How different?

Chris Stedman asks at Religion News what misconceptions people have about atheists. There are lots of them, he notes, and that’s probably because most people don’t know many atheists, or don’t realize they do.

But when people meet atheists, they have an opportunity to revise their ideas about who we are and what we believe.

In that spirit, the Yale Humanist Community is cosponsoring an “Ask an Atheist” panel with Hartford Faith & Values—Connecticut’s nonsectarian, nonprofit religion news website and an affiliate of Religion News Service—this Monday, April 7 as the kickoff event for our first ever Humanism at Yale Week.

Great idea. He gets the other panelists to give some misconceptions, then he adds one.

I think another misconception is the idea that atheists and theists do not and cannot identify shared values or areas of mutual concern.

This is a harmful and ultimately dehumanizing assumption, predicated for some on the idea that atheists are so completely unlike theists—and that the chasm between believers and nonbelievers is so vast—that it isn’t valuable or even possible to work together for the common good.

But the reality is that we aren’t as different as we may think. Theist or atheist, we’re all trying to construct meaningful lives, understand ourselves and others, and learn more about the world around us. So let’s get together and get to know one another better.

I think that overstates the common ground a little bit. I don’t think it’s true that all theists are trying to learn more about the world around us. That’s one of the things I really don’t have in common with theists, as I understand theism. I think theism entails a belief in something that depends on non-rational non-empirical support – that depends, in short, on faith. I think that fact interferes with wanting to learn more about the world around us. I think theism is a motivation to try to ignore or deny some parts of the world around us – the ones that interfere with belief in a god, which is what theism is.

On the other hand people can compartmentalize. I get that. They can and do. But that’s not reliable; it’s not built in; it can’t be assumed. You never know when the door to the compartment is going to be breached, and the god-belief breaks through to distort the cognitive functioning.

To put it another way, I can easily agree that I can work with theists on many kinds of projects. I don’t quite agree that I can – necessarily – work with theists on trying to learn more about the world around us. Maybe I can, but maybe I can’t; it depends on the theists and how tightly closed they keep the compartment.

It seems to me that’s something the two parties really don’t have in common.


  1. Al Dente says

    The major difference between theists and atheists is the question who are we responsible to? Theists, certainly of the Abrahamist god flavors, see the world as governed by an authoritarian being who’s omnipotent and various other omnis. When their god says “shit” they squat and make grunting noises. Atheists aren’t beholden to a powerful, supernatural creature who rules the entire universe and is deeply concerned about masturbation. We’re responsible for ourselves and for the world. Theists feel responsible to their god and to their god’s self-chosen representatives.

    Sure, there’s lots of commonality between theists and atheists, especially with more liberal theists. But the 600 pound gorilla in the room is who are people ultimately responsible to?

  2. Beth says

    I think the idea that we are all trying to learn about the world around us is as true for theists as it is for atheists. Technically, not all people are attempting that but I have not noticed any significant difference in the percent of people who harbor this desire (nearly everyone) between theists and non-theists.

  3. Kaveh Mousavi says

    Usually when it comes to “how atheists are misconceived”, I fit right into the misconception version. It’s true here as well: I really, genuinely, my right hand to flying spaghetti monster, don’t have much, or even a little, in common with religious people. With Muslims with whom I live in the same society I have almost nothing. Even with westerners.

    And it’s alright. I don’t want to live in a world where everyone is like ME. I can tolerate people even if they aren’t “just like me”.

  4. says

    Chris Stedman asks at Religion News what misconceptions people have about atheists. There are lots of them, he notes, and that’s probably because most people don’t know many atheists, or don’t realize they do.

    Or maybe they’ve been reading some tall tales about atheist parties, unidentifiable hors d’oeuvres, and mint juleps. 😉

  5. says

    Dennis Paul Himes, Connecticut State Director of American Atheists and co-founder and first president of Connecticut Valley Atheists:

    I think the biggest misconception, or at least the one I find myself noticing the most, is the idea that Atheists wish they could have faith, and are envious of those who do. For the most part Atheists are not only perfectly content to be without faith, but are happy they’ve managed to escape that fate….

    Really – I’m glad that Stedman’s involved with this effort and posting about it, but he has been one of the major promoters of this particular myth. It’s a key part of the whole faitheist shtick. If he’s moving in a new direction, great, but the particular misconception he himself mentions and his framing of it haven’t entirely eased my suspicions.

  6. cubist says

    The difference between theists and atheists is that theists must think I really, really want X to be true is a valid reason for believing X to be true… and atheists are not so encumbered. In practice, even theists generally recognize that wishful thinking is not a sound basis for believing a thing to be true—but wishful thinking is very much the rule for theists, when it comes to any matter related to the deity in which they believe. It’s compartmentalization, and for the most part, theists do tend to keep their crazy locked up in a box, only letting it out to play in well-defined, sharply restricted sets of circumstances (case in point: the insane Catholic belief that something which looks like a cracker, smells like a cracker, feels like a cracker, tastes like a cracker, chews like a cracker, swallows like a cracker, digests like a cracker, and is eventually excreted like a cracker… is, nevertheless, really and truly human flesh. because their shaman, i mean “priest”, cast a spell that transmuted it into human flesh).

    Of course, atheists can compartmentalize like theists do. But as far as I can tell, there’s nothing in atheism which would require an atheist to hold onto a Cherished Belief™ come hell or high water, nothing that requires atheists to deny obvious facts, nothing that requires atheists to engage in dizzying exercises of motivated reasoning just to convince themselves that there’s a half-decent chance that it might actually not be totally stoopid to accept a Cherished Belief.

    As we’ve all seen in recent years, atheists who pull that kind of shit have other reasons for it than god-belief.

  7. says

    Beth @ 2 – that doesn’t address my point. In fact it just ignores it. I explained my reason for thinking that theism can be an obstacle, and you just stepped over that.

  8. Beth says


    I didn’t think I was ignoring your point. I was trying to say that I think you are wrong in your assessment of theism and what it engenders. I was just trying to be circumspect rather than blunt. In short, I don’t think that the desire to understand the world around us is hampered by a person being religious. My apologies if you didn’t understand and that I was insulting you or being disrespectful rather than simply disagreeing.

  9. says

    Beth, no, it’s nothing to do with insulting or “being disrespectful” (you’re not 6, you don’t have to “be respectful” to me). It’s that just saying you disagree is not interesting; it doesn’t contribute anything. I suppose that is rude to all of us, in a way…

    At any rate, just saying “Nuh uh” is pointless. That’s all you’ve said. It’s pointless. Don’t be pointless.

  10. says

    Is it misconceptions, or another form of blood libel? It’s harder to foment hate when people see “them” as human beings – jews, blacks, LGBTQs, atheists. Perpetuating fictions and maintaining ignorance are the only way to justify or incite bigotry; the tide has turned on LGBTQ rights in the US because people started seeing them as human beings like any other, not as a “threat”.

  11. Gordon Willis says

    The major point is that the desire to learn about the world as it is in itself is not and cannot be the same as the desire to understand god’s creation. There is a fundamental difference which the words “learn more about the world around us” conceals. The one leads to knowledge regardless of any desire for human or personal “significance”, the other has as its goal an interpretation of the world related only to personal meaning (whatever “meaning” means). There is a search for knowledge and a search for meaning, and although these seem to go together there is a point at which the ways divide. Stedman seems to be trying to pretend that such a division can be slurred over, but it effectively destroys common ground except in the most trivial sense: we all “want to know” something or other about the world we live in.

    We could suppose that we all find our meaning in response to what we know. For the atheist, “what we know” are observed and established facts, for the Christian “what we know” before anything else is the redemption of God’s fallen creation through the sufferings of Christ and how all things — whatever they are — work together for good to them that love the one supernal Fact. So an atheist might be outraged at the needless suffering and waste of women’s lives that is the result of Catholic policy, while the Christian will humbly submit to God for the outcome — whatever it is, and reject actual knowledge as a proper basis of action.

    In this way, the desire to know about the world and to act on the basis of what is known would seem, from the atheist’s point-of-view, to be corrupted at the outset in the case of the believer. Perhaps you could say that for the atheist, meaning is what we make, but for the believer, meaning is truth. For the atheist, meaning emerges in personal life and is not mistaken for reality, whereas for the believer, meaning is something prior to what exists and is imposed upon it and ultimately revealed by the divine fiat.

    we’re all trying to construct meaningful lives

    Well, not really, not if, for some of us, the meaning is already granted. We atheists might be doing that, but the Christians’ task is to learn obedience. Stedman is like a blind man trying to blind people so that he can lead them. He wishes us to assume that we’re all the same really. No, we are not, and we will never agree; our only common ground is our humanity, and we can’t even agree on what that means.

  12. says

    Gordon @ 11 already somewhat made the point I’m wanting to make, which is that I’m not sure how much some theists are actively (key word) trying to construct meaningful lives. Because so many have it in their heads that their god provides their lives meaning.

    With that said, with there being no god actually providing meaning, they have to construct at least somewhat meaningful lives.

  13. Gordon Willis says

    A believer has a meaningful life by definition. And you can’t tell them there isn’t a god, because they know there is.

  14. says

    Thanks for the notice. It was almost all Atheists in the audience, but we had some good discussions. Although I’ve known Tanya well for years I had only met Chris briefly before Monday. Whether religion is sometimes good was one question where I disagreed with the other two. I claimed that it can be neutral sometimes wrt good or bad, but it’s never really good (although there are many good believers).


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *