Atheism and Offense

As an atheist, sometimes I worry about whether people will be offended when I blog about religion or atheism. Not all of my readers are atheists, after all, and I blog about various topics unrelated to atheism. I don’t want to drive away readers who come to my site to read what I say about asexuality, for example.

This worry is compounded by the fact that I have no idea how to anticipate what people will find offensive. How do I tell where the line is between what is appropriate, polite, and respectful, and what is inflammatory, disrespectful, and rude? Looking at what sort of things atheists say that religious people get offended at is absolutely no help here.

A good example of why this isn’t helpful is the response to atheist bus ads and billboards. They generate controversy, are called offensive, are sometimes vandalized, and are sometimes refused by ad companies (including companies that do not object to running religious ads). The controversial atheist billboard messages?

“Don’t Believe in God? You are not alone.”
“You don’t need God – to hope, to care, to love, to live.”
“Doubts about religion? You’re one of many.”
“Don’t believe in God? Join the Club.”
“I can be good without God.”

Even when some atheists got together to think up the most inoffensive atheist bus ad ever, which simply said “Atheists” and the name of the organization sponsoring the ad, it got rejected.

The message I am getting here is that the mere existence of atheists is offensive. That if I speak up about atheism, I am going to offend someone, no matter what I say. Even if I say nothing more controversial than “I’m an atheist”. It seems as if the only way I can avoid offending people is if I am silent about my atheism. Fuck that.

But surely most reasonable people aren’t that easily offended, that they bristle at a mere reminder that certain kinds of people exist? What if I look at what sort of things offend religious people who actually engage with atheists? Then will I get a better idea of what is or is not appropriate and respectful to say? Like, perhaps, this article entitled “Mistakes atheists make when dialoguing with Christians”?

At a glance, it looks like this article has some good tips. The categories of things to avoid include condescension and insults, misrepresentation, deception, and failing to study what I criticize. These are things I would advocate avoiding in any debate or honest conversation. Upon closer inspection, however, I’m not sure the examples provided actually belong in these categories.

They say it is condescending and insulting to “call [God] a tyrant”. So… if I call a spade a spade, then I’m being rude? The God of the Bible (especially the Old Testament) repeatedly orders genocide (Num 31:1-19, Deut 2:31-36, Deut 3:1-7, Deut 20:16-18), slaughters his followers to punish them (2 Chr 13:4-18, Exodus 32), kills a guy for merely touching a holy relic (2 Samuel 6:6-7), condones and regulates slavery (Leviticus 25:44, Leviticus 25:46, Ephesians 6:5), and kills all the firstborn children of a nation because their leader refuses to deal with his emissary (Exodus 12:29). If a human leader did these things, I would be completely justified in calling him a tyrant. But since it’s God, I’m not allowed to point out his tyranny?

Likewise, one of Muhammad’s wives was nine years old when their marriage was consummated. This is childhood sexual abuse, and possibly paedophilia. Should I not call it what it is simply because Muhammad is a revered prophet?

I get that it would be rude to approach a random Muslim and start a conversation by saying “Muhammad sexually abused a child”, or to approach a random Christian and say “Your god, if he exists, is a tyrant”. But if I am already in a conversation about Muhammad’s wives or the more violent actions of Yahweh in the Old Testament, how is it rude to call a thing what it is?

The article also says it’s rude to “refer to Christianity as mythology, baseless, a fairytale”. I concede that telling Christians that their holy book is a fairy tale is probably condescending in most cases. Whether or not Christianity is baseless or mythology, however, is open to argument. I’m sure there are rude ways to talk about Christianity as baseless or as mythology, but I vehemently disagree that to do so at all is inherently rude. Christian mythology is a thing, although whether it should be referred to as myth is debated, even among Christians. C.S. Lewis himself describes the Gospel story as a “true myth”.

I suspect that the reason the author of this article objects to calling Christianity mythology is because doing so implies that Christianity is not correct, that it is like the many stories of other religions that Christians do not believe in. To call Christianity baseless is to say more bluntly that it is incorrect. I’m sorry, but if the rules you set down for a dialogue label calling the other side wrong as being rude, then there’s something wrong with your rules. How can you have a real dialogue with someone you think is mistaken if you are prohibited from saying that they are wrong?

The article also says it is rude and condescending for atheists to “compare God to invisible pink unicorns and Santa Clause”. I’m lazy, so I’m just going to copy and paste the comment I made in response to a nearly identical point on someone else’s blog earlier today.

I don’t know. I don’t think all comparisons between God and the Tooth Fairy are necessarily smug or condescending or equivalent to calling someone gullible. I mean, what other things are there to compare God to, that are also things that people believe in on faith? Sometimes this is the best way I can think of to point out why I don’t find an argument convincing. “But you can’t prove Bigfoot doesnt exist!!!” isn’t going to convince anyone that Bigfoot is real. Why would the same argument be convincing about God?

Similarly, I make a lot of comparisons to mythical creatures when I’m trying to explain the nature of my lack of belief. This is because the way I don’t believe in any gods is pretty much exactly the same as the way I don’t believe in, for example, the Loch Ness monster. The main difference there is that a lot more people believe in some sort of god or gods than believe in the Loch Ness monster, and it’s socially acceptable to make fun of people who believe in the Loch Ness monster, but not if they believe in a god (no matter how outlandish or ridiculous that belief seems to you).

I mean, there’s definitely some times atheists cross the line. If you can’t have a debate with a theist without referring to their god as an invisible sky fairy every other sentence, then you’re going to do more to make your opponent angry and shut down the conversation than to have any useful debate. But there are times when making this sort of comparison is useful without being condescending or smug, and also where there just isn’t anything else you could compare to if people are going to get offended if you suggest that their god has anything whatsoever in common with Santa Claus (and they do have some things in common–children are commonly taught by their parents to believe in both)

I think the author of the blog post I wrote the preceding comment in response to made a very good point that accusing someone of being gullible or ignorant just shuts down debate and makes people angry, even if you are only calling them gullible indirectly. An example might be saying “your holy book is a bunch of fairy tales” (implied argument: only gullible people believe fairy tales, your holy book is fairy tales, you believe your holy book, therefore you believe fairy tales, therefore you are gullible). Maybe? I don’t know. Maybe that’s not a good example. My mind is already coming up with examples where comparing a holy book to a book of fairy tales is appropriate. Greek myths are considered in a similar way to fairy tales, these days, but people believed in these myths, way back when*. The difference with modern day religions is just that people still believe in these things.

The more I think about this, the more confused and uncertain I get. It just seems like there is no way I can talk about atheism without offending people, and it takes so much time and effort and energy to try to avoid doing so. If people get offended no matter what I say, maybe I should just stop worrying about offending people, and say what I need to say. That’s not to say I should have no scruples when discussing atheism, though. I should still be respectful of the people I disagree with, debate with, and dialogue with. Personal insults are right out, and straw man arguments are dishonest at best. I should keep in mind things like empathy, civil rights, social justice, and ethics. But if some people are going to get offended because I say I think their deeply held religious beliefs are mistaken, then, ah, that’s kind of their problem, not mine.

Hmmmm. This post seems to be going in the direction of the argument that religious beliefs shouldn’t get a free ride in the marketplace of ideas. Considering that this post went in that direction so easily, I think that, perhaps, what most offends people about atheists is that we disregard the unwritten rule that says you’re not allowed to tell people that their deeply held religious beliefs are wrong. Sure, you could talk about which ways to say this are more polite or offensive or whatever, but if telling people that their religion is wrong offends people all by itself, then no wonder I’m so confused about how to talk about atheism without feeling like I’m going to offend everyone. This also makes sense when considering the way a few atheists really are very blunt and rude in the way they say things–if there’s no way to get across their message without being accused of rudeness, then there’s that much less reason to try to not actually be rude.

In conclusion, I should probably stop worrying about offending people when I talk about atheism, and instead focus on stuff like avoiding personal insults, avoiding logical fallacies, doing my research, citing things appropriately, and having respect for people (even if I have no respect for some of their beliefs).

* I’m oversimplifying a bit here. I know, at least, that some modern day neo-pagans do worship the ancient Greek gods. I’m not really sure how to characterize what their beliefs are, though. My knowledge of neo-pagan religion is fairly basic.

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8 thoughts on “Atheism and Offense

  1. I’m right with you, especially about using Santa for a comparison. When I do that, it’s usually because I am looking for an example of something the person I am talking to once believed in fervently, but now no longer does. In American culture, most kids believed in Santa when small then stopped believing at some point, so that loss of belief is a common experience most of us can relate to.

    I also expect that for some of the things where they say “don’t say that, it’s rude”, they really mean “don’t say that, because it makes me have to face uncomfortable things about my religion that I really don’t want to think about”.

    I concur with every word of your “in conclusion” paragraph.

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  2. I believe in God, however, I understand your struggles. I feel the same way you do about veganism. I feel like I will offend people or set them off no matter how hard I try to be respectable. It just doesn’t make sense. I also get what you mean when you say the bible is kind of like a book of fairy tales. I believe in God, however, I do not read or believe in the bible at all, especially with so many bad messages in it. Nor do I ever go to church. I don’t mean to offend some Christians, but a lot of them are very blind when it comes to their religion. They never question anything, and everything they say or every decision they make is based on religion, which really annoys me. I understand exactly where you’re coming from, in fact, I used to be atheist. I may sound like a hypocrite now, but trust me, I’m not religious in any way possible. I really enjoyed your article. You earned yourself a new follower. 🙂

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    • Thanks. I enjoyed your comment.

      My first instinct here is to say that I just do not understand, at all, how people could get so easily offended by something as non-offensive as just being vegan. But, when I think about it… I guess some people just get really upset that other people are perfectly fine living without something that they really like, or think is really important. Like somehow it feels threatening to them that there exist people who don’t need the thing they couldn’t imagine living without? It’s the same thing, with veganism, or atheism, or asexuality.

      I mean, I never would have that thought that people could get offended by the existence of asexuals… and then I read the comments on [any generic mainstream article about “asexuality exists” ever]

      There are different nuances with the ways people get upset about the existence of vegans, or atheists, or asexuals, of course, but it’s interesting thinking about what they have in common, too.

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      • I think you’re right. Living without meat, dairy, or eggs sounds outrageous and foreign to them. I can tell that you’re very intelligent and open to new things. I’m glad that I can converse politely and in a civilized manner about veganism without someone saying “mm bacon.” I don’t even know how you deal with being atheist honestly. Christians tend to attack them the most. Thank you for your response.

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      • Eh, people don’t tend to give me too much trouble about being an atheist, really (except sometimes on the internet, but where there is internet, there are trolls). I’m lucky to live in a place where most people don’t bat an eye when I tell them I’m an atheist. The worst thing is people peddling their religion on my college campus, especially the loud, opinionated street preachers talking about hell and damnation, or how marriage equality is destroying society, or something. But those people are bothersome to a lot more than just the atheists.

        Well, and I guess I am still afraid to tell my parents I am an atheist. If anyone had a problem with it, it would probably be them. I’m sure it would be the we-love-you-and-want-the-best-for-you sort of problem, but still.

        I sure wouldn’t want to move to Texas or some place like that, though.

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  3. I think the point about Santa and other myths is a great one – it might just nake someone question their beliefs. It would have to be brought up carefully though, making sure not to be sarcastic in tone.

    As someone from the UK, I find the idea of billboards bigging up atheism so strange! I completely understand why they exist – give hope to the misrepresented minority. Atheism is quite normal over here.

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