I’ve been thinking about why conversations about religion between atheists and believers often go south: why they often feel so loaded, so heated, so personal. I think I have a partial answer, and I want to run it by y’all.
For most atheists, religion is an idea. It’s a hypothesis, a truth claim about how the world works and why it is the way it is. It’s the claim that the world works the way it does, in part, because of invisible supernatural entities or forces acting on the world. It’s not a very good hypothesis — in many cases, it’s entirely unfalsifiable, which makes it pretty much useless, and in the cases where it is falsifiable it’s been pretty soundly falsified — but it’s still a hypothesis.
But for many believers, religion is an identity. They see it as a central part of who they are: like race, or gender, or sexual identity. They don’t see themselves as having, say, Catholic or Baptist or Muslim ideas about how the world works. They see themselves as Catholic or Baptist or Muslim.
So when atheists criticize the idea of religion — either the specific ideas of a specific religion, or the idea of religion generally — the believers take it personally. They don’t see it as a critique of an idea they hold which may or may not be correct. They experience it as a personal attack.
So what can atheists do about it?
Unsurprisingly, I happen to think that atheists are right about this. Religion is an idea. I mean, of course there are elements to it that has to do with culture and family and history and so on. But that’s not unique to religion. There are plenty of cultural and familial and historical traditions that have jack to do with religion. What makes religion unique — what sets it apart from all other cultural and familial and historical traditions, from all other philosophies and ideologies and so on — is the hypothesis that supernatural beings or forces act on the natural world. Without this idea, it’s not religion.
And while there’s obviously an element of religion that has to do with culture and family and history and so on, the identity can be separated from the idea. Look at the phenomenon of secular Jews, or secular Catholics. It’s entirely possible for these folks to keep their identity — their association with a cultural and familial tradition — while thoroughly and cheerfully shedding the hypothesis, the actual belief in supernatural beings.
So I think atheists are right about this. Religion is not an identity. Or rather, it’s only tangentially an identity. Religion is an idea.
But the fact that many believers see religion as an identity makes it harder for atheists to talk with them about it. They see their religion the way many gay people see being gay, or the way many black people see being black — as a core part of their being. And so they often treat any criticism of their beliefs, or even any questioning of it, as an insult, even a personal attack, to this central part of who they are.
So what can we do about that?
I have a couple of ideas about this — but I’m very much thinking this one out loud, and would welcome any new ideas I might not have thought of.
First: I think we need to keep hammering on the idea. We need to keep criticizing it, and criticizing it, and criticizing it.
A big part of what makes religion flourish is the special treatment it gets. The idea that religion is special and should be treated differently from other human ideas and activities is a ridiculously common one. It’s common to think that its leaders deserve special deference, that its holy places and relics should be treated with reverence, that people who are unusually religious must also be unusually virtuous, that it’s inherently rude or bigoted to criticize it. In the marketplace of ideas, religion gets a free ride. In an armored tank.
So criticizing religion doesn’t just have the effect of sometimes persuading people out of it. It also has the effect of repositioning religion as just another idea. It has the effect of treating religion the same way we treat ideas about politics, science, art, philosophy, medicine, ethics, social policy, etc. — namely, as fair game. Ideas that have to stand up on their own. Ideas that are only as good as the evidence and reason supporting them. Ideas that can be questioned and challenged and made fun of and blasted into shrapnel, just like any other. Criticizing religion doesn’t just expose religion as a singularly bad, entirely indefensible idea. It reframes it as an idea, period.
And that is a win for us. It’s a win for the obvious reason: because the idea sucks, and when it’s pulled out of the armored tank and forced to stand on its own, it folds like a house of cards in a hurricane. But it’s also a win because, if believers can see their beliefs as an idea rather than as an identity, they’ll cling to it less tightly, and they’ll take critiques of it less personally, and the conversations will be less likely to go south.
So if we want to shift the thinking about religion from “identity” to “idea,” we should hammer on the idea. What else can we do?
I think that when we do hammer on the idea, we need to be very careful, and very rigorous, about hammering the idea without insulting the people.
We need to be very careful to say, “That idea makes no rational sense” — and not say, “You’re irrational.” We need to be very careful to say, “That idea is entirely divorced from reality” — and not say, “You are entirely divorced from reality.” We need to be very careful to say, “That’s a ridiculous and stupid idea” — and not say, “You are ridiculous and stupid.”
For one thing — it’s not true. Okay, sometimes it is. Some religious believers are stupid. You know what? Some atheists are stupid, too. But many religious believers are, on the whole, intelligent and reasonable people in most areas of their lives. Yes, they hold a stupid idea. If holding a stupid idea made you not intelligent and reasonable, we’d all be idiots. The tendency to hang on to bad ideas we’ve committed to is a fundamental human trait, a central part of how our brain works. We all do it. Atheists, believers — all of us. It doesn’t make us stupid. It makes us human.
So we shouldn’t say all religious believers are stupid — because it’s not true. And it also doesn’t help. Specifically — and back to the point at hand — it reinforces the idea that religious belief is an identity. Which is exactly what we’re trying not to do. If someone has been taught that their Catholicism makes them special and virtuous, saying that their Catholicism makes them stupid and crazy reinforces the idea that Catholicism = them. Saying that they’re a smart person who’s holding onto a bad idea that they really ought to reconsider… that helps divorce the idea from their identity. Which helps make the arguments less ugly and divisive — and helps us win the arguments in the bargain.
There are some times when the “personal insult” tactic might be appropriate. Public figures, for instance, I think are fair game. And there are times when it’s just irresistible. When professor Stephen Prothero wrote in USA Today that the atheist movement needed more women because women are so much more sweet and diplomatic, there was no way I could keep myself from responding, “Suck my dick, you pompous windbag.” (Or, to be more precise: “Suck my dick, you pompous windbag. You think getting more women into the atheist movement means you won’t have to face a fight? Bring it on. You smug, patronizing, cowardly, sexist prick.”) When it comes to public confrontations with public figures, a nice bit of creative invective can be bracing, a surgical scalpel cutting through the bafflegab and the treacle. But I think we need to use it very judiciously. And in conversations with non-public figures, in conversations with our friends and family and colleagues and community, I think it’s almost never useful.
Now, even if we are being careful and rigorous about critiquing ideas and not insulting people, believers won’t always notice. Again — the whole problem here is that many believers have a hard time separating the idea from the identity, and they reflexively treat critiques of the former as attacks on the latter.
But when we can rightly say, “Actually, I didn’t insult you — I insulted your idea”? When we can point out that, as harsh as we were about their silly ideas, we never once accused them of personally being silly? When we can point out that, just last week, we had a debate about tax policy or low-carb diets or whether Mondo should have won Season 8 of Project Runway, and they didn’t take our disagreement with their position as a personal attack on their basic nature and the core of their being… and we’re now treating their religion exactly the same way?
That, again, helps re-position religion, away from being an identity, and into being an idea.
And that, again, helps make the arguments less ugly, less divisive… and a whole lot more winnable.
For the record, I don’t think this “identity versus idea” thing is the only reason conversations about religion between atheists and believers often go south. I think the idea of religion itself is one that many believers are very attached to. The idea that there’s a perfect being out there who’s always paying attention to us and always loves us; the idea that our lives are part of some larger purpose, and that the fucked-up bits are part of a bigger plan that’s all going to work out in the end; the idea that death isn’t real — these ideas are very appealing to a lot of people. A lot of people don’t want to be persuaded out of them, and hang onto them very stubbornly. Shifting religion away from being an identity and into being an idea is not, by itself, going to make religion go away, or make the conversations about it go smoothly.
But I think it will help. And in the long run, I think it will help a lot.