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Chad Groft

This is starting to make a lot of sense to me. Aside from a very few literalists, I think religion has become a collaborative lie—a way for people to tell themselves that things will work out even if they know they might not, and that they won't have to die even if they know they will. And collaborative lies don't work if some douchebag is running around telling the truth.


Yes, this drives me nuts, too. I addressed ad a related point in my long-ago comment about drawing in perspective. "I don't think your subjective experience matches what really happened" is not the same thing as "you're lying to me"; reporting experiences without adding a layer of interpretation is extremely difficult, as anyone who's learned to draw in perspective, or seen various optical illusions, has discovered. Your brain immediately "fixes" what your eyes report so two people at different distances look the same size and all that.

There are considerable advantages to learning the skill. But not to be born with it is no shame.

I don't know if this is generally of any use, but I san say that I can't argue with your subjective experiences, but the moment you try to extrapolate from those to other people (including, but not necessarily, me), you're invoking the "shared reality" assumption, that all people are similar, and now my experiences are just as valid a basis for extrapolation. More so, if mine are more reliable and repeatable.

Excellent piece Greta, indeed! I'm at loss at expressing my delight on reading this rational, but very passionate analysis on things that bother us all at the moment.


The folks you are criticizing remind me of the character Chanterelle (from Buffy season 2 episode 7 "Lie to Me") talking about "the lonely ones" and how "opinions other than your own can be valid too..."

Blake Stacey

"All religious experience is subjective, and therefore all religious experiences are equal and have to be treated with equal respect."

Exactly. Like my religious experience of celebrating the full Moon by having a threesome with Hugh Laurie and Summer Glau. Entirely valid, I tell you, and worthy of respect!

"They just don't have a context for people who spend a significant amount of time and energy trying to convince others to change their religious beliefs... and are trying to do it, not by law, not by force, not by bribery or intimidation, but by reason and evidence and persuasion, in public forums devoted to debate, and in private conversations with people who have expressed an interest."

Sounds plausible. And the only way to change that sorry state of affairs, or the only way I can see, is for atheists to continue to be vocal, in books and blogs and other public forums amenable to civilized debate.


Brilliant blog, Greta.

This stood out early on:

"How do you persuade someone who thinks that persuading people is horribly ill-mannered at best and abusive at worst?"

And, especially, how do you do this when they're the first to turn around and harass you on the bus with questions as to whether or not you've accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?!?!?! o_O

It's not that they think persuasion is wrong. Just that any persuasion aimed at something other than converting someone to their particular brand of religion is wrong. Civilized debate doesn't even enter into the equation for these people...that would require acknowledgment of alternate views as equally valid, or at least potentially valid.

How do you persuade someone who thinks that persuading people is horribly ill-mannered at best and abusive at worst?

I think the trick is to use a combination of techniques. If reason and argument don't work, try ridicule (as the sage once said, when swords fail us, we must resort to cream pies). Or use logic to show why the other person's religion is bogus.

Now, obviously you can't use mockery on your sister (I'm assuming you have a sister, for the sake of argument), because you have to see her at Thanksgiving and whatnot. But if you want to team up, I can use mockery on her, and then you look far better than me by comparison.

And, of course, different approaches, or combinations of approaches, work with different people. You're here, appealing to people's guts and gonads. Elsewhere, Dawkins and Dennett are appealing to their minds. And there are plenty of us who are more than willing to hang "Kick me" signs on people's backs.


Excellent post: it's a problem I encounter frequently, particularly among groups of women in discussion groups which are supposed to be exciting and challenging, but turn out to be pallid echo chambers of people sharing their agreement. I have been told to never say, or imply, that anyone is wrong. That is ego. I am to say "here is where I think differently."

The odd thing is that there is nothing more egotistical than refusing to discuss an issue on its merits, because you cannot or will not separate yourself from the issue. If you say that you believe X, then anyone who disagrees with X, is actually disagreeing with you, you, you. They're trying to prove you wrong. They're trying to cut you down. They're after you. It's always framed as a personal conflict over battling egos.

This leads me to suspect that, at bottom, none of them really give a crap about any of the spiritual or pseudoscientific bullshit they claim to be so sure of. Does homeopathy work? They don't care. It's simply a prop for what they do care about: their own self-image, and being the kind of gentle, nature-loving, open-minded, counter-culture, free-thinking person who believes in homeopathy.

Or religion. Or, better yet, "spirituality."

They believe in belief, because they want to believe in themselves. And for all their talk of "holism" and letting go of ego, they reduce everything to Self.

Yeah, this post touched a nerve -- and I was jolted by recognition all the way through it. You put things so clearly. Thank you.

As for strategy, I have found, over time, that if I can present disagreement in the form of some value they already have -- so that I'm trying to express my skepticism as an area of agreement between us -- this goes over better than not. But it's tricky.

You can even get tricky. I have actually tried to listen to them, nod with a big smile, and then start out my rebuttal with "yes, exactly, it seems to work, I so agree, but as you say appearances can be so deceptive. It's so hard to know what really worked, isn't it? You're so right, we need to be cautious about the things they try to sell us on, oh yes." If you can ACT like you're finding common ground, it can confuse them enough to think that you're "connecting." And I do love that puzzled look in their eye, and their hesitation to break up my happy sense of communion by disagreeing that we're on the same page. Ball in their court, now.

Greta Christina
The odd thing is that there is nothing more egotistical than refusing to discuss an issue on its merits, because you cannot or will not separate yourself from the issue.

Bingo. Yes. I am totally stealing this.


I've always found this tactic to be the most infuriating of them all since it shuts off any attempts to engage -- it's the perfect impenetrable bubble for belief.

One thing to add -- there is a huge ad hominem element, with the implication being that if you say a religious belief is mistaken you're on the side of (say) Stalin and Hitler in terms of wishing for repression and atrocities. It's often expressed very subtly but it's still there.


I think there are two things going on in religious groups: one, they bring people together (I mean at the parish level, not at the crusade/global jihad/Prop 8 level); and two, they make statements of fact. And these statements of fact are tightly bound with group unity. A sect defines itself by how many gods there are, what their names are, what they want of humans, whether they condone homosexuality or female leaders, and so forth.

So if the central tenets of the group were shown to be false, the group might fall apart. So any challenge to them is a threat to group cohesion. But people want the group to endure, because they enjoy being with the people. And so those groups where people learn not to challenge the group's tenets survive.

Sean @ Alone and Unobserved

Did you read today's Overcompensating, about the breakdown of debate? I enjoyed it. :)


Excellent post!
You explain well the "shut up, that's why" response with I'll be happy to debate this as long as you agree" attitude many believers seem to have. You asked, ”We're talking about expressing in legitimate public forums of discussion and debate: forums that people are free to listen to or not, as they choose. Where did the idea come from that this is an act of ugly, dogmatic bigotry, a flatly unacceptable part of modern civilized conversation?”

I have two responses:
1) The believers want to be seen (mostly) as reasonable , thus to establish credibility to themselves and the world, will proclaim they are ‘ready and willing’ to debate all comers. However, I suspect they don’t want to actually debate (or really don’t understand that debate invites criticism). When they find themselves presented with a true challenge to their illogical and irrational beliefs, many will resort to ad hominine attacks such as the one blogged about.

2) In legitimate public forums, does it really matter if one comes across to one’s debating opponent(s) as the “bad guy”? What matters is how one comes across to the spectators of such an exchange, since they are the ones we atheists should try to persuade to our side or at least consider our POV as legitimate. And if presented with this particular ad hominine attack, one should do well to quickly point it out he/she is evading the debate by attacking the debater (e.g. “Is your position so weak, you resort to calling me uncivilized because of the inconsistencies of your religious beliefs? Perhaps you should remember this isn’t a fellowship venue…”)

And do you know what – in legitimate public forums of discussion and debate, our movement is having an affect! Many recent surveys on USA’s religiosity, the theists ARE mostly losing the ‘culture wars’, and seem to have lost in Europe, especially to the under 25, internet savvy crowd.


This is why I hate the saying "Everybody is entitled to their own opinion". It has somehow been changed to "Everybody is entitled to have an opinion and not be criticized". There seems to be this perception that opinions are harmless. THEY ARE NOT HARMLESS. People make decisions based on their own opinions every day. Some of those decisions effect nobody but themselves while others effect everybody. If the opinion that you form can effect another person then it should have to stand up to scrutiny. I don't expect somebody to defend their reasoning for painting their bedroom blue because- who cares? It doesn't matter to anybody else. However, if somebody tells me they believe that the morning after pill should not be available then they should have to defend their position because that belief can impact upon the lives of other people. Religion is the same. Religious beliefs mould the decision making process of believers. Religion touches on all aspects of life and influences the way people vote, whether they use contraception etc. etc. etc. An individuals religious beliefs impacts on the wider community so they have a duty to be able to defend those beliefs with sound, rational argument. Quite frankly, I am prepared to go around offending people with a "Please explain?". If what you think impacts upon my world then be prepared to have a respectful (respectful= I will listen to you, you listen to me) and rational debate.


Blake said: "Like my religious experience of celebrating the full Moon by having a threesome with Hugh Laurie and Summer Glau."

Finally, a religious experience I can muster some respect for.


arensb said: "You're here, appealing to people's guts and gonads. Elsewhere, Dawkins and Dennett are appealing to their minds."

I want to take issue with this. Greta is lyrical enough that she does appeal to the gut, but I object to the implication that her writing is somehow less intellectual than say Dawkins.

When it come to biology, then of course - that's his particular area of expertise.

But when it comes to atheism, and in particular, the philosophies and arguments and so on that come with it, Greta is not necessarily less intellectual by being more poetic and punchier. Her arguments often have plenty of intellectual heft, for all their brevity and wit.


arensb wrote:

You're here, appealing to people's guts and gonads. Elsewhere, Dawkins and Dennett are appealing to their minds.
And efrique responded:
I want to take issue with this. Greta is lyrical enough that she does appeal to the gut, but I object to the implication that her writing is somehow less intellectual than say Dawkins.
Possibly that was a misstatement by arensb, but I took it to be a less literal explanation of the value of different atheists taking different tacks at different times.

And I like that point a lot. It seems to me that that kind of Good Cop/Bad Cop model (though of course there are many more than two settings, across a wide spectrum of levels of friendliness toward religion) is a potential ground of agreement between "accommodationist" atheists and the more "uppity" (PZ Myers' term) variety. If a large number of atheists take a large number of different (preferably non-contradictory) approaches toward expressing our dissent from religion, I think that's likely to have the most salutary consequences.

P.S.: Does anyone know how the commenting software here decides what icon to give each commenter? I'm consistently a "spiderweb" (which is fine with me), as are some other folks here, but not others. Is it connected to the username we supply, or what?


For starters: I think that within this circle of ecumenical, "all religions are getting at the truth in their own way," "we're fine with people of different faiths as long as they're fine with our faith" believers, the main context they have for people outside that circle is intolerant fundamentalism and theocracy. The main context they have for people who criticize other people's religions and argue that they're mistaken is the religious right in America, and Islamic extremists in the Muslim world, and so on. They just don't have a context for people who think that other people's religions are mistaken... and are nevertheless passionate about the right to religious freedom.

This. I was going to post essentially this point as a comment, and then got to the part where Greta talks about it.

The people who are saying "Oh, these are the same people who are happy to push Jesus Christ at you" are missing a crucial point: Greta described the people in question as "Wiccans, neo-pagans, New Age Christians, and other practitioners of woo spirituality". These are, by and large, fellow targets of pushy Christians, not pushy Christians themselves.

You don't have to be a theist or spiritualist to struggle with this view. I'm a lifelong atheist, and I've struggled with it at times. Why? Because I grew up in the frickin' Bible Belt, and the only people from my childhood interested in trying to convince others of the rightness of their own religious beliefs/lack thereof were Religious Right fundamentalists, of which the particularly aggressive and/or power-seeking ones were my childhood bogeymen, the phenomenon that I feared over pretty much anything else.

This led to my getting instinctively twitchy, and having to check myself, any time anyone, including other atheists, started trying to convince people of the rightness of their religion/lack thereof. With the exception that trying to persuade people that creationism was wrong never bothered me, perhaps because that was so tied into separation of church and state in my head.

And yeah, in addition to all that, my ethnic Jewishness probably played a role. A family history that includes, over the last 150 years or so, pogroms and concentration camps, was part of my context for "People who are passionate and vocal about how other people's religious beliefs are wrong."

And I suspect that many Wiccans, etc, who are themselves targets of prejudice from these same sorts of people, have the same instinctive reaction. This is not to say that the instinct is right. There's a reason that I've talked about it as something to be overcome. But it shouldn't be surprising that the instinct is there. And it's going to be harder for an atheist who wants to debate religion to overcome its presence in a Wiccan, than in a fearful fellow atheist, as the latter at least agrees with the viewpoint you're putting forth.

Ah...the good ol' "Shut up, that's why" argument...

During Yule dinner last year, I said something rather critical of christianity. My aunt, who is rather religious (when it suits her, anyway) immediately got upset and told me I couldn't say that. When I asked why, she said I should respect her religious beliefs. Again, I asked why. She looked at me as if I were mad and hissed "Because it's my RELIGION!"

Of course the exchange turned into a childish argument, with me asking 'why' and her repeating 'because' until my mother rather pointedly started discussing the weather...


One of the things I've been discussing with my therapist lately is the idea of "relational frames". The definition-by-quick-example: draw a picture of a made-up animal, show it to a young kid, point and say "gub-gub". After the kid can identify it, point and say "gub-gub. woo". Eventually the kid will associate the sound "woo" with a gub-gub. Now, if instead of saying "woo", you prick the kid with a needle everytime you show a picture of a gub-gub, the kid's going to associate pain with it.

My point being that this is similar to what we see here. Since criticism of a religion most often comes from legitimately-intolerant fundamentalists who want to back up their critiques with the force of the law, our more tolerant religious friends associate any religious criticism with intolerant assholes. So stressing the "we respect your right to believe 100%, but we reserve the right to criticize it as much as we want" point should be effective, though it might take a while.


I think also it can be hard to separate criticism of group ideas from criticism of the group when what defines the group is the shared ideas.

Ian Andreas Miller

Another great post.

"And I've been running into a baffling new version of the "Shut up, that's why" argument -- one that basically says that any attempt to persuade someone that you're probably right and they're probably mistaken is a form of bigoted intolerance, and a slippery slope to violent oppression."

If that argument is true, how does it apply to itself?


arensb, efrique, Rieux,

I think the story is partly the couple (very prescient) posts Greta and others have written having to do with actively trying NOT to make atheism a "good ol' boys" club, or appeal to misogynistic ideals such as "men are rational, women emotional."

I don't think that's what arensb actually meant but picked unfortunately touchy language with possibly unfortunate unintended implications in a legitimately touchy area.

The "good cop/bad cop" routine and different styles of arguments is entirely legitimate though, and we should totally support it. It's just a little frustrating that the "public face" of the movement is currently mainly white guys-- but I think it's getting better.

Anyway, I just think that's what happened with those comments.

Joshua Zelinsky

This is a problem that exists with many ideas on the New Age end of the spectrum (for lack of a better phrasing) not just religion. Just lack week I was accused in two separate conversations of bigotry for explaining why beliefs didn't make much sense. In one case the belief was about dousing rods and the other one was therapeutic touch. In each case the individual used almost identical wording.

Much of what is labeled theistic arguments are parts of more general defense mechanisms. They are to some extent culturally mediated. Thus we see the same people on the same end of the spectrum using the same arguments (we won't for example be likely to see the bigotry language used by an evangelical Christian). It may thus be helpful to think of these statements as part of more general psychological mechanisms rather than specifically about winning the argument. This is particularly important because it is connected to a very fundamental issue: most theists aren't bad people but they may very well have a lot of defense mechanisms set up to preserve their current belief system (heck we all do to some extent or another).

Lolcat Wolf

"They treat the world inside their own head, their own beliefs about the universe, as primary...."

We ALL do this. As creatures with sensory organs, we experience the world through those senses--but the actual experience is encapsulated in this wee skull up top our bipedal bodies, and there's NOTHING we can do to get out. To someone who hallucinates unicorns, there really ARE unicorns ... even if they understand that they're hallucinating.

It's what forces me into my own little "two brains" phenomenon. On the one brain, I'm an avowed Atheist with a Capital A. I love debating religion--it's a hobby. But on the other brain, I stop short of trying to force myself to ditch every last superstitious response to the world ... because it's my own biologically-filtered, in-skull experience. I'm being compassionate toward my pattern-seeking, anthropomorphizing, chemistry-variable brain, knowing that it can't help but be the product of millions of years of hominid evolution.

I know that I'm not hardwired to think "after I die, I'm dead, that's it," so I don't try to force myself to believe it--I just try to live focused on this life as the only one, an idea that religion denied me. But when I catch one part of my brain imagining something "as if" I were going to live after I die, my atheist brain lets it go on with its bad self ... after all, who am I to stop me?


Well, really, I think the specific example you used - religion vs atheism - is just one example of what I see as an larger (and increasing) tendency for people to be 'sure' that what they believe is true, and therefore further debate is unnecessary. They seem unable to live with the idea of uncertainty in their heads, and so are forced to latch on to one idea stick with it come what may. they seem to need to be 'anchored' to something. And these people occupy ALL sides of every debate. Atheists included.

For instance, I am appalled how the Global Warming debate has taken on a similar quasi-religious, non-scientific nature, at least on the part of some proponents, whereby dissenters' opinions are not calmly and scientifically examined, but instead met with hostility and dismissed out of hand. To me, just calmly examine the facts and the evidence, come to a conclusion if you wish, but stay open to new evidence.

Personally, I think that atheists who are 'sure' in their beliefs must know something I don't, becasue I really don't KNOW for sure whether God exists. I can see both sides as having some good arguments. I couldn't be bothered to get too worked up about it since I see no good way of proving it one way or the other, at least until i enter the afterlife, if it exists.

I see nothing particularly magical about the religion debate in this area - it is really the same in many other areas where people have strong opinions.

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