Am I Saying All Atheists MUST Argue Against Theists?

I can deal with people telling me I’m wrong and should stop saying what I say on that account. But it irks me a great deal when atheists tell outspoken atheists like me that we’re basically right–but should shut up anyway. So, yesterday I tried to provide a comprehensive reply to such atheists, so that my fellow (respectfully) confrontational atheists and I have a thorough resource available to answer their wide range of complaints in the form of one sustained case for speaking up about atheism.

But I still missed at least one reason other atheists react with disdain towards us. It’s a reason that has only hit me recently. These atheists are sometimes resentfully reacting against feeling conscripted by us into a fight against theists that they personally want no part of. So not only are they put off by perceptions of even the civil confrontational atheists as proselytizers and find that whole business distasteful (my key defenses of trying to deconvert others is here and in the December issue of Secularite’s digital magazine) but, further, they sometimes seem primarily agitated at the implication that they themselves should be having arguments over religion with their family, friends, co-workers, and other acquaintances. Similarly, I have found that some of the visceral pushback against atheist attempts to form quasi-religious groups and practices for providing secular alternatives to theistic community and ritual has been based on an unfounded fear that they will be pressured to join.

So, whereas my inclination has been to defend atheists’ rights to stand up for ourselves and what we think is true and to encourage efforts to make available to atheists quasi-religious alternatives that meet their communal and “spiritual” needs while respecting their atheism, a certain segment of atheists reacts as though all of this is a threat to their desire to not associate with other atheists and, especially, not have boring, intrusive, potentially destructive fights with religious people over issues they don’t personally think are worth fighting about. But is that what I or others are really demanding of them?

Now, I won’t lie, I do want more atheists to care about atheism and to care about identifying as Humanists. I also want them to care more generally about actively learning more philosophy and being proactive about refining and spreading a Humanist perspective. I don’t think any of this is merely an idiosyncratic passion of mine that it is irrelevant for others to share. Why not? Because what we believe about the fundamental questions that religions horn in on has the power to fundamentally influence our values and our culture. Philosophical questions about the natures of the self, knowledge, reality, ethics, science, freedom, justice, language, mind, and even semantics is at the root of how we live our lives.

While by no means need everyone be concentrated on abstract philosophy to be a good person knowledgable about ethics (see my post about how ethics is more like physics than faith for my views on that), it does still matter generally that the culture as a whole be interested in rationally engaging directly with fundamental philosophical issues if we are to do as well as possible working out how to live best.

And since religious beliefs so often provide mental obstacles that cause so many people to stagnate or regress or obfuscate about precisely these fundamental philosophical matters, I see it as crucial to deliberately go after theism and other unfounded beliefs entrenched in people’s minds with religious backing. This is a fight distinctly worth having as far as I am concerned.

But that does not mean that I am insisting everyone in particular make this cause a major concern in their lives? I am trying to raise people’s consciousness generally. I am trying to help doubters find their way out of faith. I am trying to galvanize non-believers to constructively build alternative philosophies and institutions and communities that engage the big questions proactively and take creative responsibility for the future of our culture. I want them to take seriously that better values do not just fall out of the sky. They do not just sprout in people out of nowhere. They take deliberate thought and work and practices of inculcation and reinforcement. In abandoning religious beliefs and institutions, it is incumbent that many of us work on filling the void that losing them means for millions of people.

Humans depend on others for guidance, for well-developed forms of thought and value and behavior that they can model their own thinking and acting on. They turn to religions because religions, in no small part, offer life-guidance-packages that integrate their beliefs, identities, values, and practices together and provide a community context in which to get support. Everyone knows, to one extent or another, that religions make rather fantastic claims. But they buy-in in no small part because they assume a religion that has persisted for many generations has figured out a workable way of life. So even when it doesn’t make sense, it’s often worth working within because of the overall package.

So, yes, I do want atheists to think seriously about how much humans pursue models of thought and value and practice to guide them and to figure out how to help people work out better models for themselves; ones more responsive to their situational needs, ones more responsive to modern advances in beliefs and values, and ones fundamentally truer and more empowering than cultural and religious ideas and norms from the past have been.

I think we have a responsibility to be create cultural forms and to popularize more scientifically informed, ethically advanced, and philosophically contemporary conceptions of reality, the self, and values.

But this can take countless different forms. Many people already are engaged in this project without calling it “atheism” or caring about atheism specifically. And that’s great. Many people also are engaged in other hugely important causes–some even more immediately practical and urgent–and so don’t want to put their energies into atheism. Again, fantastic. There are thousands of ways to do good. While I want to encourage people to take this way of doing good seriously, I fully grant that we need people pursuing all sorts of other goods as well–most of which I’m not attending to personally, even if I grasp the importance that someone be doing them.

So, no, not every atheist has to make explicit atheism a primary concern. I wish they’d appreciate its value and not disparage the work I do and others do. But they do not have to enlist in this cause if others matter more to them.

And I am fine with the reality that people need to compartmentalize their lives some. Some times loving others means ignoring your differences in values and opinions and focusing on where you connect and love each other. In some ways, it’s sad and alienated that we cannot be our full selves with some of the people we love, and instead must stifle our opinions around each other. It’s not the most ideal condition. Ideally, we could fully love each other completely consistent with having deep, wide-ranging honest philosophical debates with each other about the most important matters in life. I am lucky to have many such wonderful friendships and think it’s worth it for all of us to at least attempt some. There is something of a special bond that I feel with those who I can be that honest with and have mutual love and respect with.

On the other hand there is something valuable about putting aside one’s own concerns for the sake of another and respecting their own desire to leave something personal or not to have clashes, even friendly ones, be a part of their relationship, for whatever reason. I have had some wonderful friendships who were simply refuges from philosophical combat. Some of these were even with other philosophers where our bond had little to do with philosophy and more to do with sharing all sorts of other interests and our personal lives and just having fun. Some of those friendships were across religious lines and we just avoided the topic and enjoyed ourselves all the more for it.

These things can go either way. So, I completely understand and support people’s decisions to mark off any number of their relationships as safe zones free from arguments about religion. If, on a net accounting, that’s the best way to have as good a friendship with someone, one that is the most empowering and enriching to you both in the long run, then I cannot begrudge that.

But it bothers me that faith-commitments make it so that so many people intertwine their very identities with indefensible beliefs, with the result that disagreements about issues religions touch on become excessively personal for many people at the slightest challenges. This literally religious inculcation of beliefs and values makes so many people’s personal experience with discussing religious and philosophical issues simply toxic. It makes the whole endeavor of debating such issues seem like an inherently awful, imposing, disrespectful thing to do. As a philosopher, someone who has been enriched immensely from twenty years of free, open-ended, honest, and fundamentally constructive disagreements I resent that authoritarian proselytizers who try to emotionally manipulate and bully others into accepting propositions and submitting to God in lieu of good reasons have given debate about religion and philosophy such a terrible name and made so many people think of it as an inherently destructive, futile, alienating, and condescending thing to be concerned with.

In light of all this, I want to encourage us to at least see if we can reclaim and reform the practice of debating religion. Because doing it more would be good and empowering for more of us, if only we more conscientiously practiced doing it better. 

And insofar as religion will inevitably come up of its own, I think it is important that atheists at least don’t take a default deference standpoint. I would hope that atheists are willing to at least do the minimally confrontational things necessary to assert their side of things. I would hope they take responsibility to stand up for their own beliefs to their kids–not to indoctrinate them but to inform them of their options–even as their spouse may continue to take them to religious instruction.

I support those atheists who are closeted for self-protection. By all means, look after yourselves. But when outspoken theists start inserting their beliefs or practices into otherwise neutral contexts I don’t think atheists should have the default reaction of politely demurring and not countering with their own views out of deference to theistic hegemony as the inalterable way of things or out of oversensitivity to theists’ feelings at the expense of atheists’ feelings. Often speaking up just to make clear we exist is radical enough. You don’t even have to have an argument if you don’t want, just affirm that you have a different point of view and it’s valid. Enough of us doing this will go along way towards breaking the atmosphere where people feel comfortable simply assuming everyone is a theist or religious and behaving as such. Even those completely uninterested in dissuading theists of their beliefs should do this much for the sake of atheists becoming more visible and less demonized in the culture.

Also, I think atheists should not conflate the norms of discourse in public with those in intimate relationships. Public atheists debating theism in forums for intellectual discourse are not doing the same thing as disrupting Thanksgiving dinner with a fight over religion and shouldn’t be scolded as though that’s what we’re doing. And there is room to use social media or other forums for interacting with strangers and new people to get one’s religion debating done while still keeping one’s private life sacrosanct. I like to point out to people that in my personal life I rarely start philosophical or religious arguments. I just finish them. Unless I know the person I’m talking to wants to talk philosophy or religion, I’m tactful and leave those topics alone by default, out of fear of making our conversations about what I’m interested in instead of figuring out what we’re interested and on what level we connect.

Then I take to appropriate forums–philosophy classrooms, publications, social media, conversations with people who share my questions, etc.–in order to make my arguments. While the nature of my work gives me specific outlets to do this, anyone can find places for engaging people they don’t otherwise live with and have close relationships with to work out philosophical disagreements, safely separated from unfortunate repercussions to their intimate relationships. I think that if we could only stop treating each other viciously (since online we’re “only strangers”) this has the potential to revitalize and rehabilitate debate about issues that in past eras were made taboo because of their power to make otherwise harmonious relationships acrimonious.

Finally, a closing observation I’ve made of late: one of the best ways to talk about atheism without being pushy is simply to say you’re an atheist in a natural way where it simply fits and leave it at that. If the other person has no interest in the subject, they won’t pursue it. If they do have an interest, then they can guide what kind of a conversation they want to have. It’s not you pushing anything on them. It’s them inquiring about whatever they might want to learn. And, I have been charmed and heartened to see how often someone will respond to my minimal answers with insistent probing that at first seems hostile and then, when I am politely firm and clear about what I really think, becomes sympathetic.

See, some people have doubts but they don’t express them. They assume everyone else is religious. So when you start saying things that deviate from the script, they get suspicious and want to test you before showing their hand. But once you’re matter-of-fact and nonchalant and forthright about your views, they feel validated and safe and will open up.

Even when teaching philosophy classes and doing my damnedest to present all sides on the existence of God as fairly as possible, my students routinely and manifestly wanted to talk more about the reasons against God than for God, even if they believed in God. Why? Because they are accustomed to reasons for God simply being pro forma ad hoc rationalization. Hardly any one in the 21st Century (not even most Christian philosophers, theologians, or apologists) really think arguments for God are actually compelling or are the real reasons people believe. Some theistic students like them because they say what they want–God exists–but otherwise the understanding is there that they’re mostly just attempts to defend what people believe for other reasons.

But bring up atheistic arguments and they want to pick them apart. They want to test them out. Now they start bringing up theistic arguments in earnest because now it’s not just more of what they get in church, now it’s an argument. Now there are stakes. Now they want the theistic arguments to work (even though they’ll hilariously ditch them and say no one can know and it’s all faith anyway as soon as they’re shown how the arguments fail).

And to my consistent amazement, students whose early comments in my class sounded implicitly to accept religious beliefs or theism as valid would routinely start being more frank about their preexisting skepticism the further I would argue on behalf of the atheistic side.  

More nominally religious people are out there who want to probe an atheist for her thoughts than we imagine. Even (and sometimes especially) when they start out with pugilistic challenges or questions that seem to be rooted in outlandish anti-atheist biases (why don’t you murder people if you’re an atheist?) they can wind up revealing themselves as skeptics at any moment. No pushing necessary. Just forthright, unapologetic, cogently and concisely reasoned replies to their own curiosity is all you need offer them.

I find it all very encouraging and invigorating.

Your Thoughts?

Related: Is Debate Between Believers and Non-Believers Inevitably Futile?

How To Win Arguments Without Coming off as Closed Minded

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.


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