I’ve been an atheist since I was around 15. I came to atheism via a Catholic upbringing, lots of reading, some dabbling in deism, a dive back into Christianity in my early 20s, and then the anti-climactic non-epiphany that was me realizing that, yep, I still can’t believe that nonsense no matter how many Rob Bell books I read.
This morning, I saw a couple of posts pop up on my Tumblr dashboard to the effect that [some or most] atheists are smug, arrogant intellectual elitists who think everyone who holds to some religion is just an idiot with no grasp of reason, rationality, or science. Also, that atheists should stop being that way, because it makes us look like assholes.
That second bit, I agree with–we should all strive to not be assholes. The first bit is, I think, for the most part untrue. Certainly, if you are a religious person, there will be some atheists who are just going to think you are a big dumb-head, and some of those atheists will be jerks about it. However, speaking from my own experience, I would like to point out that, often, what are sincere questions from atheists about religion and faith are perceived as intellectual bullying when believers feel put on the spot or when they don’t have ready answers. It’s perceived as “mean” if an atheist points out logical inconsistency or general incoherence in religious beliefs. It’s perceived as smug if we don’t swallow the same poisonous apologetics that believers do in order to maintain their faith.
Most of the believers that I come in contact with are progressive believers, ranging all the way from “not-in-my-church” denialists (who tend to think that they are immune to the bad things about religion) to Rob Bell accomodationists (practically universalists, who play fast and loose with Scripture to try and create the warmest, fuzziest Christianity possible). Progressive believers can often be the most frustrating to discuss religion with. The more conservative and fundamentalist believers are, the more they seem to have firm and coherent, although increasingly illogical and generally evil, answers to the questions that I usually have for religious believers.
In any case, without dragging this out too long, here’s a list of questions that I generally have for religious believers. Most of these questions, or at least my insistence on people actually answering them if they want to talk to me about religion, have gotten me the “arrogant atheist fundie” accusation.
- What verifiable evidence supports your belief in a god? Unsubstantiated “miracles” don’t count. “I just feel it in my heart” or similar nonsense is not evidence. However, I will accept “I don’t need evidence,” as a valid answer–although it will make me think you are foolish and worry about your grasp on reality.
- How do you decide which parts of your holy book(s) to accept as true and meaningful? I may bring up specific examples and ask your opinion on them regardless of your answer to this question. What I look for here is consistency. If you eat shrimp or wear cotton-polyester, I don’t expect that you will think homosexuality is a sin. If you live in this universe, I don’t expect that you will think the earth was created in less than a week or that Jonah really lived in a fish for 3 days.
- Of the numerous world religions that exist, what made you pick yours in the first place? On what basis have you decided that your particular religion is the correct religion?
- How do you make moral and ethical decisions on a day-to-day basis? To what extent do you consider yourself guided by your religion in that decision-making process?
- How do you make sense of moral and ethical contradictions in your holy book(s) or religious dogma?
- What qualities would you say make a god worthy of worship? To what extent does your god embody those qualities, and how? I will ask for examples here, and I am likely to point out contradictions if I am familiar enough with your religion to do so.
- What are your views on the afterlife? Especially, what happens to people who don’t agree that your religion is the correct one?
- How does your religion and/or how do you personally address the problem of evil?
- When members of your religion do bad things, how comfortable are you to be associated with those people? Do you still consider them to be members of the same religion as you? Indeed, how do you determine who is “in” and who is “out”? If you don’t determine that, is there an authority that does so? By what method does that authority do so, and where do they get their authority?
- What if you are wrong? How important is it to you to be part of the “right” religion? What consequences do you foresee if you have chosen incorrectly? How much doubt would you say that you have about your religious beliefs?
- Bonus question: Assuming that you are fairly content with your religious beliefs or lack thereof, what kind of evidence would convince you to change your mind?
Look for me to answer these questions myself in a future post. I feel like it’s only fair that, if I would ask these questions of believers, I would be willing to answer them myself. I will also be happy to answer any other questions from believers, and I would love to see any suggestions that other non-believers have.