Talking with Atheists Who Dismiss Your Atheopagan Practice
Existing in both the atheist world and in the Pagan, Atheopagans have the unique “good fortune” of fielding criticism from extreme elements of both.
I’ve written before about Pagan fundamentalists who dismiss our religion as “not real Paganism. ” Today, we take a look at the atheist community’s counterpart: the so-called “anti-theists”.
A vocal subset of atheists, the anti-theists start with the position that there are no literal gods. So far, so good.
From there, many of them overreach, arguing not only that theism is destructive and irrational, but that all religion and spirituality are fraudulent, pointless and harmful behaviors that humanity would be better off without.
Anti-theists can be found throughout the Internet, where they gleefully set to arguing with theists, and also include authors such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Lawrence Krauss, Daniel Dennett and the late Christopher Hitchens.
They contend that faith-based belief is inherently dangerous and destructive: that it supplants critical thinking and evidence-based analysis, and therefore makes people malleable, controllable, and susceptible to rationalization of selfish, destructive and cruel acts in the name of their beliefs.
Honestly, I don’t disagree with them about any of that, either. Credulity in unlikely phenomena such as gods and spirits apropos of nothing more than “faith” or personal experiences is strong lubricant on the slippery slope to a fantasied worldview at best…and fanaticism in relation to that worldview at worst.
But in their broad-brush declarations, anti-theists also posit that all religions are inherently destructive. No matter what they do or do not demand of one in the way of belief.
And that simply isn’t true.
In my experience, anti-theists more often than not present as angry people. Sometimes they are angry about abusive behavior they experienced in religions they have left behind; sometimes they are angry that reason and science are not the primary drivers of decision making in this world, and at the many negatives, past and present, which can be laid at the feet of the major organized religions, particularly in the West.
Those are reasonable grounds to be angry.
But the problem with anger is that it tends to encourage black-and-white thinking. It leads to communication styles that inevitably result in polarization. And it tends not to consider special cases in the sweeping assessment it makes of the target of its anger.
I don’t think any student of history can deny that the major Abrahamic religions have caused a lot of negative impacts.
I’m certainly not going to dispute it. The “religions of the Book” encourage subscription to cruel ideas such as “original sin”, the threat of an afterlife of everlasting torment, hatred of LGBTQ people, subjugation of women and the idea that only believers can be “chosen” or “saved”.
But does that mean that Zen Buddhism is pernicious? Or Jainism? Taoism? Wicca?
My concern with anti-theists like Richard Dawkins et al is that in their broad-brush demonization of religion, they make two fundamental errors:
- They ignore that there are religious traditions which do not have the negative impacts caused by the Abrahamic monotheisms; and
- They do not in any way address religious paths the beliefs of which are consistent with our scientific understanding of the Universe.
These are circular and mutually reinforcing. “What about religions that are peaceful, or which aren’t filled with expectation of faith in highly improbable events and realities?”, one might ask.
Well, those aren’t religions according to my definition, replies the anti-theist.
It’s a straw man argument: All religions involve faith in the supernatural, goes the claim, and are therefore irrational and harmful. A religious tradition that doesn’t require such faith?
That’s not really a religion, so my argument still holds, says the anti-theist. Who will often then go on to atheist-splain that such religions are philosophies, or cultural traditions…anything but religions.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
So as I see it, the fundamental problems with the anti-theist argument are that:
- There is no universally accepted definition for what constitutes a religion in the first place, so the narrow definition asserted by the anti-theists is simply an opinion. It is not a fact;
- There are demonstrably religious traditions which require no supernatural belief, including our own; and
- There are religious traditions which do not have violent, bigoted or xenophobic values and are without history of the kinds of destructive impacts that can so easily be ascribed to the Abrahamic religions.
Among those equality-and-peace-valued religions, there happens to be the bulk of modern Neo-Paganism.
So…how do you talk to an anti-theist?
Well, it’s hard. In my experience, when confronted with anything labeled “religion” or “spirituality”, a significant portion of anti-theists simply leap into insults or sweeping characterizations. There’s not much one can do with that.
But if someone is willing to have an actual conversation, start by granting the places where you agree.
We can agree that science is the best system we have for determining what is likely to be true, and that, therefore, we don’t have persuasive grounds for believing in gods, spirits or souls.
We can agree that the decline of faith and the rise of the “Nones” is a good thing.
We can agree that the big monotheisms have been disastrous for the planet and for millions of people throughout the world.
We can agree that extremists of every stripe are a serious problem and that faith-based belief makes it easier for people to follow ideas which would fall to pieces if addressed with reason.
This establishes a common value basis for the discussion. The most vigorous arguments of anti-theists are things we can mostly agree with.
And then, ask them where the social harm has been from religions like Zen Buddhism or Quakerism. Emphasize that a single example is proof that the problem isn’t “religion”: it’s certain kinds of religion. Religions which dictate that one must believe in things for which there is little or no evidence. Religions which require following rules the implementation of which lead to cruelty or violence or bigotry. Religions that identify outsiders as objects of hatred, or fear, or pity, or contempt, or which demand that they must be converted in order to be “saved”. Religions which define gender roles that assert dominance of men over women, and hatred for gay people. Religions that are humorless and can’t laugh at themselves.
Those are the problem, and on that we can agree.
But where, we can ask, is the harm in someone following a religious path that hews to the cosmology of science, and encourages kindness and happiness? That celebrates the wonder of life as a precious gift? That builds community around those values and that perspective?
That’s the key question: where is the harm in religious practices that aren’t rooted in faith-based belief and lousy values?
If you can get to that question, I think you can start to move an anti-theist away from their absolutist thinking. You can help them to become open to the possibility that something like Atheopaganism can exist and have value for its practitioners.
And that, really, is all we can ask for.
*Further, is anti-theists’ analysis of the problem of violent and repressive religious extremism—from which the most egregious of negative impacts of problematic religions stem—accurate at all? Is that problem really about religion, or is it about toxic masculinity…given that the overwhelming majority of such extremists are men? (As, interestingly enough, are the bulk of vocal anti-theists online and in print.)
If not for religious frames, would not such angry, fanatical men settle on others, such as political philosophies?
The Khmer Rouge weren’t religious, after all. They were atheists.
You must log in to post a comment.
I can agree with much of what you say, though what about Sam Harris’s promotion of meditation practices, and Richard Dawkins’s referring to himself as a “cultural Anglican” because of his appreciation of Anglican Church customs. The big name atheists focus so much on the harms of fundamentalist religion that these things get lost in the noise. In my local atheist group I’ve found quite a few who are interested in some form of paganism or another.
Yes, I am timid about talking about pagan stuff around atheists but I think their bombastic-ness about anything having anything to do with religious traditions is usually overblown. (I don’t count voices coming only through the internet, where the worse of all viewpoints get amplified too often.)
Good points. Thanks, Mikel.
In my experience, it is as much like arguing with an eel to tangle with that group as it is any other fiercely ideological group. The ideology is part of their identity. The reasons for being groupish are not necessarily the surface description of the group, so we wind up arguing without either side having a full grasp of what is being challenged or defended. It will become wildly circular, and that’s a clue we aren’t arguing what we think we are.
When I remember that, I then think well, what is my agenda here? How will they be helped if I am successful, since that would mean not only undoing their fixed beliefs but their identity? Did they ask me to unravel them? Am I fully prepared to help them cope with the consequences? No. So I leave them alone these days.
Humans believe all kinds of impossible things before breakfast… if not a religion, something else. I’m sure I do too.
I think assessing the relationship between religion and violence is incredibly difficult. I don’t see how we would know if people self sort into violent edges of religions, use religious reasons for things they are going to do anyway, etc. The heavily Scandinavian atheist countries are not aggressive, but it’s not at all clear to me that is cause and effect vs confounding variables. To find out, you’d have to randomize people, and also track “intention to treat”. That’s not going to happen, so I avoid making claims about religion and atheism I can’t test or prove, including this one.
While we can’t say Zen causes violence, we can’t hold it up as an obvious example of preventing group violence either — http://www.worldfuturefund.org/Reports/BWAR/buddhismwar.html
And as for Quakers, there is violence against women– https://www.jstor.org/stable/352035?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
which too often doesn’t get counted as violence.
I am learning to just grin at people who feel a need to argue about stuff like that– and change the subject. They don’t have power to aggravate me the way they used to. “If you don’t like my peaches, don’t you shake my tree” and so on.
Great comments! Thank you.
All religion are man made constructs. Prove me wrong and become world famous.
As to anti-theists and any emotional response to theism as being angry is a total misunderstanding of atheism. Emotional response to stimuli is self regulated. It’s near impossible to be angry at something you don’t believe.
Try this thought experiment. How does someone’s belief in the volcano god Lolo effect your emotional equilibrium?
This is not to say that anti-theists are emotionally stunted. Not at all. We experience incredulity often. Discouragement, surly. Saddened, frequently. Hopeful, occasionally. Mostly, a profound sense of regret for the primitive narratives people engage to satisfy their individual perception of a possible reality outside of our natural world.
If you can’t provide evidence for your proposition that meets the minimum requirements of inquiry then you should preface to your conclusions with “your hypothesis is”.
If you honestly believe that anti-theists do not frequently and vehemently express anger at religion, you are sorely lacking in the available data. Go visit Reddit, or the major atheism groups on Facebook.
Seriously: sadness and discouragement are not what you find there. What you find is people angry at their former religions that hurt them, and contemptuous of what they see as stupid and gullible belief.
The fact that atheists are perfectly willing to reject a theistic world view out of hand is not an emotional response it’s simply a reasoned rejection of a claim or assertion of the existence of a god. Are you angered by the beliefs people hold that you reject? I think not.
What is it about Antitheist you perceive to be expressions of anger?
I think the anger you sense is a reflection of your own frustrations and insecurities.
Anger is the failure to be the master of your own biology.
The fact that I believe that all religions are an unnecessary sideshow to the understanding of the nature world and are an ongoing impediment to the advancements of the human condition can illicit visceral responses from the believers of the supernatural is where the anger comes from.
I feel fully justified in holding my views and understand that being wrong is an important step in the learning process. What frustrates me is the people who hold to the view of being subservient to a higher power.
Anger forsooth. Grow up.
“Try this thought experiment. How does someone’s belief in the volcano god Lolo effect your emotional equilibrium?”
Not at all, IF that belief does not connect to any sort of social/ political effects. The religions I am aware of do have social consequences that can be very harmful, so I think your experiment is a straw man. Belief and actions do not appear to travel separately.
For instance, try this thought experiment: how does someone’s belief in a god who says being gay is a sin affect your emotional equilibrium?
Because this belief results in believers treating people differently– refusing to make them a wedding cake, for instance, killing them, bullying them into suicide, firing them from a job (still legal in right to work states), beating them up, or perhaps just not being as warm to them, it affects the emotional life of people who are not straight.
It also affects the emotions of some straight people, such as women who have been used as beards for gay men– men who felt unsafe being out of the closet and who were brainwashed as children into believing they could change their orientation, so married women thinking that was what they were supposed to do. Check out the Straight Spouse Network and you’ll see that there are huge numbers of both men and women who have spent decades married to people who could never be sexually attracted to them. It results in the straight spouses feeling sexually inadequate and blaming themselves, because they don’t know the truth. Some have been infected with HIV in the process. If you don’t think that experience is absolutely emotionally devastating and causes anger, pain and grief, then you are just wrong. This is a direct result of a religious belief.
No, it’s the direct result in people acting on those beliefs that result in consequences. We live at a time and place where people feel empowered to express themselves with little risk of negative blowback. To the contrary, any pushback are the workings of a malevolent force. They feel justified do impart to the special privileges granted them by the constitution and tax codes. Anger is waisted energy on people of the books. The idea is to illicit emotional responses from people who subscribe to the prevailing BS.
I’m not immune to emotions. I just don’t think expressing them advances the conversation. On the other hand, theists are such fertile targets and easy pickings because their foundations are routed in their absurd religious texts. If any headway is to be made it’s the assault on the underpinnings of the faithful.
Look, I’m not saying that some of that anger isn’t justified. It’s just not productive.
And I completely disagree with your last sentence. “Assault on the underpinnings of the faithful” never convinced anybody. It just makes anti-theists look angry and like people you don’t want to know.
That’s a lovely tap dance, NationofNope, but the facts disagree. Anti-theists spend tremendous amounts of time expressing anger, contempt and ridicule towards religious people and beliefs. That angry tone isn’t productive in engaging others or in creating the frame within which people not already atheists view the atheist community.
I am grown up, and am still growing. But thanks for the reminder.
“Failure to be master of your own biology”– I don’t understand. We are entirely biological… there’s nothing non-biological in us to be the master. Anger is a normal human response and can be very appropriate. I don’t like to stew in it but neither do I consider it something only for children. It has mature uses.
NationofNope, I am sure Mark can defend himself, and I’m not making an argument on tone. But as a separate issue, your tone seems quite hostile and contemptuous. Why would you want to be insulting to someone who is doing this service for atheopagans? I don’t understand.
treehousepediatrics, this is exactly the problem I’m talking about. That tone doesn’t create an attractive or welcoming climate to draw in new people. That’s all I’ve been saying. Thanks for your comment.
You’re welcome. To elaborate a little on what I consider mature anger, which I have found does advance a dialogue sometimes, it is hard to describe easily without getting my synesthesia in. But maybe that will help give the idea, so here goes.
There are several varieties of anger, which I categorize by taste and color. For instance, there is a resentful anger that feels bilious green and tastes very bitter. There’s a vengeful anger that is black-red, dingy, and tastes like rancid garbage. There’s a sour yellow one that has self pity in it. There’s a bright primary red anger, a clean/translucent red, that tastes sort of salty and minerally. It is hot like fire but it burns clean. Lol, I know, I’m weird.
The last version, the clear red, is the one I find most useful to work with. It’s the kind of anger that comes up when someone innocent is hurt and we are standing up to put a halt to that without spitting venom at the aggressor. It burns up aggression and leaves the humans standing.
As an example, I might say, as I did today, “I feel angry when I see that you shared my private information outside our group. Trust in this support group is really important to me, and I am upset that you violated our group rules.” Which got the response of a sincere apology, some discussion and reconciliation.
I don’t use anger unless I’m hoping for an end result of restoring wholeness.
Stop, enough already.
I’m convinced that we are talking past one another and one of us is guilty of an unwarranted assumption. What I have here is a failure of cognition and it’s my fault entirely. I am such a poor communicator that I failed to consider our shared reality and where our world views diverge. It is a glaring flaw in my attempt at dialogue about beliefs and why people view the world differently. I just assumed what is obvious to me was, well, just obvious. Then it occurred to me, the ground rules for any conversation require an understanding of each person’s baseline for deductive reasoning. For clarity a simple preamble of understanding is required.
For most things that truly matter we share the same reality. In my paradigm (worldview) all that is or ever was is our natural world and our senses alone provide us access to the universe we occupy. Our brains make cognitive processes possible by consolidating, categorizing and prioritizing an uninterrupted stream of sensory input provided by our bodies. It’s quite remarkable we can process information at all. Sensory signals arrive with varying time delays, level of intensity, conflicting patterns, chemical overrides, it’s equivalent to balancing tea cups on your nose while spinning plates on a pole as you walk on a tightrope in a gusting breeze. It’s an evolutionary adaptation of our marvelous malleable brains.
We know that this is an imperfect collection system that leads to erroneous hypothesis, and as a result we often find we act on flawed assumptions. I doubt this is why he did it but the brilliant thinker, Ibn-al Haytham, in 965 BCE, wanted to impress everyone with his 40+ mind bending discoveries of our natural world and more importantly wanted to show the world how he did it. His method of inquiry is what we now call the scientific method. If a hypothesis can not be evaluated using this method of inquiry I feel justified in rejecting it out of hand.
What this means is that the entire edifice of supernatural and/or meta-physical paradigms will be excluded from my consideration until such time as claims for the existence of a separate realm outside of nature has manifested. Further, and by definition, the belief in the supernatural is delusional and at this point I expect that the knee jerk reaction to my world view is immediate, defensive and understandable.
“Delusional” is a strong and loaded word, so please, take a moment to consider what I said about how we perceive the world through our less than perfect data collection organs and their well understood limitations. Consider the conclusions you reach when viewing your own mirrored reflection. Each and every one of us are delusional when considering our own personage. We deceived ourselves by our own desires and insecurities. In a very real sense we are all delusional by consequence of our biology. Delusional thinking is also the mental state that allows for creativity and persistence of purpose. We are nothing without certainty for our personage and our capacity for learning, overcoming obstacles and realizing individual aspirations. I want to be clear about beliefs and how we arrive at our conclusions. At the very least, for your hypothesis, to be considered plausible it must be *falsifiable.
If you want me to consider your proposition you need to be able to provide me with a more edifying conclusion than its effect on how you feel emotionally about it. It must be devoid of special pleading, circular reasoning and logical fallacies. It should be observable, measurable, repeatable and falsifiable. These are not present in arguments for the supernatural that theistic apologists of all faith based persuasions have on offer. Frankly, their performances are difficult to watch and chilling by the implication that the majority of humans seam inured to questions challenging their methodology for discovery.
Until a more reliable method for investigation of supernatural claims are found I have concluded that there are no such things as gods, demons, pixies, fairies, trolls, smurfs, angels, ghosts, saints, nor afterlife. Other imaginary things include miracles, prophesies, omens, signs, poltergeists, souls and zombies. When you pray you are communing with yourself. Morality is not prescriptive or non contextual. When people die, they stay dead.
Caveat; this obviously can’t apply to supernatural characters because they have whatever characteristics their authors have decided to imbue them with.