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Why Does Religion Always Get a Free Ride?

We try to persuade people out of almost every kind of idea there is. Why should religion be the exception?

Why should religion, alone among all other kinds of ideas, be free from attempts to persuade people out of it?

We try to persuade people out of ideas all the time. We try to persuade people that their ideas about science, politics, philosophy, art, medicine, and more, are wrong: that they’re harmful, ridiculous, repulsive, or simply mistaken. But when it comes to religion, trying to persuade people out of their ideas is somehow seen as horribly rude at best, invasive and bigoted and intolerant at worst. Why? Why should religion be the exception?

I’ve been writing about atheism for about six years now. In those six years, I’ve asked this question more times and not once have I gotten a satisfying answer. In fact, only once do I recall getting any answer at all. Besides that one exception, what I’ve gotten in response has been crickets chirping and tumbleweeds blowing by. I’ve been ignored, I’ve had the subject changed, I’ve had people get personally nasty, I’ve had people abandon the conversation altogether. But only once have I ever gotten any kind of actual answer. And that answer sucked. (I’ll get to it in a bit.) I’ve heard lots of people tell me, at length and with great passion, that trying to persuade people out of their religion is bad and wrong and mean… but I haven’t seen a single real argument explaining why this is such a terrible thing to do with religion, and yet is somehow perfectly okay to do with all other ideas.

So I want to get to the heart of this matter. Why should religion be treated differently from all other kinds of ideas? Why shouldn’t we criticize it, and make fun of it, and try to persuade people out of it, the way we do with every other kind of idea?

In a free society, in the marketplace of ideas, we try to persuade people out of ideas all the time. We criticize ideas we disagree with; we question ideas we find puzzling; we excoriate ideas we find repugnant; we make fun of ideas we think are silly. And we think this is acceptable. In fact, we think it’s positively good. We think this is how good ideas rise to the surface, and bad ideas get filtered out. We might have issues with exactly how this persuasion is carried out: is it done politely or rudely, reasonably or hysterically, did you really have to bring it up at Thanksgiving dinner, etc. But the basic idea of trying to convince other people that your ideas are right and theirs are wrong… this is not controversial.

Except when it comes to religion.

Why?

*

Thus begins my latest piece for AlterNet, Why Does Religion Always Get a Free Ride? To read more about this idea that religion deserves to be treated with kid gloves — and why this idea doesn’t hold water, not even a drop of it — read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

Comments

  1. eric says

    I’ll admit up front I didn’t read your linked article before posting this. But I think its worth pointing out that religious folk think its perfectly okay for religious people to try and change other people’s minds about their religions. Otherwise, there would be no missionaries or proselytization at all, for any religion. You can’t convince someone that Jesus-belief is better than JoBu-belief without a little criticism of JoBu-belief. And vice versa. There would also be no sectarian conflicts within Chrisitianity, since practically all such conflicts involve criticizing some religious belief. Hitchens didn’t do anything more socially unacceptable than Martin Luther, or John Calvin, or hundreds of others.

    It seems profoundly hypocritical to decide that its socially offensive for atheists to act towards religious people the way religious people have been acting towards each other for millenia.

    If you make the same point in your post, Greta, then my apologies for preaching to the choir. :)

  2. David Evans says

    I can think of one argument – a variant of Pascal’s wager.

    Suppose you are arguing with someone who thinks she will go to Hell, and be punished eternally, unless she follows the dictates of her religion. You think she’s wrong. But if she is right, you would be doing her an infinite harm by convincing her otherwise. If there is any finite chance of her being right, should not that make you hesitate?

  3. abb3w says

    Because religious nutjobs tend to start more/larger wars if you challenge their nutjobbery.

    Or at least, that seems the historical semi-justification for the notion, anyway. Even still, there’s a couple easy ways to counterargue — whether this is actually correct, whether the harm when unchallenged is indeed less than the harm of the wars when they’re challenged, and so on.

  4. mnb0 says

    I am an arrogant bastard, I always think I’m right. If I think I’m wrong I simply change my opinion. So I never give anybody a free ride, unless I think the subject unimportant, irrelevant and/or uninteresting. That’s certainly not the case for religion, so that’s not an exception at all.
    If believers don’t like my arguments and/or my quotations from their holy books it’s their problem, not mine.
    There is one huge exception though. I am a Dutchman living in Suriname, a former colony. It were my compatriots who brought christianity to this country. So I think it’s distasteful to try to deconvert my fellow-citizens.
    But I’m not hiding my opinions either. Everybody here knows I’m an atheist, possibly the only one in town. Suriname being a very multicultural society the people have learned to tolerate other religions. It’s not hard for them to accept an atheist as well.
    Last saturday a Jehovah’s Witness visited me. I had some time to burn, so we had a nice and polite talk of 1½ hours. He received the full load, from Quantum Mechanics via Big Bang and Evolution Theory to the Theodicy.
    He was not as cowardly as some of those fundie-students at Dan Savage’s speech though.

  5. says

    I am all for trying to change people’s minds, I do it daily. I have a hard time with friends and family who are theists and challenge them often. That aside, I suppose one answer to your question is the tremendous job of the Christian Right to make such conversations seem impolite. They seem to have done a great deal to promote intolerance of questioning religion…unless they are they ones doing the questioning of whatever you happen to believe. They have made questioning religion appear like a personal attack. It is complete bullshit, but seems to happen all the time.

  6. says

    @David Evans —

    That does seem to be an answer (albeit, to use Greta’s phrasing, a “crappy” one). I suppose Greta now needs to up her count to 2. ;-)

    I ought now to explain why it’s a crappy answer. It’s a crappy answer because it mistakes possibility for likelihood. There is a finite chance that any action (including the act of believing, or inaction in a particular circumstance) could be judged by some powerful entity to justify harming the person taking the action. Such a standard would rule out any persuasion (or even communication) whatsoever.

    What is appropriate is to combine an estimate of the magnitude of harm that an act might cause with an estimate of the likelihood of that harm. And the evidence we have strongly supports a very, very, very small likelihood for the case you mentioned.

    Further, the concept of “infinite harm” is basically incoherent. We are finite beings — all of our experiences are finite, as is our capability to experience them. As such, the idea of a human suffering “infinite harm” is nonsense.

    Nevertheless, thank for at least providing an impetus to write down this rebuttal.

  7. jamessweet says

    I get the “It makes people happy and why would you take that away from them” answer a lot… Surprised you didn’t address that one. Not that it’s difficult to address, of course…

  8. rapiddominance says

    Your question:

    We try to persuade people out of almost every kind of idea there is. Why should religion be the exception?

    I’m a theist and I would like to answer your question to your “satisfaction” (as if I have any clue what will satisfy you).

    Religion should NOT be the exception. In fact, I think that atheist activists have often done far more good for my community (and our world) than they are ever given credit for by us.

    Lets face it–there are many religious communities where adherents are afraid, physically or emotionally, to voice doubts–doubts so serious that they impede the abilities of their ‘host’ to enjoy life and function as a member of society and/or of a family. Crippling doubts.

    Unfortunately, there are many religious bodies that are thoroughly sick, corrupted, and dangerous to mind, body, or soul (feel free to scratch out “soul”; its not an important part of my response).

    By raising their questions and voicing their objections skeptics often do what many religious people are otherwise afraid to. And as the saying goes, “You can’t unring a bell”. Once you ring this bell, religious oppressors begin to lose their power over their flocks. This threat to their control simulateously scares and angers the hell out of them. Most importantly, it empowers those caught in their thralls.

    To understand how both your community and my own benefit from this, you need to keep in mind that spiritual tyrannies are always resistant to losing their power, whether its to non-belief, another belief, or even a widening of belief. Yet, just like the tyrannies of nations, workplaces, or homes, they destroy human potential all the same and direct their followers in all ways to being lesser than they could otherwise be. What’s particularly sickening is that they disguise their disregard (or malice) for the lives of their followers as something akin to love which confuses the hell out of people who don’t have the understanding neccessary to sort out their emotions. Guilt and Anger make a nasty cocktail, do they not?

    Don’t read what I’ve said as a general statement of approval for how you and fellow leaders within your movement conduct your activism. But do take it as a “thank you” to any atheist (including yourself, perhaps) who is genuinely trying to add fullness to human life. You don’t get the credit from us that you deserve and for that I am sorry.

  9. karmakin says

    @Eric #1, I think it’s that double standard that is key. What we do, generally speaking (there are exceptions of course, but there are ALWAYS exceptions) generally speaking is very moderate when you look at the whole world of communications out there. Atheists usually don’t do anything more extreme or aggressive, in one way or another, than any other group trying to get their message out there. Like I said there are exceptions but generally this is the case.

    But, it’s not like this privilege is extended to a lot of other things either. Or at least it’s nowhere as strong. So that goes back to the core point. What is it about atheism? Hell, it’s not even just religion at this point. Nobody has a qualm about converting people from one religion to another.

    It’s the simple question of Theism/Atheism. The very root. The bigger problem is that there’s not a single answer to this. I think in the West, the major dominant religions generally have baked inside them the concepts of social dominance, and as such they feel as though Atheism is an active threat to this sort of social dominance. There’s also the after-effects of the Great Red Scare, which has atheism linked to totalitarianism. I also think that we poke soft spots in a lot of erstwhile allies who have entirely different concepts of god, who equate their god with the “universe” or “love” or whatever. So how can we say that they don’t exist? Obviously it does.

    But in the end, the increasing pushback against secularism isn’t about Christianity or Islam or whatever. It’s about the idea that by saying that it doesn’t exist we undermine the “glory of god”. At the end of the day I think everything comes back to that. Especially in Western Christianity there’s been a significant cultural evolution away from the teachings of Jesus and towards a much more tighter focus on the deity itself. We can see that in multiple places, not just the focused opposition to secularism, but also things such as much more punitive economic policies.

  10. JayBo says

    The closest I have come to an answer of why I can’t debate religion with my Mom and two sisters is, “when I insist on talking about facts with them, it hurts their feelings”.

    That is much like Greta’s one crappy answer, in that it actually supports why we SHOULD be discussing religion. If the facts hurt your feelings, it could be a sign that your feelings might very well be misplaced. And yes, it hurts to be disillusioned but that requires operating under an illusion in the first place, doesn’t it?

    The fact that our species spends so much time and energy acting as our feelings – and whims and impulses and moods – dictate support my theory that we are not an intelligent species. We have the potential to evolve into one if we don’t mess things up completely, but right now? Nah.

  11. Greta Christina says

    Suppose you are arguing with someone who thinks she will go to Hell, and be punished eternally, unless she follows the dictates of her religion. You think she’s wrong. But if she is right, you would be doing her an infinite harm by convincing her otherwise. If there is any finite chance of her being right, should not that make you hesitate?

    David Evans @ #2: The essence of this argument is that you shouldn’t try to persuade people that you’re right if you might be mistaken and you might be doing them harm in persuading others into your mistaken idea.

    To which I would respond, yet again: Why should religion be the exception? People persuade other people into mistaken and harmful ideas all the time: about politics, science, medicine, etc. And we still don’t consider it a bad idea on the face of it to persuade people out of their ideas about politics, science, medicine, etc. We target the specific mistaken idea that someone’s persuading other people into. We might even excoriate the person if they didn’t do a careful enough job making sure their idea was right before persuading other people into it. But we don’t consider the very idea of this kind of persuasion to be wicked or rude. Except for religion. Why should it be the exception?

  12. says

    @jamessweet — I don’t know why Greta didn’t mention it here, but she has written on the topic. See The Santa Delusion: Why “Religion Is Useful” Is a Terrible Argument For Religion.

    ——–

    @rapiddominance — First of all, thank you for your acknowledgement and appreciation of the efforts by (many) atheists who are “genuinely trying to add fullness to human life.” As one such, I’m glad to hear it’s valued.

    However, I do want to highlight one point about your response:

    I would like to answer your question to your “satisfaction” (as if I have any clue what will satisfy you).

    Religion should NOT be the exception.

    I hope you realize that this falls into the category of “not an answer”, as you are saying that the exception for religion shouldn’t apply. As such, we’ve still only seen two answers (David Evans’s, above, and the one Greta mentioned).

  13. David Evans says

    Greta Christina @11: I am at least 99% in agreement with you on this. I don’t see why religion should get a free pass, and I don’t consider criticism of it to be necessarily wicked or rude.

    However I can just imagine my hypothetical Christian saying to me “You have convinced me that the probability of my religion being true is very low. For me the prospect of eternal suffering in Hell is so dreadful that I’m not willing to take even the remotest chance of experiencing it, and I therefore choose to stick with my religion.” I’m not sure how much further I should take the argument.

    JesseW @6: I agree that human beings, being animals with a finite lifespan, cannot experience an infinite harm. But that’s because I’m an atheist. A Christian, believing she has an immortal soul, must believe in the possibility of infinite harm – or, at least, a harm incomparably greater than anything that can happen in this life.

  14. Greta Christina says

    However I can just imagine my hypothetical Christian saying to me “You have convinced me that the probability of my religion being true is very low. For me the prospect of eternal suffering in Hell is so dreadful that I’m not willing to take even the remotest chance of experiencing it, and I therefore choose to stick with my religion.” I’m not sure how much further I should take the argument.

    Point them here: Why It’s Not a “Safer Bet” to Believe In God, or, Why Pascal’s Wager Sucks.

  15. godlesspanther says

    There are quite a few ideas swirling around here.

    We have tradition. Traditionally religion — specifically Christianity in the US — has been considered a kind of safety zone. Like it’s a game and someone can run to the religion square and — can’t get me here, that would be no fair. SO the question, for me, becomes — should people be given a safety zone for their ideas? I say no. I don’t have one, and as a skeptic, I don’t think that I ought to have one. Skepticism makes all, every single idea, fair game.

    Another aspect is that it demonstrates just how fragile religious ideology is. Scientific constructs have to stand up to relentless investigation. Political, artistic, philosophical constructs the same — if it does not stand up to the most brutal criticism then it’s not good enough. There are high, high, standards that have been established for ideas that contain merit on their own. If it’s good enough it needs no special protection.

    Religion still exists because of the special protection that it has. Religion has been logically, philosophically, scientifically obsolete for eons. When something serves no real purpose, does not add anything to society, and becomes more of a burden then an asset — it vanishes. The only reason that religion has survived is because of all the extra protection that it receives.

    THat is why we are a threat — a real threat to the survival of religious ideology. If it’s fair game, if it’s expected to stand up to any real standards, or be proven useful — it’s dead.

  16. Gregory in Seattle says

    People give religion a free ride with the understanding that their own orthodoxy/orthopraxy will get the same; if you don’t challenge the beliefs of another, your beliefs are safe from challenge.

    I think that is why atheists are so universally hated: we welcome the discussion, and have no problem challenging others’ beliefs.

  17. Brice Gilbert says

    There is no logically consistent reason, but I think in America a significant contribution to the difference has been the first amendment. The first amendment and the separation of church and state have made religion a separate/special entirety different from all other thought. You see this when people try to get religious policy in the government/classrooms. Many people try to use the legal defense instead of promoting the true reason. That it’s bullshit. Policy in government and education should be based on what is likely, but we know all to well that a lot of people don’t give a shit. The legal defense ends up being our only course of action. I’m not saying we should remove the separation, because removing it would just create other problems of course. I just think people should be more open with this clear difference between religious/bad ideas and justified/good ones.

  18. frankmitchell says

    You generally can’t argue logically about a belief that isn’t logical to begin with. This applies especially to religion, which people hold onto for various illogical reasons:

    1. Their fathers and grandmothers and families held these beliefs as true. Turning away from religion is turning away from those who raised and nurtured them. A recent religion class I took noted that the root word for “religion” might be the Latin word for “bind” or “yoke”; religion ties families and communities together, and repudiating religion is considered antisocial.

    2. People don’t want to believe that their life will simply stop, or that there’s no grander meaning to it all, or that the universe is unjust. Because they want to believe it, they do.

    3. Converts, especially, cling to their newfound belief because it got them over a personal crisis, it gave them a new community and a new sense of belonging, or it just feels right. Suggesting that Jesus / Allah / Buddha did not save them or that Heaven / Enlightenment doesn’t exist threatens the very things that keep them sober, sane, or happy.

    But religious belief is sometimes beyond even this sort of analysis. A former co-worker once described a possibly apocryphal experiment on a group of monkeys (maybe apes). In one corner hung a treat like a banana. If any monkey approached the corner, the experimenters sprayed all the monkeys with copious amounts of ice water. Then the experimenters removed one monkey from the original group and added a new one. When the new monkey went for the banana the others beat the holy hell out of him, and he learned to avoid that tempting banana. The experimenters kept exchanging monkeys from the original group with new monkeys. Even a group which had never felt the hose still battered new guys until they learned not to approach the banana.

    That is religion.

  19. Marty says

    similar to why it is impolite to tell people their mother or their significant other is flawed (unless there’s a strong reason to do so).

  20. analog2000 says

    I have always been an atheist, but it was only a few months ago that I saw the stupidity in treating religion like it was special in the “marketplace of ideas.” And it finally dawned on me BECAUSE I read one of your earlier posts, Greta. So thank you! I have no idea why I too believed it was impolite to discuss religion. I guess it is just the cultural norm, and I fell for it. No idea why that one stuck when actually believing in God didn’t! So I just wanted to say thank you, thank you, thank you! Your blog helped me so much in this regard!

  21. jamessweet says

    similar to why it is impolite to tell people their mother or their significant other is flawed (unless there’s a strong reason to do so).

    In a different world, I would actually agree with this. For example, we could imagine a distant future in which the only “religions” to speak of were stuff like UUs and Quakers and non-dogmatic Buddhists and such, and where many people still sort of had a vague pantheism-like spirituality. In such a world, it might be valid for people’s personal pantheistic beliefs to be off the table, just as it would be off the table to tell anyone other than a very close personal friend that her spouse has an annoying voice, for example.

    Actually, there is a couple whom my wife and I are friends with, whose beliefs I basically sort of feel this way about. They are vaguely pantheistic, but they (and especially the husband) are about as anti-theistic as I am when it comes to conventional religion, a personal god, etc. I’m not really inclined to disabuse them of their pantheism, because although I suppose it’s a little silly, it really doesn’t matter at all.

    If religion were really truly personal, and really had no more personal impact than, say, having an accurate perception of how annoying your spouse’s voice is, then in that case I sort of agree that it could be left alone. That’s just not the world we live in, though.

  22. Ganner says

    I don’t think there is any one answer to this because I think there is more than one question, depending on whether we’re talking about the fundamentalists or, to use Christian terms, the lukewarm masses.

    To fundamentalists, anyone challenging their ideas is an attacker, a threat, an evil force. So we fall into that category. They get to try to change minds because they’re fighting for truth, and righteousness, and everyone trying to convince otherwise is a evil.

    To the lukewarm masses, proselytizing from many angles got so annoying that a social norm was developed that you don’t talk about religion, and everyone just believes what they want. I don’t bother you, you don’t bother me. We throw a wrench in this agreement. We do it for good reason – religion MATTERS, it’s having an influence on government and other social institutions and personal behaviors. It shouldn’t be overlooked and ignored. And, a line I often use, if they (the lukewarm ones) aren’t going to speak out against and restrain the fundamentalists and the damage they do, then they need to shut up and get out of our way while we do it, and accept any incidental damage to their religious sensibilities that results.

  23. Greta Christina says

    You generally can’t argue logically about a belief that isn’t logical to begin with.

    frankmitchell @ #18: Sure you can. We do it all the time. Ask any good-sized group of atheists which of them used to be believers. And then ask that group if they were persuaded out of their beliefs, at least in part, by ideas and arguments made by other atheists. I’ll bet you that in almost all cases, you’ll get a significant number who say that they were. The arguments can and do work. They just don’t usually work right away, all by themselves, in the course of one conversation.

    similar to why it is impolite to tell people their mother or their significant other is flawed (unless there’s a strong reason to do so).

    Marty @ #19: Why is that a good analogy? Religion is an idea about how the world works. It’s not a human being in your life. We criticize other kinds of ideas. Why should this one be off-limits?

  24. AJG says

    Frankly, I too am at a loss. There is no reason no to. Me and my partner have often wondered. If it were not for it being such a strong social influence on the individual in many cases to the point of being the dominating force in all aspects of one’s life I would be hard pressed to see any reason it should not be considered a form of magical thinking or some other mental illness. I understand the powerful form of socialization that happens in a total institution like religion so I do not go so far as to say that; the social is very powerful in conception and construction of reality. Nonetheless, whenever I meet a religious person I truly like but I find out a little while later that they are religious I get a mix of sadness, being let down, and pity for them because they are unwell and it is hard to see them another way after that. However, most people do not feel that way at all. In fact, most think I am the one who is unwell because of my beliefs. It is because religion is both so pervasive and integrated into the vast majority that it is not ok to question it. It is so ingrained into the socially constructed nature of reality that even for the casual observer of religion (the person who may have never even set foot in a church but still claims a denomination) the starting point for all other conceptions they develop is that that much is correct. This social force goes beyond the unthinking who just go along with the majority. Sadly, it is strong enough that even many brilliant, otherwise inquiring minds can turn a blind. It is the smart ones in particular that disturb me, it has got to be as close as one can get to witnessing the process of doublethink with how they twist their knowledge and faith in the most obscene ways to make them fit together. Anyhow, I suppose what I am getting at is the two aforementioned factors are probably the main issues here. The number of people who participate and the starting assumption that above all else that belief in god is correct. Compounding this is that many religious people truly seem to think that all religion is composed of is pure wisdom and love and they do not see the damage and negative effects, not when it is voiced to them and not even when they are the target of religious hatred or violence. Then it becomes all about how barbaric this uncivilized, other religion is. A final problem is that since religion is so sensitive it is one of those keep it pg, politically correct things. Even referencing it can cause trouble as a result, unless of course your religion happens to be the hegemonic one and you are blindly (though sometimes arrogantly as well) letting slip some comment that exposes your privilege.

  25. rapiddominance says

    JesseW

    I think I understand your point about #8 being “not an answer”.

    Remember, however, that your community is bombarded with protests all the time about its deliberate attempts to inform people about the ‘perils of religion’.

    Sometimes, the critics are arguing against the methodology of atheist activism.

    In other cases, they’re arguing against the fact that you take part in activism, whatsoever.

    We see positive and negative tactics used by both sides at times if we’re honest about it. There is no need for us at THIS moment to argue over who is worse. What is important is to note that tactical criticism is a complicated, never ending process that occurs on a case-by-case basis.

    The nature of my response implies my position that the stated question has a false premise IF its examined holistically.

    As a theist, I object that either our belief systems or our behavior should be excepted from your critical analysis. I also wanted to make sure and clarify that your criticism can, and often does, have a positive effect on both the theistic communities and the world, as well.

    Thanks for the response.

  26. Bill Goodwin says

    I’m still not sure I understand the question. Religion is routinely criticized, and the secularists I know (I am nominally one myself) become nearly apoplectic when any attempt is made to question materialism. Apparently a person must either disavow any notion of ineffable causes, or be considered a Pat Robertson Bible-thumper. The mere suggestion that the conversation might be interesting, or even useful, seems to provoke more rage in atheists than in anyone else…an attitude I’d normally associate with ecclesiastical authorities. I was “unfriended” by an atheist earlier today, simply for asking a sincere question. She said I was being argumentitive, and proceeded to make bizarre accusations about a photograph on my page–apparently mistaking a resistance fighter in unisex clothing for a “woman in chains” (?), and holding this up as evidence that I’d been brainwashed by a male-dominator paradigm. I was confused and hurt. My question is: Are there any sane atheists? Can a person who is NOT a Born-Again-Zombie muse out loud that the deafness is often unilateral, without being instantly vilified as an anti-rationalist? Or is secularity only for show, and atheism just a sophmoric reaction to the lunacy of traditional dogmas?

  27. ambassadorfromverdammt says

    However I can just imagine my hypothetical Christian saying to me “You have convinced me that the probability of my religion being true is very low. For me the prospect of eternal suffering in Hell is so dreadful that I’m not willing to take even the remotest chance of experiencing it, and I therefore choose to stick with my religion.” I’m not sure how much further I should take the argument.

    You can lead a horse to water . . .
    An unsuccessful persuasion attempt does not suggest the attempt should not be made.

    Several people have made good points explaining why many (most?) religious people do not want their religion criticized, but so far, no valid reasons why religion should be exempted from criticism.

    I don’t think there is one.

  28. flek says

    My guess would be fear of death, certainty and ‘secret’ knowledge. Which may be just from my experiences dealing with the christian flavors of the religious. It’s always those things that they fixate on when selling it. They tell me they have the key to the universe and that they’ll share it with me, that it is infallible and divine in origin so I can have absolute faith in what it tells me to do, and that not only will I not cease to exist when I die but they have the secret handshake that’ll get me into an eternal sky resort rather than suffering in eternal torment.

    As much as I don’t really fear ceasing to be when I die, would rather have science than faith and know their book is the writings of men I see people for whom it’s more than a secret handshake. That somehow this serves a deep need in people. Deep enough that shaking it by arguing against it is a taboo. You’re arguing against their comfort, their unchanging rock that when things go wrong they hold on to, and taking away this book that they’re building a community around. You offer them uncomfortable truth, unflattering truth, and you put their fairy tales on the same shelf as other widely read fiction.

    And it puts them in tribal warfare mode.

  29. julian says

    Religion is routinely criticized, and the secularists I know (I am nominally one myself) become nearly apoplectic when any attempt is made to question materialism.

    Yeah, religion is so totally routinely criticized at my workplace where everyone but a handful feel ‘because it’s my faith’ is enough reason to deny gays the right to marry and will call you intolerant for pointing out how flimsy a justification (and immoral a command) that is.

  30. N. Nescio says

    I’m still not sure I understand the question. Religion is routinely criticized, and the secularists I know (I am nominally one myself) become nearly apoplectic when any attempt is made to question materialism.

    Can you please give an example of an attempt to question materialism? Perhaps share your sincere question?

  31. says

    I’ve only been given one argument for treating religion with kid gloves, and it wasn’t too good of one if you look at it from a secular mindset. When I told my mother I was atheist she was upset, of course she, being catholic, was upset that I was now apparently going to hell, but she was further upset to hear that I was letting go of my ancestors. She believes that my grandmother, great grandmother, aunts and uncles are all waiting for me in heaven, and to tell her that I am an atheist was to tell her that I am willing to let all of them go forever.

    Long story short: when trying to persuade someone out of a religion (at least one that has the notion of an afterlife) you’re also telling them that everyone they ever held dear is gone, not only from this world, but forever. They can go through stages of grief just like they’ve died all over again. So this puts religion at a place where we have to be careful not to step on toes in the emotional realm for fear of hurting other people.

    Like I said, not a good argument (you shouldn’t let someone believe something just because it makes them feel good) but the only one that’s made a lick of sense to me.

  32. naath says

    I think you’re wrong that we (society) think it is reasonable to persuade people out of other-sorts-of-belief – there are lots of things that I consider it would be really rude to start arguing with people about in situations that aren’t clearly designated for arguing about them in. I really do think it’s rude to go around barging into other people’s spaces to tell them that they are WRONG WRONG WRONG regardless of how wrong they are. Of course “my blog” is not “other people’s spaces” it’s my space, and people who don’t want to read it can just screw off (disclosure: “my blog” to the extent it exists at all is mostly drivel about boring stuff I have done).

    Also I think that religious ideas don’t stand alone – people with religious beliefs are usually part of a religious community, often one that they have been part of since birth, often one that they find supportive and friendly. When you say to someone “your belief is incorrect” you aren’t just asking them to re-think their ideas, you are asking them to leave behind their community, perhaps their family, most of their friends… (some political ideas come close to this level of social entrenchment as well). That’s a big ask. Which isn’t to say you shouldn’t ever ask – but it is to say that it’s a different sort of thing than asking someone to rethink taking homeopathy.

  33. Snoof says

    I get the “Religion Cocaine makes people happy and why would you take that away from them” answer a lot…

    It more or less answers itself, surely.

  34. says

    I think you’re wrong that we (society) think it is reasonable to persuade people out of other-sorts-of-belief – there are lots of things that I consider it would be really rude to start arguing with people about in situations that aren’t clearly designated for arguing about them in.

    naath @ #32: Red herring. That’s about which situations it’s appropriate to argue in — not which topics it’s appropriate to argue about. And it was addressed in the piece. “We might have issues with exactly how this persuasion is carried out: is it done politely or rudely, reasonably or hysterically, did you really have to bring it up at Thanksgiving dinner, etc. But the basic idea of trying to convince other people that your ideas are right and theirs are wrong… this is not controversial.”

    I really do think it’s rude to go around barging into other people’s spaces to tell them that they are WRONG WRONG WRONG regardless of how wrong they are.

    Again — red herring. The same one, in fact, about which situations it’s appropriate to argue in — not which topics it’s appropriate to argue about. And again, addressed in the piece. “Not to mention the little matter of knocking on people’s doors at eight o’clock on Saturday morning. It’s no wonder people are resistant to it. But if that’s not what atheists are advocating?”

    Also I think that religious ideas don’t stand alone – people with religious beliefs are usually part of a religious community, often one that they have been part of since birth, often one that they find supportive and friendly. When you say to someone “your belief is incorrect” you aren’t just asking them to re-think their ideas, you are asking them to leave behind their community, perhaps their family, most of their friends…

    And once again — addressed in the piece.

    “Now, of course, religion is more than just an idea. People build communities, personal identities, support systems, coping mechanisms, entire life philosophies, around their religious beliefs.

    “But people build identities around other ideas, too. People have intense political identities, for instance: people are often deeply attached to their identity as a progressive, a Republican or a libertarian. People build communities around these ideas, and support systems, and coping mechanisms, and life philosophies. And we still think it’s entirely valid, and even positively worthwhile, to try to change people’s minds about these ideas if we think they’re wrong.

    “Why should religion be any different?”

  35. says

    Long story short: when trying to persuade someone out of a religion (at least one that has the notion of an afterlife) you’re also telling them that everyone they ever held dear is gone, not only from this world, but forever. They can go through stages of grief just like they’ve died all over again. So this puts religion at a place where we have to be careful not to step on toes in the emotional realm for fear of hurting other people.

    Trevor @ #31: Addressed in the piece.

    “It’s also the case that letting go of religious beliefs can be upsetting, even traumatic. In the short term anyway. Most atheists say that they’re happy to have let go of their religion… but many do go through a short period of trauma while they’re letting go.

    “But it can be upsetting, and even traumatic, to let go of all kinds of ideas. It can be upsetting and traumatic to learn that the clothes and chocolate and electronics you’re buying are made by slave labor; that the food you’re feeding your children is bad for them; that you have unconscious racist or sexist attitudes; that driving your car is contributing to global climate change and the possible permanent destruction of the environment.

    “And yet we still think it’s valid, and even positively worthwhile, to try to change people’s minds about these ideas if we think they’re wrong.

    “Why should religion be any different?”

  36. says

    People give religion a free ride with the understanding that their own orthodoxy/orthopraxy will get the same; if you don’t challenge the beliefs of another, your beliefs are safe from challenge… I think that is why atheists are so universally hated: we welcome the discussion, and have no problem challenging others’ beliefs.

    I do think this is a pretty significant component of it.

    Any given member of any religion may or may not know on some level their religion is codswallop. But they do almost certainly know, if they’ve ever tried to defend it logically, what a hard row to hoe that can be.

    And anyone who’s thought about their religion much at all just to rationalize it to themselves has probably bumped into all sorts of problems they’ve had to wiggle around some way or other. There’s tons of expertise around that can help them with that, sure, and a (generally unsatisfying) answer ready for every objection they’re likely to raise*, but anyone who thought about it much at all probably had doubts, at some point, accordingly.

    So their deal is going to be to try to shy away from those uncomfortable places where they have to think about that. And they understand too well: talking with someone else even from your own religious community has some moderate hazards (even doing that can bring you up against contradictions you’re shying away from), but generally, it’s safe enough… You’re in this together. But getting into it with anyone not in your community, no, you don’t want that. You know they can make trouble for you, ask you questions either that a) you can’t answer or b) you can answer, but you’ll feel somewhat embarrassed answering as you’ve learned to do.

    So there’s a sort of Mutually Assured Destruction pact going on between disparate cosmologies of that character. You don’t make me squirm, I won’t make you squirm, and we’ll both be rather less uncomfortable for it.

    (*/Let’s make this properly picturesque: they asked a question something like: ”Kay… let’s get this straight… The god created the world perfect but we still sinned, notwithstanding that we were part of his perfect creation… And now the plan is he sacrifices himself… Kinda to himself, hrm… And apparently that was logically his plan all along somehow… As a replacement for our imperfection… Notwithstanding it’s his fucking universe… And remains dead for three days… For some reason he gets around to this somewhere the iron age, specifically, notwithstanding he’s all like eternal ‘n shit…’, and had their bible study leader say something like ‘Well, God is mysterious, doncha know!’)

  37. johnchx says

    I think the key concept here is the Ecumenical Mutual Non-Aggression Pact (EMNAP). Under EMNAP, religions and religious denominations have agreed to stop tearing each other apart — as was their custom — and instead to focus their disapproval solely on unbelief per se. So Christians in polite company refrain from mentioning the business about Jews literally murdering God, and Protestants refrain from calling Catholics “papists,” and the Lutherans who accept the doctrine of apostolic succession refrain from pointing out that the marriages of Lutherans who don’t follow apostolic succession are invalid so they’re a bunch of fornicators, and so forth. In theory, every religion can join EMNAP — though it’s not always smooth, see LDS Church.

    EMNAP is therefore not first and foremost about “outlawing” criticism of religion by atheists; it’s about outlawing criticisms of religions by one another. But the result, of course, is that the one and only doctrine which may be criticized in polite company is atheism.

    I first really understood what being an atheist in the U.S. meant about thirty years ago, while still in high school, when an acquaintance noted that “All of the world’s religions agree on one thing: that the atheists are wrong.” Unity on that point, and the suppression of open discussion about everything else (at least in mixed company) are the foundations of tolerance of religions by one another.

  38. eric says

    Greta:

    “But it can be upsetting, and even traumatic, to let go of all kinds of ideas. It can be upsetting and traumatic to learn that the clothes and chocolate and electronics you’re buying are made by slave labor; that the food you’re feeding your children is bad for them; that you have unconscious racist or sexist attitudes; that driving your car is contributing to global climate change and the possible permanent destruction of the environment.

    “And yet we still think it’s valid, and even positively worthwhile, to try to change people’s minds about these ideas if we think they’re wrong.

    Hmmm…I would be careful with this argument. There’s an opportunity cost associated with behavior-changing conversations – you can’t have all of them with a particular individual; you have to prioritize which will make the biggest behavioral difference. Consider (illustrative example) someone who imports siberian tiger pelts, drives a 5 mpg car, and goes to church once per year on Christmas where they give a $20 donation. If you claim your goal is to change behavior for the better and make a real world impact, then someone could counter that by saying: trying to deconvert such a person should arguably be third on the list of topics you discuss with them.

    There’s many such milquetoast believers (though hopefully none that import tiger pelts :)). The ‘argument from impact’ would imply you shouldn’t be trying to deconvert them at all. The behavioral change you will get is too insignificant; there is always going to be some other topic (purchase choice, etc.) more worth your time.

    Point being: I wouldn’t use such an ‘argument from impact’ unless you’re willing to forego religious arguments any time some non-religious argument would make more behavioral difference.

  39. Marty says

    With ideas like child labor or nutrition you can possibly argue from evidence. There is no similar position of agreed-on information from which you can argue against religion.
    And it can be impossible to convince someone that their ideas on health are based on incorrect info (e.g. homeopathy, some extreme diets).
    People don’t like being told they are wrong. People who think they are in loving relationships with their idea of gods can have strong emotions about their gods just as they do about family members, These emotions can make them vulnerable to disagreement and/or can make them defensive or aggressive about their beliefs. In most cases, is there an clear benefit to the believing person in giving up that person’s belief? For society in general maybe yes, but for many individuals I don’t see it. (This is not an argument.)

  40. Anri says

    Bill:

    I’m still not sure I understand the question. Religion is routinely criticized,

    And such questioning is routinely considered rude, terrible, and evil. There’s even a specific term to doing so: blasphemy.

    and the secularists I know (I am nominally one myself) become nearly apoplectic when any attempt is made to question materialism.

    Then you really should meet some more sensible people.
    Really.

    Apparently a person must either disavow any notion of ineffable causes, or be considered a Pat Robertson Bible-thumper.

    Well, I can’t speak for your social circle, but I don’t think that.
    On the other hand, I’ve never really gotten a good answer as to why only part of god’s word is correct, or why he messed the other bits up, or how to tell the difference.

    The mere suggestion that the conversation might be interesting, or even useful, seems to provoke more rage in atheists than in anyone else…an attitude I’d normally associate with ecclesiastical authorities.

    *sigh*
    Yes, yes, we’re fundamentalist, dogmatic, intolerant bastards just like those we oppose – the ultimate insult! Why does everyone who says this think it’s clever?
    Just as soon as any theist anywhere brings decent evidence of their god to the table (or even produces a reasonable, verifiable definition of their god), I’m all ears. Until then, they’re asking me to listen to their fanfic about bowing down to the Easter Bunny, and I’m not interested.

    I was “unfriended” by an atheist earlier today, simply for asking a sincere question.

    No chance we actually get to hear this question, I presume?

    She said I was being argumentitive, and proceeded to make bizarre accusations about a photograph on my page–apparently mistaking a resistance fighter in unisex clothing for a “woman in chains” (?), and holding this up as evidence that I’d been brainwashed by a male-dominator paradigm. I was confused and hurt.

    The plural of ‘anecdote’ is not ‘data’.

    My question is: Are there any sane atheists? Can a person who is NOT a Born-Again-Zombie muse out loud that the deafness is often unilateral, without being instantly vilified as an anti-rationalist?

    Feel free to muse out loud as much as you want.
    However, if you want to be taken seriously, you’ll have to actually bring something serious. Most theists seem to find this extremely challenging.
    Can we hope you’re the exception?

    Or is secularity only for show, and atheism just a sophmoric reaction to the lunacy of traditional dogmas?

    Again, I can’t speak for the people you choose to associate with, but it’s not for me. But don’t take my word for it – bring your terrific, sensible, armor-piercing argumetns for god, and I’ll give ‘em a once-over.
    To put it another way – if you want to be thought of as the voice of rationality, you have to earn that. You can’t just proclaim the title for yourself.

  41. mnb0 says

    @30 Nescio: it’s in Dutch, but given your pseudonym you might be able to read it:

    http://gjerutten.blogspot.com/search/label/materialisme

    One can formulate an atheist version of this criticism as well.
    1. Materialism supposes that everything in the Universe can be reduced to matter.
    2. To understand the Universe materialism uses the scientific method.
    3. The scientific method is amongst others based on Popper’s falsification principle.
    4. Popper’s falsification principle can’t be falsified itself, thus is metaphysical, thus can’t be reduced to something material.
    5. Materialism contradicts itself.

    The solution is a mathematical approach. Define the metaphysical reality as a mathematical set of non-testable statements. Materialism wants to put as few of those statements in that set as possible, in other words to remove everything not strictly necessary. The argument for this is Ockham’s Razor.
    I think this is a more solid foundation of materialism than the pure approach, even if it’s a concession.

  42. mnb0 says

    Ah, forgot to address Nescio’s main point.
    Such criticism of materialism never upsets materialists. How typical.

  43. Bruce Gorton says

    David Evans

    Nope.

    Lets just grant, for the sake of argument, that the said God exists, and not worshipping it will result in you going to hell for all eternity.

    Consider, this is a being so capricious that it demands belief in it without evidence, or it will send you to hell for all eternity.

    This is a being so insecure that it would send you to hell for all eternity – simply for not agreeing with it.

    This is a being so vicious that it created hell specifically so that it could torture, for all eternity, the souls of those who do not believe in it.

    And every other soul in heaven, is the soul of someone okay with their friends, relatives and children burning in hell for all eternity for guessing the wrong god – or that there isn’t one.

    Every. Other. Soul.

    Suddenly heaven doesn’t look so good now does it?

  44. says

    Once in a while, I come across alties who complain about my “cultural imperialism” when I question the efficacy of some traditional medicine. It often leads into similar rhetoric.

    Of course, I don’t advocate erasing all records of religion or traditional practices. It’s a part of our history as a species. Moving to a better future and encouraging rational thought doesn’t mean erasing the past. Everyone should be able to have a good quality of life, and we should encourage cultures to evolve, not to stagnate.

  45. Anri says

    Of course, I don’t advocate erasing all records of religion or traditional practices. It’s a part of our history as a species. Moving to a better future and encouraging rational thought doesn’t mean erasing the past. Everyone should be able to have a good quality of life, and we should encourage cultures to evolve, not to stagnate.

    It sounds like the people arguing the ‘cultural imperalism’ thing have trouble telling the difference between dynamiting a plantation house on the one hand and practicing slavery on the other. Preserving cultural identity does not mean forever bowing to it.

  46. viaten says

    It seems some believers are more critical of and more offended by atheists than believers of other religions who might even use atheist arguments, for example against Jesus or Mohammad. Why is that? Is it just believing or not believing in God, any kind God, that makes such a difference? Is it something else or something more?

  47. Brony says

    I have a more simplified take on it. The complicated part is describing it in real world terms.

    The answer is that religion is a very emotionally sensitive topic. Many folks would rather put religion on a “do not touch” pedestal than put up with all of the reaction to religion being criticized. Since much of it has to do with emotion, the responses tend to be emotionally based as well.

    The solution probably has to do with successfully undermining/defusing emotion…

  48. beth says

    Why should religion, alone among all other kinds of ideas, be free from attempts to persuade people out of it?

    First of all, clearly religion is NOT exempt from such attempts. You are as free to persuade others of your beliefs about religion as anyone else on virtually any other subject, at least here in the U.S.A. I think what you are complaining about is the treatment that those who attempt to do so receive. If I am misunderstanding you, please clarify what you are concerned about.

    Second, I don’t see that treatment as being significantly different than the treatment that attempts at political persuasion receive. If anything, from my viewpoint it’s worse for political commentators, but I don’t have access to the full picture of treatment that either type of commentators can receive.

    As evidence for this opinion, I consider the fact that sedition is still considered a crime in most places while blasphemy is not. In addition, It’s viritually impossible to hear public discussion in the mainstream media about solutions that fall outside of the prescribed domain of our two party system. I think your compatriot Mano Singham has written about this deficiency on occasion. Noam Chomski certainly has.

    So, as I see it, religion does NOT get a free ride, at least not compared to politics. Can you explain or justify your claim that there are significantly stiffer penalties for speaking out for atheism versus speaking out for a minority political position? Or that speaking out against religion generates a more significant backlash than speaking out against a current mainstream political position does?

  49. tiadeemer says

    I agree partly with Trevor. It’s not just upsetting, it’s something that shakes some people right down to thier core. I think some people pour a lot of thier identity into certain ideas. Thier whole life is built on these ideas. Sure learning your favorite stuff was made by slave labor is upsetting, but it doesen’t threaten your sense of self. I think that for some people, it is psychologically too much for them to handle to question thier sense of self. It can make them feel like thier whole world is coming apart, like they are going crazy.

    I don’t think it’s a reason why religion shouldn’t be questioned, I just think maybe it’s one reason why some people put it in that position. Because for them trying to question these deep things has a cost they can’t pay. I think it takes a strong mind to question who you are as a person. What makes me- me. If they don’t have that frame that they have been taught to hang everything on, they just fall apart.

    I think it should absolutely be questioned. People have a chance to clear away everything about themselves that doesn’t come from themself. But it is a difficult thing to do, and takes guts. I have been starting to wonder lately if some things about peoples personalitys are so hardwired that to an extent it is impossible to change them.

    Thankyou for your blog. It is really interesting. As a new atheist you give me a strong woman role model. Thankyou.

  50. says

    In my post above(#31) I’d like to clarify that when I talk about letting go religious beliefs being equivalent to letting go of friends and family that have passed away I mean to point out that fact exclusively. I mean to say that this a separate issue than was addressed in the piece and Greta’s response (comment #35). The idea that it is traumatizing for someone to learn that their imaginary friend is watching their back can be a separate argument from the idea that their long gone friends and family are waiting for them in a room in the sky.

    The human brain is hardwired for social interactions and severing those social ties is in most cases more difficult than severing ties to an invisible creator (because if our brains are, in fact, wired for religion it is at least more superficial than the need for social connection). This makes it traumatizing on a deeper level than learning your iphone was made by slave labor.

    Not saying this makes it okay to handle religion with kid gloves, just trying to postulate as to why we have developed that approach to religion today.

  51. Hanan says

    >Why shouldn’t we criticize it, and make fun of it, and try to persuade people out of it, the way we do with every other kind of idea?

    In a micro sense, because how much do we know of the people you are trying to persuade? Are they married to another religious person? How are they raising their children? In my experience (and personal experience), lives have been nearly destroyed when one person decided to leave their religion. You are forgetting that religion is not JUST an idea like any other idea. It’s a whole life. It’s a whole identity.

    I’m not saying religion shouldn’t be questioned. I’m not saying atheists shouldn’t have their opinions any more or less than theists. I’m saying, you should have a little wisdom before actively trying to persuade any individual out of their religion.

  52. Hanan says

    I see in the rest of your article you spoke about religion being about identity as well. But I think you are totally wrong comparing this with other philosophies like politics. They are not comparable. If you change political leanings, it’s no ultimate biggie. It’s not a matter of ultimate truth and ultimate meaning which hold a special realm in people incomparable to politics.

  53. Boz Haug says

    If I might be so bold as to offer my humble observations…

    I think, Greta, that religion has been labelled “Hands Off” by so many because it is by definition sacred. Some would argue that if there is only one thing that is truly under your own control, that can’t be taken away from you by the government, enemies, or other ne’er-do-wells it’s your “soul,” or whatever label the immortal idea of one’s self is given these days.

    Questioning one’s religious beliefs is therefore tantamount to challenging the Most Important Choice one has made for this thing that we cannot measure, that we must axiomatically assume is there, and that is seemingly entirely ours. It’s not just a matter of something that is wrapped around your identity, as you have pointed out about politics. It’s actually about your identity, or so many would believe.

  54. says

    @41 mnb0
    Popper’s work was extended by Bartley to handle some of these sorts of issues. I suggest reading “The Retreat to Commitment” by W. W. Bartley for anyone seriously interested in the topic. Bartley studied for PHD under Popper.

  55. Londa Sabacthani says

    I think there’s one other kind of idea that gets a free ride.

    To take the classic example, if I meet someone claiming to be Napoleon Bonaparte, I don’t object, “But you are six feet tall, and don’t speak French!” This would only frustrate me, and anger M. Bonaparte. If I did object, then a third party, watching the exchange, might well chide me, “Why do you taunt the poor man so?”

    The analogy is not flattering to the religious, but it may be informative. It suggests that when someone says, “This is my deeply held religious belief,” we may understand them to mean, “This is my irrational idea.” Looked at that way, it’s not surprising that people object to the atheist’s standard method of persuasion. “I told you this is my irrational idea. Why do you insist on reasoning with me about it?” Indeed, to do so seems pointless, and a little rude.

    The problem, of course, is that even irrational ideas have consequences. When M. Bonaparte decrees, say, that I may not marry the person of my choice, only the most callous, or the similarly delusional, would suggest that I humor him. And when he draws his sword to enforce his royal (empirical?) decree, he is not merely irrational, but insane.

    Is it possible to humor the irrational without encouraging the insane?

  56. KG says

    If you change political leanings, it’s no ultimate biggie. – Hanan

    Hogwash. As a democratic ecosocialist and atheist, I’m much better able to work and socialise with those who share my politics but are religious believers than with right-wing atheists.

  57. DiscoveredJoys says

    I can’t say I’ve got the answer, but I do wonder if social mores are not involved.

    A believer is comforted by the certainty of absolute values, absolute morals, absolute standards of behaviour, absolute explanations for bad things happening. All mistaken of course, but at heart an absolute emotional conviction that helps the believer deal with the world.

    Rational arguments are unlikely to affect this mindset unless the believer is willing to give up their absolute certainty. The only other way of changing their convictions is to provide a counter emotional argument, and this is often seen as ‘rude’. Not socially acceptable, crass.

    On one hand you have the believers armoured in their absolutes, and on the other rational people who are not prepared to get down and dirty on the same level. “My God is wonderful” vs “Your idea of god is as useful as dog shit”. I can’t see that working well.

  58. Hanan says

    >Hogwash

    I think you misunderstood.

    I am merely saying one cannot compare politics as someone’s identity to religion being ones identity. As someone commented…it’s like taking away your soul

  59. says

    There are several reasons we should not make fun of religion. Whether religion should or should not be part of the fundamental identity of cultures and individuals, there is no question that it is. When we make fun of Catholicism or Hinduism or Sikhism or anything else we are making jokes that are as focused on cultural and individual identity. We are making the same type of jokes as when we ask how many Poles it takes to screw in a light bulb, do Blacks like watermelon ice cream, was the Jose Jimenez character funny, etc. You may have the constitutional right to make fun of religion, but derisive religious humor is no less objectionable to believers than ethnically derisive jokes. Perhaps it may seem funny to the joke teller, but the punch line is cruel and hurtful to the religious believer. If anything, it widens the gap between believers and non-believers, and does nothing to cause them to see any moral value in non-belief.
    Another reason is that religious jokes usually poke fun at the target’s intelligence. The comedian is funny because his or her circle of friends gets the punch line, while the believers are just too dumb to laugh. If any of us were smart enough to prove the full nature of human existence then there would be no debate, either everyone would be a believer or everyone would be a non-believer. Unless the comedian has bought into the illusion that they understand everything, they are making jokes by labeling a good part of the world as stupid, and that is not funny.
    There is also a line where, if there is a God, humor beyond that line is a rejection of both God and that which is good. Believers and non-believers both intuitively know that there are things which are not only not funny, but are the acceptance of evil clothed in humor.
    Which brings me to the other part of the question, “Why shouldn’t we criticize it, … and try to persuade people out of it, the way we do with every other kind of idea.?” If the non-believer thinks there is a positive, moral, purpose in doing so, then respectful, objective, debate is warranted. Obviously there is a point in any discussion where we reach the current limits of objective understanding. Believers go past that point and argue from faith, non-believers may also venture beyond and argue from intuition or extrapolation. Neither side will be able to prove the other wrong.
    Actually what bothers me the most about humanist arguments that criticize religion is the focus on criticism of what is viewed as other people’s mythology, accompanied by a lack of objective analysis of what existentialism and nihilism mean to humanists. It is as if humanist ”fundamentalism” incorporates without question both meaning and purpose into a purely existential existence. So to the extent that non-believers are free to criticize believers, they should look at their own non-belief systems and explain what the objective consequences of those may be. I have found few who go beyond accepting existential existence based on blind faith in the objective value of it.

  60. fmitchell says

    “You generally can’t argue logically about a belief that isn’t logical to begin with,” said I, and the presumed absurdity of that statement invalidated anything else I said.

    Atheists and other rationalists almost by definition value reason and logic to the point of applying it to nearly everything. Most people don’t. They may reason about mundane things, about domains where they thing reason belongs, but other beliefs — religion, prejudice, global conspiracies — reside in a realm beyond questions and doubts. Arguments may defend these beliefs, but no argument or evidence could ever refute these beliefs … as long as they remain in that exalted realm.

    Our de-conversion began when we yank ideas out of the “unquestionable” realm, or when we realized no such realm exists. Until then they remain irrational, or perhaps pre-rational, supported not by logic or evidence but by feelings, hopes, and childhood indoctrination (a.k.a. behavior modeling).

    So yes, if you hold a belief beyond all logical examination, if you don’t hold intellectual honesty or consistency as values, nobody else’s arguments will make the slightest difference.

  61. KG says

    I am merely saying one cannot compare politics as someone’s identity to religion being ones identity. – Hanan

    And I’m merely saying that’s hogwash. It depends on the person.

  62. KG says

    Paul,

    Most of your post is simply a re-assertion of religious privilege. you can change your religious identity; you can’t change whether you are black. See the difference?

    Actually what bothers me the most about humanist arguments that criticize religion is the focus on criticism of what is viewed as other people’s mythology, accompanied by a lack of objective analysis of what existentialism and nihilism mean to humanists. It is as if humanist ”fundamentalism” incorporates without question both meaning and purpose into a purely existential existence. So to the extent that non-believers are free to criticize believers, they should look at their own non-belief systems and explain what the objective consequences of those may be. I have found few who go beyond accepting existential existence based on blind faith in the objective value of it.

    What a load of dingos’ kidneys. Neither existentialism nor nihilism means anything to me, and as for your babbling about a “purely existential existence”, I haven’t the slightest idea what you mean, and I don’t believe you do either. I neither have nor need “blind faith in the objective value” of anything, because the idea of “objective value” is ridiculous: value is always and necessarily value to some agent – that is, it is subjective.

  63. Anri says

    Paul:

    There are several reasons we should not make fun of religion. Whether religion should or should not be part of the fundamental identity of cultures and individuals, there is no question that it is. When we make fun of Catholicism or Hinduism or Sikhism or anything else we are making jokes that are as focused on cultural and individual identity.

    I was a Christian, now I am atheist.
    Is Christianity a fundamental part of my individual identity?
    What if I had converted at some point to Judaism or Islam or Buddhism?
    What if cultures change? Do they retain their ‘fundamental identity’?

    We are making the same type of jokes as when we ask how many Poles it takes to screw in a light bulb, do Blacks like watermelon ice cream, was the Jose Jimenez character funny, etc. You may have the constitutional right to make fun of religion, but derisive religious humor is no less objectionable to believers than ethnically derisive jokes. Perhaps it may seem funny to the joke teller, but the punch line is cruel and hurtful to the religious believer. If anything, it widens the gap between believers and non-believers, and does nothing to cause them to see any moral value in non-belief.

    Here’s a clue that making fun of Christianity is not the same as making fun of blacks:
    Ask someone to stop being black.

    Got the difference?

    (Also, it’s worth noting that the goalposts have shifted from ‘making fun of religion’ to ‘making fun of religious people’. There’s a substantial difference there,too, one that many theists can’t/won’t/don’t get.)

    Another reason is that religious jokes usually poke fun at the target’s intelligence. The comedian is funny because his or her circle of friends gets the punch line, while the believers are just too dumb to laugh. If any of us were smart enough to prove the full nature of human existence then there would be no debate, either everyone would be a believer or everyone would be a non-believer. Unless the comedian has bought into the illusion that they understand everything, they are making jokes by labeling a good part of the world as stupid, and that is not funny.

    Telling someone who believes in a stupid, non-nonsensical thing that they believe in a stupid, non-nonsensical things is not harmed by the introduction of humor.
    I know a number of smart theists. But all theists are, by definition, deluded about theism.

    There is also a line where, if there is a God, humor beyond that line is a rejection of both God and that which is good. Believers and non-believers both intuitively know that there are things which are not only not funny, but are the acceptance of evil clothed in humor.

    So, if we assume the existence of a god, mocking god is evil.
    Um, ok.
    What if we go with reality and assume the nonexistence of god?

    Which brings me to the other part of the question, “Why shouldn’t we criticize it, … and try to persuade people out of it, the way we do with every other kind of idea.?” If the non-believer thinks there is a positive, moral, purpose in doing so, then respectful, objective, debate is warranted. Obviously there is a point in any discussion where we reach the current limits of objective understanding. Believers go past that point and argue from faith, non-believers may also venture beyond and argue from intuition or extrapolation. Neither side will be able to prove the other wrong.

    And as soon as every single religion ceases to make truth claims about their religion, we’ll be at that point. Since every religion I am aware of makes some sort of claim to the reality of their beliefs, we’re nowhere near there yet.

    Actually what bothers me the most about humanist arguments that criticize religion is the focus on criticism of what is viewed as other people’s mythology, accompanied by a lack of objective analysis of what existentialism and nihilism mean to humanists. It is as if humanist ”fundamentalism” incorporates without question both meaning and purpose into a purely existential existence. So to the extent that non-believers are free to criticize believers, they should look at their own non-belief systems and explain what the objective consequences of those may be. I have found few who go beyond accepting existential existence based on blind faith in the objective value of it.

    Ok, since you apparently have looked at these ramifications (because otherwise, you’re just engaging in verbal scaremongering about some sort of bad thing maybe), lay it out for us.
    What are these consequences of humanist thought that are so much worse than following god’s commands to hate gays, to ignore the world as unimportant, to hunger for death, to subjugate women, to avidly await the extinction of mankind?

    Enlighten me, I’m listening.

  64. Anri says

    Not to gratuitously double-post, but who wants to take odds that we’ll see no more of a response from Paul than we did from Bill, upthread?

  65. Marty says

    Greta, I’m not clear on who the ‘we’ is in your post, and who the different audiences might be for the critical arguments against religion. Some hypothetical examples would help.

  66. Dana Gower says

    I’m coming to this late and I certainly haven’t read all the comments, so if this is totally redundant, forgive me.
    I think part of the answer to your question may be in the way the discussion about religion is being phrased.
    When a religious person wants to discuss/spread his/her religion, they speak of why it has been positive to them. Whether there is any factual or provable basis to their claim doesn’t matter (to them). Within their framework, it is true.
    An atheist, denying religion is true, as you have said, can only say, “Evidence that exists within my value system strongly indicates you are wrong.” But they can’t prove it 100 percent, even within their own value system. And for a person who rejects that value system entirely, the argument pretty much ends there.
    On the other hand, an atheist can argue points within his own value system (which you would call science, logic, that-which-can-be-seen-surrounding-us)and point out positive advantages for believing in it. This seems to me to be an argument that is both valid and valuable (in terms of advancing his own world view).
    The idea of evolution has made its way into religious thought. I think even the Vatican has accepted evolution, (but I could be wrong here). There are scientists who are religious, so, obviously, science had spread into the religious community.
    And there are formerly religious people who have changed their world view based on being introduced to new thoughts about science, logic and whatever else.
    There is the old saying, “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” I don’t think saying, “You’re wrong” ever works well. Saying, “These are great ideas you might want to consider” works much better. And the fact that there are formerly religious people shows that such an approach does, or at least can, work.
    On the other hand, it should be accepted that religious people also want to spread their world view. That is called dialogue, which, I think, has advantages for both sides.

  67. Marty says

    (I didn’t read the last paragraph clearly and didn’t realize there was a lot more of this essay on the other site. So my questions above were uninformed.)

  68. bubblewrap74 says

    I think criticizing religious belief has become taboo because religious people don’t see their ideas as being “just” ideas, it is part of their identity. To them, I think, saying “don’t be religious” is kind of like what “don’t be black” or “don’t be gay” sounds like to a black or gay person. In their mind, I think it’s just who they are, not what they’ve chosen. Of course, I disagree with this, but that’s why I think there is a taboo.

    I don’t really have a problem not discussing religion with someone out of politeness and respect for their religious identity. The problem I have is that with many people, it’s a double standard, and they are perfectly willing to say things that imply you should believe as they do. If someone does this, I think they should realize that their free pass is over, and it automatically opens them up to criticism/discussion of the validity of their beliefs.

  69. says

    I don’t mean that religion should have a free ride, at all, but, just that atheists need not be arrogant and overbearing referring to others’ ideas as superstition or myth. Science, today, always seems to see the status quo as fundamental even when supposedly looking for explanation. I see the universe are infinite and eternal, no beginning and no end. That means that life is not meaningless. just another set of chemical equations, but something itself mysterious and almost unknowable, but certainly not beyond questions.

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