Almost Everything I’ve Ever Wanted To Say To Atheists

It’s an unfortunate feature of a certain strand of contemporary atheism that it doesn’t treat religious believers as fellow humans with whom we disagree, but as tards who function primarily as objects of ridicule. And ridicule has its place. But sometimes it’s gratuitous. Sure, there are stupid/crazy religious people; there are also stupid/crazy atheists, and black people, and white people, and gays, and straights, and Republicans, and Democrats, and Sixers fans, and Celtics fans, and so on. Focusing on the stupidest among those with whom you disagree is a sign of weakness, not of strength.

It seems to me that the default stance of a proud secular humanist should be to respect other people as human beings, even if we definitively and unambiguously think they are wrong.

Sean Carroll via David Moles

What’s sad is that I share a lot in common with atheist philosophy.  I am in favor of religion or spiritual practice being a private thing that does not have anything officially to do with our government, our public schools, and our public lives.  What you do with your soul is your own business, not mine, and vice versa.  But it’s the attitude that Sean describes above that usually puts me at odds with atheists.

Particularly when they hurl slurs around that, if (modified appropriately and) directed at someone due to their race, gender, or sexual orientation, they would find unconscionable.  Not that religious/spiritual bigotry is worse.  Just that, for some, saying nasty things about religious people doesn’t strike them as wrong the same way saying nasty things about black people would.  But it’s all nastiness.

16 thoughts on “Almost Everything I’ve Ever Wanted To Say To Atheists

  1. In John 13:35, Jesus says, “By this all will know you are my disciples, if you have love for another.” The best way to convert anybody to your beliefs (no matter what they are) is not through hatred, ostracizing, fear or intimidation, but to show love and respect for everyone no matter whomever/whatever/if ever they choose to worship.

  2. Out of the people I know, it’s been my observation that the ones who are religious tend *on average* to be less open to accept other’s beliefs, less open-minded about their own religion, and more offensive when someone else questions them. However, most of them don’t go looking for a fight with other (non)religious groups and are content to do the bulk of their declaiming within their own circle.

    People I’ve known who are atheists, and who are very closed-minded about it, have tended to be much more active. Out of all the religious missonaries and recruiters I’ve been approached by, especially in recent years, the majority have been atheists, and they have tended to be more rude, more intrusive, and more personally demeaning than any other group on the whole–and that tally includes the time I got invited to a “movie night” that turned out to be a recruitment session for Xenos Christian Fellowship in disguise.

    (Error analysis: I was a student at Emerson College within the past 5 years, which may be affecting my count)

  3. I couldn’t agree with you more. I also want to note that I don’t agree with many of the above commenters that Christians are more likely to be snobby/offensive about religion than atheists- I think, in terms of sheer numbers, that there are more offensive Christians, and that they tend to get more public airtime and attention due to their privileged status, but proportionally, I find that snobbery is spread about equally regardless of religious affiliation (or lack thereof).

  4. Oh, and to be fair, upon re-reading, you did say something that is pretty close to that in summing up. (It’s just the title and using atheists in a fairly general way that is rubbing me slightly wrong.)

    1. I get in trouble every time I identify the people I’m talking about as asshole atheists, though. There’s always some in every group, just as there are plenty in the group who are not.

  5. I tend to agree with much of what Tekanji has said here. That is not to say that I don’t know atheists who fit the bill–I do, but certainly not as many as I know religious folk of all stripes who ALSO do. I grew up Mormon, and merely arguing your beliefs was often considered to be arrogant, demeaning, offensive, or what-have-you to the people around me. I remember a time when I was actively hostile towards atheism. I didn’t KNOW any out atheists at the time, so I was workng off the stereotype of the arrogant godless that was being passed around culturally. I remember my dad making snide remarks when Carl Sagan died about how Carl would be finding out how wrong he was and regretting his works on earth.

    The last line of the quoted section is the bit I like best, and I do agree with that. And if atheists and religious folk alike would follow this, yay! Happier world.

    I do think that attacking people on the general basis of their religious belief is counter-productive. I DO think it’s okay to point out and actively debate the stupidity of an obviously harmful belief and I really have no compunctions about pulling my punches when it comes to church leaders of various denominations who have engaged in hypocrisy. (Mormons protesting gays getting married on the basis of traditional marriage comes to mind. I really don’t think there are words strong enough to describe how I feel, for example, about the FLDS leaders, but I don’t think their followers are inferior or stupid, merely prisoners of a fairly heinous institution.) Unfortunately, so many people are attached to their leaders and beliefs that they feel this IS a personal attack on THEM.

    This is a minefield I navigate every time I talk to my family and my old LDS friends, and while many of the younger generation work at some accommodation with my non-belief, as I work out an accommodation with their beliefs, many others don’t feel that I am owed the same courtesy. My feelings are, according to them, the result of rebellion, a whim, a phase, brainwashing by liberal education policies, something I’m doing so I can be cool, denialism about my state of sin, arrogance, distrust in the hand of the Lord, and so on. I have friends and family tell me all the time, “Have you prayed about it? Have you studied the scriptures? Did you let Jesus into your heart? You just don’t want to admit the truth, but you know it deep down. If you pray harder, it will just go away. Why do you feel the need to rebel? Why are you so angry?” I get pretty much no credit for actually having thought about the issue and coming to the conclusions I have on my own…and yet, my loved ones don’t see that this is pretty offensive. In fact, they see it as their duty to save me.

    My point: atheists are no less respectful to people on the whole than people of religious faith.

  6. Really? Because in my experience that kind of behaviour comes from religious people much more often than it does atheists. Think about it: the most likely reason it stands out is because you’re less likely to notice (or more likely to minimize) that kind of nastiness when it comes from your own group?

    Please don’t forget that being religious affords you a certain amount of privilege (or a lot if you fall within the spectrum of the country’s dominant religion(s)). Many Americans openly distrust atheists and statements like Caroll’s — which I have to say I’m a bit upset to see you back up — just reinforce the idea that atheists are nasty whiners.

    Frankly, I am really, really fucking sick of being presumed an asshole, amoral, anti-moral, etc simply because I do not share others’ belief in a higher power. And, in my experience a lot of the times that’s where the nastiness comes from — a reaction (albeit not a good one) to the way we’ve been oppressed and continue to be oppressed in most societies.

    Also, think about this: I go out of my way to try to not attack people’s personal beliefs (though I make no secret that I hate most forms of organized religion because they tend to be hierarchical and politicized), but it’s attitudes like the ones in this post that puts me at odds with believers.

    1. Because in my experience that kind of behaviour comes from religious people much more often than it does atheists.

      I tend to surround myself more with atheists and spiritual people than religious folks, so from my POV, I see it a lot more coming from atheists (particularly as compared to spiritual people, who are/can be different from religious people). Folks who follow alternate spiritualities are, in my experience, less likely to say nasty things about atheists. Like me, they share the philosophy of my soul, my business, your soul (or whatever), your business. Now, I see a fair amount of nastiness from them about religious folks, particularly Christians, and that anger comes from, I think, a similar place as atheist anger about Christianity. And there’s plenty to be angry about.

      But as far as what “group” I’m in, I’m not religious at all. So I don’t have that particular privilege. Though others have argued that, because I am not atheist, I automatically get believer’s privilege. I’m willing to be persuaded otherwise, but I don’t think that’s true. People who follow spiritual paths that aren’t respected by (and are sometimes condemned by) the dominant religion in the culture are just as likely to be on the receiving end of prejudice as atheists. Christians don’t respect me any more than they respect you.

      I don’t think you’re amoral at all. My particular feeling about any atheist is that I don’t care if you believe god/a god/some gods exist or not as it doesn’t have any bearing on my life. I don’t follow a philosophy that condemns people who don’t believe what I believe. Actions are what I’m more concerned about.

      And I cannot stress enough that I did not express any condemnation of atheists’ personal beliefs.

      I’m also harder on atheists and spiritual people about this issue because, frankly, I feel that since we and you are an oppressed group and know what it feels like to have slurs hurled at us for stupid reasons, that this behavior should not be mirrored. There’s a difference between being critical of religion and religious people because of the bad things that come out of organized religion (which I am) and just being nasty. Just as I get angry when black people are anti-gay because I feel like, 1 – they should know better and 2 – haven’t we learned anything from people being racist at us? Like, that it’s bad?

  7. I was in Seattle this weekend, and was pretty bothered by a huge billboard proclaiming (demanding) “Freedom from Religion” in a prominent downtown location.

    I do have to say that atheists, like any other group, are a vast spectrum–many are no more disrespectful of religion than many religious people are of atheism.

    1. Why shouldn’t people be free from religion. Seriously. What’s wrong with that? Why not be free from having things shoved down your throat? That doesn’t preclude people from having religions, just from treating their religion as if it’s universal.

  8. I agree with that part of the post, but I don’t agree that it fits the incident to which he is applying it.

      1. Tempest, do you check private messages on teh LJ? I need to speak with you urgently.

  9. hi tempest– i’m also kalmn over on lj.

    anyhow. i know some people who are atheists who i don’t much hang out with for pretty much exactly those reasons. also, because they talk about religion all the time, it’s just that they want to talk about how oppressed they are as non-believers, or how other people are religious but they’re not, or whatever. and mostly, i think that my religion is a matter between myself and my invisible friends. (i’m pagan. so i have several invisible friends, as opposed to a lot of people who only have one. ;)

Comments are closed.