Atheist Group or Religious Group—Which is More Harmful?

June 2, 2009

A mother writes to     Dear Margo   that her college daughter who was raised with Christian beliefs has joined an atheist club.   Her father has refused to let her in the house and threatened to call the FBI.  Her mother has tried to cure her by praying over her at night while she is asleep, enlisted friends in a phone prayer tree, and spoken to a priest about the possibility of an exorcism.  

My first thought was that if she were my daughter, I would rather she join an atheist club than to get involved with the religious groups that prey on college students.   When I was doing my practicum for my graduate degee in counseling, I had a young man as a client who had been involved with an extremist religious group since high school (He grew up in a college town so was introduced to it before he went to college.).   As a college senior being a very intelligent young man who had taken science and philosophy classes, he had begun to question the teachings of this group and decided to leave it.

The first night I saw him, he was suicidal.   He had lost all his friends and his value system.  He did not know how to make decisions in even simple moral situations. I saw him once a week over the course of a semester.  We worked on making decisions based on evaluating the situation and looking at the benefits and consequences.   When the semester was over, I asked him if he wanted another graduate student to take over his sessions and he said that he thought he was OK without further help.   I was happy to see his name on the graduation list at the same time as mine.

During that time, I discovered a letter in the Butler Collegian (November 8, 1989) which was signed by the campus ministers representing Baptist Student Union, Campus Crusade for Christ, University Park Christian Church,  Luthern Campus Ministry, Butler Newman Center, Fairview Presbyterian church, and Trinity Episcopal Church.  In this letter they warned students to be wary of any person or group which does the following:

offers you simple answers and quick solutions

maintains that only they have the truth

tries to prevent you from asking questions

suggests that you must choose between God and family, or God and school

is vague or evasive about its beliefs or organization

uses guilt to motivate you

tells you what God wants you to do

tells you that if you leave the group it means you are rejecting God

invites you to explore your spiritual life in a way that violates human freedom and dignity

At the time, I was also teaching a class at a high school for students being trained to tutor and listen to other students.  I passed a copy out to this class for discussion purposes.  One of the students said, "That sounds like the Catholic church."   You can believe that as a public school teacher I did not touch that comment!!!! 

How would the parents of the young lady in the letter to   Dear Margo have reacted had their daughter told them she was involved with a Christian group?    Is it as my father once said, "People will believe anything if you call it religion?"  So is it OK if it is called religion but not OK if the group is atheist?  It seems that the atheist group will be the opposite of the warning signs listed above. They cetainly won’t offer simple answers and quick solutions.  They will probably elicit more questions than they have answers to offer. These parents should be happy that their daughter is a questioner instead of a blind follower. 



#1 Caryl (Guest) on Tuesday June 02, 2009 at 3:53pm

These kinds of parents are very scary. They are so threatened by their collegiate daughter thinking for herself. It’s what they feared all their lives, and tried to subvert with constant brainwashing. Now she is out of their immediate control and they are totally panicked. There whole neat life is turned upside down. Here is my message to them: Since Eve ate the apple, there has been a natural desire to know. Let your daughter explore and make up her own mind. She is an independent person, and the sooner you learn this the better for everyone.

#2 Commenter123 (Guest) on Wednesday June 03, 2009 at 4:28am

I agree with Brian Dunning’s comments from his “Skeptoid” podcast several months ago, regarding the “body counts” that Christians and Atheists like to do to try to determine which belief system is more harmful. These kinds of actions don’t really produce useful results - they just make people feel better when they can believe that their side “won” the debate, regardless of whatever assumptions they have to make in order to get there.

In tha vein, it really seems like the problem in this story, and Reba’s anecdote, has more to do with a family whose strong (perhaps even fanatical) beliefs have been questioned by a child. Could the same thing happen if a rabid atheist found that his/her child had joined Campus Crusade for Christ? Probably. Could the same thing happen in a non-religious setting - say, an Indian family finding out that their child has joined an organization which entertains the idea of peaceful relations with Pakistan? Probably.

It seems like the problem here is fanatical belief, not religion, per se. That doesn’t mean that fanatics of the religious sort should get a free pass just because there are others like them. It just means we need to broaden our scope of criticism, if what we’re really against is NONRATIONAL beliefs, rather than just RELIGIOUS beliefs.

#3 DagoRed (Guest) on Thursday June 04, 2009 at 3:42pm

“It just means we need to broaden our scope of criticism, if what we’re really against is NONRATIONAL beliefs, rather than just RELIGIOUS beliefs.”

While I think your point is important and essentially correct, I also think such a plan would be less effective.  I think to change the focus of criticism from religion, as you suggest, to target all irrational beliefs, only waters-down the potential benefit of such criticisms.  We have long understood the need to be critically-minded and value the ability to make rational decisions, just as we have long understood the need to eat right and exercise more.  However, too many unhealthy people over the years have thought they did eat right and exercise enough only to suffer a premature death due to poor health—and too many religious people still think they are already rational thinkers but aren’t, despite knowing the need to think rational.  People generally need someone else to connect the dots for them.

As we all discovered over the past several decades, when national health became of a central concern, concerned groups ultimately addressed a large part of it by targeting the fast-food and tobacco industries – they connected the dots for people between behavior and bad health—and national health generally improved.  This shows that there is great value in targeting a message of criticism to specific institutions which embody and promote a more general social flaw, even if such institutions only represent part of the problem.  Religions are not only based in irrational beliefs, but they flout irrational thinking as a virtue, through their use of faith, which is also central to the sickening of some people’s minds into adopting wrong and dangerous behaviors.  Religion is nothing more than a “fast food” industry which targets the mind, marketing flabby thinking habits as virtuous behaviors and, generally, making us a mentally unhealthy society.  Religion is not alone, but religion is likely the most prominent cause to irrational thinking in society.

It was not enough to tell people to live healthier lives – they needed to be specifically told to abandon the cigarettes and the French fries in order to improve their health.  The same, I think, is the current case when it comes to getting people to think more rationally.  We can’t simply address irrational beliefs generally and expect many people to identify the specific irrational behaviors in their lives.  After all, most religious people think their religion is a rational belief.  We need to target and criticize specific institutions and behaviors, such as religion – we need to connect the dots for them – before we likely see an improvement in rational thinking in our society.

#4 Commenter123 (Guest) on Saturday June 06, 2009 at 7:05am


I see your point, but I think the metaphor of health doesn’t quite make the point you want it to. Two things:

1) Yes, it’s bad if people eat too many French fries, or smoke too many cigarettes, but if you’re not emphasizing the larger picture of health, why bother making an argument at all? Someone could go to their doctor and say, “well, I followed your advice and stopped eating red meat and ice cream, but I still feel sick all the time!” The doctor does an exam and finds that the patient’s cholesterol and BMI are still unacceptably high. He is baffled until the patient muses, “I wonder if all those deep-fried chickens I’ve been eating, and washing down with Colt 45…” If you’re working at a problem piecemeal, you’re not going to make progress unless you’re certain that each piece is in the service of a larger goal.

2) In many ways, the religion/health metaphor is not exactly apt, in the sense that not everyone agrees that “reason” is a desirable goal in the same way that “good health” is. In some ways, then, it makes sense to approach this from the opposite direction. Rather than taking specific claims (“cigarettes kill” / “religion is bad”) and then working outward to the larger point (“good health is important” / “reason is important”) it needs to go the other direction. When we start from the position that “reason is good,” we can work society towards the smaller goals without making it seem like a witch-hunt for religion, which people will certainly resist. After all, what has been the outcome of years of scientific research if not to show us that the world is explainable in naturalistic (not supernatural) terms. Even as we speak, scientists are working on research to try to explain how life can arise from non-life - a concept which most certainly would have been ceded to religious explanations only a few years ago. Once people realize that certain beliefs are no longer needed, they’ll discard them ... over time, mind you, not all at once. It may take generational shift before people start discarding unnecessary foolish traditions, but that shift can only come about if the entire culture is working towards a larger ideal of reason.

So, while I generally agree with you as well, I do think we need to set our sights high, and combine specific claims with a larger goal, rather than using just one or the other.

#5 DagoRed (Guest) on Saturday June 06, 2009 at 7:32pm


I agree.  I would also add many other potential shortcomings and dangers to “my” strategy as well—potential for creating violence (including war), social discontentment, and even personal discomfort to many of individuals who I know and love.  I have even seen it argued as being a primary cause to the rise of American religious fundamentalism the 20th century, through the phenomenon known as “blowback.”  Still, despite all of these issues, I still think primarily attacking religion is a more effective strategy than, as you suggest, to spread out and include all forms of irrationality equally in our criticisms.

I think you summarized the goal of your strategy nicely with, “Once people realize that certain beliefs are no longer needed, they’ll discard them.”  While that does sound reasonable to people who live by reason, I would ask where’s the evidence that makes you think this goal will ever manifest among the great majority of humanity that still lives a life that values faith over reason?  In short, what I see you suggesting is that we attempt to teach rational thinking to the irrational – a fundamentally impossible task, in my eyes. 

I also think your suggested strategy is merely another iteration of what mankind has been doing since the days of Dionysus and before.  It is a reasonable strategy for sure, but it is one that, I think wrongly stresses civility over the main goal of promoting rational behavior in humanity. In the end, because civility always wins out when the going gets tough for the irrational, this strategy can only pick the low hanging fruit from the tree.  This flaw, thus, always allows some people to hold on to their most cherished, but wholly irrational, beliefs and pass them onto the next generation.  This locks humanity into a dialectic between rational and irrational (leaving us, generally, languishing somewhere in between), rather than eliminating irrationality from humanity altogether. 

While my strategy may be completely ineffectual too (there may, in fact be no strategy that works), I am willing to give it a spin.  Given the current momentum this strategy has recently developed, as it rides on the back of the New atheist movement, I support it for no other reason other than my own belief that the traditional strategy used over the past several centuries, and which I think you are simply promoting another form of, has proven itself entirely ineffectual.

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