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Most atheists who have had discussions with religious theists, especially Christians, about religion, theism, and atheism have probably experienced this. The atheist explains something about their own atheism (like why they became an atheist) or about atheism generally (like what atheism is) and the religious theist refuses to believe them. Even if the theist asked a direct question and is receiving a direct answer, they act as though they already knew the answer and dismiss what the atheist says.

 

Read Article: Why Don't Theists Believe What Atheists Tell Them About Atheism?

Comments
June 23, 2007 at 8:31 am
(1) Tom T says:

I have to admit, when I read the ‘headline’ section I kind of snorted and figured I knew what was comming.

I did, in the way of why theists do this. However I did like your response to what to do ….

December 30, 2009 at 5:21 pm
(2) Larian LeQuella says:

You can always tell a theist. You just can’t tell him much. ;)

December 30, 2009 at 6:29 pm
(3) Dave James says:

You ignore or seem to be unaware of the reason Christians have this view of atheists being in denial. If they accept the Bible as true, then they accept the biblical concept (Romans 1) that we are born with a god-consciousness / awareness – that we are hard-wired this way. And this chapter also teaches that men intentionally suppress their inherent awareness of God – and the obvious existence of God knowable from the creation. Of course, I understand that you don’t accept this – but most Christians aren’t just trying to be antagonistic – but are rather hoping that such a confrontation will lead to some introspection – although I realize that most atheists don’t appreciate it.

December 30, 2009 at 7:09 pm
(4) Austin Cline says:

You ignore or seem to be unaware of the reason Christians have this view of atheists being in denial.

No. In fact, I even mention this briefly in the above article (you did follow the link and read the article, right?). I argue that the answer goes beyond “they think we are in denial,” though, because the behavior extends beyond just orthodox Christians and because even Christians engage in behavior that isn’t entirely explained by that (like asking questions as if they sincerely wanted to learn something).

Of course, I understand that you don’t accept this

That’s because there’s no good reason to accept it. Paul certainly doesn’t offer any evidence that it’s true — he simply asserts it as if he expected everyone to believe it merely because it’s him.

and the obvious existence of God knowable from the creation.

Strange how it hasn’t been so obvious to most of the people who have ever existed.

– but most Christians aren’t just trying to be antagonistic –

They probably couldn’t be more antagonistic if they did try.

but are rather hoping that such a confrontation will lead to some introspection – although I realize that most atheists don’t appreciate it.

Actually, what atheist don’t appreciate are ridiculous assumptions made about us by people who don’t know us and who have never met us. A good example might be the assumption atheists haven’t engaged in any introspection about their positions/conclusions. A less arrogant approach would be to ask sincere questions where one doesn’t presume to know all the answers already.

December 30, 2009 at 10:38 pm
(5) Dave James says:

Yes, I did follow the link and read your post – and even after reading again what you wrote above, it still isn’t obvious that you understood the reason.

As you know, the problem in dealing with Paul’s argument in any kind of mutually acceptable way rests squarely on fundamental epistemological assumptions – you assume reason alone and I assume reason and revelation.

There’s no point in getting into the “there’s no evidence argument” – because we’re obviously going to disagree on that and we won’t convice each other. (I spent half my life on that road and I’ve spent the other half on this one.)

However, I think my point about what Paul writes is equally obvious – and you know what that is – namely, that Paul didn’t simply assert it, but rather he was guided by the Spirit of God to declare it.

Concerning assumptions about atheists – we make no more assumptions about atheists as a group than atheists do about theists they have never met. You had to realize how double-edged that sword when you wrote that line. On the other hand, even though we may not know a particular individual atheist, that doesn’t mean we don’t have a basic understanding of atheism – given that many of us were either atheists or agnostics (which any reasonable and consistent atheist must be by definition).

And you’re wrong about the sincerity of the questions – at least it isn’t fair to make your broad sweeping statement. The questions are often an attempt to understand the thinking of atheists – why hold their beliefs, their worldview, their system of ethics, etc.

Theists are certainly no more arrogant than atheists – who fundamentally believe that they independently have access to all truth in theory – and that they have the capacity to understand all truth in theory.

On the other hand, in the 25 years that I have been a believer (I’m 51) I have never met a single theist who thought they had all the answers – or who tried to convince someone that they did.

But there’s nothing to be gained by attacking the character of atheists or theists – or by relating anecdotes about how we knew this person or that person.

I’m neither stupid nor ignorant. And I don’t think you are either, if that matters.

December 31, 2009 at 6:30 am
(6) Austin Cline says:

However, I think my point about what Paul writes is equally obvious – and you know what that is – namely, that Paul didn’t simply assert it, but rather he was guided by the Spirit of God to declare it.

Assuming the truth of the issue in question to demonstrate that someone is in denial about that truth is a logical fallacy.

Concerning assumptions about atheists – we make no more assumptions about atheists as a group than atheists do about theists they have never met. You had to realize how double-edged that sword when you wrote that line.

That may or may not be true, but it’s hardly a justification for doing it — Tu Quoque is also a logical fallacy, by the way.

And you’re wrong about the sincerity of the questions – at least it isn’t fair to make your broad sweeping statement. The questions are often an attempt to understand the thinking of atheists – why hold their beliefs, their worldview, their system of ethics, etc.

If a Christian is already committed to the position that all atheists are in denial, then they already think they know why atheists hold their beliefs — and, therefore, no such question can be sincere.

December 31, 2009 at 7:55 am
(7) Eupraxsophy says:

I use to be an active alcoholic at one time in my life and now I have been sober for about 7 years.
What helped me most was my wise substance abuse counselor in letting me understand myself through humility. He once told me that all I need to go back to drinking is reason and opportunity and if I have these two, chances are I’ll be drinking again.
And it wouldn’t take much to start that one. Reason
could be nothing more than just an excuse and
opportunity could be nothing more than just creating
or finding one, all for my own selfish pity.

This is much in the same way as it was when I used to be a Christian. These two situations are very similar in that I was in denial of the truth.
With alcohol I would just drown my sorrows away and become completely oblivious to the world. I didn’t want to face the truth, especially the truth about myself. The same was true when I was a Christian.
I was simply replacing some other truth with the real truth, especially the truth about myself and others. I was still in denial of facing the truth.

Denial of the truths about ourselves is deception. And deception is the wisdom of pride, where as humility is the wisdom of truth. Pride is the root of all evil. Pride is the coward that is too afraid to know the truth about itself. It lacks integrity.

If you are to be proud let it be the accomplishments that you have done for others to give you self worth
as opposed to selfish worth. Give your life meaning
and purpose as opposed to trying to satisfy the pride
of some deity. Have the courage to face truth, accept
the truth, and respect it for what it is.
Prejudice means to judge someone first simply based
on ones own pride. And for some people their god(s)
is/are nothing more than a manifestation of their pride.

Be objective to that which you are naive to as
opposed to being ignorant to that which you are
doubtful of. And weigh that which is given
consideration with truth.

December 31, 2009 at 10:28 am
(8) tracieh says:

What’s especially odd about this is that they don’t often do this to other theists. I recall being taught that Buddhist “worshipped” Buddha. I read some Buddhist books, and I saw clearly this was not correct. However, in no way did I read the content of the texts thinking, “These are lies (or misconceptions).” My very first thought was, “Oh, that wasn’t what I had been taught. I guess my church doesn’t really understand this religion.”

As a youth, I remember asking other people who were religious, “What do you believe about…(this or that doctrine).” And what they told me, is what I accepted.

With atheism, it’s pretty common to have your explanations rejected immediately, and as you say—to have the other person _tell you_ what you believe, rather than accept your explanation of what you believe. Most recently a theist wrote to our list to tell us that we get our morality from the Bible. The person who responded explained that morality in human societies predates the Bible, and that much of the morality expressed in the Bible, she openly rejects. But after several exchanges the person was still insisting that we would not understand it’s wrong to “steal or murder” if not for the Bible.

I finally butted in to explain that what the theist was doing was the same as reading a science book that describes how the Earth orbits the sun, and then asserting that the Earth would not orbit the sun if not for the science book. At that point, he claimed to finally grasp what was happening in his dialog with the other person. But it all could have been avoided, and much time saved, if only he would have listened to the other person’s explanation of what she believes and why—instead of asking her a question and then insisting he already knew, even as she repeatedly explained his assumption was not correct.

While I’d like to assert “indoctrination” is to blame, that fails to account for why theists will accept correction from other theists about misunderstandings of doctrinal differences they’ve been pre-loaded with. There really does seem to be something different when it comes to atheism—where they feel it’s fine to disregard the person’s own input about themselves.

When I get into a dialog where this happens—where I find I’m repeating myself and the person is apparently obstinately disregarding my input—about “me”—I finally will assert that if they do not begin to “listen” to what I believe, rather than assert what I believe, I will end the dialog on the grounds that they’re actually monologuing. They’re not only carrying their part of the dialog, but they’ve taken it upon themselves to carry _my_ part of the exchange as well—while they disregard my input. If a person asks to talk to me about something, and then refuses to use my half of the conversation—while they just ignore what I say and, instead, tell me what they want me to be saying, and work from there…I am not participating in that discussion. The person is talking to himself. He’s simply saying what I “should” be saying, according to him, and not really caring if his assumptions are correct or not.

Usually that does get through to the theist; however, it still seems to have limited impact moving forward. They still seem to fall into that mode too often to make the conversation productive. And generally they leave, still feeling like they know what I think—meaning whatever assumptions they entered into the exchange with; and dismissing my own knowledge of myself. The really odd thing is that these are usually people I’ve never met—who assert all manner of knowledge about who I am and what my motivations are, sometimes without even asking; and nearly always without ever caring if they’re correct or not.

In your article, you used an analogy of a child who has stolen a cookie. What amazes me is that as that “child,” I can stand there pointing to the family dog, who is licking his chops and has cookie crumbs all over him—and they still assert I need to get honest. No evidence to the contrary appears to penetrate their assumptions. I’m selfish and just want to live an immoral life for myself—even if I give blood every 8 weeks, do a KAB street cleanup once a month, and routinely donate to charities. I’ve never read or understood the Bible—even though I spent years as a Christian fundamentalist and am often more familiar with the texts than they are. I was never a “True Christian [tm]”—even if I preached to strangers in bars, on vacation and even at my university, to bring people to Jesus, was active with my church, prayed only ever for god’s will to be done, and read my bible several times a week. None of that matters. It’s like I’m responding with “ohoin hieoh08 no98yh hoiher92oaw howihtio3…” Nothing I say or demonstrate to them matters to their cemented, ignorant opinions.

> Rephrase their rhetorical question into the declarative assertion that it really is and make the theist support what they are saying.

When I have done this, the response is usually (1) you put so much energy into your atheism, clearly it’s indicative of some ‘issue’ beyond disbelief; and/or (2) atheists are so angry, and that makes no sense if the thing they’re angry at isn’t somehow “real.”

When I explain that if “god” was as benign or as slightly believed as belief in ghosts, I likely wouldn’t put any energy into it or give it a second thought. But the moment someone asserts they talk to ghosts, who have instructed them that they should be on the school board and promote Ghost Doctrines; or that if elected to office, they will make sure the Ghosts’ morality is respected by the laws in this country…OK, then I pay more attention. I admit. And if tons of people jump on that bandwagon, I will assert _more_ personal force to object to what appears to be an insanity that has taken hold and is gaining not only believers, but real political and social authority—which historically hasn’t really ever turned out well. But that’s an objective difference in the things “not believed” that I can demonstrate. It’s not some arbitrary choice I make to make belief in god somehow subjectively more impactive or important _to me_. The fact is that it has more impact and import in reality. That’s why it requires more opposition than other silly beliefs people might hold.

December 31, 2009 at 11:14 am
(9) tracieh says:

I’m actually curious if a post as long as the following will be accepted by the website…

I know Dave isn’t writing to me, but I couldn’t help but recognize a few things:

> Yes, I did follow the link and read your post – and even after reading again what you wrote above, it still isn’t obvious that you understood the reason.

Austin didn’t say he acknowledge the scripture as the reason for Christians having this attitude. He pointed out that theists have this attitude even if they’re not Christians, which means the source of the problem goes beyond anything in the Bible.

> There’s no point in getting into the “there’s no evidence argument” – because we’re obviously going to disagree on that and we won’t convice each other.

Which is an indication that the evidence is not conclusive—and therefore not actually useful in helping anyone make a determination on the actual truth value of a claim. If you acknowledge different people interpret the data supporting the claim in different and even, in this case, contradictory ways—you admit that it’s not really conclusive evidence, which, again, is not useful in making solid determinations about truth values of claims. Certainly without conclusive evidence to justify a claim is true, it is reasonable to withhold belief until conclusive evidence can be found or presented.

If I accepted inconclusive evidence as justification for belief, I’d hold that the following are true: Big Foot inhabits North American woodlands. Extra-terrestrial aliens are abducting people of Earth. There is a sea beast living in Loch Ness. Crystals have the power to heal human ailments. Ghosts linger in order to haunt the living. People can astral project. People can tell the future from knowing someone’s birth date. Some force is abducting vehicles off the coast of Burmuda…and so on. Who believes every claim that can provide testimony and a mountain of inconclusive data? If anyone routinely accepted claims on such evidence, they’d be considered the village idiot. And yet, doing this with theistic claims is “normal.”

> Concerning assumptions about atheists – we make no more assumptions about atheists as a group than atheists do about theists they have never met.

On “The Atheist Experience,” we ask every single caller: Tell us what you believe and why you believe it.

And we run with what they give us. We don’t tell people what they believe. We let them explain it. And we address what they present. I often hear theists assert we make just as many assumptions; but for every time we ask someone to tell us what they believe, and truly accept what they assert, I can hold up a letter from a theist writing to us to assert what we believe and why, and a strand showing they dismissed our corrections. At the very least I can say that in general terms, atheists do accept what theists assert as their own beliefs, even if they initially made a false assumption. Atheist, after all, are only addressing theistic claims, so we fairly have to hear what the person thinks before we can react or respond.

> given that many of us were either atheists or agnostics (which any reasonable and consistent atheist must be by definition).

Untrue. I don’t believe in ghosts. And I don’t consider that makes me “unreasonable” at all. I don’t believe crystals can heal people. I don’t consider that makes me “unreasonable” at all.

Logically speaking, until a coherent definition of god can be offered, there is nothing to believe in. To this day, I have never been provided with a coherent definition of god except by Pantheists. Many gods are self-contradicting, which means I know they can’t exist, since one attribute assigned to them makes some other assigned attribute impossible. If I am to logically hold out some god could exist, that’s fine. However, in practical terms, people assert ghosts, big foot, nessie, crystal power, and so on “do not exist” and even that it’s silly to believe in such things. And never a theist complains or raises an eyebrow to such strong denials and knowledge assertions. Only when it’s said of “god” do they seem to find it suddenly, and without explanation of any demonstrable difference in the strength of the claims, “unreasonable.”

>Theists are certainly no more arrogant than atheists – who fundamentally believe that they independently have access to all truth in theory – and that they have the capacity to understand all truth in theory.

If someone says “X exists” and can offer no coherent explanation for what “X” is—then I don’t need very much knowledge at all to assert they’re talking nonsense. And if someone offers me attributes that self-contradict, I don’t need any knowledge at all to assert such a thing _cannot_ exist.

However, the real problem with the statement above is that atheist is anyone who does not believe a god exists. It’s merely the only rational position for a person to hold until they’re presented with sufficient evidence to justify belief. If the atheist also goes on to assert there is no god—it’s no more arrogant a presumption than “crystal power doesn’t heal people.” Do you seriously expect anyone at this strand to believe you have never asserted anything in this vein? Do you assert that you really can’t say if aliens are abducting people or not? That you really just can’t say that ghosts don’t exist? That Raelians are off their nuts? That telekinetic power and divining rods are nothing but hoaxes? Seriously—you can’t imagine yourself ever making such a statement of practical reality? Do you rebut people when they assert that astrology is a joke? Do you shake your head and wonder how they can assert without knowing? Do you think they’re wholly unreasonable human beings?

> I have never met a single theist who thought they had all the answers – or who tried to convince someone that they did.

And yet, I’ve met many, many who assert “god is the answer” to everything. But when I ask them what god is or how god operates, I get incoherent explanations. When I prod them for something more coherent, that’s when I get “I don’t have all the answers.” And what that inevitably means is: I don’t know what I actually believe. I have literally had theists tell me they don’t really know what god is—that they can’t offer a coherent working definition or an example of what they’re talking about. A human being cannot believe a claim they, themselves, do not understand. It’s not logically possible.

If I have a coffee mug on my desk, and you and I are sitting together, and I assert the mug is blue, and you see it’s 100 percent yellow, you can say, “No, that’s not blue—did you mean to say ‘yellow’?” However, if you can’t see the mug, then if I say it’s blue, you have no way to know if what I’m saying is accurate—since you have no real mug to compare the claim to. When a theist wants to talk about god, the first thing I need is to have some god to examine, in order to evaluate whether their claims actually align with reality. Otherwise, they can assert and assert, and what they’re saying has no truth value to me, since I have no god in reality to compare and validate their claims. I generally ask them how they know their claims are true—since usually they can produce no god in reality to demonstrate the truth of their claims. Without fail, they have not validated their claims against any god—again, Pantheists excepted. They’re just making unverified claims they haven’t bothered to validate themselves—and saying “this is what I believe.” Belief is the acceptance of a claim as true. And I have to wonder, without having any knowledge of what they’re talking about—what is their basis for belief?

If a person accepts revelation, as you asserted, they are presuming (1) god exists and (2) god provides revelations. Only then can belief in revelations be valid to the person himself. I need to back it up to presumptions 1 and 2, and ask: How did you accept presupposition 1: God exists?

You had to accept that _before_ the revelation would be accepted, since, if there is no god, then there is no god to provide revelations. Things that do not exist cannot be the cause of other things. So, asserting god gives revelations—before a god is demonstrated to exist, is no different than asserting gremlins cause broken machinery. If I point to my broken microwave as evidence gremlins exist, I’m missing the reality that I had to presuppose the existence of gremlins in order to accept they exist and broke my microwave. So, revelation cannot be used as evidence for the existence of a god in the same way.

It is just as ludicrous to assert gremlins broke my microwave, and then defend that claim by declaring the broken microwave demonstrates the gremlins exist, as it is to declare revelation is caused by god, and point to the revelation as evidence of the existence of god. It’s the exact same logical framework. And it’s circular logic, and not rational.

December 31, 2009 at 12:06 pm
(10) nina says:

I think questions are asked for three reasons:

1. to learn
2. to lead someone to your own conclusion
3. to force the person to ask you the question so you can talk about your answer

I think the usual reasons for asking questions are the second two reasons.

And these reasons apply to everyone, regardless of their various beleifs

January 4, 2010 at 2:08 am
(11) Eric says:

Tracie, I am a huge fan of “The Atheist Experience” show and I have listened to it on podcast for a while. Its refreshing to see comments from active atheists on these comment sections.

November 13, 2012 at 2:14 pm
(12) Dean J. Smith says:

It’s always a welcome bonus for me when Tracieh comments on an article.

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