Pick a god, any god
August 7, 2012 5:31 PM   Subscribe

Why is it that many devout religious people are tolerant of other faiths that completely contradict their own, but fear and mistrust atheists?

Many religious people are willing to engage in interfaith dialogue and accept that other religious people's beliefs might differ from theirs. This even when their beliefs say outright that those who disagree with them are eternally damned. But a lot of these same people mistrust atheists and agnostics and generally don't afford them the same respect that they give to religious people who don't share their faith.

This is not an uncommon phenomenon, and it has a pretty long history. Many U.S. state constitutions have a religious test in them (now overruled by the Supreme Court), which requires that public officials profess belief in some higher power, but explicitly say it doesn't matter which one. There's also the Boy Scouts of America. (And arguably AA/NA/etc., although they are pretty flexible on the definition of a higher power.)

Where does this idea come from? How has it been justified? Are there any scholarly discussions of this issue? I am specifically interested in believers who tolerate faiths that contradict theirs, but don't tolerate atheism.

Preemptively: I don't want this to turn into an airing of grievances. And: I know not all religious people hold these beliefs, but there are quite a few who do. It is not an uncommon position.
posted by vogon_poet to Religion & Philosophy (57 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Atheism's most radical fringe has made a bad name for the rest of us. Things like lawsuits to take down a memorial cross in southern California, and so on. A lot of that antagonism towards atheists dates from 1962 after the school prayer decision.

Theists think that atheists are antagonistic towards theists, and respond in the same way.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 5:43 PM on August 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

Personally, I have always felt that the single biggest driving force behind religion is the need to believe that there is something, anything, after death.

Atheists are scary because they say: "Nope. Blackness, except not even that."

Almost every other religion mankind has developed agrees on the basic point that death is not a final termination of all that is you. And so, in that sense, all religious people can see each other and brethren.
posted by 256 at 5:45 PM on August 7, 2012 [29 favorites]

Besides the antagonism (perceived or real) that Chocolate Pickle mentions, there's also the likeihood that it's easier for a theist to accept and understand another theist than an agnostic: at least that other theist DOES believe in a higher power, even if they worship 'incorrectly'.
posted by easily confused at 5:48 PM on August 7, 2012 [5 favorites]

Agreed with 256, but also, I think that those who are part of a religion feel that atheists think of them condescendingly as being stupid for believing in 'fairy tales', or that they are just unquestioning sheep doing whatever they are told by the church.

And I can understand why that is because I know there are atheists that do feel that way.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 5:49 PM on August 7, 2012 [13 favorites]

I don't know if there is a more academic answer to this question, but for me, it boils down to this: faith, as a whole, is not about SPECIFIC beliefs so much as the ACT of believing in something unprovable. When you believe in something unprovable, the very fact that someone else does NOT can seem like a threat. If you are on an airplane and you believe - REALLY believe - that it is your worry that is holding it aloft, the guy sitting next to you yammering about the aerodynamics of the new Airbus design has gotta seem flippant, dismissive, frightening, etc. Or so I'm guessing - I was raised atheist. :-)
posted by julthumbscrew at 5:51 PM on August 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

Because other religions don't really challenge the fundamental nature of religious belief the way that atheism does, particularly the stronger forms of atheism. Islam isn't an existential threat to a Christian's belief system in quite the same way, for example. People tend to become hostile when their beliefs are challenged, especially when they have a strong personal identification with those beliefs. For that alone, the hostility makes perfect sense.

On top of that, lots and lots of religious people appear to be genuinely clueless as to how atheists and agnostics can behave morally without believing in an external and eternal source of morality and judgement, because for people raised in a religious belief they're so bound up together, so a lot of religious people seem to assume it's flat-out impossible. The idea of morality derived from a combination of rationality and empathy alone appears to be completely alien, like they literally cannot understand how people can be "good" without believing in God, especially if they're the kind of people who believe that God is actually punitive. Among stricter or more conservative religious types, like anti-gay Biblical literalist Christians, statements along the lines of "if we didn't have the Bible, people would run around having gay sex and screwing animals and murdering each other all the time!" are actually pretty common.

To me as a secular person that reads like a closeted dog-fucking murder in denial and is really creepy, so my natural inclination is to be suspicious of people who make statements like that, but it's honestly so common that I have trouble believing that every single anti-gay pastor who says something like that is consumed with lust for golden retrievers. Intellectually, I know better, but it's still very disconcerting. So iit makes sense to me that they'd feel the same way. Having to trust in the moral and ethical inclinations of a person whose reactions you just can't map seems to make everyone suspicious and hostile, whether they're religious or not.
posted by The Master and Margarita Mix at 5:52 PM on August 7, 2012 [28 favorites]

As an atheist, I think (but cannot know for certain) that the moral codes imbedded in religions make the religious folk suspicious that atheists are amoral, and therefore untrustworthy, perhaps even dangerous, with no code to prevent them from doing anything that will meet their desires, including harming others.
posted by b33j at 5:52 PM on August 7, 2012 [6 favorites]

Ignorance. People assume a lot about "others" that they don't have much interaction with.

I was raised Muslim - faithful and definitely practicing, but not conservative and certainly not fundamentalist. I always had doubts, but it took me until I was about 23 to admit to myself and others that I was an atheist. When I told my brother, he said something along the lines of "I think atheists are bad, amoral and selfish people, but I still love you." (um, ok, thanks bro?)

Fast forward like 8 years. He's married, and he and his wife have a 1 year old child. He's still a practicing Muslim, and I'm still an atheist. They asked me, a single, ex-Muslim, atheist female, to be their daughter's guardian, should anything happen to them. Through my honesty and example, they know me to be one of the most ethical, trustworthy, and giving people they know. They have many moderate and level headed Muslim friends and family they could have asked. But they asked me.

Not that I was an amoral and selfish 23 year old (but of course all the wiser now), but I think it's very important for people to be honest with others, and "come out" in their lack of belief. Atheists are your friends and family. We're not bad people (well, most of us aren't). But as with anything, it's very easy to judge and make assumptions about broad categories when you don't have someone in that category that you can openly engage with - and when those "others" aren't close to your everyday connections.
posted by raztaj at 5:53 PM on August 7, 2012 [7 favorites]

When I ask my conservative Christian* students this, they often protest that an atheist can't be a moral person because they don't have a guiding higher power. Most of them don't dislike atheists, or feel condescended to by atheists, they just don't trust them.

When I ask them, "What would you do differently if you found out FOR SURE there was no God?" They usually answer, "Get a tattoo." "Not murder people?" "Well, no ... OHHHH, I see your point." Most of them usually decide that an atheist COULD be moral, and some of them stop being quite so distrustful. Others decide an atheist COULD be a moral person, but probably isn't, so they'll stick with the mistrust.

*A particular local sect of conservative Christians related to Mennonites, a sort of urban-adapted Anabaptist group. They are much like conservative Baptists, but not very fire-and-brimstone. Your atheist-attitudes mileage may vary by sect.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:55 PM on August 7, 2012 [18 favorites]

If I like beer and you like wine, we have more in common with each other than we would with a total abstainer, yes?

Also, this kind of ecumenism is a very new thing in human history. For most of the history of religion, the norm was to kill the people who believed in different gods than you.

In the US in specific, Christian ecumenism comes primarily out of the rise of Catholic political power following the large influx of Irish, Italian, and to some extent German, French, and Spanish Catholics in the mid-nineteenth century.

Adapting Baden-Powell's Boy Scouts model from his very-grounded-in-the-Church-of-England original to a US version in the early 20th century meant, to the folks who created Boy Scouts of America, keeping the religious aspect but making it more inclusive to the country's powerful Christian denominations and, to a far lesser extent, to mainstream US assimilation-minded Judaism.
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:55 PM on August 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

Atheists are generally distrusted, at least according to some research. if you think another person is living with the assumption that they also have someone watching their behavior, then you might see them as similarly honorable, even if it's a different deity.
posted by bizzyb at 5:55 PM on August 7, 2012

Organized religions tend to codify behavior, rewards, and punishment. How will you possibly behave correctly if you're not afraid of being punished for all eternity?
posted by halfbuckaroo at 5:58 PM on August 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

The enemy of my enemy is my friend.
posted by NoraCharles at 6:02 PM on August 7, 2012 [4 favorites]

Agree with the opinions expressed above that many people are raised to think of religion and morality/ethics as indivisible and incapable of existing without each other.

Of course this makes no sense (I say as a religious person myself) but it's hard to unlearn early lessons. So starting from that point of view, it follows that person raised in Religion A thinks of person observant in Religion B as having a partly erroneous moral and ethical system, but thinks of an atheist as having no moral and ethical system.

There's an interesting discussion of this as it relates to Prohibition in the US in Marni Davis's recent book Jews and Booze. To briefly sum up her research, there was grudging admiration of Jewish traditions of incorporating wine into religious observances even from hardcore anti-alcohol activists who believed that Prohibition was a Christian imperative for the US. The contemporary sources she cites are fascinating.
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:03 PM on August 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

I would challenge you to look at that "many" and ask who those many actually are, and if they're really that many to start with.

For example, those people who are okay with there being a religious litmus test for public office may say that they simply want it to be belief in some kind of deity, with the idea that such a test will be easier to maintain if it isn't faith-specific. Those same people would not vote for Keith Ellison, even if he were a super-conservative Republican. The Boy Scouts are allegedly accepting of other religions, but for example, there was the story about the kid who wasn't allowed to join because he had never cut his hair, as a part of his Native American belief system. Many Boy Scout groups are actually run out of Christian churches--how welcome do you think that a Muslim boy feels there? See, for example, the furor that happened when public funding for religious charter schools looked like it was going to go to Muslims.

I do think that there's an element of just being a little more comfortable with people who are members of similar organizations to yours that helps with certain interfaith efforts, but I don't think that it extends nearly as far as you think it does. For a lot of conservative Christians, "interfaith" means at best "we might work with some Jewish organizations" and more likely "our group has both Protestants AND Catholics". There's a lot of distrust of atheists, but I really don't think it's particularly more than is directed to most other religions. "You don't have a higher power to give you a moral compass" is a thing, but it's not particularly stronger than "your prophet is a pedophile" or "you just worship a bunch of trees and rocks, that isn't a real religion", in my experience.
posted by gracedissolved at 6:05 PM on August 7, 2012 [6 favorites]

I think that most religious types assume that all Atheists are also Antitheists. I happen to be both, but anyone could simply be either. They just don't trust anyone in either category.
posted by blaneyphoto at 6:24 PM on August 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

The US has historically thought religion important--even for enlghtenment thinkers--because the3yh thought it gave moral backbone to the nation.
If in war I say I am a conscientious objector, I will not be deferred if I am an atheist but chances are I will be if I am a Quaker. Religious places get tax free and atheists pay for this...why?

But fin general, all religions are ok because mine is correct and yours is not but you may see the light; atheists it is thought never will...
atheists it is thought are without values because they do not believe in a god (of any kind,) whereas having a religion, even the wrong one, will give you a chance to have some values .

Monotheism in a way does unite at least one aspect of religion in America...alas, atheists
have not got this.
posted by Postroad at 6:40 PM on August 7, 2012

To follow up on gracedissolved's excellent points, there is a lot of sharp critique from within the US Jewish community about the public mythology of "shared Judeo-Christian values" as a lot of feel-good blah blah that erases actual Judaism in the service of blending it into the US's civic Christianity. This article is incisively argued, for example.
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:40 PM on August 7, 2012 [7 favorites]

Considering how religious discourse is so intertwined with neoliberal discourse, at least here in the US, I wonder whether some of this (at least right now) is also grounded in a fear that to deny religion is to deny the socioeconomic structure that is perceived to be what is keeping this country alive and economically viable. This seems possible when you also consider that economic discourses co-opt older religious or moralistic discourses that predate neoliberalism, probably as a legitimizing move.

Also, death as an Eternal Void of Not Being is hella freaky, and maybe not too fun for religious types to think about.
posted by vivid postcard at 6:51 PM on August 7, 2012

"Say what you will about National Socialism, Dude, at least it's an ethos."

I think that's the thing. People view atheism as a form of nihilism, an inherent rejection of everything that gives order to their universe.

I mean yeah, Christians worship like this and Hindus worship like this, but religion is a shortcut way of saying I Am A Moral Person Following A Code Of Ethics, theoretically speaking. If I (I'm using the Theoretical I, not the Me Personally I here) don't AGREE with your Hinduism, I can still go look up its rules and codes and see oh, okay, you have a belief system and ethical code.

If you're an atheist, I have to trust that you are a good person with no external point of reference. That's a big jump for a lot of people.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 6:56 PM on August 7, 2012 [6 favorites]

I think it's actually because atheists don't have a blueprint for their morality, rather than that they think there is none.

So, let's say a Christian is confronted with a Jew. A little research, and they can say, "Oh, this is the moral code they're supposed to abide by." Same with Islam, or Buddhism, or any other religion.

But with atheists, the scary part is that the moral code isn't written down. It's like playing a game with no access to the cheat codes. They don't understand what is and isn't safe.
posted by corb at 7:12 PM on August 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Because the disagreement is more fundamental; all supernatural beliefs ultimately posit and non-rational universe whereas the rejection of the existence of the supernatural does not. This may seem an overly academic argument but consider all the little ways this difference manifests itself in our thinking. Religions tend to be conservative on lifestyle and social issues; but even members if "liberal" sects are checking in with a higher power. Atheists simply don't think like this, and thus are apt to think in humanist, scientific or political ways about these issues. Or consider a common refrain of theists when something bad happens "even thing happens for a reason". This approach to understanding our lives doesn't translate to the atheist.

Further, consider the context in which most religions develop. The Abrahamic religions share so much because they spring from pretty similar contexts. But most other religions tend to spring from tribal, patriarchal societies. Just about every religion has an opinion on sex because they originated in a time when female sexuality was (as it often remains) an economic and political commodity. And every religion shares some socio-political function; it might not as explicit as in the case of the state Pantheon in Rome or the Indian Castes, but religion is about identity and social order. (In some early societies, control of irrigation became associated with a priestly caste.)

Atheism doesn't really do any of that. While in terms of pure logic, atheism is the default position, the times it has seemed to have philosophical influence has been in mature societies with some religious system embedded in its history. If you're an wealthy Roman interested in the ideas of Epicurus, or an educated 21st-century person in an Occidental city, you're probably not very interested in tradition or living a narrowly confined lifestyle. You already live in an advanced urban society, and it's probably working out for you more or less, so you really don't need a supernatural monitor to compel you to "buy in" to society. So you start to see the world a little differently; society is either their to improve upon, or a system to game, but either way, you're not seeking to make it more like a lost Golden Age (Eden) or a prophetic revelation (Millennial Kingdom).

Atheists, from Galt-ian egoists to Marxist communitarians see society has creations of humanity to be shaped by us according to our own visions. Theists see society has either creation of, or property of, Providence and to the extent we are to alter it is to better conform it to said deities. Even when there might be agreement; (on say feeding the hungry) the reasoning to get there is different and it's hard to trust people who don't think like you.
posted by spaltavian at 7:28 PM on August 7, 2012 [4 favorites]

As an atheist, I think (but cannot know for certain) that the moral codes imbedded in religions make the religious folk suspicious that atheists are amoral, and therefore untrustworthy, perhaps even dangerous, with no code to prevent them from doing anything that will meet their desires, including harming others.

This was basically what my mildly religious ex-boyfriend said to me. His family's minister had given him some sort of book about managing "interfaith relationships" and we talked about it a little and I was like "You know I'm not Jewish in a religious way, right? That I don't believe in god?" and he just felt that, at some level, there was a hole in me where there was supposed to be a belief in the unknowable and while he intellectually understood that, he couldn't really reconcile it with his own view of faith and why you have it.
posted by jessamyn at 7:44 PM on August 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

As an atheist, one of the conversations i sometimes have with religious people is about how atheists make choices or know right from wrong. Because many religious people base those things on religious guidelines or beliefs, they often really truly can't understand how I make choices or know right from wrong in the absence of religion. And some of them conclude that that means that atheists make decisions based on pure selfishness, and that we are essentially amoral. And that, of course, is actually really really scary. (I mean, if i thought that the growing ranks of atheists were all amoral and selfish, i'd be scared for the direction of society, wouldn't you?)

I think that because most atheists can't articulate how they make choices or know right from wrong, it's impossible to convince religious people that we aren't selfish and amoral. As atheists we need to get better at articulating what makes us good, moral, ethical people, not just insist that we are.
posted by Kololo at 7:44 PM on August 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

I don't have a problem with someone who believes there is no God, or is firmly committed to the notion that knowing is impossible. I find people who talk like Richard Dawkins to be insufferable bigots. Do you think I dislike atheists?

Because if you don't think I dislike atheists, I really think you ought to reevaluate what "many religious people" in the US really think of atheists.

And if you do think I dislike atheists, then I suspect you and I have too much we disagree upon to have a meaningful conversation on the subject.

Antitheism and atheism are very, very different things. I also don't like anti-Mormons, or anti-Catholics, and so on.
posted by SMPA at 7:57 PM on August 7, 2012 [4 favorites]

I think it's worth separating out the historical reasons for theists mistrusting atheists (as encoded in the state laws you mention, the Boy Scout constitution, etc.), from the reasons religious people might currently feel for being particularly uncomfortable with atheists.

Historically, I think it's worth remembering that the vast majority of religious beliefs were embedded in some sort of community structure. Obviously there have always been ideas of individual conscience and personal accountability to whatever deity, but for the most part, following a religion has meant being responsible to a wider community of like-minded believers. Insofar as atheism historically would have entailed a rejection of all the available religious communities, it's understandable that it might have been seen as a mark of anti-social, nihilistic tendencies. I wonder whether these anything-but-atheism rules have been as common in contexts where there are correspondingly active, stable and conspicuous communities of atheists?

With that said, the reason why I, as a theist, feel a little mistrustful of atheists now has less to do with non-belief in god per se and more to do with a specific strain of very recent, not-overly-well-educated (and probably not at all representative) atheism whose members (a) feel deeply convinced that a particular, highly oversimplified caricature of theism is representative of religious belief, and is in fact what all religious people believe even when they themselves claim otherwise; and (b) feel very confident explaining to others-- even to the religious people themselves-- that what religious people actually believe is this highly oversimplified caricature. Sadly, a couple of examples in this thread. Arguing is fun, but perpetually having to knock down the same straw-men gets very exhausting, and after a while, you flinch when you see them coming. I will say, though, that I've been tons likelier to encounter this sort of thing online than IRL-- so perhaps just yet another example of the Internet ruining things for everyone.
posted by yersinia at 8:04 PM on August 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

Antitheism and atheism are very, very different things.
posted by SMPA

Different, yet you can be one or the other, or both.
posted by blaneyphoto at 8:14 PM on August 7, 2012

Antitheism and atheism are very, very different things. I also don't like anti-Mormons, or anti-Catholics, and so on.

I'd say that antitheism is very different from being anti-Mormon or anti-Catholic, as well. Antitheism is an objection to all forms of theism in principle, not just particular flavors of it. And, importantly, it doesn't mean you're anti-religious people. I personally am opposed to theism on scientific, knowledge-based grounds of religion's effects on the human brain and society. But that doesn't mean I'm against people who simply happen to be religious - I'm just concerned with the implications of religion as a whole.

Also, being familiar with Richard Dawkins, I'd be curious to know why you think he's a bigot. He's very opinionated but he has good reason to be, and (as far as I know) justifies his opinions with facts. I don't think that's a bad thing.
posted by floomp at 8:19 PM on August 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

God is the Source of The Good. God is the Source of Wisdom. God is the Ultimate Arbiter.

Atheists have no access to The Good, or Wisdom, and they thumb their nose at the Judge like ungrateful children.

It took me a while to accept that I was an atheist after I lost my evangelical Christian faith, because I didn't want to be "that kind of person." I still had a moral compass! I didn't want to sin! Adding "and I'm an atheist" seemed like a contradiction in my brain for a while.

Within evangelicalism there is a belief that the world is utterly fallen, utterly broken, utterly corrupt, and without God there is no way out of that rabbit hole. Atheism seems like a choice to eschew optimism, hope, and morality. Would you want to be around people like that?

Now I have a moral system without god(s), but it is still very difficult to explain how that works to my devout friends and family.

On preview: Good lord I hate the role Richard Dawkins has been playing lately. Such a smart man, playing to such small and petty emotions. It's lazy, it's not worthy of him, and he does it constantly. Douglas Adams would be ashamed.
posted by heatherann at 8:33 PM on August 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

[Do not start a Dawkins derail here, please just answer the question]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 8:38 PM on August 7, 2012

[Seriously, folks, I know this is a button-pushing topic for a lot of people but please treat it like an askme request for concrete resources on the phenomenon and not as a place for arch commentary about religion.]
posted by cortex (staff) at 9:15 PM on August 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

Personally, I have always felt that the single biggest driving force behind religion is the need to believe that there is something, anything, after death.

You may be surprised to learn that not every religion has the concept of an afterlife. You may wish to Google the word "mortalism". Judaism notably had no concept of an afterlife for about its first 1,000 years. By the way, atheists have their own version of professing the afterlife. When someone dies, stick around to see how long it is before someone says, "he will live on in our memories." No, he won't; he's dead.

To answer the question, as a religious believer I have atheist friends and they run the gamut. One is very rational and also very literate in theology, but another goes apoplectic at the mere mention of religion and purposely knows no theology. I can get along much better with the former because his non-belief is based on serious theological concerns and not a child-like lashing out at authority, which I too often find in discussions with atheists.
posted by Tanizaki at 9:41 PM on August 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Eisenhower rather shockingly acknowledged that the particular truths of any given religion don't especially matter: “Our government makes no sense unless it is founded on a deeply held religious belief - and I don't care what it is."

Which amplifies Seneca's point that "rulers find religion useful"; functionally, the various revealed religions are pretty interchangeable with each other.

Atheism isn't.
posted by AsYouKnow Bob at 9:46 PM on August 7, 2012

"Monotheism in a way does unite at least one aspect of religion in America"

There are millions of Buddhists in the US (the numbers are all over the map, but a recent Pew study suggested there were more Buddhists in the US than Muslims). There are more than a million Hindus in the US. And large numbers of US citizens and residents, perhaps hundreds of thousands, who are observant in Chinese traditional religion. And so on for smaller groups.

The narrative that religious people in the US are necessarily monotheistic is part of the whole "viewing all religions through the lens of hegemonic Christianity" issue.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:47 PM on August 7, 2012

Once I was walking on campus (not my current campus) and I overheard two admins discussing their different religions with each other. After a while, one said to the other, "Well, what matters is that you have a religion and you believe in SOMETHING. If you don't believe in SOMETHING, you believe in NOTHING! What's left? ANYTHING could get in." The other nodded firmly. I (a secular humanist that I guess most religious believers would identify as atheist) was just boggling. But it did jar loose memories of similar "truisms" from the religious people I was part of as a kid.
posted by wintersweet at 11:36 PM on August 7, 2012

If you don't believe in God, or a higher power of some sort, then how could you believe in other things that are difficult to articulate. Can you believe in family? Community? Loyalty? Truth? Beauty? Love? Where is the wonder in life? Of course, all of those things are separate and distinct from religion and belief, but a number of religious people I know (not all) think that atheists live sad and lonely lives because to them, all of these things come in a bundle.
posted by Garm at 12:46 AM on August 8, 2012

It's about integrity. People of faith believe in something. They have given themselves up to a higher moral code. They have a moral code. They have a community that binds them . Atheists.. have nothing but themselves. Man is fallible. No faith is dangerous because it has no backstop. It breaks the binds of society. It disconnects lawmaking from the moral code and legitimises the immoral and outlaws the moral.*

Not my views, by the way
posted by MuffinMan at 2:02 AM on August 8, 2012

Many people prefer to think that everyone has the same basic beliefs in the end, just a different name for God, etc. This is false, but it is appealing for two reasons: it suggests those shared beliefs can be regarded as securely correct; and it means the difficult problem of how to deal with sincere but false belief need not be addressed.

Such people are happy with atheists who are prepared to dress up their atheism as essentially a humanist faith. But those who aren't look to them like people who are making difficulties; people of ill-will.

If it's any comfort I think a minority of religious people who (without seeking to repress others) point out rationally that in their eyes the other religions are actually false attract similar hostility for similar reasons.
posted by Segundus at 2:18 AM on August 8, 2012

I was raised as an atheist by one parent while attending the liberal church of another, converted, and recently spent a year hanging out with a bunch of very fundamentalist Christians. This inherent mistrust always confused me growing up, but I now think it is mostly a fear of the unkown kind of thing. With even the most disparate religious tradition, a someone can always go and learn about just what their members believe. It adds a layer of predictability and familiarity to new people you might meet. Particularly for those without a philosophical education who don't know the right questions to ask, atheists are just fundamentally mysterious to many for whom faith is a big part of their lives.
posted by Blasdelb at 2:46 AM on August 8, 2012

I've heard a lot of theists claim they're all worshiping the same god in different ways. They figure their god just eats that shit up, so any kind of worship is better than none, and that's what their god gets from an atheist: none. An atheist is rejecting this god they're all worshiping.
posted by pracowity at 2:50 AM on August 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm going to have to dispute a lot of the people here: most people of faith (including myself!) do NOT believe that people without that faith (atheists, agnostics) are also without integrity or a moral system..... having a belief in a higher power does not automatically make you a better person, nor does NO belief in a higher power make you more rational.

Quite simply, two people of faith, even though those may be two widely different faith systems, have more in common with each other. And just as in any other situation involving human beings, two people with something in common (in this case, a shared belief in a higher power) will find it easier to communicate than one theist and one atheist will.
posted by easily confused at 3:18 AM on August 8, 2012 [6 favorites]

Many possible reasons nonbelievers may be less tolerated than those who just believe differently. I think the most important is the degree of threat to one's own beliefs.

Religions nearly all emphasize faith. Despite all who say they see concrete evidence in God's existence in their day-to-day lives, nevertheless they have to believe in something far removed from what they can touch and hear and see directly. Under these circumstances nearly anyone will be plagued by some degree of doubt. "What if it's all just a myth? What if it's really only the material world and no higher power or afterlife at all?" Holding these doubts at bay is hard for many.

Someone who sees God differently doesn't undermine one's faith nearly as badly as someone who maintains that there is no deity at all, no afterlife, no meaning in life beyond what we give it ourselves.

Atheists and agnostics make it much harder to close one's eyes to doubt.
posted by wjm at 3:20 AM on August 8, 2012 [3 favorites]

but also, I think that those who are part of a religion feel that atheists think of them condescendingly as being stupid for believing in 'fairy tales', or that they are just unquestioning sheep doing whatever they are told by the church.

I was sort of raised Catholic - parents were lapsed but I went to a church school - and grew up in an area where there were a lot of Muslims. I'm now agnostic and I completely recognise this view of atheism even as someone who is not religious. I'm respectful of and interested in the beliefs of others, even though there is a lot of aspects of religion that don't sit comfortably with me, so I find this particular flavour of atheism extremely unpleasant. The idea that 'there are no Muslim children', for example, ignores the fact that a) religion is often as much about community as about belief b) that many of the Asian children that went ot my school were practising Muslims and remained so into adulthood, even when some became less so when leaving the family home.

I wondered whether part of your question, though, is the idea of a shared moral code and the idea held by some adherents that to be atheist is to be godless and to be godless is to care little for doing good. I think this is why humanism has risen in the past few years - a group that says yes, we're like religion in all the community and doing good unto others type ways but we believe in the power of people rather than the power of God.

The other thing I thought was that Abrahamic religions essentially worship the same God - Jesus is a prophet to Muslims if not the Saviour, and Jews follow the Old Testament as do Christians, even if they don't recognise Jesus. There's common ground there. Having said that, Northern Ireland shows that even different branches of Christianity find it hard ot get along.
posted by mippy at 3:44 AM on August 8, 2012

To take another tack, more on the 'affinity with other religions' than 'non-affinity with atheists' side: At my socially/politically liberal university, I knew a number of observant Christian, Jewish, and Muslim kids who were close friends and rooming with each other across religious lines. Part of the appeal, they told me, was that they 'got' the value that each placed on religious practices and restrictions - it's hard when your freshman year roommate won't/can't remember to knock on the door before bringing boys in so you can put your headscarf on.

In my (agnostic/atheist) opinion not repeatedly handing slices of pepperoni pizza to someone keeping kosher is common courtesy, but there was also a sense of belonging around others who held to religious practices, even if they were different ones.
posted by heyforfour at 5:14 AM on August 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

My feelings on this is that it's all a sign of progress. I'm pretty sure the interfaith bonding was much more fringy when I was young, and has become more and more mainstream over the years, and that Atheism was just mostly unknown or disbelieved to religious people, whereas now at least it is acknowledged and taken into consideration.

Talk of "atheism" was at one time not meant as a reference to specific people who didn't have religious faith, but to some sort of amorphous "bad guys" like talking about amoral people. Obviously there have been atheists the whole time (my family was & many of our friends), but it just seems like there's a lot more mainstream reference now. Likewise, it seems like there's way more comfort between religious leaders who at one time would have been more suspicious of each other.

So, I'd say it's moving in the right direction. Why do they relate to each other first? Probably the same reason atheists are more likely to relate to Buddhists before Christians and low-key Christians before Evangelicals. Expanding your circle will start with those whose beliefs are closest.

This even when their beliefs say outright that those who disagree with them are eternally damned.

This is indeed a very weird state of affairs (see this thread), but it just can't be taken as a logical thought process. I think they have a much more emotional connection to the idea of "eternally damned" (ie, it's not a utilitarian problem that needs fixing, but tragic reality to be grateful they were saved from) and it simply becomes part of a "why does god let bad things happen to good people" style question.
posted by mdn at 8:25 AM on August 8, 2012

I grew up in a small town in Oklahoma and was surrounded by a lot of Southern Baptists or other evangelicals who had an active role in my life. (I was a skeptic from a very early age.)

The sense that I got from them is that they couldn't believe that it was possible for me to live a morally "good" life without a belief in a higher power. I think that, for them, the source of morality comes from God--so the absence of God (any god) in one's life necessarily leads to an amoral existence. I don't think that anybody who had this conversation with me really believed that I could independently come up with my own system of moral judgments, whereas I think they would have been more comfortable if I had just believed in something resembling a traditional god.
posted by soonertbone at 8:28 AM on August 8, 2012

John Locke argued that atheists could not be tolerated in a commonwealth because they could not be bound by oaths. "Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist. The taking away of God, though but even in thought, dissolves all." (Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration, 1689.)

Locke was quite prepared to accept that atheists could be good, decent, morally upright people. Unlike the sillier sort of Christian fundamentalist, he didn't imagine that if people stopped believing in God they'd suddenly embark on a wild spree of rape and murder. But he couldn't see why atheists would have any reason to keep their promises -- and in that case, how could you trust them, e.g. as parties to contracts, or witnesses in law cases? They might be trustworthy -- but how could you be sure? This is why the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina (1669) stipulate that no one can be admitted as a freeman, or as a property owner, unless they acknowledge the existence of God.

It's interesting that no one in this thread even seems to be aware of Locke's argument. This may be because most atheists have no interest in the history of philosophy before Bertrand Russell. Alternatively, it may simply be because Locke's argument has been disproved by common experience; the contractual obligations that hold society together have not dissolved like smoke merely because there are atheists living among us. But the philosopher Jeremy Waldron argues in God, Locke and Equality that Locke's argument still needs to be taken seriously:

It goes without saying that, as a bottom-line political position, this view -- that atheists should be excluded from public life -- is not an option for us. But the bottom-line is not everything. And the fact that we don't buy the bottom-line does not mean we should not be exercised by Locke's reason for arriving at that bottom-line -- namely, his conviction that a society inhabited by a significant number of people who deny the existence of God is running a grave risk with its public morality. We must not reason from rejection of Locke's solution to the non-existence of the problem he identified. Apart from anything else, there actually is continuing controversy in modern liberal philosophy about the foundations of equality and human rights and about the extent to which these can be sustained without religious belief. Some approach even the legal idea of equality in explicitly religious terms, and the most recent book-length treatment of equality as a political ideal is skeptical about any purely secular foundation. We take equality seriously, and -- at least for us theorists -- it is an open question what that requires of us in the way of moral and philosophical foundations. Somewhere hard work has to be done on the question of whether basic equality can be made sense of, philosophically, in purely secular terms. John Locke's reasons for thinking that atheists should be excluded from public life may not be reasons of public policy for us; but they are still relevant to our philosophical enterprise of trying to arrive at a comprehensive grounding for and justification of our commitment to this ideal.
posted by verstegan at 9:24 AM on August 8, 2012

In England in the early 1800s, testimony by atheists was not admitted in court. The line of reasoning was exactly what verstegan outlined above. J. S. Mill has a rant about this policy in On Liberty:
A rule thus self-convicted of absurdity so far as regards its professed purpose, can be kept in force only as a badge of hatred, a relic of persecution ... The rule, and the theory it implies, are hardly less insulting to believers than to infidels. For if he who does not believe in a future state, necessarily lies, it follows that they who do believe are only prevented from lying, if prevented they are, by the fear of hell. We will not do the authors and abettors of the rule the injury of supposing, that the conception which they have formed of Christian virtue is drawn from their own consciousness.
So yeah, this assumption about atheists is not new, and not something we can blame on a reaction to Dawkins & co. The assumptions and arguments were the same in the in 1850s as they are now.
posted by nangar at 10:22 AM on August 8, 2012

For many people church is seen as a way to participate in their cultural heritage and tradition and be part of a community that help each other get through life. They may fear the eventual loss of their tradition and see atheist criticism of its beliefs/myths as more of a threat than criticism from a different mythological perspective.

And as mentioned earlier people who are comforted by the belief that the close friends or relatives they have lost are now in "heaven," may not be interested in having this idea challenged.
posted by Golden Eternity at 12:32 PM on August 8, 2012

I am religious and will be repeating (mostly) what is said above.

*Some* atheists are very antagonistic toward Christians. There is a person at my work who just verbally attacks me every few months, trying to make me feel stupid, just because I am religious and he is not. His viewpoint is clear: I am somehow less intelligent than he is (or less informed; or less educated; or whatever) because I am dumb enough to believe something supernatural.

Also, as a conservative Christian, I can acknowledge the point of view of an atheist and see where they are coming from. I can see how Christianity looks nutty and how without a strict religious moral code, I might arrive at the same conclusions. But I have a distinct feeling that the reverse isn't true: my atheist friends cannot see things from my point of view. They literally have no concept of what it means to want to worship a God and how that might color my opinion of social/moral issues. It is alien to them.

That's not to say that there is hypocrisy going on - I genuinely think it is an impossibility to understand a Christian mindset without being a Christian. But it *isn't* impossible for me to see a secular mindset. So I often feel like conflicts between the two groups are unfairly one-sided from both points of view.
posted by tacodave at 3:03 PM on August 8, 2012 [5 favorites]

You're probably not going to find a single answer, though from the endless discussions I've had with religious friends while I was searching for my own spiritual identity, much of what others have said rings true.

Another possible perspective (but probably a minority one): I was a vocal and devoted Pagan for most of my formative years, and more than one person in my small, conservative, Christian town said (both to me and to others about me) that at least it was better than being an atheist, because if I believed in something I could more easily be "led back to the right path" than if I didn't believe in anything. In fact, one particular person who thought I was a Satanist was relieved because at least (per her mistaken impression of Satanism) being a Satanist meant I believed in God even if I didn't agree with him.
posted by rhiannonstone at 5:17 PM on August 8, 2012

I think one of the reasons is that people struggle with their faith. Faith is not an unshakable thing, and religious people are always asking, "God give me faith!" There are numerous religious narratives illustrating the several levels of faith. People doubt all the time, but it's a bit of a taboo to talk about it.

Peter believed for a little while that the man he saw was Jesus, walking on water. He then walked toward Jesus, on water, but all of a sudden, he saw the absurdity of it all and proceeded to sink. “You of little faith,” Jesus said, “why did you doubt?”

The mere presence of an atheist, especially a former religious one, must feel like a personal threat to one's own faith, and it's a reminder that you might sink, too.
posted by TheGoodBlood at 7:48 PM on August 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

I accept evolution as a fact, want the separation of church and state could be broadened (no "God' on anything), and not only do I not have a problem with believing there's nothing after death, I can even see how it's appealing.

And I am religious. Some atheists seem to think people like me can't exist. Or are just naive. Or not really religious, we're in the closet and will come around.

I don't like condescension or being treated like I'm an idiot and, tbh, I think atheist persecution in the West is just slightly more credible than right-wing Christians who feel they are persecuted because the Wal-mart greeter says "Happy Holidays!"

And not to put anyone on the spot but *some* atheists don't want to hear there's something wrong with that attitude. To them it's that others ~can't handle the truth~. I can handle differing opinions just fine, it's the attitude.

Tangentially related, while I see the value in starting an atheist movement, Dawkin's God Delusion was ... not that great. I got the impression he thought Christianity = religion, which is funny as a lot of right-wing Christians think the same. And I found his arguments regarding Christianity showed a remarkable lack of research or understanding. Some people hold it against blowhard religious types if they show moral failings, I will admit, I hold it against blowhard atheists when they show intellectual/reasoning failings.
posted by GadgetryOwl at 8:31 PM on August 8, 2012 [5 favorites]

People are afraid of dying. Most prevailing religions in the western world all embrace some version of an afterlife, and the idea that there might not actually be one is really terrifying to a lot of people. I've always found it strange that people somehow think this means that atheists care about this world less--if there's no afterlife, then it just makes life even more precious.

I think atheist persecution in the West is just slightly more credible than right-wing Christians who feel they are persecuted because the Wal-mart greeter says "Happy Holidays!"

Well, the facts don't really bear this out. For example, the Pew research poll that found atheists to be the most disliked minority. (People would be more likely to vote for someone who is gay, Mormon, or has had an extramarital affair...) There's also the fact that Christians and other religious persons are, ah, definitely in the majority compared to the relatively tiny amount of atheists. If discrimination against atheists was actually a fictional phenomeon, we wouldn't have one of our recent presidents saying things like: "No, I don't know that atheists should be regarded as citizens, nor should they be regarded as patriotic. This is one nation under God."
posted by Estraven at 9:43 PM on August 8, 2012

I find that as time has gone on the more antagonistic atheists have become increasingly bold in their attitudes toward Christians. Mocking them as believing in the "imaginary man in the sky" and the continuous lawsuits that are taking away traditions that have been here for decades even a hundred years such as removing crosses, nativity scenes, etc. Most Christians also take the Bible very seriously when it says God will not bless the nations that do not worship him. As atheism increases, God will take those blessings away.
posted by sybarite09 at 6:14 AM on August 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's not that atheists lack ethics, it's a lack of a spiritual dimension to their existence. Everyone with a spiritual sense can empathize with someone else with a spiritual dimension to their life; they lack that commonality with an atheist. If you are religious, your spiritual health is likely to be important like physical, intellectual or emotional health. Imagine someone who lacked all capacity in one of those dimensions (and then insisted that it didn't matter) and you might see how some atheists seem to some theists.
posted by Gomoryhu at 6:50 AM on August 9, 2012

For example, the Pew research poll that found atheists to be the most disliked minority. (People would be more likely to vote for someone who is gay, Mormon, or has had an extramarital affair...)

Actually, the the most recent study says that over 50% would vote for an atheist for president.

And maybe I'm not paying enough attention to the news but I don't remember the last time someone murdered or attacked an atheist the way Muslims and LGBT people are regularly attacked and murdered in the US.

But as I did say atheist discrimination is slightly more credible, I will admit, people say some rude things about atheists and whatever they think atheism means.
posted by GadgetryOwl at 2:11 AM on August 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

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