Yesterday I wrote about what I thought should be added to a list of things that atheists should stop saying (written by Christian blogger Benjamin Corey). Today I’ll talk about what was on that list that I think shouldn’t be, namely, the request that atheists stop calling religious people’s beliefs fairy tales. This is the one thing on the original list that got the most push-back from atheists, which prompted a response from the author.
I think Corey’s response misses the mark, however. While the majority of the post is spent arguing that the Bible is not literally a fairy tale, his main point seems to be this: Atheists are not being literal when they call the Bible fairy tales, so what they’re really doing is using ‘fairy tale’ as a pejorative just to be jerks. While some atheists certainly do this (which Corey has good reason to object to), pejorative jerkiness is not the only alternative to literalness. What it really comes down to is this: a lot of atheists genuinely, sincerely think that the Bible sounds about as believable as a book of fairy tales. It’s honestly really difficult to express how unbelievable we find the Bible without Christians telling us that we’re being offensive or rude, and such objections often go hand in hand with people trying to silence us.
Atheists who live in places like the United States (especially in the Bible Belt) often face attempts by Christians to silence us. Sometimes this comes in the form of people dictating rules for how to be ‘polite’ and ‘inoffensive’ which require atheists to shut up or at least be really apologetic and timid. And sometimes one of these rules is don’t compare our religion to fairy tales. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about, from an article entitled “Mistakes atheists make when dialoguing with Christians”.
Condescension and insults
- This is the most common of all mistakes made by atheists. They are often condescending as they mock Christianity. They insult God, call him a tyrant, refer to Christianity as mythology, baseless, a fairytale, compare God to invisible pink unicorns and Santa Clause, etc. Unfortunately, this is all too typical of atheists and if they want to be taken seriously at all, they need to stop being so rude and crude because they do nothing to further discussion.
- Attacking the Christian God and accusing him of immorality is immensely problematic for atheists who have no objective standard of morality yet are quick to judge. We see their inconsistency even if they don’t.
While I mostly want to focus on the first point, the second one makes a good example of why I object to this article, as it is more blatant about the condescending and unfair way it tells atheists what topics we should shut up about. I read it as ‘you atheists aren’t allowed to make moral judgements about our god because you don’t have objective morality’ which only works because ‘subjective morality is inferior’ or ‘objective morality is the only kind of morality’, which is only a hairsbreadth away from the irritatingly common accusation that atheists have no morals.
The first point also goes beyond telling atheists not be rude and proceeds into the territory of topics atheists should shut up about if they don’t want to be seen as ‘rude’. For example, it’s not uncommon for atheists to compare God to Santa Claus to make one point or another. If that point is “only stupid people believe in these things” then I concede, that is pure rudeness. But if an atheist is merely trying to reach for the best parallel they can think of to help illustrate their experience of not believing in God anymore, then Santa Claus may be a very useful comparison*. Santa Claus is something that many children are taught to believe in, and at some point they are expected to stop believing. For many Christians, not believing in Santa Claus anymore may be the most similar experience they have to an atheist’s experience of no longer believing in God.
To be entirely fair, I don’t think Corey’s post is meant in even remotely the same way as the article I quoted above. I think he made a lot of good points in his post, and I got the impression that he is genuinely interested in constructive dialogue with atheists and in finding common ground. And, frankly, there are a number of atheists who use the ‘religion is a fairy tale’ comparison in a rude and condescending manner. But atheists who use such comparisons respectfully and in good faith often get lumped in with the rude ones anyway, and I think that is a huge part of why so many atheists push back against admonitions not to compare religion with fairy tales.
To approach things from a different direction… I honestly find it entirely plausible that actual, literal fairy tales could be used as the basis for a religion. For one thing, many Christians today see ancient Greek myths in a very similar way to how they see fairy tales. But the ancient Greeks probably took their myths just as seriously as Christians today take their Bible stories, including disagreements about what parts should be read literally or metaphorically. For another thing, we have religions like Jediism. Although some may claim to be Jedis as a joke, I don’t doubt there are also sincere Jedis. Even the tiniest bit of poking around on the web found this explanation for why people might hold sincere beliefs in the Jedi religion while being fully aware that their religion has its origin in fictitious stories:
Our faith in the force existed well before the fictional Star Wars movies brought popular recognition to the terminology and concepts that our members always innately held, but had difficultly describing in a shared forum…
The Jedi church makes no denial that its name and terminology originates from a fictitious past, but the concepts and ideals that are identified by Jedi followers are known for their innate truth. The sun existed before it was given a name, and it could be revered as a God, however, when the sun finally had a human name, it could be written about and communicated with others. The Jedi religion is just like the Sun, it existed before a popular movie gave it a name, and now that it has a name, people all over the world can share their experiences of the Jedi religion, here in the Jedi Church.
There are any number of examples of religions that I could name whose origins might look obviously suspect to outsiders, or whose stories outsiders might consider as fairy tales (e.g. Scientology, Wicca, LDS, Islam, Christianity…). Who’s to say that people couldn’t find religious inspiration or meaning in actual fairy tales?
* Credit where it’s due: I took this example from a comment ubi dubium made on one of my blog posts a few years back.