What do you do when your beliefs are questioned?

How do you guys feel when people want to debate your beliefs in person? Do you welcome it?

I automatically assume that if someone is questioning my beliefs that they see them as beneath theirs. Maybe their questions come from a place of curiosity, but somehow I doubt it. The judgment is written all over their face. Sly smile. Smartass questions. I’m not “enlightened” to them. Poor me. Sorry, you’re not going to save me today.

I really don’t care that I’m different from them, but I do care that I’m treated with respect. I want my beliefs to be respected in the same way they demand respect for their beliefs. We have the same basic needs — take care of our families, enjoy what we can of life, and feel safe. Can’t we just stand equal on that common ground?

I might write up a storm but I would never single someone out or put them down in person. The truth is if someone presented me with evidence of god and Jesus, I would become a Christian. Common sense, right? Unfortunately, it doesn’t work the other way around. I’m not interested in converting anyone anyway, but it would be nice to have my points validated. 

Some people are just small-minded and mean. My tolerance is low but somehow I just sit silent.

On A Side Note…

I feel weird calling atheism a “belief”, but not sure how else to classify it. To me, it isn’t a belief but rather valuing reason and common sense. How do you label atheism when you group it into a discussion about religion and spiritual beliefs?


  1. Bruce says

    The first question is: am I somewhere that I WANT to have such a discussion?
    If not, then I would start and end with Hitchens’s observation: that which is asserted without evidence may be dismissed without evidence. Say it out loud if you choose, or to yourself if you prefer.
    Also, if you didn’t sign up for a debate, you’re not obligated to perform on command, so don’t feel compelled. On no other topic would you expect a chat to turn in to a debate you can’t escape. Only engage when you feel like it.
    If you really feel you want to discuss it more with them, try to get a sense of whom you are doing this for. Are they personally open and sincerely interested themselves? If not, then maybe only discuss with them if there is an open audience there you want to influence (such as their kids). If not, don’t waste your time.
    If you end up having a discussion, see if it will end like this: one of us likes hamburgers medium rare, and the other prefers them medium well done. Would we expect to resolve which of us is “right” about that? Seriously, do you let the guy behind you in the burger line start an argument with you that you ordered yourself the wrong choice. He’s crazy in that case.
    Only after going through all these filters would I consider maybe engagbing in a meaningful chat.

  2. Bruce says

    On your other point, it can be said that humanism is a belief, yet perhaps simple atheism is not one. Yet certainly atheism is our view regarding the common question of what one believes, and so it would be cumbersome for us to speak without shortcuts. Sometime believers try to win word games by taking advantage of language patterns.
    Phrasing shortcuts are good most of the time. But when a more full discussion starts, we may have to go back and clarify what is meant before going on.
    For example, I hate the phrase “public square”, because it conflates the opposites of meaning a space where everyone can speak versus a space where the speakers are controlled by the government, such as a public school or courthouse. That is the entire issue under discussion, and some person wants to jump back and forth between two opposite meanings in every sentence. They may not even realize this is the key distinction. So don’t surrender the discussion in advance by accepting a faulty wording of your premise.
    They’re usually able to understand the distinction quickly when you switch to talking amount Islam or satanism in the public square. Remind them of the village in Oregon where the Bhagwan had his disciples buy and move in to and vote in a new city council. Should the Bhagwan’s agents decide the speech in the public square?
    Now their language ambiguity is not in their favor.
    Similarly, the word “belief” is sometimes used as view without evidence, but also sometimes used as view even with evidence. Don’t that them manipulate listeners by switching definitions secretly. Tim Minchin notes he has evidence that he and his wife love each other, even though one can’t “see” love. He says “love without evidence is stalking.”
    So don’t let others use word definition tricks to “win” a chat.

  3. billseymour says

    I can’t remember the last time that the subject of atheism came up in casual conversation, and I’m not an evangelist for it. (Some evangelists for atheism are not very nice people, and I don’t wish to be associated with them.)

    If the subject were to come up, I’d probably speak about it simply as a matter of fact. If the other person were to seem condescending, I’d first suggest that maybe they didn’t want to go there since they don’t know what’s around that corner. If they persist, I’d reciprocate; and they wouldn’t like it.

    As for atheism being a “belief”, it’s something that I accept without proof (although not without any evidence at all). I can’t prove that there’s no Odin, for example, but it seems to me to be extremely unlikely.

  4. pslattery says

    The way I like to think of it is that atheism is not based on belief, it’s based on knowledge.
    We know through centuries of scientific endeavors a huge amount of independently verifiable facts. Any one fact in isolation only proves a tiny bit of the overall picture. But you string them all together and a clear picture emerges.
    Brian Cox puts it well:
    “But during the filming of this series I developed a deep irritation with the intellectual vacuity of those who actively seek to deny the reality of evolution and the science of biology in general. So empty is such a position, in the face of evidence collected over centuries, that it can only be politically motivated; there is not a hint of reason in it. And more than that, taking such a position closes the mind to the most wonderful story, and this is the tragedy for those who choose it, or worse, are forced into it through deficient teaching.”

  5. Jazzlet says

    I tend to use the line “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”, remind them that they are the person making extraordinary claims, and that a text that is at it’s youngest two thousand years old, with all of the transcription errors that will have happened due to hand copying and the amibiguities introduced by translation, does not count as extraordinary evidence. But honestly it’s years since anyone seriously challenged my lack of belief, the last I recall couldn’t get over my lack of belief in god so the extent of their argument was”but you must believe in God, everybody believes in God”, “No I don’t believe in god” … “but youmust believe in God …” rinse and repeat for an hour (I was driving him and another colleague back from a meeting).

  6. StonedRanger says

    I dont classify atheism as a belief because it isnt one. It is an answer to a single question: Do you believe theists when they say some god exists. My answer is I do not know if a god exists, but the so called evidence of one that I have seen in my life of 65 years is insufficient for me to believe one does exist. When people talk about spirituality, I have no idea what they are talking about because not one person yet has been able to show me what a spirit is or where its located. When they say its in my heart I just have to shake my head. I am an atheist, but my actions are guided by my humanistic beliefs, not my atheism. I refuse to sit in silence anymore. If the theists cannot offer any more proof of their god than they have so far, then there really isnt much to talk about anymore.

  7. publicola says

    I think atheism is a belief–the belief that there are no gods/supreme beings/creators etc. If someone wants to have a civil discussion about it, I’d be glad to engage. But as soon as the conversation turns to preaching or accusations, I’m outa there. And this may seem strange, but having once been a devout Catholic, I can understand the comfort and reassurance that faith can give, whether or not it’s rational. That’s why I would hesitate to get too far into the debate, because I feel I can make a convincing argument against theism, and I would hate to rob someone of this comfort who is sincere yet tolerant in their beliefs. Of course, if they were real jerks about, I would be sorely tempted to empty both barrels on them, (figuratively, of course).

  8. John Morales says

    I feel weird calling atheism a “belief”, but not sure how else to classify it.

    ‘Belief’ refers to cognitive content held as true. And it can be provisional.

    Atheism may be grammatically defined as a privative (“lack of theism”), but it is nonetheless a belief; an atheist believes that belief in god(s) being actually existent is, to put it politely, without merit.

    I personally find no difficulty in justifying my beliefs, easy enough to do, but then, I like to argue.

  9. brucegee1962 says

    I’d also say that the actions and motivations they ascribe to their deity are inconsistent with a rational being, and anyone capable of creating the universe would need to be rational. But really, it never comes up.

  10. TGAP Dad says

    Frankly, these issues have not arisen for me since my college days (the 80s, for me). It may be due to the fact that I’m pretty candid and nonchalant about my beliefs, when asked. When I still had a FB account, I self-identified as atheist. This would occasionally lead to a “spirited” debate among people in my circle, in which I always tried to remain respectful. (There were a few occasions I fell short. When I recognized it myself, or when called out on it, I made sure to apologize for my tone but not my argument.)
    In-person debates almost never happen, probably because I don’t hang with crowds of devout religionists (in-laws notwithstanding). I work for a university, where a multitude of religious beliefs are represented among the staff. I also don’t walk that path at work. Ever. If someone from my office asks, I explain that I’d be happy to have that discussion outside of work hours and location. No one’s taken me up on it yet.
    I’ve also found it handy to stop panhandlers, who all seem to pull out the jesus card at my initial balk. I do this by pointing out the folly in a specifically christian appeal to a person whose religion is unknown. For some reason, my wife and I appear to be easy marks for them.

  11. says

    Atheism is an asbence of belief. Compare it to swearing an oath when testifying in court: those who say “so help me dog” are the religious who need supertural threats to make them truthful (and likely aren’t, even if they do). I don’t and don’t need to “swear” or “affirm” because I know there are legal consequences for perjury.

    When it comes to others challenging my views, I argue from their views instead. If they believe in the old testicles (the patriarchal religious book of shriveled old men) I ask them to demonstrate their claims (e.g. sticks to snakes, make a liquid swimming pool split so I can walk dry on the bottom, etc.). You’re never going to convince a fanatic, but pointing out their beliefs’ imossibility, hypocrisy and unwillingness to demonstrate what they claim usually works. And when it doesn’t, you know it’s because they have ill or violent intent.

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