Our Humanity, Naturally

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Rebutting more outlandish statements about atheists

Nonbelievers don't rush to religion under stress
Raj Raghunathan, Ph.D.
This post is a response to When The Going Gets Tough, The Atheists Go Praying by Raj Raghunathan, Ph.D.

For the second time in a week I find myself rebutting misinformation about atheism being propagated by an educated professional who should know better.  My article last week entitled "Misinformation and facts about secularism and religion" rebutted false claims of the moral superiority of religion over secularism. Now I must address statements by Raj Raghunathan, Ph.D., in his article "When the going gets tough, the atheists go praying."

Like the first article that I rebutted, Raghunathan's article provides his personal opinions without going through the pesky exercise of providing supporting evidence. He declares that atheism is "a luxury" that results from having a "comfortable life." Because atheism seems most prominent in the developed world where people rarely have to worry about their next meal, Raghunathan speculates, we can conclude that material comfort gives rise to atheism.

This conclusion violates the common rule, known by any middle school science student, that "correlation does not equal cause." That is, just because atheism seems most prominent among those who are materially comfortable, one should not conclude that material comfort causes the atheism. At a minimum, one must analyze all of the facts thoroughly to consider all possibilities regarding causation.

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Raghunathan, though carrying an advanced degree, doesn't burden himself with such analyses, but instead brazenly goes even further in his fact-free speculation. Not only is the causal connection valid, he declares, but he also tells his readers that "everyone--even the most hardcore atheists, I think--will start believing in God if put under a high amount of stress." Thus, astonishingly, Raghunathan not only knows the causal roots of atheism, but he knows that atheists would abandon their views if life got difficult.

His evidence for this? None! He points to sports fans who pray for their team to win, assuming that some of those fans might have considered themselves atheists before the "stress" of the game apparently converted them to God-belief.

If you are an atheist who doubts that your views would crack under severe "stress" (such as that of a soccer game) Raghunathan offers no studies or other evidence to refute you, but he tells you that "you have faulty intuitions about human nature." And, he adds, "perhaps that's because you haven't been put under a sufficiently high level of stress."

These broad-based assertions about atheists are so groundless and outlandish that it's difficult to know where to start in rebutting them. Raghunathan's claims are obviously a variation of the common mistaken idea that "there are no atheists in foxholes." In fact, atheists have indeed inhabited foxholes, as many members of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers would gladly point out. See MAAF's page of "atheist in foxholes" examples.

Raghunathan suggestion that the "stress" of watching a soccer game is enough to make theists out of atheists is almost a mockery of atheists, implying that a mere sporting event would cause one to abandon a worldview. In truth, of course, atheists, like all people, regularly experience far more severe "stress" without abandoning their worldview.

As Raghunathan himself suggests, the most important factor in creating atheists is education, not material comfort. In fact, if material comfort correlates to atheism, that is only because it also correlates to education. Thus, his comments suggest that, despite the fact that a non-theistic worldview is attained via a lifetime of education and thoughtful consideration of knowledge and reason, a typical atheist will throw all of that out the window when sufficient stress arises.

Perhaps Raghunathan doesn't realize it, but this is insulting to the millions of atheists and humanists who take their lifestance seriously, who have given much thought and energy to understanding the world. He essentially tells them that they don't realize how weak they are, that their lifetime of seeking knowledge and truth will amount to nothing when life gets more intense.

Raghunathan should know better, for atheists and humanists regularly encounter stress - even the unimaginably intense stress of watching their favorite team in a nail-biting finish - without abandoning their worldview. Atheists suffer like everyone else, atheists watch loved ones suffer, atheists encounter unbearable hardships, and atheists die in pain - all the while remaining atheists.

Text copyright 2011 Dave Niose

Pre-order Dave's new book, Nonbeliever Nation: The Rise of Secular Americans, here.

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Dave Niose is an attorney, activist, and writer. He is president of the Washington-based American Humanist Association.

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