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How stereotyping atheists as immoral can do harm

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PZ Myers[1]

There is a common line of attack Christians use in debates with atheists, and I genuinely detest it. It’s to ask the question, “where do your morals come from?” I detest it because it is not a sincere question at all — they don’t care about your answer, they’re just trying to get you to say that you do not accept the authority of a deity, so that they can then declare that you are an evil person because you do not derive your morals from the same source they do, and therefore you are amoral. It is, of course, false to declare that someone with a different morality than yours is amoral, but that doesn’t stop those ....

How stereotyping atheists as immoral can do harm

The story below isn't typical of how Christians behave, blatant guilt tripping is rare, most Christians, especially Liberal Christians will be horrified to read it. Extreme stereotyping is rare but when it happens there is risk of great harm and I feel people should be warned against it.

The message, "You'll be more moral as a believer." or "Believers are more moral." is more frequent and often given subtly rather than directly. As Christianity weakens in the UK this way of undermining atheists happens steadily less. I can no more than guess what is/isn't happening in families where the public don't see what's going on. I can no more than guess what is/isn't happening in the United States where religious belief is stronger.

My experience

The first time I suffered from stereotyping as a supposedly immoral atheist was from my own mother when I was just 16 or nearly 16, I can’t remember which. I told my mother I no longer believed in God, sometime later after she’s had time to work something unpleasant out she came into the bathroom where I was vulnerable and told me,
“I don’t suppose you’ll carry on [with a political cause involving helping poor people that I cared passionately about] now that you’re an ATHEIST.” The whole thing was said in a scolding, disapproving manner, I replied
“I’m not an atheist, I’m, an agnostic.” By atheist I meant strong atheist, at 16 I didn’t know other definitions of atheist/agnostic. Also I didn’t know many philosophical arguments showing how improbable Christianity is the way I do now.
Similar put downs happened on other occasions. Fortunately I had already been a weak atheist/agnostic for a year, I spent the year involved with that political cause, I cared more about poor people after I stopped believing that they would be compensated in Heaven. Anyway I remained confident that I wouldn’t become worse through not believing in God because I knew this hadn't already happened.

What would have happened if as an unsure teenager I’d told my mother a short time after I deconverted?

  1. I might have gone back to Christianity and believed that was the only way to be decent, that was what my mother hoped.
  2. Alternatively I might have lost confidence in my ability to be moral, my mother would probably have blamed me for not believing in God rather than blaming herself for undermining me.

Why didn’t I have the courage to tell my mother a year earlier? The above should give some indication.

See also


There is a good and a a bad side to Christianity, see the category page

References

  1. The “objective morality” gotcha

External links

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