Speaking of misunderstanding atheism, I’d like to highlight the fallacy/strawman that’s annoying me the most right now.
Theist: “You atheists are wrong for saying that atheism causes people to be good people.” (Or, causes societies to be less dysfunctional, or causes people to go to jail less, or whatever…)
Let me say this clearly and unequivocably. ATHEISM DOESN’T CAUSE ANYTHING. I don’t claim that atheism makes me a better person, or that it cures depression or causes rational thinking or anything else.
Atheism is not a philosophy. It is not a moral code. Philosophically speaking, atheism is a giant hole waiting to be filled. That is, anyone who rejects the claim that there is a God has to come up with alternate explanations for the things God is reported to be responsible for — or leave questions unanswered for lack of a good explanation. To say that one is an atheist is only to say that they have rejected one explanation for something. It says absolutely nothing whatsoever about what they have accepted, or indeed, if they have accepted any explanation at all.
Having established this, we must now realize that ATHEISM IS AN EFFECT, NOT A CAUSE. Unless a person is quite philosophically naive, he does not just arbitrarily decide that there is no god. Instead, he reaches that decision based on a pre-existing worldview. The most common worldview that leads to atheism is naturalism. Nihilism can also lead to atheism. (I must add the disclaimer that I think nihilism is a failed worldview that doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. Nevertheless, it can and does logically lead to atheism in many cases. Sometimes bad logic yields true conclusions.) There are certainly other worldviews that can lead one to atheism. The broad point is that atheism is the result, not the cause.
Why, then, are there statistical correlations between less societal dysfunction, crime, divorce, etc, and atheism? If atheism doesn’t cause it, what does? Put simply, by rejecting theism, atheists are more or less forced into a results-driven conception of reality. Theism — the belief that there is an inscrutable God at the bottom of the chain of causation — defies falsification from results. Since this god can pretty much do whatever he wants and defy logic or evidence on a whim, theists are free to follow their own belief system regardless of its correlation to observable reality.
Since atheism, by definition, is the rejection of intelligent meddling with the nature of reality, atheists are quite limited in the number of ways they can defy reality checks. What could they appeal to? I suppose there are a few atheists who believe really wacky things. Perhaps they believe that our reality is an illusion and that we are all part of an alien experiment. For the most part, though, most sane atheists simply don’t have any viable worldviews available to them that defy reality checks.
Atheists then, are quite diverse in their worldviews, political views, and beliefs about reality. The one thing they have in common, though, is that there’s no God dictating things that defy reason but must be done anyway. If they’re going to defy reason, they have to justify it in some other way. Since there simply aren’t very many non-theist worldviews that argue against reason… well… most atheists, regardless of their particular philosophy, are driven by reason, and therefore, results. They look for the best way to run a society, get married and stay married, prevent pregnancy and disease transmission, and reduce crime in society. Since they don’t have preachers and holy books telling them it’s against God’s will to do things this way or that way, they tend to base their decisions on what reason tells them will work the best.
Lest I invoke another strawman, I’m not suggesting that atheists are always more rational than theists, or that atheism causes people to be more rational. Remember — atheism doesn’t CAUSE anything. Atheism is the result of a worldview. It is an effect. Rather than focusing on “atheism,” the statistics should focus on reason/results driven worldviews as opposed to rigid non-reason/results worldviews. Since theism is the overwhelmingly dominant non-results driven worldview, and virtually all the results driven worldviews coincidentally lead logically and naturally to atheism, it can appear to an untrained observer that atheism is the cause. It is not. It is just a coincidental side effect.