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May 15 2013

9 Questions That Atheists Might Find Insulting (And the Answers)

Some questions make atheists feel second-class — and make you look like a jerk for asking them.

question mark signAsked of Hispanic-Americans: “Are you in this country legally?” Asked of gays and lesbians and bisexuals: “How do you have sex?” Asked of trans people: “Have you had the surgery?” Asked of African-Americans: “Can I touch your hair?”

I think every marginalized group has some question, or questions, that routinely get asked of them — and that drive them up a tree, questions that have insult or bigotry or dehumanization woven into the very asking. Sometimes the questions get asked sincerely, with sincere ignorance of the offensive assumptions behind them. And sometimes they get asked douchily, in a hostile, passive-aggressive, “I’m just asking questions” manner. But it’s still not okay to ask them. They’re not questions that open up genuine inquiry and discourse: they’re questions that close minds, much more than they open them. Even if that’s not the intention And most people who care about bigotry and marginalization and social justice — or who just care about good manners — don’t ask them.

Here are nine questions you shouldn’t ask atheists. I’m going to answer them, just this once. And then I’ll explain why you shouldn’t be asking them, and why so many atheists will get ticked off if you do.

*****

Thus begins my latest piece for AlterNet, 9 Questions That Atheists Might Find Insulting (And the Answers). To find out what these questions are — and why I think people shouldn’t ask them — read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

13 comments

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  1. 1
    composer99

    From the AlterNet article:

    We find it in the small things: cookies, World of Warcraft, playing with kittens. [Emphasis mine.]

    Excuse me?!? World of Warcraft is one of the small things in life?!?

    (/kidding)

  2. 2
    marty42

    As a long time atheist I look forward to people asking me these questions. I sometimes start a conversation with “I’m an atheist, what have you always wanted to ask an atheist?

  3. 3
    leftwingfox

    On thing I think is worth touching on with #6: “Why do you hate God?” Or, “Aren’t you just angry at God?”

    One other problem with this is that it redirects the focus of what many of us are angry about. I’m angry at people using belief to justify their bigotry, or say hurtful or harmful things based on their belief. I’m not angry at god for telling them to believe such things, I’m angry because they choose to believe such things, regardless of the existence of God.

  4. 4
    Kevin

    #6 is often paired with the accusation: “You just want to do whatever you want”.

    Well, in part, yes. Within the bounds of societal norms. For example, I don’t want to set fire to houses, strangle cats, or diddle children; nor do I support those who wish to do such things.

    But otherwise, that’s right. I do want to do whatever I want. And so you do. The question is, why are you letting some imaginary creature impede you from doing whatever it is you want to do?

    It all comes back to the after-death. Theists of this sort are so afraid of not getting the kitchen upgrade in their after-death apartment that they’ll spend their entire lives sitting with their hands folded in their laps. Never once having fun. Never once feeling lust and liking it. And a thousand other pleasures.

    It’s a bizarre waste of life.

  5. 5
    freemage

    I liked this piece–loved it, even. The last one needs a bit of an addendum, though. While I concur that “Why are you atheists so angry?” is an impossible question, it can be re-tooled into “Why are you so angry?” At that point, they’re reacting to an individual’s anger, not some non-existent monolithic hivemind; learning why a given atheist snarls or cringes when certain topics come up in conversation is, in fact, a potentially useful basis for communication. It also recognizes that some atheists aren’t particularly angry, or that we all have our own anger-inducing points. Sure, we share a lot of those in common (I don’t know many atheists who don’t get mad about the RCC’s abuse of power in covering up priestly sexual abuse of children), but for other issues, there’s a wide variance of reaction, and the ‘you atheists’ formulation denies us the right to choose what issues are our own.

  6. 6
    Mattir, Another One With Boltcutters

    I actually like the questions about morals and meaning without a belief in god, because that usually leads to an interesting and often productive conversation and the questioner often finds themselves nodding their head as I explain.

  7. 7
    Ariel

    The title doesn’t match the content and it is exactly the parts where the two go apart which I find quite unacceptable.

    Questions that atheists might find insulting? No problem with that. If a given atheist is fed up with answering (say) a question “how can you be moral without God”, if she encountered too many believers asking this question in ill faith or with the intention of demeaning the interlocutor, and if that causes her offence, I can understand that. That’s her reaction, her experience, that’s how she feels, and who am I to dictate what she should feel?

    However, if the same atheist starts dictating others what (in general) should and what shouldn’t be asked, it’s a very different story. There is a hell of a difference between saying “don’t ask me this question, I’m fed up and feel insulted by it” and “you shouldn’t ask atheists these questions”. If you are making the second claim, you usurp yourself the right to speak also on my behalf. I gave nobody such a right. And in fact I’m inclined to treat this usurpation as quite offensive.

    There is so much that is terribly wrong with Greta’s text that full response would have to be very long. In what follows I will choose only one question as an example. But this is intended just as an example: the same concerns in fact all questions on the list. Please keep that in mind. So here goes an example.

    3: “”Doesn’t it take just as much/even more faith to be an atheist as it does to be a believer?”” Answer: No. (Reason given: we are reasonably certain that there are no gods.) Then we read:

    Why you shouldn’t ask it: The assumption behind this question is that atheists haven’t actually bothered to think about our atheism. And this assumption is both ignorant and insulting. Most atheists have considered the question of God’s existence or non-existence very carefully. Most of us were brought up religious, and letting go of that religion took a great deal of searching of our hearts and our minds. Even those of us brought up as non-believers were (mostly) brought up in a society that’s steeped in religion. It takes a fair amount of questioning and thought to reject an idea that almost everyone else around you believes.
    And when you ask this question, you’re also revealing the narrowness of your own mind. You’re showing that you can’t conceive of the possibility that someone might come to a conclusion about religion based on evidence, reason, and which ideas seem most likely to be true, instead of on “faith.”

    Dear believer, you have every right not to accept declarations about “searching our hearts and minds” at face value, even if you heard them. You are free to think that we delude ourselves, just like we think that your religion is a delusion. Please don’t be offended by my questioning your religion, and I won’t be offended by your suspicion that in spite of all my thinking and searching, I made a leap of faith at some point. Such things happen indeed even to otherwise rational people, and if that’s your suspicion about atheists, fine. Maybe you think that we are like Marxists, brought up in a capitalist society, thinking, questioning it, opposing it … and making leaps of faith on the way. Maybe your previous discussions with atheists led you to suspect this. Or maybe you haven’t discussed much with the atheists; perhaps you don’t read atheist literature and blogs; perhaps you meet mainly other Christians and your life concentrates around your church. That’s also fine: it is not your obligation to read atheist literature and in such a situation your suspicion that atheism is some strange religion is perfectly understandable. No offence taken for not knowing us. So … let’s search together whether we are guilty of such a leap of faith, shall we?

    Also, narrowness of mind is irrelevant to the issue of taking offence. If in the course of our conversation I find you narrow minded, not reacting to rational arguments, I will lose interest in our discussion. However, this is not a cause for an offence.
    And please feel free to ask me all of the questions from Greta’s list.

    Greta, I found your post very triggering. It’s arrogant and haughty. It’s designed to stop the conversation, not to teach someone anything of value. I can understand and accept this as a personal reaction of the atheist who had enough. I can even relate to this, as many times I had enough as well. But the prescriptivism built into your text sucks. I see it in fact as a perfect example of the STFU culture, which – I sincerely hope so – won’t reach the campuses in my country as long as I live.

  8. 8
    brucegorton

    Dear believer, you have every right not to accept declarations about “searching our hearts and minds” at face value, even if you heard them. You are free to think that we delude ourselves, just like we think that your religion is a delusion. Please don’t be offended by my questioning your religion, and I won’t be offended by your suspicion that in spite of all my thinking and searching, I made a leap of faith at some point.

    Seriously?

    What you are telling believers is that they can pretty much ignore whatever you have to say on the subject because they can automatically dismiss it as being based on ‘faith’ rather than evidence. You have just told them that it is okay to think “Well that’s your opinion” on matters of fact.

    That sort of thing is poison to inquiry.

  9. 9
    Ariel

    What you are telling believers is that they can pretty much ignore whatever you have to say on the subject because they can automatically dismiss it as being based on ‘faith’ rather than evidence.

    That’s absolutely *not* what I’m saying. What I’m saying is that they have a right not to accept at face value our declarations about how thoughtful we are. And they have every right to come to the discussion thinking that we are deluded. It’s very different from their ignoring whatever happens during the discussion.

  10. 10
    brucegorton

    @Ariel

    Except the idea of “Nonbelief requires just as much faith” isn’t something that comes up as a conversation starter, but generally as a gambit during the conversation.

    It is utilised as a ‘gotcha’ question, not to elicit an answer but to try and bolster the position of “faith” in an argument. If you are then going to tell believers “Yeah don’t take any of my talk of having reasons at face value, feel free to just assume I am basing it all on faith” you end up undercutting the reasons you supply.

  11. 11
    BradC

    Ariel-

    I’m not sure how you got the idea that Greta was saying that all atheists must be horrifically shocked and offended when asked any of these questions. Because, duh, atheists get asked these things all the time, which is kind of the point of the article.

    That doesn’t mean that there aren’t, in fact, offensive underlying assumptions behind the 9 questions in the article, and it is clearly worthwhile for Greta to point them out, to educate believers so they can ask a better question than these old tired ones.

    That’s why I strongly disagree with your claim that the article is “designed to stop the conversation, not to teach someone anything of value.” If a believer truly understands the problems with those 9 questions, then maybe they can start asking some actual good questions like “What led you to the conclusion that there isn’t any God?” or “Why don’t you believe that the Bible?” or “why is this (specific) evidence for God not sufficient?”

    Well, that’s probably a bit optimistic, they’ll probably just ask the same old questions anyway…

  12. 12
    Ariel

    brucegorton #10

    Except the idea of “Nonbelief requires just as much faith” isn’t something that comes up as a conversation starter, but generally as a gambit during the conversation.
    It is utilised as a ‘gotcha’ question, not to elicit an answer but to try and bolster the position of “faith” in an argument.

    As a conversation starter as well, but of course it is used sometimes in the way you describe.

    If you are then going to tell believers “Yeah don’t take any of my talk of having reasons at face value, feel free to just assume I am basing it all on faith” you end up undercutting the reasons you supply.

    Oh my. Bruce, read again Greta’s text. She wrote:

    The assumption behind this question is that atheists haven’t actually bothered to think about our atheism. And this assumption is both ignorant and insulting. Most atheists have considered the question of God’s existence or non-existence very carefully.

    Greta said in effect that the question shouldn’t be asked because … well, why? Basically because the atheist obviously have reasons. The atheists are wise. They are careful thinkers. They are non-conformists. They are cats. Everybody should appreciate it. It is demeaning and ignorant to suggest otherwise. Can you see anything else in this fragment? Greta’s answer doesn’t give reasons. It states: such reasons exists. So, don’t ask these questions. Don’t you dare suggesting that we might be irrational. Educate yourself before bothering the enlightened and non-conformist “us”.

    That was what my remark about “not taking the talk of having reasons at face value” referred to. If in the *real* conversation reasons for disbelief are stated (and not just haughtily alluded to), then we have a totally different story. In such a situation you (normally) see how your interlocutor reacts to your arguments, and you act depending on your assessment of his reaction as reasonable/silly/honest/dishonest etc. I’m not prescribing anything to you here; react as you see fit. Argue, laugh, get angry, whatever. However, if in the name of some Atheist High Council you try to decree that the theist shouldn’t ask me such questions (offensive!!!), then sorry but WTF? We are cats, have you forgotten? Please find some other animals to herd.

    BradC #11

    That doesn’t mean that there aren’t, in fact, offensive underlying assumptions behind the 9 questions in the article, and it is clearly worthwhile for Greta to point them out, to educate believers so they can ask a better question than these old tired ones.

    Read my answer to Brucegorton. I don’t agree that these questions are offensive. Question 3 is an example: if a mere suggestion that you haven’t thought something over offends you, then you are a real holy cow and I don’t want your standards of offence propagated in the name of ‘atheists’ – in my name in particular. (Of course these questions can be a real nuisance, I know that.) I don’t think also that haughtiness and quick, impatient arguments are good educational tools. If anything good comes for the believers from texts like that, it will stem from questioning them.

  13. 13
    sleepingwytch(inactive)

    Asked of trans people: “Have you had the surgery?”

    Kudos for you to putting that in there. Here are some links you’ll find interesting (about trans people) with information you can casually weave into any article on LGBTIQA you make in the future http://pastebin.com/217A57Jt

    Thanks for sticking up for us in this way Greta. =)

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