that’s no reason to trash the concept altogether. Although Valentine’s Day is often observed through empty consumerism, it’s still an opportunity to express love for others and reflect on the importance of human relationships. Similarly, despite all the money wasted on unused gym memberships, the New Year can be an impetus to pause, reflect, set new goals, and work toward them.

It’s often said that the trick to effective New Year’s resolutions is to set achievable goals. I have many hopes for humanity—and though they may not all be fulfilled in my lifetime, some are eminently realistic. For example, here are two false ideas I think we can easily lay to rest in 2014:

  1. People can’t be good without religion or God.
  2. Religious believers are unintelligent.

So as people consider their aspirations for 2014, here are a couple of simple goals I hope we might all work toward.

1. Theists, stop calling atheists immoral

Of course, not all theists think that atheists are immoral. But considering how often the claim is put forth, the privileged position that theists hold in our society, the sense of alienation that many atheists feel, and the negative views many Americans have of atheists, it is a real problem.

Theists are welcome to their perspectives on morality, but to claim that atheists cannot possibly be moral is to attack our character. And the problem extends beyond passive beliefs—this claim has been rhetorically weaponized and is frequently employed to discredit and “other” atheists in the public square.

For example, take this recent claim from Sarah Palin: “The logical result of atheism, a result we have seen right in front of our eyes in one of the world’s oldest and proudest nations, is severe moral decay.”

Note that she’s not just sharing how Christianity grounds her framework for morality. Nor is she inviting nontheists to explain how we find meaning and inspiration in our moral lives. She is dismissing the very possibility of atheist morality.

Erick Erickson

Fox News contributor Erick Erickson in 2011. Photo by Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons.

And she is far from an outlier. A few weeks ago, Fox News contributor Erick Erickson quite literally dehumanized atheists in the following tweet: “I’ve largely moved toward the NT Wright view that as people move further and further from God, they [become] less than human.” Similarly, last month Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert said, “When a nation’s leaders honor that God, that nation is protected. It’s only when it turns away that it falls.”

Those who say that atheists can’t be moral are either ignorant of, or choosing to ignore, the many civic contributions made by atheists. And by claiming that atheists aren’t moral, they erase the good works atheists do every day by volunteering their communities, donating to charities, and treating those around them with kindness—and this erasure stings all the more considering that the atheists are actually sometimes turned away from contributing to charitable efforts.

This attitude is harmful to theists, too. It makes it harder for atheists to consider the perspectives of theists, or join with them in efforts for the common good. Moreover, the idea that people only do good because of God or religion is, I think, insulting to everyone involved: not only does it suggest that nontheists can’t be moral, but it also implies that the only thing stopping religious people from acting selfishly or harming others is because God said not to. That isn’t the case for the theists I know, so let’s stop implying that it is.

2. Atheists, stop calling believers stupid

Of course, not all atheists dismiss theists as intellectual inferiors. But some do. These atheists probably do not constitute the majority, but they are often quite vocal. (The Onion even parodied this perspective recently.)

It wouldn’t be fair to generalize based on the content of comment sections or message boards, where such statements are more commonplace—but this attitude is also reflected in the words of some of the most prominent atheists.

Richard Dawkins, for example, regularly tweets about “faith-heads”—a term better suited for playground taunting than the halls of Oxford—and his Twitter profile picture features Dawkins in a shirt bearing the slogan, “Religion: Together we can find the cure.” And he is far from alone in implying that religion is a disease of the mind, or a mental illness or disorder (a truly problematic parallel, I think), or that those who believe in God are generally less intelligent than those who do not—such as when Bill Maher said on msnbc that “religion is a neurological disorder,” or when prominent atheist blogger PZ Myers said that religious people “have something profoundly wrong with their brains.”

Such claims are often framed in condescending, derogatory terms. Ariane Sherine, founder of the UK atheist bus campaign, recently wrote about this phenomenon in a piece entitled “The scathing slurs of my fellow atheists make me despair.” In it, she describes how she often sees atheists describe believers as “‘idiots,’ ‘morons,’ ‘imbeciles.’”

Such insults are, I think, clearly unfair. You can think that a person is profoundly wrong about something without making the jump to considering that person unintelligent. (Or claiming they have a mental disorder—though that is perhaps a distinct discussion for another piece.)

Now, some atheists might defend the idea that atheists are more intelligent than theists by citing a 2013 study that found a negative relationship between religion and intelligence. But the University of Rochester’s Miron Zuckerman, who conducted the study, argued against those who have tried to use the study to suggest that religious believers are unintelligent.

“It is truly the wrong message to take from here that if I believe in God I must be stupid… [Instead] we say it is possible that having a high level of intelligence provides similar functions to what religion provides” for people who adhere to a religion, Zuckerman said. And while some studies have suggested that on average atheists have slightly higher IQs than theists, critics have responded that these studies neglect to account for a “complex range of social, economic and historical factors.”

But that’s not even my primary concern. Aside from the fact that there are obviously many highly intelligent theists, and the fact that the claim that atheists are on average more intelligent than theists is tenuous at best—what does denigrating and dismissing theists as “‘idiots,’ ‘morons,’ ‘imbeciles’” accomplish? Does it make theists more willing to consider the positions of those arguing for atheism? I doubt it. Does it open people up to challenging anti-atheist bias? Surely not. Is it ethical? I don’t think so.

Just as the claim that nontheists aren’t moral hurts religious believers, this dismissive attitude toward theists hurts the atheist community. If atheists write theists off as unintelligent, or as unworthy of being treated as our intellectual equals, we also dismiss the opportunity to learn from them. And we miss out on the opportunity to share our perspectives with the people we are dismissing.

In conclusion

Survey any number of religious people and you will find people of striking intelligence, wit, and courage. Do the same with atheists and you will find some of the warmest, most compassionate people you’ll ever encounter.

There is diversity of thought and action among both atheists and theists, and it’s not constructive to broadly generalize about either group. The companion claims that theists are stupid and atheists are morally depraved are both incorrect, and they actively harm people.

Imagine what we could achieve if we moved beyond name-calling and making dismissive statements about the “other,” and instead put our heads and hearts together to heal our shared world.

Let’s find out by working together this year to rid society of these harmful ideas.