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Austin Cline

Discussion: What's Up with Atheists?

By July 17, 2013

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Myths about atheists can have curious repercussions. For example, the myth that atheists "believe in nothing" appears to be one important basis for the assumption that no "real" atheist would possibly be interested in debating the existence of god or validity of religion, much less have an interest in arguing forcefully for the idea that people would be better off without theism or religion. At least, this is the impression I get from so many who are surprised that atheists would get together to discuss much of anything at all.

A forum member writes:

Why do people spend a lot of time talking about something they don't believe to exist? This is curious to me, because I don't spend my time on sites arguing to people about things that don't exist. For example, I would never go to a site and argue that the Easter bunny is not real...because it obviously does not. But isn't that what atheists are doing? Doesn't their obsession with non-belief indicate that they secretly do believe? Otherwise, wouldn't their actions be inconceivable?

I've received this question more than once in email, signaling that the questioner hasn't spent much time thinking about the issue or trying to learn about atheism and atheists. In the first place, there is much more both in the forum and on the site generally than material on the existence of gods. It's an important topic, but it's hardly the only one.

Second, while gods may not exist, belief in gods and religions organized around such belief definitely do -- and those are the actual topics being discussed. Theism exists, is relevant, and plays a role in society. Religion exists, is relevant, and plays a role in society. Just because I don't believe in any gods and am not part of any religion doesn't mean that there is something contradictory about discussing religious theism -- analyzing what it is, critiquing whether it is rational, and discussing what it means.

Add your thoughts to the comments here or join the ongoing discussion in the forum.

Comments
October 17, 2007 at 10:21 am
(1) tracieh says:

>For example, I would never go to a site and argue that the Easter bunny is not real…because it obviously does not.

What if there were organizations built around the “fact of” the existence of the Easter Bunny, and those organizations held a lot of political sway. And what if they began to print “In the Easter Bunny we trust” on our money, and “One Nation under the Easter Bunny” in the Pledge your kid had to say in school. And what if they wanted your kid to learn that the Easter Bunny created the universe in his school science class? And what if they got together to say that some people shouldn’t be allowed to get married because the Easter Bunny wrote a letter through John X, saying as much? And what if more and more people began to adopt the Easter Bunny belief until a huge majority was on board. And what if, historically, thousands of people had been slaughtered in the name of the Easter Bunny?

At what point WOULD the Easter Bunny become an issue to you even though He doesn’t exist?

October 17, 2007 at 10:28 am
(2) 411314 says:

“Second, while gods may not exist, belief in gods and religions organized around such belief definitely do — and those are the actual topics being discussed. Theism exists, is relevant, and plays a role in society. Religion exists, is relevant, and plays a role in society”.

Austin, I couldn’t have put that better myself. Belief in the Easter Bunny probably exists (almost entirely among small children) but it is irrelevent. Belief in the Easter Bunny has no influence on politics, society, or culture. I hope the forum member reads this. Also, isn’t it interesting that the forum member presumably believes in a god but says the Easter Bunny “obviously does not” exist. When there is no evidence of God’s existence and no evidence of the Easter Bunny’s existence, what is the difference between believing in one and believing in the other?

October 17, 2007 at 11:18 am
(3) tracieh says:

>When there is no evidence of God’s existence and no evidence of the Easter Bunny’s existence, what is the difference between believing in one and believing in the other?

I generally use “alien abductions” as the parallel, because there is more evidence of alien abductions than of god. And the “evidence” for god parallels the evidence of alien abductions: testimonials from credible witnesses who are willing to be persecuted for their belief/testimony, expert backup (from John Mack), books from people who have had this experience firsthand (and some who have messages from the aliens), lots of people sharing this same ‘delusion’ (why would so many people claim it if it wasn’t true?), and so on. Alien abductees will also show scars or bits of metal that were surgically removed from them in documented medical procedures. Additionally, we have photos and videos of the “alien crafts.” And it’s the same for big foot and Nessie. I like to use these because they are things that adults actually _do_ believe. Ghosts are another good one–except that there is the risk that the god-believer may actually also believe in ghosts/spirits and, therefore, not see the “problem” in that analogy.

October 17, 2007 at 11:31 am
(4) DaveF says:

There is nothing more interesting or intriguing than the notion of existence. Considering the notion of “God” has been around for most of human history, dictating the behavior and affecting the minds of believers, speaking of “God” is unavoidable as an atheist, especially when those beliefs threaten secular society, life experience, and existence itself. Ironically, secular society allows for religion to thrive, and eroding such a system truly is a detriment to universal human culture and progress. Atheism is not a belief in the denial of “God”; it is the absence of belief in one. If a theist says, “There is a God (and a particular one at that),” he must present evidence to support the claim. And pointing to a “holy” text(which makes the claims) is not evidence for the claims. In light of this lack of evidence, there’s no reason to believe. And calling theists out about this has little to do with “secretly believing”; it has more to do with pushing back against irrational conjurings of a manmade idea called “God” that are a menace to individual freedom, collective living, and life itself.

October 17, 2007 at 8:54 pm
(5) Bernie says:

How I counter this particular furphy – and I get it quite often – is to remind the complainant that what I am discussing is the concept of god which clearly exists as opposed to an extant god, which clearly does not.

October 18, 2007 at 6:29 am
(6) Dave Q says:

The Easter Bunny does not exist! I am shocked. Well that certainly broke my balloon. The nest thing you’re going to tell me is that Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy do not exist either. I might need to rethink my epistemology and my metaphysics. Wow no Easter Bunny huh.
Dave Q

October 18, 2007 at 3:57 pm
(7) Forrest Prince says:

The Easter Bunny doesn’t exist? It’s irrelevant?

Just try telling that to the company that makes “Peeps” marsmallow candies. All the money they make from the sales of this candy is hardly irrelevant to them. Even though it is actually *belief* in simply preserving this holiday tradition for tradition’s sake, as far as “Peeps” is concerned, the Easter Bunny is plenty real, at least once a year, and is easily quantifiable in $ terms.

Spending money on marshmallow candy for Easter definitely has an impact on society.

October 18, 2007 at 8:12 pm
(8) 411314 says:

True, but as far as I know, the Easter Bunny hasn’t motivated wars, movements, and public policy, and even the people who make or buy that candy probably don’t actually believe the Easter Bunny exists. I also forgot to mention that nobody is claiming you can’t be moral without believing in the Easter Bunny.

October 18, 2007 at 11:38 pm
(9) Dave says:

Just because a thing lacks a demonstrable physical existence doesn’t mean you can’t talk about it and wouldn’t want to. The Easter Bunny doesn’t exist as a corporeal entity, but there certainly is a concept of “Easter Bunhy”; if there wasn’t none of us would know what it was we were talking about when someone mentioned the Easter Bunny. Love also lacks a demonstrable physical existence, but it is still something that can be talked about and there are many venues in which it is important.
This of course is only one portion of the issue; a thing is capable of being talked about without being “real” in a physical sense, but you could still ask why it would be worth talking about. The valid point has been made that religion plays an important role in society. For that alone one who might not agree with or believe in a particular religion could be compeled to engage in a dialogue on the topic. However, I think that given the assertion of religion as being the sole arbiter of truth anyone who has found reason not to believe is in many ways prompted to comment by this stance. One might have made peace with the non-existence of a particular deific entity, but if they are constantly bombarded by the opinions of those who believe the non-believer to be wrong and thereby condemned then there must come a point where they defend themselves. In short, non-believers talk about god because believers keep talking about god.

October 19, 2007 at 1:16 pm
(10) John says:

I’m an atheist and I believe in nothing, but only as an abstract concept.

October 19, 2007 at 2:18 pm
(11) tracieh says:

>This of course is only one portion of the issue; a thing is capable of being talked about without being “real” in a physical sense, but you could still ask why it would be worth talking about.

Ideas, as you point out, are a good example. The problem is that such things can only be discussed in a highly subjective sense, as they are not existent in consensus reality–but are confined to mental models in the heads of each individual. No two people, for example, can know whether or not they share identical concepts of “love.” They can discuss it–but what they’re discussing will be two different, although potentially similar, things.

July 24, 2013 at 4:49 pm
(12) Dean J. Smith says:

I wonder why I never hear this line of argument from people who believe in Bigfoot, Ghosts, the Loch Nexx Monster, or Alien Visitation? They’ve called me close-minded, a pseudo-skeptic, and dogmatic in my resistance to accepting their case; but they’ve never accused me of secretly believing them or claimed I wouldn’t talk about the paranormal if I didn’t believe in it.

July 25, 2013 at 5:14 pm
(13) Jeanne says:

As an atheist, I believe in reason, logic, evidence and reality. If that is “nothing” than I guess I believe in nothing.

It is not rational to accept beliefs that have no basis in reality and it it totally illogical to believe something that if given the slightest bit of thought, would not make sense. It is too easy to brush violations of the laws of physics or the laws of planetary motion with “god can do it” without having to present any evidence that god exists in the first place.

Nobody believes that Cindarella’s fairy godmother is real and actually turned a pumpkin into a coach and mice into horses, but I’ll bet they would believe it if the bible said that was how the Israelites escaped from Egypt.

July 25, 2013 at 5:24 pm
(14) craig says:

Christians still worship the easter bunny and the easter bunny itself is a remant from a deeply sexual pagan fertility ritual. We worship it each year when we give each other eggs and when Easter is arranged around the lunar calendar to coincide with the spring equinox, another pagan artifact.

July 25, 2013 at 5:43 pm
(15) Ray says:

Why argue atheism? Because we have to “defend” ourselves for our non-belief from most of society today.

Nobody believes in the Easter Bunny. There’s no conflict there. Nobody’s ego and security is wrapped up in belief in the Easter Bunny. Nobody will think twice if you say “I think it’s rubbish.”

But when you live in a religious world, and you state that you believe in nothing, many religious folks feel they and their religion is under attack. So you’ll have to defend your non-beliefs against relentless attack — be it explicit or implicit — by those insecure zealots. And some of the zealots have a LOT of power.

Last I checked, Easter Bunny believers don’t have the security of societal power from which to bully, attack, and alter the lives of the non-believers. They aren’t using their belief system to pass laws that discriminate and hamper the freedom of the rest of society.

July 25, 2013 at 5:44 pm
(16) Ignacio says:

For me, it seems more of a conversation stopper than an argument at all. They don’t want their deity being criticized, they don’t have an argument, so they say that to shut you up and make you look stupid or contradictory.

July 25, 2013 at 6:03 pm
(17) Malahide says:

As an atheist parent, not believing in the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus is only half the battle. The other half consists of dealing with these things in conversations with children. There are so many religiously tainted entities we encounter regularly in western culture (St. Patrick’s Day, Easter eggs, Valentine’s Day, etc) and it’s further complicated in our half-Japanese family – throw in a bit of Buddhism and Shinto animism for added confusion!

I’ve always thought the famous newspaper editorial about Santa Claus (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yes,_Virginia,_there_is_a_Santa_Claus) is a good template. In its beautifully literate way, it shows how you can respectfully deflect the question without injuring a child’s natural sense of wonder. The true battle that atheists must fight is for the hearts and minds of our children. And living, as I do, in a strongly Catholic country, that is quite a battle.

July 25, 2013 at 7:12 pm
(18) Johnny F* says:

Show me one single disadvantage with widespread atheism. Just one.

How about morality? So, US got 80%+ who believe in god and 715/100.000 people are incarcerated. Sweden got 80%+ atheists and 75/100.000 people incarcerated. Even counting the tougher US criminal system, it’s just multiple times more people who commit serious crime.

So, how was it now, we’re all going to hell over here? That just seems statistically unlikely. ;)

July 25, 2013 at 7:24 pm
(19) Steve DeHaven says:

Furthermore, I don’t know of anyone who is castigated for not believing in the Easter Bunny (or Santa Claus, or Leprechauns, etc.) in the way I have been castigated for declaring my lack of belief in any of the thousands of deities that have been claimed to exist.

I’ll gladly take the following challenge with any believer: For one week, you wear a t-shirt that says “I DON’T BELIEVE IN SANTA CLAUS.” For that same week, I’ll wear a t-shirt that says “I’M AN ATHEIST.” After that week, we’ll switch shirts for a week. During these two weeks, if anyone asks you about it, you must respond as if the shirt declares your actual opinion (here’s a tip: use the same arguments during both weeks).

At the end of the second week, you tell me which t-shirt you’d choose if you had to wear one every day for the rest of your life. Something tells me I can already guess your answer.

July 25, 2013 at 7:29 pm
(20) Newt says:

The problem, of course, is that in the final analysis; 85% of the people out there walking around believing in invisible superheros in the sky are insane. There’s a temptation to think you can “fix” them by talking to them enough & making them realize the impossibility, or at least impracticality, of what they believe in…but you can’t. You can’t fix religious people. They have to WANT to be fixed, because being sane is hard and you can’t force it on someone.

It’s much, much easier to believe the universe revolves around us & our petty needs, and that some “higher powers” are looking out for us, when clearly, either they aren’t, or they’re bad at it. Either way you’re wasting your time & money on the church – which was the point of organized religion all along. Control and money. That’s it.

July 25, 2013 at 7:45 pm
(21) Jm says:

The first comment is better than the blog post

July 25, 2013 at 11:49 pm
(22) john says:

We don’t argue that the easter bunny isn’t real either. The forum member’s comments are obtuse. We live in a country where, for the moment, 80% of the population claims to believe (in inconsistent ways) in something we don’t believe is real, and it intrudes on us on a daily basis. The discriminatory bias against us for being honest and for having a great respect for the truth is ironic. If 80% of the population were atheist, we wouldn’t have to spend any time pointing out the folly of faith.

July 26, 2013 at 3:09 am
(23) CY says:

I think what the writer might be driving at is the hostility of some atheists – usually the more vocal ones -displayed in ‘discussions’ on religion.

Often there is no real discussion, but a mere trading of ad hominems between theists and atheists alike. I’ve seen and experienced – and at one time, participated – in pointless arguments that really weren’t informative or constructive, just people saying that I’m smarter/better/more righteous than you.

That said, I have also had extremely productive discussions that were enlightening and encouraging. It’d be great to have more of these.

Unfortunately there are elements on both sides that feel intractably justified in their contempt and hostility and approach their opponents with a closed mind and open mouth.

There is a great lot to be learned from each other – if we can accept that we’ll be the better for it.

One love.

July 26, 2013 at 5:50 am
(24) glynn says:

What is all this tosh about no Easter Bunny? I know he exists as he used to leave me easter eggs every year. This is surely far better proof than we have for the existence of god.

July 26, 2013 at 9:08 am
(25) John says:

First you believe in Santa.
Then you don’t believe in Santa.
Then you are Santa.

Same applies to the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny.

The difference is that everyone pretends to be Santa, the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny. However, only one person has pretended to be God, and he was born just over 200 years ago.

I agree that the Alien Abduction analogy is better.

July 26, 2013 at 9:08 am
(26) John says:

First you believe in Santa.
Then you don’t believe in Santa.
Then you are Santa.

Same applies to the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny.

The difference is that everyone pretends to be Santa, the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny. However, only one person has pretended to be God, and he was born just over 2000 years ago.

I agree that the Alien Abduction analogy is better.

July 26, 2013 at 10:09 am
(27) Raph says:

If there were billions of peple that believed in the easter bunny and worldwide organizations with disproportionate power that spread hate and intolerance of people who did not believe in the easter bunny, you can bet you’d be talking about it a lot. Religious people talk a lot about each other’s religions that they don’t believe in – is the forum member wondering about that too?

September 30, 2013 at 3:50 pm
(28) Michael Longfellow says:

can you tell me why you hold the position “there is no God?”

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