Hello, Dear Readers! I hope you are enjoying this holiday weekend, whether or not you believe in divine resurrections or the Easter Bunny. As for me, I am sitting in my chilly living room, watching something that may be described as snowish-ice-rain as it pellets down into my so-called spring morning. But I shall not be deterred! I plan to make a fancy coffee or two (with obligatory Wisconsin coffee gadgets I have purchased for occasions just like this) and wait for the sun. Meanwhile, here’s the long-awaited final segment of my interview with Richard Wade. Happy reading, and stay warm!
What are some ways in which opting for atheism over religion might benefit someone throughout their life?
Well, keep in mind that we don’t actually opt for atheism, we realize that not believing has become just one more of the many features of who we are.
Of course, there are the flippant jokes about sleeping in on Sundays and keeping ten percent of our income, and religious people often try to say that the benefit is that we can go have fun “sinning.” Saying that shows that they don’t know any atheists well. They’re pretending that they know what they’re talking about, which is the most common form of lying, so they should look at their own sin of lying.
But yes, there are benefits. People who come from strict or legalistic religious backgrounds often describe the sensation of the lifting of a huge weight of guilt and shame that they realize they never deserved. Others say that they never realized how much fear or anxiety they had inside them until it left them after they stopped believing.
Some discover a new pleasurable interest in science and trying to better understand the scientific ideas that they were taught to reject and even fear. Free from the injunctions against thinking too carefully and critically, some report that their thinking skills have improved on many topics. Some let go of superstitious ideas such as astrology or pseudoscientific claims, and for a few, skepticism becomes a personal discipline that they consciously practice. The highly disciplined ones resist the temptation to automatically believe a rumor just because it confirms their opinions. They fact-check it, and if the supportive evidence isn’t there, they reject it even though they might wish it were true. They become conscientious with their ideas and their speech.
They face the reality and finality of death, and gradually come to terms with it. They focus on the quality of their lives and their relationships in the here-and-now, and those relationships often improve. They realize that the only thing about them that will live on after them is the effect, for good or ill, that they have had on other people, so they become more intentional in making that effect a good one.
They often become more responsible in general. The safety net of a heavenly parent figure who will take care of things for them and save them from disasters is no longer in the back of their minds, and so instead of reacting with more anxiety, they become more proactive and prepared. That can also broaden into being more vigilant about the needs of others and the risks that others may face, because they no longer have the thought that their god will take care of those people. They often become more charitable in more personal, more local ways.
I’m sure there are other benefits, but these are the ones I have either observed or personally experienced.
Judging purely by the correspondence you have received at Ask Richard over the years, is it possible to cause lasting negative effects to children by raising them in a strict religious environment?
When children have been chronically mistreated, traumatized, or raised in a negative, hyper-critical environment with large doses of fear and shame, sometimes adults say, “Don’t worry, they’re kids, they’ll bounce back.” That’s nothing but wishful thinking to make those adults feel better. Kids bounce like eggs.
Several letters I’ve received from adults who have been raised in strict and legalistic religious environments describe chronic emotional problems that follow them into adulthood. They often have depression and anxiety disorders, low self-esteem and low self-confidence, difficulty trusting others, difficulty trusting their own judgment, difficulty asserting themselves with others including employers, and a tendency to accept emotional, verbal, and even physical abuse from parents and spouses. This makes them extra vulnerable to the social penalties, reproach and even shunning by family and friends that so often occur when it is revealed that they are atheists. Where there is depression, it can get very risky for suicide.
In many of the letters, the writers have been making admirable efforts to free themselves from these difficulties, but often they still clearly need help from professional psychotherapists. Whenever I recommend that, I warn them to look for a licensed professional who is not overtly religious, or at least will not let their religious views intrude into the therapeutic process. Interviewing a therapist about this on the first phone call can be very difficult when they already have difficulty asserting themselves, and they aren’t sure of what questions they are “allowed” to ask. So I often recommend that they contact the Secular Therapist Project. It’s a confidential online service and database that connects atheist clients with carefully vetted, properly licensed, non-religious psychotherapists who only practice evidence-based methods. It connects the client with the therapist while protecting the confidentiality of both.
Recovery from these challenges is possible. It’s just much more likely when we build a circle of like-minded friends, we find safe and discreet persons and groups where we can express ourselves and support each other, and when we have the help of qualified professionals for the most persistent difficulties.
If you could offer one bit of advice to the religious community, what would it be?
There is so much that I would like to suggest to religious people about their relationship with atheists, and I do whenever I can, such as please ask atheists what atheists think, feel and do, rather than tell atheists what atheists think, feel and do. Please consider that if it is not acceptable to you to disparage and discriminate against Jews, why is it perfectly okay to do exactly the same things to atheists? Please look honestly into yourselves and see if your disdain and even hatred of us is rooted in fear. You have little to fear from atheists, other than an occasional challenging thought. On the other hand, what atheists must fear from religious people is being slandered, ostracized, shunned, divorced, fired, attacked, and even killed.
But if I had to narrow it down to only one suggestion, it would be this, particularly for the Christians: Your savior told you to love your neighbor as yourself. He told you that as you have treated the least of his brothers, the most vulnerable in society, so you have treated him. How well you have adopted and internalized this wonderful teaching of his, is not measured by how you treat your fellow Christians. That’s far too easy a test. It’s measured by how you treat people who are different from you. Different color, different culture, different country of origin, different politics, and the hardest of all, different religious views. If you have any shameful things to account for in front of your savior, the worst of it will probably include your treatment of atheists, both in your mind and in your behavior. You might be doing pretty well with those other categories of different people, but when it comes to atheists, most of you fail the test miserably. If you want to be better Christians, start with how you think about and treat atheists.
Is there any advice you’d like to offer to the atheist community when it comes to living in a society that is largely influenced by belief in myth, religion, and the supernatural?
Always take the high road. Considering the pervasive bigotry and mistreatment I’ve described above, it can be tempting to deal out the same, but don’t. Base your behavior on moral principles rather on the level of the other person’s behavior. If you only treat someone the way they treat you, that always spirals down. If people are telling lies about atheists, don’t come back with counter-lies. Double-check the “facts” that you want to use in your defense, and if they’re not backed up, don’t use them. Meet contempt with civility, meet acrimony with patience. Don’t start your rebuttal to a religious person’s remarks with that clever insult that you’re itching to use. If you want to help someone to see more clearly, don’t start by poking them in the eye.
We are supposed to be the ones who value reason. Then be consistently reasonable when you deal with religious people. It is not reasonable for you to needlessly insult or belittle someone just for the short-term gain of a little sadistic pleasure, when you are only adding to the long-term loss of making more people more hateful of us and less willing to even talk to us. If you do that, you’re just confirming their worst stereotypes about us, and making the broader situation worse. That is not following reason. You can be honest, frank, and direct, but you can still do it respectfully. You don’t have to respect their beliefs, but you can respect their rights to their beliefs, and you can treat them respectfully even as you disagree.
Be consistent and conscientious with your skepticism. Skepticism is the root of your atheism, but too many atheists remain superstitious and credulous about things other than religion. Rid yourself of all sorts of unchecked assumptions and baseless beliefs. Remember that skepticism is not the stubborn refusal to believe something. That is called mulishness. It’s also not cynicism. Skepticism is the willingness to withhold belief in a claim until acceptable evidence is presented, and the significance of the evidence should match the significance of the claim. Whatever claims you do accept should still be subject to review if new evidence comes along, and whatever claims you have rejected should still be subject to review if new evidence comes along.
Take the long view. The tide of history has been continuing away from religion and toward secularism for more than 400 years, slowly at first, and faster more recently. We, in our brief moment in time have our work cut out for us, right here and right now, to resist creeping theocracy, to defend the integrity of science, and to promote Humanist values, but we should also be aware that we are merely the latest workers in a centuries-long movement. We are seeing progress, but we will not live to see the culmination of that progress. There is least another century of work to do, perhaps more. So we should always use equal parts of earnest diligence and confident patience.
I hope you enjoyed this invaluable interview as much as I did. Richard Wade writes for the Ask Richard column at the Friendly Atheist. He would be excited to receive some letters from my readers, so I highly encourage you to take this personal opportunity to glean from his poignant insights. Stay tuned as I plan to tackle some questions about magic and pseudo-religion in the upcoming weeks. Until then, may you enjoy all this universe has to offer you this week!