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Three Bad Attitudes Theists Have Towards Atheists

Filed under Atheism, Religion


Norman Vincent Peale, who wrote The Power of Positive Thinking, once said, “The trouble with most of us is that we would rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism.” It’s hard to honestly face criticism, but it’s the only way we can grow as human beings, since we are notoriously good at deceiving ourselves about our own competence and knowledge.1 That is why I hope theists and atheists will consider shedding attitudes we might unknowingly possess that can hinder productive dialogue. Let’s start with three bad attitudes people who believe in God sometimes exhibit.

Bad Theistic Attitude #1:
“No rational person can be an atheist! Do you think we just came from monkeys or something?”

In his book Introduction to Christianity, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (the future Pope Benedict XVI) writes, “Just as the believer is choked by the salt water of doubt constantly washed into his mouth by the ocean of uncertainty, so the non-believer is troubled by doubts about his unbelief, about the real totality of the world which he has made up his mind to explain as a self-contained whole.”2 Theists do their cause a great disservice by ridiculing atheists or saying that it is obvious atheism is false. If atheism were simply irrational, then why would believers have to guard against being “drowned” by unbelief? Likewise, atheists should know that many people have wrestled and struggled with the question of God’s existence before they converted to religious faith. Both sides should accept each other’s doubts and journey toward the truth together in a spirit of mutual humility.

In regard to the theory of evolution, atheists will probably find an origin from monkeys to be more likely than an origin from God—because at least we have seen monkeys and know they exist. Even if a theist doesn’t believe in the theory of evolution, if he can create a case for God’s existence that does not come across as anti-science, most atheists will find that position to be more reasonable.3 Indeed, scientific ignorance—real or perceived—only reinforces the negative stereotypes that atheists have about Christians. St. Augustine worried about this kind of attitude in the fourth century when he wrote:

"Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world. . . . Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for a non-believer to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation."4

There’s no need to insult someone’s intelligence just because he does not believe in God. In a debate at Cambridge University on the subject “Is God a Delusion?”, William Lane Craig said,

"[Atheists] recognize that the existence of God is a difficult question on which rational opinion can vary. Peter and I haven’t indicted our opponents tonight as being deluded. We think they’re mistaken, but we wouldn’t say they’re deluded. Why can’t they return the favor? People can disagree without calling each other names."5

Sensible atheists also have this agreeable attitude. Scott Aiken and Robert Talisse write in their book Reasonable Atheism: A Moral Case for Respectful Disbelief:

"We think that religious beliefs are false and that religious believers are mistaken in their religious beliefs. We do not “respect” religious beliefs. We do, however, respect religious believers. We hold that religious believers can be intelligent, rational, and responsible, despite the falsity of their religious beliefs; in short, we hold that religious believers can be reasonable."6


Bad Theistic Attitude #2:
“Atheists are immoral.”

Once when I was taking questions from an audience after one of my presentations, a gentleman asked me, “Why would anyone ever be an atheist? Don’t they know that Hitler and Stalin were atheists?” I told this man that saying someone is like Hitler usually starts a conversation off on the wrong foot, but there was an even more fundamental problem with this attitude. Whether Hitler was an atheist is unclear,7 but even if he was, so what? Maybe Hitler liked kittens and sunsets, too, but that doesn’t make those things evil by association. The immoral, even heinous, lives of some atheists do not invalidate the truth of atheism any more than the lives of immoral Christians invalidate theism. Any religion or belief system can have immoral people who hold to it. This does nothing to prove whether its beliefs are true or false.

Some theists say that if God does not exist, then what reasons would an atheist have to be good, since there is no life beyond the grave? But atheists have many practical reasons to be moral and would be offended by the idea that they are, as a whole, not morally good people. An atheist might cite her desire to make the human community more stable, or her need to follow her own conscience, or her belief in a principle like the Golden Rule as a reason to be moral. In any case, the real question we should ask is not why individual atheists would be moral, but why objective moral truths exist if God does not (I write about that more in my book, Answering Atheism).

Bad Theistic Attitude #3:
Failing to empathize with atheists.

In her 2012 book Why Are You Atheists So Angry?, Greta Christina catalogues nearly 100 grievances atheists have against the followers of various religions. Christina’s complaints can be grouped under a few common themes:

"Atheists are compelled by the state to endorse or practice religion against their will (such as being forced to participate in public prayer). The state endorses a particular set of religious beliefs (like the teaching of creationism in public schools or prohibitions on marriage between people of the same sex)."

"Religious people have ridiculous beliefs that cause them to hurt or dehumanize other people through acts like medical malpractice, bullying, social rejection, and even murder."

"Religious people believe things for stupid reasons."

In one example, Christina writes, “I’m angry at preachers who tell women in their flock to submit to their husbands because it’s the will of God, even when their husbands are beating them within an inch of their lives.”8 Some theists will reply defensively that such examples don’t reflect their religion, or that their religion is being misrepresented as being unreasonable. But sometimes atheists don’t want to know if their religion is reasonable. Sometimes they just want to know if they themselves are reasonable. They want to know whether a theist is at least angry at Christians who use religion as an excuse to bully children.9 Wouldn’t theists agree that laws related to marriage or abortion should be based on reason and not religion? Isn’t it okay to be angry when religious hypocrites hurt others? If atheists think theists are just “out to get them” and aren’t concerned by these injustices like they are, then there can be little hope for theistic beliefs to get a fair hearing among non-believers.

Likewise, atheists should realize that although theists and Christians are a majority in the United States, there are many particular places where they are the minority and can be pushed around. According to the Social Science Research Council, while only about one in five people thinks the Bible is a book of fables and myths, nearly three out of four professors at elite universities hold that view.10 Instead of bullying, both sides of this debate should protect each other’s right to discuss and disagree without the fear of violence or persecution.

On Friday, I’ll examine three bad attitudes atheists sometimes bring to the debate over the existence of God.
(This blog post is an excerpt from my newly released book, Answering Atheism: How to Make the Case for God with Logic and Charity.)
(Image credit: Raw Story)


  1. This is also called the Dunning-Kruger effect.
  2. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. Introduction to Christianity. (Ignatius Press: San Francisco, 1990) 20.
  3. For people’s views on evolution see the Pew Research Center July 2009 study available online here. Also, according to the theory of evolution we did not evolve from monkeys but we and primates like monkeys share a common evolutionary ancestor.
  4. St. Augustine. On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis 1:19-20.
  5. William Lane Craig/Peter Williams vs. Arif Ahmed/Andrew Copson “This House Does Not Believe that God is a Delusion” Cambridge Union Society (October 20, 2011). Available online here.
  6. Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse. Reasonable Atheism: A Moral Case for Respectful Disbelief (Prometheus Books: Amherst, 2011) 41.
  7. While Hitler did invoke God and Christianity in his public speeches as part of a propaganda campaign, his private views on religion seem to be very different and much more critical. For a good book on Hitler’s personal views about religion I recommend Hitler’s Table Talk which records Hitler’s private conversations among his inner circle between 1941-1944.
  8. Greta Christina. Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless (Pitchstone Publishing, 2012).
  9. For example, in 2011 high school student Jessica Ahlquist (an outspoken atheist) received death threats from Christians because she advocated for a prayer to be removed from her public high school’s auditorium. State Representative Peter Palumbo even called Ahlquist an “evil little thing” in a local radio interview. See Abby Goodnough, “Student Faces Town’s Wrath in Protest Against a Prayer,” The New York Times, January 26, 2012
  10. Neil Gross and Solon Simmons, “How Religious are America’s College and University Professors?” Social Science Research Council, February 06, 2007.Available online here (PDF).
Trent Horn

Written by

Trent Horn holds a Master’s degree in Theology from the Franciscan University of Steubenville and is currently an apologist and speaker for Catholic Answers. He specializes in training pro-lifers to intelligently and compassionately engage pro-choice advocates in genuine dialogue. He recently released his first book, titled Answering Atheism: How to Make the Case for God with Logic and Charity. Follow Trent at his blog, TrentHorn.com.

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  • #2 reminded me of this quote: "...you could certainly make the argument that he was a firm believer in God, if by "God" you mean "Adolf Hitler."" (Source: http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/1699/was-hitler-a-christian)

    Great article, Trent!

  • Peter

    Atheists are far from deluded, and in many respects they have done Catholicism a great service. In their battle against creationism and ID, they have opened up to the public domain the naturalistic means through which the universe functions, from its inception all the way to the arrival of sentience. In doing so they have revealed to the population how God creates by acting through nature instead of intervening directly within it. This may not have been their intention, but it is the logical consequence of their efforts. In their drive to eradicate fideism, they have revealed the mind of God.

    • George

      "God creates by acting through nature instead of intervening directly within it." how could we falsify that?

      • Peter

        By investigating whether the universe has a purpose which denotes design. Previously we believed that the conditions for complex life on earth were so narrow, so unique, that its occurrence was a freak event in an otherwise hostile universe.The universe just was as it was, cold and indifferent, with no particular purpose or meaning.

        Now, however, a kind of revolution is going on. We notice that the galaxy is full of organic compounds - the leftovers of stars - and contains billions of planets, many of which could be hospitable to life. Suddenly, we are aware that the universe has a purpose. It is no longer a meaningless void but a dynamic cosmic factory for the creation of life.

      • Pedro Dias

        By determining wheter or not the ramifications that follow the proposition of God's work through nature are verified. If the universe shows itself to be inherently chaotic, we have no reason to believe that that proposition could be true. But if we find inherent intelligibility within it, having an ordered universe that function under a group of physical laws that seem to be working on a consistent basis, then I think that proposition is tenable. It does in fact solve a lot of metaphysical problems that come with accepting the "order-ness" and intelligibility of the universe, with which an atheistic worldview has more trouble in solving.

        It isn't exactly a falsifiable hypothesis, but it isn't supposed to be scientific proposition either. But if it's a tenable proposition (based on what I've said until now), I believe it deserves to be alongside competing thesis on the same field when discussing it.

  • Ben Posin

    A couple things:

    no atheist I've met (and certainly no biologist) thinks that humans evolved from monkeys. I suspect Trent knows this and is just sort of being casual and joking, but in case anyone here doesn't know this: we didn't evolve from monkeys, we share common ancestors with them.

    on the whole, the semi-secret heart of this article strikes me as less about treating atheists more fairly, and more about trying to suggest a false parity between atheists/Christians regarding things like the reasonableness of their beliefs and the amount of "persecution" they receive. None of the bits of advice of how to treat atheists are bad, but in general, I don't agree that atheists and Christians tend to be in parallel positions regarding such issues.

    • "no atheist I've met (and certainly no biologist) thinks that humans evolved from monkeys. I suspect Trent knows this and is just sort of being casual and joking, but in case anyone here doesn't know this: we didn't evolve from monkeys, we share common ancestors with them."

      Please see Trent's footnote #3.

      • Ben Posin

        Aha, so Trent does know this, and did include it! I would suggest that it is not great practice, particularly given the subject matter of the article, to deliberately misstate this point in the body of the article and correct it in a footnote. If only because a goof like me may get the wrong idea, missing the footnote.

        • I think Trent's point would be better stated as don't say things like 'my grandaddy was no monkey" or "You called my children animals?" Like Ted Haggard did to Dawkins.

          Also, Aaron Ra thinks we evolved from monkeys, because we are monkeys and so was our common ancestor... I think.


    • I thought it was clear that Trent was trying to represent an unfair attitude that Theists may have towards Atheists. He wasn't saying that atheists believe that we come from monkeys, but he was criticizing theists who make such an inaccurate accusation.

      I think you are trying too hard to find some negative "semi-secret heart" of the article. I for one appreciate that Trent is pointing out bad attitudes that Theists may have toward atheists. To me it's a step in the right direction.

      • Ben Posin

        Have you looked at the follow up article by Trent that was just posted? I don't know whether or not I was trying too hard, but from where I'm sitting I turned out to be right!

    • Agni Ashwin

      "no atheist I've met (and certainly no biologist) thinks that humans evolved from monkeys."

      Well, it depends upon how you define "monkey". If by "monkey" you mean any living species of the Simiiformes (excluding apes and humans), then obviously humans did not evolve from any living species of monkey. However, if by "monkey" you include extinct members of the Simiiformes, then humans can trace their ancestry to (and beyond) such a "monkey" species.

  • cminca

    Bad Theist Attitude #4--Assuming All Atheists believe something because one atheist may believe it. Unless you want me to assume that all Christians believe the same thing as the WBC.

    Bad Theist Attitude #5--Assuming that the actions of Atheists is a result of their Atheism. Some Catholics have claimed that the Church was not responsible for religious persecutions because it was the state, not the CC, that actually carried out the actions. If this is the standard then the Stalinist Soviet Union purging intellectuals or Christians is not the actions of atheism but of the state purging perceived threats to the state's power.

    Bad Theist Attitude #6--Being surprised that Atheists and Agnostics are going to call so-called "Christians" on their hypocrisy(Leviticus 11:10 no, Leviticus 18:22 yes), double standards (gay boycott bad, One Million Moms boycott good), and lies in defense of their religion. Pointing out a lie made in support of religion is not anti-religion--it is anti-lie. (Adoption agencies were not forced to close by governments. That is a lie. They were given a choice of either allowing adoptions by LGBT couples or not getting public funding. They chose to close. Don't lie.)

    Bad Theist Attitude #7--Complaining that religious voices are being silenced in the public square. When we can go through an election cycle without EVERY candidate having to explain their relationship with God you can tell me about American civil life turning its back on religion.

    Bad Theist Attitude #8--Claiming "persecution" where none exists. Being expected to follow the same anti-discrimination laws as everyone else isn't persecution. Being denied employment, housing, or equal civil rights is. Being held accountable for your actions isn't persecution. If you want to donate a group aiming to strip some tax paying citizens of equal rights you may be held accountable for that decision.

    (I've been gay bashed. I have friends who have been gay bashed. You want to claim persecution? Tell me about it when you can produce the hospital records. In the case of Christians being jailed or tortured or killed for their beliefs--that is indeed persecution.)

    Bad Theist Attitude #9--Claiming words don't matter. When you repeat "abomination" and "intrinsically disordered" over and over, when you claim that gays recruit children, when you claim being gay is a choice, when Theists have children sing "ain't no homos in heaven", when Theist ministers tell their flocks to "punch the gay out of your son" or "break the limp wrist" then you can't claim surprise when "Christian" parents throw their own gay kids to the sidewalk. You can't claim surprise when a church goer bashes a gay man or torches the lawn of the lesbians who moved in next door. You can't claim "no true Christian would....." when you are preaching it every Sunday.

  • cminca

    Why was my comment removed?

  • I have seen that atheists feel proud to announce them as they don't believe the mystery of creation. I think just atheists are living blindly as they can't see anything. They believe some bloody fool type theory but don't believe in realistic world like '' human has come from monkeys''. That is quietly impossible cause the first man in this world was human not monkey.

    • Theresa Milanowski

      either you did not read the article and are only commenting on the comments or you truly have an issue with reading comprehension. as your comments did not relate directly to any aspect of the article other than giving your personal opinion of what you think of non-believers. in other words you completely missed the point of the article.