Why debate questions of religion?

Recently, I took part in a discussion with a friend that touched on issues about which I care very deeply. The rationality of religious belief; the wisdom of religious belief; the nature of knowledge itself--what does it mean to be certain?

Although we did not tread any ground that hasn't been covered before by people with far more pedigree and knowledge, I thought it was a healthy, it somewhat heated, discussion on these "Big Questions" between my nonreligious self and my considerably more religious friend. I was surprised, then, when a third-party posted the following:

"If you are a Atheist. . .Why do you have to challenge GOD????? This is something you chose not to BELIEVE IN. . .Why would you have to have this arguement with members of the Christian Community????? Do you try to challenge a belivers faith in thier GOD just to prove 'your point'? Who appointed you chief antagonist?????

I think you are looking for something in your life that you do not 
have. . .A sense of belonging in a Christian Community. Ah! First you would have to BELIEVE Iin the generousity of GOD."

These words ring with the sound of a defensive anger, somewhere between "how dare you?" and "why can't you just live and let live?" And to a certain extent, I understand. We all have our sacred cows, so to speak, and it can be a deeply affecting, negative experience to have them bluntly criticized by outsiders. And religion is usually the most sacred cow of all.

But while I understand some of this anger, I also believe that it's misplaced. In fact, I think the author of the above comment misunderstands the purpose of the debate in question, and maybe even all similar critical responses to religion from the atheist community. So I feel an obligation to answer, from my point of view, the questions posed.


"If you are a Atheist. . .Why do you have to challenge GOD????? This is something you chose not to BELIEVE IN"

I hate to start with a quibble about spelling and word choice, but I want to clarify that I am an "atheist", not an "Atheist". That capital letter equates atheism with Christianity, Judaism, etc. in a way that I think is inaccurate. Atheism is not a system of belief in the way that an organized religion is. Instead, I consider the word's literal meaning: a-theism, or "without theistic belief". This is important, because it describes a different kind of debate. This was not "Codified Worldview 1 vs. Codified Worldview 2". Instead, the oppositional relationship is "a theistic worldview vs. a nontheistic one". This avoids the messiness of doctrine, dogma, and apologetics.

With that semantic point out of the way, I want to consider the next statement. Am I truly "challenging God"?

From the atheistic perspective, this sentence doesn't carry much meaning. I would argue that, for me, "challenging God" would be the same as "challenging unicorns"--an impossible task, given the nonexistence of the subject matter. I can no more "challenge God" than I can "hate God" or "hug God" or "pray to God". To me, these are meaningless terms and so they cannot be my true intent.

But of course this will be unpersuasive to the believer. So let me make clear in terms that both sides can agree on that I am not challenging any particular god by outlining how I see my position in the debate; I am challenging the foundations of a belief in god or, more generally, the supernatural or divine. In fact, I make clear at several points in the referenced debate that while I believe the existence of a god is unlikely, neither I nor a believer can offer rational PROOF on this front. I can certainly stipulate a hypothetical where a god exists, but where there is no rational reason to believe in him/her/it. That's the position I take in the argument.


". . .Why would you have to have this arguement with members of the Christian Community?????"

First, I think it's fairly obvious that I don't have to argue theological points with religious believers. I choose to do so. More importantly, so do the people I debate with. At no point was this debate an example of atheistic evangelizing. Instead, it was an opportunity for both me and my theistic friend to lay bare our observations and assertions, open for criticism from the other party.

I can't speak on behalf of rank-and-file Christian believers, but I know that, among those who take their beliefs seriously from a scholarly, theological perspective, this kind of self-examination--a willingness to partake in debate and exchange of ideas with those who disagree--is an essential element in cementing their core beliefs. I know it's a trite misquotation to use in my defense, but Socrates' "the unexamined life is not worth living" is a tenet that nearly all theologians and philosophers embrace. What is the value of any worldview or religious belief that cannot endure friendly debate? We live in a world of many competing and often-contradictory religious and non-religious viewpoints. If those viewpoints must remain safely cloistered away, to never be criticized or examined from the outside, then how are we to know if they are of value?


"Do you try to challenge a belivers faith in thier GOD just to prove 'your point'? Who appointed you chief antagonist?????"

There is a famous adage that says that polite conversation should avoid discussions of politics and religion. I couldn't disagree more. This strikes me as nothing more than a recommendation to hide our passions, lest we offend our friends and neighbors. How friendly or neighborly is it to conceal our true selves? It's only by examining the most deeply felt beliefs of those close to me that I gain insight into who they, and I, are as people.

I disagree intensely with any accusation that I am being unnecessarily antagonistic. I know that my writing can sometimes be blunt, and in past conversations I've sometimes crossed a line or two of civility that I wish I could take back. But to suggest that the whole endeavor of debate on Big Questions with those who hold different beliefs is somehow negative and antagonistic? A friend once used the word "incurious" to describe positions like that. And there's nothing that causes me more sadness than to see a lack of curiosity in others.

So, no, I'm not being antagonistic. In the best cases, what I try to be is both a teacher and learner: share what I know, and learn what I don't. I can't think of another way I'd rather be.

While I think what I've written explains well my position in the referenced debate, I don't think it's the only reason for an atheist like me to engage religious followers. My general posture on religious belief is "live and let live", but sometimes this isn't good enough. Here are some other, more pragmatic cases where I might "antagonize", as you say:

  1. If a friend or acquaintance is living according to a set of principles that I believe to be harmful to him or her, I feel that I have a moral obligation to try and offer an alternative. For a nonreligious example, imagine how you might get involved in the life of someone who is being serially abused by their significant other. Surely you would want to make sure they know that there is a wider world out there for them--that they can leave the abuser to find a world filled with support and opportunity. You would want to make sure they know that true loving relationships don't endure the trials of abuse, and that they're not "stuck", that others will stand with them.
Now imagine instead that we're talking about a young woman whose family's beliefs require that she assume a permanently subservient role to the men in her life; that she marry the man of her parent's choosing at the time of her parent's choosing. That her own personal hopes and desires are secondary to the concerns of a faith that is all she's known her entire life.

If you don't share that faith, wouldn't you feel an obligation to at least let this woman know that there is another way to be? That she can live a personally fulfilling life with people who care about her without denigrating her, that she has more inherent worth than that which her family and religion assigns?

In situations like this, where a prevailing religious belief is causing the believer real harm, then I may feel a moral need to offer my perspective, on the slim hope that it may make a positive difference to the believer. Now, you and I may disagree about when religious belief causes harm to the believer, but surely you can understand this intent?

  1. The other major place where I feel it is most appropriate to engage in religious debate is at the intersection of religious belief and public policy. This takes two forms:
    1. The active form: Laws that treat doctrines of faith as though they are empirical fact. Representative laws include those that prohibit abortions and stem cell research, or encourage the teaching of intelligent design. Also representative are laws that enforce a codified, dogmatic morality, such as anti-obscenity laws, or many drug prohibitions.
People have very strong opinions on most of the above political issues, and this essay isn't the appropriate place to debate their intricacies, but every one of them imposes a religious belief on those who may not share it.

And you'll note that the contrary position to these laws is never truly the contrary: nobody would ever suggest the absurd laws of required abortions, or a minimum quota on embryos destroyed for stem cell research, or mandatory drug use, etc. These are the moral equivalents, in the other direction, of the laws at issue.

I'm strongly of the belief that a free government should be agnostic in intent, and that the best laws would represent this. What pro-choice laws, drug legalization movements, etc. do is give people some credit. They say "we trust you to make your own moral judgments, you don't need the arm of the law to compel your behavior. Those of you who are opposed to drug use won't use drugs, and those of you who are not opposed may choose to do so.."

Of course there are many subtle complications to all of these issues, and my goal is not to get mired in policy debate, but you get the point--there is religiously-originated morality to many such laws, and that fact carries with it the potential to rob many of their personal liberties.

    1. The passive form: These instances may not seem as important at first, but their additive effect is still quite powerful. Can you, for a moment, imagine a world where:
      • Your currency boldly stated "WE TRUST IN NO GOD"
      • You pledged your allegiance to "one nation, UNDER NO GOD AT ALL"
      • Your children's school days began with a moment of silence to reflect on the nonexistence of any divine entity?
I would imagine that these scenarios all seem like an affront, an insult to your faith. If so, then you've started to understand what life is like for the attentive nonbeliever. Whether this country was founded as a Christian nation or not (and I strongly believe 'not'), it's certainly not one now. Yes, Christianity is the dominant religion, but a majority-rule society does not mean a minority-oppressed one. This is a nation of Jews, Christians, Muslims, nonbelievers, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikh, and many others. Is the faith of the believer so weak as to need constant reassurance whenever he or she buys a candy bar? You can trust in God while I don't, and we can both live in America while doing so. You don't need to be told what to do by your pocket change.

So those times--when religious belief leads to suffering, or when those who hold non-religious worldviews are the victims of passive prejudice or unfair dismissal--will also sometimes warrant what you call antagonism. But at no point do we engage in this simply to "prove our point".


"I think you are looking for something in your life that you do not have. . .A sense of belonging in a Christian Community. Ah! First you would have to BELIEVE Iin the generousity of GOD."

With this, you've switched from defense to offense. I'll try to maintain my good behavior, but I'd be lying if I didn't tell you that this line of thought is intensely aggravating to many of us in the secular community.

There's not much I can say about your second assertion: you're right that, in order to have a sense of belonging in the Christian community, I would probably first have to believe in the generosity of its god.

But so what? If Christians share this belief, it leads to a sense of belonging: fine. But the belief in question could still be wrong. That something feels powerfully true does not make it so, and the fact that some churchgoers get that warm and fuzzy feeling? That's in no way a compelling reason to feel it myself. You might be right about god and belief, or you might be mistaken or deluded. It takes a lot of hubris to claim to definitively know the difference.

As to your first assertion, that I must be looking to fill a hole in my life...oh, brother! I've heard this so many times from religious believers who simply can't comprehend how someone could possibly lead a fulfilling life without feeling the presence of the divine. It's as though they assume that no nonbeliever has ever come from a religious background, has never experienced what they have experienced. More incredible hubris!

If you truly think that it's necessarily more difficult, or even impossible, to live a happy and fulfilled life without the presence of a god, well--you're just outright mistaken. My own life is far from perfect, but it's been a very long time since any of the "holes" in it were remotely God-shaped. My inspirations, my comforts, my passions, and my happiness all come from elsewhere.  It doesn't feel like I'm "missing" anything.  You're welcome to think that nonbelievers like me are mistaken in our feelings of fulfillment, but your insistence that I must be experiencing a "hole in my life" pretends an insight into the secular mind that you just don't seem to have.

The Christian community boasts many good people, but from the outside looking in, we nonmembers can see the ugly fringes of it that you don't always notice: the bigoted bible-thumpers, the holier-than-thou theologians, the simplistic Christian Nation "patriots", and so on. Any community that allows their extremist, hateful behavior--even on its fringes--isn't one that I want to be a part of. The only Christian groups that earn my respect are the ones that explicitly condemn this kind of talk and action.

We atheists have our bad guys, too. But you'll never hear me, by virtue of my silence, implicitly agreeing with those who call all religious believers 'stupid' or who think that all childhood religious instruction is "child abuse". That stuff's ridiculous, and I'll gladly say so.

There are things I envy about religious communities, there's no doubt about that. Religious communities often do good works in their neighborhoods and cities, and can provide charity and safe haven for those who are "down-and-out". Further, the whole idea of "community"--people who care for and look out for one another--is an appealing one. But none of that has anything to do with a guy on a cross.

I hope, in the course of this response, I've answered the questions at the heart of the original message. I'm happy to discuss this further, and have left the comments sections open both here and on Facebook, with the following stipulation: disagree with me and one another all you like, but be civil.

(Last edited 03:03AM EDT,  06.27.10 to correct minor grammar errors)


  1. Well written! Bravo. And +oil.

  2. Another great essay. Reading this and following the debate on your Facebook page have certainly got me thinking.