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Can we avoid insulting believers?

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Editor’s note: Although FFRF columnist James Haught died, sadly, on July 23 at age 91, we are lucky to still have a collection of pieces Jim gave us to use — some fresh and others previously published — that we will be sending out till we exhaust this treasure trove. This piece is adapted from a column originally published at Daylight Atheism/Patheos on July 8, 2019.

Skeptics face a quandary: When we declare that supernatural dogmas are false fairy tales, believers who devote their lives to those dogmas may feel bitterly insulted. This makes it difficult for well-meaning freethinkers and well-meaning people of religion to hold open, sincere, friendly discussions.

How can we make dialogue possible?

First, it’s glaringly clear that some believers are outraged when their faith is challenged. Why do believers react so strongly? Bertrand Russell wrote it’s because they realize, subconsciously, that their supernatural beliefs are senseless, so they cannot tolerate any challenge.

In the face of all this, it’s difficult for sincere doubters to talk with sincere believers without causing bad feelings. How do we handle pious neighbors, friends and family members? Here’s the wrong way: One day, two flashy-looking evangelists came into my newspaper office. I tried to tweak them lightheartedly — but within minutes, we all were screaming at each other, purple-faced. It was awful.

Is there a better way? I really can’t tell a churchman “I respect your right to worship supernatural beings” because I don’t respect it. I think it’s stupid.

Here’s the only workable approach I know: Be polite. Stay calm. Be reasonable. Ask questions designed to make believers see flaws in their faith. For example:

Q: The bible (Exodus 31:15) decrees: “Whosoever doeth any work in the Sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death.” What about all the police, firefighters, paramedics, hospital staffs and others who work on Sunday? Should the bible be obeyed?

Q: Deuteronomy 22 commands that brides who aren’t virgins shall be taken to their fathers’ doorsteps and stoned to death. Should Christians obey that chapter?

Q: Leviticus 20:13 mandates that gay males “shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.” Should the bible be obeyed?

Q: The bible advises how to buy and sell slaves. Leviticus 25:44 says: “Both thy bondmen, and thy bondmaids, which thou shalt have, shall be of the heathen that are around you; of them shall ye buy bondmen and bondmaids.” Exodus 21:7 gives rules to follow when “a man sell his daughter to be a maidservant.” Should the bible be followed in this regard?

And the clincher: Why does a merciful God let children die of horrible diseases, doing nothing while parents pray desperately? And why does He let tsunamis, twisters and the like kill multitudes?

Maybe polite questioning is the best course in dealing with religious believers who surround you. If that doesn’t work, we can just smile to ourselves and avoid debates.

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17 Responses

  1. Well, the answer to why god lets bad things happen to good people is always: “God is unknowable, but God has a plan. God sends us challenges so we grow.”
    Which of course begs the question… “If god has a plan, and god knows what is best, then praying would never work unless the outcome was already part of gods plan” So praying does nothing. Except stoke gods unquenchable need to be worshipped.

  2. Interesting, yes. All the friends & relatives of mine who have cats do have difficulties understanding my free thought philosophy, so to speak. Uhm, I cannot think of any exceptions.

  3. I say
    Do we use biology books written decades ago to learn biology from? No…!
    So why are you basing your life off a book that is much older!

  4. I have found it almost impossible to have “good” discussions with believers. I was one myself. Raised deep in the rural protestantism. Seeing my uncle on his death bed with arms outstretched saying over and over “Forgive me. Oh please forgive me” had the most profound effect on me. I was in the room with many relatives. I love them all and had the same “upbringing” as them. I felt horrible as I stood there thinking “THIS … is what religion REALLY leads to: Being SCARED TO DEATH ON YOUR DEATH BED. Screw that I thought, but was terribly nervous about just leaving. I love them all, but don’t wish that on any of them. Keeping ones’ mouth shut just isn’t my strong suit. I find that I have become a recluse due to this, add maybe the covid stay at home thing. I don’t trust myself to fraternize with those I love. Don’t want to insult them, but will not indulge them. An oxymoron of sorts. That’s all. Just sharing.

  5. When it comes to “illogical” beliefs (including my own), I think someone else has said it better than I:
    “‘All right,’ said Susan. ‘I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need… fantasies to make life bearable.’
    Death: ‘Really? As if it was some kind of pink pill? No. Humans need fantasy to be human. To be the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape.’
    ‘Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—’
    ‘Yes. As practice. You have to start out learning to believe the little lies.’
    ‘So we can believe the big ones?’
    ‘Yes. Justice. Mercy. Duty. That sort of thing.’
    ‘They’re not the same at all!’
    ‘You think so? Then take the universe + grind it down to the finest powder + sieve it through the finest sieve + then show me one atom of justice, one molecule of mercy. + yet —’
    Death waved a hand. ‘+ yet you act as if there is some ideal order in the world, as if there is some…some rightness in the universe by which it may be judged.’
    ‘Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what’s the point—’
    ‘My point exactly.'”
    Terry Pratchett, Hogfather

  6. In such cases I usually say I’ll be thinking of them. When people tell me to have a (insert superstitious catchphrase) day, I translate that as wishes for good health and happiness and respond with something like “Oh thanks! You have a lovely day too 😃”. I also think to myself how wasteful directing all those resources and lives and energy to imaginary superstions is (especially when children are involved), but I don’t generally say that out loud. If I said true things out loud, the superstitionists most definitely would be insulted, and I prefer not to cause distress unless it’s necessary.

    1. Oh I love distress for non emergency reasons if it means someone is put in their place! Especially the mythical believers with their nonsense

  7. I posted this recently on another blog, but it seems appropriate here, too.

    • • •

    I had a reasonably good friendship for several years with someone who I knew harbored some strange ideas about supernatural phenomena. As I once did myself, he attended Burning Man events. We sometimes went together. That was our main bond, though in general we also shared similar ideas about art, science, and technology. We also liked cats.

    My friend was a musician and an accomplished drummer, including on conga drums. Before going to Burning Man, he would buy a new, expensive conga drum that he would play at the event. Lots of revelers would happily dance to his playing. But after most of “the Man” had burned, he would throw his new drum into the still-hot embers.

    It was a sacrifice to atone for his sins. Or to release bad vibes. Or something. I didn’t interrogate his motives much. We were just guys enjoying the art and playfulness of a contemporary bacchanal. (Similar, maybe, to the “Nova” event in Israel that recently ended in butchery by Hamas.)

    One day he copied me on an email that he sent to his many friends. He knew that I was an atheist. He knew my general thoughts about supernatural phenomena. He knew that I didn’t pray. But in that email he asked his friends to pray for his sick cat.

    I emailed a reply (paraphrasing from memory): “Hey, Bobby. I don’t know why you copied me on that email. I’m sorry, but I won’t be praying for your cat. I can’t pray for your cat. I simply don’t believe in prayer. And if I did pray, it would be insincere.”

    Our friendship ended with him writing, in a short emailed response, that I was the most evil person he had ever known. He really did write “evil” — which is a word I don’t generally use, as I think most people attach supernatural attributes to it.

    I’ve told this story to a number of people. Some have asked me why I didn’t just humor him, or simply not respond. But I don’t feel any guilt. I’ve long tired of playing make-believe with believers, especially with those who otherwise seem to be reasonably intelligent.

    Show me good scientific evidence for a belief, and I will modify my position. But not just because, not even for a friend. Or a cat.

    1. Nah. There was no need to attack the poor fellow, especially when he’s feeling so bad about his cat that he has to pull out all the stops and write to everyone he knows to beg for help. All you had to do to respond with decency was to write “Oh, I’m so sorry to learn about your cat’s illness. I do hope s/he gets better soon.” End.

      1. I’ve found that most people who give this kind of advice are strong religious believers and theists, or sometimes maybe garden-variety new-agers who say that they are vaguely “spiritual but not religious.” Given that I’d talked about these things with my friend, he knew I’d object to a request for prayer from me. So he was being both obstinate and passively aggressive, never mind the boo-hoo.

      1. What events in your life have caused you to write this statement about those of us who love cats? It is insulting to all of us cat loving Atheists and has no place in a thread about how to treat believers.

    2. I get it. I admire your courage. I take the cheater way and say I’ll be thinking of your cat. I’m sending love to you and your cat. I’m looking for times when I can push the envelope a bit more. It’s getting painful.

    3. I have encountered the same problem with people asking me to “pray” for somone who is sick.
      Not wanting to cause additional distress, but not wanting to be a liar either, I say something like:
      “I’m so sorry ____ is sick. I’m sending good thoughts and positive energy to you!”
      If it’s someone who knows I’m an atheist, I sometimes say — “You know, I don’t pray, (not the confrontational “You KNOW I don’t pray”} but I’m sending good thoughts and positive energy your way.”

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