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I don't believe in gods, but Tom Yum Ghai might just be a holy sacrament!

No gods, but perhaps a holy sacrament! (Tom Yum Ghai)

“I don’t believe in atheists.” That’s a phrase I’ve been seeing a lot lately. It passes for clever in apologetics blogs and it helps many a drive-by tweeter to troll the atheist hashtags. I somehow doubt the majority of these people are making references to the Chris Hedges book from 2008, but who knows how the meme rolls? The bottom line is that lots of folks have found it fun a fun phrase to say.

I wish I could give them all a cookie.

In one respect, at least, the argument does seem fitting. For so long the topic of ‘atheism’ has had a larger presence in Sunday school sermons than it has in the words of actual non-believers. To meet folks who actually claim the title must seem rather surreal to many believers, a bit like having the villains from a story come to life and begin talking back. How much this has to do with the emergence of the so-called new atheism, and how much of this may have been a problem even for the nay-sayers of previous generations, I don’t know, but I do think a lot of Christians must be rather surprised to find other voices have begun to shape a topic over which they expect full control. It really must seem like the height of rudeness for the characters in ones’ own stories to begin asserting ownership of their own narrative. Telling us that atheists aren’t real is a bit like banishing us back to the story lines of Christianity. We are supposed to be vanquished at the end of the sermon; we aren’t supposed to talk back.

…which is what this phrase is really all about.

If pressed on the matter, and sometimes without needing to be pressed at all, those repeating this almost-edgy mantra can usually produce an argument on the matter. Essentially the idea is that atheists are misrepresenting our own selves. Often the argument is that deep down we really know that there is a God. Sometimes, the argument is that we are just rebelling against a god we actually know to exist, or that we simply want to enjoy a life of sin regardless of this god that we really know about. …deep down in our hearts.

I can’t recall if I’ve ever seen this claim that atheists really know there is a god linked to the whole atheists-are-really-just-agnostics-who-need-a-dictionary theme, but that wouldn’t surprise me. Ultimately, both strategies effectively deny the reality of atheism, and of course variations of both arguments are legion.

There is of course little reason to respond to these arguments, but hang on because I’ve got a couple reasons for that at least.

…the not responding part.

I think it pays to recognize interpersonal aggression when you see it, and to separate that as much as possible from efforts at thoughtful discussion. Disbelief in atheism is a paradigm case of poisoning the well, and people don’t do it because they want to talk to you about what you believe, what they believe, or what people might believe in Eastern Mongolia. They are doing it because they want to establish control over you at the outset of the conversation. Why they want that is another question, but make no mistake the issue is control, not some theoretical point they might want to make about anything.

You can have a real conversation about whether or not God exists. You can have a real conversation about what She might be like. You can have a real conversation about what people might or might not know about Her. None of these conversations should be confused with questions about what is or isn’t an accurate representation of your beliefs on that topic.

How do we know what people believe? In most cases, the answer is simply because it is what they have told us what they believe. Support for the truth or falsehood of an assertion about something in this world would ideally take the form of objective evidence, but claims about what one does or doesn’t believe are normally declared by fiat, so to speak, and in most cases, the conversation proceeds from there.

I’m not suggesting there are never any grounds on which to doubt people’s self-representation, but I am suggesting that it’s more than a little unusual to do so. The basis for such doubts ought normally to come from the actions and statements of the party accused of misrepresenting themselves. When (as is almost always the case with dismissal of atheism) the grounds for doubt are little other than theoretical assumptions as to what other people MUST really believe despite their own protestations that is a question good and begged.

It’s also the end of the conversation.

There is of course a secular variant of this argument. We could as easily maintain that believers don’t actually believe what they say that they believe and that all of them are really just pretending to believe in gods. We can go that route if we really want to. But what would be the point of talking about it?

Or even thinking about it, really?

It’s a damned easy world in which those who don’t agree with you become liars or deluded wrecks right from the first nuh-uh, and taking seriously the possibility of real disagreement over an issue is part of taking the issue (whatever it may be) seriously to begin with.

Contempt is always contagious.