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How to Piss Off an Atheist

by Matt Hershberger Feb 23, 2014

Let’s be honest: We atheists can be pretty easy to piss off. We’re known for being shrill, obnoxious, condescending, and way too willing to pick a fight.

But guess what? You’ve still gotta deal with us. Our numbers increased from 1% of the American population in 2005 to 5% in 2012, and we’re growing in much of the rest of the world as well. If the current trend continues (it will), we’ll all be living in Scandinavian-style atheist utopias someday.

Until then, here are some things you should not do if you want to peacefully coexist with us.

Try to convert us.

Look, most of us have tried the whole religion thing. We’re probably not interested. We’ve grown up seeing the institutional abuse of, say, the Catholic Church, or right-wing political Evangelicalism, and we’ve thought, “You know what? I’m just gonna skip all that mess.”

So when you try and pull us into your particular brand of belief, we’ve usually already made up our minds, and are totally done with organized religion. For some of us, there are very personal histories behind leaving religion. Take the time to learn about that instead.

Tell us we’re going to hell.

Guys, seriously: That threat doesn’t mean anything to us. We don’t believe in hell. We don’t believe in God or the Devil, so it’s basically like saying, “You’re gonna be trampled by a herd of unicorns.” Yeah, no we’re not.

In fact, talking to us in the language of your church in general — calling something we do a sin, for example — is not particularly productive. Many atheists are totally willing to talk to you about your religious beliefs. In fact, given how much we don’t believe in them, it’s kinda shocking how willing we are to talk about religion. Tell us what you believe. Don’t project your beliefs onto us. We should be able to be civil.

Lump us all together.

If you’re starting a conversation with an atheist by saying, “But you guys all believe…” then you’re already wrong. Atheism is the lack of a belief in a God. That’s it. It’s that one act of unbelief that unites us. There’s not necessarily a single common thread otherwise.

Ayn Rand, the libertarian nutcase, was an atheist. So was Joseph Stalin, the communist despot. So was neoconservative Christopher Hitchens. Noam Chomsky, the anarchist, is sometimes identified as an atheist. We can literally have any range of beliefs or opinions outside of our lack of belief in God. Ask us about them, don’t assume you know them.

Say we’re nihilists.

I mean, some of us are. But not all of us believe that life, the universe, and everything are meaningless. Some of us (myself included) believe there are countless ways to fill your life with meaning without belief in a god, and we happen to lead very meaningful, fulfilling lives. It is possible that people get along fine in life by living a different way than you do.

Deny science.

Look, I know when it comes down to a matters of belief, a certain amount of faith is involved, and you may believe some things that aren’t in any way “provable.” We can’t disprove the existence of a god any more than you can prove the existence of one.

But — some things are provable. Like evolution. And climate change. And while there are still plenty of scientific and metaphysical questions yet to be answered, these are not among them. We can have thoughtful conversations, but not if you refuse to be reasonable.

Tell us atheist societies “don’t work.”

Yeah, we’ve heard of Nazi Germany and the USSR. Yes, we know that technically their ideologies were atheistic (though Christopher Hitchens made good arguments that cults of personality share a lot of characteristics with religious societies).

These are hardly the only atheistic societies in history. Buddhism is, in many senses, an atheistic religion. Modern liberal societies — including, you know, the United States — are based on secular principles. Societies without God can work, and pulling out two ugly examples is opening a Pandora’s box you shouldn’t touch unless you want to get an earful about the Inquisition, the Crusades, or Afghanistan under the Taliban.

Tell us you need God to be kind / compassionate / a good person.

If you knew which of your friends were atheists, you wouldn’t say this. Atheists can be kind and caring people without the help of a god or a religion or a possible punishment in the afterlife because, believe it or not, kindness is inherent in some people, and not in others, regardless of religious creed. What you’re basically telling us is, “You can’t be fully human without religion.”

Be disrespectful of our beliefs.

Actually, this should go for everyone. Obviously, there are some beliefs that are impossible to respect (*cough*creationism*cough*nihilism), but for the most part, there’s no reason people shouldn’t be able to believe different things and live together peacefully, as long as their beliefs aren’t hurting anyone.

But atheists can have a huge chip on their shoulder about their beliefs. Sometimes this comes from a history of traumatic experiences with religion, sometimes it comes from complete and total frustration with the irrationality we may (sometimes hypocritically) perceive in other belief systems, but regardless, the best way to deal with it is to start off on respectful ground and then work to the places we disagree.

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