Pro-Religious Atheists

An old friend from my Christian days has offered me the somewhat large task of writing an Atheism 101 for his blog’s Christian readership. I am supposed to explain to them whatever I think they should know about atheists and about how to engage us. I am very happy to write this for him, but fear when all is said and done it will have to be a multi-part series.

One key part of this post is going to be a taxonomy of kinds of atheists. I love writing up accounts of various kinds of believers and non-believers based on my observations. As part of writing the “Atheism 101″, I finally wrote up something about a kind of atheist I had not devoted an entire post to–the Pro-Religious Atheist. So, written addressed to believers (and with evangelical Christians specifically in mind), here is my rough take on the psychologies of your average contemporary Pro-Religious Atheists.

Typically, these seem to be atheists who were either raised by atheistic, irreligious parents or were raised with religion but it never really took for them (at least past childhood). They may have never been burned by religion themselves, or they come from liberal minded families, or making peace with openminded believers may have soothed over any wounds from initial bad experiences with religion. For whatever such reasons, they have a positive attitude towards faiths the way one might have a curious, non-judgmental, and approving enjoyment of foreign cultures. They are comfortable with there being a wide variety of belief systems out there and feel little to no compunction at all to change what anyone thinks. They may be as averse to criticizing people’s religions as most people are to disparaging a foreign culture’s odd customs. They may believe there are things to learn from religions even. They may even very comfortably belong to one of the religions that also consists of believers in God, gods, or goddesses, and not feel any great angst over this. They could be Buddhists, Jews, Unitarian/Univeralists, or Wiccans, for examples.

And they may be tolerant to a morally relativistic fault of other religions, even accepting barbaric or anti-egalitarian practices rooted in religious beliefs as perfectly okay for others where they would never find them tolerable in their own lives or (maybe) in their own country. But sometimes they’ll even be okay with their oppressive religious practices right there in their own country as long as they themselves are not subject to them. These atheists take a very distant and anthropological and potentially condescending attitude towards believers. They like you but they don’t think of you as engaging the same mental or cultural world as they do insofar as you are religious.

And quite often they find it bizarre and off-putting when believers try to convert them. They may not even understand that that’s what you’re trying to do—the idea of trying to change someone else’s religion is so foreign to their ethos. They may even see the drive to proselytize as one of the few places to be critical of a religious person. Some psychologize your desire to proselytize as a signal of your lack of faith.

They tend to view religions as functionally valuable for the people who adopt them and to downplay the cognitive aspects of faith. Some of them seem to have trouble understanding that for various kinds of believers (particularly evangelical Christians, learned Catholics, and most Muslims) the content of one’s beliefs are serious issues. Since they look at religions as really just cultural customs, life practices, emotional support for a wide variety of purposes, etc., they quite often naïvely transpose this mindset into genuine believers and expect you to act and talk like you too understand that this is really just a functional tool for social harmony and personal fulfillment rather than a matter of literal beliefs. This is another reason they simply to not get why you want to proselytize—they don’t think of religions as at all about having correct beliefs or correcting others’ false beliefs.

As far as they’re concerned, religions are functional for customs, identities, communities, and emotional support, and each religious group has their own neat way of doing that for themselves. Why in the world is there a need to change any one from their functional life organizer to your own? Why does everyone have to have the same customs and practices, if many are viable and make people happy? Why must everyone be like you and part of your club? The idea that you really believe you have a truth that other religions, atheists, and the irreligious do not have is a prospect that they take so unseriously that they express confusion and bewilderment that you want to convert others. It’s as though they really expect you to look at your religion the way they do, as your idiosyncratic and beautiful little club, which is just one among many equally good ones. Trying to get them to really appreciate the minds of those who take their religions literally and to think within that logic and to understand the motivations that come from that is sometimes bafflingly difficult.

These atheists also are critical of us atheists that are hostile to religious beliefs. Again, they don’t get why we care what other people believe or why we apparently want to disrupt people’s (supposedly) functionally beneficial religious identities, communities, emotional supports, customs, rituals, etc.

Sometimes these atheists are more than a bit elitist and condescending—either admixed with the relativism I’ve been describing or in place of it. They essentially see themselves as knowing better than religious people but thinking that religion is simply necessary for those either weaker or morally worse than themselves who need religious comforts and delusions for emotional well being and/or moral constraint. Of course they themselves don’t need such crutches or shackles. But a good many of the masses do.

Again, the problem of understanding other minds surfaces. They see the anti-theists and anti-religious atheists attack religious beliefs and they wonder why in the world we take literalistic nonsense seriously (because it’s so obviously false it’s apparently beneath refutation) or why we cannot just understand the valuable functions of religions for those that need them but instead insist on trying to rob them of these benefits and impose our way of life on them. Again, true and false about religious beliefs seems to be just about the least relevant thing in the world to these kinds of atheists. And so, to them, atheists who make efforts to dissuade others of their religious beliefs are automatically “just as bad as religious extremists”, on that account alone in their minds.

The one place some of these pro-religious atheists may wind up hostile to religion is when it comes to Separation of Church and State. While certainly not all of them are bothered by the intermingling of the civic and the religious, some of them may see the dangers of religious encroachment out of its properly limited sphere. But even in sharing more adamant atheists’ opposition to, say, creationism in schools, these pro-religious atheists may become very irritated by other atheists who want to go further than, say, just keeping evolution as the only theory of origins taught in science class to actually saying that evolution helps undermines the evidence for theism and helps show religious beliefs to be false.

They want to preserve the integrity of science and the secular sphere but they are not interested in criticizing theism, other religious beliefs, or religious institutions, identities, or communities any further than that. They can hardly see how other atheists think that preserving the integrity of science means going so far as both criticizing faith itself and critiquing theism where science does have facts that undermine a range of theistic beliefs. They can hardly recognize that philosophy matters to and just preserving the integrity of science is not enough but promoting good philosophy—which, at least according to the vast majority of those most demonstrably expert in philosophy—has implications that lead to non-theism of one sort or another.

Secularist atheists whose only, or primary, concern with battling religious beliefs is keeping them out of the classrooms and the law, and who otherwise are unworried about faith (or even outright protective of its reputation and defenders of its compatibility with science, against other atheists’ attacks) are typically called Accommodationists by less faith-friendly atheists.

In some of my personal favorite posts, I have written more analyses like these of different kinds of believers and atheists. In one post I wrote about the surprising and often elided differences between having liberal, moderate, or conservative religious beliefs and having a greater or lesser seriousness about one’s religious beliefs–however liberal, moderate, or conservative their content. I have written a critique of silent atheists–not those silent for fear, because they feel forced into a closet, but those who are silent for other reasons. And in order to understand what motivates us outspoken, adamant, movement atheists, I wrote a post about secularist atheists, evangelical atheists, identity atheists, and constructive atheists. And just a few weeks ago I wrote a post about what atheists who care about their atheism share with theists who care a lot about their religious beliefs.

For a critique of one kind of atheist that sneers at movement atheists, read my post On Dawkins’s Cultured Despisers.

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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.

  • Maria Greene

    I’ve never met a pro-religion atheist. I’ve met ones who are not anti-religious meaning not dismissive of the people who hold those beliefs and, as you say, valuing some of the functional aspects of religious lifestyles (community, faith motivating action, etc.) I’ve met atheists who are willing to engage with religious people and try to show a side that is less arrogant and condescending than the (also strawman) angry atheist in an effort to humanize us to them. This is obviously something you’re willing to do and I’m glad.

    • Shira Coffee

      Hello, Maria. I’m a pro-religion atheist, pleased to meet you. (But I do have a rather peculiar definition of “religion”, lol. Also “god/s”. )

    • alqpr

      Please elaborate!
      Does your definition of “religion” include all that are commonly recognized as such? And are you actually “pro” all of them?

    • Shira Coffee

      My view is that religion is a social construct that deals with conflicts in our emotional brain systems. Different religions handle the problem in different ways, and attract different personalities. I’m not “pro” religious practices that are harmful, as I explained above.

    • alqpr

      Well if all you believe is that some religious attitudes are useful to some of the people some of the time then that puts you in a pretty big envelope. (In fact to demonstrate my own level of arrogant condescending elitism I’ll say that anyone who doesn’t fall within it is either stupid or mad.)

      But to be “pro-religion” without any qualifier is most naturally read as to be in favour of religion per se (ie to be of the opinion that having some religion is always preferable to having none).

      An intermediate position might be that having the *right* religion is always preferable to having none – which is still ambiguous because it might mean that there is one “right” religion which is best for all of us, or that for each person there is some religious attitude which is better than having none.

      Which kind of pro-religionist are you?

    • Shira Coffee

      I’m a Buddhist. I want to develop a set of working tools to eliminate my own ignorance, grasping and aversion. I don’t see any need to accept any supernatural beliefs in order to develop those tools, but there are plenty of Buddhists who have what I’d consider supernatural views whom I respect because of how they conduct themselves.

      Likewise, I know various theists whose beliefs don’t seem particularly likely to me. Some of them are fine people, some are sad messes, and a few are downright dangerous. What makes the difference doesn’t seem to be what they believe, but how they relate to the world. Are they open to or suspicious of change? Do they recognize the services and kind actions of others, or do they take such things for granted? Do they take responsibility for the results of their actions, or do they make excuses?

      My view is not as nebulous as “some religious attitudes are useful to some of the people some of the time”. What I’m saying is that holding or refusing to hold supernatural beliefs is not a good predictor of moral behavior. It is, instead, character traits such as those I describe above that determine our moral competence. I also believe that good traits can be acquired and improved, while bad ones can be weakened and eventually eliminated. Religion sometimes — at its best — is a useful tool for that purpose. What makes a particular religious tradition or community good or bad is precisely its effect on the character of its adherents.

    • alqpr

      So, assuming you really are atheist, then you could be described as a religious atheist. There are certainly many such among the Buddhists, and even among Christians there are some who do not see theism as fundamental to their faith. But from what you say you don’t seem to be “pro-religion” per se. To be religious does not imply to be pro-religion any more than to be American implies being “pro-American”.

      With regard to the question of moral behaviour you are certainly right. One can be completely irrational or even insane and still perfectly moral in my opinion.

      But do you believe that for some people irrational belief is *necessary* in order to achieve moral behaviour? One class of Dan’s pro-religious atheists might be said to have that view, and even though some might call it elitist and condescending I really have little doubt that it is probably true. (But I do doubt that the number of such people is sufficient to justify the imposition of irrational belief on the rest of us – and I suspect that any such program is almost certain to get co-opted by evil in the long run.)

    • Shira Coffee

      I have no idea what test one would make of whether one is “really atheist”, lol. I called myself that for 15 years or so. I learned Buddhist meditation, btw, because Sam Harris actually spoke well of Buddhist meditation in his first book. I found that, as meditation took hold, I was not only happier, but also of better character. So now I prefer to identify as “Buddhist” rather than “atheist.”

      As for irrational belief being necessary… I don’t have enough data. I know people who find supernatural beliefs to be very useful in terms of forming and reinforcing their morality. So… could they do the same thing without those beliefs? Do you know any way to set up a double blind study for that counterfactual, lol?

      I do agree that imposing irrational belief — or even rational belief — on people is unjustified. It’s the “imposing” part that’s the problem.

    • Patrik Beňo

      “Irrational” can be as much of a problem as “imposing”. Deluding yourself by claiming that “irrational” is not an issue, is dangerous as well.

      “Imposing” can be a good thing, too. We do the “imposing” part when we put people to jail. For a reason. Not for an irrational impulse.

    • Shira Coffee

      Not agreeing. The problem is not that the ideas are irrational — it is that they are imposed along with an injunction NOT TO EXAMINE THEM rationally. The problem is, as I said above, the imposing part. (It’s a social interaction problem.)

      We constrain behavior, including with blunt instruments like jail. (And are you really going to defend the correctional system in this country?) I am, in principle, not against constraints on behavior, though of course we make — and must make — rules about that. There is, in my view, a bright line between thoughts and behavior.

    • Patrik Beňo

      There is *no* such thing as Christian who does not believe that Jesus actually died on a cross for our sins, and is a living Son of a living God. This is a definition of a Christian. Every Christian is a theist. If not, you are not a Christian. By definition.

      Same goes for Muslims, Islam and Muhammad.

      Other religions may have weaker binding to theism (like Budhism or Janism).

    • alqpr

      Thanks for giving *your* definition of a Christian. There are however people who claim to be Christian atheists, including some who are active participants in organized Christian denominations. They are apparently quite happy to accept a symbolic interpretation of the biblical stories and to emphasize their adherence to what they consider the essential aspects of its moral teachings.

  • CBrachyrhynchos

    “Some of them seem to have trouble understanding that for various kinds of believers (particularly evangelical Christians, learned Catholics, and most Muslims) the content of one’s beliefs are serious issues.”

    This is one crux of the issue. To say that this is universally true of religion (or to pose religion as universally theistic) is a falsified hypothesis about human culture.So one of my objections to anti-religious atheism is that it often starts from a position of pseudoscience. “Mind viruses” are a particular beef of mine as something that’s derivative of a clunker of a theory that superficially reinvented more robust theories.

    The second problem is that I consider many of those beliefs and claims to fall well into the realm of non-cognitivism. I can’t ethically say that those claims are true or false, only that those claims are insufficiently supported to justify my belief. Which is a more subtle argument and I’m not certain it’s entirely conclusive.

    • Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      For some kinds of believers and some kinds of religious language, non-cognitivist and functionalist accounts are more explanatory than a one-size fits-all religion=belief view.

      But, the literalists are real and significantly cognitively driven believers DO exist. Sam Harris has even gone and done empirical research providing support for the hypothesis that religious beliefs are stored in the brain like fact beliefs are. And the New Atheists, including I, think that the cognitively believing literalists and other conservatives are a serious influence upon religious beliefs and practices in our culture and are not beneath refuting on the terms of their own belief claims, taken and tested as propositional claims about the world. Too many people think of their religious beliefs as propositional truths to just dismiss those views without engaging the ways they are false. Too many of these people are also ones who advance seriously flawed political agendas. The content of their thought matters. Refuting it matters. It’s not naive of the New Atheists to be on the case making this point to the average person out there who needs to be steered clear of these falsehoods and their potentially pernicious effects.

    • CBrachyrhynchos

      I think it’s reasonable to object to both literalist interpretations, and one-size-fits all critiques of religion.

    • Shira Coffee

      Of course there are “cognitively believing literalists”. The phenomenon is not limited to theists — certain kinds of communists — the folks who “re-educate” those they judge to be “enemies of the revolution” — are an example of atheists with this mental problem.

      It seems to me that the impetus for this malfunction of thinking is the desire to have a closed and consistent belief system. It is, after all, often uncomfortable to have an open and inconsistent belief system, so there’s plenty of temptation to accept one of the various seamless worldviews. The only problem is, such worldviews are really maladaptive.

      New Atheists seem to believe that certain beliefs (in particular, belief in ANY sort of god) are the cause of certain kinds of bad behavior (for instance, denying the evidence of climate science, not to mention the entire foundations of biology.) But in fact, many people with the same “irrational” beliefs do not engage in that behavior. Why? Because it isn’t the belief that causes the bad behavior — it is instead the insistence on closing off one’s worldview. And closing off one’s worldview is not the function of religion — in fact, most of our extant religions arose in response and opposition to this tendency.

    • David Simon

      “I can’t ethically say that those claims are true or false, only that those claims are insufficiently supported to justify my belief.”

      Doesn’t this come down to “I place the probability of the claim being true as very low”, which is a kind of provisional false evaluation?

    • CBrachyrhynchos

      Placing a probability on a claim requires that truth statements have meaning WRT that claim. Take for example, the the other big cultural fight, “Is it art?” Most of those definitions involve the assertion of certain relations, such as Ebert’s that games can’t be art because they don’t share the same relationship between artist and audience as painting or cinema. My objection is that relation doesn’t apply to many forms of architecture, sculpture, and theater that are open to participatory relationships between artist and audience. Neither argument can be resolved via probability. It’s entirely a matter of which relationships between artwork, artist, and audience we choose to adopt as important

      “Let x = 1″ can’t be true or false as a stand-alone statement; it’s just a definition. Similarly, “god is Being” can’t be true or false. I can say that I reject the latter definition because the unchecked baggage that goes along with “god” in that particular relation leads to a mess of contradictions and misunderstandings.

    • David Simon

      So by “insufficiently supported” you meant “not clearly enough defined”? I had taken you to mean “without sufficient evidence”.

  • SocraticGadfly
    • Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      Not really. I mostly omitted that kind of pro-religious atheist from this piece except from a brief mention in the beginning. They’re not the distant from religion sort. They’re the “there are allies on more important issues who are religious, so let’s work with them sort”. But they themselves are also often (like Stedman) what I would call constructive atheists, identity atheists, and secularist atheists who are, in each of these ways, more in touch with their atheism and the atheist community and less inclined to look at religions as though they were only functional cultural forms where belief content is nearly totally irrelevant.

    • SocraticGadfly

      I can buy that. I, per my blog post, was thinking of the “Faitheist” group as special unto itself in a sense that it’s cohesive … and markets itself as a kind of “brand.”

  • BobaFuct

    This reminds me of the days when my now-wife and I were starting to date seriously, and were discussing our families’ religious beliefs. She came from a background of pretty liberal Christianity, that accepted evolution, that shunned the idea of hell, and that focused on being a good person. Critiques of this type of Christianity are another matter, so I’ll just say that she’d had no contact with the fundamentalist evangelical strain of Christianity that my family holds to. So in our discussions, she absolutely could not understand how anyone could take the bible literally or why non-theists would be so adamantly opposed to Christianity, as it’s all about loving your neighbor and just trying to be nice like Jesus was. Telling her stories of my upbringing sort of helped, but it wasn’t until she actually met my family, including a lecture from my mom on the evils of unmarried cohabitation, that she really started to understand how seriously many Christians take their faith and how it’s not just “love your neighbor” but rather “you better turn or burn; all US laws need to be grounded in biblical legalism; and gay people are icky and just rebelling against god.” She’s not an atheist, but these days she’s much more critical of Christianity than she used to be.

  • Sylvia Sarno

    Interesting, well conceived post, and engaging title. It seems that pro-religious atheists are nothing more than moral relativists.They don’t take a principled stand on their views (or lack thereof) because for them ideas are subjective beliefs that have no grounding in reality.

    • Shira Coffee

      Hmmm. It seems that way?

      Since I am gonna stand in for the “pro-religious atheists” despite the fact that I’m probably not the perfect representative, I would like to explain why I think you have misunderstood.

      I am not in any way, shape or form a moral relativist. I do take a principled stand for my views — and even, on occasion, for the lack thereof. And I absolutely believe that ideas that matter are not merely subjective. Ideas that are subjective are not subject to proof or disproof, so they don’t matter. Ideas that are subject to proof or disproof — at least in principle — do matter to varying degrees. Subjective ideas are not worth discussing, and ideas that matter very little are worth discussing very little.

      So, may I suggest you try a different hypothesis?

    • Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      Shira, what are the limits of the latitude you’re willing to give people’s religious beliefs in being morally wrong. At what points do you draw the line to say, “okay, that’s not just an acceptable religio-cultural variation, it’s morally critiquable.”

    • Shira Coffee

      First of all, thoughts aren’t morally wrong, though they may be factually wrong. Ways of relating to the world are wrong. For instance, let’s say you believe that markets are an extraordinarily (one might even say, supernaturally) good mechanism for balancing out the competing interests of all human beings. This is, I think, a factually incorrect belief, and if we are arguing ideas, I could point to flaws in the way markets work and suggest that other mechanisms are needed to improve the functioning of markets. At that level, there are no concrete moral issues.

      On the other hand, if you run your business in such a way that hundreds of people die in Bangladesh, your behavior is immoral, and no amount of appealing to market efficiencies makes it moral. Incidentally, I am quite happy when Pope Francis makes this point, since he has way, WAY more clout than I do.

      In the same way, you can believe all you want that people who don’t agree with your religious views in every single regard are going to suffer in lakes of fire for all eternity. In my view, that’s a fairly crazy view, but you’re entitled to it. If you insist on the right to isolate your children from all competing views then that’s child abuse. (And the fact that the law allows you to do such a thing is just plain wrong.)

      Now I would definitely suspect that something was wrong with the process that leads some to think that anyone who disagrees with them is evil and deserving of punishment, eternal or otherwise. It’s not a healthy way to look at the world, and there is a fundamental error behind it. I just think it’s facile to assume that the basic problem is the fact that they hold supernatural beliefs.

  • Shira Coffee

    Dan — my only complaint about this post is the high quotient of weasel words. Some are like this, some are like that. They might be this, they may be that. I realize you are trying to be fair, and probably you realize you are dealing with a group that isn’t entirely homogenous. But it makes the post bullet-proof in kind of a cheap way, since any objection can be met with “well, I said that only applied to SOME of you-all!”

    I guess what is at the base of my ambiguity is that I recognize myself in some of these descriptions, and in some of the other descriptions I recognize people I don’t want to be grouped with, lol. Ain’t life tough?

    • alqpr

      Shira, Your second paragraph kind of works against your first.

      As you note, the “group” is NOT homogeneous so there is nothing “cheap” about saying “Some are like this, some are like that.” In fact there are several places where I think Dan needed more rather than fewer “weasel words”.

      But even with the weasel words I am uncomfortable with having a set of views “explained” to a third party by one who does not actually hold them.

    • Shira Coffee

      Well, whenever you are dealing with a “set of views”, the question arises of whether it’s a proper set. So, for instance, is the set of atheists who are moral relativists a valid subset of the set of atheists who feel religion has value? I doubt it. And I can flat-out guarantee the trait of being elitist / condescending is not unknown among New Atheists.

    • Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      hahaha, yes, Shira, I am well aware of my weaselly reliance of the word some and was chuckling to myself about it as I thought about the piece after writing it. Basically, I wrote this trying to tell the believer, look, these are the variations you’re apt to find. It’s just that way!

    • Shira Coffee

      After sleeping (and meditating) on my feelings here, I would like to suggest that you add a bit — especially if you plan to publish this as some sort of field guide to atheists (see them in their natural habitat!)…

      You write that some pro-religious atheists are moral relativists. I’m willing to believe you that they exist. But you might want to add that some pro-religious atheists are moral absolutists who believe that religion is simply a social construct. They thus judge religions in the same way they would judge other social constructs — systems of markets, forms of government, corporations, NGOs, etc. — by their moral effects. In what ways do they alleviate or create or exacerbate suffering? What groups of people do they affect in what ways? What are their effects on the Commons (both the physical Commons and the Commons of ideas?)

  • GeorgeLocke

    typo: “This is another reason they simply to not get why you want to proselytize”

  • rick_povero

    …and the anti-supernaturalists. A*exp(n)

  • BobSeidensticker

    Have you read John Steinrucken’s “Secularism’s Ongoing Debt to Christianity”? Steinrucken is supposedly an atheist, though he sure doesn’t sound like one. It’s popular among some Christians who like to see an atheist giving Christianity proper credit.

    I slapped him around a bit here.

  • Broken Whole

    Thanks for this. I’ve had to admit to myself over time that, as a religious person, I often have better, more productive discussions with anti-theist atheists than with pro-religious ones because we actually can talk about content and we’re less anxious about hashing out our differences.

    That being said, I do worry about things always being framed in a “pro”/”con” context. Sometimes, it’s been really useful for me to just understand why an atheist friend is an atheist and, in turn, to articulate to him or her why I’m a Catholic. Even though we each think that the other is, technically speaking, philosophically “wrong,” I don’t know if learning about each other’s positions and experiences is simply an encounter with the other’s “wrongness.” In most cases, I feel like I’ve also gained a more intimate knowledge of my interlocutor and I imagine they feel the same about me. I can also appreciate a well-formed, well-articulated argument even if I don’t agree with it—and I can appreciate works of art and philosophy that grow out of positions that I don’t hold. This of course doesn’t mean that I have ceased to see the position as wrong—or that I’ve lost the desire to convince folks of the truth of my own position—but it doesn’t seem to me like this precludes a certain appreciation of the other person’s inhabiting of their own position.

    For example: I imagine that there are some atheists who can appreciate great works of religious art not simply by bracketing the work’s unfortunate religious valences but, in fact, through a recognition of how the work effectively integrates its form and content into a coherent and complex whole. Similarly, I have a lot of intellectual and aesthetic respect for Nietzsche’s “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”—but it would seem silly for me to say that I just want to “set aside its atheism” in my engagement with it—for what would it be without its atheism? Of course, it seems equally myopic to respond to the text by simply condemning it as “wrong.” I wonder, then, if the best question to ask is whether I’m pro- or anti-Nietzsche or is that question missing the point? There are so many other avenues of engagement that don’t simply involve an evaluative response to a work’s—or a person’s—truth claims.

    • alqpr

      I agree that the pro vs con distinction is silly. There are some aspects of every religion that I appreciate and others that I despise. I am more interested in exploring what the “believer” means when saying (eg) that “Jesus actually died on a cross for our sins, and is a living Son of a living God” and in trying (so far without success) to understand how someone could be fully convinced, either of the literal truth of that as a strictly historical proposition, or of the absolute need to accept it on faith.

    • Shira Coffee

      I like this comment a lot. I would add that in many cases, religious art, including founding myths, touches on issues of deep concern to all human beings. I’ve written before about the stories / images of Jesus on the cross, Socrates with the hemlock, the Buddha beneath the sal tree. Or there are the cantatas of J.S. Bach, most of which I’ve sung at various times. If you are willing to translate a bit, many religious messages are very humane.

  • Marc Mielke

    I sort of half fit this: I like to study religion and discuss it, and think it would be nice to keep the fun bits like festivals and holidays if we could just dump all that nasty belief. Comic Book fans seem perfectly happy having conventions celebrating people THEY know don’t exist, after all.

    • Shira Coffee

      This is actually a very common way of being a Jewish atheist. I, for instance, make a Passover seder every year, as well as a Thanksgiving dinner. For Passover, we do all the religious language (not to mention all the patriotic, rah-rah Democracy language in our 1950′s vintage xeroxed haggadoth) for the sake of the elderly aunts, and we add in lots of social justice stuff.

    • Tria MacLeod

      I’ve heard this described as ‘culturally’ Christian, or Jewish. You celebrate and basically uphold the cultural norms but you don’t believe in the mythos surrounding said belief system. Most Humanists I’ve met fit into this category.

  • mountainguy

    I think this is an interesting subject, but one to be carefully treated, accounting for its own complexities. I mean, by pro religious atheists you can have people like Ernst Bloch and Slavoj Zizek* (and others, surely) who can be interesting, but (sadly) also one like S.E. Cupp.

  • ctcss

    Dan, since you referenced your post “On Dawkins’s Cultured Despisers”, I thought I’d quote you from it.

    “Those believers are my former self and their beliefs used to shape my mind and heart in fundamental ways. Not only that, but they are living my former life, and my alienation from that former life constitutes a core part of my biography and my present identity. And having been intellectually, morally, emotionally, and psychologically systemically misled and, in some crucial ways, held back and twisted up, by these beliefs and the communities that purvey them, I take very seriously the issue of how to dispel the delusions of believers.”

    This, to me, is a reason why I would prefer to deal with the pro-religion atheists over someone like yourself (who is doing an amazing job, BTW, of trying to up the level of useful and respectful discourse between everyone) who seems to think that ALL believers are just as “deluded” as you once were. (Did you really mean to say that?)

    I can see why you (with your personal experience of it) would reject your former religious home. But since I (for example) did not and do not come from your (admittedly unhelpful and even toxic) former religious home, why do you think you are in a position to dispel what you consider to be my “delusions”, since you really only know about your experiences and theological underpinnings, not mine?

    At what point does this tendency to want to engage in evangelism towards others get seen for what it is, the desire to run other people’s lives? Why not simply be the best possible person you can be (and you certainly seem to be conscientiously working towards this goal BTW; kudos to you for that), and let your shining example lead others to you and your way of life?

    I have no problem with people of any stripe trying to preserve the secular nature of the common space we live in, but why have you not yet learned than evangelism (by anyone of any stripe) is far too often arrogant in nature?

    I am a Christian (non-mainstream) and overt evangelism was never part of what I was taught. One helps others when they are in need because that is the loving thing to do, and one politely answers questions about one’s religious faith when asked, but one does not intrude, unasked, into another’s private beliefs or life. Living one’s beliefs is a far more helpful way to convince others of their utility than debating the merits of them.

    For example, I like and admire Neil deGrasse Tyson, not because he is a non-believer, but because he really wants to help people understand science. He has a really nice attitude towards others. He is comes across as pro-something, not anti-something. He is giving me something to think about and evaluate, but he is leaving it up to me how I take it and where I go with it.

    Richard Dawkins, OTOH, although he is also a scientist, is anti-religion, no matter what it is. (Heck, why seriously evaluate something specific when you can just go by labels, right?) He comes across as anti-something, not pro-something. He is giving me something to think about and evaluate, but that something is his arrogant attitude. (I have no issues with him as a scientist or as a science popularizer, nor do I have an issue with him helping non-believers come into their own. Everyone deserves a “home” they can feel comfortable and welcome in. They shouldn’t try to tear down other’s homes while doing it, however.)

    So, as a believer, I would find it far easier to deal with a pro-religion atheist as a neighbor, than an anti-religion atheist evangelizer or an anti-other-people’s-religions theist evangelizer. It’s the arrogant I-know-better-than-you-and-I-will-prove-how-right-I-am-and-how-wrong-you-are attitude that I feel is completely inappropriate.

    So Dan, am I misunderstanding your quote above, or has your effort to implement higher forms of discourse also made you rethink your approach to your assumed worth of religions other than your former one? (In other words, have you become more humble and less judgmental in your approach than your quote would suggest?) If so, why not state that you are going to actively work against specific unhelpful or toxic behaviors in religions, rather than being anti-religion itself? I’d like to admire you the way I admire Neil deGrasse Tyson, but this anti-religion bent is not doing it for me.


  • Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

    Thank you very much both for your readership and support. I am always grateful to those who continue to hear me out and actively seek out my thoughts despite our disagreements.

    And please forgive me for giving you a link instead of a new response. I’m tired at the moment but would at least like to at least partially address the issues ctcss raises and I think this post is a step in that direction:

  • ShaunPhilly

    Then there is the type of atheist, like myself, that is not bothered by religion per se, but by faith, unskeptical thinking, and dogmatism generally. It is not religion itself that bothers me (as there are some pretty harmless, if a bit silly, religions), but the ideas that many religious espouse. This distinction may seem thin, but very often my annoyance with religion boils down to a lack of critical thought, and not the other aspects of religion.

    Of course, it’s fair to point out that religion has really usurped many of the social, ritualistic, etc aspects of human behavior and wedded them to ontological concerns and doctrines, and yes I personally have little to no need for either ritual or much community (being an introvert), but while I recognize that religion is often a bad thing, it is bad because of the metaphysical claims and unskeptical behavior, and not the other aspects of religion. That distinction matters to me.

  • Liralen

    The description somewhat fits me when I was an agnostic, but I disagree with the label, as well as a few of the assumptions in the description. As a child, my parents were Unitarian-Universalists (they are now Buddhists) but I rarely attended UU services as an adult. I was raised with a special emphasis on tolerance and to question authority.

    As an adult, I developed a distaste for authoritarians (code: bullies) of any stripe, so I could have been described as being anti-religion, but perhaps pro-religious, if the latter refers to people with genuine faith and religion referring to organized religions. Somewhat analogous to “hate the sin, but love the sinner”. Some of the dominant religions use their power over the religious for political and economic gain, which I actively despise, but on the other hand, I have great respect for some religious people who practice what they preach. I suspect my comments on religion confuse people if I don’t make that distinction.

    Other than that, I never gave much thought to religion and felt that religious discussions were a waste of time. No one could know for certain, neither the religious nor the atheists. Although I didn’t believe in God, I thought it was peculiar to want to label yourself in God-based terms, hence I never labeled myself as an atheist.

    I absolutely disagree that “preserving the integrity of science means going so far as both criticizing faith itself and critiquing theism where science does have facts that undermine a range of theistic beliefs”, so that description fits me. I want no irrelevant opinions in my science. Just the facts please.

  • Reasonably Faithless

    Hi Dan,

    I can see I’ve hit the jackpot here. I stumbled upon your blog the other day (a Christian friend shared your post about dabbling in Calvinism). I’m very interested in your deconversion story, as it seems we have a bit in common – I’m a university lecturer (mathematics) and a deconvert from Christianity, though it took me about 10 years of life longer than you to leave the faith. I even used to listen to Whitecross, Bride, Tourniquet, and a whole lot of other Christian metal bands – a few of which I agree are actually pretty good.

    Well, I’m looking forward to devouring what you’ve written, as the topics you write about are all so fascinating. I do plan one day to write my own deconversion story, but I just keep discovering such great stories as your own, so I might content for a while just to direct people to resources such as this.

    In case you’re interested, a few days ago, I wrote something about one particular pro-religion atheist, Frans de Waal – who I have tremendous respect for as a scientist but who, I think, is described perfectly by a lot of what you have written here.

    Cheers, James.