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Just another religion.

First of all, let it be known that sometimes, I’m sure I work for the Best Company Ever. Granted, last week I wanted the entire workforce to die in various creatively horrific ways, but that’s just the nature of what I do. Sometimes I spend 10 hours a day writing copy and trying not to go insane, and other times I spend 8 hours a day laughing, blogging, getting a little work done, and then going out drinking with coworkers. I enjoy extremes, so I get by okay.

Yesterday was our annual company meeting, which included an open bar and delicious sushi. Afterward we invaded our usual little dive hangout, where we packed in a good hundred people and enjoyed more free booze, courtesy of one of our vice presidents who hopped behind the bar and started handing out beer. It was slightly insane.

My point is not to (just) brag about how fun my company is. Late into the evening as I dove into my fourth or fifth Guinness, I started talking about atheism with a coworker (who is also a friend). He asserted that atheism was an organized religion. I explained that it was not a religion at all. He insisted it was, claiming that it was an absolute belief in the nonexistence of God. I pointed out that this was often just confusion over definitions, and then asked him to define atheism. “A-theism,” he said, “is ‘without theism,’ without religion.”

“Well there you go,” I said. “Without religion. Often people define atheism as believing that there is no god, while I think of it as not having any belief in a god. There’s a difference.”

“Well that’s agnostic then,” he said.

“Yeah,” I said, “the two are pretty closely interrelated. It just depends on your definitions.” Then I tried to give my usual definition of “what I am,” which is to say I’m a philosophical agnostic but a practical atheist — there is no way to tell one way or the other if there’s a god-thing out there, but I live my life as though there’s not. I usually explain that it’s similar to the way most adults treat Santa or the Easter bunny, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster/Invisible Garage Dragon/Invisible Pink Unicorn/Invisible Banana God/insert your favorite analogous being here. Normally this explanation helps people understand my own personal (lack of) belief system. When I’m drinking in a noisy bar packed with other drunks, it’s a little more difficult to articulate my point. It took me a few tries to get all that out in an understandable manner, but eventually I managed to convey the information. I turned away for a moment to say hello to someone else.

About 30 seconds later, I turned back around. My coworker was explaining to someone else that atheism is just another organized religion. Somehow, I did not punch him in the face.

All this brought to mind a few things. First, I thought of the common complaint I hear among skeptical men that there just aren’t enough skepchicks out there to date. This conversation was with a coworker and not a random guy at the bar, but it illustrated how we’re all in the same boat when it comes to finding potential mates that don’t piss you off with weird beliefs and stubborn misconceptions about nonbelievers.
Secondly, the incident reminded me of a video I saw yesterday of Julia Sweeney on Craig Ferguson’s talk show. Julia was promoting the CD version of her excellent one-woman show, Letting Go of God. Craig gave her a bit of a hard time about her atheism, giving the old standby arguments like “some things can’t be explained by science.” Julia held her own, and as usual was very sweet and patient. At one point, Craig claimed the exact same thing as my coworker — that atheism means you steadfastly believe with 100% certainty that there is no god.

It’s not just that people are ignorant of what atheists do or do not believe — I understand that a lot of people, including nonbelievers, use words like atheism, agnosticism, humanism, and freethinker with varying meanings. What annoys me is that you will rarely if ever witness an exchange like this:

PERSON 1: I’m an atheist.

PERSON 2: Oh. What does that mean exactly?

Far more often, the exchange is closer to what I experienced last night, and what Julia went through in front of millions of viewers:

PERSON 1: I’m an atheist.

PERSON 2: How can you be so sure there’s no god?

or

PERSON 2: Why do you hate god?

or

PERSON 2: It’s just another religion, you know.

The fact that some people, even when corrected, will continue to misrepresent the philosophical position of another person betrays a fundamental incuriosity that I find infuriating. In Julia’s case, she was on the show to promote her CD, which details a moving journey of self-discovery. None of that was discussed. Instead, the host only offered limp attacks on the blasphemous idea that there might not be a god. I’d be very surprised to see the situation reversed with a theist in the hot seat. If, for instance, Billy Graham showed up to promote a new book that described his own religious journey, would Ferguson grill him on why he believes in a god? Or even on why he believes in a Protestant Christian god as opposed to a Catholic or Muslim god? Somehow, I doubt it.

In the end, I dropped the atheism topic. I realized at that point that there was no use trying to educate someone who had already made up his mind. People like that do not discuss, they argue. Of course, with a neverending supply of beer bottles sliding down the bar like the greatest assembly line ever, maybe intelligent discourse is a bit too much to ask. Still, a skepchick can dream.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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40 Comments

  1. Rebecca, I totally know the feeling! I have a dear friend who doesn't bother discovering how I define my beliefs, instead when we discuss anything "spiritual" she just dismisses it with "Oh, well you're an atheist you don't believe anything anyway".

    Grrr! Then, when I try to clarify what I mean, she shrugs!

    I have discovered the best response is to be equally dismissive and say, "Oh yeah, I forgot you'll believe anything, Woo-woo". As this is not actually true, I am hoping it illustrates my point to her, but I'm not certain. I think it would have been a MUCH more interesting discussion if alcohol had been involved. :)

  2. And if you think it’s tough for a regular-type Skepdude/chick to find a relationship, imagine what it’s like for me: a Skepdude who doesn’t drink, smoke, do drugs, or like hanging around bars or parties. Wanting to find a female version of the same is sort of like gauging out your eyes and then looking for a needle in a haystack.

    I know how you feel, man; I've got pretty much the same problem. Some autism-like quirk in my mind seems to have made me completely bereft of social instincts, so I just can't figure out how to jump in and start meeting people. The problem isn't so much that there aren't good girls out there, it's that I can't figure out how to approach them (well, in addition to them being in a minority and thus almost all taken).

    In the end, I dropped the atheism topic. I realized at that point that there was no use trying to educate someone who had already made up his mind. People like that do not discuss, they argue.

    This reminds me of a good saying I heard a while ago: "You cannot reason a man out of a position he did not reason himself into." People either decide to act rationally on a subject, or they just assume on faith. If they've chosen not to act logically, logic won't convince them otherwise.

  3. Arrggh! I can't count the number of arguments I have had with people, only to discover part way through the argument that the main problem from the beginning was that we were using DIFFERENT DEFINITIONS of the words we were arguing about! And yet people look at me funny when they ask me a question and I respond by asking them to define their terms first.

    This would appear to be a universal problem, going well beyond the "atheist" vs. "Christian" vs. "whatever" debate. We all forget that these words come with emotional "baggage" for essentially everyone, and are frequently defined in people's minds by those on the extremes. There's the "angry, bitter, atheist" who asserts that there is no purpose to anyone's life and that we are all just meaningless wormfood. Then there's the "ecstatic, self-righteous, Christian" who believes that the world is 6000 years old, that thinking-is-unneccessary-because-the-answer-to-every-question-is-in-the-bible, and that everyone except themselves is evil and going straight to Hell. Of course, most atheists and most Christians are not even remotely like this. Yet we still use the terms "atheist" and "Christian" as though they mean exactly what WE think they mean, and nothing more.

    I think we'd probably all be better off if we followed writerdd's example and avoided using the words that have built-in tripwires when we talk about this stuff. Sometimes I remember to do this, but I need to try harder.

    Rebecca, I feel your pain. Little is worse than realizing you have just wasted significant time coming up with a solid, coherent argument only to see it bounce off some impenetrable wall of ignorance. It's like a forcefield of pigheadedness. Kudos to you for not throttling him.

  4. there should be a site where we can join up and find dates or something

    Perhaps a… dating site?

    Half-kidding. I haven't really met anyone on that site so far, but it does exist. In general, there's no excuse not to at least try an online personals site. It's the 21st century, for crying out loud!

    Personally, I've had moderate success with the Nerve/Onion personals, where I met two decent girlfriends and one extremely good platonic friend. So, yeah. There are things out there.

    Anyway, moving on… writerdd's idea is really good in general for casual conversations. However, I'd definitely lean toward just saying "I am an atheist" with people you know better. If they do have a misconception about the word, then hopefully they'll compare it with what they already know about you and change their ideas about the word. The key to that is to not be the kind of ridiculous atheist caricature that a lot of people think of. Please. For the good of everybody.

  5. I don’t know. I’ve had many a good conversation when booze was involved. But then most of the people I know are easy going drunks and pretty light on the conversion tactics. Maybe it’s to do with them going through the same search as myself, they just found a different answer than I did.

  6. Yeah, I get very tired of having to explain to people that atheism is not a religion or just another belief. It doesn’t help that there were actual atheist cathedrals built during the Soviet period in Russia…that just confuses people even more. But I suppose I loathe more greatly the relativists who decry “Scientism!” and say that science is just another myth or social construct.

    And if you think it’s tough for a regular-type Skepdude/chick to find a relationship, imagine what it’s like for me: a Skepdude who doesn’t drink, smoke, do drugs, or like hanging around bars or parties. Wanting to find a female version of the same is sort of like gauging out your eyes and then looking for a needle in a haystack.

    As far as the Craig Ferguson thing goes, I guess it’s just another example of the way those sorts of shows work most of the time. It’s the double-standard that we nonbelievers face just about everywhere. It’s considered FINE to criticize peoples lack of beliefs even on “light entertainment”, but it’s typically unacceptable to speak out publically about the inconsistent and immoral beliefs of Christians unless it’s a documentary or CSPAN type thing.

    It’s absurd, really, but it just further underscores the fact that this issue is (as Richard Dawkins put it) just like those faced by feminists and gays before us. Their double standards still exist, too, but at least they are more widely recognized as such today than they were in the not-too-distant past. Perhaps non-belief will attain that kind of prominence someday soon.

  7. I don’t use labels for myself. If the topic of religion comes up, I just flat out say something like, “I don’t follow any religion”, “I don’t believe in God” or “I don’t believe the supernatural exists” (depending if it’s a Christian or new agey conversation) and see where that takes the conversation. People are generally amazed that is possible to not believe in these things and to admit it forthrightly and they usually have lots of questions for me.

  8. Hey, Expatria, Infophile, Thad, I'm right there with you among the "socially inept" ;)

    I can meet nice, smart girls (like once every couple of months I'll bump into one), I've even been known to strike up a conversation with some of them and not make a complete ass of myself. But the last time that actually worked out was … ehm … a while ago …

    I have high hopes that my new calendar fame will help me ahead just a bit 8)

  9. I suppose the equivalent would be people who ‘believe in God’ who we then chastise for believing the bible literally. Maybe. But when rational argument fails…

    As for atheism being another religion – just try and get charitable status as a church and then as an atheist organisation. They aint the same thing.

    Besides, where’s the organisation? :)

  10. Could always try the “colour of bald head” analogy…

    (Also, I add myself to the pile of “socially challenged”… there should be a site where we can join up and find dates or something. :) )

  11. This is kind of a hard set of comments to read. I fell in love with a religious loon many years ago. At the time, I was also a religious loon, but of a different stripe; and our respective cults were mutually exclusive.

    Of course, I became the rational thinker that I had always wanted to be– but she still happily dwells in the Watchtower.

    Damn. I would have married her, too. And I know that she wants me to become part of her cult so that we can be together in the World to Come.

    Frelling Hedzmanna!

    Were it not for my own abnormally high levels of vasopressin, I might be able to get over her and be attracted to a decent skepchick or somesuch. But nooooooooooo! Not me! Fr*ggin’ idiot.

  12. One of the most infuriating comments about atheism I hear is the one you quote Ferguson as saying, namely that there are some things science cannot explain. Without an understanding of atomic charge, electrons, and the atomic and molecular nature of matter one cannot explain lightning. But ignorance of those things did not make Zeus the correct explanation for lightning. The fact that we don't yet have proven model for the origin of life does not make God the correct explanation. Science is a method, not a book of answers. As a science teacher, this is the main point I try to get across to my students. It's harder than you might think.

  13. I suppose there are similar conversations that go

    "I'm a muslim"

    "So why do you hate women?"

    or

    "I'm a Jew."

    "So why did you kill Jesus?"

    or

    "I'm a Catholic"

    "You can't really believe everything the Pope says is right, right?"

    When I'm being a good boy I tend to take writerdd's approach

    when asked about my religion and just say "I don't have one" or even "I've never seen any good reason to adopt one". I only reply "I'm an atheist" when I'm in the the mood to be combative.

  14. Sorry Rebecca but, ingoring the atheism aspects here, you are clearly in error attributing any deficit in your ability to explain your atheism in a bar as a consequence of consuming "4-5 Guinesses"

    I have incontrivertable evidence that Guiness does not make you drunk. Some years ago, my MBA study group used to gather at a bar on Thursday nights after class for Choir Practice. We called it choir practice because among the four of us there were three atheists and a hindu. We had our main study group on Sunday mornings, which we called 'Church', hence choir practice on Thursday nights. But I digress.

    After one lengthy choir practice involving the observed consumption of at least 6 pints of Guiness each, my fellow choristers all made their way home. I, naturally, took the sensible course and used public transport. However, the bass drove home, and on the way was pulled over by the police for a breath test. He passed.

    Hence, I have observed either (a) a miracle (which I do not, as a skeptical atheist believe in) or (b) incontravertable proof that Guiness does not make you drunk.

    Therefore you can't blame your inability to coherently explain your atheism in a bar on Guiness!!!!

  15. This is why I stopped caring about the religion of those I bed… (and you can tell by my use of “bed” that they are far and few between… and that may be the reason I stopped caring) I find that believers usualy couldn’t give a crap and those that do wont sleep with you no matter if you believe what they do.

    You hear me young men jsut getting into highschool, converting to her crazy right wing christian group, nine times out of ten, wont get you down her pants.

  16. Hmm, I wonder if there’s something about being socially inept in real life that drives us all to talking on the Blogosphere. It’s a factor for me, at least.

    Then again, it’s also possible that we’re all here because we’re secretly in love with Rebecca.

    .>

    I will neither confirm nor deny that that is the case for me.

  17. Regarding religious conversion in return for nookie:

    Come on, think about it, it doesn't make sense. Either she's making you commit a sin, or she's just recruiting you by using your own sins against you.Either way you're getting screwed, but not by her.

  18. Well, glad to see that I'm not alone in the 'utter social ineptness' department. Good to know :)

    Infophile: Then again, it’s also possible that we’re all here because we’re secretly in love with Rebecca.

    Who said there was anything SECRET about it? Certainly not me, at least. (I kid, I kid…or do I? :-P)

    Exarch: I can meet nice, smart girls (like once every couple of months I’ll bump into one), I’ve even been known to strike up a conversation with some of them and not make a complete ass of myself.

    You'll have to tell me your secrets! No, but seriously…I hold to the fact that I have never met (in person) a female who was entirely skeptical/atheistic and comfortable enough with it to say so. I guess part of it is that, due to the contrarianism of my OWN atheism, I don't often get into discussions of belief for exactly the reasons Rebecca speaks of above.

    But still, of those smart girls I HAVE known personally, if they weren't theistic in the sense of traditional religion, they were at the very least 'spiritual' in the woo-woo sense (tarot cards, astrology, etc.) or into something like Wicca or paganism. It's a bit sad.

    Anyway, enough of that. I'm confident that someday I'll accidentally encounter what it is that I want. Accidentally, I say, because my social ineptness would most assuredly preclude any other means! :)

    Oh, and csrster brings up a good point. I just think that, while those questions might be raised in a personal discussion, the double standard still exists on TV. Could you imagine someone asking, in a way that is clearly NOT meant to be humorous, a Jewish actor/actress why they killed Jesus on TV, or a Muslim why they hate women? I know I can't.

    OK. I'll be quiet now. This isn't my blog after all, and I never write in my own anyway. :-x

  19. I hold to the fact that I have never met (in person) a female who was entirely skeptical/atheistic and comfortable enough with it to say so.

    Well, I've met Rebecca…

    It's funny, though. Maybe you guys just need to move to Boston. I've got two very close female friends who are atheists but not woo-woo New Agers. One is even an evolutionary biologist.

    Y'all are just in the wrong town, I think.

  20. Move to Boston! We'll have a party! I'll bake the blueberry bread whose recipe was passed down to me by my hippie ancestors! The reputation of atheists for immorality and licentiousness will be maintained!

    Oops. I think I just exceeded my exclamation-point allotment for the fiscal year.

  21. Hmm. The one interesting point is that I HAVE lived in Boston…well, Cambridge technically. Commuted from the Alewife T stop to Arlington in the Back Bay every day for almost two years. Worked with a LOT of college aged women as well. And none of them were, to my knowledge, atheists. I guess I just got in with the wrong crowd! Though, admittedly, it is quite hard to get in with ANY crowd when your hobbies and interests generally are of the sort that keep you out of group settings.

    Maybe I'll head back to ol'Beantown when I'm done getting my useless MA here in London. But perhaps not if the cost of rent hasn't gone down at all…man, what a nightmare :-P

  22. Hey, Expatria, Infophile, Thad and exarch, can I join your socially-inept club? (Just found this blog, so this is my first post.) For my credentials, I'm so bad at approaching people that the last time I went on a date was never. And, I already AM in Boston, so I don't think it's the town…

  23. Well I grew up five miles from an honest to goodness straight out of the 60’s hippie commune. So my tollerance for the New Age woo-woo girls is a bit higher than my tollerance for the current age christian woo’s.

  24. I'm a notorious atheist/agnostic (atheist in the heart, agnostic in the mind).

    I don't feel frustrated having to explain what I am and in what I believe, if I believe etc …

    Frustrating is having to do this at the very same people each time :(

    They just don't listen.

  25. for all the athiests who like to believe that they don't have a belief, come on get real. you believe that there is no God. you believe that religion is ridiculous. you believe that we came from monkeys. (which there is no hard scientific evidence of yet). Just because the word literally translates to without religion, does not mean that you are without religion. And people should take the hard line with Billy Graham. Ask him to explain why he believes in God. He does have answers and he might just change your mind.

  26. Wow. Unwittingly, bcase has just proven the point this blog entry was trying to make:

    That some people just don't want to listen to what you're saying. And obviously, they're not even aware of doing this, or else bcase would have realized the foot that (s)he just swallowed was his/her own.

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