Atheists vs. Evangelicals – Negative Stereotypes and Mutual Dislike

I have been thinking recently about relations between Christians and atheists, and the gulf of animosity between the two. I’ll go ahead and share some of my thoughts on the dynamics involved.

There was a Pew poll last year which highlighted something we already knew: Americans have a very negative view of atheists. On a scale of 1 to 100 representing negative to positive emotions, Americans ranked atheists a chilly 41, only one percentage point above the most negatively perceived religious group, Muslims, who got a rating of 40. This is 8 points below the third most disliked group, Mormons, who got a rating of 48. When it comes to atheists’ and evangelicals’ rankings of each other, there is a mutual dislike between the two. Both groups ranked each other worse than any other group. Atheists gave evangelical Christians a score of 28, while evangelical Christians gave atheists a score of 25.

Religious Tension Even more alarming than these numbers are the studies which have suggested that Americans distrust atheists less than rapists (!) I find this incredibly saddening. It is also unjustified.

Just the other day I was having a conversation on one of my Twitter accounts with someone who I’ve followed since before I left the faith. We had brief conversations before, but we were more like Twitter acquantainces. I didn’t intend on turning it into a debate but as you know, sometimes certain personalities can’t resist sparring. I didn’t mind it, as I enjoy a good, respectful (key word) debate. But it took a turn which annoyed and angered me. I took a bunch of screenshots so you could see it. Keep in mind that Twitter convos can be somewhat hard to follow, depending on which tweet is replied to, the order can be confusing.

Tweet1 Tweet2 Tweet3 Tweet4 Tweet5 Tweet6

This man revealed his biases about atheists, by trying to suggest we are okay with rape and murder. As much as I find this thinking offensive, I feel sorry for him. I personally am not easily hurt by fundies’ opinions; this case is no exception. From his perspective, he really thinks I’m going to Hell. Can I blame him for not having tact? It’s unfortunate when people embrace false beliefs which require unbending devotion. Having been on both sides I know that there are many factors which lead someone to accept these stereotypes and biases. Fear of punishment, mixed with indoctrination is a potent combination.

Now it would be unfair of me to say that this guy is representative of most Christians. Most of my followers on that account are Christians I’ve known since before my conversion, and immediately several of them started to chime in with apologies for what this guy said. It truly is nice to be reminded of the amount of love within Christianity. That sounds strange as an atheist, but I believe it. There are great Christians; some of the best people I know are believers. There are also great atheists; something I hope more Christians would see. People are individuals. Stereotyping is wrong; regardless of what a person believes or doesn’t believe. I listed some stats on my feed regarding atheism and crime which I thought I’d share here. uq3hYhp

There is evidence that atheists are overwhelmingly peaceful and law-abiding. 2013 data from the Federal Bureau of Prisons shows that atheists make up only 0.07% of the prison population; Protestants on the other hand make up 28.7% and Catholics 24%. Atheists make up 2.4% of the American population according to a 2012 Pew poll.This means that atheists are 34 times less likely to be incarcerated than those who do not identify as atheists. The caricature of lawless, conscience-devoid atheists running wild is absurdly inaccurate. We have consciences, and societies don’t necessarily crumble due to a decrease in religious affiliation. In fact, there is considerable evidence that secular societs fare better than religious ones.

All of this however, has nothing to do with the truth value of Christianity or the debate of it. But what it does show is that the negative stereotypes of atheists are simply invalid; in addition to being unproductive to society. We don’t need more Phil Robertsons saying “You lose your religion, you lose your morals.” And on the flip side we don’t need more New Atheists in the vein of Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens agitating Christians (as much as I can appreciate some of their work.) What we need now is respectful dialogue and a more positive approach on both sides to help restore some civility between the two groups.

I might add that there are still a few statistics that favor religiosity as well; such as higher charitable donations. However it is not surprising that giving would increase if you pass around an offering plate once a week and urge people that it is their duty to give.

Some atheists caricature Christians as stupid and intolerant. Some Christians caricature atheists as immoral and obnoxious. These stereotypes will continue to hinder forward progress in relations between the two groups if both sides don’t commit to changing the focus. It shouldn’t be ‘us vs. them.’ We can disagree respectfully, and commit to loving each other regardless. We may not gather together and sing kumbaya on the weekends, but we can learn to respect each other and not stir up animosity. We have a long way to go, and I’m a work in progress myself.

Thank you for considering my perspective. Your opinion matters to me, and I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

10721328_278062212388486_378808137_nMy name is Zach Van Houten and I am a secular Humanist with progressive values who enjoys good discussions with intelligent people. I was a passionate conservative Christian from childhood until I found intellectual freedom in November of 2014. I take an interest in Humanism, general philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, eastern religious philosophy, atheism, politics, Biblical studies, and most importantly, the life cycle of sea turtles. Email me at if you’d like to offer tips on how I can make myself less boring or start up a convo about the weather.

© Zach Van Houten and, 2014-2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Zach Van Houten and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Atheist logo by Chookbeatle via DeviantArt – image modified by me.

A Rough Examination of Pragmatic Belief

Lately I’ve been thinking about epistemology (the study of knowledge); and more specifically, how we build on presuppositions in order to form our beliefs. I came up with a basic list of what I call ‘pragmatic beliefs’; those presuppositions necessary for a person to live with any form of sanity. Here is the basic outline I came up with. Each presupposition builds on the previous one:

1) I exist.

I have yet to decide whether I believe this to be a presupposition, or an absolute truth. Frankly, I don’t think it matters in any practical sense. No one seriously doubts their own existence; and I can’t imagine what anyone would do with such a useless skepticism if they did. Although I do consider myself very skeptical of any sort of Cartesian/Platonic dualism; that is a separate matter. Our own existence, whether purely physical or partially metaphysical, is about as close to an absolute truth as humans can affirm.

2) There is an external reality independent of my existence.

This is where a philosophy known as solipsism diverges from contemporary thought. The solipsist makes the argument that it is impossible to know if reality is not an illusion created by the self; from there they might argue something like “I am the only mind which exists,” or “My mental states are the only mental states.” What makes this tricky is that people who hallucinate are experiencing illusory sensory experiences; which means that it is possible for even our senses to be deceived. It’s a kind of Matrix-style take on the problem of perception. This makes solipsist beliefs pretty much unfalsifiable.

There are two problems I see with solipsism. First, I don’t know how one could attempt to positively prove that there is no external reality, and secondly, the belief seems to have no practical benefit, and could lead to strong forms of nihilism or egoism if taken to it’s logical conclusion. After all, if no one else exists, no one else matters but yourself. However, I don’t presume solipsists necessarily embrace nihilism or egoism.

It seems to me that all a solipsist can do is point out that there is no way to positively prove that there is an external reality. I think it’s safe to say that presupposing an external reality independent of our existence is a beneficial and natural belief.

3) My sensory inputs supply me with reliable information (empirical data) about reality.

Another aspect of the problem of perception is that we can’t know for certain that our sensory inputs are relaying accurate information to our brains. This means that empirical evidence can, in theory, be misleading.

Accurate information is information that corresponds with, or helps us understand reality. Every human assumes  that their senses are reliable until proven unreliable. A good example of this is when, after a mental episode, a patient in a mental hospital recognizes that his or her senses were misleading (as in the case of a schizophrenic.) In that case, the patient uses reason to infer that his or her brain was not accurately translating the empirical data; but this can only be realized after the fact. This is not an instance where the sensory data itself was inaccurate, but rather the data was not being interpreted correctly by the brain. I suspect this is the usual cause of illusory sense perception; but there may be ways in which the senses themselves are dysfunctional.

4) My mind uses reason to form reliable hypotheses and theories of reality based on the empirical data obtained from my sensory inputs. These allow me to make probability-based predictions that have pragmatic value.

This is where much of the battle lies. I am convinced that a person cannot disconnect reason from responsible belief. Yet anti-intellectualists, and some religious leaders, encourage people to ignore reason; usually to believe a specific proposition being promoted. There is a strong current of this in some strains of Christianity.

Insanity is defined by Merriam-Webster’s dictionary as: “something that is very foolish or unreasonable.” Notice that “unreasonable” is a part of the informal definition of insanity. Reason is a sign of intelligence, and a part of being a responsible human. Abandoning it would literally be insane.

To quote the 18th century Quaker/philosopher William Penn:

Truth never lost Ground by Enquiry, because she is, most of all. Reasonable.

Nor can that need another Authority, that is Self-evident.

If my own Reason be on the Side of a Principle, with what can I Dispute or withstand it?

Reason, like the Sun, is Common to All ; And ’tis for want of examining all by the same Light and Measure, that we are not all of the same Mind : For all have it to that End, though all do not use it So.

It is worth noting that it is circular to validate reason by using reason. But it is a self-evident truth if there are any, that being reasonable and logical is beneficial to humanity. It could be viewed as the truthmaker, fully beyond scrutiny, as it is the sole mechanism that scrutinizes.

Diagramming Pragmatic Belief

I put together a basic diagram of this concept here:

Chain of Pragmatic Belief

As you can see, self-existence is the first foundational presupposition, followed by belief in an external reality. After that, we presuppose the reliability of our sensory receptors to convey empirical data, and we could add our brain’s reliability in interpreting it. Last we have reason, which organizes all of the empirical data and forms probability-based hypotheses and theories about reality that enable us to make better predictions. This skill of making probability-based predictions helps us make wise choices.

If we are to make good choices, it would help to have reliable beliefs. If we believed for example, that all people want to kill us, we would perhaps never leave our home, or move to the wilderness. This sort of belief would be considered irrational, and unbeneficial. Yet, someone who believes this may feel they have an intuitional basis for such a belief; and for that reason it is justified. This brings us to our next consideration and the sticky issues that accompany it.

Incorporating Intuitional Beliefs

Intuition is a controversial concept in philosophy. What exactly is intuition? I will refer to Merriam-Webster’s again for the definition:


: a natural ability or power that makes it possible to know something without any proof or evidence : a feeling that guides a person to act a certain way without fully understanding why

: something that is known or understood without proof or evidence

There are several ways we could attempt to incorporate intuition into this scheme. These vary depending on how you imagine intution in relation to empirical data and reason; or even if you acknowledge intuition as a relevant factor at all. This tension can be clearly seen in the rationalism vs. empiricism debate.

Since intuition is viewed as something understood without proof or evidence, the implication is that it fully bypasses reason, since reason demands evidence. You can’t really call a belief intuitional if it passes rational scrutiny; it has then become a reasonable belief. Reason would have to be out of the picture for intuition to make sense. The way I imagine a typical person seeing intuition is as an option alongside of reason. Let me illustrate:

Chain of Typical Belief

The person who believed intuitively that all people wanted to kill him is an extreme example of intuition disconnected from reality. This alone shouldn’t make us distrust intuition entirely. There is certainly a case to be made for intuitive thinking in the proper contexts. We are not emotionless, purely rational beings; we rely on intuition more than we would like to think.

That being said, every belief can and should be scrutinized appropriately. We don’t live our lives assuming that gut feelings are fully reliable. Intuition should be considered as evidence, but be wary of trusting it in situations that demand accuracy. Imagine if you were on a jury and someone said ‘I just believe he’s guilty,’ or ‘I have faith in the defendant’s innocence,’ and then proceeded to act as if the case were closed without examining the evidence. Surely that would be foolish, irrational, and irresponsible to the highest degree. If your intuition is not supported by evidence, reason should make the final call after weighing all the different factors.

Now reasoning can be done poorly, regardless of how strongly we believe it to be correct. Poor reasoning is often intuition in disguise. This is why many unjustifiable beliefs are popular. What appears to be a well-reasoned argument may be built on one or two tendentious presuppositions that the hearer has failed to identify. A highly skilled orator can sell almost anything if it serves to confirm the biases of an audience. A skilled logician can make a case with substance, but when the biases of an audience are exploited, reason almost inevitable takes a back seat.

And that’s the problem with intuition. Intuition looks just like bias. When intuition is presented in the absence of evidence, the probability of deception is significantly greater. Intuition could be correct, but there is no objective way to know.

Critical thinking has been described by some as a defense mechanism. It is a way we can protect ourselves from intellectual exploitation by raising our standards for what constitutes a good argument. If there are no good arguments for a belief, it is likely a product of bias or propaganda.

Learning the difference between intuition and reason is important. Here are a couple of very interesting articles about intuitive thinking if you want to do some further reading on the subject:

Thank you for considering my perspective. Your opinion matters to me, and I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

10721328_278062212388486_378808137_nMy name is Zach Van Houten and I am a secular Humanist with progressive values who enjoys good discussions with intelligent people. I was a passionate conservative Christian from childhood until I found intellectual freedom in November of 2014. I take an interest in Humanism, general philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, eastern religious philosophy, atheism, politics, Biblical studies, and most importantly, the life cycle of sea turtles. Email me at if you’d like to offer tips on how I can make myself less boring or start up a convo about the weather.

© Zach Van Houten and, 2014-2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Zach Van Houten and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Image by Dan McCay on Used under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Paridigm Shift – Human Responsibility and Neuroscience

I came across an incredible article the other day, which perfectly sums up my thoughts on human responsibility. I remember this topic was something I wrestled with when I was a Christian long before I started to experience any serious doubts. It’s often conflated with the ‘free will vs. determinism’ debate, but the subject of human responsibility or blameworthiness is a slightly different issue.

Here’s the article:

I hope you get a chance to read it, as it’s well worth your time. This topic has important implications for our justice system, as well as for society as a whole.

The crux of the issue is whether humans can truly be blamed for their actions. Or more specifically, whether a person’s actions can make them worthy of punishment. I take the stance that the writer of the article, neuroscientist David Eaglemen takes: vengeance and retribution should play no part in our justice system. Rather, we should be placing our emphasis on creating a healthy, and safe society. It is not necessarily an argument against incarceration or all forms of punishment. Rather it is a call for a progressive philosophy of justice which takes into account the scientific evidence which suggests that our decisions are inseparable from our biology and cognitive makeup.

I have been familiar with mental illness for as long as I can remember. My mom is paranoid schizophrenic, and one of the most amazing people I know. She did not choose to have her brain malfunction. The traditional view of human responsibility cannot explain things like her illness. Our minds are intimately connected to our physical brains. We cannot remove ourselves from the causal chain.

Eaglemen goes into many examples, from those who suffer from Tourette’s to people who have become violent as a result of brain tumors. It reminds me of what Neuronotes wrote a while back about how brain injuries can affect a person’s moral character and lead to violent, uncompassionate behavior. The point is clear: we cannot look at another person and accurately predict that we would act differently in the same situation since we don’t have that person’s genes or brain. It’s apples and oranges. Those of us who are mentally stable should be profoundly grateful that we weren’t dealt the same biological hand as a psychopath; who did not choose to have a messed up brain.

Does anyone deserve pain? I would say no; regardless of what that person has done or how evil a person is perceived to be. Does that mean we never inflict pain on other humans? No. Sometimes it is necessary. The point is, all pain inflicted should have a purpose. Punishment for the sake of retribution or vengeance is a lingering relic of past assumptions about libertarian free will that are demonstrably false, and should have no place in our justice system.

Image from Wikimedia Commons, modified by myself.

Thank you for considering my perspective. Your opinion matters to me, and I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

The Bible

Hell? No!

Back in October of last year, I made waves among my Christian friends when I announced that I no longer believed in Hell. I was still a believer at that time, but stopped believing sometime between the end of that month and early November. I announced it with a nearly-exhaustive 13,000 word article, which dissected every aspect of the topic, and addressed every single verse used to support the doctrine. I shared the article on Facebook and Twitter; much to the dismay of some family members and friends. The article got the attention of one of my pastors, who even indirectly addressed me during a sermon (most people probably didn’t catch what we going on.) I didn’t have a problem with that (it was good natured;) it was just a weird time for me as I had never been controversial before. One of my two writers left the Christian website I was running immediately after learning of my change in beliefs. I was suddenly labeled as a heretic by some. I think I got more negative reaction from that change in opinion than I got when I announced I was leaving the faith.

Desite the negative reactions, there were a few people who actually changed their mind on the issue after reading the article; including the other writer for my website. Many people weren’t afraid to tell me I was wrong, but no one actually tried to disprove my reasoning. At most people would quote verses to me; all of which I covered in-depth in the article. I think it ended up getting around 600 views (I haven’t checked in a while) and a lot of shares on social media. I was pretty happy about that. I felt it was my calling to get the word out that God was truly good and would simply burn people to death instead of burn them forever (yeah, I know, still sounds evil.)

You can read it here: Why I No Longer Believe The Bible Teaches Hell

I came to this view after following my gut and discovering what the Bible reallys says. I was watching a television show; a sketch comedy called Studio C (the best show on television btw,) and for some reason that night I was trying to reconcile the idea that all of these wonderfully funny and seemingly nice people were most likely on their way to eternal torment in Hell. So after the show I decided to look up different views on Hell and stumbled across some great articles on a view called annihilationism, which I described in my article. I researched the topic for over a month, devoting nearly all of my free time to the study of it. I researched all of the arguments against the view, as well as the Greek and Hebrew words used by the biblical writers. I studied the history of the doctrine, and the views of surrounding religions at the time the Bible was being written.

I’ll go ahead and list the fifteen core points, each of which I explore in detail in the article itself. If you are interested in my reasoning and the evidence, it’s all there. The numbers all correspond in the article so you can examine individual parts of the argument if you choose to. Keep in mind that I had written this from a Christian perspective, not a secular one.

15 Reasons I Stopped Believing In Hell

1. Scripture never once warned people of eternal torment, but always warned of destruction.

2. The English word translated “hell” does not occur in the original manuscripts.

3. The Old Testament contains no teachings on or allusions to eternal misery in the afterlife.

4. The NASB and ESV bibles (the two most popular translations among conservative Christians) both contain a mere 13 occurrences of the word hell; all in the New Testament, translating not one, but three different Greek words.

5. There is no evidence that the apostles ever preached or taught about hell or alluded to a place of eternal misery; and Jesus only spoke of it twice to unbelievers.

6. The doctrine of eternal torment is based on the idea that man possesses an immortal soul; which is never taught in the Bible.

7. Not only is hell built on man’s presumed immortality, but it is also built on the assumption that the soul is always conscious (important when discussing the period of time between death and the final judgment.)

8. The parable of Lazarus and the rich man (used to support hell) cannot be taken literally without creating conflict with the rest of Scripture.

9. Metaphors such as “unquenchable fire” and “worms that never die” clearly refer to the shame of death and destruction as seen in Isaiah 66:15-24; which Jesus alluded to.

10. By the time the lake of fire is introduced in Revelation 20, it is far too late for it to have had any direct influence on the prior meanings of words.

11. The eternal fire is said to have been prepared for Satan and his angels.

12. The lake of fire is to be viewed figuratively.

13. The phrase “weeping and gnashing of teeth” can only be understood as figurative language, and therefore does not contradict annihilation.

14. When the Bible refers to things as being eternal, it is referring to effect, rather than process.

15. The lack of common knowledge about even basic aspects of the doctrine of hell lead me to believe that it is not a commonly scrutinized doctrine; nor one that is taught in detail to churchgoers.

Here are a few other articles I had written about this topic, including other aspects of the argument against ECT which you may find interesting as well:

Defining Death

Proportional Punishment

50 Questions For Those Who Believe In Eternal Torment

Image by omar omar via Used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 License.

Thank you for considering my perspective. Your opinion matters to me, and I’d love to hear from you in the comments.