We feel only a little uncomfortable broadcasting the harsh truths of atheism to believers who happily push their “truths” on us. But I want to talk about how to handle the quieter believers who aren’t proselytizing at all, and not publicly judging others. They are minding their own business and usually don’t understand why atheists can’t mind theirs. These theists are often offended by atheists’ public declarations, objecting that it’s fine if atheists don’t believe in god but they should at least have respect for people who do and not push their atheism. After all, tolerance is about respecting different viewpoints, especially when it comes to something private like religion, they say.
But is religious belief the kind of viewpoint that we should all tolerate and exempt from public scrutiny? Belief in god isn’t like a predilection for classical music or Italian food. There is a crucial categorical difference that makes it awfully hard for an atheist to say, “To each, his own.” That is, whether there is a personal god is an objective matter; it is supported by evidence and justified by argumentation or it is not. Furthermore, believing or not believing in a personal god (especially of the Judeo-Christian variety to which most of the 70% of
I don’t want to unnecessarily offend people or hurt their feelings, but I also don’t want to be complacent and feel intellectually and morally dishonest. So what’s the big problem with believing in a personal god? Here are some major ones:
- Believing in a power infinitely stronger than you, and offering this power some kind of dominion over your life, is emotionally unhealthy.
- Believing that faith is a virtue, and that you should take someone at their word with no good evidence to back it, instead of forming a belief based on a critical examination of evidence and arguments, is intellectually poisonous.
- Believing that there is some being that knows everything, more than you can ever know, even about yourself, is intellectually tragic.
- Believing that you are born flawed, from sin, and that you must rely on someone else for your own salvation is dehumanizing.
- The belief that god has a plan for everyone justifies imposing that plan on other people even when it causes suffering. (They say god always has a reason for allowing suffering.) Ironically, for other believers faith in god’s plan diminishes their urge to intervene where there is suffering. (Why do something so pompous as to interfere with god’s “great” plan?)
- Belief in an afterlife necessarily devalues life here on earth and would mitigate responsibility and diminish motivation to change the status quo.
- Belief in god offers false hope, and when prayers to help others aren’t answered, this can lead to feelings of profound guilt that one didn’t pray hard enough or in the right way.
- Worship of any being threatens human integrity; subservience and unqualified devotion are not commendable.
As a participant in our society, passionate about emotional health and human potential, I can’t fully respect myself and not publicly challenge these harmful beliefs. Morality requires that we help people do what is in their best interest, even if others are totally unaffected by their choices. If you had a friend believing something harmful, wouldn’t you feel compelled to speak up? You want your friend, and people in general, to have the most fulfilling life possible, both emotionally and intellectually. So if your friend has a false belief, and you know there is intellectual damage and negative moral consequences that stem from it, are you a jerk for speaking up? On the contrary, morality requires it. So why are atheists accused of being jerks just because the topic is religion? How can we be expected to irresponsibly stand by and watch someone surrender to a harmful delusion?
If you aren’t persuaded by this paternalistic ethical stance, consider the negative social consequences of religious belief. We all live together in a society with no sharp boundaries, so religion and faith can’t be private matters. And on public matters, citizens have a democratic right to debate issues of public impact. Whenever someone votes against abortion and threatens women’s reproductive rights because they believe that a woman is killing one of god’s planned creatures, this becomes my concern as a
Many religious believers would object that they agree with me in most or all of these cases and therefore, I shouldn’t criticize their religion because it isn’t interfering with the social good. I admit many religious believers have done a fine job warping their religion to fit morality, and I’m extremely grateful that they value reasoning over what their religion tells them – I wish more believers did. I also don’t deny that there are atheists who aren’t on the right side of the issue: for example, there are some who don’t support gay marriage. But in those cases, it’s not a lack of religion or belief in god motivating this -- it’s plain old bigotry and ignorance. When a Christian is against gay marriage, I would expect that the belief that homosexuality is a sin against god is the motivating belief.
Cultures don’t progress when superstitions prevail over rational inquiry. The only way for a culture to advance is to believe and act only on what can be known, or at least on which there is good evidence. All actions stem from beliefs, and all beliefs have practical consequences. Fighting the truth only brings suffering because it’s fighting reality. If we accept the truth, suffering is diminished because we are aligned with the way life is. For that reason, and because we all have to live together, we are not entitled to believe anything we want. Why should I let culture stagnate because 70% of society is comforted by a personal god? Don’t I have a right to cultivate the most successful culture I can? Don’t I have a moral obligation to help those who aren’t living up to their full potential as rational human beings? I submit that I do simply because I’m a responsible participant in our culture. Precisely because religious beliefs have extreme consequences, for believers and nonbelievers, people have a responsibility to openly examine and criticize them.
Unfortunately, so long as we are dealing with deeply personal beliefs, criticism will unavoidably be tantamount to offense. Human psychology does not permit criticisms of one’s religious convictions to not come across as personal attack. Some atheists (not all) think that you can always separate the criticism of one’s belief from criticism of the believer – if only that were true. There are certainly better and worse ways to communicate to someone that a treasured belief is wrong. The mistake some atheists make (not all) is proceeding from the true premise that religious belief is not exempt from criticism to the idea that any brash attitude or rude approach towards religion is acceptable. I get frustrated when some atheists engage in more offense towards believers than necessary and justify it on the grounds that “they’ll just be offended anyway.” That attitude ignores the reality that minimal offense is more effective when arguing any position. Come at someone with too stinging an attack and they’ll only cling harder to their beliefs. Atheists need a respectful attitude and tactful approach to be effective. Moreover, human decency requires it, especially when it comes to these quieter believers who aren’t (publicly) judging atheists. Let’s civilly focus on the good reasons for criticizing religion by presenting the negative consequences, both personal and social. Staying focused on the negative consequences of religious belief as much as possible as opposed to attacking the beliefs themselves (especially with a brash characterization that they are simply stupid and irrational) mitigates perception of a personal attack.
Public atheism causes offense. Yet responsible criticism is justifiable when the stakes are a better future. We all need people to base beliefs on good evidence and fulfill their potential as rational beings. A naturalistic worldview brings self-empowerment and sets the stage for cultural improvement. Nobody likes to be told they are wrong -- I take no pleasure in doing that, especially when dealing with deeply personal beliefs. However, there is a brighter future for a society that holds accurate beliefs on matters of monumental emotional and social importance. Public examination of matters of great practical consequence, like religion, is necessary. Atheism is best done responsibly.