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9 Questions That Atheists Might Find Insulting (And the Answers)

Some questions make atheists feel second-class -- and make you look like a jerk for asking them.
 
 
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Asked of Hispanic-Americans: "Are you in this country legally?" Asked of gays and lesbians and bisexuals: "How do you have sex?" Asked of transgender people: "Have you had the surgery?" Asked of African Americans: "Can I touch your hair?"

Every marginalized group has some question, or questions, that are routinely asked of them -- and that drive them up a tree; questions that have insult or bigotry or dehumanization woven into the very asking. Sometimes the questions are asked sincerely, with sincere ignorance of the offensive assumptions behind them. And sometimes they are asked in a hostile, passive-aggressive, "I'm just asking questions" manner. But it's still not okay to ask them. They're not questions that open up genuine inquiry and discourse, they're questions that close minds, much more than they open them. Even if that's not the intention. And most people who care about bigotry and marginalization and social justice -- or who just care about good manners -- don't ask them.

Here are nine questions you shouldn't ask atheists. I'm going to answer them, just this once, and then I'll explain why you shouldn't be asking them, and why so many atheists will get ticked off if you do.

1: "How can you be moral without believing in God?"

The answer: Atheists are moral for the same reasons believers are moral: because we have compassion, and a sense of justice. Humans are social animals, and like other social animals, we evolved with some core moral values wired into our brains: caring about fairness, caring about loyalty, caring when others are harmed.

If you're a religious believer, and you don't believe these are the same reasons that believers are moral, ask yourself this: If I could persuade you today, with 100% certainty, that there were no gods and no afterlife... would you suddenly start stealing and murdering and setting fire to buildings? And if not -- why not? If you wouldn't... whatever it is that would keep you from doing those things, that's the same thing keeping atheists from doing them. (And if you would -- remind me not to move in next door to you.)

And ask yourself this as well: If you accept some parts of your holy book and reject others -- on what basis are you doing that? Whatever part of you says that stoning adulterers is wrong but helping poor people is good; that planting different crops in the same field is a non-issue but bearing false witness actually is pretty messed-up; that slavery is terrible but it's a great idea to love your neighbor as yourself... that's the same thing telling atheists what's right and wrong. People are good -- even if we don't articulate it this way -- because we have an innate grasp of the fundamental underpinnings of morality: the understanding that other people matter to themselves as much as we matter to ourselves, and that there is no objective reason to act as if any of us matters more than any other. And that's true of atheists and believers alike.

Why you shouldn't ask it: This is an unbelievably insulting question. Being moral, caring about others and having compassion for them, is a fundamental part of being human. To question whether atheists can be moral, to express bafflement at how we could possibly manage to care about others without believing in a supernatural creator, is to question whether we're even fully human.

And you know what? This question is also hugely insulting to religious believers. It's basically saying that the only reason believers are moral is fear of punishment and desire for reward. It's saying that believers don't act out of compassion, or a sense of justice. It's saying that believers' morality is childish at best, self-serving at worst. I wouldn't say that about religious believers... and you shouldn't, either.

 
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