by Greta Christina
May 14, 2013
Some questions make
atheists feel second-class...
and make you look like a jerk
for asking them.
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,
just asking questions" manner. But it's still not okay to ask
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
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.
"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?
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'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
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
I wouldn't say that about
religious believers... and you shouldn't, either.
"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,
We find it in the small things: cookies,
World of Warcraft, playing with kittens.
The only difference is that,
believers add "making my
god or gods happy and getting a good deal in the
afterlife" to those lists (often putting them at the
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
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.
"Doesn't it take just as
much/even more faith to be an atheist as it does to be a
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
For most atheists, "atheism"
means something along the lines of,
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.
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
"Isn't atheism just a
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.
"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
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
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.)
"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.
"But have you [read the
Bible or some other holy book; heard about some supposed
miracle; heard my story about my personal religious
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:
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
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.
"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!"
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
As Homer Simpson put it,
Why you shouldn't ask it: There
are so very many things wrong with this question. It even
has a name -
- 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
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
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"?)
"Why are you atheists so
The answer: I've actually
written an entire book answering this question (Why
Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the
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
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
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
"Can you prove there isn't a god?"
terrible happen to you to turn you away from religion?"
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
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