Common atheist misconceptions?

It amazes me how some misconceptions about things like evolution, Biblical scholarship, and so on persist among Christians in spite of repeated debunkings. Part of the problem is that while many Evangelical leaders know better, few try to enlighten their flock and some will even throw a fit when someone like Bart Ehrman starts explaining things to the hoi poloi. (They’ll claim that while the information might be true, it’s irrelevant and teaching it to ordinary believers will just mislead them.)

I don’t want to be guilty of acting this way, so: what misconceptions about science, history, and so on have you encountered frequently among atheists? I’m looking for straightforward matters of fact, not things like “atheists don’t understand the true meaning of Christianity.”

For example: I occasionally have to cringe at meeting an atheist who thinks The Da Vinci Code has some basis in historical fact. A quick debunking: First of all we know that Constantine didn’t order a massive re-write of the Bible. We know this because we have mostly-complete Biblical manuscripts dating from about 200 A.D. on, and while these manuscripts prove that some changes to the Bible were made from 200 A.D. onwards, those changes were fairly limited.

Similarly, while different early Christian groups had different ideas about what sacred writings should be accepted, Origen of Alexandria (who died in 254 A.D.) had a list fairly similar to the one that would eventually be accepted by the Christian church. So the list of books that made it into the Bible wasn’t simply something made up out of nowhere for political reasons in the 4th century.

That’s the only big one that’s coming to mind right now. I suspect that there are probably real misconceptions floating around out there about the Inquisition, witch trials, etc., but some alleged “misconceptions” about them are things no one I’ve ever met believes. (I.e. I’ve seen people trying to whitewash the Church’s treatment of Galileo point out that the Inquisition didn’t torture Galileo, but who ever claimed they did?) So whadaya got?

Edit: Anyone can contribute to the comments–Christian, atheist, Jain, whatever. Also, sources are appreciated if possible.

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24 Comments.

  1. Couple things. First, Constantine did not edit anything. According to Bishop Hosius of Spain, Constantine was not even in the room for the debates. But he sponsored the council and, as a worshiper of Apollo with a Mythran military, he wanted the results of the council to met with his satisfaction.
    The “editing’ of the council was done by omission, not commission. While Song of Songs and other books were temporarily rejected (and later added at the council of Toledo) all the Gnostic texts were summarily rejected, as were any other gospels that contradicted the mandate for the council: The Nicene Creed. The creed was written before the council, and used as the yardstick for accepting any books into the official Catholic Codex (Bible).
    So yes, Constantine’s council DID change the face and nature of Christianity and the Christian Bible. It standardized the tale, rejected many theological concepts, and [notably] entirely changed the recorded history of Mary Magdalene as a church leader. (Something that was in every rejected gospel).
    One need not accept this as truth, btw. Just go get a copy of the Gnostic texts and read for yourself some of the gospels that were rejected in 325.

  2. There was also the issue of the divinity of Jesus (the first issue debated on the council floor). Many groups believed Jesus was akin to other prophets like Haggai or Joshua. Arius in particular argued that Jesus was “of God, but not God.” and that there was “A time when Jesus was not.” (Meaning he did not exist before he was born). This concept was quashed at the council by a vote. This is where Constantine’s influence comes into play: He wanted a divine Jesus because he thought Jesus was Apollo by another name (just as he thought Mithra was Ahura Mazda by another name… all the same God and God-Son.)
    Without Constantine, I doubt the vote for Jesus’ divinity would have passed. Without the council, there definitely would have still been many sects of Christianity that did not believe that Jesus was God incarnate.

  3. [Sorry... I am commenting from the atheists point of view. I now realize you were putting your questions specifically to Christians. Feel free to delete me.]

  4. Another thing that would be good to know, should one be embroiled in a debate with a Christian of higher scholarship, is there are very valid reasons that the Gnostic gospels, and further down the line, the apocryphal scriptures found in the Catholic Bible, but not in the KJV, were removed from the canon(s). The writings within those groups were either irrelevent, didn’t correlate, or were more contradictory to the resulting canons. It wouldn’t profit an atheist to try and find validity within those other writings simply because to Christianity they are the works of Satan (for the most part). They, according to most theologins, were written for the sole purpose of confusion. I can understand their stance. It is hard enough for them to justify the contradictions in their current Bibles.

  5. Yea, I’m not a scholar and to be honest when anyone tries to argue with me about Atheism and tries to use that kind of argument I consider it an even deeper level of stupidity than those who quote direct verses or have ‘their own version’
    It’s like playing with matchbox cars only the scholar starts to try and break the matchbox cars down into parts and sell them to you. “Would you like to buy a new alternator for your Chevy Nova?”
    No I don’t want an alternator because the fricken car was a make believe game anyway.
    Anyhoways…I have come across several Atheists who are into conspiracy theories. They don’t apply the same logic to those theories as they do to religion. It’s weird almost as if the need some sort of fantasy to cross over into reality to function.

  6. “I now realize you were putting your questions specifically to Christians.”

    I don’t think he was. Just to anyone – including atheists – who see certain errors being made by lots of atheists.

  7. Jesus mythicism would be a big one. Very very few scholars actually support the idea, and there certainly is no conclusive evidence of it.

    Pagan parallels to Jesus are another huge one. Some think that Jesus was practically a carbon copy of other pagan gods, but that is just false. There are some pagan parallels to Jesus, but not nearly as many as is claimed in Zeitgeist or “Pagan Origins of th Christ Myth”. I’ve written about that here:

    http://www.dbskeptic.com/2009/09/13/pagan-parallels-to-jesus-the-forgotten-sons-of-god/

  8. I don’t think this was intended only for Christians so I’ll bite — a lot of things to do with the history of astronomy/cosmology. For instance, that in the “dark ages” the church and leading figures believed the earth was flat, that Copernicus (or Columbus or Galileo) were the ones that discovered the earth wasn’t flat and so on. On the Galileo affair, that the “consensus of the experts” concurred with Galileo and the Catholic Church simply went against that.

  9. Chris Hallquist

    @William: No, this wasn’t intended to be Christians only. But your version of the history is slightly different than the one I’ve heard–source?

    @Ryan: I wouldn’t call Jesus mythicism a “misconception.” It’s more open to debate than a lot of other things, though if someone thought there were a large number of mainstream scholars who accepted it, yeah, that would be a misconception.

    The point about pagan parallels to Jesus is a good one, though. Not that there aren’t any, but a lot of the particular claims you hear about them are wrong. Richard Carrier has a good article on one particular entry in that genre.

    @Nadder: I’ve heard the “Columbus discovered the Earth was round” one before, not the Copernicus and Galileo versions. Again, source?

  10. This is the type of stuff I think I’ve usually heard in conversation so fraid I don’t have anything specific. Have you encountered the one about the church “overruling science” in the Galileo affair?

  11. a nadder- Not true, they did place him under house arrest. HOWEVER- members of the church also somewhat supported him, so it would be unfair to say they didn’t. But regardless, Pope John Paul 2nd essentially felt that it where an affair worth apologizing for- regardless of how bad it actually was.

    Chris- I’ve heard many atheists mention this fact:

    “An ancient historian named Philo, lived the time of Jesus, yet never mention him.”

    However, I have heard apologists claim that this fact is wrong. However- I heard it from JP Holding, so IDK if he is right or not.

  12. Ryan- Yeah, I have to agree with you that Jesus mythicism (particularly the zietgiest variety) is by far the worst thing to have ever happend to atheism. It’s already eaten up almost 13% of atheists (according to one source I read, but it could be even more). However, even if it could be proven that there are a few pagan parallels, I think the allusions to the OT in the NT are more damning than them by far.

  13. Andyman409, which part were you referring to as not true?

  14. Perhaps this isn’t what you had in mind, but I think the notion that Jesus was a great teacher though not divine is an irritating error that I see fellow atheists make. There are people today (Wayne Bent for one) who claim many of the same things today that Jesus supposedly claimed i.e. Have no thought for the morrow, abandon your families if you want to follow me, etc. and we, rightly, regard them as dangerous cult leaders.
    Probably one of the few things I agree with C.S. Lewis on.

  15. If there was an historical Jesus, he would have been considered a radical cult leader by community leaders. He may have been able to pull off a few magic stunts to impress the rabble. Perhaps he had some medicinal/herbal/healing skills. He would have attracted a lot of followers.

    A man claiming to be the Messiah would have been dangerous to the economic and politcal Establishment of the times, and he would have been hunted down and made an example of — crucifixion was convenient and effective for this purpose. Truly believing he was the Son of God — deluded as cult leaders usually are — he would have played his role till the bitter end and his followers would have, too.

    His followers would have written down his teachings, and kept them hidden, because his teachings would have been forbidden by the government of the time, because the Establishment would have tried to erase all record of his existence so as not to encourage his problematic followers to promulgate his teachings.

    Thus, no record of him, or any other problematic rebels, in history books of the time. The most he might have gotten was an entry in the Roman records like, “three political agitators, two thieves and a murderer crucified immediately after Passover this year.”

    His followers would have been forced to (and did) go underground. This is mysterious and appealing, this “Secret Cult,” and attracts more true believers. A few hundred years later, this forbidden teaching has a huge following and is gaining influence and becoming harder to control. Convert a few major and influential people (and maybe an Emperor or two) and you have a force to be reckoned with.

    There: the history of Christianity in a few short paragraphs. :twisted:

  16. Re: Philo:

    I assume we’re talking about Philo of Alexandria. He was indeed a contemporary of Jesus, and never mentions Jesus. The first non-Christian reference to Jesus is in Josephus’ works, which I’ve seen dated to 90 A.D. I did a Google search for “J P Holding Philo Jesus” and the first relevant thing that came up had Holding saying Philo’s non-mention of Jesus wasn’t problematic–not claiming that Philo did too mention Jesus.

  17. “Thus, no record of him, or any other problematic rebels, in history books of the time”

    This is just wrong. You should read “War of the Jews” by Josephus. There are quite a number of rebels and otherwise crazy Jews that Josephus mentions. He blames their agitations for inciting the Jewish war against the Romans in 66 CE.

    Oddly, Josephus claims in that same anthology that the Roman general (and subsequent emperor) Vespasian was the messiah predicted in Jewish scripture. However, the only time that Josephus writes the actual word “Christ” is when he just so happens to be describing Jesus. Which is kind of damaging to the authenticity of those two “christ” passages.

  18. One small thing: All too often I’ve seen atheists fail to understand the difference between the idea that the apostles “died for a lie” and that they “knowingly, purposefully died for a lie.”

    Just to be clear, I think it’s a terrible argument, but it still bugs me that so many tend to overlook that distinction.

  19. a-naddar- sorry if I sounded hostile- yeah- I thought you were defending the christians treatment of galileo. No hard feelings.

    Chris- Odd… I think he made that claim on “debunking John Loftus”, and then he used it to ridicule John- but like I said in a previous post- I don’t trust JP Holding.

  20. a-naddar- no, I actually agreed with everything you wrote. Also, if I can add it, the early christians (and quite a lot of later ones) believed that the earth was covered with a dome and held up by pillars.

  21. I see — my only contention is when some people make it seem like the science was clear at the time and the Church simply went against an obviously true theory — that part is the misconception. Of course he was still threatened with the power of torture as happened to thousands of people under the Inquisition.

  22. yes- so true :)

  23. The Galileo thing was like a sunday school picnic compared to the Atheist holocausts of the last century. Can any atheist please advise why they don’t constantly rant on about them. Was it 100 million or more eliminated including many of their own?

  24. Nordon2009- genocides? 100 million? Sigh… another common apologetic claim made against the “big bad atheist”. Let me sort this one out…

    I think its important to note that aheists that commit these mass killings are usually the heads of communist countries- and the killings were often for political reasons. Communist governments are very unstable, and this often leads to their leaders making stupid decisions (like the great leap foward), which, despite causing many deaths, are NOT genocides. And they’re many instances that are also not genocides- just poor managment. As for the mass killings that were intentional (which I aknowledge that there were)- I cannot say much. I have no pride of what atheist communist dictators have done- but pinning that onto atheism just doesn’t work. There have been many killings made in the names of many different religions- although I know of very few instances of which an atheist killed a christian JUST because they where christian. If you know of any events PLEASE tell me.

    Also, if one is a true asshole (like Stalin) they will do what they want, regardless of their religion. Stalin probably had a genealogical condition (similiar to the genes they find common in serial killers) which gave him a lack of empathy. Either that- or he really loved his country, and had a strong sense of justice, but was misguided by his ideology (like hitler), forcing him to think he was doing it for the greater good. Regardless, there are many reasons why one becomes a murderer-And to this day- not one of them is JUST because one is an atheist.

    Also, when it comes down to numbers- keep in mind an important fact- THERE WERE LESS PEOPLE ALIVE DURING THE CRUSADES THEN 30 YEARS AGO. Although even if, after adjusting for inflation, there are more people that died under a communist regime, (and there are probably more), this leads to an even more important point: IT IS EASIER TO KILL PEOPLE NOW ADAYS. Ever heard of a gun? It kills faster then a sword.

    Finally- atheists aren’t interested in an atheist government. We want a secular government-well, a more secular government. Really I guess I just want the prayer times removed from political events. That’s about it. No offense- but the politicians can pray on their own damn time.

    I wonder if Chris will make a post on the supposed “atheist killings”? That would be an excellent area to explore.