Why Are Atheists So Focused On Religion If They Don’t Believe?

It’s a fairly frequent question, often intended as an accusation: “If atheists don’t believe in God, why are they always talking about him?”

First, it’s important to note that many atheists, just like many believers, never talk about God or religion at all (source: Pew Research Center). It just doesn’t come up very often in many people’s lives. But then are those atheists (just like some believers) who seem to blather about religion all the time. You don’t hear about the silent atheists or the silent theists, because they’re just living their lives.

A second fact I’d like to note is that a lot of people talk about fictional beings (Spider Man, Harry Potter, etc.), yet don’t believe they actually exist. They simply find the topics interesting.

So, right off the bat, the accusation has lost its teeth.

Still, to many believers, it seems odd that some atheists bring up religion so often. Some have even made a living out of it. I think it’s worthwhile to wonder why.

To set the stage, it’s worth pointing out that atheists — like theists — are not a homogeneous group. The only description that describes every atheist is “doesn’t believe in god(s)” — just like the only description that describes every theist is “believes in god(s)”. While this is tautological, it bears repeating because definitions are often ignored. Aside from those two descriptions, any other word or phrase that can describe some theists can also be used to describe some atheists.

• Catharsis

For many atheists — especially those who once believed, or at least were raised in religion — talking about it can be a catharsis of sorts — “the act of expressing, or more accurately, experiencing the deep emotions often associated with events in the individual’s past which had originally been repressed or ignored, and had never been adequately addressed or experienced” — or closure if you will.

Some also think of it as “self-deprogramming”. The term deprogramming often has a negative connotation, because it was sometimes done forcefully to others, but I think it’s applicable in a positive light here. It refers to removing the “programming” (indoctrination) of religion from our brains — as much as is possible. I don’t think it can ever be complete. Due to more than 20 years of heavy religious involvement, I may never reach a time when it doesn’t just pop up in my mind. I will be washing dishes or vacuuming and catch myself humming a favorite hymn from my youth. My exclamations might always be littered with religious terminology — “Oh, Lord! I think we’ve had a flat tire.”

• Area Of Expertise

Some people (both atheists and theists) talk about certain topics more often because they are familiar with those topics, or have some level of expertise. It makes sense for an avid sports fanatic to regularly discuss sports, even the parts of sports that he isn’t fond of. Even if he ceases to watch sports, the years of participation and consumption will leave their effects in his mind; the knowledge will tumble out occasionally. Decades later, he’ll still be able to give correct advice to a young receiver having trouble making catches.

Where religion is concerned — or theology, god claims, etc. — some atheists happen to know a lot about the subject. For some, it’s because we had to deeply evaluate all of them before concluding that they’re probably not true. For others, it’s because it was securely ingrained in us as children. Using myself as an example, there is very likely no other topic about which I know as much — especially Christianity. I know a lot about photography, and a little bit about many other subjects, but nothing comes close to how much I know about religion.

• Like It Or Not, Religion Affects Our Laws

For other atheists — even those who were never religious, and know very little about it — they can’t escape religion’s very real effects in our world. Of course, by definition, atheists don’t believe God exists. But they cannot escape the fact that believers exist, often organized into religions. And believers, some of them, are very insistent upon spreading around their beliefs (I know, because I used to do it).

A very big example of this is faith-influenced government — something that affects every citizen and resident of a particular nation. A great number of theists (especially Christians and Muslims, it seems) in politics make concerted efforts to slip their doctrines into law. My own country’s history is littered with examples of this, and the pushback against it.

The question, “Should someone else’s religion legally dictate your life?” should always be answered in the negative — and even most religious people agree, when it’s phrased this way — yet week after week, year after year, we see elected (and appointed/hired) government officials attempting brazen mergers of their religion with the state. Often, they succeed.

Just as a Christian would (and should) speak out if Islamic rules began infiltrating our government, so will atheists continue to speak against religion’s ongoing influence in our government. (Yes, I’m aware of Christians who believe the opposite is true, but such a belief is objectively ridiculous.)

• Our Social Circles

Perhaps there are atheists whose social circles do not include theists. If so, they might rarely be reminded of religion’s existence. This isn’t true for most of us, at least in the U.S.

Many of us are daily bombarded with religious themes, both on social media and in face-to-face interactions. I think the last full day I experienced without a Christian mentioning God, Jesus, prayer, or Heaven/Hell was at least two years ago. You can’t bring it up so many times a day and then expect us to never say anything in return.

• Combat Negative Stereotypes

One of the reasons I decided to “come out” as an atheist had something to do with the way atheists are portrayed in popular thought and media. Even when I was still a believer, and during the years I wasn’t sure, I was often astounded at the negative portrayals — as sinister ghouls, wicked dwellers of dark places, almost like the worst of vampires, completely morally bankrupt.

I devoted an entire page to clearing up misconceptions about atheism, which I’ve updated recently because these myths — outright dishonesty in some cases — are still floating around.

The people who combine these words (I hate to call it “writing”) should be ashamed of themselves. The untruths are so thick that it’s almost like they’re making fun of themselves.

I’ve written more about that here. The more of us that are “out of the closet”, the more that the general public will realize the falsity of those media portrayals.

• Conclusion

There might be other reasons I’m not aware of, or which don’t resonate with me. For example, some people are naturally combative, both in person and online, so (whether they are atheist or theist) they tend toward controversial conversations. Perhaps some people are overly obsessive and have temporarily latched onto the yes/no debate about God. But the five reasons I’ve listed above are, I believe, the most common.

If you’ve run into an atheist (me?) who occasionally discusses religious belief — and it bothers you — hopefully what I’ve written here will set your mind at ease. These are valid reasons all. In fact, if you are religious, I would think it would please you somewhat that it’s under discussion. For many atheists, including myself, an ultimate goal would be never feeling a need to bring it up again.

__________

6 Comments
  1. “Atheism IS a religion.”

    Thoughts?

    • Wil C. Fry says:

      Short answer: There are no reasonable definitions of “atheism” and “religion” that overlap. If someone’s using definitions of these two words that do overlap, they can: (1) look up the real definitions, or (2) provide a new word that means simply “not believing in a god or gods” that we can use instead of “atheism”.

      Last year, I provided a longer answer here: http://wilcfry.com/atheism/not-a-religion/

      Feel free to link to that page any time someone falsely asserts that “atheism is a religion”. (And if you see any issues on the page, let me know.)

  2. Dana says:

    As an atheist who grew up in a very religious community, I was constantly confronted by “the faithful.” So I studied and learned about religion in order to respond to the attacks intelligently (in college I majored in Philosophy with a concentration in Religion – it cemented my identification with atheism). Oddly, as an atheist of Jewish descent I know significantly more about Christianity than Judaism, as it was generally Christians confronting my lack of faith.

    Personally, I rarely (with one exception noted below) raise the topic of religion it unless I’m confronted with it. I will bring it up if I feel religion is imposing on me or infringing on my first amendment right to not observe. I do become pretty vocal this time of year when suddenly the entire country is expected to observe the birth of Jesus Christ (no one has ever successfully convinced me that Christmas is a secular holiday). But, other than direct attacks upon me and during the entire month of December, I’m pretty mum regarding religion. So mum in fact, that I’m always surprised when I learn that a friend or colleague is also an atheist since neither they, nor I ever bring up the topic.

    • Wil C. Fry says:

      “So mum in fact, that I’m always surprised when I learn that a friend or colleague is also an atheist since neither they, nor I ever bring up the topic.”

      It’s possible that others around me are atheists too, and we don’t know about each other simply because no one will bring it up. I don’t know whether anything about my life or theirs would change if we knew this about each other.

      Honestly, I don’t think I would ever bring it up either, in an ideal world.

      Typically, I only bring it up after a day of seeing religious postings on social media (despite clearing my friend lists of raging Trumpzis, I still have a good deal of Christian followers and they’re usually not shy to bring it up regularly).

  3. If I may be succinct: I spend all this time trying to cough up the idea of god because they spend so much time shoving it down my throat.

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