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Myth: Atheists are Hedonists Who Worship Sex, Physical Pleasure, Comfort

Atheists are Despised, Distrusted for Only Caring About Physical Things


With no god, atheists are only interested in pursuing physical pleasures like sex or drugs.

Is it true that atheists are all sex-crazed maniacs who care only about getting high? That's the implication of the popular myth that atheists are hedonists who have replaced the proper worship of the True God with worship of physical pleasures. There is no evidence that atheists are more likely to use or abuse drugs, nor is there any evidence that atheists "worship" physical pleasures like sex, no matter how loosely the term is defined. There is simply no empirical basis for this myth.

It's common for religious theists to claim that religious and spiritual values are more important than any physical pleasures. Indeed, it's common for them to go to great lengths to devalue physical pleasures, denying that they have any value whatsoever. From this perspective, it might seem reasonable to regard anyone who refuses to similarly devalue physical pleasures are doing something akin "worshipping" them, but it's frankly not a fair or rational implication.

It is true that there is an ancient philosophy called Hedonism which teaches that pleasure is the highest good and that the ethical quality of an action can be determined by whether it has pleasing or pleasant consequences. It's very similar to Utilitarianism and both may be adopted by atheists. Utilitarianism may be relatively common among atheists, especially in its more sophisticated forms, but straightforward Hedonism is not.

Only those who have adopted Hedonism, might, with any remote degree of credibility, be claimed to be "worshipping" pleasure in some fashion — but that's a very small minority of atheists in the world. Many more atheists are adherents of belief systems like Buddhism in which renouncing physical, material attachments is taught as a central doctrine. A Buddhist atheist may not renounce or devalue all forms of physical pleasure entirely, but they do learn to place less attachment to them.

It seems to me that such religious theists are assuming that atheists have nothing to live for except material and physical pleasures. Now, there is no denying that such pleasures have their place and that some people do indeed place supreme importance on them; however, there is no necessary connection between being an atheist and being interested in nothing but sex and pleasure.

Such a claim implies that theists are superior because they are presumably interested in more than pleasure and sex, but that isn't necessarily true. Plenty of religious theists — including Christians — engage in behavior which indicates that those two goals are among their primary values. We must conclude from this that there is no automatic connection between whether a person believes in a god or not and what they value as most important in their lives. Neither theism nor atheism necessarily lead to anything in particular when it comes to values — whether good or bad.

There's nothing about atheism which should cause a person to be more interested in pursuing physical pleasure or sex than other things that life has to offer. It is interesting to note that this myth contradicts another popular myth, namely the one that atheists lead hopeless lives with nothing to life for and no reason not to commit suicide. On the one hand the absence of god and religion supposedly causes atheists to have no reason to care about living; on the other hand, the absence of god and religion also supposedly causes atheists to spend too much time enjoying themselves with worldly pleasures. Which is it?

The fact of the matter is, atheists are no less diverse than theists in both attitudes and behavior. There is certainly a basis for criticizing the attitudes and behavior of some atheists, but the same is equally true of theists. There's nothing about atheism which inclines a person to less moral or more hedonistic behavior — not now, not in the past, and not in the future. There's nothing about being a "real" atheist beyond not believing in any gods and that doesn't automatically lead to any particular behavior, good or bad.

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