Monday, June 15, 2015

Are Atheists Offended by your Belief in God?

            So, an acquaintance on Facebook posted this meme the other day.


            It’s not the first time I’ve seen it, but for some reason this time it got me to thinking instead of just dismissing it as I usually do. And as a result, you get another blog post. Aren’t you happy?

            The first sentence states “I’m not offended that Atheists don’t believe in God.” That’s fine, as far as it goes. I’ll happily grant that anyone who posts this meme means it in all sincerity. They’re not offended that we don’t believe. But they need to understand that they do not speak for every believer. Many theists are offended that atheists don’t believe in their god, and are quite vocal in expressing that fact; especially if we have the gall to say it out loud. Maybe that’s not you, in which case I’m very glad. But to act as though the fact that you, personally, aren’t offended by our lack of belief means that atheists never encounter people who are is turning a blind eye to reality.

            The second sentence… well, it’s kind of a trick question. “Why are Atheists offended that I do believe in God?” The question implies the accusation that atheists, as a group, are offended that people believe in God, when for the most part we just aren’t. Sure, there probably are some who are, but they’re hardly representative. I can get how encountering people like that could color your impressions of atheists in general, or how some of our positions could be mistaken for offense at your belief in a god. But the mere holding of such a belief isn’t particularly offensive to us.

            Questions like the one posed in this meme, though, aren’t really questions. They’re smokescreens. Aside from the implied accusation, a question like this is aimed at deflecting attention away from atheists’ actual objections to religion by minimizing them and misrepresenting them as mere offense at the fact that you believe.

            There are, however, quite a number of religiously supported positions we find offensive. And since these positions may seem inextricably tied to your belief in your god(s), it may be hard to see them as separate things.

            For example, if a Muslim believes women must be kept separate and in submission to the dominant male in their lives, I find that offensive and will oppose it. Or if a Christian believes that gay people should be punished and tormented for being gay, I find that offensive and will oppose it. If a Hindu believes people born in a “lower caste” deserve to be treated like dirt because of it, I find that offensive and will oppose it. From my perspective, those positions are what I object to. Not the belief in Allah or Jesus, or Krishna, or whoever. Anyone who believes in those gods, and yet does not hold that their belief gives them license to impose what I view as harmful ideologies on others, is not going to offend me by their belief in their god.

            If I can go Godwin here for a second… it’s the difference between being offended that people believe Adolf Hitler existed, versus being offended that some people actually think he had good ideas about how to treat ethnic and religious minorities. The latter is perfectly reasonable, and analogous to the kind of offense most atheists might experience when encountering religious beliefs. Whereas the former is kind of silly.

            Of course, I also get that from a believer’s perspective, they may believe that a god exists who holds the kinds of positions described above and has the authority to require people to hold them as well. Their belief in the positions that we find offensive is predicated entirely on their belief in the god who demands them. That’s where this gets thorny, because it’s hard to separate “I’m offended by the positions required by the god you believe in,” from “I’m offended by your belief in that god.” But they are separate things.

            So why do many atheists make a point of arguing against believing in gods in the first place, if that belief doesn’t offend them?

            Because beliefs have consequences. People make decisions based on their beliefs. If someone believes they must do something harmful or offensive because they believe in a god who wants it done and has the authority to demand they do it, we don’t have many options for persuading them not to. The only way to get at those kinds of decision processes is to attack the god-belief, either by persuading them to start believing in a god that doesn’t want those things (or doesn’t have the authority to demand them), or by persuading them not to believe in the god at all. The first approach, for us, would be a dishonest one at best, and still leaves open the possibility that a theist would simply transfer belief to a god that demands a different set of harmful behaviors. The second approach is the honest one and, to our minds at least, the path that also opens the door to taking a more reasoned approach to evaluating future actions.

            Does this make sense? I hope it does. I hope that you can see that what I’m talking about, while not necessarily straightforward, is not merely a semantic difference. We’re not offended by the belief in a god, but I think we still have good reason to argue against believing in one anyway.

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