So Why Did You Ask? Some Thoughts on Religion and Willful Ignorance

hands over ears
Why do religious believers ask questions, when they’re not interested in the answers?

A funny thing happened at my talk last Wednesday at Iowa State University. During the Q&A after the talk, an ardent religious believer asked me (paraphrasing here), “Why do you care so much about religion? If you’re an atheist, why do you spend so much of your life talking about something you don’t believe in? In fact, why do you do anything at all, ever, since you think that when you die you’ll just be nothing?” (There was more, but I didn’t hear all of it: he was rambling and repeating himself and getting ranty, and I soon shifted my focus from what he was asking to how I was going to get him to stop talking and let me answer the question. I finally just interrupted and said, “I’ll answer your question if you put the microphone down.”)

His question was a little off-topic, since that particular talk wasn’t a rant against religion. It was my talk on what the atheist movement can learn from the LGBT movement, and it was a whole lot of insider baseball: activism history, movement strategy, that sort of thing. (I’m actually surprised that this guy stayed for the entire talk: I think it’s a good talk, in fact it’s one of my favorites, but if you’re not involved in the atheist movement, I’d think it might be kind of boring.)

Anyway. I answered this guy’s question as best I could: explaining that I care about religion because I think it’s not only a mistaken idea, but one that does significantly more harm than good. I also mentioned that I had a book, Why Are You Atheists So Angry?, for sale at this very event, which explained in more detail why many atheists care about religion and work to oppose it. I then moved on to take a question from someone else — who stood up, spoke to my antagonist, and said, “I will buy you a copy of her book, if you agree to read it.”

And my antagonist said No. Even if given a free copy of my book, he would not read it.

And I said, “If you’re not interested in the answer to your question — why did you ask? Please don’t ask questions if you’re not willing to listen to the answers.”

Now, I’ll clarify here. I don’t think that every religious believer has an obligation to read my books about atheism. I don’t think they have an obligation to read any books about atheism. I hate it when believers insist that I have to read such-and-such religious text, or such-and-such book of sophisticated theology, before I can reject religion. As I’ve written before: At what point am I allowed to stop? I have read a considerable amount of religious theology and texts and arguments for religion, and it’s been a very, very, VERY long time since I’ve read an argument that I hadn’t heard before. At what point am I allowed to say that the likelihood of seeing a new argument is so vanishingly small that I can reasonably dismiss it? When do the goalposts stop moving? And besides, if the 356,287th argument for the existence of God is the real kicker, the one that will really convince me — then why didn’t believers make it their first one? (Thanks to arensb for that one.)

But this principle applies to believers, too. If they’ve already talked with some atheists, and read some writing about atheism, then I don’t think they’re obligated to read my books, or any other particular book, before they decide that they still believe. I think they have some other intellectual obligations — such as the obligation to state how their belief is falsifiable and what kind of evidence would convince them that they were mistaken. But given how annoyed I get when believers say, “Okay, you’ve read Aquinas… but have you read C.S. Lewis, or Alvin Plantinga, or Teilhard de Chardin?”, I’m not going to turn around and say, “Okay, you’ve read Dawkins… but have you read Hector Avalos, or Susan Jacoby, or me?”


If I were asking a specific question about religious belief, and someone told me, “That question is answered in such-and-such a book (or article, or blog post, or YouTube video, or juggling act), it explains it really well”? Then yes, I would bloody well read it. I certainly wouldn’t reject the very idea of reading it out hand. And I most certainly wouldn’t openly state, in a roomful of people, that I was not willing to read a book that answered the question I just asked.

I don’t feel an obligation to read every piece of sophisticated theology in the library before I reject religion. The question of “Are there any gods” has been answered to my satisfaction, and unless a seriously new argument or piece of evidence comes my way, I’m not feeling a compelling need to keep asking it. (And to answer the question of how I would know about a seriously new argument or piece of evidence for the supernatural if I’ve given up on reading them: I think that if a truly compelling argument or piece of evidence for God’s existence showed up, it would spread like wildfire. It would be impossible to ignore.) But if I had a specific question — like “How do Christians reconcile themselves to the Biblical acceptance of slavery?” or “What is the origin of the idea of karma?” — and someone said, “Here’s a place where you can find a good answer to that question,” I would bloody well not stick my fingers in my ears and run away screaming, “I can’t hear you, I can’t hear you, I can’t hear you!”

What’s that about?

So Why Did You Ask? Some Thoughts on Religion and Willful Ignorance
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9 thoughts on “So Why Did You Ask? Some Thoughts on Religion and Willful Ignorance

  1. 1

    In that particular instance, it was a request that you shut up. He’s angry at himself for being such a bad proponent of his faith — so YOU shut up! If that person had been able to pull out a William Lame Craig quote (yawn and blerg at the same time), he would have.

    More generally, it’s a demand that you shut up. Because they do not have the iron-clad comeback to beat all comebacks, the piece of evidence to beat all pieces of evidence that proves they’re right and you’re not.

    People almost always play that “why do you come here” card when their other arguments are ineffectual, and they know it.

  2. 2

    I know this is stating the obvious, but I believe it furthers the conversation: You are not supposed to answer the question in the first place. It’s asked to trip you up. I’m betting that the asker was tripped up by it and assumed that you would be tripped up by it too. After all, the asker probably doesn’t spend time listening to sermons about how Buddhists are wrong; only about why Christianity is right. So why would you waste time listening or talking about why other religions are wrong. Shouldn’t you just be talking about why Atheism is right? GOTCHA!

  3. 3

    Such an excellent response.

    I guess it is worth keeping in mind the fact that atheists are often not given credit for having considered other points of view to the depth that many of us do.

    I have read the book of Mormon, the Bible, and many books on theology. I was raised religious . And yet, I have many times been accused of being unwilling to consider other points of view.

  4. 4

    What’s that about?

    I don’t think it has anything to do with religion. In my experience, there’s a substantial subset of “questioners” in any Q&A session who don’t really have a question, just a speech they’d like to give in rebuttal to you. As 5UP Mushroom suggests @2, it’s a GOTCHA, not a genuine request for information.

    Some of them barely even bother to put it in the form of a question. I always loved the way Christopher Hitchens would handle one of these. By around the 30-second mark of the “question,” he’d basically tune out, reach for his glass, and relax until the “question” was over. Then he’d turn to the moderator, say “I’m content to treat that as a statement rather than a question,” and move on to the next person in line.

    (Weirdly, you also sometimes see speeches that are in agreement with the speaker’s point of view. I think the goal of these folks is to get the speaker to say “why yes, you’re absolutely right, and so intelligently and articulately put!” Meanwhile, the rest of the audience is thinking “I came to listen to the speaker, not this jackass.”)

    The Q&A portion ought to be the best portion of a presentation, but usually I find it’s the worst.

  5. 5

    I sometimes can deflect the “have you read such-and-so?” or “have you considered X?” questions with two questions of my own: “Do you believe Huitzilopotchli is a god?” Inevitability the answer is “no” (unless it’s “who is Huitzilopotchli?”). Then I ask “How often did human hearts have to be offered to Huitzilopotchli for the Sun to continue to rise?” I’ve never been given the correct answer to this question (it’s four times a year, at the solstices and equinoxes). I then say “You reject Huitzilopotchli without knowing the basics of Huitzilopotchlism yet you insist I know whether angels dancing on the heads of pins are waltzing or doing the macarena before I can reject your particular faith. Isn’t that hypocritical?”

    About half the time this will cause the theist to shift the discussion to another topic. Very occasionally they’ll even agree that it is hypocritical. The rest of the time the theist will continue to sing the praises of Alvin Plantinga or William Lane Craig as if I’d never said anything at all.

  6. 6

    Wow. Does THIS hit close to home for me. Back when I was a young’n, living in a 6-person college house in in the U District of Seattle, one of the most life changing things happened to me.

    I’d always been a “staunch” atheist, in that I was always sure of my own atheism… yet never felt comfortable communicating my atheism to other people. (For the record, I first realized my own atheism the sunny afternoon in 4th grade I spent calling a cheap pewter effigy of the Virgin Mary derogatory names, expecting at any moment to be struck by punitive lightning with every word that spewed from my mouth. Granted, I come from a Polish-Catholic family background.) I really never was put in a position where I had to “defend” my own casual stance in life.

    And then, a housemate had a friend visit from his hometown. And shit got crazy! All six of us housemates were present that night, it being a Thursday during school weeks. And a show about evolution came on at home. My roommates happened to have some guests from out of town staying for a few days. So the discussion began as I expected it to. And then, I asked a simple question: “But how do you KNOW you know?”

    The response was far more wordy, but essentially……. I will get violent if you continue to ask those kinds of questions. Not from a friend. Not from a housemate. From a person who was staying rent free in that house. Everyone was home, and I know everyone heard….. but damn, did I shut up.

  7. 7

    “Why do you care about it if you don’t believe in it?” means “why can’t you just shut up and let me believe what I want to believe without making me have to think about it? Now I have these doubtful and defensive feels and it’s your fault.”

    The question really undermines their purported faith, though, I think. Because if God were real, surely anybody would want to know that. The “why do you care?” question implies that on the contrary, belief or non-belief is no big deal; just a personal preference that isn’t worth arguing about. (Hey, I don’t like Krispy Kreme donuts, but I don’t go around writing books about them!)

    Your questioner was a hypocrite. OTOH I can kinda sorta see why a liberal, vague sort of believer whose faith really doesn’t have much to do with their real life might honestly wonder. To them I’d paraphrase Julia Sweeney: I take the idea of God too seriously to believe in it.

  8. 8

    Calling the question a “gotcha,” I think, demeans the romantic myth that must be playing in the heads of these people. In their own minds they are about to become the handsome young hero of a Chick tract or “God is Not Dead.” The godless speaker will be rendered speechless by their devastating insight, and the audience will swarm around the questioner and beg to be shown how to Come to Jesus. It’s all very exciting.

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