30 atheist discussion topics

I’ve long been involved in the local atheist student group. I really mean “long”–through both undergrad and grad school. I perpetually complain about the group, but never leave, and never lift a finger to help. This is probably important to understanding Who I Am As A Person.

Well, the leadership said they were looking for more discussion topics. I can help with that. I e-mailed them thirty topics that I came up with off the top of my head. If you run an atheist group anywhere, you are free to borrow any of these.

  1. Atheist characters and themes in fiction.
  2. Growing up in a religious or non-religious household.
  3. Sex and secularism: how does religion or leaving religion affect our sex lives? See this study.
  4. Effective Altruism
  5. Science and religion: enemies or strangers?
  6. Does religion fulfill any human needs?
  7. California propositions! (we want to discuss presidential candidates, why not local politics too?)
  8. Share your favorite stories from your favorite sacred text
  9. Why aren’t atheists sad like Nietzche? Some people are confused.
  10. Why are atheists so focused on Christianity (or are they)? What about other major religions, and minor religions?
  11. “Belief in belief” – how nonreligious people often come to the defense of religion
  12. Religion vs reproductive health
  13. Religion vs queer and trans people
  14. “Sinning” and other models of morality
  15. Consciousness and the afterlife (are people agnostic or opposed?)
  16. Labels – How many people think of themselves as atheist, agnostic, godless, heathen, skeptic, humanist, etc.?
  17. Atheism and mental health – When atheists often say religion is caused by mental illness, where does that leave mentally ill atheists?
  18. Dealing with your family as an atheist
  19. Are you “out” as an atheist?
  20. Testing the paranormal – psychics, parapsychologists, Randi’s Million Dollar Challenge
  21. Cosmological arguments
  22. Was Jesus, as depicted in the bible, a good person, or kind of a jerk?
  23. Objectivism (ie Ayn Rand) – An atheistic philosophy that I presume most of the group dislikes.
  24. Conscientious objectors to blood transfusions, vaccines, birth control, and other health care
  25. Teleological arguments (ie from “design”)
  26. New religions, like Scientologists or Moonies (may require research)
  27. Atheist assholes – Why do people keep on telling me about that one atheist jerk they knew in high school?
  28. Is it okay to lie to kids about Santa?
  29. Different varieties of creationism (you can find some hilarious arguments between young-earthers and old-earthers)
  30. Do we have a responsibility to counter religion?

Readers are invited to suggest any other topics in the comments.

One major constraint is that it can’t be a topic that requires research. Some topics are interesting enough that there’s a critical density of students who have already read about it on the internet. But for other topics, students simply won’t invest the time. Sometimes they just find articles during the meeting and bring them up on a projector, but this isn’t great. Possibly some of my topic proposals have this problem.

Most of these are also viable blogging topics. If you’re interested in any particular one, let me know and I might write about it.


  1. says

    In my experience, Santa leads to more heated discussion among atheist students than nearly any other topic. I was never taught to believe in Santa and I turned out fine, so there 😛

  2. says

    I think you have 17 backwards.

    Nobody says that mental illness “causes” religion. Seriously. Nobody.

    We DO say that religion can cause new, or exacerbate existing, mental illnesses, and keep people from seeking treatment.

  3. says

    Oh, people say exactly stuff like that in this very group. More often, it’s phrased as religion *being* a mental illness. Basically people are awful. That’s why I perpetually complain.

  4. StevoR says

    @1. Great American Satan :

    On the Greta Christina no Sanata #28 one, see :


    & http://gretachristina.typepad.com/greta_christinas_weblog/2011/08/the-santa-delusion.html

    Which, I guess, are the one’s you were thinking of?

    I’d like to add 31. which I ‘spose is a sub-set of #22 – what did Jesus have against fig trees* anyhow and why kill it rather than miracle up some fruit for it like with the loaves and fishes trick?

    * See : http://www.thebricktestament.com/the_life_of_jesus/jesus_curses_a_tree/mt21_29.html

  5. Emily (luvtheheaven) says

    Could you explain what you mean by “Belief in belief” in quotation marks in #11 or what example situation you were thinking of? I’m curious now…

  6. sablin27 says

    What makes something a religion? (Why are cat-people and nationalism not religions when Buddhism is?)
    Who are your favourite atheists and what do they have to say?
    Religion as a historical institution – What is outdated in religions but not discarded?
    Religion as a historical institution – How has religion has shaped our society? (eg. sundays, Christmas, music, laws, prejudice)
    Is the pagan approach to religion – picking Gods they like – more sensible than monotheism?
    If the Christian God did exist, would He be worthy of worship?

  7. agender says

    “belief in belief” is the idea that religion is useful for the powers that be, and therefore the “little man” (women and minorities are being excluded in this worldview anyway) has to be told it was true.
    Critique of Practical Reason (Kritik der praktischen Vernunft, 1788),by philosopher Immanuel Kant is the normative text on this (and is often mixed up with the same late author´s Critique of Pure Reason (Kritik der reinen Vernunft, 1781), which comes to the conclusion that religion is not true.
    In our wave of atheism it is Dan Dennett (also a philisopher) who distinguishes between believers and those who “believe in belief” because of their differences in attacking us nonbelievers.

  8. says

    “Belief in belief” is a phrase coined by Daniel Dennett in Breaking the Spell (AFAIK, I didn’t read it). It describes people who don’t themselves believe in religion, but for some reason insist that religion is a good thing and it’s good that other people believe in it.

    One nice thing I will say about Richard Carrier is that he had a compelling explanation of how the fig tree represents Jewish temple worship. It’s a fairly transparent literary device, but difficult for modern readers to understand because it relates to a political dispute from two millennia ago.

  9. says

    Speaking from 9 years of experience in atheist student groups, it’s pretty systematic that people say religion is a mental illness or caused by one. It’s not a uniformly held view (otherwise I would avoid suggesting that we discuss it), but it is a common one.

    But I take it that you’re looking for evidence outside of my (admittedly unrecorded) personal experience. A short search revealed pages such as “Religion is a Mental Disorder” and “7 Reasons Religion is a Mental Disorder“. There are also articles written from the other side, such as “What This Depression Survivor Hears When You Call Religion A Mental Illness“. Presumably such articles would not be written if nobody ever said that. You could also check out the panel on mental illness in FTBCon. I don’t remember what exactly they said, but I am confident that they touched on the topic.

  10. says


    That’s still not what I said, OR what was asked in the original question!

    The claim in question is that “mental illness causes religion”! Not if religious beliefs are a mental illness.

    And frankly, when one’s religious beliefs interfere with one’s ability to function, then it can be called a mental illness.

  11. Vivec says

    Must have been back around the whole crackergate debacle, but Nerd and a couple other pharyngulites did make statements to the effect of “religious people are delusional and utterly divorced from the world of the sane”, which does directly imply mental illness (delusion and insanity). Yes, it was petty rhetorical sniping, but that doesn’t make it okay.

  12. says

    I was thinking of a particular trope in which people draw parallels between religion and mental illness. Now I came up with these topics “off the top of my head” and as it turns out the particular phrasing I put in the topic title is not in fact the most common way to phrase the trope. Thus, I may have miscommunicated to you which particular trope I was referring to. Luckily I am here to clarify any miscommunications, problem solved.

    Except, except, that you seem to be espousing a form of the trope yourself?

    when one’s religious beliefs interfere with one’s ability to function, then it can be called a mental illness.

    If you thought that phrasing it in a very particular way would cause me to agree with you, then you were wrong. But I’m not going to argue with you about it unless I’m writing a blog post about it.

  13. says


    I’m not espousing a form of the trope at all, and you still have it backwards.

    It’s possible to be religious and healthy.

    It’s possible to be atheist and mentally ill.

    Religious beliefs in and of themselves are NOT an indicator of mental illness. They’re an adaptive behavior, and typically benign.

    It’s like the difference between double-checking you locked the door, and repeatedly locking and unlocking because you can’t leave until you’re absolutely sure.

    The difference between being a conscientious hand-washer and scrubbing your hands raw because they’re not clean enough.

    The difference between being a little nervous and being completely crippled by irrational anxiety.

    D’you get it now?

    Religion ≠ mental illness

  14. Great American Satan says

    WMDKitty – You started out making an overly broad declarative statement (“no one says thing X”), then started waging war on semantic grounds. Maybe chill, or if this has you extra mad for some reason, write a post about it somewhere and link to it. You might benefit from asking yourself why this has you mad, though.

  15. says

    @GAS — I’m far from being upset or mad, just a bit confused as to why Siggy is insisting it’s one way around when the question in the OP was clearly the other way around. You’ve both indicated that you think both statements are identical. They’re not, and I’ll show you why:

    FTA: “Mental illness causes religion.”

    The key word there is “causes”, meaning thing A [Mental Illness] is directly responsible for thing B [Religion].

    Siggy is now inverting A and B, and arguing that “B causes A” is somehow the same statement as “A causes B”

    Now, one could argue that religion is a form of mental illness, and in some individual cases where one’s religious beliefs become full-blown psychoses and place the believer or others in harm’s way, I’d support this statement.

    I myself have argued that religion contributes to and/or exacerbates existing mental illnesses. (Particularly anxiety disorders.)

    But it’s utterly disingenuous to say that either of these arguments is fundamentally identical to and interchangeable with “mental illness causes religious beliefs”.

    The two arguments I put forth above do imply that there is a correlation between religiosity and mental illness. And there seems to be a loose correlation. Perhaps because many mentally ill people seek refuge in religion as a coping mechanism.

    The OP’s argument necessarily implies that the mentally ill, as a group, are responsible for world-wide suffering and pain in the name of God. That’s ableist, and not okay.

    The mentally ill didn’t “create” religion, and we’re not responsible for the propagation of religion. If anything, we are victims of religion.

    One last thing — as someone with multiple mental illnesses, do I not have the right to be upset and even angry when someone not only directly blames us for something, but then doubles and triples down when the difference between mental illness and religious belief is explicitly spelled out? As a disabled person, do I not have the right to be angry when someone engages in ableist rhetoric?

    If not, let me know, and I’ll happily go somewhere activism is welcome. I wouldn’t want to burden your consciences by asking you to consider the ableist implications of your statements.

  16. Great American Satan says

    You really think Sig was saying that is a position they hold? I read the opposite. Activism against ableism is fine, I’ve sided with it to the detriment of getting along with people on FtB before. Pretty sure Sig’s inclusion of that as an item on the list was more “why do people say this?” than “I say this.” You’ve put them in the position of defending the phrasing of a statement that was never intended as a statement of their own beliefs, which is a weird situation.

    Also, your initial statement still was overly broad and inaccurate. “Nobody says X” is usually incorrect because people say all kinds of shit, wrong and ableist or true and not or whatever. It came off like you were saying a certain type of ableism never happens, which is clearly not what you meant.

    Whatever your disagreements since the initial bone of contention, I think you read that bone wrong.

  17. Great American Satan says

    Then again, I should probably take your words at their exact value and meaning, as near as I can read them, because your spelling, grammar, and most of your reasoning seems impeccable. You really don’t think any atheist has ever said mental illness causes religion. I wouldn’t be surprised if a thousand atheists between FtB, youtube, and beyond had said exactly that, though the more common formulation, as has been said, is that religion is a mental illness.

    I can agree with much of what you say regarding religion being a bad thing for some people with mental illness, if not all of the phrasing. But I don’t see why you’d defend any atheist community from accusations of any given flavor of ableism. Hell, nine out of ten pages of the Pharyngula archive include ableist language above the fold. Ableism is arguably a more fundamental problem in atheist activism than misogyny, because it’s closely linked to the core of any pride we feel in being right about gods & such.

    “But it’s utterly disingenuous to say that either of these arguments is … interchangeable…. The OP’s argument necessarily implies that the mentally ill, as a group, are responsible for world-wide suffering and pain in the name of God. That’s ableist.”
    Whether or not the arguments are interchangeable is irrelevant to the OP because Sig was never arguing that either phrasing was correct or accurate. They were advocating against ableism through a hypothetical discussion topic and you somehow turned that into them being ableist.

    There was no argument in the OP, merely the idea that suggesting a causal relationship between mental illness and religion could make a mentally ill atheist feel some type of way. You’re saying the direction of that causal relationship is super important and maybe it would be in this conversation, if Sig had actually been proposing that either direction would be reasonable, which they weren’t.

  18. says

    Um yeah just confirming GAS’s interpretation of the OP. I was not claiming any parallel between mental illness and religion, and was instead saying that other atheists say that, and I was challenging the ableism of such statements.

    My interpretation of WMDKitty’s initial comment was that they thought I was strawmanning atheists by putting words into their mouth. But maybe there is another interpretation? I’m still mystified about the defensiveness in this conversation.

    Regardless of anything else, I still flatly disagree with the statement quoted in #16. I could write a blog post about how interfering with ability to function is definitely not sufficient to call something a mental illness, probably based on a relevant academic article. But that takes time to write and I will not waste that time in this thread.


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