Should we treat believers with humanity instead of contempt?

Even assuming credulity is a weakness, decent people don’t jeer at others who are functioning poorly in some part of life.


With religious belief holding such an outsized influence on our society, it is reasonable that atheists, humanists and other freethinkers push back against religious superstitions, outdated social scripts and archaic rules. But one way we often do this is by ridiculing believers themselves, which is less reasonable.

To be fair, most secular scorn does tend to be directed toward a specific kind of believer—with good reason. Not all religious beliefs are equally noxious or untrue. Gods can be defined in ways that are unfalsifiable, and there is a realm of metaphysical conjecture in which all any of us can do is make our own best guesses. Some people embrace god concepts drawn from this realm, which they hold with a great degree of humility. Further, all of us make at least tentative commitments to a worldview that includes opinions about supernaturalism, and that many of our non-religious ideas are viral and socially transmitted. We all could do with a little more humbleness on this point.

That said, some religious beliefs are patently false or immoral; and the ones that tend to do the most harm and be the most socially aggressive—and so receive the most derision— fall into this latter camp. When I raise questions about treating believers with disdain or kindness, it is this kind of religion I’m talking about—where the beliefs themselves aren’t really worthy of respect, or even a pass. But that doesn’t mean the same is true of persons who hold them.

Frustration, Judgment

We freethinkers give ourselves permission to sneer because we tend to think of religious belief as voluntary and lazy, irresponsible and harmful. We often see believers, especially fundamentalists and biblical literalists, as people who have chosen not to do the work of examining their faith and asking the hard questions that could show them wrong.

Their sloppy thinking frustrates us, but what really gets us going is this: Having not done their homework, many seek to impose iron age beliefs and scripts on not only themselves and their children but on the rest of society. Even worse, with traditions and laws stacked in their favor, they often get away with it. So, when we sneer at them or treat them with disdain, we see ourselves as behaving this way towards people who are powerful and abusing that power. In the language of the millennial left, we tell ourselves that we are punching up, which makes it OK.

But does it?

Why People Believe

Freethinkers are well positioned to recognize complex, real-world causal factors that shape human beliefs and behavior, because we don’t look at humankind through a lens of sin and righteousness. We are free to recognize that life experiences and social influences may incline one person to commit crimes and another to win a Nobel prize.

Liberated from a traditional worldview that dichotomizes society into saints and sinners, we are also free to acknowledge complexity within people, to see good and bad in combination and to seek common ground in the good.  But we often forget our nuanced, psychologically-informed understanding of human behavior and we abandon our quest for common ground when confronted with superstition and bad behavior that are motivated by religion.

Mind Viruses

A number of atheist writers, including me, have described religion as a family of viral self-replicators, mind viruses that are in varying degrees benign or harmful. To the extent that this description fits, what we know about bacteria—how they are subject to selective pressures and how they spread—offers some insights into religion. So do fields of scholarship like epidemiology. And increasingly, cognitive psychology and neuroscience allow us to understand how false ideas slip past our defenses, how they spread, and why humans are vulnerable to specific kinds of “grand stories.”

But if religious believers are people who are infected with socially transmitted mind viruses and the fundamentalisms are the most malignant of those viruses, then does it actually make sense to scorn and belittle them in the ways we so often do? We wouldn’t do that to someone living with hepatitis or HIV.

Bad People vs Bad Ideas

Careful critics of Islam, like Quilliam founder Maajid Nawaz, draw an important distinction between criticizing bad ideas and hating on people. By way of analogy, I think about my sister who is mentally ill, because it is clear in my own mind that I’m capable of loving her while hating the bipolar illness that has caused so much suffering to her and people around her—including through her own behavior. It can be hard to hold this difference in mind when surrounded by religiously-motivated harms, but it has powerful implications for how we treat people and, in the long run, whether society becomes more civilized or more cruel.

How might the behavior of atheists change if we stayed true to our recognition that religions are powerful contagions optimized by natural selection to slip past human defenses? Even assuming credulity is a weakness, decent people don’t jeer at others who are functioning poorly in some part of life, in part because we don’t assume that under-functioning is always, wholly a choice. Most believers have their religious views literally indoctrinated during childhood, shaping thought patterns and emotions that become extremely difficult to change and, perhaps for some, impossible. The boundaries and even existence of free will seem to be up for debate of late, so perhaps we should give religious dogmatists some benefit of the doubt on this.

I should add, too, that every religion is a factual and ethical mixed bag; a religion that contained only falsehoods and did only harm likely wouldn’t get passed down very long. The Bible and Quran may be full of tribalism and violence. They may have verses that identify women as chattel and offer instructions for slavery. But that is not all they contain. Thomas Jefferson called the wiser parts of the Bible, “diamonds in a dunghill.”  The beliefs and values of Christians and other believers are, likewise, jumbled (as is true for all of us); and when we think of people with contempt, we miss their diamonds. We also miss the opportunity to invite them into their better selves.

Recognizing these complexities doesn’t in any way change the need to address the harms done by religion in our world. We must continue to thwart the corrupted moral priorities of those religious believers who are driven by handed-down texts and doctrines to impose iron-age thinking on society. Harmful dogmas and derivative behaviors can and must be met with a firm no.

But if treating even dogmatic believers with dignity rather than disdain allows bridging conversations, reducing religious harms may become more possible rather than less. A kinder approach also keeps us from falling into some of the very same patterns that we so dislike in some of the religious—dehumanizing tribal outsiders while excusing one’s own bad behavior. By confronting toxic faith with kindness as well as clarity, we stay true to our better selves.

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org.  Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including The Huffington Post, Salon, The Independent, Free Inquiry, The Humanist, AlterNet, Raw Story, Grist, Jezebel, and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies.  Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.

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