In one respect, it’s good that Golden Compass, a book by a prominent atheist children’s author, is being made into a movie. It could lead to a wider discussion of atheism. It is easy to be a quiet atheist — but much harder to remain an atheist when you actually have to explain your position. Here are a few common myths about atheism that discussion can help dispel.
Myth: Atheists are more logical than believers.
A myth that is kin to this one is the myth that believers are more logical than atheists. In fact, the reasons people become believers or become atheists are rarely reducible to logic. Rather, a number of experiences, observations and emotional states together push someone toward belief or unbelief. The idea that there is an almighty God is terrifying to many people. Rather than be in the power of such a being, they flee him. Others, perhaps, have been so wounded by believers that they reject their beliefs and not just their behavior. Logic is brought in to comfort the atheist with rationalizations. On the other hand, the way we come to believe in God isn’t through a syllogism, either. It’s through a personal encounter with Christ, or with one of his proxies: beauty, truth and goodness.
Myth: The burden of proof is on the religious.
Atheists often say that the default position of mankind should be lack of belief, since there is “no proof” of God’s existence. Others say agnosticism should be the default position of mankind: We should start out by saying “We’re not sure,” and work from there. Anthony Flew, the prominent atheist who recently converted to a position of belief in “the God of Aristotle” said that the default position of mankind should be belief, since, after all, the universe and its complicated laws exists, and you have to deny the obvious to say that there is no creator. Flew saw three irrefutable proofs that there must be a god in the laws of nature, life with its singular organization and the existence of the universe.
Myth: Science makes God obsolete.
There is a widespread assumption that somehow the progress of science has challenged, or will challenge, the reasons that previous generations had for believing in God. But why should it? Imagine if human beings were the size of microbes and lived on a tuna noodle casserole instead of our current size on the earth. Imagine we became so scientifically advanced, we identified all the different constituent parts of the casserole we lived on, and even started to explore the vast kitchen outside the casserole. It would be ridiculous for us to claim that, since we know the ingredients so well, there must not have been a cook.
Myth: Science is a reliable guide for us.
In fact, if you look at the history of science, you don’t see the history of an infallible learning method slowly but surely widening our understanding of the universe. Science is an excellent instrument for fact-finding, but one that has been wrong about fundamental things at every point in its history. Theories of spontaneous generation seemed entirely reasonable at the dawn of science. Paul Ehrlich’s theories expecting mass famine due to overpopulation seemed plausible at the beginning of the 1970s. What theories of today will prove just as false? Scientific knowledge at any stage of its history is merely tentative, and new discoveries are continually refining or discarding previous theories.
Myth: Religion and science are incompatible.
Often, fans of this myth will cite Galileo as proof that religion and science are opponents in a contest that often appears to be a death match. The Galileo incident is actually a good example of the real relationship between science and religion. Search for Galileo at Catholic.com, to learn how the incident is widely misunderstood. Galileo’s theory that the earth travels around the sun and not vice versa was not unique to Galileo. Others held it, and the Church didn’t suppress the idea. Instead, Galileo’s personal animus toward the Pope forced the two into a showdown. The moral of the story? Real religion and honest science are certainly compatible: Religious people and scientists, however, sometimes fail to be.
Myth: Religion has led to violent intolerance.
Undoubtedly, far too many religious people have been violent and intolerant. But if you look at the facts about such notorious incidents as the Inquisition and the witch hunts (look them up at Catholic.com), you’ll find that the crimes of the Church have been greatly exaggerated. Meanwhile, atheist communists in the 20th century killed more people than the Church was ever even accused of killing. Killed were some 65 million (and counting) in China; 20 million in the Soviet Union, 2 million (and counting) in North Korea, 2 million in Cambodia, 1.7 million in Africa, 1.5 million in Afghanistan, 1 million in Vietnam, 1 million in communist Eastern Europe and 150,000 in Latin America.
Catholics should be aware of the threats to faith posed by movies like The Golden Compass, but we shouldn’t be afraid of them. The Church has faced far fiercer and cleverer opponents for more than 2,000 years, and we’re still here to tell the tale.
How are we able to come out ahead so consistently? That’s easy. It’s because there really is a God.