I recently “liked” a group called Anti-Theists. Pro Active Atheists. Opposing Religious Harm. on Facebook, and also one called Atheist Uprising. I “liked” them not because I am an atheist (I am a Christian), but because I like to hear what atheists, particularly the passionate ones, have to say. These facebook groups use memes (and, to a lesser degree, links to articles, and Youtube videos) in order spread their message.
I have always enjoyed interacting with atheists (I have many friends who are atheists or agnostic), but this is the first time I’ve actively sought out Atheist opinions on social media and allowed them to flood my news feed. Being constantly confronted by anti-theists isn’t always easy, because it forces you to confront your beliefs. But it is important. The more I see the more I realise that fundamental atheism, the atheism that deliberately opposes all forms of religion, is really just a religion itself, with all the attendant harm and nobility. I want to illustrate a bit of this by having a brief look at some of the memes that show up. (I will, of course, be cherry-picking the ones that suit me. Go have a look at the Facebook pages if you think I am not giving a fair account).
The valid criticisms
These atheists nevertheless make some very valid criticisms of religion. They are right to express consternation at the stubbornness of Young Earth Creationists – why would a group of people so blindly and wilfully reject established facts? They are right to point out the hypocrisy with which the Christian church operates.
For instance the following picture criticizes Christians for abandoning the principles with which Jesus operated. It’s a one-sided, sweeping generalisation, but there is validity there.
Sometimes they will quote believers to make their point, such as in the following picture, which tells an important truth (the irony in this particular picture is it makes it clear that the atheists are not acting based on scientific facts).
Science vs faith
They will often juxtapose science and faith, creating the false impression that these two things can never go together, that religious faith will always result in the rejection of science, which is untrue. There are very many serious scientists who are also religious (such as Francis Collins, who wrote a book on the subject called The Language of God). Here is an example of a science vs faith meme.
A part of the trouble is that the juxtaposition considers science at its best, when it involves serious enquiry and no ideology, but religion at its worst, when it tries to stifle questions and doubt. They forget that that science, being done by people, is flawed as well: even scientists have trouble facing facts (that don’t support their preconvictions); negative results (arguably the most valuable) hardly ever get published; replication of studies rarely gets funded; corporate interests often dictate studies, severely skewing the results we find. Religion, on the other hand, can embrace questions and doubt openly and lovingly without any need to feel threatened by science. Granted, not all churches or believers live like this, but there are very many that do.
Some of the memes portray a clear misunderstanding or perhaps a deliberate misrepresentation of Christianity, essentially attacking a straw man. Often this straw man is an argument against prayer. The implication in the picture below, for instance, that Christians would rather pray than provide (or accept) medical treatment, which is of course not the case – we pray and we utilise medical treatment. (I must confess, I am not certain why there is a specific allusion to Bellarmine here.)
Other anti-prayer memes imply by praying or by praising God when they are healed Christians are not giving credit to their true healers, the doctors (and by implication science). The first thing to point out is that to Christians God created the human capacity for science and reason and so there is no contradiction in thanking God for healing from this source. Secondly, prayer is not just a call for supernatural help – it is a means of communicating with God, of expressing anguish and desire. We do not require a miracle every time we pray. Prayer is about relationship – it’s not about twisting God’s arm, or proving his existence, or nullifying science. God mostly works through the confines of the physical world and Christians know that. You can awe at the wonders of medical science, even understand these wonders, and still pray to God.
Heaven and hell is a common theme, betraying both a valid criticism of religion, but also a complete misunderstanding of how Heaven and Hell operate. Many Christians do portray God as someone who created a hell where he throws anyone who doesn’t say the right things and pray the right prayers. They are wrong. If anyone goes to hell (and to me this really is an if) then it is only those people who choose to go – Hell is simply where God is not and the only way to go to where God is not is to reject him and his sacrifice. God does not send anyone to hell – he weeps as they go there on their own.
Another example is an overly simplistic attack of the veracity of scripture. The attack below focuses on the KJV version of the Bible, which is known to be a far from perfect translation and has been improved upon many times. Atheists should be attacking a good translation, which does go to source texts, not the worst possible one they could find. The expectation that we need to have the original texts, such as the original letters of Paul, is unreasonable. No originals exist for any ancient document (for instance any work by Homer or any ancient Greek philosopher). The source text of the new testament is in fact far better substantiated than pretty much any other ancient document and we can have reasonable (not one hundred percent) confidence we have the original words or something very close. (There are serious scholars who do give better arguments for textual inaccuracy, for instance Bart Ehrman, who is also linked to on these Facebook pages)
Attacking the fringe
Fundamental atheists will attack cases in which Christians are patently absurd, such as Young Earth Creationists, or this pastor who thought he’d accidentally flooded Texas via prayer. It’s fine to expose these absurdities, but the danger is that it is made to seem as if all Christians (or all religions) behave like this, which is patently untrue. You should not judge Christianity merely by its fringe elements. These exist within atheism too.
Here is another example of a post that attacks the fringe violent elements of religion, but not of atheism. It discounts the many atrocities committed by atheists, for instance in some communist countries.
The (harmlessly) funny
There are some posts I consider as merely funny (at least to a Christian who is not overly sensitive), with little argument for or against anything really. (The comic is originally from http://bizarrocomics.com/)
The (merely) hateful
What is interesting about these atheists is the vitriol with which they will berate religion. They claim to be loving, but they hardly show that love in the social media world. Some of the posts I showed above were quite hateful, but seem to have almost no other purpose than to ridicule.
These kinds of posts work well on people who already hate religion. They just confirm their prejudices. For the most part, I suspect, these Facebook pages are a kind of fundamental atheist circle jerk (an echo chamber) where people go to hear their own opinions from others (churches tend to become like this too, of course). If they actually want to engage the people they seem to want to “convert” then they will have to stop with vitriol and start showing the empathy they seem to think Christians lack.
I think it is time that atheists accept that their decision to be atheists is not really a rational, evidence-based one (except, perhaps, for a select few). Atheists are as dogmatic and irrational as the adherents of any religion. They use the words “science” and “reason”, but they use them in the same way that many religions call upon deities: usually without much reasoning and as emotive propaganda. The best of them are as passionate and the worst just as misguided as religious fundamentalists. And they do both good and terrible things. Some treat those who disagree with them with love and some treat them with contempt. An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.