Why Religious Believers Are So Desperate for the Atheist Seal of Approval

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“But surely you don’t mean my religion!”

If you hang around the online atheist world long enough, you’ll notice an interesting pattern. Many religious and spiritual believers who engage with atheists seem very intent on getting atheists’ approval for their beliefs.

Typically, these believers acknowledge that many religions are profoundly troubling. They share atheists’ revulsion against religious hatreds and sectarian wars. They share our repugnance with religious fraud, the charlatans who abuse people’s trust to swindle them out of money and sex and more. They share our disgust with willful religious ignorance, the flat denials of overwhelming scientific evidence that contradicts people’s beliefs. They can totally see why many atheists are so incredulous, even outraged, about the world of religion.

But they think their religion is an exception. They think their religion is harmless, a kinder, gentler faith. They think their religion is philosophically consistent, supported by reason and evidence — or at least, not flatly contradicted by it.

And they want atheists to agree.

They really, really want atheists to agree. They want atheists to say, “No, of course, your beliefs aren’t like all those others — those other beliefs are crazy, but yours make sense.” Or they want atheists to say, “Wow, I hadn’t heard that one before — how fascinating and well thought-out!” Of course they understand why atheists object to all those other bad religions. They just don’t understand why we object to theirs. They get very hurt when we object to theirs. And they will spend a significant amount of time and energy trying to persuade us to stop objecting.


Why do they care what atheists think?


Thus begins my latest piece for AlterNet, Why Religious Believers Are So Desperate for the Atheist Seal of Approval. To find out why I think many believers try so hard to get the atheist seal of approval, read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

Why Religious Believers Are So Desperate for the Atheist Seal of Approval

26 thoughts on “Why Religious Believers Are So Desperate for the Atheist Seal of Approval

  1. 2

    I agree with every word (including the ones that the Bee Gees are annoying ;-D).
    I think it says something that in all the years I’ve interacted with believers online, I have never once done so in a religious/woo venue of any kind. They have all been believers coming to atheist and skeptic blogs and forums. More than once I wondered why, what do they all actually want going to those places? What do they expect?
    I agree this is surely one of the reasons they keep coming.

  2. 5

    I haven’t seen a ton of this, but the “you’ll accept me if I also bash evil organized religion” thing is familiar; I’ve even gotten it from a Christisn fundamentalist. (“Yeah, I believe in the homophobic parts of the Bible, and I think gay people should get civil unions and no custody/adoption rights, but I sure do hate that religious right, and not wanting to outlaw or lynch gays makes me a ‘moderate’, so really we’re on the same side.”)
    Which is worse than the people I think this article is about, but it does highlight the absurdity of “my religion is the OK kind” syndrome.
    Actually, this reminds me of my plan for the next time someone equates “moderate” with “reasonable”. I would like to know if a “moderate” stance on slavery was intrinsically more reasonable than abolitionism. Or if we should have been moderate in supporting women’s suffrage. Sometimes it’s appropriate to just completely, openly disagree with a whole lot of other people.

  3. 7

    “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a person possessed of religious belief must be in want of atheist approval.”
    Apologies to Jane Austen and my fellow Janeites.
    PS: My previous attempt at posting ended in mysterious deletion; thus I reiterate my admiration for Greta’s richly insightful article. Well Done.

  4. 8

    After much googling about, I cannot locate any hint of what “The Argument From Tigers” might be. (Note: After the 2nd search, I started using “-woods” to filter out articles about that stupid, boring, uninteresting golfer, so if had something to with him, that’s why I missed it. (The fact that boring morons like him pollute my google searches is yet another reason I despair for humanity.))

  5. 9

    Well, in the meantime, shall we speculate on the Argument From Tigers?
    Tigers have such glorious stripes, therefore god exists.
    Tigers are carnivorous, therefore god is not a vegan.
    Tigers have a “fearful symmetry”, as does god, therefore they both exist.
    That’s all I can think of.

  6. 11

    Ah, Plantinga aka Flora-ga. So his argument might be:
    If you can imagine a tiger, then a tiger must exist on some world. And if a tiger exists on some world, it must necessarily exist on all worlds. Therefore, tigers and god exist.
    Or as Chris Matthews says, “Ha!”

  7. 13

    The Argument from Tigers goes roughly like this:
    “Atheists think nothing is more powerful than human beings.” (No, we don’t, but let’s not get off track here.)
    “But there are things more powerful than human beings. Tigers, for instance, can eat human beings.
    “Therefore, it makes sense to think that there is an even greater power, more powerful than both humans and tigers.
    “Therefore, God.”
    (And its corollary: “Therefore, the particular god I believe in is real.”)
    I know. It doesn’t make sense to me, either.

  8. 14

    I’m an atheist Buddhist and certainly don’t care what anybody thinks. I won’t even invite anyone to the zen temple I go to.
    It’s true, however, that many Japanese temples abuse their position in extracting large fees for funeral services but not offering any other services.

  9. 15

    [Cross-posted from Facebook]
    I can think of two possible flaws with the “argument from tiger” analogy.
    (1) While tigers might be more powerful than humans, they are also nearly extinct. Perhaps the same could be said about god or gods?
    (2) My son attends college at LSU. Their mascot is Mike the Tiger. Mike serves humans as the team mascot and not the reverse:
    Geaux Tigers.

  10. Lee

    Thanks for the article. It is another good one from atheist.
    Until now, there’s no evidance that there’s life after death nor there’s no life after death. So it is smarter to say there’s no life after death, even we still don’t know it for sure.
    But, to be sure for current human knowledge, death is certain. And no one can insured that there’s no life after death.
    So, please give me the suggestion. What is the better preparation to the unknown after we die?
    Religions are all about preparation to things after death. Until there’s science advancement about this subject, religions are still considered good choices.
    To me, science still don’t have option about this. So religion is the only way to be prepared, period.
    It’s like buying another insurance. We never know for sure, that there’s life after death or not. And there’s no insurance we can buy from sciences, but it is such an important subject when we think about it. So we end up to religion as the best choice.
    But instead of pay money, we have to pay time and attention for that. And we are OK and happy if there’s nothing after death, like we don’t expect our house to be on fire when we buy house insurance.
    I really wish there’s NO life after death. But if there’s possibility, I’ve to be prepared because it is an important subject.
    To me, I never want seal of approval nor think that athiest is smarter. But it is not a good sign when someone say ther’re superior than others.
    PS: Sorry for my grammar, I’m not native speaker.

  11. 18

    Sure, science offers no advice as to how to provide for life after death, seeing as there doesn’t seem to be any such thing as life after death.
    But, the advice that religion does offer is no better, for the exact same reason: there’s no evidence that there’s life after death and therefore there’s no indication that religious behavior has any effect on it.
    And that’s before we get into the two major problems of anything akin to Pascals Wager (which this is): (1) How do you choose which religion to listen to for advice? (2) Is the putative benefit worth the significant costs that religion incurs in the real world?

  12. 19

    I am not entirely convinced that they are searching for the Atheist Seal of Approval. It could by a simple case of SIWOTI, as some people in the Alternet comment thread have pointed out.

  13. 20

    Lee: What is the better preparation to the unknown after we die?
    Courage – same as for before we die.
    You’re raising one of the many forms of what’s called “Pascal’s Wager” here, especially as you’re looking for “insurance”. That’s a different priority from “knowledge”, which is usually the first question for rationalists.
    Pls allow me to quote two favorite writers:
    Terry Pratchett:

    …the Quirmian philosopher Ventre, who said, ‘Possibly the gods exist, and possibly they do not. So why not believe in them in any case? If it’s all true you’ll go to a lovely place when you die, and if it isn’t then you’ve lost nothing, right?’ When he died he woke up in a circle of gods holding nasty-looking sticks and one of them said, ‘We’re going to show you what we think of Mr. Clever Dick in these parts…'”

    Thomas Jefferson probably put it best:

    Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must approve the homage of reason rather than of blind-folded fear. Do not be frightened from this inquiry by any fear of its consequences…. If it end in a belief that there is no god, you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you feel in its exercise and in the love of others it will procure for you.

  14. 21

    One tiger may be more powerful than one human, but humans as a whole are more powerful than tigers as a whole. Therefore… um… humanity is more powerful than god? Or something?

  15. 22

    Lee: There are some basic problems with your “insurance” argument (more commonly known as Pascal’s Wager):
    1) The “insurance” argument assumes that there is only one religion to bet on. In fact, there are thousands — many of which contradict each other. How do you know which one to bet on? If you worship the Christian god, and the Muslim god turns out to be the real one, you could be angering him and condemning yourself to hell. And vice versa. And further vice versas for every one of the thousands of gods people believe in.
    2) The “insurance” argument assumes that we don’t have any idea what happens when we die. This is not the case. The sciences of neurology and neuropsychology are, admittedly, in their infancy, and we don’t yet understand very well what consciousness is. But an overwhelming body of evidence points to the conclusion that, whatever consciousness is, it is a biological product of the brain. We have no reason to think that it survives when the brain dies. “Afterlife” and “no afterlife” are not equally plausible bets — the latter is far, far more likely than the former.
    3) The “insurance” argument assumes that there are no costs to betting on God if no god exists. This is clearly not the case. Believing in god makes people change their behavior in this life. If you gave up things you wanted, or did things you didn’t want to do, because you thought it would earn you a place in heaven, then you made a bad bet. And if you treated other people badly — like voting against same-sex marriage, or giving money to a church that protects child rapists — because you thought it would earn you a place in heaven, then you made a *really* bad bet.
    4) Believing because you think it’s a safer bet isn’t sincere belief. It’s pretend belief. If God were real, he wouldn’t be fooled by it.

  16. 23

    The “Why not?” argument certainly sounds like a safe bet.
    Ask any believer how they “know” there is a God/Gods. They will all say “I just know.” or “I can feel it in my soul.” or something similar.
    Now you are asking us to believe in a god just as an insurance policy. You are implying that we should just fake it and go through the motions in case there is actually an after-life of some sort.
    What if we choose the wrong one? What if after we die we wake up on the banks of the river Styx and when we start asking about Jesus they laugh at us because we don’t have any coins to pay the ferry man, so we are stuck on the boring side of the river for eternity with Pat Robertson and a bunch of molesters.
    Insurance is sold on fear. I am not afraid. I am not interested in buying what you are selling. I’ll take my chances with logic and sanity and keep my 10% in my pocket and meet you on the other side.
    “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”
    รขย€ย” Mark Twain

  17. Lee

    Dear Grega,
    Thank you for explanations, they’re very well thought and worth spreading. That’s what I’ve thought also. It’s good that Digg.com landed me here unintentionally.
    Personally, I don’t believe that god can judge someone to go to heaven or hell. But what I found all religions share a same basic, doing good is considered safe even you are not join that religion, like do no harm to others.
    There’re 2 ways to get happiness, inside and outside. It’s quite not necessary to do a lot thing to get happiness, come out from sadness or rely on feeling that happened from something you can’t control. Consciousness is the only thing it take.
    I pay for my insurance this way, meditation or be conscious. And that’s make me easier to be happy at any time, without doing much. To me, it’s not bad to pay.
    It up to what we do more than what god want, in fact my religion say we shouldn’t rely on gods because they also under some rules. But to think about them in not a good way have no benefit also. Things are mainly rely to your own karma.
    To be consiousness, it’s like you have learned from many famouse self-help courses founded in Amazon.com for free and even get better result.
    Einstein said about the religion I do insurance with “could cope with modern scientific needs”.
    Now you know which religion I’m talking about ๐Ÿ˜‰
    It’s not necessaries to join any religion to get this concept, it’s already there in everybody.
    Just a thought, every life are friends. Emotions come and go, they can be controlled with consciousness. Even though it may be just chemical reactions or whatever how meaningless it is in present neuroscience or forever.
    Wish you all the happiness.

  18. 25

    But what I found all religions share a same basic, doing good is considered safe even you are not join that religion, like do no harm to others.

    I’m sorry, Lee, but that’s simply not true. Not all religions have that idea in common. There are plenty of religions who think that adhering to their beliefs is absolutely necessary for salvation, and that people of other religions, even if they are good people, are still going to burn in hell. Fundamentalist Christianity is one of them.
    There is pretty much nothing that all religious beliefs have in common, other than a belief in some sort of non-physical entity or force that has an effect on the physical world (or that had an effect on the physical world at one time). Apart from that, world religions are wildly divergent and contradictory, with virtually nothing in common.

  19. 26

    Good evening;
    Ms. Christina, I’ve enjoyed most of your blogs, but, this one just does not cut it.
    Sorry, it does not even bear a comment.
    thank you

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