'How can you be moral?': Here are 9 questions you don't need to ask an atheist
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.
2: “How do you have any meaning in your life?” Sometimes asked as, “Don’t you feel sad or hopeless?” Or even, “If you don’t believe in God or heaven, why don’t you just kill yourself?”
The answer: Atheists find meaning and joy in the same things everyone does. We find it in the big things: family, friendship, work, nature, art, learning, love. We find it in the small things: cookies, World of Warcraft, playing with kittens. The only difference is that (a) believers add “making my god or gods happy and getting a good deal in the afterlife” to those lists (often putting them at the top), and (b) believers think meaning is given to them by their god or gods, while atheists create our own meaning, and are willing and indeed happy to accept that responsibility.
In fact, for many atheists, the fact that life is finite invests it with more meaning — not less. When we drop “pleasing a god we have no good reason to think exists” from our “meaning” list, we have that much more attention to give the rest of it. When we accept that life will really end, we become that much more motivated to make every moment of it matter.
Why you shouldn’t ask it: What was it that we were just saying about “dehumanization”? Experiencing meaning and value in life is deeply ingrained in being human. When you treat atheists as if we were dead inside simply because we don’t believe in a supernatural creator or our own immortality… you’re treating us as if we weren’t fully human. Please don’t.
3: “Doesn’t it take just as much/even more faith to be an atheist as it does to be a believer?”
The answer: No.
The somewhat longer answer: This question assumes that “atheism” means “100% certainty that God does not exist, with no willingness to question and no room for doubt.” For the overwhelming majority of people who call ourselves atheists, this is not what “atheism” means. For most atheists, “atheism” means something along the lines of “being reasonably certain that there are no gods,” or, “having reached the provisional conclusion, based on the evidence we’ve seen and the arguments we’ve considered, that there are no gods.” No, we can’t be 100% certain that there are no gods. We can’t be 100% certain that there are no unicorns, either. But we’re certain enough. Not believing in unicorns doesn’t take “faith.” And neither does not believing in God.
Why you shouldn’t ask it: The assumption behind this question is that atheists haven’t actually bothered to think about our atheism. And this assumption is both ignorant and insulting. Most atheists have considered the question of God’s existence or non-existence very carefully. Most of us were brought up religious, and letting go of that religion took a great deal of searching of our hearts and our minds. Even those of us brought up as non-believers were (mostly) brought up in a society that’s steeped in religion. It takes a fair amount of questioning and thought to reject an idea that almost everyone else around you believes.
And when you ask this question, you’re also revealing the narrowness of your own mind. You’re showing that you can’t conceive of the possibility that someone might come to a conclusion about religion based on evidence, reason, and which ideas seem most likely to be true, instead of on “faith.”
4: “Isn’t atheism just a religion?”
The answer: No.
The somewhat longer answer: Unless you’re defining “religion” as “any conclusion people come to about the world,” or as “any community organized around a shared idea,” then no. If your definition of “religion” includes atheism, it also has to include: Amnesty International, the Audubon Society, heliocentrism, the acceptance of the theory of evolution, the Justin Bieber Fan Club, and the Democratic Party. By any useful definition of the word “religion,” atheism is not a religion.
Why you shouldn’t ask it: Pretty much the same reason as the one for #3. Calling atheism a religion assumes that it’s an axiom accepted on faith, not a conclusion based on thinking and evidence. And it shows that you’re not willing or able to consider the possibility that someone not only has a different opinion about religion than you do, but has come to that opinion in a different way.
5: “What’s the point of atheist groups? How can you have a community and a movement for something you don’t believe in?”
The answer: Atheists have groups and communities and movements for the same reasons anyone does. Remember what I said about atheists being human? Humans are social animals. We like to spend time with other people who share our interests and values. We like to work with other people on goals we have in common. What’s more, when atheists come out about our atheism, many of us lose our friends and families and communities, or have strained and painful relationships with them. Atheists create communities so we can be honest about who we are and what we think, and still not be alone.
Why you shouldn’t ask it: This is a total “damned if we do, damned if we don’t” conundrum. Atheists get told all the time that people need religion for the community it provides: that persuading people out of religion is cruel or futile or both, since so much social support happens in religious institutions. Then, when atheists do create communities to replace the ones people so often lose when they leave religion, we get told how ridiculous this is. (Or else we’re told, “See? Atheism is just another religion!” See #4 above.)
6: “Why do you hate God?” Or, “Aren’t you just angry at God?”
The answer: Atheists aren’t angry at God. We don’t think God exists. We aren’t angry at God, any more than we’re angry at Santa Claus.
Why you shouldn’t ask it: This question doesn’t just deny our humanity. It denies our very existence. It assumes that atheists don’t really exist: that our non-belief isn’t sincere, that it’s some sort of emotional trauma or immature teenage rebellion, that it’s not even really non-belief.
And honestly? This question reveals how narrow your own mind is. It shows that you can’t even consider the possibility that you might be mistaken: that you can’t even conceive of somebody seeing the world differently from the way you do. This question doesn’t just make atheists mad. It makes you look like a dolt.
7: “But have you [read the Bible or some other holy book; heard about some supposed miracle; heard my story about my personal religious experience]?”
The answer: Probably. Or else we’ve read/heard about something pretty darned similar. Atheists are actually better-informed about religion than most religious believers. In fact, we’re better-informed about the tenets of most specific religions than the believers in those religions. For many atheists, sitting down and reading the Bible (or the holy text of whatever religion they were brought up in) is exactly what set them on the path to atheism — or what put the final nail in the coffin.
Why you shouldn’t ask it: As my friend and colleague Heina put it: “‘Have you heard of Jesus?’ No, actually, I was born under a fucking rock.”
Are you really not aware of how dominating a force religion is in society? In most of the world, and certainly in the United States, religion is impossible to ignore. It permeates the social life, the economic life, the cultural life, the political life. We’re soaking in it. The idea that atheists might somehow have come to adulthood without being aware of the Bible, of stories about supposed miracles, of stories about personal religious experiences… it’s laughable. Or it would be laughable if it weren’t so annoying. Religious privilege is all over this question like a cheap suit.
8: “What if you’re wrong?” Sometimes asked as, “Doesn’t it make logical sense to believe in God? If you believe and you’re wrong, nothing terrible happens, but if you don’t believe and you’re wrong, you could go to Hell!”
The answer: What if you’re wrong about Allah? Or Vishnu? Or Zeus? What if you’re wrong about whether God is the wrathful jerk who hates gay people, or the loving god who hates homophobes? What if you’re wrong about whether God wants you to celebrate the Sabbath on Saturday or Sunday? What if you’re wrong about whether God really does care about whether you eat bacon? As Homer Simpson put it, “What if we picked the wrong religion? Every week we’re just making God madder and madder!”
Why you shouldn’t ask it: There are so very many things wrong with this question. It even has a name — Pascal’s Wager — and I’ve actually written an entire piece on the many things that are wrong with it. But I’ll stick with two for today, the ones that aren’t just logically absurd but that insult the intelligence and integrity of both atheists and believers:
a) Are you really that ignorant of the existence of religions other than your own? Has it really never occurred to you that when you “bet” on the existence of your god, there are thousands upon thousands of other gods whose existence you’re “betting” against? Are you really that steeped, not only in the generic privilege of all religion, but in the particular privilege of your own?
b) Do you really think atheists have so little integrity? Do you really think we’re going to fake belief in God… not just to our families or communities in order to not be ostracized, but in our own hearts and minds? Do you really think we’re going to deliberately con ourselves into believing — or pretending to believe — something that we don’t actually think is true? Not just something trivial, but something this important? Do you really think we would pick what to think is true and not true about the world, based solely on which idea would be most convenient? How does that even constitute “belief”? (And anyway, do you really think that God would be taken in by this con game? Do you really think that what God wants from his followers is an insincere, self-serving, “wink wink, I’m covering my bases” version of “belief”?)
9: “Why are you atheists so angry?”
The answer: I’ve actually written an entire book answering this question (Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless). The short answer: Not all atheists are angry about religion — and those of us who are angry aren’t in a constant state of rage. But yes, many atheists are angry about religion — and we’re angry because we see terrible harm being done by religion. We’re angry about harm being done to atheists… and we’re angry about harm done to other believers. We don’t just think religion is mistaken — we think it does significantly more harm than good. And it pisses us off.
Why you shouldn’t ask it: This question assumes that atheists are angry because there’s something wrong with us. It assumes that atheists are angry because we’re bitter, selfish, whiny, unhappy, because we lack joy and meaning in our lives, because we have a God-shaped hole in our hearts. The people asking it seem to have never even considered the possibility that atheists are angry because we have legitimate things to be angry about.
This reflexive dismissal of our anger’s legitimacy does two things. It treats atheists as flawed, broken, incomplete. And it defangs the power of our anger. (Or it tries to, anyway.) Anger is a hugely powerful motivating force — it has been a major motivating force for every social change movement in history — and when people try to dismiss or trivialize atheists’ anger, they are, essentially, trying to take that power away.
And finally: The people asking this question never seem to notice just how much atheist anger is directed, not at harm done to atheists, but at harm done to believers. A huge amount of our anger about religion is aimed at the oppression and brutality and misery created by religion, not in the lives of atheists, but in the lives of believers. Our anger about religion comes from compassion, from a sense of justice, from a vivid awareness of terrible damage being done in the world and a driving motivation to do something about it. Atheists aren’t angry because there’s something wrong with us. Atheists are angry because there’s something right with us. And it is messed-up beyond recognition to treat one of our greatest strengths, one of our most powerful motivating forces and one of the clearest signs of our decency, as a sign that we’re flawed or broken.
The list of questions you shouldn’t ask atheists doesn’t end here. It goes on, at length. “How can you believe in nothing?” “Doesn’t atheism take the mystery out of life?” “Even though you don’t believe, shouldn’t you bring up your children with religion?” “Can you prove there isn’t a god?” “Did something terrible happen to you to turn you away from religion?” “Are you just doing this to rebel?” “Are you just doing this so you don’t have to obey God’s rules?” “If you’re atheist, why do you celebrate Christmas/ say ‘Bless you’ when people sneeze/ spend money with ‘In God We Trust’ on it/ etc.?” “Have you sincerely tried to believe?” “Can’t you see God everywhere around you?” “Do you worship Satan?” “Isn’t atheism awfully arrogant?” “Can you really not conceive of anything bigger than yourself?” “Why do you care what other people believe?”
But for now, I’ll leave these questions as an exercise for the reader. If you understand why all the questions I answered today are offensive and dehumanizing, I hope you’ll understand why these are as well.
If you want to understand more about atheists and atheism — that is awesome. Many of us are more than happy to talk about our atheism with you: that’s how we change people’s minds about us, and overcome the widespread myths and misinformation about us. But maybe you could do a little Googling before you start asking us questions that we’ve not only fielded a hundred times before, but that have bigotry and dehumanization and religious privilege embedded in the very asking. And if you do want to know more about atheism, please stop and think about the questions you’re asking — and the assumptions behind them — before you do. Thanks.