Why do atheists try to be authorities on religion?

On this site, there are many instance of atheists trying to explain aspects of religion. Some might try to explain how religions, without specifying which ones, treat certain people or issues differently. Others try to poke holes in the moral underpinnings of religion by pointing out what they believe to be wrongs committed in the name of religion. Still others go off on historical accounts of church politics and use these accounts to attack the religion at hand, again, usually without specifying which religion they speak of.

I understand why an atheist will point to a lack of evidence of a creator to deny the basis of religion, but why do so many atheists try to attack the religious doctrine (of any religion), or profess to know anything about church politics thousands of years ago without having any real knowledge of the topics they discuss? None of the posters have personally studied religion, aside from reading a few atheist books. Perhaps some of them are formal history scholars, but did any of them study any particular religion? It seems one would need to at least study theology, preferably through the same type of curriculum as required to become a priest/preacher/imam/etc, in order to have a full understanding of the religion itself. I don’t think any of the posters here have undertaken such studies, so why all the quasi-experts?

All atheists need to do is point to a lack of evidence of a god, NOT attack a religion about which they have little to no real knowledge. Come on people, your logic should be better than that.

Posted: November 9th 2010


So, your question is “why should I accept what you say?”

As I’ve stated before, you shouldn’t. You should listen to what we say, and then you should go out and do research and come to your own conclusion. That’s what I did, and I suspect it’s true for all of the responders here.

As for academic credentials, do a web search on “argument to authority”, and then reflect on the fact that theology programs are not designed to identify truth but rather to train students in the ministry. That’s not to say they are wholly biased but they do have a specific agenda. Philosophy programs are less biased but I’ve done my time studying philosophy and have found that arguments around the existence of god are a waste of time.

As for my personal credentials, I already said that I have no formal theology training, but I am the son of a Protestant minister and I spent a whole lot of time in bible study and other study while I was growing up, and then even more study when I started my de-conversion.

I am by no means an expert because I have better things to spend time on, but my knowledge of religion is as good as most theists I’ve met and, unlike them, I know quite a bit about things that are never talked about in church. For example, the majority of christians don’t know when the gospels were written or how the standard set of books for the bible was chosen.

Why you think you can discern the level of education here is beyond me.

Posted: November 10th 2010

See all questions answered by Eric_PK

flagellant www

I was brought up to be a Christian and I passed lots of scripture exams. Probably, this close reading made me begin to question the nature of faith, belief, and unreason. But I learnt enough to engage knowledgeably with the religiosi, and often correct them for their sketchy understanding. I continue to read and study religious analysis, especially that from modern, open-minded scholars, whether they are believers or not.

George mentions the Pew Forum survey which I looked at in detail when the results were published. Some of the survey questions, given to a largely US group, were repeated in the article; I’m not American but I scored full marks. Try the quiz yourself.

Richard Dawkins points out that to talk knowledgeably about fairies, one doesn’t need a degree in fairyology. No more does one need a degree in theology to criticise irrational beliefs. Read the Nicene Creed (if you can find the 'correct’ version) or the derivation of The Trinity . See if you can do either without laughing or shaking your head in disbelief.

Now, I didn’t begin picking up all this 'stuff’ to be an authority on religion; I did it because my parents educated me that way. OK?

Religion is an activity for consenting adults in private. And until the religiosi start treating belief as something shameful, and keep it to themselves, I’ll continue to feel entitled to criticise – and even ridicule – many aspects of religion, not just god’s existence.

Posted: November 10th 2010

See all questions answered by flagellant

SmartLX www

I notice you didn’t point out anything we actually got wrong. An argument isn’t invalidated merely if there’s something within the subject but outside of the argument itself that the person may not know.

If a general statement of ours really doesn’t apply to your specific religion, and isn’t prefaced with “some religions” or “many religions”, ignore it. If you think we have something specific genuinely wrong, write in with a question along the lines of, “You say this. Is it really right?” Otherwise, like the billions of people who don’t believe in leprechauns but don’t know the first thing about real Irish folklore, you and we are entitled to confidently criticise beliefs we don’t share.

There is at least one very good reason to attack religions in order to support atheism. Apologists regularly hold up their whole religions as evidence of their gods, either because those in the religions are supposedly more moral or because the religions would not have got off the ground and survived without real divine action, for example the supposed resurrection of Jesus or the supposed ascension of Mohammed. They paint their religions as institutions founded, supported and endorsed by the gods themselves. Such blessed institutions should not now be plagued with the issues they now are.

Posted: November 9th 2010

See all questions answered by SmartLX

Dave Hitt www

Atheists don’t try to be authorities on religion – many of us are authorities on religion. Which, evidently, really ticks you off.

Many of us came from extremely religious backgrounds. When we had doubts we researched our religion thoroughly and found it lacking. Many of us then went on to study other religions before finally realizing they were all bunk.

And some, like myself, find religion fascinating enough to continue to study it.

None of the posters have personally studied religion, aside from reading a few atheist books.

Wrong. Bigtime wrong. I’ve read the entire Bible, the Tao de Ching, and other religious books. (I tried reading the Quran, but it was so disgusting I couldn’t continue.) I’ve also had extensive discussions with True Believers of many faiths.

In many, in fact in most, cases where I’ve been in intense religious discussions I’ve found that I know more about a person’s religion than they do, especially it’s history. (Many religions bury the more unsavory parts of their past, so most of their adherents aren’t aware of them.)

Sorry it irks you so much, but you should simply accept it instead of pretending that our knowledge and experience is somehow suspect.

Posted: November 9th 2010

See all questions answered by Dave Hitt

brian thomson www

This kind of argument gets leveled at “professional atheists” too: Prof. Dawkins gets it a lot and has specifically addressed it on several occasions. Speaking for myself, though, my position is similar to one George made below, though I would put it like this: there’s no point in studying a topic to an “advanced” level if you have studied it at a basic level and found it full of holes. Just because people study something to an advanced level, it does not mean that the topic is fundamentally sound and worthy of study to that level – but people do it anyway because they can, or they enjoy it. If you don’t believe me when I say that, try going to a Star Trek convention and telling Trekkies to “get a life”.

Do you agree with the tenets of Scientology? No? Well, how can you criticise Scientology unless you’ve reached OT (Operating Thetan) Level 10? Or do we draw the line at OT 20? OT 30? Is there an OT 30? I don’t know. I don’t need to know about Xenu and the volcano to dismiss Scientology as bogus – though I have to say that the bits I have read actually make it easier to do so. I can say the same about Christianity: I have read some theological works by e.g. Cardinal Henri de Lubac, and while I appreciate the effort that went in to them, most of it consisted of “because we say so” and had no foundations in reality.

Conversely: I do have a degree in Structural Engineering, and can e.g. design a building of a certain size to carry a certain load. However, just carrying the load is not enough: we also have to deal with concepts of “serviceability” or “fitness for purpose”, and the purpose of a building includes making the user feel safe (e.g. it must not sway). Assuming you’re not an engineer: if you were to come along, look at my building and go “no freaking way!”, I could not simply dismiss your concerns out of hand: I would have to examine them and see if I had failed to meet serviceability criteria.

To extend the building analogy: if Theology is a building, I look at it and go “no freaking way”: it might be pretty and ornate, with people waving at me happily from the top floors, but it has no foundations, and so there’s no way I’m going inside.

Posted: November 9th 2010

See all questions answered by brian thomson

George Locke

Generally speaking, atheists know more about religion than religious people. In a recent survey by the Pew Forum, atheists and agnostics score comparably with Jews and Mormons, surpassing everyone else. We beat the average by a wide margin. (In fact, we slightly outperform the Jews and Mormons. I wish we had error bars on these statistics!)

I don’t consider myself an expert on theology, but I find world religions very interesting and I do read about them (outside of “a few atheist books”). Your brazen assumption that neither I nor my colleagues have studied religion in any formal way is incorrect. Several posters here are deconverted believers.

Your suggestion that a person should go to a seminary or its equivalent before one criticizes religious doctrine is absurd. You don’t need a post-graduate education to understand fine points such as the problem of evil, the trinity, etc, and you certainly don’t need training to grasp the basics. Working brain cells and a little bit of curiosity about the world around you will suffice. You seem to think it’s acceptable to believe in these things without instruction but not to doubt them?

I look forward to further questions from you pointing out particular missteps that we, ignorant atheists, have made in razing the splendid edifice of theology. Since you’re attuned to the need for specific criticism, I’m sure you’ll oblige us by spelling out the vague attacks littering your post. (Seriously, though, if there are things we’re getting wrong we want to know.)

Posted: November 9th 2010

See all questions answered by George Locke


Moving on with your strained logic, Christians can’t criticize any other religion and call it false as they themselves are not practicing theologians of that particular brand.

Many atheists were once practicing members of religions and do have an excellent grasp of the religious beliefs associated with their ex-religion. They often became atheist by reading their religion’s holy book. That is why, many atheists support the teaching of comparative religions—not all can be true, but they can all be false is something that many catch on to quickly once the plethora of religions are thrown at them.

Freedom of speech is the friend of atheism, not of religion. No wonder religious believers and their accommodationists chaff at atheists not tiptoeing around religious beliefs and pathetically drone their various intellectually dishonest versions of the Courtiers Reply every chance they get. I will file your particular rendition in the growing pile.

Many religious beliefs are revolting, stupid, psychologically damaging, and anti-intellectual. One does not need anything except a working brain to come to that conclusion.

Posted: November 9th 2010

See all questions answered by logicel


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