We’ve probably all been confronted with some variation on this question from frustrated theists or apathetic “nones” who find our whole movement a little baffling: Why do you atheists spend so much time worrying about a God you don’t even believe exists? If you think he’s not real, why not just let it go at that?
Austin Cline, About.com’s Atheism and Agnosticism guide, recently highlighted just such a query from a reader, one who reaches a conclusion that requires something of a Super Mario-worthy leap:
Doesn’t [atheists'] obsession with non-belief indicate that they secretly do believe? Otherwise, wouldn’t their actions be inconceivable?
I can’t for the life of me put that one together. Even if you grant the premise that atheists are irrationally obsessed with their lack of belief, there’s no connection I can imagine that thereby leads to “therefore they actually are theists, Q.E.D.” Maybe that whole “denial ain’t just a river in Egypt” thing? I dunno, I’m reaching.
But that’s not really what I wanted to highlight about this post. I particularly liked Cline’s conclusion at the end of his post:
[W]hile gods may not exist, belief in gods and religions organized around such belief definitely do — and those are the actual topics being discussed. Theism exists, is relevant, and plays a role in society. Religion exists, is relevant, and plays a role in society. Just because I don’t believe in any gods and am not part of any religion doesn’t mean that there is something contradictory about discussing religious theism — analyzing what it is, critiquing whether it is rational, and discussing what it means.
Excellently said. Even activist nonbelievers and humanists can sometimes, in my opinion, become clouded by a well-intentioned kind of liberalism that treats people’s beliefs with kid gloves, as though those beliefs in and of themselves are entirely benign. But religious beliefs, with rare exceptions, are not simply dormant little thoughts that sit in a glass case in someone’s mind like museum pieces. People act on their beliefs, they behave in ways that are informed and influenced — or even dictated — by their beliefs.
Nearly every belief (religious or otherwise) has an impact outside the individual. And when a belief is centered around something that does not and cannot possibly exist, something that is patently absurd such as sky-dwelling father figures handing out laws about magic crackers, distribution of celestial virgins, or planetary real estate after death, well, we don’t even have to imagine what kinds of things people will do when they act on those beliefs.
The academic and theological arguments about God’s and religion’s veracity and plausibility are important, too, and add to our collective intellectual development as a global society. But we also hold these discussions because we need to cope, right here and now, with the implications of billions of people believing in, and acting on, variations of the absurd.