Don’t go there…

Why the religious often claim to be offended, and why atheists should continue to critique them anyway, by Steve Martin, Guest Columnist

As a recently “out” atheist, I have begun more frequently to engage in discussions in public forums about beliefs in god/s.  When I question or challenge my friends about their beliefs, they often pull the “I’m offended” card, or the “this isn’t the right time and place, dude” card (what is the right time, I wonder?)  Rarely is the content of my criticism addressed.  Instead, I’ll get the text version of an eye-roll, such as an, “oh, Steve”, meaning, that I should “not go there,” or some other attempt to shut me up.  In colloquial terms, religion is, conveniently for theists, a “don’t-go-there” topic.  Effectively, theists have found a way to silence atheists, especially those atheists who try hard to be “friendly.”

In the wake of the tsunami that devastated Japan, a friend of mine posted a Facebook status essentially asking that “He” (referring to the God of Christianity) help the Japanese.  I asked, in a reply post:  “Why did ‘HE’ cause the tsunami in the first place?”  I think that’s a fair question.  Does it not seem odd to request assistance from an all-powerful, all-knowing god to help the Japanese after that very same god just destroyed half the country with a tsunami?  Isn’t it, in fact, going against God’s will if you pray to help people that God obviously has chosen to destroy?  Nonetheless, I was immediately attacked by several people for being, apparently, some kind of jerk.  All that for a question.  In the end, after making some kind of strange claim that DNA’s complexity actually proves there’s a god, my “friend” “unfriended” me on Facebook.  Apparently, he dislikes dissent and criticism even though he claims to be a patriotic, open-minded American.

So why are believers so quick to claim they’re offended by criticism (or even just simple questions about why their god allegedly behaves in certain ways)?  This is what I think is happening:  the religious mindset has so identified their own sense of “self” so strongly with their belief in a god that they cannot separate a critique of an idea from a personal attack.  In argument terms, they truly seem to think that critiquing the belief in a deity (or whether or not Jesus existed, rose from the dead, etc.) is an ad hominem argument.  I’ve got news for them.  It’s not a personal attack, and, if a theist takes it as a personal attack, then that is all the more reason for some serious reflection.

This often results in yet another paradox:  I’ll call it the “I’m going to post things on Facebook about god even though it’s a personal relationship [presumably with their god?], and then I’ll get mad when atheists critique it.”  Well, I just must ask them:  If it’s so personal, and I shouldn’t respond or question it, then why do you post about it on Facebook, or attend public prayer sessions, or, for that matter, go to church at all?  If it’s actually only “personal”, why are you telling everyone about it, and why are you living your public life according to it?  The answer is simple:  because it’s not a personal relationship.  The only reason they are claiming it’s a personal relationship is to side-step any criticism by appealing to everyone’s sense of wanting to get along.  If it was only personal, then the rest of us likely wouldn’t even know about it.  Instead, on a quite regular basis, the rest of us hear about god, prayers on Facebook and in our public schools, Catholic voting guides, abortion-rights infringements, the Defense of Marriage act, and so on and so forth.  It’s clearly not just personal, so, please stop hiding behind that shield.  It’s flimsy, and it won’t protect you anymore from atheists who are finally growing confident enough to challenge you.

Regardless, whether personal or not, once revealed publicly one’s beliefs are open to critique.  Every idea is open to critique.  Do political ideologies enjoy such immunity from criticism?  Actually (and unfortunately), this is beginning to happen, and I would argue that it may very well be because of the dangerous linkage between religion and politics and the erosion of the separation of church and state.  Anyone following the current Republican debates for the Presidential candidacy can see how the candidates attempt to “out-god” each other.  Invariably, when religion seeps into politics, politics will begin to take on some of the traits of religion and theism, such as believing things “on faith.”  At that point, political ideas also are apparently off-limits for critique, and in some cases are believed to be true despite any corroborating evidence.  “Faith” is dangerous in all aspects of life and the political realm is no exception.

Do scientific hypotheses, once posited, merely become truth?  Ironically, many Christians frequently point out (wrongly) that evolution is “just a theory” (they misunderstand the meaning of “theory” in scientific usage, but that’s a different essay) and therefore need not be accepted.  I could only wish that theists would scrutinize their own beliefs as much as they challenge widely-accepted scientific theories merely because they contradict the words of one book.

What I aim to do, regardless of whether or not it “offends” someone, is to get them to think.  Instead of thinking, however, they immediately respond, often hypocritically with a personal attack, that I’m being offensive or that I’m being a jerk (or pick your favorite insult).  So what?  Nowhere is there guaranteed to anyone a right not to be offended.  Indeed, I would claim that our nation is great precisely because many brave people, at great risk to their own way of life, stood up throughout history and “offended” the majority.  Believers in god/s can be offended all they want because our right to critique ideas is precisely why this nation, founded not on Christian values but on Enlightenment ideas, has freedom of speech.  Thomas Jefferson once wrote that “dissent is the highest form of patriotism.”  We have a right to critique their religious beliefs, just like they have the right to hold onto them (but not to enforce them on others).  But those beliefs are not allowed to be vacuum-sealed, hidden away from all non-believers, in some kind of protective wrapping.  If the United States actually was founded on Christian ideas, the first amendment would never have been ratified or even written, because the church and the clergy have always suppressed the questioning of ideas, beliefs, authority, and dogma.

So, fellow freethinkers, offend all you want!  Don’t stop challenging people’s beliefs.  Don’t stop challenging your own beliefs either.  Just remember to attack the idea and not the person who believes it.

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Al Stefanelli’s blog has moved to Freethought Blogs.

  9 comments for “Don’t go there…

  1. October 6, 2011 at 11:18 am

    I love intelligent atheism.
    We all need to buy a very large cabin and do nothing but write.

  2. Brad
    October 6, 2011 at 12:28 pm

    Nice column, Steve. I’ll never back down. Recently a relative had cancer, and I had the experience of being on the list where people wrote in to offer support, etc. Most of it was just inane prayers, she and her friends and family being southern baptists. after the long surgery, someone wrote in to give thanks to god for pulling her through the surgery. I just couldn’t take anymore, and very nicely (and knowing she wouldn’t be seeing this anytime soon) I wrote in to say that we should give thanks to the surgeon, and to his scientific and medical training, etc., and you think I would have helped put jesus on the cross with my own bare hands!

    But you are right–now, for the first time, thanks to Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris and a few others, we now can speak out. We have voices and we will not be shut up.

  3. BiGBaDMONDO
    October 6, 2011 at 9:07 pm

    No detail is to small…
    When someone tells me “bless you” for any reason even when I sneeze, I politely say, “thank you, may Satan curse your soul.” HA… they actually believe I have the power to send them on their way to hell, most of them look crushed LMAO… I like to act semi-religious just so I can properly be blasphemous, I LOVE IT!!! Thank you for writing & encouraging people to challenge their beliefs… With the exception of Peter from the book of Peter Pan, NO corn ball god deserves any respect AT ALL!!! Thanx

  4. Byron "Barn" Canfield
    October 6, 2011 at 10:48 pm

    Well done, Al.

  5. October 7, 2011 at 12:25 am

    I have asked this question before in another blog, and I’m aware that in a way it sounds elitist to ask so, but would you consider it right to question everyone on their faith? Would you consider questioning people who aren’t either militant about their religion or ones who take offense at every innocent query? People who are basically good and decent, but for whom their religion is a broad support and it is obvious that disproving/denying it would be a traumatic experience for them? These are the people I find it difficult to be in conflict with. God may be a delusion but do you think at times it’s better to leave the delusion in its place?

    • Steve M.
      October 7, 2011 at 8:31 am

      Why wouldn’t we want to question everyone on their beliefs? Even if they’re moderate, they “provide cover” for the fundamentalists, as Sam Harris argues.

      Moreover, I would argue that the very IDEA of “faith” is dangerous. Accepting something as true absent all evidence is completely counter to EVERYTHING we have been taught (except for beliefs in deities!) in an age of enlightenment.

      What else do we take on “faith”? If you BELIEVE you can stop a bullet with your teeth, should I let you try it in the name of tolerance? I wouldn’t want to, um, you know, offend someone because of a belief that really gives them comfort.

      If my friend “takes it on faith” that demons are causing his strep throat, should I let him continue to believe that, or should I do all in my power to convince him to get anti-biotics? You get my point.

      Absolutely. We should question EVERY belief, as I wrote in the original article. One doesn’t need to be a loudmouth zealot to be fair game for questioning.

      It’s not my problem is a question I ask “destroys their faith.” If I can do that, then their faith really wasn’t all that strong, now was it?

      • October 9, 2011 at 11:41 pm

        I admire Sam Harris and his talk on atheistic morality made me think quite a bit on that subject, but I disagree with him on this claim that moderates provide cover for the fundamentalists. It has been postulated that the absence of moderates in the Islamic Middle-east has been a reason that extremism has flourished there.
        Anyhow, that is a different question for another time.
        I have thought this way, as you have outlined for quite a bit, but I find in the real world, when faced with the choice, I find it difficult to challenge many people’s faith, for the above mentioned reasons. Theoretically, you’re right, why shouldn’t I? And how strong could a faith be if my questioning it can destroy it? Practically, I find it a grayer area.

    • Steve M.
      October 10, 2011 at 4:36 pm

      I understand what you’re saying. It’s not easy to challenge someone’s faith and beliefs, especially those of close friends and family. It comes with great risk. I don’t go around purposely antagonizing my friends, but neither do I keep my mouth shut if they bring it up first.

      I don’t think it’s offensive, and, even if it is offensive to challenge beliefs, so what? What’s the worst that happens if someone gets offended? Nothing. Nothing happens to them. They get mad, maybe, but nothing else.

      So, I just think that we don’t need to be constantly trying NOT to offend each other. Indeed, I think the concept of avoiding offending someone is a huge barrier to learning and solving problems.

      • Eileen
        October 11, 2011 at 12:19 pm

        I find their proselytizing very offensive and I am usually seen as unreasonable for feeling that way. The attitude seems to be that xtians have a right to proselytize because it’s about God as if that gives them special rights but I don’t have the right to object.

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