September 18, 2006

Why Atheists Think About God

As an atheist who maintains a blog focused on issues relevant to atheists (Atheist Revolution) and who participates in a number of online forums, there is one question I am asked perhaps more than any other. There are a couple variants on this question, but the typical version is something like this: "If you are an atheist, why do you spend so much time reading/thinking/talking about religion?" It is nearly always phrased as a challenge. The idea seems to be that atheists have no business in - or should be expected to have no interest in - religion.

There are many ways to respond to this question and the apparent intent behind it. One would be to point out that virtually all today's high-profile atheists devote considerable time attempting to understand religion and persons who actually believe in religious doctrines. Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Dawkins are among the first names that come to mind. If prominent atheists often address religion, why should the topic somehow be off limits or irrelevant to average atheists? My suspicion, of course, is that most of the people asking me this question have never heard of Harris, Dennett, or Dawkins. Perhaps I am among the first atheist they have encountered.

Another type of response is to point out that atheists are a small (but growing) minority in the United States surrounded by a large Christian majority. In any situation such as this, the minority ignores the majority at its peril. We atheists strive to understand believers and their beliefs because our political survival depends on it. In fact, if some Christians were to get their way, we might need to say that our actual survival depends on it without the political qualifier! Because we are surrounded by people who belief outrageous things, we seek to understand those things. We may also seek to change them, but understanding is an important prerequisite. When Christians are puzzled at this line of reasoning, I often ask them to imagine themselves as a tiny minority of White people living among a large population of African Americans who held all the political power in the group. In such a situation, would they not seek to understand African American culture just a bit?

Bringing up race triggers my mental associations with Civil Rights, discrimination, and prejudice. A close variant of the previous response would be to point out that atheists living among Christians are not only a minority but an oppressed minority. This claim is controversial even within the atheist community. Many atheists have told me that because they have not personally experienced religious discrimination, they doubt that any atheist does. Come on people! Does this mean that a gay man who has never experienced homophobia should rightly assert that it doesn't exist? If you don't believe that atheists are subject to religious discrimination, run for political office. Getting back on track, the point is that because atheists are subject to religious discrimination, it is even more important that they understand and critique the majority religion.

The last response I'll address in this post (and this brief list of responses is by no means exhaustive) is that most atheists feel pity for believers. Most believers are not bad people. Most are not even ignorant people. They have been duped by an extremely powerful system of indoctrination which is highly skilled at self-maintenance. We want to reach out to believers. We want to help them embrace reality and learn that clinging to obsolete superstition not only harms them but puts all of us at risk for continued global conflict. Yes, I suppose you might consider out motive somewhat selfish. Part of the reason we want to help them discard their delusion is that we believe the world would be better off without it. So, overcoming religion is in our self interest. However, I am confident that most atheists would agree that letting go of religious belief would be advantageous to the believer as well.

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