A funny thing happened at my talk last Wednesday at Iowa State University. During the Q&A after the talk, an ardent religious believer asked me (paraphrasing here), “Why do you care so much about religion? If you’re an atheist, why do you spend so much of your life talking about something you don’t believe in? In fact, why do you do anything at all, ever, since you think that when you die you’ll just be nothing?” (There was more, but I didn’t hear all of it: he was rambling and repeating himself and getting ranty, and I soon shifted my focus from what he was asking to how I was going to get him to stop talking and let me answer the question. I finally just interrupted and said, “I’ll answer your question if you put the microphone down.”)
His question was a little off-topic, since that particular talk wasn’t a rant against religion. It was my talk on what the atheist movement can learn from the LGBT movement, and it was a whole lot of insider baseball: activism history, movement strategy, that sort of thing. (I’m actually surprised that this guy stayed for the entire talk: I think it’s a good talk, in fact it’s one of my favorites, but if you’re not involved in the atheist movement, I’d think it might be kind of boring.)
Anyway. I answered this guy’s question as best I could: explaining that I care about religion because I think it’s not only a mistaken idea, but one that does significantly more harm than good. I also mentioned that I had a book, Why Are You Atheists So Angry?, for sale at this very event, which explained in more detail why many atheists care about religion and work to oppose it. I then moved on to take a question from someone else — who stood up, spoke to my antagonist, and said, “I will buy you a copy of her book, if you agree to read it.”
And my antagonist said No. Even if given a free copy of my book, he would not read it.
And I said, “If you’re not interested in the answer to your question — why did you ask? Please don’t ask questions if you’re not willing to listen to the answers.”
Now, I’ll clarify here. I don’t think that every religious believer has an obligation to read my books about atheism. I don’t think they have an obligation to read any books about atheism. I hate it when believers insist that I have to read such-and-such religious text, or such-and-such book of sophisticated theology, before I can reject religion. As I’ve written before: At what point am I allowed to stop? I have read a considerable amount of religious theology and texts and arguments for religion, and it’s been a very, very, VERY long time since I’ve read an argument that I hadn’t heard before. At what point am I allowed to say that the likelihood of seeing a new argument is so vanishingly small that I can reasonably dismiss it? When do the goalposts stop moving? And besides, if the 356,287th argument for the existence of God is the real kicker, the one that will really convince me — then why didn’t believers make it their first one? (Thanks to arensb for that one.)
But this principle applies to believers, too. If they’ve already talked with some atheists, and read some writing about atheism, then I don’t think they’re obligated to read my books, or any other particular book, before they decide that they still believe. I think they have some other intellectual obligations — such as the obligation to state how their belief is falsifiable and what kind of evidence would convince them that they were mistaken. But given how annoyed I get when believers say, “Okay, you’ve read Aquinas… but have you read C.S. Lewis, or Alvin Plantinga, or Teilhard de Chardin?”, I’m not going to turn around and say, “Okay, you’ve read Dawkins… but have you read Hector Avalos, or Susan Jacoby, or me?”
If I were asking a specific question about religious belief, and someone told me, “That question is answered in such-and-such a book (or article, or blog post, or YouTube video, or juggling act), it explains it really well”? Then yes, I would bloody well read it. I certainly wouldn’t reject the very idea of reading it out hand. And I most certainly wouldn’t openly state, in a roomful of people, that I was not willing to read a book that answered the question I just asked.
I don’t feel an obligation to read every piece of sophisticated theology in the library before I reject religion. The question of “Are there any gods” has been answered to my satisfaction, and unless a seriously new argument or piece of evidence comes my way, I’m not feeling a compelling need to keep asking it. (And to answer the question of how I would know about a seriously new argument or piece of evidence for the supernatural if I’ve given up on reading them: I think that if a truly compelling argument or piece of evidence for God’s existence showed up, it would spread like wildfire. It would be impossible to ignore.) But if I had a specific question — like “How do Christians reconcile themselves to the Biblical acceptance of slavery?” or “What is the origin of the idea of karma?” — and someone said, “Here’s a place where you can find a good answer to that question,” I would bloody well not stick my fingers in my ears and run away screaming, “I can’t hear you, I can’t hear you, I can’t hear you!”
What’s that about?