9 questions atheists find insulting? Bollocks

No one is going to learn anything from anybody if one side lays down rules about what the other side is allowed to say, before the discussion even starts

I’m an atheist, and I’m feeling insulted

Greta_Christina_at_SkepticonInsulted by Greta Christina’s article, “9 Answers to Common Questions for Atheists – So You Don’t Insult Us By Asking”, http://everydayfeminism.com/2016/08/questions-atheists-find-insulting/. Insulted by the condescending and preachy answers offered on my behalf. Insulted that the author presumes to speak on my behalf at all, as if she were the privileged custodian of some kind of atheist credo. But above all, insulted by the suggestion that I am so intellectually fragile as to find the questions insulting.

For an atheist – correction, for me as an atheist, since I have no mandate to speak for others – it is a matter of deep principle that all questions and (unless there is reason to do otherwise) all questioners should be treated with respect. This is one of the ways in which, as I see it, atheism is morally superior to many kinds of religion, in which even asking certain questions is regarded as sinful, or even blasphemous.

Why am I discussing this?

I don’t often talk about the fact that I’m an atheist. That’s because it’s usually irrelevant, especially as I collaborate with diverse groups of believers and unbelievers, in my attempts to share my scientific interests, protect education from theocratic interference, and advance my humanitarian agenda. I also exercise reasonable tact in discussing emotionally laden issues. The existence or otherwise of gods is an emotionally laden issue, especially for believers, but there is no shortage of emotionally laden issues in other areas, from economic theory to football. And the idea that atheism needs special protection is, for me, anathema.

What are the questions, and what are my answers?

Ok, then, here are the questions to which Christina objects (I think it’s fair use in a review like this to just copy them), which she doesn’t want to hear again because she believes she has answered them once and for all, and, for what they’re worth, my own answers, which I promise you are a lot shorter than hers:

  1. How can you be moral without believing in God?
  2. How do you have any meaning in your life?
  3. Doesn’t it take just as much faith to be an atheist as it does to be a believer?
  4. Isn’t atheism just a religion?
  5. What’s the point of atheist groups? How can you have a community for something you don’t believe in?
  6. Why do you hate God? (Or ‘Aren’t you just angry at God?’)
  7. But have you read the Bible, or some other Holy Book, heard about some supposed miracle, etc?
  8. What if you’re wrong?
  9. Why are you atheists so angry?

1.We don’t derive our morality from God. None of us do. We derive it from social norms, and our shared humanity, and then use gods to rationalise it. How, after all, do we know that what God wants is good, unless we know what good means already? (This argument goes back at least as far as Plato, and is related to Hume’s observation that we can’t derive morals from facts alone, whatever Sam Harris may say.) One reason for the current decline of religion in the West is the clear superiority of morality based on humanity to that based on traditional religion, in attitudes towards women, gays, minorities, and dissenters.

2.No, I’m not going to give you a recipe for finding meaning. You have to find your own.

3.Russell’s Teapot. I cannot absolutely disprove the existence of a china teapot circling the Sun, but it requires a lot more faith to believe in its existence than in its nonexistence.

4.I can’t improve on Penn Jillette: Atheism is a religion like not collecting stamps is a hobby.

5.I agree. The atheist and mainly atheist groups I belong to are united by such things as examining morality, improving education, and learning about current controversies. Atheism is not enough.

6.I have seen, and heard of, horrible things, and if I did believe in God, I would indeed hate him.

7.Of course I have. But as evidence, I don’t find it terribly convincing.

8.Pascal’s Wager. But what if there is a God who values integrity, who will reject those who accepted him out of hope for reward, and accept those who rejected him out of conviction?

9.I am very angry, and so should you be. I am angry about current inequalities of wealth and power; about the damage done by denial of global warming, evolution, and the usefulness of vaccines; and about the privileged access of Churches to schoolchildren in the United Kingdom, where I live. But I trust I would be equally angry about these things if I were, myself, a believer. I certainly ought to be, unless my religion had corrupted my morality.

And on occasions, like this one, I am angry at those who presume to speak for me.

Saving the worst till last

But maybe you could do a little Googling before you start asking us questions that we’ve not only fielded a hundred times before, but that have bigotry and dehumanization and religious privilege embedded in the very asking.

No, I do not expect people to do an online search before I condescend to talk to them about my beliefs, or the lack of them. Perhaps, after all, they want a conversation, are interested in seeing how an actual person responds, want to get to know me better, or simply want to spend time over a pint. And I detest the collective “we”; it should be obvious from the above examples that the way I field these questions is very different from the way someone else might. We are, after all, discussing questions about how we as individuals view the world, rather than questions about how the world is. So it is the height of arrogance for any of us to speak for the atheist community, as if we were compelled to march in step. Nor do I see any bigotry in someone being genuinely puzzled as to how I can differ from them over any of these questions, and I do not think they are dehumanising me by wanting to know more. The very opposite, in fact.

As for ” religious privilege embedded in the very asking,” yes indeed, but the questioner is probably completely unaware of this fact, and the best way to make them aware is to answer the questions, in good faith, on their merits.

No one is going to learn anything from anybody if one side lays down rules about what the other side is allowed to say, before the discussion even starts. And if we grant those we disagree with the common courtesy of putting forward their own views in their own words, and the further courtesy of actually listening to them, then we, too, might learn something.

Image: Greta Christina at Skepticon 2014, Mark Schierbecker via Wikimedia, Creative Commons Licence 4.0

About Paul Braterman

Science writer, former chemistry professor; committee member British Centre for Science Education; board member and science adviser Scottish Secular Society; former member editorial board, Origins of Life, and associate, NASA Astrobiology Insitute; first popsci book, From Stars to Stalagmites 2012

Posted on September 3, 2016, in Philosophy, Religion, Society and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 21 Comments.

  1. To your point about just wanting a conversation (aka being in “relationship” as one fellow primate to the other), Reza Aslan said it well here: “Education is important, but let’s be honest, it’s not enough. Data doesn’t change peoples’ minds; knowledge doesn’t reframe perceptions. Only relationships change minds, and it’s our stories that build those relationships. To understand each other, we have to rely on our stories. It’s our stories that change peoples’ minds!!!” https://youtu.be/VgLAzwgizdk

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  2. Gyahahaha whats the point in talking about what people find insulting. I say let people continue the way in they want. Let not oppose or solicit anyone, they have chosen that for themselves. ( just like back in the days, jews abandoned LORD and followed after other gods). As atheist will be atheist, law breakers will be law breakers, world will be world. Nothing to say go on do as you want, the world has become a better place, surely it is just like the god of this world is a beautiful one kukuku. (2 corinthian 4:4) (1 john 5:19). One last thing, search for the truth, get a copy of holy scriptures start reading, lets try to observe his commandments with faith. (Proverbs 3:5, 6) or take the other alternatives which is everything other than LORD god kukuku.

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  3. I note that Ophelia Benson is promoting this post at her blog. Benson was one of the enforcers of “Social Justice” orthodoxy at Freethoughtblogs, but after the mob turned on her she is attempting to re-invent herself as an independent thinker.

    The worst thing about modern atheist activism is the crude tribalism. This applies equally to Slymepit-style right-wingers as it does to SJWs. No wonder it feels like atheism has lost momentum lately.

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    • I don’t think atheism has lost mementum; certainly the number of non-believers continues to grow throughout the West, and even, more slowly, elsewhere. But I find the idea of an “atheist movement” a little strange, and hope that what I write is simply judged on its merits.

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  4. The problem she seems to have with certain questions, is that they starts with an assumption that is insulting. Take the first question: “How can you be moral without believing in God?” Note this is not the same question as how an atheist finds morality. The question casts into doubt that atheists are even able of being moral. That doesn’t seem to be a question of someone who wants a conversation, is interested in seeing how an actual person responds, or wants to get to know you better, or simply want to spend time over a pint.

    Questions always carry baggage with them and I can understand that when a member of a minority, is confronted for the upteenth time with the same kind of questions assuming the same kind of stereotype, is getting frustrated. And I understand fully the desire that others would minimally inform themselves before they start asking some questions. I don’t think that is an outrageous expectation.

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    • We all carry baggage, much of it unexamined. Nor is “How can you be moral without believing in God?” the kind of question that one can find an answer to by cold searching on Google.

      I might ask a biblical literaist “Who did Cain marry?”, in order to learn more about how their mind works and how they see the world. Of course they’ve heard that question many times, of course I’m displaying my anti-biblical literalist presuppositions, and of course I could do a google search on it, but none of that is reason for them to feel insulted, or to forgo the opportunity for discussion

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  5. Everydayfeminism represents everything that is wrong with today’s activism. Their articles are built on the assumptions that ready-made clichés and catchy stereotypes, preferably organized in lists, are the best way to fight systems of oppression….They help to spread this new feminism / antiracism / atheism that really works just like a new religion, by forcing the same simplistic interpretations on each and every context and situation. Getting as many visitors as possible clearly ranks way above actually fighting sexism, racism or irrationality in general for them.

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  6. Meh! I don’t see why you should take offense at some atheist taking offense at something that pisses her off. Not worth the pixels on my screen. Plus your answers are… yeah… sort of ok except for 9. You are very angry. Fine, your problem, but you should not say I SHOULD be too, at the risk of committing the same sin you are criticizing.

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    • Idon’t mind her being pissed off. I mind her saying that I’m pissed off. I don’t mind her saying people mustn’t ask her questions. I mind her saying that people mustn’t ask me questions. I dpn’t mind her refusing to face challenges to her (dis)belief, but I do mind, very much, her saying on my behalf that those who want to challenge “have bigotry and dehumanization and religious privilege embedded in the very asking”.

      I hope that’s clear now

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  7. Adding to the answer for 8, Voltaire was asked if he was ready to renounce Satan.

    I’ve read that he replied, “This is not the time to be making new enemies.”

    Conviction doesn’t preclude a sense of humor.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Pascal’s wager may reflect a change in the meaning of the term conviction. The dictionary defines it as a strong belief or opinion. : the feeling of being sure that what you believe or say is true. That seems to imply a philosophy similar to a religious belief. I’m sure that was not intended by Pascal. Modern terminology might replace conviction by ratiocination.

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  9. The questions are predictably so narrow minded as to make them almost worthless of serious consideration. I’m surprised that you botheted to address them. 9 questions from an Agnostic would have been more relevant and challenging.

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    • That’s not quite the point. I am criticising, not the the questions themselves, which if asked sincerely I would regard as an invitation to educate, but the strain of atheist thought that takes offence at them on my behalf.

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  10. Paul Interesting.

    When you ask this atheist those questions the first time I’m not insulted and will go out of my way to give more or less the same answers as you – mosty likely less eloquently.

    When you ask this atheist more than once the same question or when you are asked the question by someone who should know better – like say an eloquent religious apologists in an atheist forum then I am still not insulted but by Christ Im pretty hacked off with the stupidity. Perhaps GC is one of those angry atheists that forgets that atheism is simply a philosophical world view that probably wont get you drunk, laid, wealthy, happy or fulfilled at all – certainly not on its own? So not insulted but well disappointed?

    BR

    Mark Date: Sat, 3 Sep 2016 16:06:00 +0000 To: mgordon42@hotmail.com

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  1. Pingback: As if we were compelled to march in step - Butterflies and Wheels

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