What believers fear about atheists

  • Do you ever feel that you’re a small part of something much larger than yourself, something big and wonderful?
  • Are you ever swept with a sense of awe and wonder?
  • Does injustice trouble you? Do you feel a responsibility for your fellow human beings? Do you experience a sense of moral outrage when people are mistreated?
  • Do you ever bask in the knowledge that you are loved?

Notice I didn’t ask if you believe in God. You could answer an emphatic yes to all these questions and still not be religious. None of these things has any necessary connection to the supernatural. And yet they get to the heart of what seems to bother many believers about atheists.

Believers usually assume that an atheist who answered yes across the board would either be lying or betraying a latent belief in God. Because to the mind of the believer—and I speak from experience here—transcendence, awe, morality, and love are part of religion’s exclusive domain.

Tell someone you don’t believe there’s a god, and what they hear you saying is that there’s nothing greater than yourself, that the universe is only a cold, mechanical circuitry, that you reject morality as anything other than an opinion, and that you have no rational basis from which to give and receive love.

They might not tell you this directly, or even think it through that clearly, but I think that’s what is going on most of the time. To a believer, faith is so closely intertwined with these basic elements of human experience that a rejection of faith seems to be a rejection of part of one’s own humanity. And someone who does that is to be feared and despised.

And so it seems to me that although it’s worthwhile to present an intellectual case for non-belief, it’s equally important simply to demonstrate our humanity, and to show that (to return to the four points above):

  • Humanity, as part of a larger web of life, is a worthy and powerful basis for our identity.
  • The natural world is more than big enough to contain our sense of awe and reverence.
  • Humane values are secular values. Religion can copy and claim those values, but it can add nothing worthwhile that isn’t already inherent in the secular notions of empathy, compassion, and fairness.
  • Love requires no divine justification, and — as LGBT people are teaching the rest of us — respects no religious or cultural barriers.

In my next post I’ll tell a story that involves the first two ideas.

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5 thoughts on “What believers fear about atheists

  1. I really enjoyed this; you’ve captured one of the things I find so frustrating when discussing wonderful, joyful things with friends of mine who are believers. What came immediately to mind was a discussion after I’d visited Niagara Falls – I was waxing lyrical on the power, the majesty, the awe it inspired… They had that look. You’ll know the one. The one that says ‘She’s turning, she’s coming over to our side.’ Grr.

    Have you read ‘Godless Morality’ by Richard Holloway? A short but wise one on the importance of separating morality from faith – Holloway used to be Bishop of Edinburgh but he’s on a different path now. A fascinating man and great writer.

  2. Pingback: How I found a sacred message carved in stone | Pretentious Ape

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