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Atheism and the “Shut Up, That’s Why” Arguments

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.

Silence means securityI’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.

Financial_crisisDon’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.

PrayerReligion 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.

Election map.svgWhy do you care what other people believe?

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.

Silence equals deathReligion is personal and private. I don’t see why we have to talk about this.

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.

Nixon kennedy debateAtheists are so superior. They act like they’re so much smarter than believers, and they think they’re right about everything.

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.

Question markYou 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.

ScreamAtheists are so whiny.

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?

SleepingI’m so tired of hearing about atheism. Can’t you give it a rest?

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:

Circle holding handsCan’t we just get along? Can’t we agree to disagree? Neither of us can prove our side with 100% certainty, so there’s no point in even having this discussion. Can’t we just live and let live?

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.”

AmericanfascistsThe 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:

Armor_1The 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?

ConversationSo 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.

Shut up.

That’s why.

For more on the “shut up, that’s why” arguments, read this follow-up, Curiosity and the “Shut Up, That’s Why” Argument.

Comments

  1. says

    Absolutely stunning subversion of those arguments. I have been stumped by similar on occasion and particularly the last one. These apply to all sorts of discussions, including one I’m interested in, autism and quackery and disablism. Thank you. (Now going to bookmark this.)

  2. Maria says

    Yes, I recognize so much of this!
    Even though I live in a mostly secular country (Sweden) and religious groups are in minority and are pretty much toothless when it comes to political influence, and even if atheism is not really controversial here, I do encounter the same arguments often.
    One aspect of it, over here, is that religion IS rather marginalized and therefore not considered a threat. And it is also considered mostly a private affair. Religious people are often not so outspoken here – not because of any sort of oppression, but because people tend to be more private about such things here on the whole. Your possible faith, your sexlife and how much money you make, you keep to yourself. Only very extreme cults gets noticed, really, and people in general have a “live and let live” attitude toward religion on the whole. That Sweden is mostly secular does not mean that we are hostile toward religion, quite the other way around. We want to be open and tolerant to other cultures and ways of thinking. Which is a good thing to strive for, but these good intentions sometimes backfire, I think, when we dare not criticise the bad sides of things for fear of being considered intolerant. Also, I think it was Sam Harris (correct me if I am wrong) that wrote something about secular Europe not taking the problems with religious beliefs and religious thinking seriously, because we have forgotten what it is like to REALLY believe in such things, and we just don’t see what bad consequenses can follow from it. There’s some truth in that, too, I think.
    When I criticize and question different aspects of religion some of my friends and family members say that they think I am being intolerant, even though they are complete non-believers themselves. I hear these arguments all the time then. When I try to explain why I think religion is a serious problem in the world, they don’t really take me seriously and think that I am exaggerating or are being pessimistic and/or cynical.
    I enocunter these arguments all the time when it comes to all other sorts of woo-woo beliefs as well. They must not be criticized because that is to be intolerant, and who am I to question other peoples’ “truths and reality”.

  3. says

    I am stunned, but since Sharon already wrote that, I need to come up with another way to praise this piece.
    Thanks, yet again for laying out such a good case for atheist activism. I thank you, and bloggers like Vjack at Atheist Revolution for laying out such strong cases for atheist activism.

  4. says

    ::applause::
    Nice work! I read your piece over at AlterNet, and I started to read through the comments. I’ve been kind of sheltered in all my atheist blogs too, I guess, because I was kind of stunned by the responses. I quit reading them pretty fast, because it was all so circular and insular and illogical. Thanks for this wonderful response to such headache-inducing “arguments”!

  5. says

    Excellent rebuttals all. I’m Pagan, not atheist, but I too have been told basically “Shut up, that’s why” when I challenge Christian supremacy. (Which is different from Christianity, but you know that.)
    Regarding the first one about talking about atheism in the midst of crises, what about people (mostly Christians) who urge prayer and “turning back to God” in crises? There have been so many of those lately. I am perilously close to thinking that church pastors in NYC are trying to take advantage of the economic downturn. If they can talk about their belief, shove it into absolutely *everything*, then why can’t you and others talk about your lack of belief? I simply don’t get it.

  6. Mark says

    Excellent post.
    And aren’t there better things for them to do too? Whether it’s wanting “Under God” in the pledge, complaining about the “rise” of atheism, or politicians debating the difficulties of finding an Advent Calendar (I think that last one also counts as “whiny”) – none of these things are as important as people dying in wars, either. Religious people seem to think that religion is a major social issue, too.
    I also note that a lot of these arguments come not from theists, but the agnostics/I-don’t-care-ists and all the other “nontheists” who don’t identify as atheists, and who seem to think that atheism is just as bad as theism.

  7. says

    I’ve been noticing an increase in this sort of behavior as well. It seems we’re quite the bee in the believers’ bonnets and they’re getting quite angry that they haven’t been able to squelch us. Ray Comfort has put up a new Website devoted to stamping us out (and he has a new book with the same purpose in mind). The various atheist billboards and bus ads have been met with a great deal of vitriol. Some people can’t stand the fact that we’re no longer invisible and silent.
    They’re just going to have to deal.

  8. Slev says

    At several points in your arguments you draw the definition between two broad categories of religion:
    “Religious believers everywhere are treating atheists like dirt. And they’re treating other believers like dirt.”
    Alas, there are many self-confessed Atheists who are no able to draw the line between those of us of faith who support your choice of (non) beliefs, and those who do not who similarly persecute the moderates along with those not of the same faith.
    These people sink towards Antitheism, and talk with venom towards all of faith, even those who, as you put it:
    “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.”
    The poorly reasoned arguments from these “fundamentalist Atheists” in my experience end up dragging the religious moderates into the conflict you describe when they would otherwise back up the Atheist view-points.

  9. Mark says

    The fact that someone is referred to as a “fundamentalist Atheist” for writing on their blog kind of demonstrates the point being made by this article…
    If only the worse thing that fundamentalist theists did was write on blogs!

  10. says

    This is precisely the kind of thing I’ve covered in my new book, which you can read more about on my blog—which I won’t link here for fear of seeming spammy, but it’s in my name link.
    It never ceases to amaze me how unsophisticated people supposedly on the side of the supreme creator of the universe somehow manage to be.

  11. says

    “… and the atheist seem like a churlish jerk.”
    The word ‘churlish’ is so sorely underused these days. That alone made this entry worth reading.
    Oh, that and it was exceedingly well-written. Cheers!

  12. says

    Good list, very recognizable. However I have another “Shut up, that’s why” argument to add to it:
    “Atheists only/mostly criticize the fundamentalists/extremists and are ignoring all the progressive/moderate/modern/good believers/theologians that have already solved these issues”.
    Rather than acknowledge that atheists have good reasons to criticize fundamentalists, moderate believers rather throw this accusation at us.
    Why would someone use this complaint? Possibly they think the criticism is unjustified, in which case they are probably not that moderate after all. Also, they could then address the criticism itself if they wanted to. So I think we can rule this interpretation out in most cases.
    So likely they actually privately agree with the criticism. So why not say so, instead of using this complaint? The only other possible message this could have that I can think of is to imply that atheists shouldn’t be voicing the criticism. Which makes it a “Shut up, that’s why” argument.
    I suspect the real reason they can’t acknowledge the criticism, but have to try and make it stop in this way, is because the arguments that fundamentalists and progressives use aren’t all that different in the end. Similarly, many (though far from all) arguments that atheists use against fundamentalists apply equally well against progressives. So it’s safer for them to cover for the fundamentalists than to agree with the atheists. But that’s just my theory.

  13. says

    Great post! I’ve been categorizing and responding to a lot of apologetic arguments and trying to find if there’s any “there” there — and I totally forgot about this very common category of responses.
    I also think there’s a “shut up, that’s why” quality to a great many of the sophisticated-sounding apologetics arguments, be it William Lane Craig dressing up a one-sentence reply in two Powerpoint slides full of confusing mathematical symbols, or the rantings of presuppositionalists. (I have a blog post up on the latter.)

  14. spriteless says

    “If we agree on 90 percent of the stuff, and we’re spending all our time on television arguing about 1 percent, 2 percent, 3 percent of the spending in this thing, and somehow it’s been characterized in broad brush as wasteful spending, that starts sounding more like politics, and that’s what right now we don’t have time to do.” -Obama
    Source: http://www.cnn.com/2009/POLITICS/02/23/obama.governors/index.html
    That boils down to… yeah. I get why Obama annoys the hell out of some people.
    Ha ha, does the press not have time for; they’re not the ones who’ve got to get their plan in gear.
    My plan for cheaper health care is to get into medicine, and research cheaper ways to make the chemicals. Wooo!

  15. Kim says

    Thank you, again, for a wonderful piece. I have been attempting to rebut those arguments (and failing to do it as gracefully) for years.
    I have a question I would love to see you address. An atheist (but argumentative) friend says:
    “Religion is comforting to people. Atheism requires a level of intelligence, disciplined thinking, and bravery [the whole death thing], that many people aren’t capable of, or if they are capable, are unwilling to engage in. By saying that you want more people to acknowledge the truth of the world, and the scientific knowledge we have about evolution/the world/morality/sexuality/efficacy of prayer, you are in effect demanding more of those people than they want to or can give. Why is that ok for you to do? Why do you think you can demand that?”
    So far, this argument has stumped me, even though I think the world would be a far better place without religion. If you (or someone else here) could jump-start my thinking about this, I’d be so grateful!

  16. Maria says

    That is interesting Kim, and makes me think in several ways. First I am not sure that it actually takes THAT much intelligence, disciplined thinking and bravery that most couldn’t understand it. It is a bit condescending to say that, I suppose. But sure, I can buy it for some people, and I think that the ‘bravery’ part is the trickiest, since in many places religion puts a big social pressure on people and it is really not easy to break away.
    I would also say that personally I actually do not demand that of people. I am thinking the way I do, and I talk about it and discuss it now and then with like-minded friends and on blogs and forums dedicated to such questions, and otherwise only say what I think about these things if it is brought up in conversation, or I am outright asked. I don’t demand that of individuals.
    If one wanted to be a bit snarky one could say, I suppose, that if his/her reasoning is true, then why do believers so often demand of US to… well, dumb down then?
    I guess one side of me also can’t help thinking that even if I did demand that of people it wouldn’t really be the worst thing I could demand – that they seek more knowledge from which to draw their conclusions about the world. After all, living in a modern society we are met with such demands, to learn more, about thousands of different things all the time from all directions. There must be a lot of other knowledge that is also hard to digest for some people, should they always be let of the hook right away as soon as it turns out things are too hard for them? My math teachers in school had not heard of that concept, unfortunately. I was shit bad at math all my life, and I still am, but I was never excused from the math lessons anyway, sadly :-) Of course these people are not in school anymore, and I am not their teacher, but I am not under any obligation to always be quiet either just because some knowledge might be too much for some people.
    And besides, how does a WISH that more people would learn more about these things become the same thing as DEMANDING that people learn? If you wish that people knew you can inform, for example on blogs and sites, you can OFFER your knowledge – that is not the same thing as forcing it on people, they ARE actually free to take it or leave it. How many believers are literally tied to a chair and forced to hear the “atheistic message”? How many are socially pressured to? It seems in the USA at least it is infinitely much easier to avoid “atheist thinking” than it is to avoid “theist thinking”.

  17. Margaret says

    “…it’s not fair to expect it [religion] to compete on the same level.”
    Ha. I first read “same” as “sane.”

  18. muffin7 says

    I think that you left out a big one that I hear all the time. This one annoys the hell out of me:
    “Atheists are so angry. For people who don’t believe in God, they sure are angry with him.”
    Kirk Cameron loves this one. Whenever an atheist brings up a point, the theist can easily dismiss the point by saying that the atheist is just angry. He/she’s just angry with god, angry with us, that’s why they’re saying this.
    This, to me, is akin to covering ones ears and going “LALALALALALALALALALALALALALA!”. It’s so damn childish. It just dismisses the point without having to address it. And you know, so what if a few of us are angry? Theists are very frustrating people to argue with for the reasons stated above. Just because a person is angry about something, does that make them incorrect? Does that make their point moot? No. It’s likely they are just upset because every time they make a point you give them a variation of “shut up. that’s why.” This gets us nowhere fast.
    PS
    I’m not saying atheists are angry people. Atheists are generally the more calm and collected in the conversation. It’s generally the religious who get upset because their god is coming into question.

  19. Jeminiks says

    These are arguments that Ive heard before and I havent quite been able to personally defeat. I knew they were wrong but I couldnt figure out how to difuse them in a way that could continue the argument amicably. Thank you for taking the time to break it down so that many other people can follow your easy logic.

  20. Derek says

    Thank you for taking the time to deal with all this but as I say on all these blogs, you are preaching to the quire.

  21. says

    IMHO you missed a massive shut up that’s why argument, which is ‘You can’t understand or criticise my holy text/my beliefs because you haven’t read my holy text/tried my beliefs’.
    This is annoying on multiple levels, it’s a courter’s reply fallacy, it’s a argumentum ad verecundiam fallacy and it’s often a moving the goalpost fallacy as quite often you’ve just proven/disproven something.
    And at the same time it’s a rather intellectually bankrupt way of trying to get you to either spend a long time researching their beliefs/holy text, (because they secretly believe that upon experiencing the full extent of their belief system you’ll be converted), or getting you to give up and go away. Furthermore, it depicts them as ignorant as obviously they don’t understand the argument well enough to substantiate or summarise them for you directly.
    Note that this does not mean that everybody who passes you a link/pamphlet/handout/extract/study/video/mp3 is intellectually bankrupt, as more often than not, they’re time saving devices as the person believes that the texts can better explain the point than they can. It’s when the other person tries to extend this to an absurd level, perhaps even adding in conditionals which give the believer the time to formate a reponse (such as saying you have to go X celebration/meeting/event) that this becomes a shut up that’s why argument.
    And finally, as if this argument could be even more flawed, if you extend this argument to it’s logical limits, it becomes absurd, because it means that in order to refute Nazism you need to learn German and read Mein Kampf and watch Hitler’s rally’s. In order to declare yourself straight, you must first try to have sex with your own gender, and vice versa. And it means that before they can reject your atheism/critical thinking they must first read The God Delusion/Listen to all of the Skeptics Guide to the Universe.

  22. Robert says

    Extremely lucid and well-written. Thank you! One of the depressing things about this and other debates in the world today is their poor quality and incoherence. It is nice to see something so well done.

  23. says

    Thanks for expressing what so many must feel and have never been able to articulate it. You may enjoy some similar sentiments on my blog site, http://brazilbrat.blogspot.com/
    One of the things I frequently posy is: Most of the problems of the world are, and always have been, caused by religion.
    Mankind will never truly be free until the black yoke of religion is lifted by the clear light of facts and reason.
    As I continually tell theists, I couldn’t care less what delusions you entertain. But when you attempt to force those on me by force of law or actual violence, it’s time to put a stop to you.
    Debating theists is a losing proposition because the never respond with facts or logic. They always avoid direct questions, and rarely answer challenges like “Prove what I say is wrong” or “Prove what you say is right.”

  24. Stutz says

    Totally agree with everything you’ve said, and you’ve said it all quite well. However, I’ve seen these before. How about going one step further and writing about reasonable believer counterpoints and why they don’t work? The obvious one that comes to mind, regarding your last point against it being bad to criticize religion, is this: one major reason we might pause before criticizing is the same reason I don’t dismantle my mother’s religious beliefs in one inglorious conversation — it might be devastating for her. People invest not only their time, their money their hopes in religion; often their entire worldview and mental well-being is tied up in it. To abandon her belief in heaven would be potentially devastating to my mother, or at least very hurtful. An article about how this situation is unfair to me or condescending to my mother might be pretty interesting.
    Another has to do with atheists thinking religion is a major social issue. In the 1950s, might it not have been reasonable to conclude that murderous atheistic regimes in Russia and China should be opposed in part by promoting religious belief? That atheistic communism was a vitally important social issue? An article about how nonbelievers shouldn’t get into the “atheism is better for society” game, not because we’d definitely lose, but because it is not even remotely an argument for or against God’s objective existence based on the evidence, would be interesting, too. (Once someone stops believing, THEN it becomes interesting to talk about religion’s bloody track record, but not before.)

  25. Brianna says

    I read this article, and I almost felt like crying – from relief. I’m a recent atheist, and sometimes I feel like a horrible person for being more or less against religion, but I really do believe that as whole, it does harm than good. I don’t want to tell someone, “no, you can’t believe that!”, but I want people to examine religion and ask themselves if it is really a good thing. Your article made me feel that it’s okay to think this way.
    Thank you.

  26. Anthony O'Neal says

    “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?”
    This is actually called a “red herring” argument Distracting from the discussion at hand by throwing in an unrelated, “more important” subject.

  27. says

    I really enjoyed your piece. One of the things that happens a lot is that both sides can often misrepresent the other side’s position, which results in useless strawman arguments. One thing that helps to spot many fallacies is to switch sides. Try making the strongest argument you can for the opposing position, and you will maybe get a better idea of fine tuning your own rebuttals.
    As an atheist, I feel one’s decision as to one’s own god-view is intensely personal. Though theists often feel it is not a big deal, I am wholly offended by “In God We Trust” on the money because it is either a lie (*I* have no “trust” in any god or gods), or I am not included in this “We” that is on there. Theists need to explain why there should be any official government position for or against the existence of god(s) in the first place.

  28. Charlie Greer says

    I love you. Posts like this need to continuously be posted. I am looking forward to happiness for the rest of America.
    never trust a man in a blue trench coat
    never drive a car when you’re dead
    Saturday’s a festival
    Friday’s a gem
    dye your hair yellow
    and raise your hem
    follow me to beulah’s on
    dry creek road
    (URL deleted due to commercial content – GC)
    I got to wear the hat that my baby done sewed
    take me down to buy a tux

  29. says

    nice blog
    the most disturbing thing about the religious, especially online, is how proud some are to be religious
    not many people actually show they have understood the teachings of Jesus, instead a lot of people just seem to be saying various forms of praise to him – do a search on twitter for ‘Jesus’ and look at the first 100 hits, it’s a fair bet that not many of those hits will actually show any understanding of what Jesus taught…
    isn’t that idolatry? because the point of christianity was to ‘do unto others’ (aka ‘love thy neighbour’), not to make affirmations about their belief, it’s what you do that’s important. ie. The Good Samaritan parable taught that you should show your ‘praise’ to god by helping out someone in need, Jesus didn’t care what you ‘believed’, it’s what you did that counted.
    and people who follow their religion correctly, rarely speak out against the people who don’t have it “correct”, so non-believers telling the loudly religious to “shut up, you’re missing the point of your religion, that’s why!” is important, i do believe
    i mean look at that “ark park” they’re going to build, great it’s going to make jobs, but that’s not the point of the religion, it’s becoming trivialised as some form of entertainment. I wonder if people will make ‘pilgrimages’ to it in order to affirm their belief?
    maybe all christian religious paraphernalia should contain a label on it that says “don’t forget to ‘do unto others’!” because it really does seem that religion is just becoming a mere ‘thing’ that gives you eternal life somehow, and regardless of what that religion teaches, people go out of their way to defy those teachings in order to defend it!

  30. says

    Mana: I agree with you that loving your neighbor is a good message. However, I don’t agree that this is the single obvious clear message from the New Testament. Yes, the Jesus character in the gospels did say “love thy neighbor.” He also said that if you don’t believe he’s God, you’re going to burn in hell, and that blasphemy is the one unforgivable sin. The teachings of the Jesus character are a contradictory mess, shot full of internal contradictions. It’s not reasonable for anyone to say that they understand the obvious correct interpretation of them and that anyone who disagrees clearly has it wrong.
    BTW, there is serious doubt as to whether the historical Jesus even existed. I suggest you take a look at the book Nailed: Ten Christian Myths That Show Jesus Never Existed at All. And even if Jesus did exist, the gospels are an incredibly unreliable source of information about what he did and did not say and do. So again, it’s not reasonable for someone to say that they understand what Jesus really said and thought and wanted, and that anyone who disagrees is just getting it wrong.

  31. says

    whether Jesus existed or not is beside the point. hell, the letter “J” wasn’t used until 500 years ago, so of course there was nobody running around literally called “Jesus” 2000years ago
    but I just don’t care if he existed or not, and it won’t change what believers think either, it’ll make them grip onto their Jesus fantasy even stronger, so it’s a pointless thing to even mention because the bible is just a bunch of stories anyway
    it’s like if someone said that Gandalf or Yoda don’t exist… “yeah they don’t exist, but so what?” if there were any lessons to be taught from the stories about Gandalf and Yoda, does the non-existence of these characters deflate the lessons those stories could teach us? no. it does not.
    and as for JC saying you’re going to hell for not believing that he’s god, without an exact example as to what you mean, it’s a fair bet that if read in context, it would be boiled down to something like this “if you don’t show love for your fellow humans, then you don’t love Jesus, and if you don’t love Jesus, then you don’t believe that he is god, and therefore, ultimate blasphemy is committed”, ra ra ra .. so saying “believe in me” is Jesus referring to your being a good, loving, and peaceful person, me thinks
    ie. by following the second commandment (love thy neighbour), the first commandment (love thy god) is automatically followed.
    you’re right about the convoluted nature of the bible, but the bible does clearly says in many places that *love* is the highest law – “love thy god” and “love thy neighbour” .. all the gospels, even Paul says it in Romans 13 and in other books.. so what ever else it does say, *love* out ranks it all.
    so I just take that simple notion and ignore the rest, because the whole point of what this JC character allegedly taught was to *love* everyone – and it’s that simple notion that christians just don’t, or *wont*, adhere to…
    I mean seriously, what was the *whole* point of what this Jesus dude taught? it was to teach peaceful relations, right? to teach that *love* for everyone was “The Way” and that was how you showed love for Jesus/god, that was the point of the Jesus stories, so whether he’s a story and whether that story is convoluted or ridiculous, is beside the point, because it’s very hard to say that “love” is unreasonable
    nobody will learn anything if they are told that they have their religion wrong, if they are not told *how* they have it wrong.
    ^_^

  32. Maria says

    nobody will learn anything if they are told that they have their religion wrong, if they are not told *how* they have it wrong.
    How is it possible to show someone *how* they have it wrong, when they can just be expected to do what you just did here – dismiss all objections and questioning by twisting things around until it sounds good to themselves, and call that ‘truth’?

  33. Maria says

    Besides, there are many passages in the bible that shows that Jesus was not that loving, and that he wasn’t particularly concerned about that people should love each other either.
    Among other things he said the following:
    “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26)
    How is this “showing your love to Jesus by loving everyone?” It flatly contradicts that interpretation. Jesus literally says that the most important is to follow him, and sever all ties to family and friends, to a point where you are to even hate yourself.
    Jesus was childishly egotistical and killed a fig tree only because it didn’t happen to be the season for figs, and he still wanted one. Were there people depending on that tree for its fruit? Probably. He didn’t care much about those, that’s for sure.
    Then we have this little story! Even as a small kid I was annoyed by this story. I mean Judas was absolutely right. HE was the one being concerned about his fellow men, and he was rebuked by Jesus for this. “There are so many poor, what does it matter if a few of them dies or suffer, when *I* can have my feet worshipped by a woman.” Doesn’t this also contradict that Jesus wanted us to show our love to him by caring for each other? It seems he wanted the exact opposite here, that we don’t care about the poorest among us, and instead waste money on the one who needs it the absolutely least, by groveling at his feet. The story is quick to explain that Judas had no good intentions with his comment, but he was still right, and Jesus did not bring his true intentions up in his rebuke. If Judas didn’t care about the poor, then neither did Jesus. He could have said: “Judas, you are not honest, you just want the money for yourself, but you are right. This oils IS worth a fortune and could help many, many poor people. Mary, don’t pour it on my feet, it’s a terrible waste, and I know who I am without such blatant worship. Let someone else than Judas take the oil and see to it that the poor are helped.” But… he didn’t.
    “Six days before the Passover, Jesus arrived at Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. 3Then Mary took about a pinta of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
    4But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, 5“Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.b” 6He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.
    7“Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “[It was intended] that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. 8You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.””
    There are many more examples. Who are you to just dismiss all these bible passages as not counting, because Jesus mentioned love on a few occassions? ‘Love’ interpreted by our modern eyes, not least. We have no way of knowing exactly what was meant by that.

  34. Bruce Gorton says

    Posted by: Maria | January 04, 2011 at 03:38 AM
    I would throw in Jesus casting out those demons.
    Consider, you own a swine herd – you are relatively well off, can afford to look after your family and servants.
    You have contracts with the local butchers to supply them with meat, and you haven’t really done anybody any harm.
    Then suddenly it all jumps into a river and drowns. Yay being instantly plunged into poverty!

  35. says

    This is the first time I’ve read your blog, and I think you’re great!
    But anent atheism, while philosophically I am a free thinker and strict natural science type, I would never describe myself as an atheist. In part this is because the label carries the implication of caring about the issue, which I don’t. Second, arguing with people of faith strikes me as like shooting fish in a barrel. It’s just not sporting. Third, I feel a certain tact is in order. One doesn’t remind mommy that the skin on her neck sags. Mommy is supposed to be beautiful,, and that’s that. I’m a chuech going non believer. I like singing hymns.

  36. says

    Posted by: Dmulliken | February 08, 2011 at 01:54 AM
    First: If you don’t care why comment?
    Second: So you are saying people of faith are stupid then? I disagree, I think the religious are adults who though incorrect, are perfectly capable of marshalling decent arguments in their own defence.
    Third: Better to argue with a religious person with the assumption they have the brains to argue back, than quietly assume they are stupid.
    Besides that, given how the religious often try to apply their club rules to non-members, reminding them that their club is founded on bullshit is kinda important.

  37. Eclectic says

    I’m a never-religious non-believer, and I don’t have the same passion as many deconverts.
    But I do describe myself as atheist. I’ve come across it often enough that I’ve thought about the issue, and I describe myself as a strong atheist: I have an affirmative belief in the non-existence of a deity.
    And I think your example of tact is inapposite. While it is impolite to remind mommy of unpleasant facts which she cannot do anything about, she can stop giving money to that fortune teller.

  38. says

    My personal favorite …..”I KNOW God exists because the bible says so”. Quoting from a 2000 year old fictional control document somehow adds legitimacy to this argument. Yet the contradictions within this text are blatant and the selective editing is a historical fact.
    The hook that convinces people to abandon logic and sound argument is a promised afterlife.
    The sad reality is that religion will only disappear when humanity has conquered it’s fear of death.

  39. Kathi says

    Since neither side is likely to change the beliefs of the other, I guess I do think most of the arguments are pointless.
    I don’t say the conversations shouldn’t be taking place, but I really see it as a lose/lose concept doomed to failure.
    When one side tries to override the rights of the other they need to be stopped. When one side tries to control the thoughts of the other they need to be stopped.
    I’ve seen both ends of the extreme on this issue and, like most other examples of extremism, I think they’re both equally wrong in their attitudes. Most of us live in the middle ground and are perfectly content to live and let live. I am not saying anyone should ‘shut up’, but like other subjects, until the dialogue becomes rational and mannerly there is no hope of common ground or resolution.
    Religion is not going to disappear and neither is atheism. We’ll all have to learn to get along one way or another eventually.

  40. Kitty says

    I am in love with your writing style. From now on I will be a faithful reader (no pun intended). I am a newly confirmed atheist after a squandered life trying to will the supernatural into being, but I did finally see religion/spiritualism for what it really is- hopeful wishing only. I feel much better living in the real world. Since this is the only life I get I don’t want to waste any more time being delusional.

  41. llewelly says

    Kathi | February 18, 2011 at 06:33 AM:

    Since neither side is likely to change the beliefs of the other, I guess I do think most of the arguments are pointless.

    Numerous surveys, by organizations as different as ARIS, PEW, and even Gallup have shown that nonbelievers and atheists have been becoming more common. The Secular Student alliance has grown from a mere 100 groups in 2008 to over 250 groups in 2011. Mina Ahadi, Hector Avalos, Taslima Nasrin, Dan Barker, Bart Ehrman, Steve Benson, and many other famous atheists were raised religious and changed their minds when they grew older. I know atheists who are former true believing Mormons (Myself and at least two other pharyngula regulars), and atheists who graduated from Oral Roberts University (one of whom comments as “Jules, Bride of Death” on pharyngula.)
    Many people have changed their minds about religion. Research by Dr. Luke Galen (who participates in the excellent Reasonable Doubts podcast), Bob Altemeyer (author of The Authoritarians), and others shows that this is a long process often involving much introspection, and introduction to the ideas of atheists and other freethinkers.
    Any careful study of the history of feminism, civil rights, LGBT rights, and environmentalism will show that these movements have transformed the behavior of many nations and many peoples.
    The oft-repeated notion that minds cannot be changed is grossly false; it cannot be believed except through failure to consider history, or in some cases, outright denial of history.
    In fact, the changing of minds plays a strong role in every aspect of human history; from the spread of languages to the spread of tools to spread of artistic ideas to the responses of various cultures to crises of war, climate, politics, and religion.
    If humans have any attribute in which we are greatly different from the other animals we are related to, it is in our far superior ability to learn new facts, develop new ideas, devise new tools, consider changes around us, and change our behavior in response. To fail to recognize this is to fail to recognize what it means to be human; the mutability of our brains is in many ways among our most defining attributes.
    It is high time that people stopped repeating the notion that minds cannot be changed.

  42. Nurse Ingrid says

    Thanks, llewelly, that was very eloquent and beautifully argued. I was so inspired on my recent trip to Salt Lake City, by all the ex-Mormon atheists I met. They had such amazing stories about their deconversion experiences.
    Also, I would like to suggest that Kathi familiarize herself with the Fallacy of the Golden Mean. Basically, if one person says that 2+2=4, and another says that 2+2=5, you are saying that we should agree that “the truth must be somewhere in the middle.” 4.5, I suppose.

  43. Nathanael says

    Kim, I think the simplest counterargument is “Religion is not comforting for most people. They like to make you think that it is, but in fact it is deeply DIScomforting for most people.”
    You have to marshall evidence for that of course, but there’s LOTS of it, particularly for any religion with a hell.

  44. Michael Price says

    “Why do you care what other people believe?”
    Note that this argument is made by a group that spends literally millions of man-hours and tens of millions of dollars trying to get other people to believe things.

  45. Jim says

    I really like this. I bookmarked it, in fact, so I can post it on whatever online discussions I get into that end up in a shut-up-that’s-why argument. Thank you! I do, however, have a problem with it, and it’s not so much for myself but for my intended use: I don’t think the morons I’ll lay it on will get the sarcasm. It makes me sad to say it, but, well, there it is. Maybe some people just can’t appreciate sarcasm and irony? I mean like, really, they can’t. Like their brains are hardwired for idiotic literalism… seems weird that those people are more likely, not less, to believe in non-literal things.

  46. says

    I love you, Greta.

    Every single one of these arguments is one I’ve had to tackle before, some even directed at me by other non-believers! Regardless of how deaf to reason these people choose to remain, I vow to keep shooting these arguments down.

  47. Quentin says

    Also under this topic would be the response I hear a lot from the religi-types… “Man, for not believing in god, you atheists sure do talk about him a lot”

  48. Meg says

    When a religious person says, “Can’t we just agree to disagree?” my response would be, “I will when you will.” When they stay out of my politics, I’ll stay out of their religion.

  49. jl@sf.us says

    0. Since “turnabout is fair play”, and “takes one to know one”, and “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander” (sometimes rephrased as “whats SAUCE for the goose is SAUCE for the gander)”, consider this:

    Why don’t all you religious zealots just shut up about it, stop inflicting your insane views on me/us and join a reality-based cosmos.

    1. My personal favorite rebuttal for the “heavenly brigade” has always been the following:

    “If heaven certainly awaits you, kill yourself to prove it, and send me a postcard from the hereafter. Until then, I’ll refuse to believe you have the courage of your so-called ‘convictions’.”

    I’m waiting….

    And martyrdom doesn’t count. You’ve got to CHOOSE and IMPLEMENT self-expiration.

    I’m still waiting…

  50. says

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  51. Saje Williams says

    I don’t care what anyone else believes up to the point they expect me to believe the same, or act as though I believe it. I can’t speak to the existence of God or what some people refer to as “supernatural” (as if it were possible to exist outside the natural order of the universe), or an afterlife. But it seems to me that, as Carl Sagan pointed out in his novel, “Contact,” faith is a damn sloppy way to run a universe.

    Religion is rife with human errors, and the best of all religions is the admonition to treat our fellow travelers with kindness and compassion. This is the prescription so few religious people want to follow, and yet they wonder why a growing number of people reject religious beliefs.

    You may believe anything you want to, but don’t presume to dictate your beliefs to the rest of us. And while I consider myself an almost pure agnostic, I am more likely to come down on the side of the atheist over the average theist. None of us actually know a damn thing and their certainty just makes them look stupid.

  52. says

    Well done! You make your points coherently and concisely. This should be required teaching in every Sunday School in America. Riiiiighhhhhtttt!

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