Atheist’s Parents Have Trouble Hearing The Word Atheist

Richard Wade’s advice column this week is on a great topic, which is well illustrated by the comic he leads with:

You're a Whaat?!

In the letter which occasions this topic of discussion, Trevor describes his mother’s  reactions to his atheism:

the next day she continued saying “I can’t believe you think you’re an atheist…how can you have any hope? Why do you even bother getting up in the morning?” I countered with the fact that regardless of her belief in God, she doesn’t get up every morning simply because of that fact either. She ignored that, talking about how she “knows” she’s seen a dead pet in heaven (in a dream) and how she “knows” there’s a god.

And here’s a key bit of Richard’s reply:

Generally I think people’s fear about atheists and atheism comes from three sources. One source is the many slanderous myths spread for millennia mainly by clerics to isolate their flock from contagion by unbelievers. The hatred and derision shuts up the doubters in their midst, and if they dare speak up anyway, they’re driven out.

The second source of fear is the threat to their own fragile faith when they meet an intelligent, sane, decent, and successful person who just isn’t convinced of their cherished belief. The scary implication is that if this person doesn’t buy it, then maybe they shouldn’t either.

The third source is usually reserved for parents. Their child’s unbelief might suggest to themselves that they are failures as parents, and suggest to their community that they are deficient in their own faith.

Both Trevor and Richard have much more worth reading in the full post.

And you can see some of my own thoughts on another possible cause of atheophobia in my post on The Threatening Abomination of the Faithless.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Roger Williams

    The response seems to ALWAYS be about having no hope.

    I am not sure I understand that, unless one simply can not deal with REALITY, with life the way it is!! I always ask, “No hope in WHAT??” Why do “believers” think there is virtue in “hope” in speculation and fairy tales? Is that better, to live a guessing game, waiting for some future family reunion of which there is not a single thread of evidence? Or is it better to live a good life here and now…within reality??

  • M

    I think the “no hope” response comes because of a fundamental difference in what is being said when someone uses the word “God.”

    When an atheist says “God,” he means a supernatural being of some particular variety, like the Christian God or the Muslim God. He uses the word to refer only to the being itself.

    When a theist uses “God,” the word can often be replaced with all sorts of other aspects of a worldview, like love, hope, life, morality, fear, self-confidence (“I’ve got God on my side!”), etc… This is what god means to most people. There is almost literally no separation in their minds between the being itself and these other wordlview aspects. When someone says “I believe in God,” I can almost guarantee they are *thinking* something like “I have hope for a better tomorrow” or “I believe in justice” or “I’m proud of my moral code.” In fact, they’re probably saying anything EXCEPT “I believe that a supernatural being exists.” Most times it’s a moral statement being made, not a factual one. They’re not even aware of this distinction.

    So when an atheist says “I don’t believe in God,” a theist hears “I don’t believe in Love.” or “I don’t believe in Justice.” And in that light, their reaction seems rather normal. If a person came up to you and said, “Love, Hope, Morality — none of these exist,” you’d be a little weirded out.

    At this point the atheist will get all flustered. “But you CAN’T DO THAT! Words should only mean 1 thing!” Well, double entendres would argue otherwise, buddy.

    A theist equates God with Love, Hope and all those other things. This is a fact. Getting mad that they’re abusing the words is irrelevant and misses the wider point — words convey thoughts, and it’s the thoughts you should be focused on, not the words.

    So next time you’re going to have a good atheist/theist argument, try something new. Use *their* words instead of yours. Pretend the word “God” means Love, or Hope, and argue from that standpoint. Which is to say, don’t use the word, because it will only confuse. Always use “supernatural being,” to teach them the meaning of your words. Example: “I think it’s amazing how we can trace the atoms in our body to phenomena in the stars. This knowledge fills me with Love and Hope, and none of it needs a supernatural being.”

    Trust me, it’ll make a lot more sense to the theist, and if they learn to distinguish between God the Being and God the Metaphor, they’re about 80% of the way towards atheism, and 100% of the way towards looking at atheists as normal people.

  • Richard Wade

    Wow, M, Thank you for that! That really explains many confused and seemingly futile discussions I’ve had in the past. I’ll definitely take your advice and apply it.