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.