Why Do Atheists Have to Talk About Atheism?

By Greta Christina

Thinking you're right and trying to persuade other people you're right is not intolerant or close-minded -- it's a cornerstone of democracy.

June 26, 2009


Whenever the subject of atheism comes up, anywhere that isn't an atheist discussion group or something, one sentiment almost inevitably comes up:

"I wish atheists wouldn't talk so much about atheism."

The sentiment gets worded in many different ways. "The new atheists are so evangelical." "This atheist criticism of religion is just intolerant." "You atheists are just as close-minded as the hard-line religious believers you're criticizing."


But the essence of it is the same: The fact that many atheists are talking publicly about our atheism, and are trying to persuade people that we're right about it, shows that we're ... well, evangelical, intolerant and close-minded. So today, I want to explain why so many atheists think it's important to talk about atheism ... and why many of us try to persuade other people that atheism is correct. The first answer is the most obvious: Anti-atheist bigotry. Atheists talk about atheism because there's a lot of misunderstanding and hostility toward us. It's nowhere

near as severe as racism or sexism; but it does exist, and it has real-world consequences. Parents are denied custody of their children for being atheists; people are harassed and and their homes vandalized by their neighbors for being atheists; teachers are suspended for being atheists; teenagers are harassed and suspended from school for being atheists; politicians whip up anti-atheist fear to try to get elected. (And that's just in the U.S. I'm not even talking about parts of the world where atheism is a crime punishable by imprisonment or death.)


Making ourselves visible, coming out about who we are and what we do and don't believe, is the best way we have to counter that.


That's only a small part of the story, though. Another part -- and probably more important -- is that many atheists see religion not just as a mistaken idea but as a harmful one. We see it as a serious social problem, a type of belief that on the whole does significantly more harm than good ... and one that, because of its ultimately unfalsifiable nature, has little or none of the reality checks that other belief systems eventually have to measure up to.


We see people bombing buildings, abusing children, committing flagrant fraud, shooting political dissenters, etc., etc., etc., all behind the armor of religion ... and we feel a need to speak out.

Even that, though, is missing the crux of the issue. The crux of the issue, the most important answer to the question, "Why do atheists have to talk about atheism?" is this: Why shouldn't we?

Thinking you're right, and trying to persuade other people you're right, is not intolerant or close-minded -- it's a cornerstone of democracy. That's how it works: people explain their ideas, debate them, make arguments to support them, revise or refine or drop them in the face of valid criticism, make snarky jokes in the face of stupid criticism.


The marketplace of ideas won't flourish if people don't bring their ideas to the market. Being close-minded doesn't mean thinking you're right; it means refusing to reconsider your position, even when the evidence suggests that you're wrong. And being intolerant doesn't mean thinking other people are wrong; it means refusing to listen to them, and dismissing them entirely as stupid or wicked, simply because you disagree with them. Think of it this way. Is it intolerant or close-minded to say that single-payer is the best plan for the American health care system? That public funding for solar power will reduce our dependence on foreign oil? That global warming is real? That the theory of evolution is right? Is it intolerant or close-minded to try to persuade people to come around to any of these points of view? And if not ... then why is it intolerant or close-minded for atheists to explain why we don't believe in God and to try to persuade people that, of all the ideas people have about religion, atheism is the most plausible?


See, here's the thing, atheists see religion as a lot of things. But for many of us, religion is, above all else, a hypothesis about how the world works and why it is the way it is. Obviously, we think it's a mistaken hypothesis: inconsistent with itself, inconsistent with reality, unsupported by any good evidence. We can't prove our case with 100 percent certainty -- that's pretty much impossible, especially when you're trying to prove a negative -- but we think we can make a pretty good case.


But more to the point: We see no reason to treat religion any differently from any other hypothesis about the world. We think it's valid to ask it to support its case just like any other hypothesis ... and just like any other hypothesis, we think it's valid to poke holes in it in public.


And we think one of the main reasons religion has survived for so long is that it's so impressively armored against criticism and indeed against the very idea that criticism of it is an acceptable thing to do. So we therefore think criticizing religion is not only valid, but important. It doesn't just chip away at religious beliefs themselves. It chips away at the idea that religious beliefs should be immune to criticism. It chips away at the armor that religion has used so effectively for so many centuries to shield itself from any and all questions and critiques.


Now, playing devil's advocate for a moment: Some may argue that I'm being hypocritical; that I'll decry the evangelism of evangelical believers, but am willing to defend it in atheists. But I don't, in fact, have a problem with evangelical believers trying to persuade others that they're right. Don't get me wrong: I think many of their specific beliefs are mistaken. I think many of their specific beliefs are bigoted, hateful and harmful. I have serious problems with many of the methods they use to persuade, with their reliance on fear and false promises and, in some cases, outright lies. And I think far too many of their rhetorical devices simply deflect legitimate criticism instead of answering it. But I don't think it's wrong of them to express their beliefs and to try to persuade others that they're right. Again -- that's the marketplace of ideas. And I'm in favor of that. I can disagree passionately with someone's ideas without thinking they're jerks simply for wanting to share them.


I think a little historical context may be in order. This "I'm so tired of hearing about (X), proponents of (X) who advance their views in the public eye are intolerant" trope has been used against every major social-change movement I can think of. Gay activists were "in your face"; civil rights activists were "hostile"; feminists were "strident." And now atheists who make our case are "intolerant" and "evangelical." When people speak out, not against atheism, but against the very idea of atheists persuasively expressing their views, I always want to ask if that's really the side of history they want to end upon.


Besides, it's not like we're standing outside anyone's window with a bullhorn at 3 a.m. We're not holding a gun to anyone's head and making them read Pharyngula. We're not even knocking on people's doors at 8 o'clock on Saturday morning to share the good word about Darwin. (Well, except for that one guy...)


If people don't want to hear what atheists have to say, there is a wide, wide world of blogs, newspaper articles, magazine articles, YouTube videos, movies, TV shows and oodles of other media available with just a flip of the page or a click of the remote or the mouse. If someone is seriously angered because they occasionally see the word "atheist" in a headline, or have to change the channel if Richard Dawkins is on, then I have to wonder if what's upsetting them is not the evangelical intolerance of atheist activists, but the very idea of atheism itself. Now, if someone disagrees with us, then by all means, I want them to say so. If someone thinks that there's solid, reliable evidence supporting religious belief, or that the good done in the name of religion outweighs the harm, then I strongly encourage them to bring their ideas to the conversation and to make their case.


But there's a world of difference between, "Here's why I don't agree with you," and, "You are a bad person for even opening your mouth." The former is an attempt to engage in the conversation. The latter is simply an attempt to shut us up. If someone comes to the marketplace of ideas and the only thing they have to offer is, "How dare those atheists set up a stand here! They're trying to convince us that we're mistaken and that their ideas are better! That's so intolerant!"... then I don't see any reason why I should take that seriously.

Original Article: http://www.alternet.org/story/140914/why_do_atheists_have_to_talk_a...

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Replies to This Discussion

Are there really that many atheists that they can say we talk too much?
You'd be surprised. They are a minority, but a vocal one.
This was so great!
It's an odd one this... I don't think I like to talk, or discuss religion out of any particular need. I simply find religion fascinating. Not because of the God notion, but WHY people actually believe it. I can't get my head around the simple fact that people will suspend all rationality and blindly follow a book from thousands of years ago, rather than their own common sense.

When I moved to the US, things DID change, and the religious power over there was VERY strong indeed. I have an American sister, with 3 gorgeous little monsters, so the creeping, and often nasty, religious political fringe got me far more interested in the infringement side of things. The Dover trial, the Discovery institute, etc, and the ever growing creationist movement. These things, I think, terrify me more than any Muslim wrapped on explosives ever would. The idea that these people would eventually get into power, and turn my nieces country into a Christian version of Saudi Arabia DOES frighten me, and so I speak about it whenever I can. That does not mean I stand on street corners like a lunatic, flinging poo at anyone who passes just to get their attention. I will simply speak my mind when the subject comes up. Most of the time the other person just ends up getting angry, and I don;t know whether that is because I am simply a genius, or whether I just irritate them beyond their limit. maybe it's just that they don;t like their faith getting beaten down with some rather simple logic, and rational thinking.

One thing the OP has spot on, however, is that you can insult someones football team, or political opinion, and that seems to be fine. Insult their religion, and all hell breaks loose. I do think this falls into the "we don't like rational thinking, so we'll scream and shout so we can't hear it" side of the argument. I think the fact that people DO feel so strongly, and get so emotional about it, means this SHOULD be talked about more often, because if those emotions are that high, how much of their lives are ruled by it? People like that Crazy Tracy lady vote based entirely on their religious faith. Not politics, or economics, or foreign policy, but the person who follows HER version of whatever faith it is. Religion is a big part of peoples lives, and if it has that much power, then it needs to be countered.

Anyway, if it wasn't for the religious, and their quest for power, and recruits, we wouldn't have this issue. The 'new atheist' movement is only here BECAUSE of the religious, not despite it.

I know this is an older post, but I thought it might be worth mentioning a recent blog post from, I know, one of mostly all of our favorite Atheists - Sam Harris (http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/mr-nobody/) - Quoted Below...

This is something I have tangled with for a while myself, especially when in argumentative or explanatory situations with people whom need to be enlightened regarding my non-believing ways. I have always kind of slipped in that the "atheist" label is kind of moot when talking about my rejections, but I just use it to pronounce in lesser words. But it does create kind of a stigma, no? I think that the term itself is kind of abrasive and if I were a blind follower, I think I would be kind of scared of the scratching phrase too. Double edged sword in many many ways...

To the consternation of many of my fellow atheists, I often argue that the concept of “atheism” is unnecessary and misleading. Nearly everyone rejects Zeus, Thor, Isis, along with the countless other dead gods of antiquity, and yet no one feels the need to name this condition of unbelief. And so it is with every other species of bad idea: we don’t dub ourselves “non-astrologers,” “non-homeopaths,” and the like, and we need not define ourselves as “atheists” (or “secularists,” “rationalists,” “skeptics,” “humanists,” etc.) to disavow the false certainties of mainstream religion. I know this to be true, because I wrote my first book, The End of Faith, without ever using the term “atheism” or even thinking of myself as an “atheist.” It was only after the book was published that I discovered I had long been a member of the “atheist” community.

But there is another way to see the problem with the concept of “atheism.” Consider Wittgenstein’s clever disparagement of Freud’s notion of the unconscious:

Imagine a language in which, instead of saying ‘I found nobody in the room’ one said, ‘I found Mr. Nobody in the room.’ Imagine the philosophical problems that would arise out of such a convention. (The Blue Book, p. 69).

“Atheism” is another version of Wittgenstein’s Mr. Nobody. When in the presence of Christianity, it’s Mr. Sorry-but-I-won’t-be-in-church-on-Sunday.

There are an uncountable number of erroneous and unfounded doctrines that we all reject. Why must we name their absence from our lives?


We talk about atheist because we try to understand The Universe.

Religious people don't, because they don't try understand - they worship.


If atheist would see a big, pink eye in the middle of sun - he/she would try to understand.

If theist would do, she/he would start worship it.

 Imagine a language in which, instead of saying ‘I found nobody in the room’ one said, ‘I found Mr. Nobody in the room.’ Imagine the philosophical problems that would arise out of such a convention. (The Blue Book, p. 69).

“Atheism” is another version of Wittgenstein’s Mr. Nobody. When in the presence of Christianity, it’s Mr. Sorry-but-I-won’t-be-in-church-on-Sunday.

There are an uncountable number of erroneous and unfounded doctrines that we all reject. Why must we name their absence from our lives?



Because if you don't say i'm atheist - people automatically think you believe in some god. It word is useful, but, like you notice, in some way sad.

"I wish atheists wouldn't talk so much about atheism."

And I wish theists wouldn't talk so much about their religion. But, that's not going to happen, so as long as they're pushing their beliefs in the public sphere, I will too.

Great article, I agree with much of what is said. This is something I think about quite often. Theists love to talk about their religion, until atheists start to win arguments and gain ground. Then, all of a sudden, religion is a private belief, to be respected. The hypocrites are on their side, not ours, and I think it's time people started to realize that.

Great points people. It is "okay" and accepted (actually encouraged) for religious people to make religious remarks (god is watching over you or "god is watching over the people who died in Japan") but it is inappropriate for me to say that such a natural disasters exhibits that nature does not work or operate on a human scale?? It is "inappropriate" for me to ask "why such a god would allow such natural disasters to occur in the first place"??

People will always be offended and we may lose a friend or two in the way but we must always be vocal and emphasize the importance of living life in a rational and logical way based on evidence and reality rather than on an imagined celestial dictator.

I think this post was very well stated and written all the main points were clearly stated, I certainly will apply most of the points discussed in my exchanges with theist. Thanks.
I agree completely, But occasionally I like to set it aside as only a minute part of my personality, its only the answer to one question and it shouldn't be the dominating factor in every conversation. not that thats what you where saying I'm just talking, people can overact, Especially here in the bible belt south, with a bunch of ignorant High schoolers who wouldn't have half a mind to pull there head out of the ass and look around. nice post (:
Ya...from your posts, I think a good portion of you all live in the south...so living as an atheist is much different living in the south than living in southern California. So. I apologize if I come out as so "demanding" in my posts. I can postulate that life in the south for atheists must be much more secluding and difficult.
oh i wasn't saying anyone was demanding or anything haha, although it is much different here I would imagine, but you get used to it I guess, maybe when I'm older I'll move or something.....


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