How to talk to religious believers: A guide for atheists-2

In the previous post, I discussed how to deal with the concerned devout believer. Today I deal with a more difficult case.

The offended devout believer: Like the concerned believer, this reaction will come from someone who is devoutly and unquestioningly religious. But their reaction will be to take strong offense at the idea that you have rejected beliefs that they hold dear. Some of them will be people who are close to you. Parents often fall into this category since they are the ones who taught you their religious beliefs and your rejection of the beliefs will be interpreted also as a rejection of them.

Julia Sweeney, who grew up as a devout Catholic, in her show Letting Go of God describes her parents’ reaction when she said she was an atheist.

My first call was from my mother was more of a scream. ‘Atheist? ATHEIST?!?!’

My dad called and said ‘You have betrayed your family, your school, your city.’ It was like I had sold secrets to the Russians. They both said they weren’t going to talk to me anymore. My dad said, ‘I don’t even want you to come to my funeral.’. . . I think that my parents had been mildly disappointed when I’d said I didn’t believe in God any more, but being an atheist was another thing altogether. (The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins, p. 324)

But more likely it will be people who are little more than strangers or acquaintances. Some of these people will jump to the conclusion that because you are an atheist, you are a person with no morals or ethics and someone to be avoided for fear that you are a bad influence. Such people will also sometimes say “I will pray for you” but what they mean by this is quite different from the concerned devout believer. In this case it is merely a code for saying that they have no doubt that you will suffer the torments of hell and that they relish the prospect of looking down and seeing you suffer while they sit in their Laz-y-Boy in heaven, sipping their lemonade. They do really tend to think of heaven and hell in such concrete terms and have no doubt that they are the apple of god’s eye and have lots of treats in store for them when they die. This reaction will likely come from people who believe in the most extreme Biblical literalism, and even totally bizarre ideas like the Rapture.

Suggested response: There is no point getting angry with people who delight in the idea of their tightness with god and think that they know god’s mind so well that the things and persons they like and dislike are identical with what god likes and dislikes. God is so real to them that they would likely not understand what Anne Lamott was driving at when she said that: “You can safely assume you’ve created god in your own image when it turns out that god hates all the same people you do.” (Thanks to MachinesLikeUs for the quote)

Such people are hopeless. What can you say to people who actually delight the thought of other people suffering torments in hell? Sophisticated religious believers tend to think that such views are held by only ignorant people with an Old Testament mentality but that is not the case. Richard Dawkins writes (The God Delusion, p. 320) about the manifest relish with which many people write about others going to hell, smugly assuming that they are not in danger of ending up there.

Whatever they believe hell is actually like, all these hell-fire enthusiasts seem to share the gloating Schadenfreude and complacency of those who know they are among the saved, well conveyed by that foremost among theologians, St Thomas Aquinas, in Summa Theologica: ‘That the saints may enjoy their beatitude and the grace of God more abundantly they are permitted to see the punishment of the damned in hell.’ Nice man.

(Dawkins adds a footnote about proud Christian Ann Coulter who said ‘I defy any of my co-religionists to tell me they do not laugh at the idea of Dawkins burning in hell.’)

The only reaction to such people is to keep your sense of humor. You have to simply smile or laugh when people say these crazy things about atheists and atheism and express weird ideas about what might happen to you after you die. There is no reasoning with them because the ideas are so irrational and trying to do so is a waste of time. The best thing to do is to joke about going to hell and the like. Such people thrive on being fearful and creating fear in others. They cannot defend their religious ideas on any rational grounds. Heaven and hell are the only things they have and they use them to try and intimidate their opponents.

To treat the whole thing as a joke will infuriate them because it turns their biggest weapon into a damp squib.

Next: The religious fundamentalist intellectual.

POST SCRIPT: Comedian George Carlin on god and hell


  1. Katie says

    I actually think that museum sounds rather fascinating- creationism through the eyes of the man who designed the Jaws theme park ride? Sign me up!

  2. says

    Arvindh and Katie,

    Market researchers have suggested that the creationist museum is going to get quite a lot of traffic from curious and amused skeptics. I too wouldn’t mind checking it out, if I was passing that way.

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