Help Break The Spell Of Religious Reverence (Tip 5 of 10 For Reaching Out To Religious People)

1. Don’t Call Religious Believers Stupid.

2. Make Believers Stay on Topic During Debates.

3. Don’t Tell Religious Believers What They “Really Believe”.

4. Clarify What Kinds of Evidence Warrant What Kinds of Beliefs.

5. Help Break The Spell Of Religious Reverence.

Religious people are often on a hair-trigger to be offended. And they will often want you to “respectfully” refrain from irreverently treating the objects of their reverence. But you shouldn’t treat what they treat as above reproach or ridicule because when you do that, you implicitly affirm, and behave as though, these things are out of bounds for criticism. In effect, you treat these things as holy. In this way you inadvertently share the religious values about what may or may not be criticized and how it may be tackled if at all. In this way, you submit to their religion’s rules. In this way you let a religious culture co-opt your own conscience and give religious rules control over your own feelings about what is holy, i.e. “set apart” and “sacred” and “worthy of respect”.

As Nietzsche puts it, you must “break your revering will” and you should help the religious snap the spell their holy subjects have on them by treating them irreverently when appropriate. Recasting what they only want to see in an ideal light in harsher or sillier lights makes them have to think about other perspectives on what they treat as sacred. This is a stepping stone for them to understand and experience alternative (and truer) ways to seeing and treating what they reflexively revere. It’s okay to make them uncomfortable and cause conflict within them in these ways. It is a potential step towards breaking their undue reverence. This is why outright mockery (of ideas and of practices, but not of people–unless it is a friendly form of teasing which is not excessively cruel, bullying, or dehumanizing) and “blasphemy” are morally justifiable.

And since religious people’s reverences are usually blown way out of proportion–reaching to the unjustified levels of worship, it should not be unqualifiedly respected but vigorously challenged in a range of ways. Part of the very thing you are criticizing is the wrongness of worshiping itself and of overly submitting to wholly unjustified intellectual and moral authorities themselves and traditional objects of veneration itself. Part of that challenge is to lead by example and refuse to revere and to refuse to defer in the ways they do. Part of it is to desensitize them to the idea that these things can be dragged through the mud of no-holds-barred critique and mockery just like all other ideas are, so that it is conveyed that they (the ideas, not the people) are nothing special.

I would not go out of my way to be especially, gratuitously obscene. I wouldn’t mock in a fit of malice or anger or personal disrespect or total callous indifference to others’ feelings or any other nastiness. I would not go out of my way to insult the person who reveres this religious figure or practice or icon, etc., even if I am willing to risk their being offended at my lack of shared deference to what they irrationally over-esteem.

On some level I would treat with respect what is simply a matter of different culture and practice. I would always keep an eye on respecting the believers themselves and insofar as a practice is just a ritual and a cultural form for them, I would not go out of my way at all to disrespect it. But when it becomes a matter of truth or unhealthy reverence, the deference must end. When it becomes a matter of exercising and modeling my right to be irreverent then principle says I should be irreverent. I cannot force the religious to be irreverent with me of course. That’s the deal though. Both of us are entitled to explicitly revere or express independence of the same thing at the same time. That’s fairness and it is how you subtly and crucially assert and defend the rights of conscience and the ethos of criticizing and testing all ideas equally.

Your Thoughts?

More thoughts on these issues were in the following posts: My Thoughts On Blasphemy Day, In Defense of Mocking and Embarrassing Religion, and How Atheists Treat Religious Dictates as Holy.

6. Don’t Demonize Religious People’s Motives, Focus On Their Objective Harms.

7. Take Philosophy Seriously.

8. Both Refute The Best Counter-Arguments You Can Think Of And Create Gestalt Shifts.

9. Be Unapologetic, Rigorous, Patient, And Gracious With Religious Believers.

10. Love Religious People.

The Collar That Choked Open Hearts
Before I Deconverted: I Saw My First “Secular Humanist” On TV
The Collar That Choked Open Hearts
Alix Jules On Being An African American Humanist
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.

  • cristopherallen

    Not sure if this has been brought up yet in this series’ comments b/c frankly I haven’t had time to read them, but:

    These ideas are applicable to more than religious beliefs, and I have found it incredibly enlightening to be reminded of ways to argue any difference of opinion without being personally offensive. I’ve known these things already (in a way) but like I imagine anyone has, I forget sometimes in the heat of discussion and find myself mortified that I may have stooped to personal remarks in the face of differing opinion.

    I have thoroughly enjoyed this series so far, and look forward to the remainder!


  • Sam Salerno

    There are many religious people who will seemingly never change their ways but accept me being an atheist. These are not stupid people. But will always regard their religion as ridiculous. On my part I have no problem being irreverent. But I do when the religious are confronted with irreverence they choose to ignore it.
    In my ten years of hard core atheism I have not had one person come up to me and say I understand your line of reasoning. So, so far, I haven’t seen irreverence change any ones mind.

  • Otrame

    The point of irreverence and mocking is to shock them out of the groove their upbringing dug for them and get them to actually THINK about what it is they are claiming to believe.

    One of my favorites is, when being told “God is loooooovvvveeeeee”, to say, “how can you worship a god that told a man to murder his little boy?” They come up with the standard apologetics. I then say that if god came to me in person– no question it is god– and told me to murder my son, I would say NO! Spit in his eye and walk into hell. That often gets them thinking.

  • Rick LeFaivre

    Following the series so far and I have liked what I have read until this one. I am not sure that mocking, belittling, or making things look silly is an appropriate way of engaging someone in an open, honest debate. If anything you lose an intellectual high-ground. By emotionalizing your argument, you are no different than your emotionally charged evangelical foe. Once emotions rule the discussion, neither side will be able to sway another. I don’t think antagonizing that which they hold reverent is really going to persuade them to rethink their position. If anything, they will be entrenched in their beliefs.

    That being said, it is important that you aren’t overly deferential to that which they hold reverent, but I think that you need to be “respectfully” irrelevant. Do it in a way that doesn’t insult the person, antagonize them, or show them to be stupid for holding something as reverent. After all, by attacking what they hold reverent, you are basically calling them stupid, and in your first post of this series you said: “I would not even call their beliefs stupid since it sounds too much like calling them stupid.”

    I would of liked this posting more if it was focused on this revised line from your opening paragraph: “you shouldn’t treat what they treat as above reproach because when you do that, you implicitly affirm, and behave as though, these things are out of bounds for criticism. In effect, you treat these things as holy.” Drop the ridicule, the call to an emotion based attack, but don’t be afraid to challenge them via “rational precision.” (lifted from your first posting).

    • Camels With Hammers

      Thanks, Rick. I think that in writing these I’m pitching this somewhere between face to face and writing online. Face to face, the ridicule factor must be dialed down a whole lot more than, say, publicly posting stuff that mocks religion knowing religious people are looking on. My view is that I shouldn’t be calling believers stupid either face to face or online. And face to face occasionally pointing out absurdities by highlighting how they are funny is good, but not mockery. Online, the mockery of the ideas is less personal and so something good to expose religious people to while they have the safety of being at their own computers.

  • csrster

    What do you do about religious titles? If I’m having a discussion with William Dogfart, the Bishop of Bumfuck, should I call him “Bishop”, “Your Grace” or just “Mr. Dogfart”? I don’t often find myself in conversation with clerics, but I do feel slightly torn between i) not wanting to seem petty by ignoring their titles and ii) not wanting to acknowledge titles which mean nothing to me. The bishop is no more adorned by grace than I am, the rabbi is not my teacher, and the pope and dalai lama are certainly not holy.

    • Camels With Hammers

      I have always thought there is some nobility in treating your enemy to his title. I think of it as acknowledging a foreign dignitary, even of a place you are enemies with. A gesture that recognizes his stature in a specific community and respects the existence of that community. It’s tough though because religious titles involve deference–calling someone father or teacher or holy, and so I am having a harder time accepting it now than I did before when I took it as just being magnanimous and going the extra mile of respect. One consideration might be to use the title but against them, the way Socrates would flatter his interlocutors as he asked them for their wisdom when his real goal was to expose they had none. So, yes, be obsequiously deferential with titles but then show no mercy in rigorous rational challenges and through your politeness you will have given them no excuse to get angry or to avoid your arguments in an offended huff.

  • Marta Layton

    This is a tough one. In many ways, I think of respecting a religious symbol as similar to respecting a flag. No matter how violently I disagree with a political event, I would never burn a flag because for many people it stands for more than just an idea. It stands for an emotion, an allegiance. And in my opinion if you respect the person, you show respect for what is important to the person – not because you think it is worthy of respect, but out of deference for the person who places value on it.

    I view the Piss Christ photo, the group that tore up that Bible on Huntington Beach, and Rvd. Jones’s planned Koran burning as similar to a flag burning. And yes, I did find them offensive. Not because I expect the nonreligious to view the cross or the Koran or the Bible as worthy of respect, but because if you don’t respect them it’s pretty damned hard for you to respect what those symbols mean to me (or in the case of the Koran, to Muslims).

    I do think it’s important to counteract people who are too reverent of religious objects. (Such people do exist!) But it can be very tricky to do that without dismissing what is important to the person and accidentally disrespecting them in the person. How exactly that’s done depends on the context, but I suspect it always requires a fair bit of familiarity with the person, and a degree of trust on both sides.

    • Ben Finney

      Not because I expect the nonreligious to view the cross or the Koran or the Bible as worthy of respect, but because if you don’t respect them it’s pretty damned hard for you to re“spect what those symbols mean to me (or in the case of the Koran, to Muslims).

      That seems to be a distinction without a difference. What makes you think we have any obligation to “respect what those symbols mean to [you]”?

      Indeed, the whole point of this article is that we can discuss what it means to you, without respecting what it means to you. To discuss all ideas without privileging any of them with respect, no matter who happens to like them.


    At 41, I guess I’ve listened to both sides of the debate with an open mind. Right or wrong, films have made a stronger argument for doubt than true belief. Specifically, The 7th Sign and Devil’s Advocate. Seems to me an all-knowing, benelvolent God would/could easily end the debate. Even though I’m a doubter, I have a moral code: I haven’t killed, raped, molested, burned, etc. My plan is to stay a “good person” and ask the universal creator for forgiveness right before I die. If that doesn’t punch my “golden ticket” then I’m resigned to burning in Hell for eternity. No worries though, they say a man can get used to anything.