HERB’S CORNER | What Is Wrong with Atheists?

When we atheists talk about religion, especially with Christians, we usually give good arguments about why Christian God beliefs can’t be true. We quote various biblical passages that make no sense to us, and explain how science contradicts many portions of the Bible. Our arguments rarely work with biblical literalists, because they don’t accept the science we show them. Most Christians don’t know the Bible very well and don’t care about the passages we quote.

We tend to assume that belief is why people choose a religion or church. But people choose a church for a variety of reasons. Some because they are connected with the people in the church and enjoy their company. Some because they like the preacher and his sermons, which often don’t say much about God—certainly not the passages we like to quote. When people are part of a social group they feel better about themselves and more alive. Traditions and rituals can provide much joy for churchgoers. They might identify that joy and aliveness with something supernatural, or just something greater than themselves.

It’s difficult for us to sidestep the problem of belief in Christianity, but for a lot of Christians faith might be more about what motivates them, rather than positions we think Christians must hold. You might hear about a joyful Christian worldview that God is good and loves me, that our world is good, and that things will be good even if they don’t seem good now. Given the stress and challenges of life, many seek comfort in traditional, familiar religious activity because that’s their reference point.

Christians might focus on how to feel God’s love and be more aware of God’s presence. There probably will not be any discussions about whether God exists, or what evidence there is for God’s existence. Those kinds of discussions are mostly left to atheists.

What about prayer? Atheists often wonder why the believer’s god doesn’t already know what is best, and what could possibly be said in a prayer that would make their god change its mind. And why would a god answer a prayer to cure one sick person, but ignore the prayers of millions of starving children and those who died in the Holocaust?

Many rely on prayer because it makes them feel upbeat when they don’t know what action to take in a situation out of their control. Prayer can provide a sense of community to those who hope to achieve a desired outcome. Regardless of logic and statistical evidence, fervent believers remain convinced that there is a god who answers prayers.

Atheists recognize that prayer can be helpful for its placebo effect when believers feel they are doing something constructive, which might “cure” a psychosomatic disorder. On the other hand, we rightly worry about people who replace accepted medical practices with prayer, which has led to countless preventable injuries and deaths.

I can’t honestly say that prayer is a waste of time, based on an experience I had on June 17, 2015. A white gunman had just murdered nine innocent black people gathered at the historic Emanuel AME Church, three blocks from where I live in Charleston, South Carolina. This church was once a secret meeting place for African-Americans who wanted to end slavery at a time when laws in Charleston banned all-black church gatherings.

The day after the murders, I attended a vigil at that church, where the entire community was invited to pray for peace, understanding, and healing. As an atheist I don’t pray, but I support those goals. I thought of the anti-war song Lay Down by Melanie, and the line “Some came to sing, some came to pray, some came to keep the dark away.” I was there to help keep the dark away by showing support for a beleaguered African-American community.

The service conducted by African-American pastors was heartfelt. During prayers I stood politely, but didn’t read aloud words I didn’t believe. I did applaud when one minister told the crowd, “Pray, but also get off your knees and work to improve our community.” I was amazed to see people singing, clapping, and dancing in the aisles with smiles during this tragic time. I could see that the members of the audience felt transformed.

Holding hands with our neighbors at the end of the service, we sang “We Shall Overcome.” I had never thought of this as a hymn, but it reminded me of when I sang it in the 1960s during civil rights marches and Vietnam War protests. We were asked to continue holding hands as we prayed to Jesus. I was holding hands with my wife, Sharon, on my left and a black man on my right as the minister prayed for Jesus to get rid of any hate in our hearts and replace it with love. As it turned out, I did come to sing, pray, and keep the dark away.

Later, I talked to people who also attended the service. Not all were religious, and some appreciated my being there, knowing I’m an atheist. I think it’s important to seek common ground with religious folks, which can help us gain their respect.

Most people of all religions and none look for community and folks with whom they have much in common. We need to find ways to meet the emotional needs of theists without sacrificing the integrity and intellectual honesty of atheists. We should not shame or mock people with religious beliefs, no matter how silly they seem to us. When we make fun of their beliefs, we come across as mean, ignoring the needs of people who don’t understand why life is the way it is. They are seeking comfort and solace. If we don’t offer that, we won’t be successful in dealing with them.

The challenge of working with different kinds of people has become more difficult in the age of Donald Trump, who many Christians view as a leader to emulate. I’m a liberal, but I like to be well-informed by reading about all sides of political issues, by liberals, conservatives, and wackos. Unfortunately, since the Donald Trump era and the election fraud conspiracies, I have been having trouble distinguishing the Republican conservatives from the wackos. Nevertheless, I think we can often find common ground with people who we think have some wacko views.

The category of “nones,” those with no particular religion, is the fasting growing demographic in the country, representing about thirty percent of Americans, and considerably higher among millennials. Unfortunately, organizing “nones” is more difficult than herding cats. My cats regularly put aside their personality differences, past grudges, and turf protection when I feed them cat crunchies. Can we come up with “none” crunchies?

It’s much harder to bring people together just because they are not interested in religion. We know there are many humanist and atheist groups that get together because they enjoy each other’s company, and often work on common causes. But I still don’t think communities created around secular activities offer people the same level of support as churches, temples, and mosques. We usually provide little solace in the face of death, no weekly charitable calls, and no sense of connection to an ancient heritage. We have no “one-stop shop” like a neighborhood church that goes back for generations.

So what can we do for people who have moved away or are moving away from religion? How can we welcome them into our community? We need a full spectrum of views and approaches to engage these folks.

Knowing what each type of person needs is our greatest challenge. Most nonreligious people and many who claim to be religious but are not really theists often say they are looking for activities that enable them to feel something “greater” than themselves, without involving the supernatural. We need to figure out how to draw more of those people into a fully secular lifestyle, and try to make the religious right as irrelevant as possible.

Instead of belittling believers or those who aren’t as unholy as thou, we need to do a better job of bringing more of them into our movement. Many humanists and atheists are talking less about nonbelief as an end in itself, and more about nonbelief as part of a larger conversation about social justice and making this world a better place. Humanism and atheism is growing not only in numbers, but in diversity. I think we should cooperate and work with some theists on issues where we can find common ground. Working on projects toward that end in our communities might be how to attract more people into our growing movement. We can point out that we are more interested in what people do and how they treat each other, rather than what they believe.

Many of our secular groups are doing these sorts of things, and I hope they publicize their efforts in order to inspire other groups to do likewise.