How to Be an Atheist Without Being a Total $%!# About It



Let’s be honest. Atheists in America have an image crisis.

And by image crisis, I meant that we’re trusted less than rapists.

I’ve written about Christian blogger Benjamin Corey a couple of times in the past. His most recent article, a list of ten ways to be a Christian without being a total &$!# about it, is an attempt to remedy the rather obnoxious public image Christians have cultivated for themselves in America. In a couple of his comments he mentioned that he was hoping one of his atheist blogger friends would write a similar post.

And because I have nothing better to do on a Saturday morning than basket-weave as the sun rises….

Oh wait, I have plenty of things I should be doing. You owe me another beer, Mr. Corey.

To be fair, it’s a valid point. If Christians have a terrible public image in America, atheists aren’t much better. The atheist professor in ‘God’s Not Dead’ is somewhere between a straw man and an SNL caricature, but that stereotype of the elite and bitter atheist has to come from somewhere.

It does. It comes from us. Because we’re not always good examples of what it means to treat people who are different from us with respect and dignity. In fact, we’re bleeding terrible at it sometimes.

So here are ten ways to be an atheist without being a total dick about it. Ten ways I selected because I know that I’m consistently guilty of all of them. There are more. But these are the ten greatest failings of the Irish Atheist.


1. Let’s stop referring to religious people as mentally handicapped or incapacitated.

Because they’re not. The vast majority of theists are not in any way mentally challenged. For every raving lunatic who believes he’s Jesus Christ reborn in Kansas City, there are a hundred  educated men and women who are kind, sane, and rational and also religious. Some are casually spiritual, others are deeply devout. Some are extremely educated, and others are eager to plaster their ignorance on Twitter. But they make up 85-90% of the world’s population at a rough guesstimate. So let’s use the minds that 4.5 billion years of evolution gave us and stop smearing all these individuals as mentally handicapped. It does us no favours and makes us look just as petty and vicious as theists are so eager to paint us.

And, more importantly, it’s just not true. Religion is not a mental handicap. It is a complex and extraordinarily varied cultural phenomenon that influences individuals from a young age through the power of social conditioning. Any type of person can be religious – handicapped, brilliant, and everything in between. And frankly, it’s insulting to people who do live with mental handicaps. So seriously, knock it off.

2. Stop inferring that LGBT people can’t be devoutly religious.

They can. I personally don’t know how they do it. I do believe that the LGBT community is currently religion’s favourite and easiest target. But let’s stop insinuating that writers like Ben Moberg, who is gay and Christian and brilliantly well-spoken about it, is somehow ‘sleeping with the enemy.’

I don’t know how Moberg or people like him balance their identity with their religion, but it’s his life, not mine. Challenge ideas, always challenge ideas, but respect that some people are going to have life experiences that you can not identify with and that it’s not always your place to condemn the choices they make based on their experiences.

3. Stop saying that all wars are a result of religion.

They aren’t. Here’s a brief list of things that can start wars: racism, language barriers, economics, greed, nationalism, poor communication skills, they-have-nice-things-and-I-want-them, oppression of rights, assassinating Archduke Ferdinand, cutting off the ear of a man named Jenkins, and a football match. Sometimes, religion is a factor. Sometimes it’s the main factor. Not always. So let’s stop with this whole ‘religion causes all wars’ speech. It’s neither accurate nor cute.

4. In fact, let’s not use historically inaccurate arguments at all.

Remember that meme that’s passed around pretty regularly about Jesus and Horus? The one that claims that Jesus of Nazareth is basically just a carbon copy of a more ancient Egyptian deity? It’s pretty much a load of bullshit, as any reputable Egyptologist could tell you. In fact, most of those memes comparing Jesus to other deities are rubbish.

We’re supposed to be the ones who care about facts and rational arguments. Silly memes that could be refuted by an ancient history undergrad at the University of Omaha don’t help us much.

5. Let’s stop wasting money on silly billboards that poke fun at religions.

We’re not proselytisers. Let’s spend that money on something worthwhile. Like those 10,000 kids that Christians abandoned a couple of weeks ago because gay people.


6. Let’s pick our battles with discretion.

When a young Buddhist boy in a public school is forced to partake in Christianity-affirming projects and is told that he should transfer to a school with more Asians if he doesn’t like it, that’s a battle worth fighting. When a child is put down for his religion in a federally funded place of education, we need to stand up on his behalf. When a girl is forced to leave her private school because she doesn’t look ‘feminine’ enough, we need to speak out and let her know that she has a place to go and people who love her just as she is.

But when a piece of religious art like the 9-11 cross is going to be placed in a museum, is this really something we should be up in arms about? Can you imagine if federally funded museums removed every work of art with a religious message? In the art world, religious artwork is a small niche commonly known as ‘Everything before 1750.’ I don’t think one more cross in a museum is going to threaten my First Amendment rights.

Do we really need to get involved when a grieving mother keeps a cross up for her son on public land? Yes, the land was owned by the public, yes, it was technically a driving hazard. Yes, I suppose it could technically breach the Establishment Clause. But is this really a fight that American Atheists should be involved in? Is this what we want the face of our community to be? Hairsplitting?

There are some battles that need to be fought, and others that could be fought but frankly aren’t worth our time. Let’s focus less on crosses and more on people.

7. Stop saying ‘Tax the churches.’

Separation of church and state goes both ways, and I sure don’t want any church paying into the government I help elect.

8. Let’s stop implying that we’re always right.

Theists constantly stigmatise atheists as ‘privileged elitists,’ and too often we do nothing to counter-act this claim. We’re wrong. A lot. About a lot of things. And we’re really, really bad about admitting that we’re wrong when we are. The conversation between skeptics and the faithful is too often laced with insinuations of intellectual superiority from both sides. Let’s knock it off. Respect each other. Recognise that each individual has a reason for taking the position they do. Find out that reason. Talk about it. Challenge it. Learn about it. Take the role of the searcher. Don’t set yourself up on the pedestal of Dawkins and insist that you’ve found the true answer and everyone below you is too stupid to figure it out.

Also, lay off the petty insults, even when you didn’t take the first shot. This shouldn’t have to be said, but type ‘atheist’ into a twitter search and let the fireworks fly. For myself, I recognise that it’s not necessary to refer to the Christian god as a Bronze Age goat herder’s idol, or to Islam as a paedophile’s misogynistic cult. No matter how satisfying it can be, such things are based in shock value and have no worth in a rational discussion beyond my own self-satisfaction.

We’re known for our doubt and our skepticism. Let’s start being known for our civility as well.

9. Stop assuming that every theist is out to get you.

This one is mainly for me. One of my biggest flaws as a writer and as a responder is that I tend to read everything a theist says in the worst possible light. I’ve had more than one person ask me how I could possibly have inferred such animosity into their statement when to me it seemed blindingly obvious. I had a reaction a few days ago when a writer on Patheos used the word ‘gypped,’ a racial slur against the Roma people (of whom my mother happens to be one). I was so disgusted by his use of this word that I never seriously entertained the thought that he had no idea what it meant. It lead to a very terse interaction between us that left nothing positive in it’s wake. And I’m sure I helped cement in his mind that atheists are often spiteful aggressors who are more interested in fights than dialogue.

10. Start looking past the religious differences.

Theists are the majority in this world, and that’s not going to change in any of our lifetimes. Atheists are often an insular tribe, isolating ourselves from the big bad religious powers-that-be in favour of congratulatory self-affirmations. Let’s break out of our bubbles a bit. Let’s start accepting invitations to attend church. Let’s insist on and enforce a level of civility in our interactions with theists. If we can stop insisting that our theological differences are the defining trait between us, the debate between skepticism and faith will start to matter less and less.

If there is one atheist commandment that we can all agree on, it’s this. Leave the world a better place than it was when you got here, because we only have one chance to visit this planet. Let’s start treating our theist neighbours like actual neighbours and copilots on this trip through the cosmos.

And stop being a %&#! about it.


22 thoughts on “How to Be an Atheist Without Being a Total $%!# About It

  1. Well done! A heartfelt ‘Thank you” from a Christian who is just plain tired of the bickering. Let’s get on with the business of living life and taking care of each other.

  2. This is well said and very welcome. I am a Unitarian Universalist parish minister and a Christian. (Yes, it works.) I have many Humanist colleagues who, despite their genuine commitment to a life work of scholarship, compassion and service, still fall into many of the errors above. (I, as a Theist and Christian, have tripped into a few that Ben Corey enumerated.) It’s intellectually lazy and morally irresponsible to set up straw opponents, then knock them down gleefully in the full flush of $%!#-ness while our friends cheer. We owe our opponents better; moreover,we owe ourselves and our traditions better.

    • Cheers. It may be of some interest to you that the only church I ever willingly step foot in is the Unitarian church in Dublin. I wrote about the experience a few posts ago, on St. Patrick’s Day.

  3. I’ve always appreciated your decency to others. This is beautifully written and bearing these points in mind would behoove all of us… Atheist or not!

  4. Thank you for your eloquent words. I am Christian, and actually quite deeply spiritual. I hope that you don’t take offense to these words–they are meant as a high compliment–but you, sir, are far closer to the heart of God than you know.

  5. I like that and think I’ll reblog it while precising my own thoughts as soon as I find the time 🙂

    I find it profoundly unjust and egregious that atheists (in general) have such a bad press in the states.

    However I do believe it is warrented to have a low opinion of anti-theists who are very akin to fundies:

    I hate the culture war and wished there were only nice Christians and nice atheists discussing and debating instead of barking, yelling, growling and roaring towards each other.

    Cheers from the middle of Western Continental Europe.

  6. Thank you. In the weeks since the “great debate” in which, as a Christian I came down more firmly on Bill Nye’s side, I was assailed with comments from my athiest friends about how stupid I was for believing what I believe. Thank you for writing some words that ALL of us can heed.

  7. This Formerly Fundie reader has a new blog to read. This was a nice companion piece to Ben’s article. Hopefully both sides will take note and implement the suggestions.
    As an aside, I have enjoyed reading your comments on Patheos. I appreciate your rational outlook. I often find myself agreeing with you even though I am a Jesus follower. Perhaps humanity is universal.

  8. Pingback: Tolerant progressive atheists | lotharlorraine
  9. Amazingly good post. On the street level, we all need to remember that “diversity is good” including diversity of belief systems. Get along with others. Show respect when the Christians bow their heads to pray. Go to the Jewish Center and have some fun on dance night. Hang out with Atheists and discuss their wildly varying notions on spirituality or the lack of it.

    We can all be decent towards each other.

    The big problem in the USA is one faced by other nations after a Socialist takeover. Christians are under persistent attack as the Leftists try to drive them out of sight, out of the halls of government, out of the schools… the conflict in ideological foundations between Christianity and Socialism inevitably results in this sort of treatment, leading to pogroms, gulags, etc. It goes well beyond a simple lack of civility.

    • You are, of course, entitled to your opinions. However, if believe Christians are incapable of persecuting or slaughtering others they disagree with, there’s a place you should visit called Northern Ireland, among others.

  10. This was excellent! I’m an atheist who used to be a Christian, so I’ve been both kinds of &%$#. 😉 If I’ve learned anything, I’ve learned that kindness and empathy go much, much further than judgment and ostracism when it comes to building bridges and solving problems. Thanks!

  11. Reblogged this on Strike Your Note and commented:
    I thought this was a great little piece. If I’ve learned anything from having been both a religious adult and an atheist adult, it’s that kindness and empathy go a lot further than judgment and ostracism when it comes to building bridges and solving problems.

  12. Over the years, I built a bit of a reputation of being an overbearing atheist. I’d like to think I rarely became outright insulting (although I returned in kind when Christians did start with the insults), but I certainly would make passive-aggressive jabs at believers.
    I’ve toned down since then, and don’t really join online conversations much anymore. However, last week I commented a bunch of times on an article on a conservative news site. I was very polite and looking for an interesting dialogue. Unfortunately, (and not entirely unexpectedly) only two of the dozen or so people that responded to me were actually willing to address what I was commenting on regarding the subject of the article. Two people were outright trolling me, and the remainder were just taking the opportunity to make snide comments about the token liberal nonbeliever.
    It really got me thinking about how I tend to comment about conservatives and Christians (they aren’t necessarily one and the same), and how a lot of my liberal atheist brethren treat the ones that visit our domains.
    Those Christians on that site certainly did not make me feel welcome, nor did they do anything to convince me that I’d want to become a Christian. The same can be said about how I’ve represented atheism in the past. I’m determined to become a better atheist.

  13. One more observation… something I’ve noticed (having made the opposite journey as you from secularism to Christianity) is how easy it is for us to think that “believing all the right things” is the key to being a good person. I see that in my liberal secular upbringing, in some of my fundamentalist co-religionists- and at some level in myself.

    Now it’s true that believing some things that aren’t true (blacks are inferior, vaccines are of the devil) can lead people to do things that are evil. But the reverse isn’t always the case. Intellectual assent to some set of truths doesn’t make you a good person- trying to be a good person makes you a good person. But the latter is much harder to do…

  14. I was raised by a fundamentalist Christian family and it was a horrible experience. Still, I am very spiritual and I’m tired of people acting like I have to choose. I don’t think the term “Christian” is very positive these days and I wouldn’t want to be associated with a lot of what they are putting out there. I don’t go to their church anymore and my personal beliefs are quite different from what I was raised with. However, I’m willing to accept that they have their beliefs and I don’t really care how they choose to express them.

    Two of my brothers have become atheists. They are both pretty laid back about their beliefs and don’t seem defensive or hostile when religion comes up. They don’t care if religious symbols are around. They just want the government to treat them fairly. But, a friend of mine is very different from them. She seems hostile and easily offended and it feels like walking on eggshells. Frankly, it annoys me quite a bit that she feels she can voice her position and treat other people disrespectfully, but they are not allowed to discuss their beliefs or use religious symbols at all or she is “disturbed”. I conclude that she is “disturbed” but I’m not going to walk on eggshells to accommodate her because I feel she is also overly sensitive and she needs to just accept that other people have different beliefs than her and are allowed to express theirs too.

    I recently started a social networking site and this friend is trying to dictate to me what I can or cannot have on it. I ran across your article while looking for a good approach for dealing with her and I appreciate it very much. Thank you.

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