Can't We All Just Get Along?

I found myself muttering this question to myself today. But I think the answer to it is "No." Sometimes we just can't get along. Sometimes fundamental beliefs and worldviews are so diametrically opposed that people just can't come together. At least not on that topic or in that area.

Religion and atheism are like oil and water, or liberals and conservatives. They just don't mix. Of course when the subject comes up, I've found that to change the subject to less volatile topics can lead to friendships budding between unlikely opposites. As long as you leave the hot-button topics off the table.

After all, just like my religious friends, I love, laugh, sleep, eat, have relationships, have pets, etc, just like they do. We can get along on these topics, even the ones where we don't match up all the way. For instance, I can understand my friends when they talk about their kids even though I'm (happily) childless. This is mainly due to my empathy (yes, atheists have empathy too. We're not sociopaths. [We do eat babies on special occasions, though. Of course.]).

But when it comes to talking about religion and atheism, things inevitably get tense, misunderstandings occur, and it generally ends up ugly at some point. Even when I have worked very very hard to be fair, gentle, kind, thoughtful and honest, it still ends up going sour eventually. After awhile, you hit nerves. Big ones. And it's not pretty.

And hitting a nerve can happen when you least expect it. On my other blog I simply said, "Reason trumps faith completely. Reason and faith are the antithesis of each other."

I think that's pretty straightforward, isn't it? In that forum I have defined faith at least once. Faith is strong or unshakeable belief without evidence or proof. So how is my statement condescending and offensive? It's just a fact. And yet that is how it is perceived.

I'm not saying that some people can't get along. But in my personal experience, and in listening to how others have done it, the only way seems to be to avoid the hot button issues and focus on what you have in common. When worldviews are diametrically opposed, people get passionate.

Remember we talked about Terror Management Theory? I'm going one step further and have just downloaded a copy of Michael Shermer's new book, The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies---How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths. I think maybe that will help me to understand people, because right now I try, but religious thinking and faith are a complete mystery to me.

Do you interact with people who have diametrically opposed worldviews to your own? How do you get along with them? What works for you?


  1. I wonder how the religious would define faith?

    Knowing something without verifiable evidence?

  2. Good question. I think I'll ask, if I can. :)

  3. A large part of why religious people have such problems with truth is that they never have to encounter it in their insulated little cults.

    And, they're so convinced of their superiority they JUST don't understand how that is condescending to anyone.

    One of the quotes on the other blog was about Atheists walking through gravity every day and not perceiving it, or something like that. Well, shit, people - calling us ignorant every other word doesn't help you either.

    "ignorance is blissfull" - WTF?? And, while you're at it, F*ck you!

    But yet we're the ones with the problem? Yeah, I have a problem, and it's religious freaks.

  4. I have to agree that the comment that ignorance (of Hell) is blissful was at least as offensive as anything else, although I considered it a thinly veiled form of Pascal's Wager that made me smirk more than anything else.

    Perhaps more to the point, I've got detailed translated accounts of Tartarus, a copy of the Divina Commedia that lays out the original Italian on one page and modern English on the next, and a plethora of works describing e.g. Norse and Egyptian mythologies as well as an overview of African mythology in general — including, of course, the various visions of the rough equivalent of Tartarus. I haven't read all of them, but I am at least familiar with the broad concepts of most of these mythologies (including their underworlds/afterlives) and I would expect most atheists to have a greater familiarity with various concepts of Hell as opposed to wallowing in ignorance.

    Maybe I don't have such explicit problems with it because I expect it or what not, but of course things change if something that can't be construed nearly as offensive or condescending is said and the response consists of complaints only.

  5. Here is the quote from the other blog:

    “being an atheist is sort of like walking through gravity every day and denying that it exists” (Patrick Madrid)

    Yes, Shelley, it really gets me hot under the collar too.

  6. I agree, Frans, I think most atheists are probably well versed in many different religions (not just the TRUE one, lol) including what those religions believe the afterlife to be like.

    I could have a conversation with religious people so much easier if they weren't so condescending and holier than thou. That really makes my blood boil. And then to be accused of being condescending myself? I just don't get it. How is stating a definition condescending? WTF?

  7. Yes, precisely. It's just like the whole stuff with the cherry-picking. It's a statement that's about as neutral as can be.

  8. Here is the answer I got:

    "Faith begins with a search for truth, and when finding it, an embrace of that truth and then an ardent (but imperfect) attempt to live it out. And certainly, it involves believing in something that exists beyond the confines of what can be seen with the eye. That doesn’t mean it can’t be seen, however, just not with human instruments."

  9. Exactly, Frans! That was so telling, wasn't it? The cherry picking thing boggled my mind!

  10. Also, many Xtians define faith biblically. Heb 11:1 says, "Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see."

    Or in other words, believing stuff without reason. And they consider that a virtue. Even when I was a believer myself, that didn't make sense to me.

  11. So, I think we can all see that what they are saying is that yes, faith is believing without evidence. Note that the implication is that not only is the the thing in which faith is placed impossible to detect, but that it will always remain so. It's just dressed up in pretty words to sound like it might mean something different. There are plenty of things that we cannot see, but can detect- that is an equivocation(see/detect). Finally, to say that God cannot be detected is to say that he has no effect on the world.

  12. In the entire history of the world gods have only manifested where there is either a basic, fundamental, and overpowering ignorance of the natural order of things or a power hungry monarch who wants to use religion to control the population. Sometimes both. For example, Zeus was alive and well for many years hurling lightning bolts to earth, and disappeared only when his pantheon was outlawed and people stopped worshiping him.

    No real, serious debate of atheism vs religion can happen until we address that underlying ignorance that is held as a virtue by religious people and reinforced by religious dogma. Isn't this really what the debate is about?

    Atheist: "Lets try and think this through rationally."
    Believer: sticks fingers in ears "lalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalala"
    Atheist: "Hey, try and have an open mind and see things from my perspective."
    Believer: "The Bible says a closed mind is a virtue; the Devil can get in through an open mind!"

    I try to remember to have compassion for them, because when they discuss their belief system with us we tend to present fairly compelling evidence that the entire foundation for what they believe about the whole universe and beyond is a pack of lies and fairy tales. That puts them on pretty shaky ground from the get go. What would you expect their response to be? "Oh I can see where I was relying on faulty logic to support a flawed belief system." Never gonna happen. Best case scenario they just clam up and leave, worst case it degenerates into retaliation from perceived personal attacks.

    Maybe one day down the road, after their faith has been shaken to the core can we hope for them to reexamine how they came about believing in things that lack distinct, supporting evidence, and find a new way to view the world around them. Until then, expect resistance.

    PS...I really dig your blog and appreciate the work that you do to help bring atheists out of the closet and present us to the world without our Halloween know, the bug eyed monster thing!

  13. One of the things mentioned by Michael Shermer in 'The Believing Mind', which was also pointed out 100 years earlier by Bertrand Russell in 'Mysticism and Logic', is that belief comes before reason. The famous study by Skinner, on superstitious behaviour in pigeons, supports an evolutionary basis for this; pigeons not being highly regarded for their ability to think rationally. The point of this is that not only is a 'belief', in gods or other magical beings, not rational but it actually occurs independent of rationality. You cannot often be successful in the use of reason to argue against someone's beliefs; those beliefs are the foundation rather than the result of their thinking. That is, they start from a fixed position and compare all new data with their 'belief', that which doesn't agree is discarded. Once you realise this, it is much easier to understand the people, and why such discussions become circular. Reason is more effective in the support of existing beliefs than it is in their removal.

  14. I love that superstitious pigeon study. That was brilliant. The thing I found the most interesting about that study was that the pigeons eventually Learned that their actions weren't helping so they stopped. Whereas humans just rationalize and continue the same superstitious behavior, or worse, even add to it.

    I think I would disagree with you on one small point, Bitzer. I think that you can almost Never reason someone out of their beliefs. Not unless they go out of their way to reevaluate them on their own.

    Other than that I totally agree with you! The belief comes first, the rationalization comes second. And reason doesn't rid people of their beloved beliefs.

  15. Hi Joe,
    Thanks so much for the compliment. :) You made my week!

    Now, I have to say I agree with you. Most notably when you said, "I try to remember to have compassion for them, because when they discuss their belief system with us we tend to present fairly compelling evidence that the entire foundation for what they believe about the whole universe and beyond is a pack of lies and fairy tales. That puts them on pretty shaky ground from the get go. What would you expect their response to be?"

    You're so right. We're really threatening them. That's something we should all remember.
    Thanks again! :)

  16. Yes, good point, MJ. It says right in the bible that faith is belief without evidence.