How I’d Answer The Charge That Atheists Call Believers Stupid Too Often

I was honored to be invited to be on Russia Today’s show CrossTalk to talk about atheism today, but it turned out they did not have room for me after all this time. The producer I was in contact with expressed strong interest in having me on in the future, which would be exciting.

In the meantime, in order to feel out my basic positions on atheism she had sent me several questions, which I answered. I figured I would turn them into a few posts. Here, developed beyond what I sent her, is my outline for answering the question atheists often face about whether we are especially dismissive of religious believers’ intelligence:

Agree or disagree with following: Many atheists call churchgoers “morons” or “brainless,” displaying the same hubristic arrogance they despise when it comes from the other side.

As an educator and an atheist, I adamantly oppose calling any one “morons” or “brainless” or “stupid” as doing this signals to people that there are punishments for being shown to have mistaken beliefs or for making reasoning errors. This gives them incentives to avoid educational contexts in which they might be shown wrong or feel less knowledgeable. It gives their self-protective pride more motivation to avoid risking being embarrassed by admitting they are wrong when they do come across unsettling information or people who seem to know more than they do. It is an enticement to self-deception, information avoidance, and resentment of intellectual competitors or perceived “superiors”.

Those atheists who identify as being part of the atheist movement are usually quite adamant about being proponents of critical thinking. Calling people abusive names for being wrong discourages them all the more from facing up to the fact that they may be making intellectual wrong turns. It makes being intellectually corrected a painful, demoralizing experience that makes people resent those who challenge them as enemies, rather than an empowering and exciting one which makes them grateful to those who open their eyes or who could be mutually correcting, intellectual collaborators. It is counter-productive to what we are supposed to stand for.

It is also beneath atheists to call people these things because such charges against religious people are plainly false. People are not religious because they’re brainless but because they have brains bequeathed to them by evolution that lead them regularly to cognitive errors to which all humans are susceptible. Then religious institutions actively exploit and cultivate those tendencies towards cognitive error to powerfully persuade people. For example, they actively teach people bad methods of inference. They encourage confirmation bias and overactive agency detection when they train people to see everything that happens as “God’s work in their lives”. They teach people to see doubt as sinful or as only ever good as a dialectical stage towards reaffirming one’s beliefs by faith after all. “Faith” is outright hostility to the kinds of genuine doubt that could improve their most fundamental and important beliefs about themselves, about the good, and their place in the universe. They are actively and deliberately conditioned to see changing beliefs as a threat to their very identities–usually with their religion’s active cultivation of this fear.

It requires a lot of education (which most people never receive) and an ability to overcome all sorts of deeply powerful identity issues for most people to see exactly what is so false and counter-productive in their religious beliefs, values, and practices. The religiosity of regions tend to wane as material wealth and access to education increase. People cannot be blamed for not having the requisite access to information, leisure time or money to educate themselves, or rigorous teachers of philosophy and science to guide them in correcting natural erring habits of the mind.

While frustrated atheists sometimes falsely and counter-productively call those they disagree with stupid, they are probably not much guiltier of this than any others, including religious people themselves, when they get irritated during arguments about ideas or simply express how frustratingly wrong they find those they disagree with to be. I regularly see conservatives call liberals “libtards” and liberals call conservatives “republitards”, in addition to all sorts of equally terrible names.

So why do atheists get accused of being especially prone towards calling believers stupid? Quite often atheists refrain entirely from calling anyone stupid and nonetheless get accused of doing so just because they argued that believers’ views were both false and distinctly illogical in character. In these cases, believers find it easier to feel offended at being made uncomfortable by having the absurdity of what they think made explicit than to actual face up to the shortcomings of their thinking. In particular this is exacerbated over the cases of other kinds of beliefs because unlike, say, contestable political beliefs or other kinds of philosophical views, typically it is only with religious beliefs that people are defending things they admit themselves they do not have adequate evidence for and which do not make complete sense.

It’s as though their awareness of the intellectual limits of what they’re defending makes them especially sensitive and defensive when forced to give account. And since atheists are not just challenging poor inferences and poor beliefs but believers’ basic mechanisms for belief formation themselves, our challenges inherently target the believers’ whole approaches to thinking more directly. Feeling vulnerable at having their basic methods of reasoning and habits of inference challenged, they can defensively sense a charge that they are incapable altogether of good thinking. And since they are at that precise moment defending the beliefs they know are their most slippery and least strictly logical, they might have some fear such charges are true and want to change the subject to how mean we are to go after them so personally.

We outspoken atheists often try to highlight the outright silliness and absurdity of religious beliefs not because we think believers are stupid but because we think (with good reason) that they are much smarter than their professed beliefs and would be able to see through their errors if only their preposterousness were made clear enough. Often it is the atheists who do not bother to challenge religious people’s beliefs who show them the most contempt because they write them off as incapable of knowing any better. I suspect that those non-believers who find questioning religious beliefs unseemly and so blame other atheists for doing it are projecting into our words their own sense that religious beliefs are “stupid” and believers less intelligent. I think they are seeing us effectively as exposing “stupidity” inherently by calling out absurd beliefs and feel embarrassed for those therein exposed as “stupid”. So they accuse us of actually calling such people “stupid” when we have actually done nothing of the kind. It might be their own implicit, unexamined, prejudices against religious people that make them think religious believers are so vulnerable and intellectually defenseless that merely highlighting their errors and the plain absurdity of their beliefs is tantamount to cruelly making fun of the mentally disabled for mistakes that they neurologically cannot avoid and can never correct.

I think it is we atheists who treat the religious with the dignity of honestly assessing their beliefs and telling them what we really think of them are the ones respecting believers as rational equals who are smarter than their unexamined beliefs and prejudices. And I have had religious believers who have thanked me for my sincerity and straightforwardness towards them where other non-believers might condescend to them.

And I would charge that no one shows more contempt for the average believer than some of their clergy who engage in astounding abuses while presenting themselves as “holy men”, or the philosophically sophisticated theologians who do not literally believe a fraction of what they condescendingly allow the superstitious person in the pew to go on believing.

Sometimes people might think atheists are calling believers stupid when we charge them with being “against reason” or call them “irrationalists”. We do not do this because we think believers are incapable of reasoning but rather because regularly when faced with inconsistency and implausibility in their beliefs, religious people will deny the authority of reason and praise disregarding evidence by calling it “faith”. They are in this way not brainless but willfully committed to being irrational. We call them out for that. Yes, it is a personal charge about their basic intellectual habits and methods, but it is a charge that they are committing remediable faults and it is a charge that is aimed at specific habits and methods they actually both display and defend. These are not charges that they are incapable of learning and improving. These are charges that their views on proper reasoning are intellectually and morally wrong and capable of revision. These are vital matters to argue with others about. It is not an abusively personal attack simply to raise them.

Your Thoughts?

For more, read In Defense of Dawkins’s Reason Rally Speech“Who Are You Calling Stupid?” and .

For constructive advice for debating believers read 13 Strategies for Arguing with Religious Moderates and my top ten tips for reaching out to religious believers.


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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.