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Are Atheists Open-Minded?

See no evil 2 “You have to keep an open mind. That’s the trouble with you atheists/ materialists/ skeptics. You’re just as bad as fundamentalists. You’re so convinced that you’re right, and you’re not willing to consider the possibility that you might not be. The universe is profoundly strange: we’ve been surprised by it thousands of times in the past, and our assumptions about it often turn out to be mistaken. So how can you be so close-minded about the universe? How can you just reject the idea that God, or the soul, or a spiritual realm, might be part of it?”

If you’re an out atheist — heck, if you’re an entirely closeted atheist who reads atheist blogs and forums and whatnot — you’ve almost certainly heard some version of this spiel. And it’s almost certainly made you want to scream and tear your hair out.

I’ve been running into it a lot lately. So today, I’m taking it on. I’m summing up some ideas I’ve written about before… and I’m presenting some new ones. (Please note: There are a few places in this piece that are more strongly worded than usual, as my feelings on this particular form of anti-atheist bigotry run high. Consider yourself warned.)

*

Evidence There are a zillion things to say about this canard. For starters: “You have to have an open mind” is not the same as “Here’s some good evidence for why my idea is right.”

Yes, it’s good to have an open mind. How is that an argument for religion or spirituality being correct? I mean, if someone insisted that they had a three- inch- tall pink pony behind their sofa who teleported to Guam every time anyone looked back there — and, when faced with people who were skeptical about this hypothesis and asked for some evidence in support of it, merely said, “You have to keep an open mind”… would you consider that a good argument for the pink pony hypothesis?

And if not — then why is it a good argument for religion or spirituality?

The fact that a hypothesis can’t absolutely be disproven with 100% certainty doesn’t make it likely or plausible. And not all hypotheses are equally likely to be true. To persuade me to accept an idea — heck, to persuade me to seriously consider it, or even to respect it as a reasonable possibility — you have to do more than show me that it hasn’t been absolutely disproven, and then scold me about having an open mind. You have to show me some good, solid, positive evidence supporting your idea. And you have to use good logic to show why this evidence supports your idea better than any other idea.

But wait! There’s more! Whenever believers ask atheists and materialists and skeptics to be open-minded and not to close ourselves off to possibilities, I always want to ask them: Do you honestly think atheists have not considered the possibility of religion?

Religious symbols Religion is the dominant paradigm in our culture. Non-believers have considered it. We continue to re-consider it all the time. We can’t help but consider it. It is constantly in our faces. We’re soaking in it. Telling atheists, “Have you considered the possibility that religion or spirituality might be true?” is like telling gay people, “Have you considered the possibility that you might be straight?” I mean — do you seriously think this idea has never occurred to us? Do you seriously think this is the first time anyone’s suggested it?

In fact, most atheists were believers at one time. Most atheists are former Catholics, Baptists, Muslims, Hindus, Jainists, religious Jews, moderate or progressive Christians, New Age believers, and more. The culture of religion we’re steeped in isn’t limited to traditional or fundamentalist belief, and most of us have considered a wide range of religions before rejecting them all. It’s the very fact that we do have open minds that led us to change our minds about religion and become non-believers in the first place.

What’s more, the accusation that atheists aren’t open-minded is extra- aggravating — because it so often comes from people with completely closed minds. When it comes to religion, anyway.

Ask most atheists, “What would convince you that you were mistaken? What evidence would make you change your mind about God or the supernatural world?” Most of us can answer that question. (Or, if we’re too busy/lazy to answer it ourselves, we’ll point you to someone else who answered that question really thoroughly, and whose answers pretty closely dovetail with our own.)

See no evil Ask most believers the same question… and they’ll say, “Nothing could persuade me that I’m mistaken about my God. That’s what it means to have faith.” Either that — or they’ll dither. They’ll say that their beliefs are too complicated and subtle to summarize. They’ll say that they don’t want to proselytize… even though they’ve been directly asked to explain what they believe and why. They’ll say that they don’t know for sure what they believe… they’re just trying to keep an open mind. (Even though you know perfectly well that they have very definite beliefs — they just don’t want to explain them to a critical audience.) They’ll come up with some standard of proof that’s ridiculously impossible. They’ll offer “evidence” for their beliefs that’s flatly terrible — not replicable, not double-blinded, not controlled, not screened for confirmation bias or the placebo effect, with methodology a sixth-grade science class could poke holes in. They’ll turn the debate about the evidence for religion into a meta-debate about how atheists are being big meanies, and how we’re rude or intolerant to ask these questions in the first place. They’ll insist that our questions and critiques are valid when it comes to other religious beliefs, but not to theirs… without explaining why theirs should be the exception. They’ll change the subject. (And then, three sentences later, they’ll once again accuse atheists of being close-minded.) In my experience, the overwhelming majority of religious and spiritual believers will do anything at all to avoid explaining exactly what it is that they believe, and what evidence they have to support that belief — and most importantly, what evidence would persuade them to change their minds.

So on what basis are these believers accusing atheists of being the close-minded ones?

100_percent Then, of course, this “close-minded” canard ignores a basic fact about atheists that we keep repeating until we’re blue in the face — namely, that atheism doesn’t mean being absolutely, unquestioningly, 100% certain that God does not exist. It simply means being certain enough. It means concluding that the God hypothesis isn’t plausible or supported by any good evidence, and that until we see better evidence, we’re going to conclude that there’s almost certainly no God.

In other words: Atheism doesn’t mean we’ve absolutely made up our minds, without the possibility of ever reconsidering. Atheism means we’ve provisionally made up our minds. That doesn’t make us close-minded. Being close-minded doesn’t mean reaching a conclusion; it means being unwilling to reconsider that conclusion even when new evidence contradicts it. And that doesn’t describe most atheists. Atheists understand that we’re not perfect and that we might be mistaken. If you give us some good evidence showing that we’re mistaken, we’ll reconsider.

But — to repeat my first argument — you have to actually show us some freaking evidence already. Just repeating “Have an open mind” — that does not qualify as evidence. That just qualifies as annoying.

Okay. Most of this is stuff I’ve said before.

Here’s the part I haven’t said before.

*

Man using microscope The world of science — the world of carefully examining cause and effect in the universe, using rigorous methods of testing hypotheses designed to filter out bias as much as possible — has given humanity our most surprising, shocking, unexpected, counter-intuitive, mind-expanding, mind-boggling revelations about the true nature of existence.

Science shows us that solid matter is almost entirely made up of empty space. Science shows us that the ground beneath our feet is not solid, but is constantly shifting. Science shows us that the universe is expanding. Science shows us that space bends. Science shows us that time is not constant, that it moves differently depending on how we move. I could go on, and on, and on. Science — carefully examining cause and effect in the universe — has shown us things about the world we live in, and about ourselves, that we would never have come up with if we’d set our best poets and artists on the project for ten thousand years. Science has opened our minds to possibilities we would never have imagined without it.

And maybe more to the point: Science has given us revelations about the world that are not only mind-bogglingly surprising, but that have been profoundly unsettling and difficult to accept.

Death from the skies Science shows us that we are not at the center of the universe, not at the center of our galaxy, not even at the center of our puny little solar system: that the Earth is nothing special, only one of billions of rocks orbiting one of billions of stars in one of billions of galaxies in a universe that dwarfs us. Science shows us that humanity is simply another life form: not uniquely created with a special purpose by a loving divine maker, but just another species that evolved from proto-organic soup along with sponges and slugs and seaweed. Science is showing us that, whatever the heck consciousness is, it’s a biological product of the brain, and that it therefore dies forever when the brain dies. Science shows us that the Sun is one day going to expand and heat up, and that when it does, all the Earth will be boiled into molten rock. Science shows us that the universe itself is eventually going to die.

So don’t go telling skeptics and non-believers that trusting science and scientific evidence makes us close-minded and unwilling to consider new possibilities.

Fingers-in-ears We’re the ones saying, “Yup — humanity isn’t that special, and death is the end. Those are hard realities to accept. But that’s what the evidence overwhelmingly suggests, so therefore we accept it.” Believers are the ones sticking their fingers in their ears and saying, “I can’t hear you, I can’t hear you, I can’t hear you! Humanity is a special snowflake, and we’re all going to live forever!”

So yet again, I ask: On what basis are believers accusing atheists of being the close-minded ones?

Now. At this point, many believers will step in and say, “I’m not against science! Science is great, it’s shown us wonders! But science is limited. It’s flawed, It doesn’t know everything. Therefore, God.”

Yeah. See, here’s the problem with that.

Charles-darwin-the-origin-of-species You don’t get to pick and choose. You don’t get to say, “I accept the scientific consensus showing that continents drift — but when it comes to the scientific consensus showing that life developed entirely naturally through evolution by natural selection, I’m going to insist that life must have been designed, because that’s what my preacher tells me, and besides, it sure seems that way to me.” You don’t get to say, “I accept the scientific consensus showing that germs cause disease — but when it comes to the scientific consensus showing that consciousness is a biological product of the brain, I’m going to dither and equivocate and say that it hasn’t been proven with absolute 100% certainty and therefore it’s reasonable for me to believe in an immaterial immortal soul.” You don’t get to say, “I accept the scientific consensus showing that the universe is expanding — but when it comes to the fact that supernatural hypotheses have been repeatedly tested using rigorous scientific methods and have never once been shown to be true, when it comes to the fact that science has probably been applied to religion and spirituality more than any other topic and has consistently come up empty, I’m going to repeat ‘Science is sometimes wrong, science is sometimes wrong’ until the skeptics give up and go away.”

You don’t get to say, “With ideas I already agree with or am comfortable with, I’m willing to accept the rigorous process of using reason and evidence to sift through ideas and reject all but the most plausible ones. But when it comes to ideas I don’t believe or that I find troubling, I’m going to prioritize my highly biased intuition — which tells me that the things I already believe or most want to believe are probably true. I’m going to keep pointing out all the flaws and mistakes of science… and completely ignore the far greater flaws and mistakes in intuition. And unless you can prove to me with absolute 100% certainty that I’m wrong, I’m going to keep believing.”

Well, okay. Obviously, you can do that. People do it all the time. And it’s certainly your right to do that.

But if you do that, then one last time, I must ask:

On what basis are you accusing atheists of being the close-minded ones?

Comments

  1. says

    P.S. about language: Actually, “close-minded” is acceptable. Yes, it comes from the phrase “closed mind” — but once a phrase becomes a compound word, it has become an independent word, and its pronunciation and spelling can mutate on its own, separate from the meaning of the original phrase. (Think of the compound word “hot dog” — it’s now essentially an independent word, so it’s neither ungrammatical nor a contradiction to say “cold hot dog.”) And “close-minded” has clearly evolved from “closed-minded” — presumably because the latter is too awkward to say. (Thank you, Steven Pinker.)

  2. says

    The Evolution of Religion
    I go forth
    via technology
    like a cyborg
    like an astronaut
    studying the far reaches of
    metaphysical space.
    There is no face to hold me
    to expected form.
    Back in the far reaches
    of humankind
    there was no need for the
    binding of religion.
    Small bands of kin with
    common legends
    knew what everybody knew.
    It was not ’til population grew
    beyond the constant face to face
    that a binding form
    need be evoked
    of common ceremony, festivals,
    deities, seeped in ritual,
    the glue
    of worldview.
    Fast forward into the future.
    Glue dissolves, as, like atoms, we find
    invisible network
    built on mysterious attraction.
    Why die for angry gods
    we no longer need?
    (c) May 12, 2007 Laurie Corzett

  3. CC says

    Oh, anyone who disagrees with you on anything big will always tell you it’s because you’re closed minded.
    I’m generally a conservative and have sort of always been. My “liberal friends” (I don’t know if I’m putting quotes around liberal or friends…) used to argue that it made me closed minded. Because I disagree with them. And I wouldn’t be able to be considered “Open minded” till I could come to their conclusions. I told them I was OK with them having their conclusions, but I disagreed. Yet, I was still closed minded.
    I disagree with you on the existence of God / about religion. I’m pretty sure that’s because we’ve each had different life experiences and have approached the question in different ways or just have a different way of thinking. Man, I totally didn’t realize it was just ‘cuz you were so cut off… ;)

  4. Troglodyke says

    As usual, you make great points.
    But I fear your arguments only rarely meet the audience they should, because believers are not rational. Rational arguments mean nothing to them. In fact, they are scared to death of rational arguments.
    If only there was a way to appeal to their emotional hindbrains and smash through the walls they have erected to make the world fit into their purview.
    As a teacher, I am all about teaching in the style that the learner learns. Adapting the knowledge one needs to impart to make sense to someone with a learning style different than the one you’ve been teaching in is a skill that takes a while to master. But methinks this is the only way to reach those that have made themselves unreachable.
    You’ve sort of hit into it with the “science has some tenets that are pretty far out, but we’ve accepted them” trope. How to flesh that out?
    Your writing is so satisfying to read. I only hope to one day be as literate and thoughtful a writer as you.
    Thank you.

  5. Nemo says

    Of course a lot of religious believers don’t accept continental drift (think of what motivated Boobquake) or the germ theory of disease (think of parents who refuse medical treatment for their children, preferring prayer), either. They agree with your bottom line — that you don’t get to pick and choose — but instead of accepting all of science, they reject it all.
    Such a position is untenable in the long run, but damn, how much longer do I have to wait for them to realize that?

  6. Sastra says

    Once again, you’ve brilliantly pointed out a major contradiction in a popular defense of religion.
    In my experience, the overwhelming majority of religious and spiritual believers will do anything at all to avoid explaining exactly what it is that they believe, and what evidence they have to support that belief — and most importantly, what evidence would persuade them to change their minds.
    Hey — that’s only because they don’t want to ‘force’ their views on you!
    Tch. That’s my experience as well. Daniel Dennett calls it a “belief in belief.” They don’t know what the heck they’re believing in, but they know that it’s very, very important to have the believing attitude. And that attitude, is dogma. They avoid “negativity” because skepticism harms the diversity of all people, everywhere, agreeing that they believe.
    What’s particularly frustrating is that the term “open-minded” is often used by the Spiritual Left the same way the Religious Right talks about being “saved.” It denotes a True Believer.
    “There’s a new massage therapist downtown.”
    “Oh? Is she ‘open minded?'”
    “Yes, indeed. She does reiki, therapeutic touch, homeopathy, tarot card readings, past life regression, and Getting In Touch With Your Angels.”
    “Oh, goody!”

  7. says

    Being close-minded doesn’t mean reaching a conclusion. . .

    Yes. Being close-minded is less like being a thinker, and more like being a liar.

  8. Spencer says

    So when is your book getting published, again?
    I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but Greta, I think you, perhaps along with Hemant Mehta, have the lucidity and appropriate tone for the next big atheist bestseller. You’re thorough and systematic in your approach, and I’m always thrilled to see that you’ve responded to another popular challenge from believers. You and Hemant are both critical without being overly caustic, and you write with exceptional accessibility.
    I’ve thought recently about starting a website compiling, in a very straightforward manner, misconceptions about and challenges to atheism, and dealing with them simply and with lucidity. I think a book by you based on the same idea– plainly and clearly explaining atheism– would be a massive success.
    Anyway. That’s my two cents. As always, thanks for your intelligent contributions!

  9. cranium says

    Beautiful. Just…beautiful. So concise. So lucid. This will assist so many of us in our daily struggles against ignorance. (Actually its more arrogance because many of them know they are spouting nonsense but refuse to acknowledge it.)
    From my own experience and from what I have observed of others, I think a case could be made that former true believers become the most strident atheists. What do The Who say – ‘Won’t get fooled again’.
    I thank you.

  10. Sean P says

    Fantastic post Greta. I find the tendency of believers/spiritual to pick and choose when they will embrace the results and methods of science highly annoying. It is also disappointing when these people so readily misapply the term close-minded to atheists, when in actuality that could not be further from the truth. The only things we may be closed-minded about are theories/beliefs/practices that are absent of any basis in evidence, and we are always willing to change our minds if that evidence can be presented to us! Anyways, I deeply appreciate your writing, and like one of your earlier commentators, my only wish was that you were exposed to a larger audience.

  11. vel says

    My usual response to theists who want to pick and choose the science they want to accept is “The same science that you enjoy the benefits of everyday is the same science that shows your myths are wrong. If you don’t want to look like a fool and a hypocrite, I do require you to live in mud hut, without any modern conveniences so that you may keep yourself as “pure” as you think you are. I require that you suffer and die from diseases that are eminiently curable by that science that you decry so much.”
    Unfortunately, it often happens that theists just run away if you say this. Horrors if you demonstrate their willful ignorance, hypocrisy and lies to them directly. And I have found no gentler way.
    As for being “closed minded”, to me, this means that you have made up your mind, no matter what the facts and you are too stupid and too selfish to change. Agreement or disagreement aren’t the end all, it’s what the facts say. Take for example the post by CC, who is sure that they are right in all things but seems to find that giving any evidence why anyone should think so is not worth their time and they were being so magnanimous in “allowing” others to have differing conclusions and opinions. This seems to be the epitome of being closed-minded.

  12. Nathaniel says

    Some arguments that theists engage in on a regular basis are honest, if often naive or superficial. Then there are other arguments like this one, which are so much arguments as attempts to get the atheist to shut up. Thank you Greta.

  13. says

    If you could reason with religious people, there would be no religious people. Quote from ‘House’
    And I second Spencer’s point – please put everything in a book; it would be a huge bestseller.

  14. Eclectic says

    Thanks for suggesting a fantastic comeback: “I have a more open mind about religion than you do. Give an example of some evidence that would convince you that you were wrong about your religion.” And then given each answer, I’ll name something analogous.
    Of course, if the answer is “there is no such evidence”, then there’s nothing to discuss, now is there?
    It’s very easy to turn this one around when properly prepared. So thank you!

  15. Jimmy Crummins says

    “Yes, it’s good to have an open mind. How is that an argument for religion or spirituality being correct?”
    It’s not, but the question misses the point. Saying that “God, or the soul, or a spiritual realm” might be part of the universe is not the same thing as saying it IS part of the universe.
    Furthermore, your position on this issue ignores the fact that YOU have faith that no reliogious orientation is essentially correct. You allude to the fact that you can’t prove a negative, and that the evidence offered to support religious belief is not measurable and easily discounted. But that’s because you WANT to discount it. You are essentially allowing you desired orientation to influence the outcome of your analysis. It’s not intellectually honest.

  16. says

    Jimmy: First of all, you misunderstand what atheism is. Atheism is not the absolute, unshakable faith that there is no God. Atheism is the conclusion that there almost certainly is no God: that the God hypothesis is unsupported by good evidence or good arguments, and that, unless we see better evidence or arguments, we feel comfortable rejecting it.
    Second: While you can’t absolutely prove a negative with 100% certainty (usually), it is often possible to make a strong argument in support of why a negative is the most plausible hypothesis (i.e., there is almost certainly *not* a china teapot orbiting the sun that’s too small for our telescopes to see). I have made many arguments against the God hypothesis — most of them are summarized here.
    Third: Yes, I understand that saying “God, or the soul, or a spiritual realm might be part of the universe” is not the same thing as saying it IS part of the universe. But that just begs the question. Lots of ideas might be true and can’t be absolutely disproven. I can sit here in my living room all day and make up hypotheses that might be true and can’t be absolutely disproven. It’s not enough to stop there and say, “Well, it might be true.” You have to come up with some good, positive evidence for why your idea is true, or why it’s probably true. If you can’t, you have no reason to expect me to take it seriously.
    Fourth: Why would I want to discount the God hypothesis? I would love to believe that I’m going to live forever after I die. I believed in God (or something I was willing to call God) for years. Letting go of that belief was very painful, as it meant I had to accept the idea that death is the end. I’m happier now as an atheist, since I’m no longer in a state of constant denial and cognitive dissonance. But it is simply not the case that I reject the God hypothesis simply because I want to.
    If you have some good evidence to offer in support of the God hypothesis, I’d be very interested in hearing it. My hypothesis — that God almost certainly doesn’t exist — is falsifiable, and I can tell you the kinds of evidence that would persuade me that I was mistaken. If you don’t have any good evidence for the God hypothesis — and if your hypothesis is not falsifiable, if there is no possible evidence that would persuade you that you were mistaken — then you are proving everything I wrote in this piece.

  17. says

    Thanks for suggesting a fantastic comeback: “I have a more open mind about religion than you do. Give an example of some evidence that would convince you that you were wrong about your religion.”

    Glad you like it — but I can’t take credit for it. I stole this idea outright from Ebonmuse’s Theist’s Guide to Converting Atheists. It is useful, isn’t it?

  18. Jimmy Crummins says

    Greta
    Well, you have to understand I am not arguing my position on God. I am a Deist and not particularly hard over on the issue one way or another. But I recognize how important religion is to a great many people and I understand why attacking that faith is counter-productive and dangerous. This is far less true in the secular western world than in the Muslim world where religion grounds the entire social and political orientation.
    For many people religion is as important to believe in as Santa Claus is for small children. They NEED that faith. Taking it away from them is simply hurtful. And since we can’t KNOW that they are wrong, I see no point in attacking their position. Now, when their position begins to impact on your life (thorugh the legal system), I agree that a vociferous and aggressive arguement in favor of the secular is wholly appropriate. But it is obvious to me that most of the arguementation being made here is in excess of that (correct me if I am wrong).
    I do agree that for every arguement that there is a “God” there is very good arguement to counter that. There is no clear, unimpeachable evidence. If there were, this discussion would not be taking place. On the other hand, because the existence of God can’t be proven, doesn’t mean that he doesn’t exist. To believe that means to disbelieve all of the accounts concerning God. Are they all made up fantasies? Perhaps. But neither you nor I know one way or the other.

  19. Robyn Slinger says

    But there is something like ‘being sure enough’. For example, I cannot really rule out that just now, Natalie Portman might be ringing my flat’s doorbell to go out for a coffee with me.
    And that’s still more likely than supernatural phenomena, by a long, long, shot.

  20. says

    You know Jimmy, the argument that religious people “need” their religion and so we shouldn’t disturb their precious bubble world with things like “facts” and “reality” is really fucking condescending to believers. At least us meanie atheists don’t treat believers like their five year olds.
    Also, “shape of the earth, views differ” is a pretty terrible argument.

  21. Jimmy Crummins says

    “You know Jimmy, the argument that religious people “need” their religion and so we shouldn’t disturb their precious bubble world with things like “facts” and “reality” is really fucking condescending to believers. At least us meanie atheists don’t treat believers like their five year olds.”
    I don’t find it condescending at all. Many of them will kill you over this subject – and do it all the time. If we were having this discussion in Riyadh we’d be in chop chop square post with.
    What I am saying is, for those who believe the weight of evidence is strongly against the existence of a deity as we understand it, what others believe in this domain is not particularly of our concern. When they start to do things that impact on our lives, THEN it’s of our concern. But otherwise no. And attacking their position aggressively (as I consistently see here) I believe is counter-productive. It makes people dig their heels in deeper and also causes anger. Deep, at times violent, anger.
    Robyn
    Sure enough for you. Not sure enough for others.
    There is something in the line of argumentation by the atheist crowd here that basically sees those who believe in one faith or another as imbeciles who have to be steered straight. It’s not a healthy attitude.

  22. says

    Oh of course, you’re just looking out for our personal well-being, and trying to make us more convincing to believers. Your concern is touching, but once again: treating believers as if they are tantrum-throwing toddlers is more offensive to them. I like to think that believers are semi-rational persons, like the rest of us, and can be convinced by the weight of the evidence that there is no good reason to think that some all-powerful all-knowing deity exists.
    As to why we care if believers aren’t bothering anyone… firstly, what universe are you from, where believers don’t possess enormous amounts of political and social power? Secondly, even in such a “utopia” where people didn’t allow their beliefs and opinions to influence their larger actions in the world, we would still care because reality matters. People can believe in Zeus or Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy all they want, but that doesn’t mean those beliefs are immune from inspection, criticism, and ridicule.

  23. Jimmy Crummins says

    “I like to think that believers are semi-rational persons, like the rest of us, and can be convinced by the weight of the evidence that there is no good reason to think that some all-powerful all-knowing deity exists.”
    Again, this issue is as much emotional as rational. Perhaps more. I challenge you to go to the Middle East and observe why religion is so deeply seated and unchallengeable there. And because it is such an emotional issue, I believe it requires an element of tact in the discussion of possibilities. In the Muslim world I know of no issue more sensisitive than the faith itself. Bar none.

  24. says

    Jimmy, I’m sorry, but your arguments here — and many of your other comments — seem to amount to the same thing: Many believers can’t handle the idea that God might not exist… therefore atheists ought not to express it.
    Which is overlooking three major points.
    1) Most atheists were, at one time, believers. We obviously handled it okay. More than okay, in fact — most atheists are very happy to have let go of religion, since hanging onto religion meant, among other things, being in a constant state of denial and cognitive dissonance. The idea that we shouldn’t try to persuade anyone out of religion because it might upset them is, as others here have pointed out, extremely condescending. When believers visit my blog, I do them the respect of assuming that they can handle questions and criticisms about their beliefs.
    2) Yes, letting go of mistaken ideas is often upsetting. So what? I’ve had to let go of plenty of ideas that I found pleasant to believe, and that were upsetting to relinquish: from a strict constructionist interpretation of gender and sexual orientation, to the belief that the universe would not eventually dissipate into heat-death, to the belief that my boyfriend wasn’t cheating on me. So what? Should people not have demonstrated to me that my ideas were mistaken, and left me in a state of blissful ignorance?
    Screw that. Again, it’s a completely condescending attitude. I can handle reality. I want to understand reality as best I can — if only because understanding reality is how I know how to act effectively in it. And I intend to treat others with the same respect.
    And, not to get all pompous here, but the great story of humanity is the story of our species gaining a greater and great understanding of reality: a process that has sometimes been painful, but has always been worthwhile. Why would you stop that process?
    3) Nobody is being forced to read my blog. People read my blog — and other atheist writings — presumably because they’re interested in atheist ideas. Am I really not to express my opinions about religion in my own blog, simply because someone who stumbles across it might question their beliefs and thus be upset?

  25. Maria says

    Am I really not to express my opinions about religion in my own blog, simply because someone who stumbles across it might question their beliefs and thus be upset?
    Exactly!
    Even if some people really did need to be cuddled like that (which I agree is a condescending view) why is it OUR job to keep cuddling them, even as we are expressing ourselves in our own “backyard” so to speak?
    Besides, I have seen no good proof that religion really is such a big comfort. It might be for some individuals, but on the whole it really doesn’t seem like it. They might be comforted by one aspect of it, but that aspect is very often then connected to other core beliefs that are not comforting at all. Heaven and hell are rather closely connected concepts for many believers for example, where they might be comforted by the former but hardly by the latter. Being truly comforted by religion demands even more cognitive dissonance where you have to cherry pick all the nice stuff only out of it, and work very hard on ignoring the horrible stuff. You have to do more than a little tweaking after all, before Christianity for example starts to be usable for comfort.

  26. says

    I like the implicit threat. “I challenge you to go to the Middle East and talk that way. You won’t be so uppity then now will ya?!?” Fatwah envy is most unbecoming.
    And yes, I’m aware that the issue is emotionally charged. That’s why I said people are “semi-rational”. Of course, the idea that religious people are too emotional to consider the evidence (besides being extremely condescending, but let’s accept it for the sake of the argument) just reinforces Greta’s initial point: the criticism of outspoken atheists as close-minded is a case of psychological projection.

  27. Jimmy Crummins says

    “Besides, I have seen no good proof that religion really is such a big comfort. It might be for some individuals, but on the whole it really doesn’t seem like it.”
    Billions of people wouldn’t be following this shit if it wasn’t providing them comfort. Christ – isn’t that obvious?

  28. Maria says

    Billions of people wouldn’t be following this shit if it wasn’t providing them comfort. Christ – isn’t that obvious?
    No, that is not obvious at all! A mix of childhood indoctrination, fear of hell, and a well made trap of induced guilt is far more effective than simply the comfort part! Christinaity creates concepts of sins (preferbly things like sexual desires that we can’t help feeling), then make people feel guilt over these “sins”, then instill fear in them about what will happen if they give in to these “sins”, then it provides the only salvation for these “sins” they have been indoctrinated into thinking are innate in them since they days of Adam and can’t really be avoided (only Jesus is pure, everyone else are sinners and can only be saved by the grace of god).
    That is only one thing besides comfort that keeps people following this complete shit!

  29. says

    What Maria said. It is not obvious at all. The fact that billions of people believe in religion does not mean that all of them, or even most of them, find it comforting.
    People overwhelmingly believe whatever religion they were taught as children. Our minds are genetically hard-wired to believe what we were taught as children by parents and other authority figures. And the fact that religion is based on beliefs in the invisible and intangible — and therefore the unfalsifiable — makes it that much harder to undo the indoctrination as an adult.
    And in any case… how is this relevant? Not all believers find religion comforting… but yes, many of them do. So what? That doesn’t make religion correct. It doesn’t mean that it doesn’t, on the whole, do more harm than good. It doesn’t mean that people who take comfort in religion can’t find other comforts when they let go of religion. It doesn’t make religion socially necessary. And it doesn’t make atheists bad people for trying to persuade people out of it.

  30. Jimmy Crummins says

    “And in any case… how is this relevant? Not all believers find religion comforting… but yes, many of them do. So what? That doesn’t make religion correct. It doesn’t mean that it doesn’t, on the whole, do more harm than good. It doesn’t mean that people who take comfort in religion can’t find other comforts when they let go of religion. It doesn’t make religion socially necessary. And it doesn’t make atheists bad people for trying to persuade people out of it.”
    I do not believe I have made the assertion here that atheists are “bad people” for trying to argue their point of view. Like other prostelytizers, I have more of a problem with the “pursuade other people out of it” point of view. I have no problem with someone sayig “here’s what I believe and why”. I have a bigger problem with people saying “here’s what you should believe and why.” Having lived for a lengthy period in the Islamic world where lots of well meaning people were constantly trying to tell me what to believe, I have come to find that findamentally annoying and obnoxious. I mean, don’t you? Surely you have all had the experience of someone trying to convert you to something and you found it annoying. Well when you try to do that to others it is equally annoying.

  31. says

    Jimmy: You have yet to make clear why it’s okay to try to persuade people out of other kinds of ideas — scientific ideas, political ideas, sociological ideas, etc. — but religion is somehow an exception, and should be exempt from criticism. (I mean, here you are, trying to persuade me out of my ideas! Why is that okay, if my attempts at persuasion are not?)
    But more to the point — and for the fifteenth time — nobody is being forced to read my blog. People presumably read my blog because they’re interested in it. And many believers do want to hear what atheists have to say about religion: they want their faith to be genuinely challenged, or they’re having doubts or questions about their faith, or they’re just curious. I am posting my ideas in a public space, which people are free to visit or not, as they like. If people find it obnoxious, they don’t have to read it.

  32. Jimmy Crummins says

    Greta
    Obviously I have not been clear. You are perfectly entitled to blog whatever you want. I agree absolutely. In no way am I trying to influence what you or others put in print. That would be absurd.
    But I am assuming, based on tone (and perhaps it’s a false assumption), that you and the other atheists here go well beyond discussion in the forum and are openly challenging people in public forums on this subject and organizing protests on this subject. One of the atheists here did not go to his brothers wedding because of his brothers religious views – how sad.
    Now, you have the right to express your positions in public and aggressively. Just as those annoying Jehovahs Witnesses have the right to do so. But it’s not something I respect – not from any quarter. It intrudes into my space. You can be right on the issue and wrong in how you present it.

  33. Maria says

    The Jehovas Witnesses comes to your door, that’s your private space. The public isn’t your private space. Greta writes on her blog, which is public!

  34. Andrew says

    LOL religion is constantly criticized and despite all of the evidence you can bring up against it people will still always believe. This is because evidence is not what faith is based on. You can devote as much time into trying to make them feel dumb as you want (which is what I imagine you tried to do by comparing religion to a pink pony haha) but you will be proved the fool when all of your efforts amount to nothing.

  35. Maria says

    (and perhaps it’s a false assumption), that you and the other atheists here go well beyond discussion in the forum and are openly challenging people in public forums on this subject and organizing protests on this subject.
    It is a false assumption. We are all different. Just because we agree with Greta, and each other, on many things (many things, not all things) doesn’t mean we act like her, or each other. We take a lot of different approaches to this.
    Personally I only ever speak up on atheist blogs and forums, and never seek out religious people either on-line or in real life to speak with them. Why would I? I’m no masochist. I only ever discuss with them if they come to us, or me, and say something. We don’t have to go knocking on people’s doors, they come here all the time! When they do though, and when I feel like responding, I see no need to hold back what I think.

  36. Maria says

    You can devote as much time into trying to make them feel dumb as you want.
    That’s all right, Andrew, this is just my hobby.

  37. Maria says

    *Sigh* I was being sarcastic, Andrew. You seemed so concerned that we’d waste our energy, that I just wanted to ease your mind :-)

  38. Jimmy Crummins says

    “The Jehovas Witnesses comes to your door, that’s your private space. The public isn’t your private space. Greta writes on her blog, which is public!”
    I thought I made it perfectly clear that Greta is welcome to post anything she wishes in her own blog.
    “When they do though, and when I feel like responding, I see no need to hold back what I think.”
    Nor would I expect you to. If I ask someone for their opinion, I expect them to give it to me.

  39. Maria says

    I saw that, but you still compared it to the JW.
    They don’t always ask for my opinion when they come here. Quite the other way around, many of them implies rather heavily that they want to weigh in on the subject without us responding negatively to them, or disagreeing with them. If they come here I don’t wait for them to ask my opinion. I give it anyway, if I feel like it.

  40. says

    But I am assuming, based on tone (and perhaps it’s a false assumption), that you and the other atheists here go well beyond discussion in the forum and are openly challenging people in public forums on this subject and organizing protests on this subject.

    Your assumption is completely incorrect. I do not do those things.
    However, I still fail to see why those things are so terrible. People intrude on one another with ideas they don’t agree with all the time. Why should religion be a special case, exempt from public debate? There are some situations in which I think this intrusion is inappropriate and obnoxious; there are others where I think it’s just the marketplace of ideas. It’s worth discussing which methods fall into which category — but that’s very different from just reflexively accusing the atheist movement of the former.
    I don’t like it, for instance, when atheists pick fights about religion in forums that aren’t about religion, and I don’t like it when they insult people personally instead of criticizing ideas and behavior. But (a) that’s pretty rare, and (b) it’s hardly limited to atheism. People act like jerks on the internet about sports, movies, cute cats. What does that have to do with atheism?
    On the other hand, I have no problem with public protests, as long as they’re non-violent. Non-violent public protests are a great part of American democracy. Even when the positions being demonstrated for are abhorrent, I respect and value people’s fundamental right to do it. It’s in the First Amendment, for goodness’ sake. “The right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
    If your point is “It’s bad to be mean on the Internet”… sure. But what does that have to do with atheism? Why keep bringing it up as if it has anything to do especially with atheism? But if your point is “Nobody has the right to present ideas in public forums that other people find upsetting and don’t want to think about”… sorry. That’s a flatly absurd idea on the face of it. And if that’s really your point, I’m not going to debate it with you anymore.

  41. says

    LOL religion is constantly criticized and despite all of the evidence you can bring up against it people will still always believe. This is because evidence is not what faith is based on. You can devote as much time into trying to make them feel dumb as you want (which is what I imagine you tried to do by comparing religion to a pink pony haha) but you will be proved the fool when all of your efforts amount to nothing.

    Actually, Andrew… our efforts are amounting to very much more than nothing. Our efforts have been extremely effective. Rates of non-belief are going up at a dramatic rate, around the U.S. and around the world… especially among young people. I, myself, was persuaded out of my religious beliefs, in large part, by things written by non-believers — and many people have told me that they were persuaded out of their religious beliefs, in large part, because of things I’ve written. Clearly, what we are doing is working — at least some of the time.
    I am well aware of the fact that evidence is not what faith is based on (although many believers like to think that it is). But you seem to think that’s a good thing — and I don’t understand why. If I believed in God, I would want to understand this God, and the world he created, as well as I possibly could. I would want to examine the evidence about how the world works and why it is the way it is, as thoroughly as I possibly could. To do otherwise would seem grossly disrespectful. How can you believe in God and not be interested in the evidence about whether he really exists? Do you really not care whether the things you believe are true?
    And I don’t bring up the pink pony analogy to make believers feel dumb. Quite the contrary. I bring it up because I respect people’s intelligence. Using this sort of analogy is a way of encouraging people to step back from their beliefs — and the arguments they make for their beliefs — and get some perspective on them, see them the way others do. The analogy here is that “You should keep an open mind” is not an argument for “My beliefs are true” — whether that’s about God or the teleporting pink pony. I respect believers’ intelligence enough to think they can follow this analogy.

  42. says

    I have no problem with someone sayig “here’s what I believe and why”. I have a bigger problem with people saying “here’s what you should believe and why.”

    I believe you’re a moron, based on statements like these. Clearly, you cannot tell me I should believe otherwise because that would make you a hypocrite.
    Again, I don’t have a problem with believers trying to make their cases in public squares; when they go door-to-door it’s annoying, but I get a kick out of running circles around them. A world where people aren’t allowed to tell others what they should believe and why would be a horrible world; it would be just as totalitarian as a world where someone else forced you to believe something.

  43. says

    People, I’m calling it. Jimmy Crummins is a comment hog. He has successfully dominated multiple comment threads, for days. I am within a hair’s breadth of banning him from the blog. We’ve all been feeding him way too much — and that includes me. Let’s stop doing that, and move on.

  44. Jimmy Crummins says

    “I believe you’re a moron, based on statements like these. Clearly, you cannot tell me I should believe otherwise because that would make you a hypocrite.”
    Greta,
    This seems to me to be a recurring theme. Don’t like the ideas of the person posting, hurl insults at them. I’m just going to let this one go since I promised to shut up – but my suspicion is that were I to start calling atheists here “morons” I would be booted post with.

  45. Maxx says

    Good evening;
    – Open minded – what exactly does that mean? Is it an approach devoid of presuppositions?
    Haven’t met anyone like that.
    Thank you

  46. Jason says

    I believe based on my experience that close-mindedness is just as common among atheists as it is among believers. Many atheists engage in conceited delusions that they are “free thinking” and free from cognitive biases or powerful emotional motivations. Many atheists want to believe they are purely rational and come to their conclusion based on flawless logic and immunity to any non-rational, external influences. This is simply not the case for any human being. Our beliefs are ultimately based on life experience, desire, and reasoning. It is not possible for the atheist to be completely free from preconceived biases.

    There are many atheists that, if they are intellectually honest, will admit that they not only don’t believe in God, but don’t WANT to believe in God. The late Christopher Hitchens is a good example of this. There are emotional reasons to reject God. Being an atheist means you have complete autonomy with your own life and are not subject to objective moral rules and duties that can be burdensome or unpleasant. You get to sculpt a morality that is conveniently more accommodating to your own desires and wishes. Atheism is also intellectually lazy. Instead of having to wrestle with trying to answer life’s greatest questions such as human meaning, purpose, and why evil and injustice exists, you can answer every problem with “chance.” Things are the way they are because they just happened that way. There is no objective meaning or purpose to life, so the question itself is not even worth asking.

    There are many conceivable reasons why someone would be an atheist that have nothing to do with logic or with following the evidence where it leads. It could be attributed to something as simple as being mistreated by religious believers or bad experiences with religion. In fact, I can’t think of anything else that is more likely to make someone an atheist than religious hypocrisy and cruelty or vice inflicted in the name of God. Why would one believe in a perfect, maximally great God if his representatives fail to reflect him accurately?

    Another problem with your argument here, and it’s one that plagues so many atheists, is that you have unfounded, absolutist, exclusivist faith in empiricism, as if it is the only valid epistemic outlet. For you atheists, the only knowledge that is acceptable or worth anything is the knowledge that is gained by empiricism. Any other kind of knowledge, including rationalism and pure logical inferences, is rejected out of hand. If it is knowledge that cannot be repeated or tested, or be reproduced in a laboratory, it’s automatically discounted. The irony of such absolute faith in empiricism, is that empiricism cannot justify itself. The scientific method is ultimately dependent on the faith-based assumption that reality actually exists and that our perceptions of it are reasonably accurate. We assume reality exists and that empiricism is valid because of personal sensory experience. Yet atheists always mock and deride believers who encounter God through their sensory experience. Personal experience is excepted by atheists when it comes to empiricism but rejected a priori when it comes to religion and the supernatural.

    Lastly, you’ve made several factually incorrect statements. You said science has shown that the Earth is not unique. Wrong. Science, as of yet, has not discovered any other Earth-like planets that contain intelligent life. Unless and until science finds another Earth, it is still valid and appropriate to say that the Earth is unique. You said that humans are not special. I’d like to know of some other species science has discovered that has all the same capacities that humans do or more. I have not heard of one yet.

  47. bobthelunatic says

    I just wanted to comment on this as I am a religious atheist. I guarantee you many of you atheists already had a reaction to the very concept being combined with that horrible thing, religion.

    I do not find atheists to be any more open minded than the christian society I live in (US). They, including myself at times, are just as fanatical, and therefore just as unproductive in spreading their truth as that they detest. I practice Nichiren Buddhism and do not worship nor believe in any gods, therefore I practice an “atheist faith” or “atheist religion”. Yet, even upon learning this, most atheist arguments against me revolve around anti-theist arguments, which in many cases I know better than they.

    In the end I find most atheists know very little about Buddhism, just like most Christians. Yet, they don’t try to learn or listen and then pose an argument based on what I say, no it’s usually irrelevant rhetoric, showing they don’t follow what I said, and are just closed to begin with. Both groups have seemingly equal numbers with full cups, thus a lack of humility. Atheists have the truth that their is no god/s, and Christians have their truth that they have an all powerful buddy.

    Many times both groups give very similar responses. Allow me to compare the ignorance and closed mind behind the voices:

    Christian: “But Buddha didn’t create nothin’!!” (Which is true, and therefore baffling when revealed to the christian)

    Atheist: “Just another crutch, just like any other religion”. Now, they make a similar statement as the christian, that of rejection and ignorance, but at least one that allows some follow up discussion before hitting a wall with them. Christians care about creation, atheists about what is tangible, both care about stuff.

    However, the atheist should be more polite as I too am JUST as atheist as they and on their side, and in most cases more of an activist (signatures for taxation of religious property, letters about pledge to ACLU, attacking christian bigotry or any bigotry, etc.) But they are not. Buddhism in practice is maybe slightly more “religious” than secular humanism. I would argue both are based on reason, Buddhism just goes a bit further to examine how life interacts, but I see no fallacies, nor bigotry, nor otherworldly issues. It focuses on this world, here and now. Teaching that a land cannot be pure, but rather that the person and land are one-therefore it WILL be pure, only if your mind is pure. It has no final destination, no beginning, no end, and thus even if one attains enlightenment, they are not done-as the mind changes from moment to moment, and thus Buddhist Practice is neverending. This also means that knowing the truth gets me nowhere unlike say a christian-they’re done, only the 1 commandment (believe in jesus) is required, the golden rule is not (matt, mark, luke all talk about the one unforgivable sin, proving that doing unto others is fluff, a bonus, yet no real motivation to do so as #1 gets you saved) necessary-this is why they spend so much time attacking the liberties of others, they are bored, waiting for the rapture. My life is based on cause and effect, and I see it the same with all others, thus many ignorant of Buddhism at this moment are better Buddhists than I. So, superior teaching yes, superior person-certainly not.

    And the teaching is for this world-thus, I test it now, not after death-which is clearly a trick, like a back alley drug dealer that promises to return in 10 minutes. From the atheist perspective-it wouldn’t make much sense for me to keep practicing unless I benefit from it as I go.

    I have no bigotry, experiences in Buddhism that reveal the true nature of reality, reveal it is the same for all things, ants, planets, whatever. Thus, equality of life is inherent in the philosophy. Women are just as likely to be leaders, lots of gays, and of course many colors, all have the same 10 life conditions to be experienced. Never seen any of the teaching need to change due to either science nor society/liberty.

    Yes, I believe in reincarnation-but it is irrelevant, my goals are now, in this life. My faith is not in the unknown, but rather in THIS world. Faith in Buddhism, is very much like the scientific method-doubt is the most important tool. No deepening of faith can happen without doubt-trying to disprove.

    Anyway, just wanted to add those thoughts as atheists are certainly a minority-but that is all the more likely the cause, we are after all the most hated group in America. And the American Experiment ended in 1954 when all religions and lack, were kicked out except christians. I am treated no different as a Buddhist, as I make the distinction clear very quickly-that it requires I’m an atheist. Gods are mutually exclusive with Buddhism, at least most sects. And the sects that do have gods, regard them as lower than human beings. Not too many atheists in the US know that sort of thing, nor do many of them pause to consider how vastly different it must be. I studied and practiced religions until one of them worked-changed my life, that’s why I stopped searching. But even then, I still believe in studying religions to understand others better. Like 20% of my town is Mormon, so I’ve studied up on their theology and frankly, after a while, they became my favorite christians-they seem to be the only ones that actually do much positive for others and each other. Nor do they hiss upon finding out my beliefs-but they too are very closed minded. I learn from them, years into it, I realize they know nothing of my belief. Same with atheists, same with other christians.

    But in this case, atheists the worst-as they show duplicity (redefining atheism to try to exclude me, pretending it addresses more than one question-gods), and they show me the same anger as they would a christian, even though by what they say-they know nothing about me and I find it unlikely they have a valid reason at the time against Buddhism as I do look, and find rhetoric.

    Nothing wrong with guarding against nonsense-but to be closed means to stop learning. I don’t believe that, everyone is my teacher, everyone. Atheists would do well to realize they too can learn something from anyone, be it a crazy looking street preacher about doomsday, a little 2 year old (naturally atheist), or the guy responding to YOUR question that happens to be Buddhist, as that is usually the case, I don’t bring up religion-they do.

    Lastly-atheists need to remember, they are the guardians of the Constitution-that’s why they had to get kicked out for Liberty to be lost.

  48. bobthelunatic says

    I don’t know how to edit sorry: Wanted to clarify: Attaining enlightenment is not a final destination-you’re never done. It’s no different than “attaining anger” or “attaining animality”. They are all life conditions, dynamic, none static. So maybe I’ve had a few moments of “noble understanding” but at this moment, I’m just as deluded as I was at 16 before discovering Buddhism. These are states of mind, subject to change in any moment, but only in life. IN death, there’s no body to feel, nor see, nor hear, no mind to consider, think, etc. Death is non-existence, it like the issue of “god” is irrelevant to Buddhism, which is a Life Philosophy.

    Personally, I first distinguish religions between “Death Religions” and “Life Religions”. The latter tend to be really philosophies and not fit any atheist arguments taken to completion that I’ve seen, including Hitchens of which I’ve listened to many-my favorite contemporary (or recently so) atheist.

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