Should Atheists Be Respectful Of Believers?

Greta Christina has her take on this one, and its one of the few times I completely disagree with her. Now, if she was just talking about atheists having the right to disagree politely, or about having the right to protest religion where it actively harms them or others, it would be a different matter, but she was specifically responding to the idea among progressive, ecumenical and spiritual-but-not-religious people that everyone should be respectful of everyone else’s religious beliefs, just like they should be respectful of orientation, ethnicity and any other aspect of one’s private identity. She thinks that idea is nonsense. I think its common courtesy.

I’ve observed that when atheists converse with others about religion, their focus tends to be on actively disagreeing, saying “I think you’re wrong because of A, B and C,” which is a fine response if both people want to debate. That’s not what religious people typically want to do when they express their beliefs. They want to find points of connection. Its just like describing their family history, or their politics, or their favorite foods. “Do you agree with me? If not, do you disagree in a respectful way, or are you going to make me feel demeaned?” Ecumenical/progressive/spiritual people share their beliefs with a pattern of “I believe X, Y and Z,” “Oh, I see. Personally I think D, E and F.” Neither of them has to say “I disagree with you.” That’s obvious from the fact that neither one said, “yes, I think you’re exactly right.” Its just that the pattern of I-state-my-thoughts-then-you-state-yours helps both people avoid being insulting towards the other. There’s no reason atheists can’t respond in the same fashion. I do it all the time. Someone says, “I believe in destiny. I look at all the little things that brought me to where I am today, and I think there must have been a purpose to it all.” I say, “Personally I think life is what we make of it. I think things happen to us, both good and bad, and we do the best with what we’ve got.” Then we move on to a topic we do agree on, such as how awesome Firefly is.

I can think of at least five reasons why respect is better.

1. Empathy is good. You might not like a particular religious belief, but you aren’t talking to the personification of that belief. You are talking to a person. You know, one with feelings. Respecting those feelings is just part of acknowledging them as a person.

2. Alienating people without good cause is not a good idea. There are plenty of awesome people who are well worth having in your life, who just happen to have religious or spiritual beliefs. In my own life this includes my best friend from when I was a kid, the family I’m staying with while my parents adjust to the trans thing, my favorite teacher, my second favorite teacher, my gender therapist, and several of my classmates. If I wasn’t respectful of their beliefs, they would still be in my life, but it would be a different relationship. They wouldn’t feel as comfortable with me, I wouldn’t feel as comfortable with them and we wouldn’t be as close. That would suck, both in a sentimental sense and a practical “its really good that me and my therapist have a great rapport despite her belief in psychics and my well-beyond-skepticism of them.”

3. Unless someone’s beliefs aren’t directly harming me, or other people I care about, they really aren’t any of my business. Belief is complex. Its influenced by family, ethnicity, personal experiences, what a person genuinely thinks to be plausible, what a person currently needs to believe to get up in the morning, etc, etc. Its private. Its personal. Its not my job to police other people’s minds or decide whether a person would be better off as a progressive Christian or an atheist.

4. I like the person I am when I’m being respectful better than the one I am when I’m not being respectful. I’ve had plenty of the “I’m right and you’re wrong and I get to tell you why you’re wrong” approach from when I was a Christian. In order to be respectful now, I have to suspend judgment and think of things from the point of view of others. I like being that person.

5. Being disrespectful isn’t actually all that conducive to a good exchange of ideas, shockingly enough. Ideas flow much more freely when people feel they won’t be judged for them. There are more ideas that can be found in a discussion on religion than just arguments and counterarguments. There is information about culture, history, ethics, and the individual’s personality, for example. Its also easier for me to share things like why the idea of no god or afterlife doesn’t utterly terrify and depress me. That’s what ecumenical/progressive/spiritual people mean when they talk about religions as a rich tapestry of perspectives. Sure, some of them probably literally think that all religions have some literal truth to them, but that’s just another area where I can state my views, politely. “I think when it comes to statements like the number of gods or the existence of an afterlife, not everyone can be right, but when it comes to ethics and philosophy all religions have something interesting to say.” I like being able to hear those interesting things without insulting the person or agreeing with them.

Its not that atheists should never be allowed to criticize beliefs or explain why they disagree with supernatural explanations of the world. What qualifies as respectful or not does depend on context. In particular, the rules for online and in-person communication are completely different. I have met atheists who don’t seem sensitive of that difference, and criticize people’s beliefs just as harshly at a family gathering as they would on an anonymous forum. Expecting atheists to show some sensitivity to private beliefs of others isn’t some suppression of non-religious viewpoints. Its just asking for basic courtesy.

– Lane

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16 thoughts on “Should Atheists Be Respectful Of Believers?

  1. Shaun and I are racing for first comment. We haven’t discussed our reations with each other yet.

    There’s an interesting thing happening here. You (as well as the hypothetical progressives and ecumenicalists being discussed) are considering religion as a matter of private identity, like orientation, ethnicity, etc. Greta Christina, I, and most of the Gnu Atheists consider it as a matter of public ideology, like politics. I think it probably has some characteristics of both, but I’ll need to think about that further.

    To the main point: I do think different approaches are appropriate at different times. As far as I can tell, Greta Christina is talking mainly about the intellectual world, the blogosphere, etc. In this world truth should trump “respect” if “respect” means “making sure everybody feels their ideas are equally valuable.” We come here to argue about right and wrong, and no idea should be censored, even if it upsets people.

    In the social world, much of the time, making personal connections is more important than hashing out the nuts and bolts of the universe. So I agree with you that atheists should spend more time talking about their points of agreement with believers, in social settings where the emphasis is on building and affirming personal connections. The thing is, all the atheists I know do this. I don’t recall seeing Shaun ever start an argument with somebody in a social setting (though he certainly does finish them.) When the argument comes up, it’s because he’s been asked what he believes, or because a subject that touches on religion is being discussed (politics or history mostly). Once we’ve gotten into the realm of subject-discussion, I feel we’ve entered the intellectual world, where truth and open expression of ideas is more important than making everybody feel happy and connected. Neither Shaun nor any other atheist I’ve met (though I’m sure there are some out there) goes around saying, “Hi, nice to see you again. Have I mentioned lately that I think your beliefs about reality are delusional?”

    Another problem with the idea of respect is that, a lot of the time, an atheist making the simple statement “I don’t believe in God” garners a huge reaction. They don’t have to say anything more — not “I think your beliefs are wrong,” not “I think religion does more harm than good” — all they have to say is that they don’t believe in God, and they get a shocked, defensive, or pitying response. People react as though the atheist has already attacked and demeaned them… if they haven’t immediately concluded that the atheist is morally bankrupt.

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    • I did think that maybe Greta meant more that believers shouldn’t pull the respect thing into rigorous philosophical discussions as a way of shutting up criticism. That said, in the article she wrote there was nothing to suggest that she thought religious people should be respected under any circumstances, in any way, for any reasons. So I responded to that.

      I think your observation about the political vs private views on religion is a good point. I think its important to consider whether the religious view you are criticizing impacts your own life or not. I’m not aware of any particularly dangerous public policies that are set up by the progressive/ecumenical/spiritual types. Those beliefs might lead to some decisions I find pretty absurd (there’s an anecdote in one of Greta’s blogs about a couple that tried to use visualization as a birth control technique) but those are private decisions. That’s why I don’t think its at all hypocritical to criticize homophobia in Christianity but be respectful of someone’s belief in psychics. One is my business because it impacts my life, the other one isn’t because it doesn’t.

      I also think I should write another post sometime on how to respond when religious people are judgmental of atheism. In this one I was mostly thinking about atheist responses to other people’s statements of their beliefs. I still think there are respectful and disrespectful ways to defend your own belief, or non-belief, but I think describing it here would clutter the discussion. Hence, future blog post!

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  2. This is what I find fascinating about this rebuttal to Greta Christina’s post. It was not a rebuttal at all. One of the most annoying tactics of ‘accommodationists’ (which your post here seems to identify you as), is that you do not address the content of anything that the gnu atheist says, but you address the tone; we are not being respectful.

    But there’s the catch; we don’t think the ideas are worthy of respect. Yes, we believe that people have the right to be treated respectfully, as well as allowed to believe whatever they want to, but the ideas are not deserving of respect automatically.

    Further, we are treating people with respect when we challenge them. For us, one of the highest signs of respect is honesty and truth. And how can we ever talk with people we disagree with and be honest while at the same time never saying why we disagree with them? (This is not to say we do it all the time, only that it will happen sometimes).

    There is a perpetual confusion for the attack of the idea and the attack of the person. Yes, religious belief are personal and are attached to emotions, but nobody has the right not to be offended.

    Now, let me address some things you said:

    Ecumenical/progressive/spiritual people share their beliefs with a pattern of “I believe X, Y and Z,” “Oh, I see. Personally I think D, E and F.” Neither of them has to say “I disagree with you.” That’s obvious from the fact that neither one said, “yes, I think you’re exactly right.” Its just that the pattern of I-state-my-thoughts-then-you-state-yours helps both people avoid being insulting towards the other.

    So, if the disagreement is inherent in this mode of communication, then making it plain somehow is disrespectful? This, as was Greta’s last point, speaks volumes about the interest in the truth here. It’s fine to want to find points of connection, but at some point we actually have to challenge our ideas in an attempt to learn and grow. In this environment of “I’m OK, you’re OK” (which is the environment I grew up in), nobody grows and matures, they simply go on with what they believe. This is not a strength.

    The best person to help your either strengthen your ideas or to change them is someone who disagrees with you and can explain why By perpetually avoiding this, people become stagnant and dogmatic.

    1. Empathy is good. You might not like a particular religious belief, but you aren’t talking to the personification of that belief. You are talking to a person. You know, one with feelings. Respecting those feelings is just part of acknowledging them as a person.

    I agree that empathy is good. But the attempt to tip-toe around people’s feelings is not always helpful. Those feelings are there as a means to defend themselves from some insecurity. That is, this is a defense mechanism. When you bump into these feelings, be aware of it, but it does not mean that you can’t wade into that territory. Instead, it just means you might have to choose words carefully. But the bottom line is that your disagreement will inevitably hurt their feelings. There simply is no way, no matter how gentle and respectful you are, to explain why you think they are wrong about something that is really important to them without hurting some feelings.

    And if you really care about people, you will want them to learn and grow, and that happens through pain, mostly. If you just sit back, smile, and say everything will be alright, then you are treating them like a child. THAT is NOT respect.

    2. Alienating people without good cause is not a good idea. There are plenty of awesome people who are well worth having in your life, who just happen to have religious or spiritual beliefs….

    Truly awesome people will be able to withstand some genuine disagreement. People that are really your friends will not disappear or become alienated just because you talk to them about why you disagree with them. Again, maintaining a friendship or relationship with someone you cannot be honest with is not respect.

    3. Unless someone’s beliefs aren’t directly harming me, or other people I care about, they really aren’t any of my business. Belief is complex. Its influenced by family, ethnicity, personal experiences, what a person genuinely thinks to be plausible, what a person currently needs to believe to get up in the morning, etc, etc. Its private. Its personal. Its not my job to police other people’s minds or decide whether a person would be better off as a progressive Christian or an atheist.

    Beliefs have consequences, even if you don’t see them. Yes, their beliefs are personal and they have every legal right to them, but if their beliefs are wrong, that means that they have not developed the critical thinking skills necessary to make decisions about many other things as well. These people vote, these people teach children, and their beliefs inform their lifestyles, many of which are harmful. Yes, this is more pronounced with conservatives (especially around their sexuality), but it is real for the moderates and liberals as well.

    Again, this also goes back to the question of respect cor the truth. Someone who would rather believe a fairy tale because it makes it worth getting up in the morning are not mature people (emotionally or intellectually). Their beliefs may not be worthy of respect. You don’t have to say anything, but can you honestly say that you respect their beliefs? (which is different, but not always unrelated, from respecting them).

    4. I like the person I am when I’m being respectful better than the one I am when I’m not being respectful. I’ve had plenty of the “I’m right and you’re wrong and I get to tell you why you’re wrong” approach from when I was a Christian. In order to be respectful now, I have to suspend judgment and think of things from the point of view of others. I like being that person.

    This is the closest I am to agreeing with you here. What I think you may be overlooking here is that you may be associating the feeling of seeing someone as wrong with your former Christianity (I know, armchair/distant psychiatry…). I respect fervent Christians who argue that I am wrong; their desire for the truth, no matter how misguided, is very respect-worthy. I respect them MUCH more than squishy liberal Christians. At least they care about the truth.

    The other part of this is that there is no necessary distinction between suspending judgment, seeing their point of view, and honest criticism. After you have more information, see it from their point of view more, and still think they are wrong, not ever saying so is (again) NOT respect.

    Bottom line, if you don’t feel like being critical, then don’t. Nobody is telling you to do it. But what I find ironic is that this ecumenical/liberal point of view is very quick to criticize those of us who do want to criticize. Who are you to tell us we shouldn’t? Our values are truth and criticism; respect that value, please. That’s the hypocrisy that Greta Christina was talking about. This post is an example. The difference is that we gnu/new atheists do not mind the criticism. We take it as a sign of respect for our ability to handle criticism. So, thanks!

    5. Being disrespectful isn’t actually all that conducive to a good exchange of ideas, shockingly enough….

    Bullshit. This is only true with people who are immature, insecure, or who are children. The bottom line is that whether or not you say it, you judge people all the time; everyone does. Hiding from this fact, pretending it isn’t there, or playing the offense card is not a mature response, it is whining.

    Yes, there is a rich tapestry of ideas out there, and I love learning about them. But there is a difference between learning about ideas that exist and believing in them. People that believe in silly ideas will have to get used to either defending their position (as best they can) or being perpetually alienated and offended. The only other choice is to hide away from the big mean world of critics. Now that gnu atheists are getting press, they can’t hide as easily. Too bad.

    What qualifies as respectful or not does depend on context. In particular, the rules for online and in-person communication are completely different.

    Why? It is easy to be direct indirectly. what takes guts is being direct directly (and taking directness directly. I am the same in person because I think it is respectful to do so. Again, there is no right not to be offended.

    Expecting atheists to show some sensitivity to private beliefs of others isn’t some suppression of non-religious viewpoints. Its just asking for basic courtesy.

    But this “courtesy” you are asking for amounts, when practiced, to STFU. There is no practical difference between this “courtesy” and the suppression of criticism. There simply is no way to voice genuine disagreement about religious views while not offending people’s personal feelings.

    Saying you believe something else and leaving the implied differences unsaid is not expression of our point of view, because our point of view is that their beliefs are wrong, and we have arguments to defend that position. By telling us we have to be polite and courteous, you are telling us to shut up. There is no way around that.

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    • I think we fundamentally disagree on one pretty big issue, which is how we view believers. This is the biggest problem I have with the “I don’t have to be respectful” sentiment. Gnu atheists often talk about religious and spiritual people as if they are sheep and weaklings who need to be challenged and molded into stronger, more intelligent people. They don’t just seem to think religion is mistaken, but actively look down on believers as ignorant and superstitious. For many religious people that’s simply not true. There are many, many different kinds of believers, many of them very intelligent and strong-willed and mentally healthy people. Even among those who have maturity issues or are clinging to beliefs that are harming them, the path to maturity doesn’t always mean letting go of their religious beliefs.

      Sure, people grow in part through conflict. I don’t think that means its my job to make them uncomfortable so they can grow. Life offers plenty of conflict and opportunities to grow by itself. I don’t know the intimate details of other people’s lives. Even in the case of my closest friends, I can only speculate as to whether someone would be happier or more mature as an atheist.

      There is only a conflict between honesty and respect if you are starting from a perspective where you are looking down on a person’s ideas. Once you’ve taken that perspective, its hard to be honestly respectful of the person while disagreeing with them. People do make judgments, but it is possible to form a judgment on a person’s opinion without forming judgments about their character, their maturity, their intelligence, or what is best for them in the long run.

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  3. Lane, good post…and to a degree I agree with you on the respect part. Leaving aside what types of critique qualify as respectful and what types do not, how does the conversation change if instead of talking about generic beliefs (x, y, or z) we use specific examples? The belief in hell and the rapture are good candidates.

    Situation 1) In an undergraduate class on American Religion that I was in the following exchange occurred between a Christian and an atheist student:

    Christian: “Just because we believe you’re going to Hell doesn’t mean that we can’t like you and be friends with you.”
    Atheist: “And we deserve eternal suffering in Hell because we don’t believe in Jesus?”
    Christian: “Yes.”

    Situation 2) One of my great-grandmothers was convinced that the rapture would occur before she died. She died a few years ago and the rapture has, obviously, not happened. After her funeral, my mother said to me, “I really wish the rapture had occurred before she died so she wouldn’t have been disappointed on her deathbed.” In other words, my mother wished for the destruction of this world and many of the people in it (including some of her own children and grandchildren) for the sole purpose of sparing a 94 year old woman disappointment.

    Both of these beliefs, in context, are inherently disrespectful to many people. To what degree are we supposed to be respectful to those beliefs? Do answers change if we learn that elected officials make decisions based upon these beliefs? (I must, embarrassingly, admit that in a grand act of atheistic cowardice, I remained silent after my mom spoke those words even though every bit of me was revolted).

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    • Good question. So good I took a couple of days to make sure I had an answer I liked.

      In the second situation, I don’t think it was necessarily cowardly to remain silent. You were at a funeral. Everybody was already in an emotionally fragile state, and being sensitive was important. Sure, what your mother said was disrespectful and had disturbing implications, but certain situations are delicate enough that you let things slide, and funerals pretty much always count.

      In the first example, you’re in a class on religion. Anybody who didn’t want to debate religion shouldn’t have signed up for the course. Bring up rational problems with the idea of hell. Bring up ethical issues. Question whether heaven and hell are going to be as good and bad as they are made out to be if the main thing that determines where you go is which god you believe in. (One thing I’ve always wanted to say to a Christian is “If God is sending me to hell, either its because I’m an atheist, meaning I’ll be spending eternity with Joss Whedon, or because I’m queer, meaning I’ll be spending eternity with Oscar Wilde. How is that a bad thing?”)

      If I were in that debate, I’d be really curious about how your classmate justifies both being friends with unbelievers and believing they deserve hell. I’d probably focus on asking about that, finding out what mental gymnastics are being employed, and questioning them.

      So that’s what I’d do with the specific situations. As to how general vs specific beliefs change the conversation (interesting how I’m responding backwards) I think there two big differences between discussing general beliefs and specific ones. First, the general beliefs often form a significant part of a person’s identity, including their cultural affiliations and so on. Specific beliefs are more malleable. I know lots of Christians who started out with a fundamentalist view and ended up a lot more progressive. Its one thing to try to change someone’s mind on specific ideas, and another to try to persuade them to give up a significant chunk of their identity. Second, the specific beliefs are the ones more likely to influence my life. Whether a person believes that Jesus was the son of God or not doesn’t directly affect me; whether they believe that I am only saved if I believe in him can affect our relationship and their evaluation of me; whether they believe he condemned homosexuals can affect my physical and emotional safety. It comes back to the question of what is my business and what isn’t. Ideas that directly affect me are different from ideas that I simply disagree with.

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      • The issue with the classroom example demonstrates that in many cases, the religious person simply stating what they believe is inherently disrespectful. Similarly, an atheist stating theirs can often be inherently disrespectful as well (but not always). With many beliefs, there is sinply no way to simply state what you believe without being potentially percieved as being disrespectful.

        What I find interesting is that it is almost always the atheist who is accused of being disrespectful while inherently disrespectful religious views are glossed over. One might argue that the atheist should take the “high road” and not return disrespect with disrespect, but I’m not convinced this is actually the moral high road (for reasons discussed in my above comment). In fact, what I see here is a clear double standard.

        (This dynamic, of course, does not describe all situations, but it describes many.)

        Again, the funeral example shows where it is glossed over when the religious person says something disrespectful (and possibly morally repugnant), while any potential response from an atheist is considered out of place and rude.

        This is the free pass given to religion in many instances, and it frustrates me. Yes, it may sometimes be rude for an atheist to give their opinion; but it is also often rude for the religious person to do the same. However, since they have the cultural majority and their language games are considered part of the norm, it is overlooked.

        It would be comparable (at least in logical structure, but not in moral equivalence) to overhearing a small town discussion in the south in (say) 1950 by the KKK about black people and saying it would be rude to respond why they are wrong about their racial views. Their comments are disrespectful and wrong, but to tell them so at their own meeting would just be disrespectful. When I hear the comments above and think about that, I don’t hear a logical difference between the two.

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      • If in the funeral situation an atheist said, “It sucks that now that grandma is dead her consciousness is permanently gone from the universe and none of us will ever see her again,” I’d advise the believers to let it go as well. Its still a funeral, its still an emotionally fragile environment, and people are supposed to be comforting each other. Debates are most productive in situations where everyone is clear-headed. I wasn’t advocating the religious response being glossed over because it was religious, but because it wasn’t a good situation for a theological debate no matter who started it.

        There is a logical difference between talking about the afterlife at a funeral and your KKK analogy. Its the “my business” issue again. One is a theoretical idea that only mildly affects me. One is a practical idea that very intensely affects me via my concern for the physical safety of my non-white friends.

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  4. I thought about y’all while driving to the folks’ place this weekend. I saw a car pass me that had a sticker on the back glass which read ‘Pray while it’s still legal.’

    My problem with that statement is that if overly-religious people had their way, they would make it illegal for people to be able to choose for themselves, among other things.

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  5. Interesting read. I am a Christian. I believe in God and that there is an afterlife. Whenever I engage in religious debates on the internet, I am very respectful in the hopes that whomever I’m debating will be respectful towards me and my beliefs. Because it is a personal thing that is being discussed which requires some empathy from all parties.

    Now that being said, I run into people who have the same mindset as Shaunphilly. And you know what typically happens in those threads? It usually turns into a flame war. It starts off something they say that they either aren’t aware is disrespectful, or simply don’t care, such as saying that believers are following a fairytale. I know this doesn’t apply to all atheists obviously, but I have run into it enough to make note that it happens alot. And that to me is rude. It’s equivalent to a Christian saying how atheists are wrong and that they are going to burn in hell. I can’t stand those people either.

    In those debates, when I point out to them that what they are saying is offensive, I’m accused of being overly sensitive or trying to censor what they have to say. I don’t think that’s what I’m doing. I would just like to be treated with the same level of respect as I have shown others. I myself criticize atheism in an intelligent fashion, but I do it in a non-demeaning manner. Is it wrong to expect the same from them? I don’t think so.

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    • Zack: Do you object to your fellow Christians telling atheists they’re going to burn in hell because you think they’re wrong, or because you think it’s a rude thing to say? Because, while it might be shocking and offensive to tell another adult that they’re going to be tortured for an eternity by a loving (?) God, it’s not really less shocking and offensive to believe it without saying so. In fact, if someone genuinely believes that I’m going to hell, I don’t see how it’s respectful or loving to avoid mentioning that fact out of a delicate fear of hurting my feelings. I once dated a man who was as outspoken in his evangelism as Shaun and other Gnus are in their criticism of religion. People were sometimes annoyed or embarrassed by him, but I respected him because he took his (at the time, our) beliefs seriously.

      Now there’s a time and a place, as I said before… there are many gatherings of people where harmony takes precedence over honest expressions of belief, however earnest and well-meaning. But internet debates? Totally fair game. When someone on the internet tells me I’m going to hell, my problem is not that they said it, but that they think it.

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    • I’d be interested in hearing an intelligent criticism of atheism, because I’ve never heard one yet that survived critical scrutiny.

      If it has anything to do with not being able to prove god does not exist, then that is burden-shifting: here’s my reply to a a common attempt of this tactic by a Christian theologian. Essentially, atheists are not the one making the claim, we are just not accepting theist claims

      If it is historical proof of the New Testament or something, then that’s better, but still pretty bad. Textual evidence is insufficient to prove supernatural occurrences.

      If it is personal experience, I will simply say that one cannot doubt the experience, but they can doubt the interpretation of it. Also, your experience does nothing for my belief/disbelief.

      I lack belief in any gods because I have not seen sufficient evidence to believe such a hypothesis. This is not for a lack of trying. So, if some god is capable of giving me sufficient reason to believe and yet has not…then I fail to see how this is my fault.

      The question I generally ask is this; what do you believe? Why do you believe it?

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  6. If in the funeral situation an atheist said, “It sucks that now that grandma is dead her consciousness is permanently gone from the universe and none of us will ever see her again,” I’d advise the believers to let it go as well. Its still a funeral, its still an emotionally fragile environment, and people are supposed to be comforting each other.

    I actually agree with you here. The funeral example is the weaker case of the two cited, but I was pointing out that the same inequality still does exist. My question is whether you really believe many religious people would actually remain reticent if such an atheist said something like that. In my experience an atheist would likely not respond in the originally cited circumstance, but I am not sure about the other way around.

    Debates are most productive in situations where everyone is clear-headed. I wasn’t advocating the religious response being glossed over because it was religious, but because it wasn’t a good situation for a theological debate no matter who started it.

    The problem here for me is that from my point of view religious people are rarely, if ever, clear-headed about their beliefs. This rule would imply that debate would never be warranted. Granted, some believers are able to discuss their beliefs intelligently, but they are the exception. And if you merely mean ‘relatively clear-headed (in comparison to how they are at a funeral), then ok.

    <blockquote.There is a logical difference between talking about the afterlife at a funeral and your KKK analogy.

    Sure there is, but you are not addressing the point here. I’m talking about the fact that in society at large there is a free pass given to religion out of respect, the funeral example being one towards the extreme. What about the classroom example? What if it were at a Christian University? What if it were at a party? In the vast majority of the cases of where these conversations happen, people automatically give a pass to people’s religious views and try to shut down criticism from skeptics. You probably have not seen this because you have not been an out atheist for 10 years. When you are quiet about your beliefs, you do not see how every day life effects atheists because of this free pass. There is genuine social stigma, discrimination, and stereotyping that exists that we experience. It’s invisible to you the way issues about being a woman or gender queer are largely invisible to me.

    Its the “my business” issue again. One is a theoretical idea that only mildly affects me. One is a practical idea that very intensely affects me via my concern for the physical safety of my non-white friends.

    I addressed this when I distinguished between the logical versus moral comparison of the analogy. It is not merely a theoretical issue (I addressed that above as well). There is no question that racism has a more detrimental effect on the world than this bias towards people’s religious beliefs, but the logical structure is the same and there are real-world effects of these beliefs (on science education, public policy, etc). So yes, it may not effect you much (at least, not that you are aware of) personally, but it does affect society as a whole and it affects me and my values and worldview.

    This is a rights issue, certainly. What you seem to be defending is people’s rights to believe what they want to believe (that in itself is not he problem) to the point where you help shield them from criticism. You don’t see the harm, so you don’t think it is respectful to criticize, even though their beliefs are highly offensive to me (and, of course, I don’t have a right not to be offended either) as well as detrimental to society in general over the long term. But I do have a right to explain why I am offended, and doing so is not disrespectful. Again, I’m not saying that you need to criticize people’s beliefs, but you have no moral foundation to say that I should not criticize without appealing to the logical fallacy of special pleading.

    Your position is one of personal preference, not morality. You are trying to create a moral issue out of it through your inability to see the real-world harm done by faith on people and subsequently to society.

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  7. Pingback: The best defence to an atheist’s offence is defensiveness and offense « The atheist, polyamorous, skeptic

  8. Lane: Joss Whedon and Oscar Wilde? I’ll take a first-class ticket in hell’s proverbial hand-basket for that show.

    I should clarify the funeral: I said “after the funeral” but it wasn’t directly after, it was a couple of weeks after. My cowardice comes in two forms: one, I didn’t mean that I should have said something like “It sucks that now that grandma is dead her consciousness is permanently gone,” but I really should have said, “Mom! Do you really mean that you’d wish for the destruction of the world like that?” IF, I had said that it simply would have revealed to her how shocking her belief was. That’s not disrespectful. My mom is a stereotypically and genuinely kind southern woman, she would have been shocked at her own statement if I had pointed it out. Two, I still cannot find the courage to admit to my family that I am an atheist, really an anti-theist. Fortunately, most of them are not web savvy enough to realize that I have a blog.

    Zack: Saying that I believe religion to be a fairytale is where we disagree on what is disrespectful. For example, in a blog post I responded to a theologian who asserted that atheists should have a “deep knowledge” of what they reject and the consequences of what they reject. On principle, I disagree with this in that, while it may be nice, it is not required.  My response was something like: we don’t have to have a deep knowledge of Buddhism or it’s cultural impact to reject it as a belief system (neither do Christians); likewise, we don’t have to have a deep knowledge of Aesop’s fables to reject the idea that a turtle will beat a rabbit in a foot race.  I would add now that we don’t have to have a deep knowledge of the bible to reject the idea that a donkey can talk (Numbers 22).  I am not trying to be inflammatory but there are clear overlaps between these themes. This is not the same thing as saying that someone is an idiot because they are religious, which is disrespectful.

    I agree with you that online discussions often devolve into flame wars. I think the larger problem though is that the sensitivity to criticizing religious belief makes it into the general cultural world. Take, for example, this court case C.F. v. Capistrano Unified School District. The teacher in question is charged with being direspectful towards religion in the classroom for things like saying:

    … dismissing Aristotle’s proof of God’s existence as “nonsense.”

    Even thought there is a clear

    distinction between calling a “proof” of God’s existence “nonsense” and criticizing religious belief.

    So I think that we have to be very realistic about what constitutes disrespect. By any account, thinking that someone believes in a fairytale is far less offensive than believing someone is going to hell. The former is an evaluation of the truth of a belief system, the latter is a judgment of someone’s character and worth. Like Ginny said: “my problem is not that they said it, but that they think it.”

    And people’s beliefs do impact their behavior. These beliefs impact political policy and should be explicit. And once explicit, subject to scrutiny and criticism. This is at the heart of discourse. Making religious beliefs exempt from this is calling for a case of special pleading.

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  9. D’oh, sorry for the typos:
    The teacher in question is charged with being direspectful towards religion in the classroom for things like saying:

    … dismissing Aristotle’s proof of God’s existence as “nonsense.”

    Even though there is a clear

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