Leave me alone, for the love of God

In a recent post, with the caustic style which makes her one of our favorite reads, Professor in Training (PiT) describes a taxi ride from hell (no pun intended) that she had in New Orleans. In a temporary lapse of judgment, PiT confessed to the driver that she has no religious faith. In response, the driver lashed out at her for the entire duration of the ride, deploring her lack of moral values, warning her of dire consequences and foretelling her eternal damnation, should she fail to repent and embrace God’s message immediately — pretty standard stuff, I would say.

All of us who goes through life with no religion, receive this type of sermon every so often, delivered by the least likely lecturers in the most unexpected places. Sometimes we are caught by surprise, but by and large we learn how not to let it bother us, and take it just as a fact of life. Having grown up in a country where religion (Catholicism, that is) is taught in public schools, where every pronouncement of the Pope is promptly reported by all national media (private and public) and where the crucifix hangs on the wall of just about every room of just about every public building, I have no trouble accepting that a large fraction of the population believes in God. I myself was raised to believe in God, and did so for most of my adolescence. I was an altar boy when I was 11 years old, and am willing to accept that, perhaps, a different life path may have led me to keep God in my life — still, the fact is that I, like PiT, have now no religious faith of any kind.

I can certainly understand that, for many, the belief in the existence of a higher entity may provide spiritual guidance [0] and I have no problem with religion and religious people, at least as long as they do not try to force their beliefs upon me. Alas, unfortunately they often do. It really annoys me when friends, acquaintances and even perfect strangers, not just priests (I do have quite a few friends who are clerics) but also lay persons, take it upon themselves to try and convert me. It shows lack of respect for an atheist’s own inner travail and search, which are no less intense and deep than those of any religious person.
When it comes to religion, it is not the same as with politics, football or any other topics on which bitter arguments can ensue. As noted by PiT, often times religious people, in their fervor and desire to see the other person yield to their superior views, just do not understand when the time has come to give it a rest.
Perhaps nowhere as in this specific aspect, can one see clearly the absurdity of the comparison made by many religious advocates, who maintain that atheism is just another creed, and therefore atheists are not really free of beliefs as they claim. Aside from the many fundamental objections that could be raised against such a bogus argument, the behavior of an atheist generally differs profoundly from that of a believer. An atheist is simply too respectful of the deeply personal, individual nature of one’s spiritual choice, to try and interfere with and influence it [1]. The religious person, on the other hand, is out to recruit.

But why ? What is it to them ? Are they really motivated by genuine concern for our salvation ? Does it cause them so much distress to think that many of us, even perfect strangers, who are leaving a godless life, are flirting with disaster and may spend eternity burning in hell ? Does that thought really keep them awake at night ?
I do not think so. I think that, for the most part, this is really all about them, not us.
The belief in an afterlife, in a superior being capable of giving meaning to a life that often seems nothing but a short, purposeless journey to nowhere, can certainly provide some reassurance from the sadness and loneliness of the human condition. But in order to be most effective, such a belief needs the type of reinforcement that comes from large numbers, for it is hard to make sense of a God, really.
Many self-proclaimed believers must personally be struggling with that idea. They cannot be content with simply regarding it as their own, individual and subjective way of resolving the dilemma of their existence. If their God is not the same as that of their neighbors, of other countries, continents and cultures, then it is far less powerful and convincing a construct.

As Bertrand Russell wrote in “Why I am not a Christian”, all religions claim to be true, hence they must all be false. I think most believers, especially educated ones, are troubled by that argument to some extent. This is why it is necessary that one’s creed be adopted by as many people as possible, and ideally that there be only one religion.
If on this specific issue, all mankind could agree and share in the same, common belief… then it would for practical purposes be indistinguishable from what a scientist would call “an experimental fact”. Such a collective delusion, to use Dawkins’ expression, would represent the single point of convergence of the whole humane experience — that would simply make it true.

If, on the other hand, so many men and women worldwide can go through life without even thinking of God, chuckling at or shrugging off warnings of eternal damnation or Hell’s flames, and conducting seemingly normal existences… well… how absolute, universally important can those concepts really be ?
This is why dissent is ill accepted — because it undermines the credibility of the faith in the eyes of the believers themselves [2].
PiT may have been annoyed by the taxi driver, but I would not be surprised if the driver herself had spent the time on her way back from the airport thinking “How can this person do without something that I need so much ?”.

Notes

[0] No, not moral — I do not need a priest to tell me that it is wrong to steal or kill, I can figure that out by myself, thank you very much.

[1] There are, in fairness, some prominent atheists like biologist Richard Dawkins, who argue that it is time for atheists to “fight back”, and actively try and convert religious people into not believing. Although I can see the motivation in Dawkins’ proposal, I cannot help seeing as fundamentally incompatible with an atheist’s intrinsic tolerance.

[2] As for “burning in Hell”, well, Churches themselves have never taken this thing very seriously. Indeed, whenever possible, “eternal damnation” aside, they have made sure that heretics be dealt with as they deserve in this life, e.g., at the hand of the Holy Inquisition.

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27 Responses to “Leave me alone, for the love of God”

  1. Professor in Training Says:

    An atheist is simply too respectful of the deeply personal, individual nature of one’s spiritual choice, to try and interfere with and influence it

    I can’t (and won’t) speak for all atheists, but this describes my position EXACTLY – although I know some atheists who publicly mock faith and religion and refuse to show even an ounce of respect for the beliefs of others. I agree that it essentially comes down to an inability (sometimes on both sides) to recognize that not everyone shares your opinion and that others are entitled to their own beliefs, regardless of what they might be. In principal, I have absolutely no problem with others having faith in a god or deity or their need to share or spread their beliefs … it’s when they’re being forced on me and I’m not shown reciprocal respect for my own beliefs (or lack thereof) that I get cranky. Each to their own, I say.

    Hell – I’m booking the airport shuttle well in advance next time!

  2. Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

    although I know some atheists who publicly mock faith and religion and refuse to show even an ounce of respect for the beliefs of others

    I agree, there are — but statistically I think that you are much more likely to run into the religious person who will try to convert than the atheist. And the very fact that there is no “atheist church”, no organized movement (that I know of anyway) aiming at converting people to atheism, whereas churches and organized religions are by definition in the business of converting, in my opinion sets the two positions clearly apart.

    • Professor in Training Says:

      I’ve always thought that those individuals who feel a burning need to convert people and are so aggressive about their religious organizations might be the ones who actually have doubts about their faith and that this is their way of dealing with that. I have absolute and total confidence that there is no higher power (or whatever you want to call it) and I can appreciate that others have an equally intense conviction in their beliefs. What I can’t understand is when I am questioned as to whether I might change my mind or whether I harbour any doubts. These people are 100% confident in their own faith yet they fail to recognize the same, albeit the opposite, conviction in me … or maybe they’re just looking for reassurance.

  3. Schlupp Says:

    As a moderately religious catholic, I get both exhortations to be more and to be less religious, in comparable numbers. In order for atheists to be much less proselytizing, I’d have to have far more atheist acquaintances than ones being more religious than I am. (Assuming that those with a similar degree of religion to mine would not see a need to convert me.) Since I do not know the details about absence, presence and degree of faith in many of the people I know (which is on the whole all for the better, thank you very much, especially if we are talking complete strangers like cab drivers), this is possible, but by no means certain. Of course, I am likely to hear less religious proselytizing than you, because I use “I am a catholic” to cut it short, but then, you might have a similar advantage when it comes to atheists.

    You are certainly right that there is no atheist church running an official conversion scheme. But for the rest, I have trouble with your argument that the behaviour of an atheist is what sets atheism apart, because you see proselytism “as fundamentally incompatible with an atheist’s intrinsic tolerance.” Doesn’t this argument have a lot in common with the usual “uh, yeah, inquisition and crusades and stuff, not nice, no, not at all, um, but that was WRONG religion, see, because deep down, religion is about compassion, so REALLY and TRULY religious people would not do such a thing” that one usually gets from educated and moderately religious people? The point I want to make is not that trying to convert someone to atheism is anywhere similar to a crusade, but my point is that declaring whatever we find objectionable in people who share our conviction as not part of said conviction is a staple of religious’ people’s arguments, so if you use exactly the same strategy to show how different atheism is, this is not convincing. At least not to me, because it struck me as surprisingly similar to what I normally hear from religious people! (And as an aside, there are branches of Judaism and Hinduism that aren’t into proselytizing either, so even if atheist do not try to convert other people, it would not be all that special.)

    Finally, I am not even sure that one needs an official church to be annoying about conversion. I have recently been reading a few blogs about the “alternative medicine and whatnot” scene of MyCountry, which brought back memories…. Many aspects of this stuff share a lot with religious systems, and they certainly do try to proselytize even in the absence of official institutions. Yes, once there is a number of followers, they will often organise, but it also happens quite often that someone wants to convince me of something weird that they only read in one book.

    • Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

      Schlupp — I am not sure I understand your point.
      First of all, I do not believe that you would go as far as telling me that for every, say, Catholic priest who tries to convert an atheist to Catholicism, you can on average find somewhere else an atheist “priest” trying to convert a believer to atheism.
      Secondly, the reason why proselytism is fundamentally incompatible with being an atheist, is that an atheist generally (these are statistical statements that I am making) recognizes that this is an individual choice that comes from within us, not from without. (S)he does not seek nor need the type of reinforcement by number that many religious people instead crave. An atheist may make fun of religious people and find them annoying, but ultimately (s)he does not care whether they convert or not.
      Again, only when religious people and organizations insist that their own religion be the law for everyone, which unfortunately they tend to do just about everywhere all the time, does it become a problem — but even then conversion is irrelevant.
      Oh, and that you don’t need to be a Church to be annoying, and that you can proselytize about other stuff as well is true but, well, so what ?

      • Schlupp Says:

        Massimo, I will answer at some point, but my comment was the last thing before I went to pick up a visitor at the airport, so I am currently busy having that thing called “a life”. Quite interesting every once in a while.

  4. Devin Says:

    An atheist is simply too respectful of the deeply personal, individual nature of one’s spiritual choice, to try and interfere with and influence it

    You can’t paint all atheists with the same brush, not all atheists share your sentiment about religion being a personal thing. In fact, given yours and PiT’s (and probably every other atheist’s) experience with people of religion, I would suggest that the logical conclusion is that religion is not, in fact, a personal thing, but something that people try to force on others. You first state that you believe that spirituality is a “deeply personal, individual” choice, but then go on to claim that “The religious person, on the other hand, is out to recruit.” I don’t follow the logic Massimo.

    There is no fundamental reason why atheists must be respectful of one’s spiritual choice. You are making the same mistake that many religious people make in trying to ascribe a set of beliefs/values to atheists, other than simply a lack of belief in a deity. I personally know many atheists on both sides of the fence, those who think you should be respectful of one’s beliefs, and those who think adults who believe in fairy tales are stupid.

    As an atheist myself, I think I fall somewhere between the two, though more towards the second. I very much support peoples right to believe in whatever nonsense they want, but at the same time I oppose organized religion and religion in general for all the ills it has caused.

  5. Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

    You first state that you believe that spirituality is a “deeply personal, individual” choice, but then go on to claim that “The religious person, on the other hand, is out to recruit.” I don’t follow the logic Massimo.

    Well, OK… seems clear to me, but, hey…

    I personally know many atheists who [...] think adults who believe in fairy tales are stupid.

    Sure, and I am one of those who think that — but you will not find many of us going around, knocking on doors, distributing literature, preaching and trying to convince anyone that they are wrong — because we respect individual, spiritual choices, even when we think that they are ridiculous. This is the difference, and this is what the post is about — not what people think, but what they do.
    I honestly think that the post is clear.

  6. Devin Says:

    you will not find many of us going around, knocking on doors, distributing literature, preaching and trying to convince anyone that they are wrong

    Just because we use different media (blogs, debates, bus advertisements, etc.) doesn’t mean that atheists don’t try to convince others that they are wrong.

    because we respect individual, spiritual choices, even when we think that they are ridiculous

    I don’t respect their choice any more than I respect the choice of a smoker to continue smoking. I respect their right to choose for themselves, but that’s not the same as respecting their choice.

  7. Devin Says:

    And just as I might try to convince a smoker that he should quit, I would try to convince a religious person that he doesn’t need imaginary friends to tell him what to do.

  8. Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

    Just because we use different media (blogs, debates, bus advertisements, etc.) doesn’t mean that atheists don’t try to convince others that they are wrong.

    Are you seriously comparing a bunch of blogs written by individuals who simply expound freely their ideas, blogs that nobody has to read, to the outreach effort of an organized religion ? Come again…

    And just as I might try to convince a smoker that he should quit, I would try to convince a religious person that he doesn’t need imaginary friends to tell him what to do.

    Smokers do harm to themselves and to others, causing among other things medical expenses for which we all have to pick up the tab. So it makes perfect sense to make a concerted effort to have them quit.
    Believers and non-believers cause no harm whatsoever, until they try to force their views on others, at which point they need not be forced to converted but simply told to stop.
    It is a meaningless comparison.

  9. Devin Says:

    until they try to force their views on others

    Except that you already stated:

    The religious person, on the other hand, is out to recruit.

    So, from your own statement, religion requires its adherents to “recruit” which is a slightly nicer way of “force their views on others”. If their religion requires them to recruit, then telling them to stop is, in effect, telling them that (at least one aspect of) their religion is unacceptable. In addition, the mere existence of religions causes their supporters to try to influence laws/regulations, and otherwise restrict the freedoms of the non-religious. So your solution is to pick and choose which symptoms of the disease you will try to fight, rather than try to cure the disease itself? Note that I’m not saying that we shouldn’t treat the individual aspects, just that we should do it at the same time as treating the disease itself.

    Are you seriously comparing a bunch of blogs written by individuals who simply expound freely their ideas, blogs that nobody has to read, to the outreach effort of an organized religion ?

    The bus advertisements? It may be on a smaller scale but it’s still there.

    at which point they need not be forced to converted

    I never said anything about forcing anyone. Logic and rationality are excellent tools in the fight against religion and superstition.

  10. Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

    So, from your own statement, religion requires its adherents to “recruit” which is a slightly nicer way of “force their views on others”…

    OK, this is your take — fine. I honestly do not see how the above, as well as the rest of your comment, follows from what I wrote. There is no point in me restating what I have already written in the post.

    The bus advertisements? It may be on a smaller scale but it’s still there.

    I think any suggestion to the effect that the efforts of the two parts are even close by orders of magnitude is ridiculous and disingenuous.

  11. Cath@VWXYNot? Says:

    I’ve used the smoking / religion analogy too – “smoke if you want, but if you blow smoke in my face, expect me to object”.

    I agree with Massimo for the most part, although I think that there are probably a lot of atheists out there who do get into arguments with religious friends, which could be interpreted as attempts to (de)convert. As in, if a religious friend starts to tell me that religious belief is necessary for morality, then I will provide a counter argument that morality is human, not divine. The subtext of that counter argument is, of course, “they’re lying to you, you don’t need religion, you should wise up to that and shed the shackles of the church”.

    I never start these arguments, but if someone else starts one, I’ll join in with gusto!

  12. Devin Says:

    And the claim that all, or even most, atheists agree with your position is also ridiculous and disingenuous.

  13. Cherish Says:

    I guess I’ve seen it on both sides. I had a party one night where a very religious friend and an athiest (who was very antagonistic to religion) really got into it…and the athiest friend started it. On the other hand, I later had a falling out with the very religious friend because he kept starting arguments with me.

    I think the average athiest is probably like the average religious person: I have my beliefs, you have yours, and hopefully we can get along well enough that it’s not a problem. But I do know athiests who are just as rabid as the religious folk, and I don’t particularly care for it.

    I also disagree with what you think is the issue. I acutally think it’s a bit of social myopia…people can’t or won’t see another point of view and would rather stay in their comfort zone. When it’s their comfort zone, they fail to understand how someone could be more comfortable with a different belief system or point of view. It seems that people generally become more comfortable with ideas the more they are exposed to them in a positive light or by people they care for and respect.

    • Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

      Cherish, what can I say ?
      That is what Devin thinks too, so, maybe I am wrong. To me, the notion that “after all, for every believer that tries to convert an atheist, or at any rate initiates an argument over this, there is proportionally an atheist that does the same”, that you are just as likely to run into a taxi driver who will try to talk you out of your religion, that for every nutjob on campus standing on a soapbox warning about eternal damnation there is one that preaches against religion, that for every church that sends people out to convert, distributing leaflets, printing newspapers and books, and broadcasting through radio and tv stations there is an atheist organization that does the opposite to the same degree (that is, proportionately to the number of adepts), that for every person knocking on your door wanting to talk to you about God there is one who wants to talk you out of it, seems a bit far-fetched to me. And I do think that this is what you and Devin are suggesting.
      My experience certainly does not agree with this, and because apparently we atheists are on the rise, I would have thought that by now I would have noticed it, if we constituted such a powerful movement. But hey, maybe I am not being objective.

  14. Cherish Says:

    Now you’re putting words in my mouth.

    First, if you look at straight numbers, there are far fewer athiests than religious people. Based on pure numbers, you’re simply not going to run into as many athiests as religious people…so your chance of running into someone who is a “rabid” athiest is less than running into someone who is a Bible thumper. On the other hand, if you look at percentages of those who wear their beliefs on their sleeve, I’m guessing it may not be so different.

    Second, what I was saying was that the athiests I have met are, on the whole, no less obnoxious about pushing their beliefs (or lack thereof) on others, given the opportunity. In many cases, they have just as much conviction that they are right and others ought to believe the same as the religious folks I’ve met. They will engage in snarky derision of any sort of religious belief just as much as religious people will discuss the lack of morals of the athiest. What’s worse is that many of them think they are justified because the religious people have been doing it to them…so much for the moral high road.

    In fact, one might argue that you are showing off your moral superiority by making vast generalizations about the fact that athiests are morally superior because they don’t run around showing off their moral superiority…thereby negating the very point you are trying to make.

    How’s that for convoluted reasoning!?

    • Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

      It was not my intention to put words in your mouth, but you honestly seem to be suggesting that essentially the same behavior is found in both categories, and I am sorry but that is far, far from what I experience.

      First, if you look at straight numbers, there are far fewer athiests than religious people.

      Cherish, please, I wrote “proportionally” and “proportionately to the number of adepts”. As for the numbers, here they are. Apparently 12% of Americans are atheists, way more than Jeovah’s witnesses (for instance), but I bet you have seen more Jeovah’s witnesses at your doorsteps than atheists.

      So, yes, I am making generalizations but I thought that they were accurate, because, once again, I am not talking about what people think, what they make fun of, what they disparage, I am talking about people taking it upon themselves to talk someone else out of one’s beliefs. The notion that that occurs in the same proportions in the two categories seems odd to me. Of course, I may well be wrong.

  15. Devin Says:

    It wasn’t my intention to say that we put in as much time or effort as the religious folks, because clearly we don’t. We don’t routinely go door to door, put up public ads, or debate with them. But it does happen. To say that all atheists hold the same position as you is very naïve. The only thing that atheists necessarily have in common is a lack of belief in a deity.

  16. Cherish Says:

    Really, Massimo, is it any better for an athiest to tell a religious person that they believe in fairies than it is for the religious person to get an athiest to repent lest they go to hell? In my experience, many of the latter are actually doing so out of concern for a person while the former is just convinced that they have superior reasoning ability.

    Perhaps the athiests you hang out with are above this sort of behavior, but I have noticed that many of them have a chip on their shoulder against the religious. Somehow they think that their discontent with religion entitles them to treat religious individuals with contempt. It’s not all of them, but neither do all religious folks attempt to convert you. In fact, if I were to look at proportions, I’d say that LESS people who are religious are out to convert you. Perhaps they are the more memorable individuals, but given how many people are religious and the fact that I’ve had less than 10 people try to convert me my entire life, it’s a pretty small proportion. Admittedly, those few were pretty obnoxious…but they don’t speak for the whole, and I don’t think it’s fair to characterize 85% or so of the population based on a few bad experiences.

    • Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

      Cherish, evidently I have not been clear and I doubt that simply repeating it once again will change anything, but just for the record:

      is it any better for an athiest to tell a religious person that they believe in fairies than it is for the religious person to get an athiest to repent lest they go to hell?
      [...]
      I don’t think it’s fair to characterize 85% or so of the population based on a few bad experiences.

      Not. The. Point.
      My point is not and never has been that atheists who ridicule religious people do so less obnoxiously, or that they are more righteous, or that their arguments are superior (although of course I generally deem them so).

      My point is that I believe (I do not have research to back this, only anecdotal experience, but then again this is a blog, not a journal) that the fraction of atheists who will initiate a discussion or an attempt at converting a believer is far less than the fraction of religious people doing the opposite, regardless of what is actually said in the discussion and how it is conducted by anyone, religious or atheist.

  17. Cherish Says:

    I’m sorry, but in the context of this discussion, I felt I should point to an example of an athiest being an asshole:

    http://www.ocregister.com/articles/corbett-religion-court-2387684-farnan-selna

  18. Nancy (your SL bud) Says:

    All I can say is …..God Bless you Massimo :) Nice to see that some things never change….and your opinions are just as rigid as ever. Its somewhat comforting. :P

    Hope you are well!

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