Updated: May 22, 2019
I am often sent questions about a number of different topics related to religion, God, spirituality, life, philosophy, deconstruction and personal growth. I recently was asked a question about why Atheists won't "leave the religious alone." What follows is my response?
"Jim, why won't atheists just leave the religious alone?"
It’s difficult to know the context of this question, and what you specifically mean by “just leave the religious alone.” For the purpose of my answer, I’ll assume you mean something along the lines of, “Why are atheists always finding fault, being antagonistic, and debating with religious people?”
The premise of the question is problematic insofar as it implies that all atheists think and act the same way, namely that they all pester or badger religious people. At the outset, let’s just say that the percentage of atheists who do what is alleged are relatively few. To be generous, let’s say that 25% of all atheists participate in some behavior once a week that would qualify as an action that led to the asking of your question.
In my experience, the reasons why an atheist might not “just leave the religious alone” are as follows, which I will divide into two categories: (1) Good Reasons Not to Leave the Religious Alone, and (2) Bad Reasons Not to Leave the Religious Alone.
(1) Good Reasons Not to Leave the Religious Alone
a. Part of my professional work involves counseling people who have been deeply damaged through their involvement in religion and toxic religious indoctrination. A growing area of interest in the mental health field is Religious Trauma Syndrome, which addresses the psychological damage attributed to the influence of fundamentalist, legalistic, authoritarian, repressive, fear/shame-based religion. It’s a logical response to have a posture of opposition and resistance toward something that was damaging to you personally or that you believe is damaging to other people. If a person has been damaged through their involvement in religion or has seen its damage in the lives of other people, it’s unlikely they will be indifferent on the matter of religion. Further, they may not sit quietly and say nothing when religious people espouse their views. It’s more likely they will speak their mind.
b. It’s abundantly clear that religion is often a weapon of hate, destruction, injustice, corruption and violence in the world. I don’t think it’s necessary to substantiate this claim because it is self-evident from a cursory examination of history and daily news headlines. For this reason, most atheists do not think that religion should ever just gets a pass, and would feel complicit in the problem if they too easily let religion off the hook.
c. The subtitle of the notable and late atheist, Christopher Hitchens’ book God is not Great, is How Religion Poisons Everything. Many atheists believe that religion in any form does more harm than good, and is an obstacle to progress. Religion has often been an adversary of science. Many core religious beliefs (innate human badness; narratives of apocalypse; special revelatory knowledge; expectation of divine intervention; fear-based conformity; religious separatism/tribalism; self-denial as devotion; self-reliance as sin) chip away at the ideas of personal agency and responsibility, self-efficacy, critical thinking and virtue ethics. To the extent that a person believes that religion is fundamentally flawed, threatens progress and “poisons everything,” they will not roll over and play dead in a society where religion has influence in every segment of life - education, government, politics, social media, etc.
As a matter of conviction, many atheists feel they must counter and criticize religion.
(2) Bad Reasons Not to Leave the Religious Alone
In the United States, freedom of religion is a constitutionally protected right provided in the religion clauses of the First Amendment. Freedom of religion is also closely associated with separation of church and state. People are free to hold, express and practice religious beliefs, and people are free to hold, express and practice secular beliefs. In the United States, you have the legal right to believe and practice Christianity, Atheism, Judaism, Humanism, Islam, Stoicism, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc. It’s a good idea that we all remember this.
Let’s face it. In any large group of people some percentage of them will be fanatical, zealous, extreme, militant, insulting, divisive, intolerant and injurious for any number of personal, psychological or circumstantial reasons, and this is not any less true of atheists. My personal view whenever it is possible is that it is more constructive to appeal to logic, reason, evidence, science, and consilience in a spirit of respect and goodwill in dialogue where two opposing views are present… as opposed to insults, belligerence, combativeness, inflammatory rhetoric and hostility.
Atheists also need to realize that not all religious people are fundamentalists. An atheist's particular view or experience of religion is not representative of every person's idea and experience of religion. Though religion has often been the source of hatred, division, corruption and violence in the world, it has also inspired compassion, beauty, justice, service and love.
Having said all that, in my view Atheists and people of faith have meaningful reasons to work together and cultivate constructive relationships. Bede Griffiths wrote, “Atheism and agnosticism signify the rejection of certain images and concepts of God or of truth, which are historically conditioned and therefore inadequate. Atheism is a challenge to religion to purify its images and concepts and come nearer to the truth of divine mystery.”
I did a podcast interview on The Farkas Files in which I addressed the question: What can Atheists teach the religious? I wrote an article on the idea of atheists connecting with the interfaith movement, and wrote another piece on non-theist, humanist spirituality. Just this past week I did a podcast interview with the GracefulAtheist who says about himself, "Having had faith I still respect and care for those who remain in their faith."
Hope that helps!
I have a spiritual counseling practice in Nashville, TN. Several years ago, I began doing work with people from all over the world through video calls. There are several reasons why people contact me for spiritual counseling, including:
Making sense of God outside of religion.
Seeking a more expansive, meaningful and human spirituality.
A life crisis has caused them to question their personal or religious beliefs.
Searching for answers to life’s existential questions such as the meaning and purpose of life.
Interested in exploring faith and spirituality beyond the boundaries of their religious background or tradition.
Want to address the root cause of suffering in their life.
Desiring a whole relationship with themselves through self-discovery, self-acceptance, self-trust, and self-care.
Needing to unshackle themselves from toxic religious beliefs.
Wanting to break through self-sabotaging inner dialogue and self-imposed limitations holding them back.
Seeking to explore a non-religious spiritual path or secular philosophy for life
© Jim Palmer Author, 2019. All rights reserved.