Austin Cline on "Why Don't Theists Believe What Atheists Tell Them About Atheism?"

Question: When atheists explain why they became atheists, what atheism is, and what atheism is not, religious theists (and especially Christians) often refuse to accept what they hear. This happens even when atheists just answer a specific question which they were asked. Why do theists behave this way? What can I do about it?

Response: Most atheists who have had discussions with religious theists, especially Christians, about religion, theism, and atheism have probably experienced this. The atheist explains something about their own atheism (like why they became an atheist) or about atheism generally (like what atheism is) and the religious theist refuses to believe them. Even if the theist asked a direct question and is receiving a direct answer, they act as though they already knew the answer and dismiss what the atheist says.

Typically, the religious theist claims that the atheist is somehow "in denial" about the truth. They didn't really become an atheist because they realized that the arguments for the existence for gods were flawed, they became an atheist because they wanted to live immoral lives without having to be answerable to God. Atheism isn't really just the lack of belief in gods, it's an anti-God, anti-Christian religious ideology dedicated to the eradication of religious liberty and the imposition of a secular, socialist dictatorship.

These beliefs held by the religious theist have little or nothing to do with reality, but they are announced with great conviction and sincerity. No matter what the atheist says or does, it will appear to have little impact — the theist will remain convinced of whatever they believed from the outset, and contact with a real atheist who reflects none of these things is not seen as any reason to reconsider. Given all this, why did the theist ask any questions in the first place? Why ask questions when you are convinced you already know the answer and will not be swayed by any contrary answers, evidence, or arguments you might hear?

The answer, I think, is that Christians asking such questions aren't asking real questions at all. A real question is an admission of ignorance, an expression of a desire to learn more, and an invitation for someone to help a person expand their knowledge, understanding, and horizons. People can only ask genuine questions on the premise that there are things they should or could know which they don't already know, that they might be mistaken about some of the things they think they know, and that one might need to change in the future. Given these conditions, how often do Christians ask genuine questions of atheists? Not very often, in my experience.

Instead, it's more common for Christians to only ask rhetorical questions about atheism and atheists. They are like parents asking their children what happened to the missing cookie: the parents know very well what happened and are only interested in seeing if their children will own up to what they did. Atheists who admit to being hateful and in denial about God are children who have done wrong, but can be redeemed because they acknowledge their sins. Atheists who refuse to admit this are twice damned: not only do they hate and deny God, but they refuse to even be honest enough to admit what they have done.

Of course, many of the questions people ask in their daily lives don't quite fall into either extreme. It's common for us to neither be absolutely convinced of the answer in advance nor 100% open to new and exciting information from the person before us. We all have assumptions and biases which cause us, quite unconsciously I think, to form opinions in advance about what sorts of answers we will receive from many of our questions. We may not know why a politician is advocating a particular policy, but long before we get a response to our question we may be suspicious that influence from lobbyists, racism, indifference to the poor, or other unsavory sources are involved.

Even so, how often do we voice our suspicions or denials to the person who just answered our question? Even when we have strong suspicions, we are unlikely to say so right away; instead, we generally take what is said to us at face value. Hardly anyone ever tries to start an argument by claiming that the answer is just a lie designed to cover up one's denial of reality. If we say anything, it will be to someone else later on where we quietly voice our reservations, suspicions, and concerns.

For some reason, though, such basic courtesy and respect tend to be lacking when it comes to how Christians treat atheists. A Christian who would never say to a person "you didn't marry him for love, you married him for his money!" has no qualms with saying "you didn't leave Christianity because you were persuaded by stronger arguments for atheism, you left because you had bad experiences with a bad church!" (or some other excuse). How many of these same Christians will be found in other situations claiming that atheists are the ones who are rude, disrespectful, and intolerant?

Most atheists probably don't mind answering genuine questions about their atheism or about atheism generally, but they also probably aren't the least interested in faux questions from someone who arrogantly presumes to already know the answers. If they were completely honest, they wouldn't ask "why are you an atheist?" but simply say "I don't know you, have never met with you, have never spoken with you, don't know any of your friends or family, and didn't even know of your existence until 10 minutes ago, but I know exactly why you are an atheist."

Put that way, of course, it's an absurd position to adopt and those who are inclined to try should stop themselves before they get that far. Atheists who encounter it should refuse to play their game. Rephrase their rhetorical question into the declarative assertion that it really is and make the theist support what they are saying. The chances of them coming up with anything reasonable are so small that you're practically guaranteed a quick end to a conversation that was never going to go anywhere productive anyway.



goprairie said...

One thing that saying you are an atheist says is that you have given religion a great deal of thoughtful analysis and rejected it. Often, that means that you have read the Bible more, studied aspects of it more deeply, thought about it more critically and intelligently, than the Christian you are talking to. They have been to church and hear sermons and read the parts they have been told to read, but have not read into the deep contradictory recesses of their Bible and they have not allowed their brains to logically think thru such conflicts as how an all powerful God can selectively answer prayer, how an all loving God can have designed such apparently flawed bodies and systems, and so on. To allow such thoughts in would allow doubts in and they live in a world of denial. If they can dismiss you quickly, they don't need to think about how much you have thought about this and how you might actually know something they don't want to know, lest it pry their own tiny crack of doubt dangerously open wider.

Richard H said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Richard H said...

I agree that they're not really interested in hearing a sincere answer, but I think there might be a deeper reason.

I'm not vegetarian. I recognize that there are lots of good moral arguments for vegetarianism (or at least, significantly different practices when purchasing food).

For a long time, I was kind of hostile to vegetarians, viewing them as proselytizing and overly idealistic. But, after a while, it occurred to me that there wasn't really any good reason to think this.

When I was around them, they reminded me of my own doubts, and the arguments I suspected were right. I definitely felt pressure. And I mistakenly assumed that the other person was the cause.

Changing my practices would take a good deal of effort, so it was easier to write vegetarians off as a bunch of proselytizing hippies. Listening to other people talk to vegetarians, I heard a similar (almost irrationally annoyed) conversation happen fairly often. Normally reasonable people would get much more defensive on this topic than they ever would over a normal disagreement.

I think hostile theists might be doing the same thing. When they're around atheists, no matter how polite, they're reminded of arguments that they suspect have merit.

I don't think they really think I'm in denial. Nor are is their rhetoric a serious attempt to convince the atheist of anything.

Instead, 'atheists are in denial' might be an easy story that lets the theist set the matter aside as resolved, and turns the conversation away from topics that inflame their already existing doubts.

(Sorry for the re-post. My spell checker was disabled, and it turns out that I rely on it quite a bi)

dguller said...


In psychology, that's called "projection". We unconsciously project disliked aspects of ourselves onto others as a way of defending ourselves from the truth that we have such unwanted qualities, and thus preserve our self-conception as fundamentally good and valuable.

That said, there are probably a large number of different explanations for why believers behave in the way that the post described. Some behaviour is conscious, some unconscious, and most is a combination of both. It is often fun to psychoanalyze other people's behaviour, and it can provide valuable insights, but we should remind ourselves of certain facts.

First, we ALL engage in the same defensive activities to protect our self-esteem. Believers are not different in this regard.

Second, we can never really know whether the unconscious defense mechanisms that we postulate to explain someone's behaviour are actually true. Thus, this is all speculation.

Third, as easily as we can psychoanalyze others as a way of dismissing their beliefs, this can easily be done to us, as well. As Dostoevsky wrote: "psychology is a two-edged sword". Therefore, it is usually best to avoid such explanations when in a discussion.

Now, this does not mean that we should not engage in trying to uncover the deeper, unconscious motivations that underlie people’s behaviour. It is often essential to do so, especially when someone has an exaggerated response to a seemingly harmless trigger or cue. My only point in bringing up these points is that we have to be aware of the limitations of this method, but that does not imply that we should not use it.

So, psychoanalyze away! But, keep the above points in mind as you do so. :)

PersonalFailure said...

I think Richard is absolutely right.

If the theist accepts that the atheist used to be a sincere believer, then the theist must also accept that it is possible for sincere believers such as themselves to become atheists. This frightens them, so they simply deny that it was ever true. I was never a sincere believer, or I am not currently a sincere nonbeliever. Either option is significantly less frightening than the concept that they themselves might someday not believe.

Leah Elliott Hauge said...

I had a theist read my de-conversion story and then "dare" me to give church one more try. He said, "I promise if you will go, you will know it is true." I think that he just can't conceive that he could possibly be wrong, and so he doesn't believe me when I say that I really don't believe in God anymore.

This was my response to him.

Joshua Jung said...

I wonder if people who are used to hearing answers without having questions are frightened by someone who has lots of questions but doesn't seem to have an ultimate answer.

It probably makes them feel like they are being dragged into an epistemological abyss, so they simply write us off from the start by saying that if we don't have an "ultimate" answer, we probably can't be trusted on anything - including what we say about why we became atheists.

Brent Rasmussen said...

That is a very good piece by Austin. Thanks for posting it so that I could read it again.

I have often come across this same thing when communicating with theists over the years. (Christians in particular, but not exclusively.)

There is no good way that I have found to counter this except to be a clear, concise, and as cogent as possible in your statements, definitions, and arguments. Austin is very good at this. (As are you John.)

Keep fighting the good fight!

Rex said...

In reading this post and the comments, I am reminded of a quote that I think of more and more with regard to trying to have a logical discussion about God / atheism with theists:

"Strange game. The only winning move is not to play"

Stolen from an '80s movie. Bonus points to anyone who knows which one!

Brent Rasmussen said...

(Good movie!)

Ryan Peter said...

Goodness me, you know how many times I've been asked by atheists why I'm a Christian and, after replying as to why, I'm told "No, it's actually because your parents and culture taught you to be one," or some similar response.

This post, like some others at this site, is another pot calling the kettle black...

Chuck O'Connor said...

The temptation to behave like the theist described is one of the reasons I can no longer identify with the evangelical church. There is a call for believers to save souls as if the knowledge agreed upon within a church community when shared will lead to perfection. It doesn't and I always knew that (even when I identified as Christian). Facing that truth made me realize that the shared myths of Christianity are like any other cultural stories - they may help strengthen social connections and drive down anxiety but, at heart they are nothing but metaphor. Ironically, it is a theist's words that I hold to know when seeking better knowledge than what I currently have, "If you want enlightenment, don't seek the truth, just drop all of your opinions." (Anthony deMello)

Mark Plus said...

Typically, the religious theist claims that the atheist is somehow "in denial" about the truth. They didn't really become an atheist because they realized that the arguments for the existence for gods were flawed, they became an atheist because they wanted to live immoral lives without having to be answerable to God.

Christians use the phrase "immoral life" as a code for "sexual promiscuity" or something to that effect. But I've also heard christians claim that straight atheist men have trouble finding sex partners. Shouldn't christians who believe in the latter stereotype congratulate atheist men for their sexual abstinence?

Piratefish said...

Ryan Peter>
In defense of theists(I'm atheist), when we ask christians why they believe, we often make the same mistake. We assume they believe because they have a weak personality, born into it, have a personal crisis etc.. We all have assumptions and biases which we can't avoid, this is especially so because these are completely different and mutually exclusive belief systems, that's just the way it is.

Dick said...

I have talked to both theists and atheists and as far as I can tell their is no difference between them and their thinking (strength of belief), attitude or hostilities.
In other words, both are disagreeable, unyielding, arrogant.

Kel said...

Of the many years of Christians pressing me about beliefs, not a single one has ever come close to being able to describe why I'm a non-believer. Even after laying it out, they still just don't seem to get it. At best they just ignore my response and proceed to ask questions about how I explain X, but usually no matter what I say the real reason I don't believe is whatever they think and they proceed to preach to me on their misconceptions.

It's quite frustrating really, I do my best not to misrepresent the reasons why they tell me they believe and I try to listen to them to gain insight. Oh well, as the proverb goes "do onto others..."

danielg said...

You might enjoy this post of mine on the topic.

Are you a Christian because of your experiences, or because of logic?