What Can An Atheist Love In People’s Religiosity?

Earlier today, I argued that atheists can vigorously and outspokenly oppose bad faith-based ideas, values, and behaviors, but still love other aspects of the religiosity of their religious friends (and of religious people in general). I argued that religion can be as central to personal identity formation as sexuality is and that to indiscriminately hate everything religious about religious people would be to effectively make loving them overall impossible. I essentially tried to distinguish that you can reject the cognitive errors and the specifically immoral parts of their beliefs and practices without rejecting everything religious about them. You can more narrowly “hate” specific sins without hating the entire “religious” orientation of their personalities. In short, you can oppose their religion, without entirely opposing their religiosity–but can even love parts of their very religiosity itself.

Mary, who is a Roman Catholic theology student and a personal friend, is skeptical:

I like what you’re saying but I think that I’m having trouble believing that there really is a difference between “loving the sinner and hating the sin” and what you’re saying. If I have what you’re saying wrong, please correct me because I do genuinely want to understand what you’re saying.

Since I don’t actually think that there is anything wrong with how an atheist views or values the world (I can’t blame someone for not believing in an unseen or illogical God) I’ll use another example: I’m mostly anti-abortion. I’m not decidedly, always in every case against abortion. I can certainly see why people feel pushed to get them (a society that doesn’t value life and is sexist against women which puts them in a position of utter helplessness when they wind up pregnant). I don’t believe in throwing blood on women at abortion clinics and I’ve never protested one, but I do believe that the casual nature with which many women get abortions points to a really serious issue with personal responsibility and respect for human life. There is a certain type of abortion I really don’t respect and that actually makes me mad to think about – and that is adult women who come from stable economic situations with supportive families, a completed education, and a job getting an abortion because they don’t want to have a baby (this is, in fact, the largest growing demographic of women who get abortions). I have friends whom I know who are in precisely the position I just mentioned who would in fact get an abortion if they were to have an unwanted pregnancy. While I may have meaningful friendships with them, there is something fundamental about the way we view the world which would definitely push me ever from being as close to them as I am say, to my family, best friend, boyfriend etc. Whether rightly or wrongly, I believe they have extremely selfish ideas about when and where personal responsibility is important and when desire and comfort override love and sacrifice. And, on the converse, rightly or wrongly, they think that I have prosaic, religiously motivated, or even sexist views of women’s rights over their pregnancies. While we may not condemn or ostracize one another for this viewpoint, we certainly judge one another for it and that sort of judgment that points to the deepest way that someone views the world is hard ever to be truly overcome. As much as I might try to word it otherwise (and my friends on the other side) it really is a matter of loving the sinner and hating the sin. I don’t just dislike the opinion my friends hold concerning the issue, but the very part of them that motivates them to think that way – a part that I think is self-centered and lacking respect for life. And they don’t like the part of me which is anti-abortion – which they think is oppressive and narrow-minded. If I ever wanted to, say, seek advice from a friend that holds such an opinion on abortion, everything they said to me would be weighed against how they viewed life and responsibility and whether or not that world-view would negatively color their advice.

The same sort of issue stares in the face of the atheist vs. theist debate. For atheists whose atheism is a fundamental part of their self-identity and who don’t think that the God hypothesis is simply false but actually harmful, they don’t just dislike the religious opinions of their friends that help them to justify hateful, oppressive and evil viewpoints – they dislike the part of that person that would allow them to submit to the God hypothesis, and organized religion, in spite of the logical fact that no God hypothesis of any religious type can be proved and, even further, actually seems highly unlikely. I read in your blog time and time again how important statistical and fact-based truths are to the way you understand the world, process issues, and decide what is right and wrong. I know that by virtue of being a religious person and, even further, participating in organized religion, I am suspending my disbelief and believing things that are beyond logic and argumentation – which means that I dismiss as not that important the thing which you find most important in forming your world view and value judgments. I trust in things I can’t see or explain which is completely antithetical to everything you hold dear. Even if on the surface we hold similar opinions about tolerance, love, freedom, etc., can you really say that you “like” the part of me which chooses to ignore logic and believe in God? I find that hard to believe. Furthermore, while I may answer “faith is a gift” which is what motivates me not to condemn or judge atheists (while still thinking that they’re wrong), not every theist holds my position and would actually dislike the fundamental part of an atheist which motivates atheism.

On a personal level, I think that in every important relationship, there is a part of us that loves the sinner and hates the sin. But for issues that are part of the core of someone’s identity and how they interact with the world, could that ever truly be overcome? Would you, for example, marry a religious woman or seek out a Catholic priest for advice in a moral dilemma?

There is one religious woman who I do want to marry but have opted not even to ask out because our difference in beliefs is too decisive an issue for me (and, I expect, for her).

But, I still love her in many, many ways even though a whole lot of her identity is inextricably bound up with her faith. I identify with a lot of who and what she is and I even find that philosophically we agree on an immense amount. Her views and fundamental values on an abstract level, stripped of religious forms, are actually quite a bit like mine at their core. When I tell her about many infuriating forms of religion I encounter she’s as bewildered by them as I am.

We have some serious disagreements but we genuinely understand and respect each other’s positions and on some issues relate in terms of assumptions that I do not share with almost anyone else. And she actively empathizes with some of my frustration with superficial religious challenges. In many ways, we are closer to each other in beliefs and values than I am to any number of other people. We disagree about a few fundamental beliefs and values but they don’t lead to either of us engaging in activities the other would find terribly immoral. Our abstract values differences really do not divide us.

And another religious friend knows more about things I do that he would theoretically find immoral and it has never caused the slightest dent in our friendship. (I also know the worst things he has done, by either of our ethical standards. And in fact, I feel more comfortable disclosing embarrassing mistakes I’ve made to him than to anyone else.) Sometimes you can understand that someone’s actions are not motivated by any intrinsic wickedness but only by their difference in beliefs and so even though you yourself would not do what they do, you know they don’t do it from malice and that it leads to little or no harm, and so you don’t think less of them. You can accept that they are just doing what looks best to them and that they are a well-intentioned and overall virtuous person who just makes a different judgment call on some value decisions.

I also know one of my great religious friends had a remarkable, admirable humility that was part and parcel with being a Christian. He was among the least judgmental people I have ever met and simultaneously one of the most devout. When you said something he found offensive he would meekly register his disappointment with an “oh no” and then let you keep going. He could get passionate but never made it personal and never imposed anything on anyone.

A couple months ago another religious friend treated me unfairly in a heated debate and as soon as I called him on it, he examined himself and apologized. I saw his willingness to introspect and unhestitatingly admit his fault as an expression of his conscientious Christian nature that is regularly habituated in confessing his sins. Of course this introspective nature did not have to spring from his religion, but in his case it did. In both these cases, I simultaneously processed my friends’ behavior as religiously motivated, as distinctly an expression of their religiosity, and admired it no less for that.

When I see religious people give their lives to genuine, no-strings-attached charity or stand up for gay rights or for human rights in general, I can appreciate our common values. And insofar as these values, in their personal cases, are religiously constituted, I can admire that kind of religiosity for its fruits. I can see it as a kind of religiosity that I like and not have to scrub the religious part of it to appreciate the person. When my religious friend is astoundingly tolerant and genuinely loving to me despite the fact that I am his putative enemy, I don’t hold it against him that he thinks God wants him be like that, it is a beautiful attitude and virtue he expresses and I think, finally a real Christian! I can admire the excellence of his character for its own sake even if I think his ideas are screwy.

I even admire one friend’s utterly private religiosity. I love that I had no idea about her faith until after a decade knowing her someone mentioned it to me. I instantly imagined this whole intense side of her and wondered about the practices she secretly engaged in and thought that her ability to live a Matthew 6:5 sort of religiosity was a neat thing about her.

And I admire the intense struggles of faith that religious people suffer. I wish they would just let the nonsense that has overwhelmed them go, but I feel for them as they are tormented between conflicting values and ideas and identify much more with them than some apatheist who tells me he does not even want to be called an atheist because to him the question of God is something he utterly does not care about. My spirit is much more kindred to the soul in the dark night of faith than it is to someone who thinks the titanic questions of ethics and metaphysics and meaning and tradition are just a waste of time.

And I can appreciate if someone has a love of ritual and music and tradition and meditation. When I was religious and attending an evangelical Christian college I used to love to show up an hour before the Sunday night chapel every week and watch the choir warm up and enjoy the whole performance when the service started. Why need I resent my religious friends their love of the organ, the choir, or the pageantry? I remember how intense my religious community was. How could I begrudge people their hugs or their holding of hands with fellows while they fervently express their thoughts and hopes and fears aloud in common prayer?

How could I begrudge them the ways they listen to each other and support each other in times of crisis? I remember people who used prayer circles to talk for the first time about being abused and I remember being able to pray with them and contribute to their feeling safe and loved and supported. There’s nothing to hate about any of that and if I am fair to my religious friends I will appreciate that a lot of their religious life may very well involve edifying, nurturing, loving moments just like that.

Why not appreciate their spiritual intensity that is like my own? (And why not appreciate that my own characteristic intensity was religiously forged.) Why not appreciate others’ sublime calmness and religiously centered unflappability? Why dislike their religiously constructed optimism, their struggles to be good, their fear of disappointing their parents, their willingness to self-sacrifice, their sense of reverence, their ecstatic moments, their appreciation of the interconnectedness of all things, their wild imaginations, their mythologies, their sense of purpose, or their burning hope for more life than we are allotted on Earth?

There are so many very good, very human, very sincere parts of people’s natures that religious people channel and shape through religious forms. And I can appreciate these human beings, lovable as any other human beings, as expressed through these forms, even though my skin crawls when they preach at me, when they attack reason, when they manipulate people’s emotions, when they get self-righteous, when they suffocate creativity, when they villainize human nature, when they promulgate falsehoods, when they encourage bad habits of thought, when they acknowledge false authorities, when they prop up corrupt institutions which are based on lies, when they oppose scientific and moral progress, when they get hysterical about sex, when they become sticks in the mud, when they indoctrinate children, when they abuse vulnerable groups, and when they politically organize on the side of oppression and ignorance.

There are lots of virtues they express in religious forms which are nonetheless virtues. There are lots of harmless spiritual and ritualistic exercises that in themselves I can fully appreciate their attachment to. Prudishness, preachiness, self-righteousness, hypocrisy, moral regressiveness, authoritarianism, and anti-intellectualism are not all the fruits of people’s religiosity. Most actual religious people I know don’t have more than one or two of those traits in an overwhelming degree, if they have that many. Most of the things that express their religiosity are themselves either matters of indifference or worthy of affirmation. I wish atheists had in place forms through which people could express these sides of themselves so they could be just as “religious” and yet not be faith-based thinkers, not be morally regressive or irrationally uptight, not be absolutists, not be superstitious, etc. Because so much else about religious people and about being personally religious is not really all that bad.

Finally, to answer your final question—I did a few times ask a priest for advice while I was an atheist, but not because he was a priest. Rather I asked because he was then my philosophy department’s chairman and, so, my boss. And his advice in both cases was exceptional and I quote it often. I would ask any wise person for his or her rationally defensible advice, regardless of whether or not he or she is wearing a clerical collar. And I will assess such advice as I would anyone else’s—by reason and with no prejudice due to that person’s race, color, creed, or sexual or religious orientation.

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.

  • Mel Heyman

    Dan, this is such a beautiful and fair piece

  • Mel Heyman

    (sorry typing on my phone is not conducive to long winded remarks. Anyway- this is just beautiful and thank you for writing it. One of the surprising results of the text for me was that you captured my continued attachment to faith institutions, while maintaining a solidly atheist structure of belief. And allowed me some insight in my reluctance to define my belief structure as atheist. (I tend to use agnostic.) thanks for the self revelation.

    • Daniel Fincke

      Thanks so much, Mel, it means a lot to be credited with such an effect.

  • Kyle

    Dan you’re becoming one of my favorite writers. I actually share many of the same sentiments you do.

    I’ll take it further. Even a few of my fundamentalist evangelical friends and family members are many times quite engaging.

  • Mary Young

    I wish your blog had a “like” button.

    • Daniel Fincke

      We do have a share button, which I encourage people to use liberally. :)

  • Female abortionist

    Did your friend Mary ever consider that her friends and others who get abortions ARE being responsible… maybe not in the “every sperm is sacred” kinda way, but why bring another unwanted child into the world, who would be resented and/or neglected by the mother… and adoption, yada yada yada… always an option, got it, but there are plenty of unwanted children already… Until it is viable outside of the body, its just a parasite… EVOLVE!

  • Megan

    I enjoyed reading this. You brought up some very good points.

  • Megan

    I know this a bit off topic, but as a woman in a stable economic situation who doesn’t want children and would get an abortion if I ever did get pregnant, I think your friend needs to understand something.No doctor I have yet found will tie my tubes or give my husband a vasectomy because we are under 25 without 2 children already.It’s a stupid rule in the medical community. Although I take birth control everyday without fail and it has proven to be effective for many years, if for some reason it did fail, I would be forced to choose between having a child or getting an abortion. Choosing abortion may be selfish, but if the whole rule from the medical community about performing surgeries on couples who truly wish to not have children wasn’t so ridiculous, I’d never have to think about making that choice. Just something to think about.

    • Kathleen

      I will vouch for Megan’s claim, and I am horrified that this kind of “rule” is still in place. I had my second child at 20, did not want to have any more children, and asked to have my tubes tied. Doctor after doctors refused, because at 20 the “rule” was a woman that age had to have 4! children already.

  • Mary C. Young

    I didn’t include my thoughts on abortion because I wanted to talk about the merits of the abortion position, but to show how sometimes opinions we hold are more than just opinions. They get to the very core of how we see the world and that can make it hard, in my opinion, to get past certain obstacles of friendship. This isn’t a matter of “I voted for Obama and you voted for McCain because you think x economically and I think y militarily.” Some issues are deeply imbedded in our personal morals and what we think about when something is absolutely right or absolutely wrong.

    It is perfectly legitimate if you think that getting an abortion is the responsible thing to do, I can only say what I believe to be the right moral choice. Many many moral, responsible people come down on either side of the issue and so I’m not about to condemn someone for thinking that I’m wrong. I’m saying that what motivates me to be largely anti-abortion comes from the deepest ways I view the world and the life within it – my “ur” values so to speak which means that I can see how in certain situations it might prove to be an obstacle to certain relationships. I might, for example, find it hard to date or marry a man who is pro-abortion because if I found myself with an unwanted pregnancy, I would not want the pressure of someone expecting me to terminate it.

    My thought there is that many atheists don’t just think that religious people are misguided but that they are wrong both intellectually and morally. The part of religious people that allows them to believe things that are illogical is offensive to people who have often radically reoriented their lives in the name of finding the truth through logic and reason. My question to Dan was can he truly see past that in someone? And he answered my question quite well.

    • Adilegian

      Hi Mary. I am a Presbyterian (PC-USA), and I appreciated your comments and clarity greatly. Thank you for sharing your investment in all matters involved here.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ormond.otvos ormondotvos

    You say:

    “they preach at me,
    when they attack reason,
    when they manipulate people’s emotions,
    when they get self-righteous,
    when they suffocate creativity,
    when they villainize human nature,
    when they promulgate falsehoods,
    when they encourage bad habits of thought,
    when they acknowledge false authorities,
    when they prop up corrupt institutions which are based on lies,
    when they oppose scientific and moral progress,
    when they get hysterical about sex,
    when they become sticks in the mud,
    when they indoctrinate children,
    when they abuse vulnerable groups, and
    when they politically organize on the side of oppression and ignorance.”

    I think you have a long way to go, and ideological philosophizing is going to be a hell of a lot less useful than cognitive science and evolutionary psychology.

    It’s not theology, but its progenitor, ideology, that you’re looking for.

    Right now it seems a bewildered mishmash.

    All you seem to have explored is words.


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