Survival Skills for Unbelievers in a World of Believers

Remarks delivered at the March 5, 1995 service of the North Texas Church of Freethought

Most of the atheist and freethought groups in this country are continually bemoaning the fact that the greater portion of unbelievers remain closeted. Yet it’s not hard to see why this is. As Voltaire put it : “I’m very fond of the truth, but not at all of martyrdom!”

So I’m going to spend some time now on the subject of how to come out of the closet without attracting the resentment of believers. And don’t worry if you start nodding; I’ll take that as a sign of your agreement with me.

Well, then, we unbelievers, though numerous, are in a decided minority. We know that. And although we can have some degree of confidence that over the very long haul reason will prevail, the reality, as Lord Maynard Keynes put it, is that in the long run we’re all dead. So as a practical matter, life is made of the short hauls. And in the short run, one of the problems that we unbelievers need to face and deal with is how to get along in a world that’s dominated by believers. I want to suggest to you that it may not be as hard as you think to do this.

In the first place, we’ve got a few things going for us, just because we’re lucky. We live in America and not in Bosnia-Herzegovina or Saudi Arabia. We’ve got this thing called the First Amendment and the cultural religious tolerance that it tends to encourage, despite the efforts of bigots to destroy it. Just look what happened in Plano recently when certain school board members tried to sneak in a fundamentalist Christian “creation science” textbook. I can assure you that all those people there in protest weren’t unbelievers.

In the second place, believers are fragmented. We think we’re fragmented! They haven’t been able to agree on some of the most elementary items of theological doctrine for 2000 years — despite one or another faction of them enjoying the legal right to burn their detractors at the stake. And nowadays a lot of religious people are fairly “liberal” as well.

In the third place, most if not all believers are not attached to their respective faiths for the reasons that we, in good conscience, are forced to reject them. That is, the average Christian (and even the fundamentalist) doesn’t fasten on the divinely-sanctioned slaughter of the Amalekites (1 Samuel 15:3) as a reason to glorify God. In fact, we all know that they don’t read out loud in their churches verses like Psalms 37:9: “Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.” Or 2 Kings: 18:27: “ ... that they may eat their own dung, and drink their own piss with you?” Or the story to be found at 2 Kings: 2:23-24 where Elisha curses some children for making fun of his bald head and God sends “two she bears out of the wood, and tare forty and two” of them. Those portions of the “Good Book” are mysteriously absent from the Bible Story Books. It’s bad enough what you do read, but you don’t find that!

Now in order to take advantage of these factors, you have to do certain things. For one thing, you have to be tolerant. There’s no way your fundamentalist neighbors are going to be tolerant of you if you’re not tolerant of them. I’m not saying we should be tolerant of their efforts to deprive homosexuals of their civil rights, even though it’s better than Yahweh’s command that they all be executed at Leviticus 20:13. But we can be tolerant of the fundamentalists’ fears, however unfounded they are, that, say, a homosexual teacher or scoutmaster will molest their child or turn him or her into a homosexual. Think of it as being sympathetic with a child who’s afraid of a monster in their closet. It’s an attitude, not an intellectual compromise.

Similarly, if you want to take advantage of being in the majority of people who don’t happen to share a given religious creed instead of being lumped in the minority of people who don’t believe in any of the supernatural business at all, you have to put the emphasis in the right place. “You don’t believe that Zeus is anything other than myth, do you?” you might ask. “Well, neither do I!” You see, an unbeliever can have more in common with a fundamentalist Christian than the fundamentalist Christian has in common with the Mormon, or the Catholic. It’s all in how you look at it. Don’t encourage your god-believing neighbors and coworkers to adopt the perspective that’s least likely to let them tolerate unbelievers.

Finally, learn to rely on the underlying human decency of believers. For all but a small minority of the most fanatical of them, it’s there.

A little later I’m going to suggest a couple of different ways to deal with believers, specifically Christian believers, who discover or to whom you reveal your unbelief. But before I do that, I want to suggest that you be flexible about the emotional, as opposed to the intellectual content of what you say. Think about it as playing the part of one of three famous detectives ...

Dirty Harry is aggressively blunt. That’s not the same as being offensive, either. But he’s very clear about his absolute intransigence on things that matter:

“No God worthy of worship by anyone would single out a tribe of people, the ancient Jews, to go about slaughtering others. And no God of Love, in any ‘testament’ would teach human beings that the way to fight a war is to exterminate the enemy utterly, right down to the last pregnant woman and infant. No, I can’t accept it. My conscience screams out “NO!” And if such a God ever asked me to kill my son, like he commanded Abraham to kill Isaac, I’d have to refuse. ‘Go ahead! Make my day! A God that could seriously make such a request must be the Devil Himself!’”

I personally don’t prefer this approach, because it may tend to reinforce the “angry atheist” myth that a lot of believers have already been taught. But it may have its place.

Sergeant Friday was just the opposite. “Just the facts, Ma’am,” was his way of doing things.

“Nowadays we’d say that the idea of a ‘chosen people’ seems racist. The Geneva Convention regards the wanton slaughter of civilian noncombatants as a war crime. And that’s some test of loyalty: to ask that a father kill his own son. I’d expect that sort of ritual from the Mafia, not from an all-good God.”

I’m using the same examples as far as the substantive objections are concerned. There are innumerable others and some of you may already have found your favorite or favorites. For any who haven’t, I’d suggest you read or re-read something like Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason, Robert Ingersoll’s Some Mistakes of Moses, Nicholas Carter’s The Late Great Book The Bible, Michael Martin’s The Case Against Christianity, or any of dozens of other books. Rather than give you a bibliography, for those who might be interested, let me just suggest that if you don’t know of H.H. Waldo, you can get a free catalog by calling toll-free 1-800-66WALDO (92536).

I’d just suggest not getting too terribly obscure about the objections you voice to believers. You wouldn’t even have to get as complicated as the examples I’ve given so far. But do use your strongest arguments, not the ones where it would be easy to extend the benefit of the doubt.

The approach that I personally favor, that I think has the greatest flexibility, and comes closest to the truth for many of us, is to play the role of the detective Columbo. You remember: he’s the police sergeant who plays dumb and gets the criminals to implicate themselves.

“I’ve just got this problem, see? I mean, when I think of some group of people claiming that they’re special and all and anybody who gets in their way is to be liquidated, I think of ... well, I think of Nazis. Yet here are God’s Chosen People in the Bible doing these things, and God is telling them to do it. You see my problem? Maybe you can explain it to me. I just don’t understand.”

You see the beauty of this? You’re inviting your listener to “help you out” but there’s really no way that they can. So don't be surprised when whoever you’re using this on may express some frustration. That’s when you let them “solve” your problem by accepting your conscientious refusal to believe. That’s what you wanted all along anyway. You don’t want them to “straighten you out.” You want to kindle some sympathy in your listener or listeners. To get them to appreciate, if only a little bit, that your unbelief is truly a matter of your trying to be honest with yourself and your understanding of right and wrong.

Now I said I’d suggest to you some different ways of dealing specifically with biblical Christian believers, many of whom think that the basis of their religion is a catalog of doctrines like the Virgin Birth, the Trinity, and so forth. If you know your scripture, you can get into pretty involved scenarios. But as I just said, you don’t want to get too obscure. The best tactic is to remember the K.I.S.S. strategy: Keep It Simple, Stupid. These suggestions don’t require any Bible scholarship, but since they depend to some degree on biblical themes, you do need to remember a few points having to do with scripture.

  1. One of the most often repeated rebukes that an atheist will hear is from the Psalms (14:1 and 53:1) that “the fool hath said in his heart There is no God.” The immediate comeback to that is something like this: “Oh, and do you think that God would approve of your calling others of his children ‘fools?’ It seems to me that Jesus Himself taught that whoever shall say ‘thou fool’ to his brother will be in danger of hellfire.” (Matthew 5:22)
  2. The Bible, especially the New Testament, makes use over and over and over of the comparison between God the father and his human children and human fathers and their children. Here’s what Luke (11:11-13) has Jesus say, for example: “If a son shall ask bread of any of you that is a father, will he give him a stone? or if he ask a fish, will he for a fish give him a serpent? Or if he shall ask an egg, will he offer him a scorpion? If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children: how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?” Believers’ familiarity with this theme sets them up — and I’ve used this particular one quite effectively — for a remark like this: “Well, I’m an unbeliever or atheist or never could bring myself to believe in god(s), etc. ... But if I as a parent were to go away from my children for a very long time, I wouldn’t be too pleased to come back and find my offspring fighting over whether I existed, what I was like, what I wanted everybody to do in my absence, and who was going to get the biggest reward from me.”
  3. An even more sophisticated version of this approach draws on another scriptural turn of phrase which should be well-known to the biblically literate Christian. At Matthew 11:15, Matthew 13:9, Matthew 13:43, Mark 4:9, Luke 8:8 and Luke 14:35 we have Jesus saying “He that ears, let him hear,” and he explains Himself by saying (Luke 8:8) that “Unto you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God: but to others in parables; that seeing they might not see, and hearing they might not understand.” Now this very clearly points to the idea that some people, on hearing the so-called Gospel, are just not going to “get it,” and that God understands and even expects this to be the case. So how can unbelievers be blamed for their unbelief? Again, the situation could be compared to a parent who tells the kids that they all must work hard in school and attend a good college and so forth. But having told all his kids what they must do, does the human parent just write off the kid who doesn’t do well in school? No. That’s probably the child, in fact, that’s going to start an amateur band in the family garage and go on to be a rock star making a hundred times what his studious siblings earn. Or not. But the point remains that if a human parent isn’t going to take a child who doesn’t, say, learn their multiplication tables, and torture the kid for eternity as punishment, how could a supposedly loving, not to mention all-knowing God — who knew things would be this way — act in such a way?

None of this is likely to satisfy theists completely about your unbelief. But it can give them enough indigestion to want to avoid munching on the subject with you in the future. Remember that you’re not using scripture to prove anything, either. This is not an exercise in debunking Christianity. You’re only citing these problems to illustrate your conscientious objections to what Christians are asked to believe.

Meanwhile, build your relationships with theists in other directions. Show them by your actions, and not just by your words, that you are a decent, caring, and thoughtful person. That’s the way to convince them that belief in this or that improbable supernatural doctrine is irrelevant to one’s worth as a human being.

Thank you and good morning.

© 1995 by Dr. Tim Gorski