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I think that this gap in perspectives is a serious problem in the debate between atheists and theists. Something similar played out on Andrew Sullivan's blog a few weeks ago. I did a post about it, but basically it boils down to this same problem. One of the theists even said as much, arguing that atheists see religion/faith/god as a puzzle, while theists view it as a "lived commitment". And I think that this is one of the reasons that atheists will often get the "you're not being respectful" response thrown at them, because we're treating something "sacred" like any other intellectual problem. And I don't know if it's a gap that we can ever fully bridge, because your point of view on faith in this debate kind of determines your side. Either you see it as a puzzle, or you see it as sacred. It's really hard to do both.


This makes me think about Cypher from The Matrix.

If you were sure that ignorance would lead to bliss and knowledge would lead to suffering, would you still want to be an atheist? Even if you were sure knowledge would lead to long-term suffering in addition to the initial shock and redefinition of the world around you?

Personally, part of the reason I like atheism is because, long term, I think it will make everyone happier. But I wonder if I would choose it or not if that weren't the case (assuming, for the purposes of the argument, that I had the ability to choose whether I believed it or not). And I suspect that that may be the important question to be asking in order to understand why theists think and act the way they do.

I wonder which came first. Did I realize that knowing the truth about the world made me happier and then begin to value truth, or have I always valued truth in and of itself? What if knowing the truth about things reliably lead to unhappiness. Would I still choose to know the truth?


I've always valued truth above harmony... and as such, have often been the asshole who asks difficult questions about one's god, the killjoy for explaining that this urban legend isn't actually true; I've even had people get mad at me when I tell them the real lyrics to a song they're singing incorrectly. It's as though people find comfort in their ignorance.

G Felis
"But you said you wanted to debate this! Don't you?"

The answer is no. They don't. They want to want to debate it. They want to be the kind of person who wants to debate it. They want to be the insatiable curiosity type, the intellectually courageous type who will ask any question and follow the answers wherever they lead. But they're not. Not when it comes to God.

I think this is very insightful, and surely it does capture the difficulties sometimes encountered in conversations between theists and atheists. However, I think maybe you're bending over a little too backwards in one respect: You presume a level of basic intellectual honesty motivating theists entering debates with atheists that is simply missing much of the time. There are far too many dedicated "liars for Jesus" in the world - some whose entire job is to lie, lie, and lie some more (such as anyone employed by "The Discovery Institute") - for such an assumption to pass without comment, even in the context of outreach.

Maybe I'm just old and cynical - scratch that, I'm definitely old and cynical, but my cynicism is informed by experience. That experience gives me good reason to believe that the vast majority of "Shut up! That's why!" arguments come from people who only enter conversations with others about their religious beliefs to proselytize, with not the slightest hint of genuine truth-seeking motivation: They already KNOW the truth in a rigid, authoritarian way that never actually considers the possibility of learning something new on the subject. They do not in fact want to be the insatiable curiosity type. Rather, they want to show you The One True Way (tm), and any technique that advances that goal - which includes pretending to want an honest intellectual discussion - is fair game.

Paul Crowley

Had that conversation very recently, and it's amazing how explicit theists can be about choosing their beliefs for reasons other than having grounds to think they are true.

John B Hodges

Intellectual honesty is a skill that has to be learned and a virtue that has to be practiced; it often requires you to accept unpleasant conclusions.


Thank you! This essay just gave me a little more insight into myself.

I starting getting truthful with myself about religion and my agnosticism turned to atheism at the same time I stopped being the peace maker in my family and stopped making excuses for my father. It seems for me that choosing truthfulness over harmony in one area of my life spurred me onto living truthfully in other areas as well. Choosing actually doesn't feel like the right word because for me the harmony had finally cost me too much.


Wow! That's a fantastic insight!

G Felis, I'm quite sure that there are an awful lot of people who see religion "as some kind of dodge... or hustle." And these people tend to be the loudest ones, the ones making money off it. Ray Comfort and Ken Ham are lying, know they are lying, and are are probaby as deep in denial as the Aswan High Dam justifying it to themselves as for a greater good.

But what about the multitudes of relatively peaceful low-key practicing christians who, as Dawkins complains, give them a safe community to take advantage of?

I think indeed Greta has her finger on an important motivation. They'd rather be happy than right, and the theological argument "that has unpleasant implications, therefore it can't be right"—which is currently causing so much resistance to dealing with global warming—has a lot of clout with such people.

I really think there's something here.


To me, this is one of your most important essays so far. I believe that there are indeed two kinds of people in the world: those who value truth over harmony and those who don't. (Yes, of course it's a continuum, but I don't think it's a "normal distribution" with majority of the people falling somewhere in the middle -- I'm pretty sure that the majority of people lean strongly toward one of the ends of this scale).

And this has huge implications in daily life, not just in debates about God (as follows from the story you brought, for example). I believe it is extremely important in personal relationships. I became aware of this difference after your series of essays about cheating, which had nothing to do with atheism.

These who prefer harmony over truth tend to consciously overlook some aspects of behavior of their loved ones that they would find wrong in others -- not forgive, but simply choose not to know. It comes from the same place -- the "commitment" to have a certain view (in this case, love).

Felicia Gilljam

Great post, Greta. I think the implication that you missed in your conclusion is that certain atheists - the ones complaining about how horrible the "New Atheists" are - need to get over the fact that we're upsetting people, and always will be, no matter how gentle we try to be. I suppose these people are somewhere in the middle of the spectrum - they care enough about "the truth" to be atheists, but they care enough about keeping things calm and peaceful not to want to talk about it much. And although I think it takes all kinds (things would get far too polarised if everyone were a "new atheist"), I don't think the infighting is productive.


Matt Dillahunty, the host of The Atheist Experience, used to often ask callers, "Do you care whether your beliefs are true?" The gist is the same as that of your essay, but it fits on a bumper sticker.

atheists -- at least, the ones who once had religious belief and left it behind -- tend to have that stubbornness, that unwillingness to just let things slide

Most people today are theists. So to publicly identify yourself as an atheist takes a certain contrarian streak, a willingness to swim against the current.

Sometimes, I worry (when I've run out of other things to worry about) that if ever a majority of people will be atheists, a lot of them will be atheists for the wrong reasons: not because they've thought things through and considered evidence and arguments, but because everyone around them is, and they want to get along.


You're absolutely right, Greta. I had this same experience with my sister right before I deconverted. We were both highly disatisfied with the answers we were getting from our church and leaders, and we both expressed a desire to search for "the Truth," no matter where it led us. A few months later, I was an atheist (ok, it's a lot more complicated than that, but you get my drift) and I came to her with what I had learned, so excited that I found the truth and I could prove it! (we were Young Earthers, for one thing)
She wasn't interested. In fact, she thought satan was speaking through me. She had found a group of christians who met in a home and made her feel part of their family, and that was all the "Truth" she needed or wanted.

But I think your advice in how to change things is good, too. Coming out is the number one most important thing atheists can do right now. I probably would not have become an atheist if a former christian friend didn't reveal his atheism--it simply never occured to me that anyone other than grumpy communists with bad hygeine could be atheists!

Adam G.

In reading this, I thought, "I wish I'd written this." It's an excellent set of insights into the theist mind.

About six months ago I got into conversations with a few theist friends, and I asked one of them, in total exasperation, "You accept science in every other way - why not about this? WHY do you believe in something you can't PROVE?"

Her response was probably the most honest and open one I've ever received: "Because the thought that God might not exist terrifies me so badly I can't function."

I backed off immediately. As hard-headed as I am about atheism, I still have no wish to cause people I care about further distress.

It really is a talking at cross-purposes problem. Frankly, I don't see it ever resolving.

Bill Brent

Only the madman is absolutely sure. --Robert Anton Wilson (1932-2007)


Brilliant article. This definitely helps provide further insight toward a lot of my conversations with theists, among both my friends and my family. I will probably be thinking about the implications of this piece for awhile.

absent sway

I think you've really hit on something here, albeit with "two kinds of people" being a simplified way of stating the idea. I appreciate that you made a distinction between how people approach the God question and how they might approach other questions in their lives, choosing harmony over truth or vice versa in some areas but not necessarily in others. Harmony was definitely my default choice when it came to religion until the dissonance became unbearable. It took a long time for that dissonance to build up, though; I really was interested in the truth, it just would have been more convenient if I was already right so I had to exhaust that possibility first ;)


I find that theism isn't such a happy safe place in its ignorance. I have seen theist after theist, desperate to find any proof that they are right. It's a life of compartmentalization and constant fear that you aren't as "good" as those theists around you who *seem* to be much closer to deity-of-your-choice by their pious haranguing. People keep to religion out of fear, not of happiness.


If you debate a semi-reasonable and semi-civilized religionist who considers themselves "Moderate", "liberal" or "progressive" for long enough, and if you skewer them with the really tough questions, eventually their position will boil down to this:

"Yes, I know this stuff is kind of silly and doesn't really make sense, but it makes me feel better, so just let me have it, OK?"

Watch for's always there.


Re: Adam G:

"Because the thought that God might not exist terrifies me so badly I can't function."

Yes! I think that a lot of it is that fear. I'd bet that a lot of the resistance to atheist arguments is that fear acting itself out in an unconscious way.

Because the thought that God might not exist terrifies me so badly I can't function.

In the remake of the movie "Bedazzled" there is a scene in which Brendan Fraser is playing the part of a suave and highly soffisticated author and intelectual, and he tells a girl he is trying to bone the following:

"Every time I re-read Camus and Chartre I ask myself why does the Existential Dilemma have to be so damn bleak? OKay, so life is meaningless, we're alone in the universe, yeah... is that necessarily so depressing?".

I think that it was supposed to be a joke, allowing the audience to laugh at a character that is in many ways ridiculous, but I myself simply cannot help but agree with his question: why is all that so depressing to some people? It doesn't sadden me in the least, and it is blindingly obvious as well.


I kept reading this article waiting for a reference to Lisa Simpson researching the history of Jebediah Springfield, perhaps the most well-known pop-culture reference to "Shut-up, that's why" arguments.

I think where you really hit the proverbial nail on the head was when you talk about "making atheism a safe place to land."

My extended family is largely made up of the "non-curious" type of people you mentioned. I've found any argument with them to be futile. Instead, I've just tried to show them that I am living a perfectly happy life as an athiest.

There is, however, one major catch to this strategy. From time to time I get depressed--severely, clinically depressed. And I feel tremendous pressure to hide this from my family, because I know their reaction would be, "See? He has no god to turn to, and is miserable because of it."

Even if I didn't get clinically depressed, there are just times when we all have bad days. And when you're trying to show your theist family and friends that you can lead a happy life as an atheist, I think there will always be pressure to act happy, even when you're not. And that's not really healthy.

Solution: ???

Donna Gore

Michael Shermer wrote an entire book called "Why People Believe Weird Things." He reached the simple conclusion that it's because they WANT to.


A while back I came across a story on the internet about two American college classmates who were independently touring Europe happening upon each other at a railway station. They were headed for the same place and of course sat together on the train. And, being college students, they promptly began an argument. The young woman was an atheist and the young man a committed Christian. They argued about religion. By the time they reached their destination, the yw had completely destroyed the ym's arguments and he was reduced to admitting she was right. But he seemed to be reduced to such total dejection that the yw didn't feel triumph, she felt guilt over having destroyed a fellow human being's belief system.
A year later they came across each other again and the ym said he had been compelled to do serious soul-searching, which had restored his faith stronger than ever. He was happy again. The yw was greatly relieved.
Some research suggests that might be a gene for responding to what seems to be awesome or splendorous events, which could account for religion.
If it's genetic, maybe some of us are born without that gene. Some of us are left-handed, some of us are gay, some of us have straight hair and others curly. Maybe some of us are born without the "splendor" gene and turn out to be atheists. I don't think it is possible to convert true believers. They have the gene. And even if we can convince one of them that we're right, it won't stick. And some of us will be glad. Because, strange as it may seem, lots of us have the milk of human kindness that is so often lacking in the truly religious.


Greta The Great!
I just came across your site and have to tell you that I find your analysis of the theist/atheist discussion on-point and well-said. I gave up arguing with believers a long time ago. I found them to be either too slippery or too confused, and maddeningly obtuse. Sam Singleton Atheist Evangelist has a couple of funny posts about arguing/debating with believers. He is not as polite-or timid-as I.


In addition to the other points discussed in the post and comments, it might be worth thinking about the goal of conversion.

Most of the time, when I'm discussing matters of religion with the enfaithened, those that want to engage most aggressively are actively trying to recruit me to their ranks.

So it's not really an attempt, on their part, to discuss ideas or try to find a reasoned middle ground; it's more an overt attempt to browbeat me into submission.

I really don't bother with those types any more, for much the same reason that I avoid high-pressure salespeople.

Tom Foss

I think there's a corollary to this that figures into some of the projection we commonly see in arguments with theists. One of the very common things one hears--particularly from a certain flavor of Christian--is that atheists only disbelieve because they want to be hedonists without the threat of Hell. In other words, we've chosen the belief that makes us most comfortable and allows us to do the things that make us happy.

I know of no atheist who has done this, but it seems to fall in line with what you're talking about with regard to this type of theist mindset--they'd rather be comfortable than right, and so they assume that atheists are the same.

Great post, by the way, Greta Christina!


I am impressed. Given the title of "Shut Up, That's Why", I expected these articles to be rants about theists being mean in wanting us to shut up. Instead you carefully deconstructed their arguments and offered insight as to how we might re-engage them. There seemed very little rant at all (despite not being able to resist a jab at 'free market freaks' like me =P).

Greta, thank you for taking the time to analyse this for us and sharing your conclusions.

You. are. brilliant.

I think some well-meaning theists are also too caught up in the "your life must be horrible" idea and try to 'save' you to discuss things openly. I even had one Christian try to convert me to Buddhism because he was certain my life was horrible without religion and wanted me to have *something*!


This is such a fantastic post, Greta.

...theists tend to assume that of course atheists are looking for a worldview that they find appealing and useful, rather than one that they find consistent and plausible.

I hope you don't mind if I link to something on my own blog, but I think it is really consistent with what you are saying about atheist and theists having different goals (perhaps we might even call them values) while debating.

In my post, I mention this in terms of choices that the characters must make in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. This is the choice between comfort and happiness and freedom and truth. I think this choice is very similar to what you've outlined here. Here's the post. Thanks again for a terrific article!


As a theist, I find your article fascinating! I believe you are correct about theists and atheists having cross purposes. I'm not sure they are always under those particular blanket statements. For example, some atheist are desperately trying to convert, not just discuss. And then, Christians may be honestly curious, but within Christianity we feel some answers cannot be found scientifically, such as, "why do I exist."

I for one, truly love good debate! I am not always excellent at debate and so do not always have ready answers. But I do go and study as a result of debate. And I do seriously consider the opposite side and their arguments.

Many Christians, believe it or not, understand why people leave "the faith," which is a rather relative term, by the way. There are so many different faiths folks hold on to! But really, I think Organized religion, staunchly religious people and their stiff and often cruel attitudes are the main turn off. I love George MacDonald, an old scottish author, and he says that it is better to not believe in the God many churches represent, as he is false, and makes it harder for the sould to believe in the truth, which is Love.

Also, I think it takes as much faith to believe there is not a God as to believe there is one. For even science can only go back so far as the big bang... and what caused that? All effects must have a cause...


Also, I think it takes as much faith to believe there is not a God as to believe there is one. For even science can only go back so far as the big bang... and what caused that? All effects must have a cause...

So? There are a lot of things we don't know. Do you really think it's a good idea to put a magical sky being behind all things that are so far unknown to us? I'm sure you can see how doing that does not actually explain anything. This is a mistaken piece of thinking called things like 'goddidit' and 'god of the gaps' and also 'that's not very smart'.

Brian Dunn

I think many readers who are seriously engaged with the theist/atheist question might find the thought system articulated in "A Course In Miracles" (aka ACIM) to be very stimulating reading. The theist/atheist question seems to me to be imperfectly framed - what if the universe and our role in it is so vastly different from either polarity of this argument as to render them BOTH intellectually unsatisfying?
By way of example, ACIM makes the statement "God did not create the world, you did." In terms of this debate, is this a theistic or atheistic statement?
ACIM also asks the question, "would you rather be right, or happy?" and of course leaves it to the reader to choose - but it them makes lengthy predictions about the life experience you can expect depending on your choice, and the rigor with which you follow the implications and consequences of your choice. Because it is so relentless, it may appeal to those who seek a clarified perspective on their perspective, or seek to examine more closely the consequences of the thoughts they think they think ;)


I think when dealing with people with the mentality described here -- where truth is simply not a priority -- the *other* values of atheism should be emphasized.

There is no superbeing in charge of the world who will "fix things" for you -- but there is *ALSO* nobody in charge who will punish you. There's no hell. There's no obligation to proselytize. You're allowed to get lucky. You don't have to figure out what God's "plan" for you is. You can just enjoy life as it comes.

The specific arguments above are specific to particularly popular monotheistic religions.

I have to say, universalists have a faith which is arguably quite comforting, at least if you're not very intellectual -- but other Christians *don't*, they have fundamentally nasty, scary, and unpleasant beliefs, so atheism is a hell of a lot more attractive than *their* religions.


I beg your pardon for such a late comment and for my very raw english, but it's not my mother language.

The author's insight on this whole issue is really interesting. Oversimplified here and there maybe, but it's incredible how she managed to express the right things with the right words, in a really concise way.

She ends her post with a question
What could be the possible solution about this whole situation?
She also exposes 2 points in her conclusion.
I agree with both: we need to give a better idea of atheism, it's not all about being depressed and obsessed with "logic" and "truth", and we definitely need to do our best to keep the conversation going.

But the opening part of her point no°2 is potentially dangerous.
"not just so we can persuade more people"

"Persuade"? I don't think we have to persuade anyone. This goes into the risk, that I've sadly seen happening many times, of making proselitism for atheism.
I mean of course things between theists and atheists are very very different, and it always makes me laugh when a theist compares atheism to a "religion without a god", but still seen from external eyes, there is something in common.
On one side we have theists who try to "save" people with their religion, which they firmly believe to be good and most of them act out of good will, with good intentions.
On the other hand we have atheists who try to open the eyes of the indoctrinated theists.
One side has "faith" supporting them, the other side has "logic".
I don't wanna explain once again why it's totally not the same thing because anybody who entered this kind of discussion knows exactely how it is.

Still, from an external point of view it's undeniable there is something in common between these two parts, and this is where I think atheists sometimes do a mistake.
We shouldn't make proselitism.
It's good to make information, it's good to keep the topic hot, it's good to give the impression that it's absolutely not bad at all to "lose" all the security granted to you by your faith.
But we shouldn't go further than that and turn this into a "mission", like we want to save as many people as possible.

I mean don't get me wrong, I'd love a world without religions, damn where do I sign for that?! But it's utopistic and to pursue that we would just end up using the same wrong means used by theists all these millenias, altough to a much lesser extent and in a better way of course.

We don't need to "save" anybody. We only need to work so that our rigths are legally recognized and respected. If someone wants to "save himself" he'll find all the information and help possible, because we'll give all that, but it should end there.
We don't need to turn it into proselitism.

And this is how I think things should go BOTH ways, from theists too. They should stop making proselitism, and they should stop demanding that their "laws" and ways to be imposed to whole countries, even when many citizens from that same country have absolutely nothing to do with that religion.

Abortion and gay marriage comes to mind as a simple but interesting example.
I don't have any issues with, say, catholic people not wanting two gay people to be united by the rite of catholic marriage. I don't even think that a country should try to impose that to them.
It's their own fucking religion, if they think it's not right then why should I care? If catholic gay people really care about that then they should seriously considered discussing their faith and religion.

It's another story though when catholics try to impose that will, which should be limited to catholic people only, to other people of other religions, atheists or just people who don't give a damn about that (could we define them agnostic? Altough this definition is not perfectly fitting for all situations).

It's in this mutual respect that lies the "solution" to the conversation issues we've been having so far, imho.

By keeping them out, trying to stop sounding arrogant and stopping trying to make proselitism among theists and "enlightning" them about how wrong their own respective faiths are, could be a good starting point to make the conversation flow better, hoping that time and society will do the rest.

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