Double Standards

In debating about religion with various people, I have noticed rather a lot of double standards, some of which are quite subtle. Perhaps the most pervasive of these is the way that statements about belief magically take on different meanings when they are about God.

A trick I often use to understand the structure and meaning of belief statements is to replace the word God with ghosts or unicorns or any other thing that some people believe in and others don’t. For instance, compare “there are no gods” with “there is no Loch Ness monster”.

If you say the first, people will often insist that you need to prove this, and they won’t accept “I don’t see any credible evidence for any gods” as an answer. They insist that if you are going to say “no gods exist” (or sometimes even “I don’t believe in any gods”), the burden of proof is on you. Sometimes this will be accompanied by snarkily worded statements such as “how do you know, have you searched every corner of the universe?” or “have you died and then come back, to say that with absolute certainty?” Notably, there is insistence on complete certainty, and the burden of proof is pushed on to the person who says there are no gods, rather than the person claiming that God exists.

If you say the same about Nessie, however, most people won’t bat an eye, even if you haven’t searched every nook and cranny of Loch Ness. Someone who believes in the Loch Ness monster might argue with you, but it is generally understood that it is the believer who needs to back up their position, not the skeptic. If a person had looked at the evidence available for the existence of the Loch Ness monster (e.g. grainy old photos of a shadowy shape in the distance) and concluded that none of it is credible and the monster sounds like a story people made up, they might express this sentiment by saying “Nessie isn’t real “. It’s not a statement about absolute certainty by any means, and most people who assert something’s non-existence will change their mind if shown credible evidence of that thing’s existence.

So, it is reasonable to say “X does not exist” when you see no credible evidence for X, even if you have not proven its non-existence with 100% certainty. Indeed, it is impossible to prove the non-existence of anything with absolute certainty, whether that is gods, leprechauns, Santa Claus, or a teapot orbiting the Sun somewhere between the Earth and Mars. There is always the possibility that you just didn’t look in the right place. If we used 100% certainty of non-existence as a standard for being able to say that something doesn’t exist, then we would never be able to say that something doesn’t exist.

Another double standard has to do with offensiveness. Sometimes even a relatively innocuous statement like “God isn’t real” is seen as somehow inherently offensive. On the other hand, statements such as “Jesus loves you”, “God works in mysterious ways”, “I’ll pray for your salvation”, or “God is real” are not usually considered offensive, even if you say them to someone you know is an atheist. I used to spend a lot of time worrying about how to say things so that I didn’t offend people, but after a while, I realized that some people are going to get offended when I talk about my atheism, no matter how I phrase things. And yet, on the other side of the coin, believers can say some really offensive and condescending things without facing much pushback.

For instance, when I recently commented on a thread a Christian had written about atheists, I was told repeatedly that I never “really” believed before I became an atheist, because if I did I wouldn’t have become an atheist. When I pointed out that it was condescending and invalidating to claim that two thirds of my life didn’t happen, just because my experiences didn’t fit in with their belief system, do you think they apologized? No. They didn’t see anything wrong with acting like they knew more about my past beliefs than I did, and they continued to tell me I was never a “real” believer, while at the same time saying it was never their intent to be condescending (at which point I decided I’d had enough and stopped responding to the thread).

Another double standard is in the use of the word “militant”. When people talk about militant Muslims or militant Christians, they are talking about extremists with guns or other weapons, who have committed violence or intend to do so. When people talk about militant atheists, on the other hand, they are talking about atheists who are argumentative, unapologetic, loud, confrontational, rude, unwilling to sit down and shut up, or actively trying to deconvert people. Not atheists with guns. Not atheists who are inciting people to violence. Atheists who are annoying people with words.

Speaking of deconversion, why is it seen as rude or morally reprehensible to try to talk people out of religion? Trying to convert people to your own religion is seen as normal, or even good, even when it involves trying to get people to abandon their old religion. Or is trying to convert people only okay if your religious group is in the majority? The way I see it, if you think you know the truth, it’s only natural to try to show it to others. But when atheists do that, we are “attacking” people’s beliefs.

On reflection, many of these things seem like silencing tactics. Constant feedback indicating that talking about atheism is rude serves to silence those atheists who don’t want to offend people. Calling vocal atheists “militant” derails the conversation from atheism to rudeness and offense. It gives people an excuse to dismiss anything vocal atheists say because of how it’s being said (never mind that if atheists want to be polite and inoffensive and not upset the social status quo, they have to keep their mouths shut, or at least be very apologetic and timid). Calling it rude or reprehensible to try to talk people out of their beliefs is an even more obvious silencing tactic. It’s saying that a certain type of conversation is off limits–but only for atheists (or certain minority religions). The way belief statements magically change their meaning when they are about gods isn’t a silencing tactic, but it certainly makes it easier to dismiss atheists and their arguments.

I have spent years trying to figure out the best way to talk about atheism, but there really isn’t one. Refusing to be silenced is frequently incompatible with avoiding confrontation or trying not to offend people. I usually try to remain civil and respectful in conversations with believers, but they often don’t do the same for me. Sometimes I’m even called disrespectful when I am being as respectful or even more respectful than they are. The double standards are aggravating. And perhaps the saddest thing about all of this is how long it took me to even realize the double standards are there.

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15 thoughts on “Double Standards

  1. Oh yes, that “never really believed” thing galls me. And then those same people will turn around and say “you actually really believe in god, you’re just angry at god/you just wanted to sin/you wanted to be your own god” etc etc. They want their denial both ways, we never believed, but we still actually believe. Anything to avoid admitting that a person who once believed what they do now doesn’t believe it any more. Because if it happened to us, it could happen to them!

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      • And we never get to question that “atheist turned believer”, to get a chance to ask “When you were an atheist, can you tell me what you believed about god then, and what your reasons were for believing that?”

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      • Ask a believer in god; What existed before the beginning of creation, their response will be god, of course. So you have god, encompassing the entire whole of the abyss. From what then did god create the universe if there was no other reference point outside of itself to create. The answer is, the creation came from within, everyone and everything is a part of that creation, we are then, and must be, a divine part of the divine whole. It stands to reason then, we ARE god.

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  2. I think part of the effort to stick atheists with the burden of proof lies in a kind of non-semiotic universe. Ultimately, we don’t make judgments about God, just ‘God’ or ‘gods’. It’s rare that God-talk even leads to ideas clear enough to merit discussion of evidence one way or another, but asking us to prove the negative makes the vagueness of God-talk the responsibility of the non-believer.

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  3. Trying to convince someone who relies on faith with evidence is a waste of time for both parties. The very nature of faith is based on a lack of evidence. I find the most amusing part is the believer who tries to enter the argument forgetting the entire premise of their religion is faith. You either have it or you give it up and become a non-believer.

    As for ‘double standard’ – I’m not sure it means what you think it means. It is metaphor to say an athiest is militant. And you describe the purpose of the metaphor quite aptly with “atheists who are argumentative, unapologetic, loud, confrontational, rude…” That is how they are perceived. Whether or they care about how they are perceived is their choice. But as a general rule, people do not react well to “argumentative, unapologetic, loud, confrontational, rude” and expecting that to change is hopeless.

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    • Yes, militant is a metaphor when it’s applied to atheists. When it’s applied to other groups, though, it’s literal. That’s what I mean by double standard. I certainly don’t expect people to stop reacting badly to atheists who are rude and argumentative, but it would be nice if people stopped labeling them “militant”.

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      • If I understand you, you don’t want people to say things about you that make you feel and look bad. So when they use the metaphor it seems unfair.

        I imagine they use those words for a reason. Its a defensive strategy when feeling attacked to hurl insults. In other words, people are reacting to “argumentative, unapologetic, loud, confrontational, rude” all of which are directed at a central tenet of their identity.

        Metaphors are not always kind. But they often evoke emotional experience. That’s why people employ them because literal words do not express their emotional state with enough nuance.

        I doubt if the metaphors you would use to describe the argumentative, unapologetic, loud, confrontational, rude actions would properly hit the emotional mark for the person on the receiving end of those actions.

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        • No, that’s not what I mean. I’m not objecting to having my feelings hurt or to the use of metaphor to evoke feeling. I’m objecting to the ways in which atheists are treated differenly than non-atheists for saying similar things.

          When an atheist is rude and arrogant, they are called militant. I have never heard of a Christian or a Muslim being called militant for being arrogant and rude. It’s not unfair that people are using a metaphor, it’s unfair that they’re only using that metaphor for atheists.

          Furthermore, some people see atheists as rude and attacking even when they are trying to be polite and civil. It’s like people take it personally when someone is open about their atheism, in a way that they don’t when people of other religions are open about their religion. In both cases, the person asserting that they are an atheist or an adherent of another religion cannot do so without implying, on some level, that they are right and the other person is wrong, but, in my experience, people react much more strongly to the atheist, all other factors being equal.

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        • I’ve never had an uncivil conversation about my non-belief. Although I have had people react strongly. Phrases like “it hurts my heart” and “you’re just mad at God”.

          But having been a Xtian, I understand where they are coming from. If you believe strongly, its part of your identity. Its the foundation of your world view. I just said I didn’t think that foundation was real. Its like I just negated a huge swath of their life.

          When we try to remove that belief, we are attacking the foundations upon which they view the world. Its a deeply unpleasant sensation. It feels like an attack.

          If someone believes in God or not is not important. Who they are is important. And more importantly to me – whether they are trying to inflict their beliefs into social structures that disaffect my life and the life of other people.

          I have problems with certain ACTIONS they take. But I don’t really want to change the beliefs they have.
          I assume that you think that if you can change the beliefs you can change their actions.

          I prefer to limit their actions. Its a far more achievable goal. And it has fewer ethical issues.

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        • That’s lucky. I have had conversations about my lack of belief that weren’t civil. I’ve been told it’s rude to say “there are no gods” to believers. I’ve been told that the atheists who say “I don’t believe in God” are somehow a better kind of atheist than the ones who say “there are no gods”, by people who say “my God is real”, not “I believe in God”. I’ve had a Christian roommate reframe my lack of belief as “denying God’s existence”, and then use passive aggressive methods to try to convert me. For example, leaving me Christian books and pamphlets that she “just happened” to have extras of, playing her Christian music loudly with the door open to the point where I could hear it in my room with the door closed, and quoting Bible verses and telling me that God loves me “just the way I am” to say that I shouldn’t be trans–and I never once tried to convince her that she shouldn’t believe in God.

          I have a problem with people’s beliefs to the extent that those beliefs are harming others. For example, I have a huge problem with parents believing in faith healing to the extent that they pray for their kid instead of taking them to the hospital, and the kid dies. On the other hand, I have no problem with people praying for their kid while taking them to the hospital because they think their god might heal their child.

          If people’s beliefs aren’t causing any harm or being enshrined into law, then I don’t really care what people believe. I might still think they are mistaken, but I’m not going to go out of my way to try to change their minds.

          But I don’t see anything unethical about trying to talk people out of their beliefs, as long as you are civil and don’t try to force anything on other people.

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        • I don’t see anything unethical about talking about it either. I do see something unethical in trying to convert people to atheism or christianity or whatever.

          To me, there is an inherent self centeredness in trying to convert someones core beliefs to match my own. Core beliefs being things that help define us.

          But I admit its a slippery slope. Particularly when discussing detrimental behaviors like using prayer instead of medicine.

          And its a personal view on ethics, not a universal one. I don’t want to value my life’s view over someone else’s. I’ve changed my viewpoint over a lifetime often enough that I do not trust anything to be absolutely right or absolutely true.

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