Guest Post: Bridging The Chasm

GM Note: This is a guest post from Blake Seidler who is gentle with people but ruthless with ideas. You can follow him on Twitter: @BlakeSeidler. If you would like to guest blog on, please contact me.

According to 2011 polling, roughly three-quarters of atheists in the UK were once religious. I suspect that this proportion would only be higher if the same polls were done in the US, where until recently practically everyone has identified as a religious adherent of some kind.

Of course not all of these people would necessarily have been particularly involved in the religion they identified with, but I suspect a fairly strong majority of those who care about atheism/secularism enough to visit sites like this one come from devout religious families, or at least from communities with strong religious ties. We’re the ones with scars, the ones who’ve had to overcome extensive indoctrination and coercive social pressure to believe things that we have come to understand are utterly disconnected from reality, things which many of us, in retrospect, consider to be ridiculous, disturbing, and damaging.

So a lot of us have left religion. And – like clients of a Ponzi-scheme Investor who eventually realized they were being cheated – we want to let other people know that their religions have misled them.

Religion being what it is, this decision almost always results in some changes to the relationships we have with the believers in our lives. Some get lucky and end up having many of those close to them join in rejecting the religion they were raised with. Most, though, end up having to strike some kind of balance with theist friends and family where they skirt around the issue of religion, or only discuss it in short bursts, or in the worst cases end up unable to maintain relationships with some loved ones at all. It seems to me that atheists in particular end up having to guard their tongues in order to keep the peace, and it’s rarely atheists doing the snipping when ties get cut. Matt Dillahunty gave an incredible account of his own experience of this here.

I’ve been an “out” atheist for about 4 years now, but recently had a bit of a falling out with a friend that got me thinking again about the issues which surround coming out of faith/religion. For many of those who take part in activism related to atheism, it’s an ongoing struggle negotiating the intersection of that anti-theism with the desire to maintain relationships with family and friends who happen to believe in and promote the ideology you’re working to undermine.

My recent experience was an example of the impossibility of having it both ways.

In case I’ve given the impression that my “activism” is something that takes up a large portion of my time and real-world activity, let me just qualify that a bit. I’m pretty much exclusively a keyboard-warrior-type “activist,” and even then I’m pretty casual about it. I engage with people on public forums who express opinions on religion or atheism. I (at least attempt to) take a Socratic-style approach and simply work to get people to think more carefully about the opinions and positions they hold; I question the statements and claims of the people I encounter to try to help them see new perspectives or realize the inconsistencies in what they claim to believe. I am careful not to insult or belittle those who think differently than me, and I am eager to be shown my own factual errors or flaws in reasoning. As a matter of fact, it is this outlook – an eagerness to learn, a willingness to admit when you’re wrong, a passion for the exchange of ideas and an honest interest in evaluating those ideas based on evidence – that I am attempting to promote, rather than atheism for its own sake. It just seems to me that religion is one of the most persistent and pervasive barriers to that kind of skeptical outlook.

The falling-out with my friend that I keep referring to was over precisely this issue, and that’s why I think it was unavoidable. My friend made the mistake of following me on twitter. I long ago stopped posting overtly anti-religious stuff to my Facebook because I think it’s understandable that the people close to me (whether they are religious or not) don’t all share my preoccupation with religion, and seeing someone constantly being provocative about any issue can quickly become tiresome. I understand that. So I opened a twitter account specifically as an outlet for skeptical networking and discussion. My Christian friend Ed found me on twitter and started following. He only rarely interacted with me on there, but eventually he decided to join one of my conversations after I responded to this Tweet:

@finsteren: “atheists actin like they better cuz they don’t believe in a god more like shut up u moronic piece of shit every1 can believe in what theywant

Me: Everyone can believe what they want, but not everyone can be right.

F: yeah but even if they’re wrong you shouldn’t go trashing it, them believing in god doesn’t make them a bad person or wrong

Me: It doesn’t make them bad, but it may make them wrong. And I do think we have some moral obligation not to ignore available facts.

It was at this point that Ed jumped in. The thread with Ed followed from the tweet I linked, but he’s deleted his half of the conversation, and unfortunately I didn’t think to screenshot it. He started by calling me “pompous” and “warfare-minded,” and through the rest of the conversation added such helpful descriptors as “childish,” “blind,” “mean,” “whiny,” “in need of leadership training,” and just generally “being shitty” to people. I tried to get him to explain what specifically he disagreed with, and how those adjectives applied to me based on what I’d said here or elsewhere. He didn’t give any explanation that made sense to me, and insisted it was clear from the above exchange. Maybe you all can correct me, but I don’t think any of that is clear at all. His argument (if you can call it that) amounted to “I don’t like what you’re saying, therefore you shouldn’t say it.”

Sure, there is really no need to engage someone like @Finsteren who is probably just letting off some steam over some incident where they were frustrated by one particular atheist. I’m sure no one reading this blog is surprised in the slightest by a tweet like the one that I linked to. This is the stereotype atheists have been saddled with: arrogant, militant, mean-spirited people who condescendingly scoff at and mock religious people. While I have seen that sort of attitude from a few atheists, in my experience it has more often been the case that religious people react to any challenge to or questioning of their faith as if it is an arrogant assault on them personally. I’m by no means the first person to note this, but it bears repeating: people (religious and non-religious alike) will often lash out at anyone who dares criticize the faith-based beliefs of any group, even if those beliefs are in direct contradiction with their own. This expectation that some beliefs ought to be exempted from reasonable challenges seems almost unique to religious belief; rarely do people get upset when claims about politics, economics, diet, health-care, history, etc. get questioned. When it comes to people’s rights, obviously I agree that people can believe whatever they want, and trying to force people to believe or disbelieve anything would be unethical (not to mention practically impossible). I do, however, think it is a sign of respect, rather than an attack, to presume that people “want” to believe things that are true. It is condescension, rather than respect, to assume that:

1.   You have good reasons for believing what you do, and

2.   You have good reasons for disbelieving the contradictory position held by someone else, and

3.   That if you provided those reasons to that other person, they would be incapable of reaching the same conclusion you did on that subject.

Therefore, by trying to prevent atheists (or anyone else) from criticizing any religious beliefs, the person suppressing the conversation is:

1.   Admitting that they don’t have good reasons for believing what they do, or

2.   Implying that they hold those with conflicting views to a lower intellectual standard than they hold themselves.

It is one thing to call for civility,  for empathy, for acknowledgment of the centrality of religious beliefs to some people’s individual and cultural identity. It is a very different thing to try to prevent honest analysis of the ideas themselves out of concern for how it will affect the believers. It is precisely because these ideas are so important to people – such an integral part of how they organize their lives and make decisions – that they ought to be subjected to the most intense scrutiny. Ideally, people would scrutinize their own beliefs, making confrontational disagreements less common, but human beings are not ideal. This is one of the reasons why, in every science and major academic discipline, peer-review and criticism are built into the process by which ideas get submitted to the community. Religions (along with pseudosciences of every sort) have no such built-in self-criticism. They generally cultivate the opposite atmosphere: certain texts and historical figures are established as authorities and explicitly presented as being above criticism or reproach. Dogma and doctrine get established and taught by rote rather than through investigation. Doubt is considered a failing, and is suppressed by ritual or rationalization rather than explored using reason.  To the extent that this is an accurate portrayal of religion, religion is diametrically opposed to the rational/skeptical outlook I advocated earlier.

Ed and I are still acquaintances, and I hope that continues, but I don’t think I’d call us friends any longer. I count myself lucky that this is one of only a couple relationships that I’ve had to give up on due to ideological differences. I suspect there are plenty of people who will read this who have a higher tolerance than I do for  this kind of disagreement, and I applaud them. Still, this is one place where I feel it was reasonable for me to draw a line: criticize my position, take me to task for mistreating or misjudging people, insult me all you like… but if you expect me to maintain respect for you, don’t try to tell me that it’s a bad thing for me to attempt to reason with people.

I’m not suggesting that my particular strategy is the most effective way of accomplishing my goal. I’m not even suggesting that more people should necessarily be trying to change people’s minds about their religion or any other position they’ve uncritically adopted. What I would contend is that if, like my friend Ed, you want to argue that those who pursue honest, direct conversations with people they disagree with, about the things they disagree on… that those people on are wrong to do so… then you’ve lost me. That is a position that I find both morally and intellectually bankrupt. Education, conversation, dialogue, discussion, debate, argument. These are the tools by which we constructively bridge the chasm of ideological difference. When we renounce the use of these, and when our ideological differences bring us to a real impasse about how to behave and structure society, we have few alternatives other than violence or separation. When your use of language becomes so Orwellian that you conflate debate with warfare, I can’t help but think you’re deliberately obstructing the pursuit of knowledge, and I’m afraid I won’t be changing what I’m doing to help you with that.

Thank you Blake. If you would like to be a guest blogger on then contact me.

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