There’s something I’ve been noticing lately in theists’ arguments against atheists. When you start paying attention, you notice how many of them aren’t really arguments. And no, I’m not even talking about the “I feel it in my heart” or “‘Cause the Bible tells me so” non-arguments.
I’m talking about the “Shut up, that’s why” arguments. I’m talking about the arguments that are meant to stop the discussion entirely. I’m talking about the arguments whose main purpose is to try to get atheists to stop making their arguments.
I talked about a couple of these in my recent 10 Myths and Truths About Atheists piece that I wrote for AlterNet. You know, one of the interesting things about writing for AlterNet is that it exposes me to, shall we say, a wider variety of thought processes than my own mostly well- mannered little blog does. (From atheists as well as theists.) In particular, I was a little surprised, given how clear I thought I’d been on why “Shut up, that’s why” arguments are an unfair and unreasonable form of anti-atheist bigotry, at how many people in the comments went ahead and made those arguments anyway. In a fascinating variety of forms. It was quite an opportunity to study the species in its native habitat.
The thing about the “Shut up, that’s why” arguments is that many of them can seem reasonable on the surface. They’re slippery, not actual direct arguments. It can take some attention to see what exactly is wrong with them.
So I want to go through the “Shut up, that’s why” arguments and show how they’re designed, not to move the discussion forward, but to shut it down.
For the record, I’m going to leave out the more obvious and heavy- handed versions of “Shut up, that’s why.” Like calling us inherently immoral, or accusing us of the worst war crimes in history, or ostracizing/ jailing/ beating/ killing people for being atheists. But if there are any other than those that I’ve missed, please speak up in the comments.
Don’t you have anything better to do? Why do you keep talking about atheism when (the economy is tanking, there are wars, people are being tortured, the planet is overheating, etc.)? How can you think this is important? Why do you expect anyone to pay attention to it?
Ah, yes. This is what I call the “How can you talk about blowjobs when people are dying in Darfur?” argument.
Okay. First of all, A: People are multi-faceted. We can think about, and talk about, many different things at once. We can talk about global warming, and cute cats. We can talk about Afghanistan, and the history of surrealism. And we can talk about the tanking economy, and whether or not God exists. Not everything we talk about has to be the Major Social Issue of the Day. If we only ever talked about the terrible state of the world, our heads would explode. We need a little variety.
But more to the point, B:
Atheists think religion is a major social issue. Atheists — many of us, anyway — think religion is one of the major sources of social upheaval on the planet. From sex and science education in the U.S. public schools, to the violence and chaos in the Middle East, we think a lot of what’s terribly wrong with the world would be better — not perfect, but better — without religion.
This isn’t trivial. Treating it as trivial is just an attempt to get us to shut up.
Religion is based on faith, not reason. It exists in a different realm from science and politics and such, and it’s not fair to expect it to compete on the same level. (A.k.a., non-overlapping magisteria.)
Yeah. See, here’s the problem with that.
If you believe in a God who acts on the world, then that’s not a different realm. That’s this realm. The realm of cause and effect. The one we’re living in.
And if you believe in a God who created the world but doesn’t act on it… well, who cares? Technically that’s not atheism, but in any practical sense it might as well be.
Here’s the interesting thing. Before we knew as much about the world as we do now, religious teachers loved to point to evidence in the world as proof of God’s existence. Now that we have much better explanations for the world than God, all of a sudden they’re saying that it’s unfair to expect religious believers to give evidence for their beliefs.
The “it’s unfair to expect religion to make its case” trope is just a way of trying to stop atheists from making our case. (Plus it’s a distraction from the fact that believers really don’t have one.) It’s just an attempt to get us to shut up.
Why do Democrats care what Republicans believe? And vice versa? Why do social democrat types care what free market freaks believe, and vice versa? Why do gay rights activists care what anti- gay- rights activists believe, and vice versa?
Atheists care what believers believe, because people act on their beliefs. Beliefs have consequences in the real world. And that includes religious beliefs.
To ask atheists to ignore what believers believe, even though it has an enormous impact on our lives and everybody else’s lives, is just an attempt to get us to shut up.
Funny. The same thing was said about gay people, and gay sexuality, when the gay rights movement was becoming visible. It was meant to shut up gay people, the exact same way it’s meant to shut up atheists.
And I’ll say pretty much what LGBT people have been saying on this topic:
Religious believers have been parading their beliefs in public for millennia. It is the height of hypocrisy for religious believers to ask atheists — now that we’re finally getting some traction — to keep our lack of belief private. It’s just an attempt to get us to shut up.
Right. Unlike anybody else who’s making a case.
When it comes to the question of whether or not God exists… yes, atheists think we’re right. We don’t think we can prove our case with 100% certainty — you almost never can about any case, especially when you’d need prove a negative to do so. But we think both evidence and logic are overwhelmingly in our favor, and we think we can made a pretty darned good case for our side.
And making a case is not the same as thinking you’re superior.
There’s a huge difference between thinking you’re better than people you disagree with… and thinking that, on one particular issue, you’re correct, and people who disagree are mistaken. Thinking you’re right, and trying to convince people you’re right… that’s not arrogance. That’s the marketplace of ideas.
You know what? If I’m not right? Prove me wrong. I’ll let you in on a not- so- secret secret: Every time I see an argument for religion, for just a microsecond, I wonder if it’s right. I wonder, “Could this be the argument that’ll convince me?” It never is — in fact, those microseconds are getting shorter and shorter, as I’ve now seen about eighty thousand arguments for God, all of which suck — but I always wonder. I’m open to the possibility that I might be wrong. I just don’t think I am.
To accuse atheists of acting superior for speaking out and making our case… that’s just a way of trying to stop us from speaking out and making our case. It’s just an attempt to get us to shut up.
Yes. It’s so whiny of us to speak out about our opinions and experiences. It’s so whiny of us to speak out about the terrible harm and oppression that religious believers inflict on one another, and have been for thousands of years. And it’s so whiny of us to speak out when we’re discriminated against, or when people spread hateful and deceitful lies about us.
Do I even need to explain why this one is a “Shut up, that’s why?” argument?
You know, it’s not like we’re standing outside your door at 3 a.m. with bullhorns. You can read other blog articles. Change the station on your radio or TV. Flip to another page in your newspaper or magazine. Browse in another section of the bookstore.
And you know what? I’m sick of hearing about religion. I’ve been getting religion shoved down my throat for as long as I can remember. That hasn’t stopped anybody from talking about it. And it shouldn’t. People should talk about the things that they care about. Believers do. Why shouldn’t atheists?
This is “Shut up, that’s why” in its purest, most direct form. (Apart from actually killing people or putting them in jail, of course.)
And finally, the most frustrating “Shut up, that’s why” argument of them all:
This is a tough one… since it makes the believer seem reasonable and tolerant and nice, and the atheist seem like a churlish jerk. I mean, what are atheists supposed to say? “No, we can’t just agree to disagree”? “No, we can’t just live and let live”? “No, we can’t just drop it — we’re going to keep picking this fight every chance we get”?
But there are two enormous problems with this sweet, tolerant, almost certainly well- intentioned version of “Shut up, that’s why.”
The first and most obvious problem is: We are not being left alone. We are not being let to live. (Allowed to live? Left to live? Boy, “live and let live” is a hard phrase to recast.) Religious believers everywhere are treating atheists like dirt. And they’re treating other believers like dirt. If you’re not personally doing that, then good for you… but is that really reason enough for us to stop speaking out against bigotry against us? Do you really think the hard-core atheist- hating fundies are going to suddenly become sweet and nice if only the atheists would back off?
If the only religion in the world were tolerant, ecumenical, understanding, and supportive of the notion that people with different beliefs can be good people… I think most atheists wouldn’t care very much about it. But that’s not the world we live in. At the risk of sounding like a third- grader: You started it.
Second — more subtly, but in my mind equally important:
The idea that it’s bad to criticize or question religion is, in the atheist view, one of the most pernicious pieces of armor that religion has mounted against legitimate criticism.
Again, atheists see religion as just another hypothesis about how the world works and why it is the way it is. We don’t see any reason not to ask hard questions about it. In a free society, we all get to ask hard questions about scientific theories, political opinions, public policies. Hell, we ask hard questions about restaurants and dog breeding and reality show contestants. Why should religion be different? In the marketplace of ideas, why should religion get to drive its wares to the market in an armored car? And sell those wares behind a curtain? And insist that people stay politely quiet when the teakettles they bought at the religion booth don’t hold water?
For centuries, indeed for millennia, people have only been allowed to see things one way: God’s way. (Okay, thousands of ways, and thousands of gods… but you know what I mean.) For centuries, indeed for millennia, religion has been the only game in town. And now that another option is appearing on the table, now that serious questions are being asked about both its usefulness and its plausibility… now you want people to stop arguing and just let each other believe what they believe?
So I guess my reply to “Can’t we all just get along” is: Can’t we just have a conversation? Can’t we talk about religion as if it were any other political opinion/ moral philosophy/ hypothesis about how the world works? Religion is a widely- held belief system with far- reaching effects — can’t we have a conversation about whether that belief system is plausible?
If you don’t want to participate in that conversation, fine. But why are you trying to stop other people from having it?
No, don’t tell me. I know the answer to that question.
For more on the “shut up, that’s why” arguments, read this follow-up, Curiosity and the “Shut Up, That’s Why” Argument.