Five Things All Atheists Should Know About Religion

If you want to critique organized religion, it helps to know what you’re talking about.

I’m an atheist who engages in secular activism and is active within the atheist community. I’m also doing doctoral work in the cognitive science of religion, and I’m sad to see so many atheists who have misguided and ignorant views about religion. Here are five things I wish more atheists knew.

1. Religion is not the sole cause of violence.

This view, endorsed by well-known atheists such as Sam Harris and Bill Maher, is often justified by referencing terrorist acts done in the name of Islam. But blaming religion for violence prevents us from seeing all that drives violent behavior, including social, psychological, and political factors.

Atheists who think religion causes violence could use an education in social identity theory and the process of radicalization. The process of how one’s beliefs (whether they are religious or not) can lead to violence is rather complicated, and reviewing the work of Scott Atran and Brooke Rogers would also be important to understanding such a relationship.

2. Religion is not a mental illness.

The likes of Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins claim that religious belief is a “neurological disorder” and “hereditary mental illness.” But while negative aspects of religious belief can exacerbate mental illness, that’s no justification for a sweeping generalization like “religion is a mental illness.” Mental disorders are by definition maladaptive, and simply believing in a higher power is not inherently maladaptive.

Plus, many studies reveal positive health benefits of religion, including reducing anxiety and creating a desire to help others. Religious belief can also help people explain the world and fulfill needs for attachment. Believing in God requires many of the same mental faculties that are automatic and implicit, making it cognitively natural.

Also, saying “religion is a mental illness” marginalizes those with actual mental illness and alienates potential religious allies.

3. Believing in God does not make you stupid.

It’s easy to name brilliant religious people who break this myth — Issac Newton, Soren Kierkegaard — but it is better to see what science suggests about the matter. Google-savvy atheists may be quick to mention how the research suggests a negative relationship between religiosity and intelligence, but such studies by no means indicate that religious people are stupid.

Defining intelligence is complex. Intelligence is multidimensional, and there are often cultural biases that go into measuring it. Intelligence tests often hail from a U.S. context where there is a strong link between religiosity and socioeconomic status, which creates a huge confounding variable.

Miron Zuckerman, the lead author of a recent meta-analysis investigating the relation between intelligence and religiosity, is quite explicit: “It is truly the wrong message to take from here that if I believe in God I must be stupid.” These findings do not suggest that religious people have less ability, but rather that people who fall under the study’s definition of “intelligent” have less of a need for religious belief and its practices.

4. Religion is not the root of bigotry.

Just as multiple factors contribute to violence, so multiple factors also contribute to bigotry. Take, for instance, sexism in the atheist community, which has been documented here, here, and here. This issue is exacerbated when atheists pretend they are championing women’s rights by calling out sexism in religion, but only do so to score points against organized religion. These issues will continue so long as the atheist movement is predominantly run by older white men.

Atheists who are exposed to harmful societal messages regarding gender can be just as likely to promote sexist ideals as religious people. As mentioned above, studies suggest that atheists have greater analytical thinking, but this certainly doesn’t make them immune to cognitive biases or engaging in unsophisticated thinking.

5. Religion is complex.

I think most atheists do comprehend this on some level, but they sometimes become intoxicated by their own biases and emotions.

Some examples of religious complexity: believers don’t always take their religious text literally; they disagree with their fellow believers on major points; there are various orientations of religious belief; and, some religions don’t even believe in gods (Buddhism, Taoism, Jainism, etc.). Additionally, there are many sociological, psychological, and political factors that intersect with religion and how it works in different regions and social groups.

I want urge my fellow atheists to engage in more sophisticated thinking when critiquing organized religion. When atheists propagate these sweeping generalizations and falsehoods, it makes them sound dogmatic, ignorant, and fundamentalist. Isn’t that what atheists say they are fighting against?

Matthew Facciani
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  • Martin Hughes

    The causes of all kinds of behaviour, positive and negative, helpful and violent, are usually somewhat complex. It’s obviously quite untrue that religion is the only cause of violence but it’s surely true that religion may become deeply implicated in forms of social identity, confrontation and conflict from which violence erupts and for which resolution is difficult. The Middle East conflict is a case in point: I don’t think Maher and Harris are wrong in that, though they have a theological loyalty to Judaism and a corresponding dislike (to use a mild word) of Islam. Atheists can well have a theology, ie an idea of what an ideal being, if only there were one, would be like and of which traditional religions most or least relate to the true ideal.
    You interpret ‘religion causes violence’ as close to ‘only religion causes violence’ yet when it comes to the desire to help others you readily assign a significant causal role to religion and don’t consider arguments that many other causes of the same desire exist and could do as good a job as religion does if allowed to function fully. This would be the logical parallel to the argument that many causes of serious violence exist and could cause terrible damage if allowed free rein. The eighteenth century Deist argument was that human sympathy was the real cause of this good desire and that religion was dispensable. That may not be true but it’s an idea deserving of some attention.
    I don’t see how it can be denied that some forms of religion are ‘bigoted’ in the sense of obstinate to the point of unreason and prone to arbitrary discrimination against some human groups. There are other causes of the same faults, certainly.
    There is a problem of definition, I agree, and people should be clear what they mean. But if some want to be critical of – or admiring about – religion as they find it operating around them we need not insist, before we evaluate what they say, on pressing them to say whether other and more alien systems of thought are ‘religious’ in their view.
    I tend to agree that atheism is not the solution to the world’s problems and that the moral difficulties associated with religion do not vanish but merely take new forms if atheism becomes predominant. But I would like my fellow-Christians not to be too defensive and to accept that the moral problem surrounding religion really do exist.

  • human

    I think that People like Harris and Maher do have some thing to add to the debate, or do make some valid points. For any reason that they themselves know better, they are just intellectually dishonest. For example , Maher’s mentioning lack of gay bars in Gaza while not mentioning the crimes of Israel is just outright hypocrisy. The same goes to Harris: while he thinks “civilized people are trying to help Muslims”, at the same time he thinks this help needs dictators to be installed or racial profiling or bombing to be done.
    When he says “Islam is the mother lode of bad ideas” I as an atheist who lived in a Muslim society for 30 years see that factually incorrect. Because if I saw terrorism in the name Islam, I also saw hundred times more of good deed and devotion to good causes in the name Islam. So “Islam is the mother lode of bad ideas” is either half truth or not true at all. These people are just using fallacious reasoning for their cause. And I am going to stand against them wholeheartedly unless they condemn the heinous murderous acts of their governments against Muslims and other people in general in developing countries. They are not more civilized for an Iraqi mother who lost all his family during American bombing or Palestinians who lived under the occupation. They are indeed apologists of savagery.

  • Jake Beaudrie

    It seems to me that given there is no actual scientific proof of the existence of god (no proof of the NON existence of god, either. I get that) we already give religion too much leeway let alone give it more or attempt some sort of understanding.

    • http://voyagesextraordinaires.blogspot.com/ Cory Gross

      It’s not about giving it leeway as it is accurately understanding what you’re criticizing, so that you’re offering substantive critiques and not just strawman moral panics. There is a bizarre strain of anti-intellectualism in modern atheism which postures itself as being so far above religion that it doesn’t even need to understand it properly… In fact, TO properly understand religion is considered an intellectual and moral defect, like you’ve been tainted. Anti-intellectualism and moral panic is not the same thing as genuine skepticism.

      • Jake Beaudrie

        I’m not exactly sure what you’re getting at with your comment. I grew up Catholic. Baptized. Communion. Catechism, Confirmation, Consecration. The whole bit. I have a deep understanding of catholicism and feel very comfortable with my understanding of it as it relates to my belief that religion is given far to much deference in modern society. It’s my experience and understanding of religion that has fostered my belief about it.

        • http://voyagesextraordinaires.blogspot.com/ Cory Gross

          You make it sound like being truthful about religion is somehow giving it unnecessary and unwarranted leeway. Nobody says you have to like it, but you do have to be honest. Ignorance isn’t a virtue just because it’s religion you’re being ignorant about (and no, being immersed in one particular religion in one particular time and place does not make you an expert on religion as a whole).

    • Sam

      How much leeway should religion, or any conceptual framework, have? All people are guided by their own framework and the amount that religion plays into that varies from individual to individual? But these frameworks present the basis by which we self-organize and self-identify. “I” wants to be a “we”. But how “I” define “we” is in a large part based on shared ideology, religious or otherwise. When we shed that borders will become a foreign concept.

      With that in mind, how much leeway should any ideology, and by reasonable extent those who alone or in communion (lol) hold themselves to it, have? How would we restrict it?

      And if we were to not self-organize via ideologies what would we organize with? Or are there more “neutral” ideologies that should dominate? How do we agree on those? Etc., etc., etc.?

  • W Maxwell Cassity-Guilliom

    Regarding number 1 and number 4: you say that there are many causes even for a single behavior and then assert that religion cannot be one of those causes for either violence or bigotry. While I agree with the tone of the article; some atheists are misunderstanding or misrepresenting various religions, the assertion that religion cannot cause violence or bigotry is ridiculous. Depending on the person and the religion there are very clear cases of causal influence on beliefs, and beliefs lead to actions.

    • http://www.matthewfacciani.com/ Matthew Facciani

      Ideology (whether it is religious or not) can definitely have an impact on behavior. Scott Atran is a leading terrorism researcher and states on his website “although ideology is important, the best predictor (in the sense of a regression analysis) of willingness to commit an act of jihadi violence is if one belongs to an action-oriented social network, such as a neighborhood help group or even a sports team.” The main point is that religious belief isn’t some special entity that is the sole cause of poor behavior. There are lots of other factors involved. I linked Atran’s page where he explains this in my article and would have liked to go into more detail, but I only had so much space! Thanks for your comment :)

      • W Maxwell Cassity-Guilliom

        Well I can’t access the article anymore, but from memory the titles for #1 and #4 were something like ‘Religion doesn’t cause bigotry’. There is a significant gap between saying “religious belief isn’t some special entity that is the sole cause of poor behaviour” and ‘religion doesn’t cause bigotry’. It may vary greatly depending on what’s being examined, but for example I think there’s a strong correlation between homophobia and religiosity pretty much worldwide.

        I also think there are some religious beliefs that aren’t necessarily major causes but necessary component causes, like the specific doctrine of creationism in christianity. Reading genesis as history rather than myth causes some christians to hold a belief which would otherwise be untenable. Kids in school study greek mythology and go to church believing christian mythology.

        • http://www.matthewfacciani.com/ Matthew Facciani

          I updated the subtitles to make them more accurate. I also have a more detailed discussion of #1 on my personal blog. Cheers!

      • Steven Carr

        I get it. The people who killed 120+ children in Pakistan were part of a sports team.

    • http://voyagesextraordinaires.blogspot.com/ Cory Gross

      Religion can be a significant cause of violence, but the percentage has been calculated at somewhere around 7%. Both the “Encyclopedia of Wars” by Axelrod and Philips (2004) and the “Encyclopedia of War” by Martel (2012) place religion as a significant cause in less than 7% of recorded wars (and half of those wars cited by Axelrod and Philips involved Islam, so if that one was taken out, then all other religions combined were involved in 3% of recorded wars). A 2003 BBC audit titled “God and War” ranked religion as a cause of wars and mass violence from 0 for “no involvement” to 5 for maximum found that less than 7% ranked higher than 3.

      So sure, religion has been implicated in violence, but the number is virtually insignificant compared to State violence, territorialism, ethnic antagonism, resources, and money. You’d do far better concentrating your efforts on abolishing the concepts of government and territory and economy if you really wanted peace in our time.

      • W Maxwell Cassity-Guilliom

        Maybe, but I’m not someone who thought religions caused the largest slice of wars in the first place. I think they’re mainly institutions of social regression or foreclosure, at least the two most popular ones right now. For example the vatican’s crusade against condoms in africa has probably caused more death than the last several religious wars combined.

        • http://voyagesextraordinaires.blogspot.com/ Cory Gross

          As per the general theme of this article, it is not that easy to cast religion on one side of a dialectic. How did Christianity, for example, act as an institution of social regression when it led the way in the abolition of slavery and as centres of activism in the civil rights movement? Up here in Canada, liberal churches were marrying gay people for decades before the government authorized it. Religious people of all stripes typically donate more money to charity – both religious and secular charities – than their secular counterparts. You mention condoms, and while even though I disagree with the Catholic Church’s teachings regarding them, let’s be serious about where the blame for the spread of AIDS in Africa lies: people with AIDS who choose to spread the disease by rape, promiscuity, and procreation.

          It’s not as easy as picking out examples of things you don’t like and saying “all religion is like that,” especially when the examples you pick aren’t even that simple.

  • http://northierthanthou.com/ northierthanthou.com

    Kind of sad that some of these points need to be made at all. It seems as though certain narratives have become so dominant in the mindset of many that these criticisms become just too easy. What’s fascinating is how hard it is to get some folks to let go of these notions.

  • http://battorem.blogspot.com/ BattoRem

    People will be awful to other people, not matter the setting.

  • bencassel

    This is a classic straw-man fallacy. I have never made any of the assumptions that are discussed here, nor have I heard others make them in any significant numbers. What’s more, I think the very nature of atheism pretty much negates use of the phrase “the atheist community.”

    There are jackasses who believe in a deity; there are jackasses who don’t. People can be wonderful, kind, gracious, respectful, and generous, whether they worship a god or they don’t.

  • Disqusdmnj

    I think the danger of many religious beliefs is that it’s a gateway to denying the reality of the world around us. At it’s most peaceful, it’s a wonderful community of like-minded people with a common cause, usually to help other people. At it’s middle ground, it can be filled with falsehoods about people “choosing” to be gay, and about believing the voting tradeoff is to pick failed policies like trickle-down economics over candidates who favor same-sex marriage. At it’s worst… let’s be honest – terrorism. If we were lucky enough to remove the myths and falsehoods and downright lies from religion, it’d probably be just as healthy an outlook on life as *not* believing in non-existent deities, if not more so. Instead, we get people who’d rather assume that their local church will take care of the 20% of kids who go to sleep hungry, rather than pay another 1% in taxes to make sure they don’t.

  • elljaye

    Thank you for this. I have read numerous atheist sites and cringed whenever a fellow atheist calls religious people names. Calling people names in any discussion is the lowest form of discussion. It shows that the name caller is not capable of carrying out the discussion to it’s point. It is very immature, and I don’t feel much respect for the person no matter what their POV is. I also have read plenty of sexist comments from the so called “higher minded” who love to throw bigotry accusations in the faces of those they believe are “lesser minded” I don’t believe that just because you are an Atheist, you are automatically smarter or better than others. You earn higher mental consciousness from educating yourself, and listening to others, whether you agree with them or not.

  • Jan Baběrad

    I don’t agree with a single bit. Religion is the chain restricting you from thinking. After a while you get used to it and feel the chain is protecting you from the outside world and the reality. Stockholm syndrome.

  • Chewbacca1066

    It does take “intelligence” to worship a bronze-age, middle-eastern, genocidal deity who thinks you’re special and he loves you.

  • roland watts

    A great little article. I thoroughly agree with your sentiments and arguments.

    I spend a lot of time in the creation/evolution forums and am often amazed at some atheists who wipe people out because they are Christian. It’s at that point that I wonder exactly what the atheist thinks is important here. If the creation/evolution argument is the point, then why on earth wipe the religious person out? We need those folk because they show religious fundamentalists that one can be religious and be knowledgeable, articulate, and sensible.

    If we feel that we atheists are the truly rational and logical ones then psychologists easily show that just beneath our own skins lies a lot of irrationality and illogical thinking. It’s just that it does not surface all that often and is generally not articulated.

    Besides, even though I abandoned my religious faith decades ago, I still like to listen to intelligent theologians. And Christians and other religious folk doing good things, can still inspire me.

  • bblais

    “Religion is not the sole cause of violence. This view, endorsed by well-known atheists such as Sam Harris and Bill Maher, is often justified by referencing terrorist acts done in the name of Islam.”

    This is misguided. Nowhere does Sam Harris say that religion is the *sole* cause of violence. His point is that religious dogmas are the only dogmas that get a “pass” in our society, and thus can perpetuate violence more effectively than other dogmas.

  • Steven Carr

    Should Christians know the names of the Gospels?

    ‘ believers don’t always take their religious text literally;’

    Of course, metaphors are so much less dangerous. Why , if you call Jews a load of pigs, you simply have to state that you are not speaking literally, and nobody is offended…. Hey; it’s just a metaphor!

    Why exactly are religious people who do not take their religious text literally more sophisticated than people who can’t demonise people by thinking up degrading and humiliating metaphors to compare them with?

  • Steven Carr

    ‘These issues will continue so long as the atheist movement is predominantly run by older white men.’

    Well,this is gibberish. The ‘atheist movement’ (sic) is not run by anybody. Shows you the level of sophistication of the analysis in this article ie none.

  • Steven Carr


    Religion is not the sole cause of violence.’

    And smoking is not the sole cause of lung cancer, and alcohol is not the sole cause of car accidents.