Atheists Only Attack the Extremes
by Noah Lugeons
I call it the “Straw Messiah” defense; theists will often fault the atheists (and more often the gnu-atheists) for attacking only the “extremes” of religion. Of course, this charge is likely true of some atheists, but it can largely be dismissed simply by asking for a definition of “extremes” within religion. After all, anybody who believes a cracker turns to a dead man-god or that a talking snake is responsible for our expulsion from paradise or even that an intelligent designer was behind the whole scrotum idea is pretty extreme in my book. So where does one draw the line of “extreme”?
Usually the antagonist will draw this line as far from themselves as possible. Often they’ll defend themselves by watering down their beliefs to such a degree that there’s nothing left to argue with. They’ll present such a vacuous definition that there will be no meat to parse. “I believe that god is the sum total of all of us” or “I believe that the spirit of the bible is true even if the words aren’t” are too vague to meaningfully refute.
Many prominent atheists dismiss this charge simply by pointing out how “extreme” the average religious person is. They’ll simply cite some statistics about denial of evolution, literal belief in Noah’s ark or the expectations of Jesus returning within one’s own lifetime as proof that the theist they’re attacking is not a caricature at all, but rather a more representative sample of the religious than the wishy-washy inquisitor. The liberal pantheist is far more to the extreme end of the true spectrum than the ignorant creationist that a gnu-atheist might eviscerate.
This is a valid defense and is usually enough to shut them up for three seconds (nothing I’ve found shuts them up for much longer than that), but it is hardly the whole story. Because there’s plenty to fault in even the most nebulous definition of religion.
So for a moment let us set aside the doctrines of allspecific faiths. Let’s set aside the snake and the wafer and the 72 raisins and let us look only at the most basic claim that all religions share. That is not “god” or “gods” as there are a few non-theistic outliers in the east (which are fast gaining popularity in the west). But even if gods were religious universals, it would be a subordinate factor to the chief issue that I take with religion. The core of my argument against faith is a simple one that not even the most indistinct theist can hide from. It is the notion of revealed wisdom.
Before gods or afterlives or codes of moral conduct can be created, the faith must begin with a prophet. There is no other way for religion to begin. Even the neo-pagan faiths start with writers who veil their prophecy in pseudo-history and unverified appeals to antiquity. Every religion is rooted in a prophet, but what’s more is that a steady string of prophets is needed to divine the intent or mood of the god (or the universe or the chi or whatever). Prophets don’t shout across the ages; they rely on modern day representatives of the faith to continue to speak for them in proclamations that can’t be questioned or invalidated.
And thus the very notion of religion is antithetical to the betterment of humanity. If a feeling or an opinion or a prophecy or a sacred cow is somehow beyond reproach, then it is an obstacle to understanding. If it hasn’t become one yet, it will in the future. The very nature of revealed wisdom demands it.
True wisdom is universal and can be found simply by rejecting all things that prove themselves false under testing. Anything else that claims the title of “wisdom” is harmful. No matter how seemingly good the advice is, by enshrining it on stone tablets you take away society’s ability to re-evaluate it in the future. Revealed wisdom leads to absolutes, which will always lead to problems. After all, at one time all the homophobic verses in the bible were considered “wise” by the majority.
So when I attack some specific thing within this faith or that, don’t defend yourself by pointing out that this particular gripe doesn’t apply to your preferred load of shit. Your random assemblage of antiquated superstitions is no less revealed than the last one. If it started with faith and is immutable to reason, it’s all equally worthless and equally deserving of atheist scorn.