Atheists’ unavoidable sin

breaking the spell cover

I just finished Daniel Dennet’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.  The book was a welcome change of pace from the Dawkins/Harris/Hitchins trilogy, in that it explores in-depth the question of how religion potentially could be understood as a natural phenomenon, an issue the others treat only briefly in an “armchair quarterback” sort of way.  (Although I do note that Dennett inexplicably deviates from his considered proposals for reseach toward the end of the book, throwing in an anti-religion argument not unlike the others.  I can’t for the life of me figure out why it’s in there.)

Dennett devotes a large part of one chapter to the concept of “belief in belief,” and how such belief may be as strong as the actual belief in a god claimed by most religious people.  That insight clicked with me, and provides at least a partial explanation for one of the questions that most bugs atheists: Where do religious people get off calling me immoral?

 That question frequently leads to discussions of moral social behavior, with the atheist concluding that we are no more or less “moral” in our dealings with other people than the average religious person.  Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens all drum on this theme, emphasizing that religion throughout the ages has actually spawned a great deal of immoral behavior, and that some religious doctrines are immoral in themselves.  I’ve likewise engaged in this analysis, arguing that a person cowed into “morality” by the promise of heaven or threat of hell is more like a trained dog than a moral agent.

But Dennett’s discussion of “belief in belief” helped me realize (or actually, remember from my own fundie days) that, no matter how good a person I am, no matter what good works, kindness or love can be attributed to me, I will always be an immoral person in the eyes of the religious simply because I do not believe.  That is the atheist’s unavoidable sin. 

Speaking from the Christian perspective (where my background is), the atheist’s sin is frequently phrased in terms of rejecting Christ, or, more strongly, rejecting Christ’s sacrifice.  “What a wicked person you must be,” the Christian thinks, “to refuse to believe in Jesus.  He died for your sins, and you can’t even muster the gratitude to believe in him.  What a selfish, arrogant person you are.”  Something regarding the foolishness of trusting in the wisdom of men (i.e., science) may also be thrown in for good measure.  From this, the Christian often assumes that the atheist must engage in all sorts of debased, immoral behavior, but this is not necessary.  The atheist is damned simply for his or her state of unbelief, not for anything he or she has actually done.

The belief in belief and its accompanying damnation of unbelievers helps explain why polls show that the majority-Christian population of the U.S. would elect a Muslim or Jew to public office far more readily than an atheist.  The Muslim and Jew, after all, at least believe in something.

Although formidable, I don’t see this as an insurmoutable obstacle to gaining greater acceptance and understanding of atheists.  The position I sketch out above may be stronger among fundamentalists (as are most negative positions), meaning that less dogmatic religious people may at least be willing to consider the moral merits of individual atheists aside from our unbelief.  In the meantime, the only thing the atheist can do is own and proudly declare his or her unavoidable sin, and emphasize its lack of importance in seeking the greater good of humanity.


6 responses to “Atheists’ unavoidable sin

  1. even the ultra-conservative catholics changed their view on this a number of years ago…from the Vatican……=
    CCC 847 Those who through no fault of their own, do not know the gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience-those too may achieve eternal salvation.

  2. In the end, it’s going to come down to whether people value belief for its own sake more than things like common good or not. If people really do just believe that belief is the highest, most important thing, then nothing will ever trump that: no amount of atheists being moral will matter.

    The only truly unforgivable sin in many religions is, in fact, not believing (especially when it’s not believing in the face of people telling you that you should do so).

  3. I don’t think they really care, lol 😉 That’s the plum of being an atheist, you’re no longer a slave to the fear of that fantasy hell thing.

    Besides, it’s only a “sin” if you believe it’s a sin 🙂 And you’ll only go to hell, if you believe that you will — deep down. (Yikes, how can ya’ really, really know what you believe subconsciously — or consciously, for that matter, eek, might wanna pack light for the afterlife just in case, hehe)

    So ya’ better be sure of what you truly believe saintly ones 😉 Luckily atheists (and others) have no such beliefs 🙂 Ah, I’m sure there are multitudinous grumblings of “ohhhh, yeah, you’ll see, we’ll see ya’ fry…” lol

    Such is the nature of so many who have been so thoroughly brainwashed that they can’t even see how “un-Christian” that is…and even if they hold it back, they know it’s there in the back of their minds endeavoring to justify such sad and fearful beliefs.

    One of the things that always got me when I was a “fundie,” is wondering why in world did this nice man, Jay-sus, have to die like that?? So we could sit around watchin’ TV and eating pizza? lol Although I accepted it all at age 10, ’cause the grown-ups said so, it made no sense to me, and it makes no sense now. And they wear this reminder around their necks and hang it in their churches…this horrifying thing that happened to this man.

    Jesus and all that he did and all that he endured was symbolic… Like something from a dream might be interpreted 🙂 It’s like the Hanged Man card in the Tarot. A guy hanging upside down from a tree. It has various meanings. It’s about enlightenment, forgiveness, sacrifice, “letting go” of one thing so as to acquire something better. A message as to how we can make our lives better, happier…not an order, just some wisdom offered.

    But this symbol is just one of many in the Tarot (kind of a book of life as well, of symbolic messages) that we are to learn from. No worshiping of another required 🙂 No hell if ya’ don’t believe it. No religion…no hatred or judgment encouraged. But if you’re open to it, open to these messages, a lot of cool things begin to happen 😉

    The church instilled in me a fear of the Tarot (that was difficult to shake off initially, and this was many years after my church-girl days), but I found, through my own experience, that they lied. They lied out of ignorance and fear of the unknown. The Tarot has done nothing harmful to me (ludicrous to think that pics on cardbord could do so), and in fact it has helped me to overcome so much fear that the church instilled in me.

    Those of religion try to control everything and everyone out of their fear of the unknown, they’re fear of everything — life, love, all that is good about being human. And the irony is that the Hanged Man (same symbol as Jesus’ sacrifice) represents giving up control. All of that control is rooted in nothing but fear, and that’s not what Jesus’ message was about.


  4. This is an excellent post.

    In the meantime, the only thing the atheist can do is own and proudly declare his or her unavoidable sin, and emphasize its lack of importance in seeking the greater good of humanity.

    I’m not sure whether acknowledging it as sin in the first place would be beneficial or harmful in terms of bringing believers over to a more tolerant view of unbelievers.

    Another point, is the years of counter propoganda aimed at communism, and by extension, atheism. You’d be hard pressed to find an American willing to vote for a communist. So I think there is more than just the religious angle that needs to be overcome in terms of an electable atheist.

    It is ironic. It reminds me of some lysics from Jesus Christ Superstar (Judas singing to Jesus): “You’ve begun to matter more than the things you say”.

  5. All right. Since you asked for it…I declare my own unavoidable sin. 🙂

    Great post!

  6. I think a major element often overlooked by theists is what the beliefs offer. Even with an enormous amount of overwhelming evidence which deconstructs such patently false beliefs, the theist continues to believe in the afterlife, a deity, etc., because these seem to “offer more” than the perceived existential alternative: nothingness, unimportance, and an overall sense of loss. These faith-based beliefs construct identity; without the beliefs, one ceases to have a structured persona and worldview. It’s terrifying for many people, and it’s easier (and more comforting) to believe there is “something more.”

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