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Sympathetic Atheism

A Muslim friend and colleague of mine made the remark to me yesterday that Atheists seem to focus on making fun of religions.  He pointed out that some of my criticisms and comments seemed more like playground taunting than real scriptural or theological debate.  I didn’t have a ready answer for him, but I tried to allay his concerns a bit.  My wife has expressed a similar concern with my style of criticism. 

I don’t think my approach to Theists and their corresponding beliefs are vastly different from other Atheists.  Frankly, I do find humor in certain, if not most beliefs, simply because a lot of them are silly and very simplistic. Additionally I would like to say that I am not above Faith, ritual belief, superstition and belief in intuition.  I make choices based on ‘gut feelings’ all the time.   I can fully accept that these are a bit silly, but persist nonetheless.   

I think I felt a little indignant with my friends comment, simply because it devalues what I am trying to do with my life; that is pursue a wholesome and truth filled life that adheres to a creed of non-coercive behavior and focus on family, nature and science.   Similarly I can see why a Theist may hold this view of Atheism, as we often simplify and deduce fallacy in what they highly value.  

Maybe all of this is my ‘Sympathetic Atheist’ side talking, but what value is there in undercutting a pleasant, friendly, non-threatening Theist’s beliefs?  How far can you go before you simply become a ‘Witness of Atheism’, when is it simply reverse proselytizing?

Addendum:  I unwittingly titled this post Sympathetic Atheism, which to my chagrin is a direct plagiarism of my friend Sabio’s post “Sympathetic Atheist” (at least in title and spirit.)  Please follow the links to his seminal blog on the subject!!!   This is a good illustration of how we Humans pick up on what appears like a good idea and then claim it as original thought.

  1. September 1, 2009 at 2:21 pm

    Ask your Muslim friend for evidence of their god. Until that’s presented, what’s the point of scriptural or theological debate? That’s putting the cart before the horse, no?

    Atheism isn’t worth evangelizing, but rational, critical thinking is. I’d say focus more on dealing with your personal faith based thinking before goofing on others’ or else you’re simply a hypocrite or arguing for your irrationality over theirs, which is what competing religions do everyday.

  2. Anoat Ozzel
    September 1, 2009 at 3:46 pm


    Well said. The whole point of being an Atheist , for me, is that no religion has ever been able to offer me a shred of appreciable evidence or comfort. The sacred texts that are offered as proof of divinity are all human engineered copies of copied copies. Which, as I have said in the past is exactly why I don’t buy religion; it is so obviously man made. I really appreciate the phrase ‘the cart before the horse’. I have always thought of religion as being too inductive in the sense that people try so hard to make their God real.

    My comment about not being above Faith is more of generality and a symptom of a not yet fully evolved brain. We all share a certain amount of faith based reasoning. Having faith that my car engine will start when I turn my key or that a drive-through attendant can add 2 + 8 and get something close to 10 🙂 all requires a certain amount faithfulness in the unproven. I don’t have God Faith, Faith that my soul is immortal or that my kids won’t get cancer if I pray.

    Lastly, I do completely agree with getting your personal belief in order before judging others’. Additionally, I love watching various faiths argue with one and other over divine superiority, it just drives home the futility and artificial origins of religion as a whole!


  3. September 1, 2009 at 4:13 pm

    Yes, well I wouldn’t call reasonable expectations like having cashiers capable of basic math or the light turning on when you flip a light switch as faith. Theists employ that definitional confusion often to imply that there’s nothing wrong with faith since you clearly use it everyday when clearly we don’t. Intelligence is, essentially, the ability to predict future actions. Through observations and experience, you gather knowledge of the world to better make predictions.

  4. Anoat Ozzel
    September 1, 2009 at 6:06 pm

    I was mistakenly vague in my inital use of the word ‘Faith’, I overlooked the strong cognitive connection between Faith and Religion. I think you and I argue from the same basic premise.

    Thanks for posting!


  5. September 1, 2009 at 6:28 pm

    Concerning Faith We all use faith, as my last post illustrates. Let’s say Christians have faith that Jesus lived and performed miracles. Well, someone said it to someone and others bought into it. Yeah, so that is anecdotal. And since we don’t really see miracles today, it is hard to imagine in a reasonable way they happened back then. So indeed, though the belief is based on trusting (faith) stories of others, those stories are not sensible, thus problematic. So it is not “faith” I have problems with, it is having faith in the highly improbable information and then treating it sacredly — so that others should not question or it is considered rude. So you don’t have to deal with your personal “faith”, just those that are highly improbably and certainly those that have bad consequences.

    Concerning Atheist Evangelism That is individual. Good luck figuring out preserving relationships you value and not suppressing your own thoughts. It is kind of like parties at my house, I wait for people to drink several beers so I can stop censoring myself ! Smile.

  6. September 1, 2009 at 6:38 pm

    No, we all don’t use faith, unless you wish to stretch the definition like Christians do to encompass almost everything, but then the word loses any meaning. Faith and trust are not synonymous.

  7. September 2, 2009 at 3:28 pm

    Faith and trust are not synonymous(Philly)


    Faith:–noun 1. confidence or trust in a person or thing: faith in another’s ability.

  8. September 2, 2009 at 3:39 pm


  9. September 2, 2009 at 8:32 pm

    Meriam Webster: Etymology: Middle English feith, from Anglo-French feid, fei, from Latin fides; akin to Latin fidere to trust

    Cambridge Dictionary: great trust or confidence in something or someone:

    Dictionary.com: confidence or trust in a person or thing:

    Wow, it is so like PhillyChief to be so argumentative for argument sake. I should never have to support this. It is such common sense. But there you go.
    Words can have lots of usages and nuances. “Trust”, is one of the primary usages of “faith”. Christians use the word in all sorts of slippery ways. And this is one of the ways. So we don’t have to deny “faith”, we can embrace the “trust” notion and clarify. We can get them to agree to use the word “trust” and then make clear that we try to steer clear of trusting things that have little or unreasonable evidence. Then you don’t have to spin your wheels in word wars — like the sort PhillyChief would love to get into.

  10. September 3, 2009 at 12:15 am

    Christians use the word in all sorts of slippery ways.

    Which is precisely the point, so what I see as spinning wheels is indulging the use of one word for multiple things like we’re a bunch of Smurfs. Distinctions make for clarity. Lack of distinctions make for muddy waters, and smurfy smurfs which smurf smurf like smurfs.

    Btw, you don’t find it the least bit disingenuous to use Merriam as a source yet cite only the etymology when most of the definitions relate to religious or unwarranted belief? 😉

  11. September 3, 2009 at 7:42 am

    @Philly – so, maybe that is as close as we get to PhillyChief agreeing he was wrong when he said, “Faith and trust are not synonymous.”
    For certainly one major use of the “faith” is exactly synonymous with “truth” — as is common sense. And, as I often need to do with Philly’s redherring comments to draw into superfluous arguments (his favorite activity), I will ignore his last statement.

    For Philly again did not address the main issue:

    Isn’t it a great strategy to admit that we all have faith (in the trust sense) and then, when discussing with the Theist, illustrate the highly improbably and unreasonable items they trust (have faith) in. Instead of making it a simple, unproductive, name-calling, self-righteous word-war, we can look for commonality and have a useful discussion.

    But “No!”, “Faith” is a taboo world in the theology of many Atheists. They have their self-righteousness to maintain, their theology to guard, their temples to keep pure. Alas, they drive me to start flipping over tables !

  12. September 3, 2009 at 9:35 am

    There’s nothing wrong with seeking commonality with your counterparts, but your strategies for doing so generally are as misguided as Obama’s current Quixotic bipartisan quest, and this new faith thing of yours is a prime example, Sabio. Honestly, if you can’t see the inherent problem of using the same word as your counterparts but with a completely different meaning, not to mention failing to be put off by being deceptive, then further discussion with you is pointless.

    For anyone else following along, here’s a bit more on faith. You see, the believer purposely exploits the confusion over the word to fool you into believing there’s commonality, that indeed you too employ faith everyday, which is precisely why the distinction between trust and faith needs to be made, to eliminate the grounds for such deception. Instead, Sabio would rather turn the deception around on believers, drawing them in with a false commonality then hitting them over the head with the truth. Well I for one find deception distasteful, and I think we atheists should take the higher ground and forgo such tactics, which is why a clear distinction must be made.

    It’s not the word faith which is taboo, but what it means, belief without proof. The first step to potentially making headway with believers is to clarify the distinction between trust (a belief based on evidence) and faith (firm belief in something for which there is no proof). If you want to establish commonality, then point out how frequently the believer makes decisions throughout their day based on evidence versus how frequently they don’t, and of course point out how ludicrous it would be to rely on faith for even the seemingly mundane activities of life such as deciding if it’s safe to cross the street, how to respond to emails allegedly from Nigerian princes in exile, or even for what to wear any given day. Trust then is the word for this sensible approach to life, whereas faith is exposed as flawed. Establish that distinction, then it becomes far more difficult for the believer to justify the value of faith for their god belief, for all they could do at that point is commit the fallacy of special pleading.

  13. September 4, 2009 at 9:07 am

    My approach is actually very honest. Many Christians trust that the gospels are eyewitness accounts because they trust the history of the church which preserves (they claim) the witness chain. Thus it is no less groundless trust than you trusting that humans landed on the moon. But certainly it is a matter of degree. It is exploring that matter of degree and the implications of the interpretations of that trust (faith) that make the dialogue real and honest.

    I have honest, fruitful dialogue with lots of Christians. I am far from deceptive — just thoughtful and interested in meaningful dialogue.

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