Atheists, Please Stop Saying These Things

Atheists, Please Stop Saying These Things March 31, 2014

Tuesday night I participated in a panel discussion at Grand Valley State University with six other atheists (three students, three professors and me). Someone brought up something that is often said to atheists by Christians, that they really do believe in God even if they claim not to (“in their heart of hearts” in the often annoying phrase). I pointed out that this was offensive and patronizing.

A few minutes after I said that, one of the professors, who was quite an irritating git, declared that he doesn’t think that anyone really believes in the God of the Bible. A man in the back of the auditorium said, “I do,” and the professor immediately and very loudly said, “Really? You do? You actually believe that God told Abraham to cut off part of his son’s penis?” At that point I jumped in and reminded the other panelist that this was completely out of line (we weren’t there to debate the audience) and that him telling a Christian what they really believe is every bit as offensive and patronizing as Christians telling us that we really do believe in God deep down. He piped down for a bit after that.

But it inspired me to write a post about things I really wish some of my fellow atheists would stop saying and doing. This is hardly an exhaustive list, just the first few that come to mind.

1. Please stop saying that “we’re all born atheist.” Babies are atheists in the same sense that an office chair is an atheist. The statement is trivially true and completely irrelevant to any discussion I can imagine.

2. Please stop trotting out simplistic reasons why people believe. During that panel discussion Q&A, one of the audience members asked why we thought others did believe in God when we didn’t. I get annoyed by the overly simplistic explanations I often hear for why others believe: “They just believe because they’re afraid of dying” or “they just believe because of guilt” or “they just believe because they’re brainwashed. And those might be true for an individual person here and there, but to think that by repeating those platitudes you have explained why people in general believe in religion is absurd. Human motivation is rarely a simple thing and the reasons why people believe in God or remain as part of one religious community or another are many and diverse. You know how you feel when a Christian says that you’re only an atheist because you don’t want to submit to God or you just want to be able to continue to sin? You’re doing the same damn thing to them.

3. On a related note, please stop explaining the creation of religion in equally simplistic ways. “Religion was just created to control people” is one that I hear often. Again, there are many reasons why religion was invented. It serves a wide range of needs in society, some of them quite well (creating community and channeling charity, for example). And there’s a good deal of scholarly research and writing on the subject of why human beings are prone to create and belong to religion. If you really think it can be explained so easily by a throwaway phrase like the above, I’m almost ashamed to have you on “my side” of these questions.

4. Stop conflating fundamentalism or Biblical literalism with Christianity itself. Pointing out mistakes, absurdities or contradictions in the Bible may work quite well against a Sola Scriptura advocate, but those people are not the One True Christianity. There is no One True Christianity. In fact, as I said during the panel discussion on Tuesday, there is no Christianity. There are lots of Christianities. The fact that Fred Phelps and Bishop Tutu are both labeled Christian tells you almost nothing about what they actually believe about anything. Christians are not a monolith, they are a diverse and varied group with a wide range of beliefs. Instead of presuming what they believe based on a label, try asking them what they actually believe about the subject under discussion first.

5. Please stop saying that being religious means someone is stupid. Are there lots of stupid Christians out there? Of course. I write about them all the time. But I used to be a Christian. I didn’t suddenly become smarter when I left my faith behind. In fact, the overwhelming majority of atheists used to be religious. If you’re one of them and you call them stupid, you’re saying you used to be stupid as well. And I simply know far too many very intelligent religious people to believe this. I also know plenty of dumb atheists.

6. “Religion is a mental illness” or “religion is a virus.” I’ve already addressed the first one recently. Stop it. Just stop.

7. That if you call yourself an agnostic you’re really just a wimpy atheist who won’t commit or who doesn’t have the courage of their convictions. Can we just stop getting so hung up on labels, please? Labels are not a substitute for actually inquiring about someone’s beliefs. Instead of applying a label and then assuming what they believe on that basis, how about asking them what they believe, or what they mean by whatever term they use?

8. Tax the churches! Churches are tax-exempt under the same section of the IRS code as the FFRF, ACLU, Americans United and American Atheists. There is no coherent reason why churches should be taxed but not all the non-religious non-profits. The real problem is not that churches are untaxed, it’s that churches are treated differently from other non-profits that are tax-exempt (they don’t have to fill out 990s, don’t have to apply for the status and get special privileges like parsonage allowances). I’m all for equal treatment for churches and other non-profits, but equal treatment also means that if you’re going to tax the churches you have to tax the others too. So unless you’re willing to yell “tax American Atheists” or “tax the ACLU” at the same time, you really need to stop yelling “tax the churches.”

9. “The founding fathers were all deists” (or worse, atheists). No, they weren’t all deists. In fact, they weren’t even mostly deists. Most of them were Christians of one type or another. The leading founders (Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Franklin) were something in between. I’ve long advocated for Gregg Frazer’s description of “theistic rationalist.” And for crying out loud, don’t ever claim they were atheists. None of them were atheists.

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