Why I Do What I Do

“Why do you waste your time making arguments against religion?”

A surprisingly large number of atheists say things like this. “Arguing against religion never works. Religious beliefs are too irrational, they’re held for emotional reasons, not intellectual ones. So there’s no point making rational arguments against them.”

I would like, respectfully, to disagree. Emails like the one I got today are why. From Laura, reprinted with her permission:

I am going to endeavor to make this email not brown-nosey or starry-eyed, but I have a feeling that I’m going to fail miserably, so bear with me.

Your blog has helped me grow, and given me comfort, and made me a better person.
I’m dating an atheist, and he is the main reason I started reading things on the internet. I have been, for most of my life, fairly lacking in self confidence. I had philosophies, but I couldn’t bring myself to air them- because my friends ripped on me for being ditzy, or because I didn’t actually have the capacity for debate (generally caused by temper issues). For this reason, those philosophies were neglected, and atrophied throughout my high school career. I finally met someone who challenged me to be smart last year, and it’s his fault that you helped me so much.

He reads a ton of atheist blogs, and initially, all I ever caught him reading was P.Z. Myers. Not the best introduction to atheist blogging. For this reason, I was generally averse to being around him while he was reading stuff online. Finally, one of P.Z.’s more inflammatory posts just broke me, and I got entirely righteous anger (mostly in retort to his righteous anger, which was slightly more righteous, but difficult to accept). My partner then proceeded to huff at me angrily and argue with me all upset like, which got both of us nowhere, until he threw up his hands, grabbed his computer, and linked me to “Atheists and Anger”.

That post made me realize how much of a dick I was. My interest piqued, I read several more, on atheism and sexuality. I think you helped me grow up about as much as anything I’ve learned in college. I’ve grown more intellectually and sexually through reading your advice than I could possibly hope to alone.

The reason I’m writing this is because I had one of the worst existential crises of my life tonight. My partner was very much at a loss for how to help, so he dutifully grabbed his computer and brought up a few posts relating to death, hope, and meaning. I felt, during the course of my crisis, that I was losing every part of me. Every bit of the essence that makes up my personality was leaking out through the cracks of my broken perceptions, and I was all dried up and empty. Reading “Atheist Meaning in a Small, Brief Life”, “A Skeptical View of Love” and “Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing To Do With God” brought me back from the brink. I felt like I had been put back together, and all the cracks were krazy glued up, and I was all water tight and happy and silly again, much to the relief of my silly boy who cannot speak properly in times of panic.

You are an amazing woman. You care about the people who read your blog- you care about everyone. You are good in a simple way that makes you approachable, and your advice, reasonable. When I read your blog, I don’t feel like I’m reading something somebody across the country wrote. I feel like I’m reading something my best friend wrote. You gave me an understanding of how to have real thoughts, and how to be angry, and how to cope with injustice, and do my part to take it down. What you write gives me such hope and pure joy, and I can’t convey my gratitude in a non-sappy, dignified way so screw it. I straight up love you and everything you write.

I just want to say a couple of things to Laura. Mostly, thank you so much for writing. This is exactly why I do the work that I do. When I left behind my religious and spiritual beliefs, I didn’t know that there even was an atheist and skeptical community, and I wasn’t familiar with a lot of atheist and skeptical writing and philosophy. So when I went through my own assorted existential crises, I had to do it essentially alone. It sucked. It was really, really painful and scary. I don’t want anyone else to have to do that. That is a huge part of why I do the work that I do — not just trying to persuade people out of religion, but offering positive, non-religious philosophies that people can apply to their lives. I want to help make atheism and skepticism a safer place to land. It means the world to me to know that I’ve done that with you.

The only thing I have to disagree about is this: I didn’t put you back together. You put yourself back together. I am delighted and honored that my writing was part of the process — but you get to take the credit. (Oh, and I’m going to defend PZ while I’m at it: he clearly wasn’t the best introduction to atheist blogging for you, and he isn’t for a lot of people, but a lot of folks find his no-holds-barred approach to be just what they need to wake them up. But I appreciate that he’s not for everybody, and I’m delighted that I was able to fill in the gap.)

And to anyone out there who still thinks atheist writing and atheist activism is a waste of time, and that nobody ever changes their minds about religion: This is just simply and flatly not true. This can work. It does work. You don’t have to do it if you don’t want to — but take responsibility for your choice, and don’t try to convince yourself that it’s futile and there’s no point in trying. Thanks.

Why I Do What I Do

25 thoughts on “Why I Do What I Do

  1. 1

    I also went through my existential crisis alone, so I’m thrilled that there are writers like you around for those who come after us! Boy, I wish I could have had your blog to read when I was in college.

    ::hugs:: to Laura. Welcome!

    (Also, this is why I write about the wonders of vaccines and try to discuss them with people who I think can be convinced. Because how can I not make the attempt?)

  2. 2

    Thank you so much for posting this! I’ll admit that I’m glad speaking out strongly and frankly seems to work, because I don’t know how to do anything else. I am who I am, and I suspect I wouldn’t want to stop speaking out even if I knew it wasn’t productive. But it’s very nice to know that it does work.

    And beyond that, it’s always a good thing to see a real-life account such as this.

    (And she’s right. You’re writing is very helpful, challenging, and accessible.)

  3. 3

    I just thought I might throw my two cents in here as the aforementioned “silly boy”…

    Although it’s a little embarassing to admit it, you are the first blog I go to whenever she’s having trouble. You’re just able to say all the things that I think, but I can’t say them! You’ve helped me realize, too, that I have real reasons to stand up for what I feel strongly about (although I owe most of my personal philosophy to the inimitable Adam Lee) Your blog was the perfect springboard to help me bring up the subjects to sweet Laura-Ray that really mattered to me!

  4. Don

    This testimony is fantastic, Greta. I can’t imagine a more encouraging response to what you endeavor to do by writing what you write. You’re plain-spoken, carefully reasoned, impassioned, and persuasive all at once. And it’s working. Clear thinking well expressed really does help to change reluctant minds. The world needs your voice. This proves it.

  5. 5

    Thank you for this post and the “Atheists and Anger” post. My husband is a Catholic gone agnostic who sees atheism as being inherently angry and “fundamentalist”. I will be strongly suggesting he read that post. It’s exactly what I’ve been trying to explain to him much less eloquently.

  6. 6

    I’d also add that you give folks really good soundbites for our own discussions/debates/arguments. I’ve heard your words coming out of my mouth a few times. 🙂

  7. 7

    What a sweet post, and what a sweet letter.

    I’m happy for you Laura (and Austin), and I’m glad that both PZ and Greta have their niches as bloggers, and no one is expected to appeal to everyone in the same way.

  8. 8

    Wow. I’m impressed.

    For a long time I’ve had a list of “reasons why atheists care about religion” and thought it was fairly comprehensive, but the info you’ve packed into your blogs (Why I Do What I Do & Atheists and Anger) makes my list look mediocre.

    I don’t know how long it is going to take, but I am going re-read both of those blogs, and then follow every link to wherever it may lead. Should keep me busy for a while, eh?

    Thanks for everything.

  9. 9

    Greta, you’ve helped me and several of my friends with your writing. I’m a lot more aware and comfortable both as an atheist and a gay man, in part due to some really awesome things I’ve learned and absorbed through the past couple of years of reading your ideas.
    I know several individuals, male, female, gay, straight, bisexual, who have been cheered and emboldened by your ideas on sex and sexuality, and in particular the thoughts on weight and sex. I know that I myself have had a definite improvement in my self perception and in my ability to respond to a partner through what I’ve learned.
    You’ve got your own unique way of saying things, and it’s quite often said in a way that I haven’t heard before. It helps me to clarify many thoughts, and challenge assumptions I’ve made.
    I’m also better able to reach out to others and discuss things now, and I’d have to say that your blog, Daylight Atheism, and Pharyngula have had a major impact on the growth of that ability. You have my sincere thanks for several things, but just trying and not giving up is probably the biggest one of all.

  10. 10

    When I read your blog, I don’t feel like I’m reading something somebody across the country wrote. I feel like I’m reading something my best friend wrote.

    Sums it up nicely for me too.

  11. 11

    A surprisingly large number of atheists say things like this. “Arguing against religion never works. Religious beliefs are too irrational, they’re held for emotional reasons, not intellectual ones. So there’s no point making rational arguments against them.”

    I guess there is some truth in this, but I agree with Greta that it’s a mistake to present such an insight as a criticism of the atheist bloggers. I would say that religious beliefs are indeed held for emotional reasons and the impact of purely rational (dry and dispassionate) arguments against religious beliefs is indeed very limited. But even if we grant this, it simply doesn’t follow that the atheist bloggers are engaged in a futile enterprise. The point is that these blogs do not concentrate on presenting dry and dispassionate, rational arguments (which is not to say that rational arguments are not presented here; the emphasis is rather on “dispassionate”). Quite on the contrary: such blogs introduce the reader to the world full of emotions, they try to explain these emotions, to order and justify them, to show that you can have a decent life with (or sometimes in spite of) them – in effect, they try to describe the atheist’s world as more “user-friendly”, combining rational arguments with the emotional approach. As such, they can be very useful, as Laura’s email illustrates.

    And well, last but not least, such blogs can be a great place for the atheists as well, for a variety of reasons. In my own case one of them is that in real life I have very few opportunities to talk about religion. Even though I come from a quite religious country, my life concentrates around the university, and here … hmm, with my colleagues we just don’t talk about religion – we don’t discuss it because … because … yeah, it’s probably a good question why the topic is practically nonexistent (is indifference so widespread in academic circles? Is that something else, more peculiar to our group? I’m really not sure.) Anyway, for some of us – for me at least – that sort of a blog functions as an excellent outlet, even if sometimes we oppose the content and even don’t share the emotions. I would be very sorry if the bloggers let themselves be convinced by criticisms like the one quoted above!

  12. 13

    I really hope you were just joking, Stein, because I take such affronts to my character very personally. I make sure to treat Laura well as a partner and an equal in everything I do. If I accidentally hurt her, I make sure I know why and what I did and I make sure I never do it again. Her welfare is the most important thing to me, so your implication that I abuse her is both unfounded and highly insulting. I just happened to be the first to treat her as an intellectual equal and give her smarts the respect they deserve. I may not have been the most eloquent person around, which is why I used Greta’s Blog by proxy to make my points. She can just say these things better than I can. And seriously, why the hell would I use Greta’s blog to get in her pants? What the hell point would that be? I’ve been dating her for long enough now “Getting in her pants” isn’t even an issue or a goal anymore. In fact, it sort of never was a goal because it never needed to be, since our relationship was founded on mutual friendship and respect. You don’t know me, Stein, and you don’t know Laura, so you can just step right the fuck off.

  13. 15

    Stein, bro, u trollin?
    Probably, but if not, that’s a really nasty thing to say without evidence. I have been abused. Not by Austin, but by my ex boyfriend. That’s a pretty serious accusation, so seriously, don’t throw those words around lightly. It’s offensive to people who have been seriously abused, it’s offensive to me (because I’m in a healthy relationship now, filled with love, and joy), and it’s offensive to everyone else reading who may have friends who have been seriously abused.
    Also, just sayin’, our relationship started with me tryin’ to get in his pants XD

  14. 16

    It’s never a waste of time to speak out as an atheist to theists. Even if the one you’re talking to doesnt’ listen, someone else might. I’ve been told by an non-theist, that I should never dare bring up the subject to a theist and wait for them to broach the subject so they were “comfortable” with it. That would get us nowhere.

  15. 17

    Thank you so much for sharing this post Greta. I contribute to a blog that defines itself as evangelically based, but where differing opinions (atheist and agnostic) are tolerated by the moderator. Christians constantly ask me why I bother to make my views known – My responses are consistent with how I feel about religious people in general.. you know the rest of this sentence.

    We all make a difference in big, and small ways, to challenge religion and boldly stand up for our beliefs; and we are winning.

    Open, honest and well-defined arguments such as those put forward on your amazing blog encourage all of us to keep moving forward.

  16. 18

    Yet more people to whom your writing is an immense help and comfort, Greta. On top of those that I know personally who have also benefited.

    And welcome, Laura! Make yourself at home! And don’t be embarrassed for a moment for gushing about Greta’s writing. She is completely amazing, eh?

  17. 19

    Wow, Greta, you must have been walking on air for a while after getting that letter.

    Changing someone’s mind about such an important thing can’t be done instantly. It would be pretty stupid to make such a fundamental change to ones’ life after only a half hour of discussion or whatever.

    But what I can do is plant a seed. Which can take root and slowly force some cracks open.

    But even if that never happened, there would still be an important reason to talk about these issues: to say this is an issue we’re allowed to talk about.

    That’s the most important function of atheist advocacy. Like the early gay rights movement, the first step is to force open a space where the desirability of a point of view can be discussed. Atheism has had a higher profile in the past (Robert Ingersoll, we miss you), but in the U.S. in the last few years, it’s gotten to the point where religious types are actually filing discrimination lawsuits because they’re being exposed to ideas they don’t approve of.

    My basic response is an unrepentant “fuck you”. A marketplace of ideas is important, and we need all ideas represented in that marketplace.

  18. 20

    I pointed a friend of mine to Greta’s blog a while back. He’s in college at the moment, having escaped from a shockingly backward, pro-Jaysus small town that is more or less permanently mired in the segregation era, at least under the surface, and virulently homophobic as well.

    His response wasn’t quite the same as Laura’s, but he liked it for some of the same reasons.

  19. 21

    Thanks Greta, and Laura, reminders like this are helpful. Almost as soon as I declared my atheism, I started questioning why I keep reading blogs, developing arguments and posting in forums. Well, all that helped me and every now and then I get to pass some of it on. Also, it is a process that has no end in sight. The other day I was getting that “not knowing what life is for” feeling, and I realized, oh crap, I can’t fall back on the old comforting stuff of allowing some magical process to get me through it. Knowing that there is a community of real people out there that carries on just fine without invisible friends is much more comforting.

  20. 22

    What an awesome letter. Greta, I’ve been reading you for a while, since I first found you on AlterNet, and I’m so glad you’re here on FTB. Keep on doing what you’re doing. You rock, lady!

  21. 23

    @HowardV — Thank you for your work going into religious spaces and presenting your atheist views. That’s GOOD WORK, and challenging, and I just wanted to acknowledge and appreciate it.

    As for the substance of the post — that’s such an awesome and sweet letter, and congratulations to both Laura & Austin for having managed to find a good relationship, and living and learning from each other. In closing, I’m a giant Greta fan, as I’ve said many times before. It’s still true.

  22. 24

    Atheists and Anger is one of the best articles I’ve ever read. I link it off to people on the fence who are mystified to why I care about this stuff.

  23. DLC

    Sorry, but I have to say you can’t change my mind about religion.
    It’s the bunk, all of it.
    I might change my opinion on God(s) if one were to drop down and say hello, but I won’t bother estimating the odds of that happening.
    Anyway, keep up the good work.

Comments are closed.