Three Bad Attitudes Theists Have Towards Atheists
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.)
- This is also called the Dunning-Kruger effect. ↩
- Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. Introduction to Christianity. (Ignatius Press: San Francisco, 1990) 20. ↩
- 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. ↩
- St. Augustine. On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis 1:19-20. ↩
- 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. ↩
- Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse. Reasonable Atheism: A Moral Case for Respectful Disbelief (Prometheus Books: Amherst, 2011) 41. ↩
- 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. ↩
- Greta Christina. Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless (Pitchstone Publishing, 2012). ↩
- 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 ↩
- 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). ↩
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