This piece was originally published on AlterNet.
Many religious believers are intent on getting atheists’ approval for their beliefs. If you’re hoping for that — don’t hold your breath.
If you hang around the online atheist world long enough, you’ll notice an interesting pattern. Many religious and spiritual believers who engage with atheists seem very intent on getting atheists’ approval for their beliefs.
Typically, these believers acknowledge that many religions are profoundly troubling. They share atheists’ revulsion against religious hatreds and sectarian wars. They share our repugnance with religious fraud, the charlatans who abuse people’s trust to swindle them out of money and sex and more. They share our disgust with willful religious ignorance, the flat denials of overwhelming scientific evidence that contradicts people’s beliefs. They can totally see why many atheists are so incredulous, even outraged, about the world of religion.
But they think their religion is an exception. They think their religion is harmless, a kinder, gentler faith. They think their religion is philosophically consistent, supported by reason and evidence — or at least, not flatly contradicted by it.
And they want atheists to agree.
They really, really want atheists to agree. They want atheists to say, “No, of course, your beliefs aren’t like all those others — those other beliefs are crazy, but yours make sense.” Or they want atheists to say, “Wow, I hadn’t heard that one before — how fascinating and well thought-out!” Of course they understand why atheists object to all those other bad religions. They just don’t understand why we object to theirs. They get very hurt when we object to theirs. And they will spend a significant amount of time and energy trying to persuade us to stop objecting.
Why do they care what atheists think?
I’ve been getting into these debates with religious believers for many years now. I’ve seen how they start out, and where they end up. I’ve seen many, many theists desperately try to get the Atheist Seal of Approval for their religion. And I’ve reach two conclusions about why they’re doing it. They think atheists have higher standards than most believers… so our approval will mean more. And they don’t want to think their religion has anything in common with those other sucky religions… and getting atheists’ approval would let them keep on thinking that.
The Gold Standard
Believers seeking the Atheist Seal of Approval for their beliefs seem to see atheists as the gold standard. They know that most atheists have rejected religion for a reason: they know that we take religion seriously, and that we’ve examined it carefully and thoughtfully before rejecting it. They know that we’re more familiar with the tenets and traditions of religion than most believers: that we not only know more about religion in general than most believers do, but that we know more about specific religious beliefs than the people who actually adhere to those beliefs. They see that, as Julia Sweeney so eloquently put it, we take religion too seriously to believe in it. They see how passionately we value the truth — and they respect that.
So if they can get us to give their religion a thumbs-up… that would really mean something. They understand that religious believers — other believers, that is, not themselves of course — often don’t have very good reasons for their beliefs. They sincerely care about the truth, I think (this is definitely not the case for all believers, but it is for these folks), and they want to test their faith against the harshest critics they can think of. They want their cognitive dissonance resolved — the tension between the religious faith they hold to be true, and the evidence and arguments showing that the case for their faith is crap — and they understand enough about the communal reinforcement and other cognitive errors to know that Other People Who Already Agree With Them isn’t the most rigorous way to resolve that dissonance. If they could get some atheists to tell them their belief is okay, that would resolve that annoying dissonance in a heartbeat.
And they seem genuinely surprised when this approval isn’t forthcoming. It seems to have genuinely never occurred to them that, since atheists have carefully and thoughtfully examined religion before rejecting it, this examination probably includes their religion as well.
The Not-So-Special Snowflake
Many believers don’t want to acknowledge how ordinary their religion is.
They don’t want to acknowledge everything that their religion has in common with every other religion. They feel the same revulsion and bafflement that atheists do at religious hatred and fraud and willful ignorance… and they don’t want to be identified with it. They think their religion is a special snowflake — and they really, really want atheists to recognize its beautiful and unique crystalline structure.
So when atheists say, “Nope, sorry, your snowflake looks like all the other snowflakes”… these believers get very upset. They get very upset when we point out the striking similarities between their religion and the hateful, fraudulent, willfully ignorant religions they so rightly reject. They get very upset when we point out that their beliefs are just as inconsistent with evidence, their arguments just as weak, their goalposts just as slippery, their assumptions just as unfalsifiable. They get very upset when we point out that we have, in fact, heard of their version of religion before, or at least ones very much like it. They get very upset when we say, “Yes, I’ve heard that argument before, about a hundred times, I could refute it in my sleep, here’s exactly why it doesn’t hold up, in fact here are links to a dozen other atheist writers who have also pointed out exactly why it doesn’t hold up.”
And they get very upset indeed when we point out that their version of religion is far from harmless. They get very upset when we point out that their version of religion, just like every religion, encourages people to believe things for which there is no good evidence, ideas that by their very nature can have no reality check… and that this, by itself, does harm. They get very upset when we point out that disabling reality checks leaves people vulnerable to oppression, fraud, and abuse: that it armors beliefs against criticism, questioning, and self- correction, and thus armors them against anything that might stop them from spinning into extreme absurdity, extreme denial of reality… and extreme, grotesque immorality. And they get very upset when we argue that their kinder, gentler form of religion gives credibility to the harsher, uglier forms… by giving credibility to the idea that disabling our reality checks is not only acceptable, but a positive virtue, and that it’s perfectly reasonable to believe things for no good reason, just because we want to.
They don’t just get upset. They get hurt… and they blame atheists for their hurt feelings. They often get hostile… and lash out at atheists for the appalling intolerance of arguing that they’re wrong. (In an argument that they sought out. I know. It doesn’t make sense to me, either.) And they get intensely surprised. They come seeking approval for their religion from the very people who, by definition, are the least likely to give it… and they get genuinely surprised when that approval isn’t forthcoming.
The Bad News
It isn’t going to happen.
We think your religion is philosophically inconsistent. We think your religion is completely unsupported by either evidence or reason. And many of us — probably most of us — think your religion fucks people up.
I’ll stop here for a Fairness Moment. Yes, most atheists understand that different religions are, you know, different. And I’m one of them. We get that some religions do more harm than others; that some religions are more out of touch with reality than others; that some religions are more grossly contradicted by hard evidence than others. (We understand, for instance, that theistic evolution, while having no good reason whatsoever to believe it and in fact being flatly contradicted by a mountain of evidence, isn’t quite as outlandishly bonkers as young-earth creationism.) Some of us — and again, I’m among them — will even say that, if the only religions in the world were the tolerant, ecumenical, moderate and progressive forms of religion, we wouldn’t care all that much about it. We’d see it about the way we see urban legends about alligators in the sewers and whatnot: just another silly mistaken idea that some people are mysteriously attached to. We’d still disagree with it, we’d still argue against it if you asked our opinion… but we wouldn’t be devoting time and energy to building a community of people who don’t believe it, or to persuading people who do believe it out of their beliefs.
And, of course, we think you have the right to your beliefs. Absolutely, passionately, without question. We think your beliefs are full of beans… and if anyone tries to use force or violence or law to stop you from believing it, we’ll sock them right in the jaw. Or at least vote to get them out of office.
But for majority of atheists, that’s the most you’re going to get out of us.
We don’t believe in God. Any god. Not Pat Robertson’s, not Osama Bin Laden’s — and not yours. That’s what it means to be an atheist. If we were impressed by your religion and thought it had real merit, we wouldn’t be atheists anymore. Asking us which religion is the least harmful or the least out of touch with reality or the least contradicted by reason and evidence… it’s like asking which of the Bee Gees is the least annoying. They’re all annoying. And all religions are harmful, out of touch with reality, and contradicted by reason and evidence.
And… okay, this next bit is going to sound a bit harsh. But frankly, we don’t think your religion is even all that interesting. We’ve seen it before. You may have an odd little twist on it that we’re not familiar with, and we might be somewhat curious about it. But the apologetics and theodicies and defenses are all depressingly familiar. I’ve been blogging about atheism for many years now, and it’s been a very long time indeed since I’ve seen a defense of religion that I’ve never seen before. (The Argument From Tigers was the last one. And it didn’t exactly provoke serious searching of my non-existent soul. Mostly it provoked months of gut-blasting hilarity.)
In fact, in the years that I’ve been writing about atheism and debating with religious believers, I’ve actually become more confident in my atheism. I’ve become more confident because I see the same bad arguments for religion over and over and over again. And over. And over. And over yet again. Sometimes I think that if I see the argument from design one more time, or the God of the gaps, or “different ways of knowing,” or “you can’t disprove it with 100% certainty, therefore it’s reasonable to believe it,” or Pascal’s freaking wager, I’m going to have an aneurism. Whenever I see someone make an argument for religion, I still have moments of wondering, “Is this going to be the argument that convinces me?”… but those moments are becoming shorter and shorter every day, to the point where I’m measuring them in nanoseconds, and every day my hope that I’ll see something surprising dwindles just a little bit more.
The Good News
Don’t get me wrong. We can work with you as allies. We don’t have to agree about everything to work together on issues we do agree on. We can work together on separation of church and state, stopping religiously- inspired oppression and violence, etc. Many of us — heck, probably most of us — are even willing to temporarily set aside our differences while we work together on the stuff we have in common.
But if you ask us what we think of your religion… we’re going to tell you. If you visit our blogs to see what we think of your religion… you’re going to find out.
We think you’re mistaken. And if you’re honest, you need to acknowledge that you think we’re mistaken. Yes, it’s true, every time an atheist says, “I don’t believe in God,” we’re implying that people who do believe in God are wrong. But every time you say that you do believe in God, you’re implying that people who don’t are wrong.
That’s fine. You can think we’re wrong, and we can think you’re wrong. We can have that conversation, or we can put it on the back burner and talk about something else. We can be allies, friends, families, with people we disagree with.
But that’s not going to work if that alliance or friendship depends on us giving you our seal of approval for beliefs we think are flatly mistaken.
After all — you’re not giving us yours.
UPDATE: A Facebook comment from David Byars has made me realize that there’s a likely third reason that some believers seek the atheist seal of approval for their beliefs. And that’s that they’re in process of questioning their beliefs… but are afraid of doing so. Their religion tells them not to question, but to have faith — or else they’re just frightened of letting go of their faith, for fear of permanent death and other scary implications of atheism. But they do, in fact, care about whether the things they believe are true. So they seek out atheists’ approval for their beliefs: partly for reassurance… but partly as a baby step into more serious questioning. The “My religion is okay, isn’t it?” attempts at cognitive dissonance resolution probably are probably, at least sometimes, part of the process of questioning and relinquishing faith. I think there’s a lot of truth to this… and I also think it’s a more generous assessment than my original ones. I guess I haven’t been in a very generous mood lately. Thanks for the reality check, David — and for the reminder about patience.