Five (Whiny) Tips For Atheists I’ll Likely Ignore

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Having just published my original venture into public atheistic discourse, I was reflecting a lot this weekend on how I first started writing about these issues. As I wrote in the Preface earlier today, the biggest challenge is finding ways to make points and share ideas so that people care to listen. Over at Pharyngula, PZ highlighted “Five Things That Would Make Atheists Seem Nicer.” The tips are the normal drivel from self-victimizing believers, and PZ dispatches with them quite aggressively.

I loved PZ’s response. He didn’t hold back. But then I thought about it, and that’s the way I reacted that people struggled to appreciate. Even though I agree with everything he wrote, I thought I would take my own shot at responding in a slightly… nicer way, if it’s possible.

So let’s take a look at what Nathan at “St. Eutychus” has to say about atheists.

Here are five tips for my atheist friends to help them seem nicer and more reasonable.

As PZ pointed out, these tips are not presented in the most respectful way. Look at all the assumptions in the introductory sentence. These tips aren’t actually going to make us nice, because atheists aren’t nice. These are just tips to make us SEEM nice. We’re also not reasonable, but we’ll SEEM reasonable if we follow his tips.

It’s easy to go on the defensive quick, because this begs so many questions. Are there no atheists who are nice? Do you think atheism automatically makes a person a curmudgeon? Are only Christians nice (and therefore you have a clear bias in your thinking)? What does “reasonable” mean? Since we’d argue that our entire worldview is based on reason, how is it that we seem unreasonable?

Well, maybe he’s just had some bad experiences. Let’s forgive him and see what his tips are.

1. Stop being so smug.

Okay, so this is more of the same prejudice. I don’t think all atheists are smug, but I know some are. It’s hard not to be when you think about it. Or at least, it’s hard not to be perceived as “smug” simply for opening your mouth about atheism.

What does smug mean? Let’s just go with what has to offer: “contentedly confident of one’s ability, superiority, or correctness; complacent.” Okay, so why would atheists be perceived as confident in their correctness?

Because atheists offer the only worldview that can be supported in any way. We offer essentially the only perspective that has any legitimacy. You might think me smug for saying that, but why? Do you have proof for what you believe? We have a lot of evidence on our side. We’ve got a good case. We have a lot of reason to be confident. Because we live in a religious society, we likely didn’t become atheists without learning a lot of the evidence against religion. That’s really what defines us.

So, we’re not smug. We’re just confident, and we know we have reason to be confident no matter what a believer brings to the table.

If you don’t like that you don’t have the same evidence to articulate an argument for your belief system, that doesn’t make us smug. It does sort of make our point of view intellectually superior. There’s not much we can do about that!

(Please see the “Selfish Atheist” meme and “Stalemate” meme.)

2. Don’t assume every piece of Christian evangelism is directed at you – we want the undecideds, not the decided-uns.

As PZ pointed out, atheists want to educate (as opposed to “recruit”) the undecideds as well. But, a lot of us also want to interrupt religion. It doesn’t matter if evangelism is directed at us or not, we see it as dangerous and detrimental to the intellectual fabric of society. (Remember, we can defend our point of view objectively and rationally and Christians can’t. I’m not saying that to be smug, it’s just the truth!)

Not only do we not want our fellow citizens to be swallowed by an ignorant worldview, we also want to preserve our own place in society. Most Christians believe that Christianity is the only right belief system (“I am the way….” and all that jazz). The more Christians there are, the more people there are opposing rationality (same-sex marriage, evolution, etc.) and also trying to ostracize us out of the mainstream. They already dominate society (Europeans call us “the most religious nation” in the West). We need to hold all the ground we have and continue to resist the spread of hollow belief systems.

Any evangelism hurts us, whether we’re the target “convert” or not.

(Please see the “Respect” meme, “Victim” meme, and “Scapegoat” meme.)

3. Admit that the debate about God’s existence is complex – and that it can, depending on your presuppositions, be quite possible for intelligent and rational people to intelligently believe in an intervening deity who communicates through a book.

I would admit that, if it were true! But it’s simply not for two reasons.

First, the debate about God’s existence is quite simple. Either he does or he doesn’t exist. There is no proof that he does, so there’s no reason to assume that he does. The same is true of any of the other supernatural entities believed in throughout the world and throughout history.

The other problem with this tip is the assumption one can “intelligently believe.” Unfortunately, that is an oxymoron, completely self-contradicting. Intellectualism is about making informed conclusions based on evidence. Belief, I’m sorry to say, is the opposite. Belief is about making uninformed conclusions based on superstition.

Yes, there are a lot of very intelligent people out there who believe in God. That means nothing to us, except to disappoint us that those people aren’t intelligent to recognize how unintelligent their belief in God is.

Going out of our way to offer undeserved respect to other points of view might make us nicer, but it would be at the cost of our integrity.

(Please see the “Truth” meme, “Expert” meme, “Respect” meme, and “Stalemate” meme.)

4. Admit that the scientific method – which by its nature relies on induction rather than deduction (starting with a hypothesis and testing it rather than observing facts and forming a hypothesis) – is as open to abuse as any religious belief, and is neither objective nor infallible.

Okay, I’ll admit it. Science can be abused. It’s possible to look at a single scientific study and use it to generalize information well beyond the bounds of the intended conclusions. That is, of course, doing science wrong, and is usually what religious organizations do to promote their ignorant beliefs.

What is deeply flawed about this tip is a complete misunderstanding of science. Science is objective specifically because it is fallible! While some inductive reasoning (and even creativity!) is used to generate hypotheses, it is deductive reasoning that tests the hypotheses and produces new understandings. That’s the difference between hypotheses (guesses) and theories (understandings) that so many struggle to grasp.

Science is reliable because it admits when it’s wrong. It’s not a belief system we follow blindly. In fact, it’s not a belief system at all. It’s a method to thinking that limits “truth” to that which can be validly tested. It’s like what Tim Minchin says in his beat poem Storm: “Do you know what they call ‘alternative medicine’ that’s been proved to work? ‘Medicine.'”

If the scientific method ever became unreliable, it would no longer be science. Science is about only calling “reliable” that which can only be proven “reliably,” even when that changes. Science is never right or wrong; it is always the best that we understand things.

You might not like that our perspective will always reliably support our point of view, but that is the very reason we choose it over belief. You can call us smug, but again, we’re just confident. We have endorsed a (literally) intellectually superior approach to understanding the world.

(Please see the “Stalemate” meme and “Just Because” meme.)

5. Try to deal with the actual notions of God seriously believed in by millions of people rather than inventing strawmen (or spaghetti monsters) to dismiss the concepts of God – and deal with the Bible paying attention to context and the broader Christological narrative rather than quoting obscure Old Testament laws. By all means quote the laws when they are applied incorrectly by “Christians” – but understand how they’re meant to work before dealing with the Christians described in point 3.

This tip basically seems to be saying, “Respect the fact that people believe (if only because lots of people believe).” Well, I’m sorry, but just because lots of people agree doesn’t make it right. When I was little, I was taught to be wary of succumbing to peer pressure. No pressure is more oppressive than society’s expectation for either tolerance or assimilation for their beliefs. That doesn’t make it right or even respectable. I am reminded of two quotes:

“A cult is a religion with no political power.” –Thomas Wolfe

“The only difference between a cult and a religion is the amount of real estate they own.” –Frank Zappa

What distinction could be made between respecting some beliefs and not others? Just because some people’s beliefs are “harmless” or aren’t “misquoting” the Bible makes them no more legitimate. It doesn’t matter what testament they are from. I’m happy to remind you of the multiple New Testament verses that endorse slavery (scroll over them): Matthew 10:24, Matthew 24:45-46, 1 Timothy 6:1-5, Ephesians 6:5-6, Titus 2:9-10, and 1 Peter 2:18-29.

Let’s be honest, the very fact that so many people believe in God is what drives us to be so passionately open about atheism. We have our work cut out for us if we truly are going to promote critical thinking skills throughout this world. Just because you don’t like having to counter our arguments doesn’t mean that our arguments are rude, smug, or unreasonable, Nathan. It just means that you don’t like change; you don’t like being not right.

(Please see the “Traditional” meme, “Essentialist” meme, “Truth” meme, “Respect” meme, “Victim” meme, “Scapegoat” meme, “Stalemate” meme, and “Just Because” meme.)

I hope I’ve done a fair job of responding to these tips. As suggested by the snarky title of this post, I don’t intend to follow any of them, but I hope you can understand why without getting all upset that I was mean. Blame PZ if you feel that way. If I still came off as rude, well then Heaven help you, because I sure can’t.

Yeah, that was a little snarky too.

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There are 23 Comments to "Five (Whiny) Tips For Atheists I’ll Likely Ignore"

  • I’ve literally just found your blog and I like the content so far. Regarding these “Five Tips”…

    Honestly I believe some atheists tend to exhibit the very same fanaticism and rigidity as their religious counterparts; i.e. complete intolerance of others ideals and a desire to badger people until they concede to believe the “correct” position.

    It’s part of being thinkers and generally smart people I guess, and I’d dare say most atheists are avid thinkers, likely a good bit smarter than the average lad or lass on the street.

    From the point of view of managing a debate more effectively, handling the give and take that a real debate must be, I can see some value in these tips. Unfortunately they are, for the most part, flawed with the same kind of pseudo-logic one might expect from a literal theist perspective.

    I’m just assuming the tips came from a theist; they sure seem to resonate with that particular frame of mind.

    Definitely your point here is a CRITICAL one:

    “Let’s be honest, the very fact that so many people believe in God is what drives us to be so passionately open about atheism. We have our work cut out for us if we truly are going to promote critical thinking skills throughout this world.”

    So true. And this work (promoting critical thinking to the masses) is currently among the most important brands of activism. It’s time (long past frankly) to raise our species out of the dark ages and let go of these god crutches once and for all!

  • ZackFord says:

    Thanks for your comment! Dig around, there’s lots of other good stuff here! My readership is still pretty minimal, so if you like what you see, I hope you’ll share and promote it! Thanks!

  • CrackerLilo says:

    Hmmm. I really only see two tips:

    1. Keep your mouth shut!
    2. Try not to be so atheistic.

    I’m a Pagan, not an atheist, but there are atheists in my life who I love, and this attitude frustrates me so much. I also know it’s bad news for all religious minorities, really.

    (Came via your link in Queers United.)

  • SakanaUshi says:

    Very well said! I found your response to be very well thought-out and as nice as any atheist argument against religion can be. I’ll have to poke around the rest of your blog now. *runs off*

  • Tricster says:

    Came across your blog from your link at Pharyngula. Excellent take down, very well written. I will definitely have to check out your other posts!

  • newfag says:

    As #1 said it: Some atheists seem to be making the exact same mistakes…
    talk about irony then..

  • Nathan says:


    I’m still a little shocked by the response my poorly written post is getting.

    My problem isn’t that I think atheists aren’t nice people – it’s that most Christians think that – and the kind of response my post has elicited around the internet just serves to reinforce that thinking.

  • CrackerLilo says:

    You know, Nathan, back in high school, when one of the “mean girls” would tell me “I think you look fine, but lots of people think you look like a fat slut”, for some weird reason, I did not feel favorably toward the girl saying that. I knew who was among the “lots of people.” So the atheists here do now.

    Also, if there is someone in my life whom I would say might “seem nice” given a massive personality and intellectual overhaul, I’d have a lot of words for them, but “friend” would not be among them. Do you understand that what you’re basically saying is that atheists need to aooroach religion in an entirely different way (a way that’s friendlier to you) and let you and yours talk without opposition? Can you understand why that might offend people?

    Regarding #2: But quite a bit of evangelism *is* intended for atheists and other religious minorities. Even at Pagan Pride Day in NYC this weekend, there were some people trying to pass out tracts and convince us we were wrong. After a while, you really learn to hate the taste of all evangelism. We know that some Christians really, really want to see us change our minds. We also know that what you may consider an “undecided-un” is probably very decided, just not in a direction you approve of.

    Regarding #5: How long have you spent researching the Koran, the Torah, the Bhagavad-Gita, Paganism, and Buddhism, then? Not to mention how they affect peoples’ lives? After all, lots of people live by those beliefs. Oh, and by the way, do you have any idea how atheism can affect real life decision-making?

    Regarding #1 and #4: You seem to labor under the stereotypes of atheists being rigorously scientific, bright but socially inept, etc. Have you ever met a real atheist in real life? (If not, how easy do you think you are to confide non-Christian beliefs in?) I look at the atheists in my life–loving, basically happy, working-class people (a martial arts instructor, an organic farmer, a cabbie, a janitor) who are content to let others live their way as long as that same courtesy is extended to them. I don’t recognize any of them in your caricatured portrait at all. Should they be less than kind to you, it would not be because they don’t believe in any Gods. (And yes, there *is* more than one God that people can believe in.) It would be because you approach them with a head full of stereotypes, to put it as charitably as I possibly can.

  • ZackFord says:

    Hang on there, Nathan. It sounds like there was an accusation in that comment.

    There is a difference between whether people are “nice” or whether they stand silent in the face of ignorance. If you think that responses like these seem to make us continue to look not nice, then you didn’t read it.

    It seems the only way we can be “nice” is if we shut up and back down. Do you see how that doesn’t quite compute?

  • Will says:

    I think Greta Christina addressed things like Nathan’s reply quite well:

    “And I get angry when believers act as if these offenses aren’t important, because ‘Not all believers act like that. I don’t act like that.’ As if that fucking matters. This stuff is a major way that religion plays out in our world, and it makes me furious to hear religious believers try to minimize it because it’s not how it happens to play out for them. It’s like a white person responding to an African-American describing their experience of racism by saying, ‘But I’m not a racist.’ If you’re not a racist, then can you shut the hell up for ten seconds and listen to the black people talk? And if you’re not bigoted against atheists and are sympathetic to us, then can you shut the hell up for ten seconds and let us tell you about what the world is like for us, without getting all defensive about how it’s not your fault? When did this international conversation about atheism and religious oppression become all about you and your hurt feelings?”

    Tone arguments (when privileged people tell marginalized people “you’d be much more productive if you were just nicer and not so uppity about this”) add nothing to the discussion. We’ve heard it all before.

    And they’re wrong. We had centuries of people being silent, toeing the line, not challenging the status quo. If we’re quiet and polite and stay in line, then people don’t NEED to listen to us. They can just sit back and enjoy their privilege without a second thought about people who don’t have that privilege.

    Being outspoken and unafraid of controversy is ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY if you seek to make a change in the world. And you’ll find that no matter how nicely you put something, there will ALWAYS be privileged people around the corner making the tone argument, until we’re shut up. I know you personally aren’t trying to shut us up, but that is the end result of these tactics, and I won’t stand for it.

  • Nathan says:

    I know plenty of atheists, and plenty of agnostics who are functionally atheist.

    They’re nice people. Almost without fault. They’re also not the kind of atheists who pick fights online with people they don’t know making accusations about character they haven’t explored past a single post.

    Actually, one of them is that kind of person.

    I don’t feel like atheists are a minority. Particularly in my generation in Australia. I think the tone of this debate may have been different had people taken the time to spot the quite obvious references on my blog to the fact that I am not an American.

  • ZackFord says:

    You may indeed be the victim of that circumstance.

    You see, what you wrote sounded just like what we hear from American Christians all the time (particularly because evangelicalism is, I’m assuming, much more prevalent than in Australia… or maybe anywhere). The thing about it that triggers us is that we usually hear it from people who assume it does apply to all atheists, which is very much the tone of your piece.

    The funny thing about it is… when I say things about Christians (based on what Christian leaders say), Christian friends react defensively because they’re not “that kind” of Christian. There is a clear distinction between what they believe and what the leaders of the religion they identify with say, but the leaders I refer to have plenty of followers. In those situations, it becomes my friend’s responsibility to reconcile how they identify. I think those of us that speak out as atheists happily claim our leaders like Dawkins and Harris and even Hitchens and Maher as our own. While my generalizations reflect accurately what Christian leaders say and what many followers support, generalizations about atheists just seem to be flawed all around. It comes off more as an attack or prejudice as opposed to a valid claim based on real events or experiences. I struggle with that juxtaposition a lot.

    Hopefully we can all learn from this about how we write about groups of people.

  • Roy says:

    As someone who’s been bullied for a good portion of my life, I really dislike how PZ Myer’s group goes around laughing at people. This may play into the ‘victim’ meme, but I’m really sick of being insulted by people who think they know it all, whether Christian or Atheist.

    And yet Myers has stated that even being in a neutral corner is not acceptable. So which group of bullies should I join up with?

  • ZackFord says:

    Not everybody’s a bully, but everybody has a point to make or side to take. You can side with what’s popular/delusional or not-so-popular/totally rational. Those of us who think about the universe and our lives rationally will always be trying to educate and motivate the thinking of the believers. We don’t “know it all,” but the difference is that we don’t really on “faith” to explain our understanding of the world, so in a sense, we do know in a way that believers don’t.

  • Roy says:

    Well said. I’ve personally just stopped being a Catholic after 20 years and have moved more towards Deism, as I personally don’t need salvation from a God to live a good life, but it’s difficult for me to change something I’ve done for 20 years that the rest of my family still buys into.

    On a personal note, I love your memes relating to the anti-homosexual arguments. I can’t stand homophobia at all, so it was a nice read.

  • Will says:

    “I don’t feel like atheists are a minority. Particularly in my generation in Australia. I think the tone of this debate may have been different had people taken the time to spot the quite obvious references on my blog to the fact that I am not an American.”

    “I know plenty of atheists, and plenty of agnostics who are functionally atheist.
    They’re nice people. Almost without fault. They’re also not the kind of atheists who pick fights online…”

    So, am I right in assuming that most of the atheists you are complaining about aren’t ones you know personally? Perhaps the smug people that you encountered online before posting your tips were not Australian. Perhaps you would have better understood the tone of our debate if you had realized that in the rest of the world, we are a minority, we are marginalized, and we have a lot to be angry about.

    You definitely received personal attacks from the horde back on your own blog, and I’m sorry that happened to you. But I find it hard to sympathize with you over the “character assumptions” you received, since you are making assumptions about our character – like that we are all fools. Considerest thou not the beam in thine own eye?

  • Nathan says:


    They were aimed at three distinct groups of atheists who share the same characteristics… my friends, the Australian commenter on the blog I linked to who was referring to an Australian advertising campaign, and commenters/bloggers from the atheist blogosphere.

    My point, in a nutshell, is this.

    We, theists, know you, atheists, have made up your minds after interpreting what you believe is the evidence. We have (in most cases) done the same thing. But at the end of the day we both have “belief” that we are right – this is not the same as actually being right. We can’t possibly know this for sure. We (both theists and atheists) need to stop acting like we have a monopoly on the truth. We need to stop being smug. I don’t get offended by atheist bus ads, by the idea that atheism is a decision that can be made based on the parameters of naturalism and evidence. I acknowledge that the issue is complex.

    I think what we all need is some clarity – the type of clarity that comes when nominal Christians stop calling themselves Christians and atheists can be comfortable calling themselves atheists – I think then we’ll find that we’re both in the minority and that most people just don’t care. That’ll make issues of church and state much easier to sort out – and remove the victim mentality from both sides of the debate.

  • ZackFord says:

    Nathan, if you believe what you say is true, then you do not understand atheism, which I think is the underlying problem.

    Atheism has nothing to do with believing. It requires no faith, no leaps. Allow me to demonstrate:

    We will observe: “There is no evidence for any supernatural entity whatsoever, nor evidence to support believing in any such entity.”
    We will deduce: “The existence of any supernatural entity would have to, by any definition, be more improbable than any theory currently being explored by science, and would also, by any definition, in fact be unknowable and thus meaningless knowledge to even consider.”

    Those are not beliefs. Those are facts. They are “truth.” They are “right.” We know them for sure. There is no doubt. There is nothing we can do to change them. There is no other way of looking at them.

    If you do not understand that, or you disagree with what I just said, then you don’t understand. That is not me being smug, that is simply an observation based on what you’ve provided.

    I don’t expect you to like what I’ve said, but “like” is irrelevant. Your suggestion that belief and nonbelief are equal opposites is quite misguided. It’s not just different ideas; it’s cold-hard reason versus superstitious fantasy.

    The only reason you might think atheists “claim a monopoly” on truth is because atheists only subscribe to that which IS true regardless of whether someone believes it or not. You can’t claim truth unless you have it, and that is simply what it means to be an atheist.

  • Will says:

    This is a nice sentiment, Nathan, but until you actually apply it to yourself, the words are empty. I see you saying to atheists that everyone should be more humble, and I see you saying to atheists specifically to be more humble, and I see you talking to other Christians about how all atheists are clearly fools that should be humored for the time being.

    So, I have trouble taking your argument seriously.

    Ultimately, though, I disagree with the premises as well. I stand by my first post, about the tone argument. Any group of marginalized people NEEDS to have loud and controversial elements, or we – and our grievances – will be ignored.
    Heck, it’s a bit of a stretch, but you yourself are an example of this! Will you have any influence over other Christians who don’t share your theological interpretations if you are tame and quiet? No! You publicly state that they’re Christians in name only, and that they don’t really care about their religion! That takes a lot of gall too – there are plenty of people who would be outraged to hear that you didn’t consider them Christians.

    (I’d also find your statement about “nominal Christians” confusing. People who don’t care about their religion aren’t the ones pushing for church in state. The ones who do push for church in state are just as devout Christians as you are. Of course, our cultures have differences w/r/t Christianity and church/state concerns, so there might not be any clear parallels.)

  • Nathan says:


    Re the nominal Christians thing…

    The vocal Christians always use statistics.

    Nominal Christians fall into their statistics and bolster their arguments in a democratic society.

    The “fools” bit – I stand by that. If God exists atheists are the biggest fools running around. And the commenters on my post were fools because they were proving the rule they disagreed with by being so smug and insulting.

  • ZackFord says:

    “If God exists” is not an idea that deserves much consideration. There is absolutely NOTHING to suggest any such entity might exist, and yet people live their entire lives by it. Who are the fools?

  • Will says:

    Oh, gotcha. I was confused there; I thought you had meant that the un-serious people and the church in state people were one and the same. Thanks for clearing that up!

    Apparently my point was not clear enough.
    -You tell atheists that we are too smug.
    -You assert that millions of people you do not know are fools.
    -You complain that other people make character accusations about you despite not knowing you.
    -You are a hypocrite.

    And to clarify, my problem isn’t about you being snarky. I fully support snark. My problem is your hypocritical criticism of atheists.

    *Unfounded* accusations are also a pet peeve of mine. As you can probably guess, my response to being called a fool is “Prove it!” I find the evidence you’ve supplied thus far to be unconvincing. 😉

    “The ‘fools’ bit – I stand by that. If God exists atheists are the biggest fools running around. And the commenters on my post were fools because they were proving the rule they disagreed with by being so smug and insulting.”

    If you’re right, then we’re wrong? Seriously? That’s the best defense you can make?
    Do you not realize that this works both ways?
    -If no deity exists, Christianity is lunacy.
    -Therefore, it is perfectly fair to say that all Christians are loons.
    I think you can see where the problem is, and by extension, where the problem exists in your own position. The conclusion there does NOT follow unless you also assume “No deity exists” – which begs the question. By that point, it has already been assumed that Christians are loons. Your argument is no different than that one.

    Your use of circular logic is, somehow, failing to convince me that *I* am a fool.

    “And the commenters on my post were fools because they were proving the rule they disagreed with by being so smug and insulting.”

    The vast majority of them weren’t claiming innocence; rather, they were calling you out on your hypocrisy. I’d agree that it’s folly to claim smugly that oneself is not smug, and if anyone did that, I’d agree that they were being foolish. However, it’s not folly to smugly call someone a hypocrite.

    (Also, I recall you complaining about “assumptions that have been made about me on the basis of one post.” Irony wrapped around condescension inside hypocrisy!)

  • Cecil says:

    For the religious
    1. stop being so smug
    2. don’t give examples of religions that are decidedly divided with no consistent theology.
    3, If the propositions are wrong, then your conclusions are absurd. Arguing from the supernatural has no basis.
    4, The scientific method is objective and the results are verifiable and repeatable. If the “truth” is found, in fact, to be erroneous, it is cast aside and a replacement is looked for. Prove, repeatedly and verifiably, that there is a supernatural solution and we would certainly listen. However, no proof exists.
    5, Whose version of the bible should I read (I have read several). Which of list of 10 commandments should I believe in. The protestant, or the fundamentalist, or the catholic, or the orthodox? What is this curious thing called “The bible”. There is more dissension between Christians about the bible than there are differences between the religious and atheists.

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