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Why Are Believers Willfully Ignorant About Atheists?

This piece was originally published on AlterNet.

When believers talk about atheists, they often don’t bother to talk to any first. What are they afraid of?

Did you hear the one about the Anglican minister who said atheists have no reason for grief?

I wish I was joking. I’m not. In a widely- disseminated and discussed opinion piece, Anglican minister Rev. Gavin Dunbar made an interesting and even compelling argument that grief is necessary for love and humanity… and then went on to argue that, unless you believe in God, you have no reason to care whether the people you love live or die, or even to love them in the first place.

Again: I wish I was joking. I quote:

The new atheists proclaim their gospel with the fervour of believers: God is dead, man is free, free from the destructive illusions of religion and morality, of reason and virtue. But then a someone dies, suddenly and cruelly, like the young man known to many in ..[this] parish [in [Eastern Georgia] who was killed in a freakish accident last weekend. And his death casts a pall of grief over his family, his friends, their families, his school, and many others. Yet if he was no more than an arrangement of molecules, a selfish gene struggling to replicate itself, there can be no reason for grief, or for the love that grieves, since these are (we are told) essentially selfish survival mechanisms left over from some earlier stage in hominid evolution. Friendship is just another illusion. But of course we do grieve, even the atheists. And in so grieving, they grieve better than they know (or think they know).

The grieving atheist cannot provide any reason why he grieves, or why he (rightly) respects the grief of others.

My first reaction… well, to be honest, my first reaction was pretty close to blind rage. As an atheist, I’ve been targeted before with bigotry, with hostility, even with hatred and threats of violence. But rarely have I encountered a critic of atheism who was so ready to deny even my basic humanity. Rarely have I encountered a critic of atheism who was so ready to tell me — and to tell the world — that because I am an atheist, I see not only morality and virtue, but love and friendship and grief, as an illusion. I actually agree with Dunbar that grief is one of the things that makes us human… and it filled me with rage to be told that, because I don’t believe in a magical soul animating my body, because I don’t think I’m going to see my dead loved ones in an invisible forever happy place, I am somehow incapable of experiencing this essential humanity. My first reaction on reading this piece was pretty much to scream “Fuck you” at my computer screen, and be done with it.

My second reaction was a desire to carefully, painstakingly, as patiently as possible, explain to Dunbar exactly how and why atheists value life and experience grief, and to go through his piece with a fine-toothed comb taking apart every ridiculous myth and piece of misinformed ignorance. That project might take weeks, though, since this piece is so full of it. So I’ll just touch on the worst of it.

The most crucial point: Saying that life and morality and reason and virtue and emotions such as grief are physical processes — this is not the same as saying they are illusions.

Yes, atheists think that morality and virtue, love and friendship, reason and grief, are physical phenomena with no supernatural component. We don’t understand exactly how this works — humanity is very much in the early stages of figuring out consciousness — but an overwhelming body of evidence strongly points to that conclusion, and atheists understand and accept that. Whatever consciousness is, it is almost certainly a construct of the brain. And we think social experiences — such as morality, virtue, love, grief — are emotions and mental constructs, which evolved in us to help us survive and flourish as a social species.

book pagesBut that is not the same as saying they are false. It is not the same as saying they are illusions. It is not the same as saying they have no meaning. As commenter Tussilago pointed out when the link to this piece was originally posted, in an analogy so perfect and awesome I’m kicking myself for not having though of it: “To say that, because someone’s consciousness is ‘only an arrangement of molecules,’ that means they can’t be a real person whom you can love — that’s like saying that, because a book is ‘only an arrangement of ink on paper,’ that means it can’t contain a real story or interesting ideas that you can find worth reading.”

In fact, for many atheists, the fact that consciousness and love and grief and such are physical products? This actually invests them with more meaning. Many atheists — I’m one of them — look at the fact that consciousness is a physical construct, and are filled with wonder and awe. We look at the fact that, out of nothing but rocks and water and sunlight, this wildly complex bio-chemical process called life developed, and then evolved into forms with the capacity for consciousness, and then evolved into forms with the capacity for communication and compassion, ethics and altruism, love and grief… and we are gobsmacked. Four billion years ago, the Earth had rocks and water and sunlight — and now, it has not only consciousness, but consciousness which is able to step out of itself, and to connect with other consciousnesses, and to suffer when these other being are lost — as much or more as we suffer any direct injury to ourselves. That is wondrous beyond my power to express in words.

What’s more, many atheists look at the idea that we create our own meaning, not as a loss of meaning, but as a gain. We feel that life and love, morality and grief, have more meaning — not less — because we create that meaning for ourselves, instead of persuading ourselves that it was handed to us by an invisible creator who’s mapped out the meaning of our lives and handed it to us wholesale. And for many atheists, the fact that life is finite makes it more precious, not less. It makes us value it more highly — and it makes us grieve its loss more deeply.

Yes, atheists think that life and morality and love and grief are all part of the physical world. But that doesn’t make it less real for us. That makes it more real. The physical world is the one we know really exists. Atheists aren’t the ones insisting that the true source of life and morality and love and grief is an invisible, intangible, supernatural being that nobody can agree on and that we have no good reason to think exists. Accusing us of seeing these things as illusions is the height or irony.

The Parthenon is a human construction, too. That doesn’t make it an illusion, or meaningless. That’s one of the dumbest ideas I’ve ever heard.

But after I’d thought about all this for a while, my urges to both blind rage and line-by-line demolition gave way… to a baffled irritation, focusing on one big question:

Couldn’t he have asked us?

Couldn’t Dunbar have gone down to his local atheist organization and asked them, “You know, I don’t get it about atheist grief — if you don’t believe in God or the soul, why do you value life and grieve over death?”

Couldn’t he, at the very least, have spent ten minutes Googling the phrase, “atheist grief”? If he had, he would have found: the Grief Beyond Belief support network, several news articles (including one by me) about the Grief Beyond Belief support network, an atheist grief support group on the Atheist Nexus social network, an article titled “Grief Without God” on the RichardDawkins.net website, a book titled Godless Grief… I could go on and on. If he’d pursued any of these abovementioned avenues, he could have been directed to any number of other essays, journal entries, blog posts, works of fiction, pieces of music, pieces of art, and long, thoughtful, heartfelt conversations about this exact topic, and answering his question about why atheists grieve before he’d ignorantly bloviated about it. I realize that typing the words “atheist grief” into the Google search window and hitting “return” is a huge imposition… but if you’re going to be a bigot, it’s really the least you can do.

Why didn’t he do it?

What was he afraid of finding?

This is the question I keep coming back to.

I wish I could say this was an isolated incident. It’s not. I can’t count the number of opinion pieces I’ve seen from religious leaders, speculating fervently on how atheists clearly have no basis for morality, and only reject religion so we can be free of its rules… when they could have simply Googled the phrase “atheist morality,” and found out just how passionate most atheists are about right and wrong, and where we think the basis for this morality lies. I can’t count the number of opinion pieces I’ve seen from religious leaders, blithely opining about how atheists have no meaning to our lives, how atheists have no joy, how atheists hate God, how there are no atheists in foxholes… when, again, a simple Google search could have disabused them of these notions in ten minutes.

atheists bus adAnd this refusal to hear what atheists say about ourselves extends beyond the pulpit and the opinion pages. It’s distressingly common among ordinary citizens in everyday life. On a regular and frequent basis, atheists are criticized — vilified, even — simply for being open about our atheism. When atheists run billboards and bus ads saying simply that we exist and are good people, there’s almost always an angry, intensely offended reaction from religious believers: protests, boycotts, demands that the ads be taken down, even vandalism. Transit companies will sometimes stop accepting any religious or controversial ads entirely, rather than let atheists advertise with them. In fact, a bus company in Pennsylvania recently rejected an ad from an atheist organization — an ad that literally had nothing on it but the URL of the organization, and the word, “Atheists.” The mere act of atheists saying, “We exist” — this is enough to send many believers into fits, accusing us of being offensive, provocative, mocking, flaunting, and hateful. The mere act of hearing atheist voices sends far too many believers into a rage.

What are they afraid of finding?

Now, I’m sure some believers will read all this and say, “But atheists do the same thing! They live in their atheist bubble, they imagine what believers think and feel, and they don’t ever talk to us to find out!” And sometimes, that’s true. But not usually. According to the U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, atheists, on average, are better informed about religion and religious believers than believers are. In fact, atheists are generally better informed about the specifics of given religions than the believers in those very religions. We know a lot more about them than they do about us.

It’s important to remember that most atheists were once believers. We’re familiar with religion because we’ve believed it ourselves. And it’s important to remember that, in most of the world, religious belief is the dominant culture. Atheists have to be familiar with it. It’s shoved in our face on a regular basis. Our friends believe it, our families believe it, our co-workers believe it, it’s all over the media. We can’t be ignorant of religion. We’re soaking in it.

Believers, on the other hand, are not soaking in atheism. Many atheists are trying to change this, of course, and are working to make atheism more visible and harder to ignore — but there’s still a huge amount of ignoring, and of ignorance. And far too much of this ignorance is willful and deliberate. People ignore us, even when they’re supposedly trying to figure us out.

Why? When believers write and talk and think about atheists, and about what they imagine atheists think and feel — why don’t they bother to ask us? What are they afraid of finding out?

I’ve read and talked with a lot of believers — and with a lot of atheists who used to believe. And it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that, if believers actually found out how atheists think and feel, it would present a serious challenge to their beliefs.

When you look at the most common arguments for religion and against atheism, you’ll find that most of them aren’t actually arguments. They’re not attempts to look at the evidence and logic supporting theism and atheism. They’re attempts to deflect the question. They’re attempts to shield religion from ever being seriously questioned. The notion that any criticism of religion is intolerant; the idea that religion shouldn’t have to defend itself in the marketplace of ideas; the endless parade of “Shut up, that’s why” arguments that typically get marshaled against atheists… it all exists to protect religious faith from ever being seriously examined. Not to mention the more obvious attempts to silence atheists — like preventing atheist high school students from organizing clubs, and overt bullying and harassment of atheists, and blasphemy laws in theocracies that put atheists in prison and even execute them. Religion is like a house of cards — protected by a massively strong fortress.

And one of the largest pillars in this fortress is the bigoted mythology about atheists. The idea that atheists are amoral? That our lives lack meaning and joy? That we’re only atheists so we can reject religious rules? That we hate God? That our atheism is shallow, and we reject it and embrace religion when faced with suffering and death? That we have no basis for human emotions like love and friendship and grief? It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that all this mythology exists to keep believers from listening to anything we have to say.

The very existence of atheists and atheism is a challenge to religious belief. Religion relies on social consent to perpetuate itself. Religion is the Emperor’s new clothes… and if enough people start saying out loud that the Emperor is naked, it’s going to be harder to ignore the guy’s pecker hanging out in the breeze.

It’s easier to ignore those voices if they’re marginalized. It’s easier to ignore those voices if people can pretend that we don’t care about right and wrong, that we think everything is physical and therefore nothing matters, that we see love and compassion as illusions, that we have no reason for grief. It’s easier to ignore those voices if people can pretend that we’re not quite human.
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Comments

  1. Jeroen Metselaar says

    Why Are Believers Willfully Ignorant About X?

    If you construct your beliefs and philosophies around revelations and dogma, if you think you have a direct line to the all-awesome creator of the universe, if you have the book that contains all answers you will ever need than why investigate anything?

  2. says

    I am thrilled to say that I had a pleasant experience somewhat unlike this, most recently.

    When our local atheist community learned that a nearby church was going to hold a sermon on atheism, we contacted them to offer our assistance.

    They called me back and we had coffee soon after. His treat. We spent about 2 hours talking, mostly going over questions he had about our worldview. He was genuinely interested.

    The following Sunday we attended the sermon and it was well done, respectful, sincere, and informative. He managed to reiterate many of the same defenses we give on a daily basis to his Pentecostal congregation. Yes, he threw in the apologetic arguments of why we’re wrong about God, but he gave every compliment he could to why we’re good people, patriotic, caring, volunteering, empathic beings. He started with a powerful YouTube video of respected, famous atheists. He ended with links to American Atheists and American Humanist Association.

    But it’s what he did next that really surprised us. He invited me and others from our group to attend a youth/college meeting that they would devote entirely to us, in “Ask an Atheist” fashion. And so, for about 3 hours we were on stage in front of about 50 youth/college (and some parents) answering every question they had. Two of us were prior Christians, and so their stories of leaving the church were very powerful. We felt welcome telling about our worldview, and I think they better understood us.

    Now I realize that not all encounters are going to go like this, and so I feel quite lucky that their youth pastor welcomed us so openly. But I encourage others to do the same. Reach out in a friendly way, to foster community and understand. You might be surprised.

  3. 'Tis Himself says

    I left a couple of comments on Dunbar’s blog post. In the first I complained that while I’m used to sneers, threats and misunderstandings from theists, rarely had I seen Dunbar’s denial of my basic humanity. In the second comment I noted that atheists have all the emotions that theists have and the only difference between theists and atheists is belief in gods or lack thereof.

    I really wish theists like Dunbar would argue against actual atheists’ positions rather than arguing with the straw atheist who lives only in their minds.

  4. jesse says

    Shakespeare wasn’t even an atheist and he had a perfect rejoinder to Dunbar:

    From Twelfth Night, Act I, Sc. v:

    Feste/Clown: Good madonna, give me leave to prove you are a fool…

    Feste. Good madonna, why mourn’st thou?

    Olivia. Good fool, for my brother’s death.

    Feste. I think his soul is in hell, madonna.

    Olivia. I know his soul is in heaven, fool.

    Feste. The more fool, madonna, to mourn for your brother’s soul, being in heaven. Take away the fool, gentlemen.

    This is something I never understood. If you believe in God, why not kill yourself right now? Unless you don’t think you are going to paradise. Christians especially, with the doctrine of forgiveness, have to deal with this logical cock-up somehow.

    When i was younger and would bait them, I would say, “OK, you are going to heaven. I’m willing to sacrifice my eternal soul. So I am going to go out and kill every Christian I meet, since they all seem to want to go to heaven so badly. Why is this a bad thing, morally?”

    Showing up these kinds of basic logical contradictions is so trivial. And yet, Dunbar’s piece just shows that centuries of philosophy haven’t penetrated to him. His reasoning falls apart on via his very own criteria. Why do Christians grieve? Why don’t they all want to die?

  5. says

    So I am going to go out and kill every Christian I meet, since they all seem to want to go to heaven so badly.

    Well that is exactly the sort of response they expect from “immoral” atheists. Its a wonder that you havent done that (according to them, and err, I presume you have not)

    But your point is not really valid. If I were to give every christian a ticket to six flags, presumably they would all happily receive my gift. But not all of them would go, and further, it would still be their choice to go, not mine.

    Killing them specifically removes the vary most basic right: their right to live as they wish. Just like you do not wish to have christian values forced upon you, why should they have your logic forced upon them?

  6. mnb0 says

    As soon as someone tells me what I am supposed to think and feel I don’t take that someone seriously anymore.
    Reverend or not, Dunbar is just a bad joke.

  7. plutosdad says

    I agree with everything except this point:

    [but atheists are the same] “And sometimes, that’s true. But not usually”

    Actually the correct answer is “so what, it doesn’t make it right no matter who’s doing it”, not try to minimize the damage atheists do or get into a quagmire of anecdotes about who is worse. Whether one group is worse or not isn’t important to your argument and detracts. Just like I am now sidetracked in my head not being able to get past this, since it has come up lately.

    It seems to me we’re just as bad, when you look at the rank and file tribalism. Especially among people who grew up with little to no religion: it’s like they have no empathy with believers or ability to understand at all what we went through.

    On Chris Halquists’ blog right now there is a discussion on if there is any difference between Catholicism and Protestantism and why don’t Catholics leave. A few of us tried to point out the huge differences and they just brush us off saying “no, it’s the same religion” – just another example of atheists refusing to listen to people who have been there, who know how it feels, and instead decide to tell people what they believe and what they feel. That is just one example (but it is a particular issue that comes up a lot in other forums).

    And especially after the bizarre anti FTB posts and anti-women posts lately that have been cropping up over the net, I think maybe there are atheist philosophers that rise up above us (just like some philosophers were theists) but the majority of us suck just as hard as theists when it comes to introspection or morality.

  8. baal says

    I think Greta’s focusing on the knowledge part. Many atheists really do know a ton about various specific christian religions. Conversely, many religionists appear unable to conceive of a world (world view really) that doesn’t include religious thinking.

    I otherwise agree with you (plato’s dad) that tribalism is ultimately bad and that we need more anti-tribalism memes in atheism. Or at the very least, include working towards everyone expanding their ‘tribal identity’. Activists, working to support a specific narrow set of ideas, are human and will fall to tribalism unless they specific think and work not to.

  9. says

    My employer had a “Faith at Work” group that was basically a bible study group. Once a month they had lunchtime presentations of various christian presenters speaking on various topics… fine and dandy. I went to one and it was some gal playing Kumbayah on the guitar and selling CDs. It was like nails on a chakboard to me, but no animals were harmed.

    Last spring I heard about the Secular Students Alliance’s Ask An Atheist Day, & girding my loins, I approached the Faith at Work group, and asked to be included in an “Ask An Atheist” presentation, knowing full well that our diversity policy pretty much made them say Yes. There was much turmoil over the wording of the poster that was to be published, and some turmoil over ther date, but it all seemed to get resolved. As the day approached, I noticed that the posters weren’t being diplayed, as they had for other speakers, and inasmuch as I had a copy of the approved poster, I printed a few and posted them accordingly.

    The lunchtime came and went, and was pretty much well recived, but I thought the crowd size was a bit small. I had CDs for sale (25cents…blank…YOU! figure out what you want on it!).
    It was there I had learned that most members did not want me speaking, to the point that the Secretary had quit rather than post my appearance; she has since re-joined.

  10. Hmmm says

    Oh, I don’t know. Maybe they find a nonentity that thinks it somehow speaks for all atheists and freethinkers and get a little confused. My theory, anyway.

  11. LDTR says

    It’s like advertising.

    “This product is essential to your satisfaction and happiness. If you buy and use it, you are cool, special, and right. People who don’t buy it are unfulfilled, miserable losers, who obviously have something wrong with them or else they would be able to see how super awesome our product is. No, don’t ask them! You’ll only get their cooties on you.”

  12. jesse says

    @TechSkeptic —

    I know that killing them is immoral — but the point I am trying to make is that

    If going to heaven is a good thing, since you go to paradise, then sending someone to heaven can’t be morally wrong. So the Christian prohibition against murder goes out the window, logically speaking. Yes, I have (by killing someone) taken away their right to live, but I am giving them eternal paradise. That’s a good deal, if you believe that you are going to heaven. You’re giving them a sort of ultimate good.

    If you believe your life ends when it ends, then you have MORE reason to not kill people.

    Point is, Christianity’s claims to moral meaning are trivial to logically pick apart. You don’t need to be an expert on metaethics or even have a passing knowledge of philosophy.

  13. Jenny Wren says

    He’s not only willfully ignorant about atheists. He’s willfully ignorant about anything that doesn’t fit his worldview. By his logic, elephants must believe in his god too, since they quite obviously mourn for their dead.

  14. Ahkoond says

    The religious don’t dare ask atheists because knowing what they really think and what their take on life, death, grief, love, morality, etc. is would leave the religious without a straw-man to attack. And oftentimes they define themselves not by what they are, but by what they’re not: they’re not offensive, provocative, mocking, flaunting, hateful, god-hating, insensitive or any of the other characteristics that they attribute to their atheist straw-men. Without a straw-man they’d have to accept that we atheists are people just like them, that they’re not better or morally superior because they believe in a god and this is something that they can’t tolerate. This would mean the end of their world, their perceived sense of superiority and their privileges. I’ve come to realize that being religious is not what they do, it’s what they are: it’s their identity, their flesh-and-blood, and they’ll fight to the death against anything, real or imaginary, that threatens their life. They need the straw-man because it’s the easiest way to remove the cognitive dissonance and self-doubt that would result from knowing the truth; cognitive dissonance and self-doubt that would result in the end of the world as they know it. To recap, I think that although there are probably religious people who don’t want to talk to atheists because of a hidden agenda or just plain old stupidity, most do it instinctively, for self-preservation. Does it make any sense?

  15. Sheesh says

    But, going back a ways to the charge above… How is *being* Lutheran materially worse than being Catholic? If sect is a choice at all people should be fleeing Catholicism for at least Lutheranism or Anglicanism in droves, and yet?

    (I guess holding some wrong beliefs is more important than shunning child rapists and dismantling patriarchy. Saying that is not “tribalism”.)

  16. Tim Riches says

    Excellent post, Greta. I have asked myself why the religious don’t even try to be accurate regarding atheist before, and I think I have at least a basic understanding of why.

    In order to effectively argue against a position, it is necessary, at a minimum, to be able to simulate the opposing viewpoint in the mind for the purpose of rebuttal. The higher the fidelity of the simulacrum, the more effective your counter-argument will be, and thus the greater the impact on the opposing person.

    Given that some atheists (like myself) were brought up within religious families, and that atheists in general, as you pointed out in your post, are much more aware of different religious traditions, we have a distinct advantage when arguing against theistic perspectives. The reverse is not generally the case.

    There seems to be a taboo within the religious community against considering other religions, except in the most superficial sense. Similarly, there is a powerful reluctance to carefully consider the perspective of atheists, even when the goal is merely to criticize. There is genuine fear among the religious regarding atheism: that considering it’s concepts in detail can lead one into losing their faith. While this last point may actually be correct, it makes for a powerful disadvantage, and leads to damp squib postings like the one from the pastor that irked you.

    In short, theists are just not very good at simulation. They lack the skills to do a good job of creating their straw men, and consequently are incapable of characterizing us with any fidelity. The preceding points can be combined with one more: they truly feel that their ‘holy spirit’ will make up any deficit in their arguments, allowing them to persuade without full understanding. The best they can come up with are cartoon caricatures they can poke holes in with a pencil, but bear no resemblance to the original.

  17. Amanda J says

    I think you hit upon yet another answer to your question: atheists question; believers don’t. Who is the kind of person to become an atheist? Someone who likes logic, hates discrepancies, seeks knowledge. And then, what kind of person is it that stays with religion? Someone who ‘feels’ God and divines right from wrong by the sense ‘God’ gave them.
    So their attitude towards atheist reveals, in fact, nothing about atheists and everything about themselves. They feel attacked by atheists and lay awake at night wondering what they would be like without their faith. How it give THEM meaning and hope how it defines THEIR lives and how empty, they feel, it would be without religion.
    Perhaps some of them are shaken by atheist, feel their rhetoric is flimsy, falling on deaf ears, or just not reaching the people it needs to reach. Or perhaps, in this day in age, if you still believe, that says quite a lot about your approach to the world as a whole, how you come by your beliefs — they were handed to you, and you were told what *felt* right WAS right, and it feels right that atheists can’t possibly grieve, therefore, this must be true.
    It takes a mindset more common among atheists to seek out opposing views.

  18. Jaimebluesq says

    Unfortunately, I’ve experienced a speech like the Minister in question. It was at my uncle’s funeral (an uncle that was almost like a 2nd father). All I remember is the feeling of being so aghast that my grief, which was obvious to anyone since I was sobbing so hard I could barely speak, was being denied like that. Not that I’m particularly open or in-your-face about my POV, but still, a public funeral is NOT the place to say such things because you never know if someone in your audience is the very thing you’re insulting.

    But I guess that’s the point, that those types just don’t care if anyone around them believes differently than they do. Only their POV, their feelings/grief/etc matter, and if we’re offended or insulted, then maybe it will ‘show us the true way’ and ‘lead us back to the faith’. In the end, their actions speak more about any lack of humanity on their part, rather than ours.

  19. Pierce R. Butler says

    David @ # 2 – this happened with Pentecostals? in Sacramento?

    Did you follow up to see if anybody was excommunicated?

  20. says

    They’re willfully ignorant because, as was said before, it makes it easier to demonize atheists.

    Click on my name for this post and you’ll see a debate I tried to have with “Stan, the 40 year atheist”. He proclaims that he knows atheists completely but you’ll see nothing but strawmen, over-generalizations and outright slander against atheists.

    One of the more hateful things that I had to address from that guy:

    And for that reason, Atheists are not trusted any more than rapists and sexual abusers according to national polls. This lack of trust is rational, not bigotry as some Atheists claim.

    I linked to the site where I had posted his replies plus my replies to him. The links to his site where he posted his side of the “debate” are in each post that I have on my side of the debate.

  21. Jurjen S. says

    In a similar vein to jesse, my reaction to Dunbar (“reverend” my ass) was incomprehension: if you believe that this one life is all we have, and when someone dies, that’s all she wrote, you have all the more reason to grieve over someone’s death than if you believe they’re going to some happy afterlife where you’ll get to see them again at some later date. That’s got to be a fairly obvious conclusion, one would think, even without talking to an atheist.

  22. says

    @ Pierce #19

    Yes, in Galt (just south of Sacramento). And I haven’t heard of any “conversions” or reverse baptisms just yet, but we’re keeping our eyes open.

    It may even be months or years before our presence has any impact. But even if all we did was get a few people to hate atheists a little less, then it was time well spent.

  23. says

    A very simple reversal is to consider why Religions who so believe in an after life feel grief or loss at a death? Do they not believe in an after life where they will see them again? It is an argument I have used and gotten some very back peddling answers…

  24. Pierce R. Butler says

    David Diskin @ # 22 – I have no doubt you had an enviably enjoyable experience, but your account still clashes with my (fairly well informed – I live in the Deep South) concept of Pentecostals.

    Many of them are thoroughly nice people, and some are quite intelligent – but for them to spend their holy-rolling time on thoughtful discussion of opposing viewpoints seems out of sectarian character to a schismatic degree.

  25. says

    I definitely favor the demonization hypothesis. People are raised from birth to hate atheists and quite often to rationalize their enemies as being atheists in some way. We’re considered one of the archetypes of evil alongside Nazis. At least Nazis were demonstrably evil and we have historical records of their evil. Atheists are just evil because that’s what everyone was taught.

  26. says

    @Bronze Dog- The Us versus Them is prevalent in all religious structures. It is also used against other religions or even sects. If you consider the ordering of the X commandments as having importance by their order consider that “Thou shalt have no other god before me” is number one. tTwo and three covering more details of that then it gives you a pretty good idea of how they are taught to view outsiders. It becomes interesting when the atheist comes in and says I have no other god, I have no god. Oh and by the way prove that your god is real…

  27. Olivia Dunham says

    I have had many times in my life where I lacked my faith in God. My three siblings and I were all raised to be free thinkers and I am grateful for that. Though my faith is very strong these days, I don’t have a church. To me, religion is a private matter.

    That being said, I didn’t like you very much when I first heard you speak. But as I listened to several of your speeches, I could not deny that I agreed with you on many points. Fundie religious nuts from any belief system drive me batty.

    Listening to you was very revealing and informative to me. It has NOT changed my belief in a higher power but it has given me a much better understanding of atheists and now my resentment towards them is much less. I have a Bachelor’s Degree in Physical Anthropology and find myself standing up to fundies quite often in defense of evolution. In my opinion, you have to be a daft idiot to think the world is only 6,000 years old.

    Being raised as a free thinker may have led some to being non-believers. For one of my sisters and I, it led us to Christianity. For my brother, he is still figuring it out. First he read the Bible a couple to times as well as books on it. Then it was the Koran, which he read several times, in addition to visiting local mosques. And now he’s on the Talmud. Who knows where he will land. The upshot is, I think that there is room on this planet for us to all get along. PEACE.

  28. Soli Deo Gloria says

    You are stupid as well as perverted. You completely misunderstand what is being argued by Rev Dunbar.

    He’s not saying you are “incapable of experiencing” grief. He’s not denying your “humanity”. He’s actually *affirming* it and saying that you cannot account for it within your worldview.

    He’s denying your worldview, not the facts of your existence. He’s denying the snake oil you take as a remedy, not your symptoms. Are you blind to critical thinking in addition to being morally blind?

    And we think social experiences — such as morality, virtue, love, grief — are emotions and mental constructs, which evolved in us to help us survive and flourish as a social species.

    book pagesBut that is not the same as saying they are false. It is not the same as saying they are illusions.

    Yes it is the same as saying these experiences are false, for they claim to tell you a truth about humanity, but are really a sham meant to manipulate your behavior (ie. “to help us survive”). Just like a con man who claims product X does such and so, whereas this is just a trick to manipulate you out of your money. If atheism were true, your perception of human worth doesn’t stem from anything within the object of your perception, especially if that person is dead. It stems purely from the fact that your remote ancestors happened to be able to pass down their traits to you.

    in an analogy so perfect and awesome I’m kicking myself for not having though of it: “To say that, because someone’s consciousness is ‘only an arrangement of molecules,’ that means they can’t be a real person whom you can love — that’s like saying that, because a book is ‘only an arrangement of ink on paper,’ that means it can’t contain a real story or interesting ideas that you can find worth reading.”

    That’s a moronic analogy that completely avoids the point. If a printing shop on a deserted island blew up and accidentally formed a coherent sentence, it really *would* be only a meaningless arrangement of ink on paper, since it was formed without conscious intent, and there would be no conscious agent around to interpret it.

    To say that the soul can leave behind physical artifacts like books does not mean that you can reduce the soul to mere physicality, any more than you can reduce a computer to a printout.

    Couldn’t he have asked us?

    If he did and got a response as dense as yours, he could still have justifiably written the same thing as what he wrote. If an atheist ass brays its incomprehension at one, does that mean one should stop speaking the truth?

    Why didn’t he do it?

    What was he afraid of finding?

    Don’t be a hypocrite. Have you ever asked any questions on Reasonable Faith? Have you ever interacted with Christian scholarship on this matter? All you do is link to that stupid generic poll on religion taken amongst laymen, as if this excuses you from having to interact at all with the Christian position, while spouting forth ignorant analyses that are contradicted by your quote of Rev Dunbar itself.

    I feel sorry for your cats. They deserve better than to live with two evil perverts.

  29. Sheesh says

    Don’t be a hypocrite. Have you ever asked any questions on Reasonable Faith? Have you ever interacted with Christian scholarship on this matter?

    Perfect! The Courtier’s Reply! Tell us more about this sophisticated theology!

    Point blank: At any point in the history of our planet, was the human population equal to two (2)?

  30. Olivia Dunham says

    I will add something else that may seem off topic. You have made me realize that being an atheist isn’t an evil or bad thing. It’s simply another way of looking at the world. i heard a speech you gave in which you said that after a blog you wrote, you received threats, death threats included.

    As a Christian, I was horrified but not shocked when a group of fundies closed in on me on a message board regarding women’s reproductive rights. By these so-called men and women of God, I was called a whore, a slut, told that I deserved to die, et al. Allow me to add that on this board, I admitted to having an abortion. I was not ashamed. But they tried to make me feel that. Being in the crossfire isn’t fun but it means you got them where they live.

    I am a very liberal Christian and I will not let fundies define my beliefs for me. You and I may not agree on most things, but you have truly opened my eyes. Thank you for illustrating what a true atheist looks like. Seriously, can’t we all just get along?

  31. Christophe says

    “The grieving atheist cannot provide any reason why he grieves, or why he (rightly) respects the grief of others.”

    Wait, I thought that religion was the only comfort against the misery of a meaningless existence, of defense against a cold, uncaring universe. Now, it’s the source of grief? I’m confused by what is on offer here.

    “To grieve the loss of anyone then is to lament the departure of a unique being, whose mind and heart have touched our lives in spontaneously beautiful and inimitable ways. To grieve is to travel even beyond the lost life of a loved one to the origin and source of the love we have known, and there to register our gratitude. To grieve, therefore, is to affirm that there is a higher source of value than ‘the selfish gene’ – there is a God, who is absolute truth and goodness, the very possibility of knowledge and love.”

    One perfectly good sentence, and then… swerves off the road, hits a tree.

    This is the ultra-reductionist view of atheism that (nearly) no real person holds. (I’ll admit I’ve run into atheists who do the whole, “Oh, emotions and pain are just random firings of neurons” thing, but even they seem pretty unhappy about whacking their shins on the furniture.)

    This analysis of grief strikes me as about as relevant to real people’s experience as the Filoque controversy: Intellectually interesting, perhaps, but essentially inside baseball.

  32. says

    Olivia Dunham

    I applaud your attitude but:

    Seriously, can’t we all just get along?

    If you can stop your fellow-religionists from introducing their/your religion into my sex life, my legal system, my labs, my parliament, my schools, my tax-laws and my face, then sure, we can get along swimmingly.

    [I really should make a macro for that little speech.]

  33. 98 says

    “The grieving atheist cannot provide any reason why he grieves, or why he (rightly) respects the grief of others”

    makes as much sense as

    “the atheist kicked inna fork cannot provide any reason why his eyes water and his voice squeaks, or why he (reflexively) crosses his legs at others so kicked.”

  34. Martha says

    Wow, if it’s true what they say about judging one’s life by one’s friends, I’m sure you and Ingrid will be very pleased to know you definitely won’t have to count Soli among them. In fact, I’m a little worried for your cats that s/he seems to care about them so much!

  35. Olivia Dunham says

    Daz, I agree with you. I can’t control the nuts who pretend to follow my religion. I am pro-gay marriage, pro-choice, know the true age of the planet and all of these things put me at cross purposes with my fellow, so-called Christians.

    I loathe those hate-mongering pigs that protest at gay people’s funerals and soldier’s funerals. They are not of God. They are sick, hateful sociopaths.

    That being said, I am glad I watched Greta’s speeches and read many of her writings. It helps me to understand where you all are coming from. I love science too and am going to start graduate school to study Forensic Anthropology in the Fall. For me, science and my beliefs can go together. But it makes me question the world in general more.

    I also don’t appreciate it when some atheists claim that many a Christian is uneducated. I have my Bachelor’s and will soon have my Master’s. It may lead me to pursuing my Ph.D. The upshot is, you are correct that we can’t all get along and it’s mostly due to hate and hypocrisy from the religious right. PEACE.

  36. says

    Olivia, I’m glad you’re a liberal, but I don’t understand why you happily discard most of the Bible but still hold on to just the nicer parts (not even everything attributed to Jesus is all sunshine and roses).

  37. says

    Olivia

    Serious question: I’m not snarking, or trying to score points.

    The upshot is, you are correct that we can’t all get along and it’s mostly due to hate and hypocrisy from the religious right.

    Are you telling them that?

    I ask, because all-too-often I see decent, liberal Christian folk like yourself eager to tell atheists about how those other, nasty, Christians, aren’t True Christians&trad;, but not, apparently, trying to persuade their fellow religionists to a more liberal creed/stance. That’s not to say that you’re doing the same; I’m asking, not assuming.

  38. shockna says

    Yes it is the same as saying these experiences are false, for they claim to tell you a truth about humanity, but are really a sham meant to manipulate your behavior (ie. “to help us survive”). Just like a con man who claims product X does such and so, whereas this is just a trick to manipulate you out of your money. If atheism were true, your perception of human worth doesn’t stem from anything within the object of your perception, especially if that person is dead. It stems purely from the fact that your remote ancestors happened to be able to pass down their traits to you.

    No, it’s not. You’re presenting a false dilemma here. Why can they not be both a survival mechanism (Tip: Using emotionally-charged language like “sham” implies intent to deceit; something impossible for non-sentient chemical reactions). Also, the con man analogy is just as moronic as you claim the book analogy is. It’s really more like buying product X because it has effect Y, assuming it has that effect due to mechanism Z, only to later find out that it has effect Y because of mechanism A instead; the effect is the exact same, but you simply misunderstood the means by which the effect is created. Though consciousness, morality, emotion, etc. are an emergent phenomenon of evolution and other natural chemical processes, doesn’t necessarily make their effects less real.

    That’s a moronic analogy that completely avoids the point. If a printing shop on a deserted island blew up and accidentally formed a coherent sentence, it really *would* be only a meaningless arrangement of ink on paper, since it was formed without conscious intent, and there would be no conscious agent around to interpret it.

    To say that the soul can leave behind physical artifacts like books does not mean that you can reduce the soul to mere physicality, any more than you can reduce a computer to a printout.

    Sure, the coherent sentence would be meaningless without a conscious agent to interpret it. And yet, if later found and read, it would certainly be able to be interpreted by conscious agents, even if it was not created with conscious intent.

    As to the argument regarding the reduction of the soul to physicality, why should we even believe in a soul? Thus far, neuroscience is quickly becoming the death knell for dualism (The concept that the “soul” is based on), and showing that human functions can be explained without a transcendent soul.

    Further, the computer printout analogy is also misplaced. A computer works, at a basic level, on millions of tiny transistors (neurons) that work on Boolean logic, and their interactions with each other end up creating the incredibly complex information systems we have today. It’s actually an indirect metaphor for consciousness; though one that trends toward atheism.

    If he did and got a response as dense as yours, he could still have justifiably written the same thing as what he wrote. If an atheist ass brays its incomprehension at one, does that mean one should stop speaking the truth?

    Demonstrate that it’s true, and we’ll talk. Until then, this is nothing but an ad hominem.

    Don’t be a hypocrite. Have you ever asked any questions on Reasonable Faith? Have you ever interacted with Christian scholarship on this matter? All you do is link to that stupid generic poll on religion taken amongst laymen, as if this excuses you from having to interact at all with the Christian position, while spouting forth ignorant analyses that are contradicted by your quote of Rev Dunbar itself.

    I feel sorry for your cats. They deserve better than to live with two evil perverts.

    I can’t speak for Greta, but I used to be an amateur religious apologist, like you appear to be. Specifically, a Catholic apologist, and from the name and pseudo-intellectual writing style, I’m guessing you might be Catholic as I was. The scholarship that I’ve had access to (Older Catholic theology and some new Christian theology; William Lang Craig and the like) all contain significant logical errors and, worst of all, require faith to be believed. Faith is the last refuse of an argument that is logically vacuous.

    And finally, the “Cannot provide a reason for grief” is debunked in Greta in the article. To understand it, simply abandon the presupposition that grief requires a non-physical reason.

    Further, the idiotic personal attack on Greta is unjustifiable. I don’t see the problem with animals living in a home with two loving owners, rather than a hateful, bitter religionist.

  39. Jules says

    Yes it is the same as saying these experiences are false, for they claim to tell you a truth about humanity, but are really a sham meant to manipulate your behavior (ie. “to help us survive”). Just like a con man who claims product X does such and so, whereas this is just a trick to manipulate you out of your money. If atheism were true, your perception of human worth doesn’t stem from anything within the object of your perception, especially if that person is dead. It stems purely from the fact that your remote ancestors happened to be able to pass down their traits to you.

    Your core argument seems to be that meaning comes form god, so without god there isn’t meaning (Begging the question). Atheism requires no god to provide meaning. The “con man” (evolution?) in your analogy is selling the real deal, unintentional though it may be.

    It turns out that genuine compassion is a good thing for a social species.

    This is why we also see elephants and monkeys mourn the dead in a very recognizable fashion. Why are there elephant graveyards? Why does this gorilla or these chimpanzees behave so much like us when they lose one of their own?

    Atheists would answer “they grieve like we do, for much the same reasons”. It seems a much more challenging thing to understand this behavior from a perspective where human experience is driven by a soul.

    I think there’s a similar mismatch of perspective and assumptions behind the OP. I don’t think that believers are willfully ignorant, I think they’re just starting from the wrong place :p

    If you start with “meaning comes from god”, then it’s natural to assume that atheism has no meaning. You’d be less likely to ask any questions at all, and if you did you’d formulate the questions in the way we find offensive
    “How do you live without meaning?”.

    I don’t think the offence is intended (usually :p), and perhaps the conversation suffers because we’re not answering the right question? My first try at guessing the right question would be “Where/how do you derive meaning as an atheist?”

  40. Really? says

    It’s been discovered that the most effective way to do all sort of atrocities to a foe is to dehumanize and demonize them. Nothing personal, it’s just you…
    That’s why all sorts of slurs have been created and weighted down with vicious connotations. If you hear or read that kind of speech from anyone know for a fact that you are facing a foe, whether you know it or not and even whether they know it or not. People believe what they want to believe or fear to be true and they will kill you to keep their illusions. Greta I think your intuitive rage was correct. You were looking at the rhetoric of hate and the seeds of violence. These have no place and are rejected even at their inference.
    You make great points. They have no proof. No foundation and no accomplishments. A house of cards. Looking at the great accomplishments of their faiths you see all the things they have looted from their fellow man or sheared from their flocks. They have no grounds and their beliefs are hideous, life negating ideologies which demand servitude. Anyone too proud to be a slave and walk upright and free must be knocked down. It use to anger me, then deeply sadden me, but now I have accepted it. For the longest time I did not know how to fight this darkness, but light doesn’t fight darkness, it simply shines and darkness disappears.
    Thank you for shining a light on this systemic simplification, dismissal and dehumanization of atheist. It sows the seeds of ignorance, hate and violence and it is important to call them out and dig them up before they bear fruit.

  41. says

    You’ve pretty much nailed it I think, Greta.

    Incidentally, there was another great example on your “What Convinced You? A Survey for Non-Believers” post. Erica came on at #400, at the end of hundreds of posts of atheists explaining why they didn’t believe, and she proceeded to tell them why they didn’t believe. And then of course she gave reasons why we’re wrong.

    The chutzpah, it burns.

    If anyone wants to know the reasons we don’t believe in God:
    1. Bad things happened to us, so we rejected God.
    2. Bad things happen in the world at large, so we rejected God.
    3. (blank)
    4. We listen to scientists, whose business is to prove God doesn’t exist.

    The reasons we’re wrong?
    1. & 2. Apparently “God can’t intervene” because “if bad things and bad people didn’t exsist [sic], there would be absolutely NO point in heaven.” So we just need to suck it up.
    4. While the Big Bang did happen [she at least gets that right], what, did it spontaneously create a man and woman with the ability to reproduce and create morality?

  42. Tussilago says

    #29 Soli Deo Gloria:

    “That’s a moronic analogy that completely avoids the point.”
    What point? It seems you’re the only one here who doesn’t understand what point I was making with that. It has nothing to do with “the soul leaving behind physical artifacts”.

    If the book analogy confuses you because a book is written by someone with a consciousness, how about this one instead: Knowing that it is photosynthesis that makes plants grow, rather than the correctly performed rituals to honor a fertility goddess, doesn’t make flowers less beautiful or fruit less tasty. The followers of the fertility goddess may think it’s not possible to appreciate fruit and flowers without believing they are manifestations of the goddess and her generosity, and react quite emotionally against people who talk about photosynthesis, but that doesn’t change a thing.

    Oh, and thanks for the compliment, Greta. :-)

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