Can We Avoid Insulting Believers?

By James A. Haught | 8 July 2019

(Photo by Cassidy Rowell on Unsplash)

Skeptics face a quandary: When we declare that supernatural dogmas are false fairy tales, believers who devote their lives to those dogmas may feel bitterly insulted. This makes it difficult for well-meaning freethinkers and well-meaning churchmen to hold open, sincere, friendly discussions.

How can we make dialogue possible?

First, it’s glaringly clear that some believers – especially Muslims – are outraged when their faith is challenged. Remember the death warrant issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini against novelist Salman Rushdie for “blasphemy”? Remember deadly riots that erupted because a Danish newspaper printed forbidden cartoons of Muhammad? Remember the massacre of the Charlie Hebdo magazine staff in Paris? Some Muslims felt so insulted they became murderous.

Currently, Muslim nations want the whole world to pass laws making it a crime to “defame religion.” In addition to Islamic lands, Russia and a few European nations have done so. For example, an Austrian woman was convicted because she declared in a forum that Muhammad’s marriage to a six-year-old girl constituted pedophilia. Last year, the European Court of Human Rights upheld her conviction. Similarly, a half-dozen Russian skeptics have been jailed under a 2013 law against “insulting believers’ religious feelings.”

Such laws clash with the principle of free speech, which normally lets everyone criticize anything and everything.

Why do believers react so strongly? Bertrand Russell wrote that it’s because they realize, subconsciously, that their supernatural beliefs are senseless, so they cannot tolerate any challenge.

In the face of all this, it’s difficult for sincere doubters to talk with sincere believers without causing bad feelings. We probably won’t fall into discourse with Muslim extremists, but how do we handle pious neighbors, friends and family members? Here’s the wrong way:

One day, two flashy-looking evangelists came into my newspaper office. I tried to tweak them light-heartedly – but within minutes, we all were screaming at each other, purple-faced. It was awful.

Is there a better way? I really can’t tell a churchman “I respect your right to worship supernatural beings” – because I don’t respect it. I think it’s stupid.

Here’s the only workable approach I know: Be polite. Stay calm. Be reasonable. Don’t assert your doubt too forcefully. Instead, ask questions designed to make the believer see flaws in his or her faith. For example:

Q: The Bible (Exodus 31:13) decrees: “Whosoever doeth any work in the Sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death.” What about all the police, firefighters, paramedics, hospital staffs and others who work on Sunday? Should the Bible be obeyed?

Q: Deuteronomy 22 commands that brides who aren’t virgins shall be taken to their fathers’ doorsteps and stoned to death. Should Christians obey that chapter?

Q: Leviticus 20:13 mandates that gay males “shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.” Should the Bible be obeyed?

Q: The Holy Book advises how to buy and sell slaves. Leviticus 25:44 says: “Both thy bondmen, and thy bondmaids, which thou shalt have, shall be of the heathen that are around you; of them shall ye buy bondmen and bondmaids.” Exodus 21:7 gives rules to follow when “a man sell his daughter to be a maidservant.” Should the Bible be followed in this regard?

And, of course, the clincher:

Q: Why does a merciful God let children die of horrible diseases, doing nothing while parents pray desperately? And why does He let tsunamis, twisters and the like kill multitudes? And why did He create foxes to rip rabbits apart, cobras to kill children, etc.?

Maybe polite questioning is the best course in dealing with religious believers who surround you. If that doesn’t work, we can just smile to ourselves and avoid debates.

Reprinted with permission from the author.

James A. HaughtJames A. Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia’s The Charleston Gazette-Mail and a senior editor of the Free Inquiry magazine. He is also the author of numerous books and articles; his most recent book is Religion is Dying: Soaring Secularism in America and the West (Gustav Broukal Press, 2010). Haught has won 21 national newswriting awards and thirty of his columns have been distributed by national syndicates. He is in Who’s Who in America, Who’s Who in the World, Contemporary Authors, and 2000 Outstanding Intellectuals of the 21st Century. His website is

Animated map shows how religion spread around the world

Animated map shows how Christianity spread around the world

Christopher Hitchens explains why religion poisons everything

Be sure to ‘like’ us on Facebook


  1. Of course, there is another alternative that I notice you have, in common with most sceptics (so-called: what you practice is not real Scepticism) have not even considered: Try engaging with the latest scholarship on religion, in particular that dealing with the religion you are intending to question, and actually educate yourself before deciding to confront your mirror images.

    Because that is exactly what you are: the exact mirror image of religious extremists.

    I'm not a believer in the God that those who consider themselves to be "religious fundamentalists" believe in: in fact I'm not really a believer in any sort of anthrophomorphic deities at all. However, I am interested in religion, especially the history of religions in general, and some religions in particular, and when you actually study the latest scholarship on the history of a religion (say, Christianity, for example), things get very interesting.

    I notice you, as per usual, quote Deutreronomy. It may interest you to learn that, according to analysis of the text as written in the original Hebrew (and we can thank the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, as well as the fact that Torah scribes are incredibly painstaiking in making exact copies of the text) that it and Leviticus were written by an author who is known in the scholarship as "P", or "Priest" (the term was first coined by German scholars who carried the original textual analysis in the 19th Century, and pretty much confirmed in the 20th). He wrote predominantly about issues regarding purity, especially the ritual purity of individuals who served inside the Temple in Jerusalem. And this is the big indicator of who he was writing for: a priestly audience, the one group who, as a daily aspect of life, would be concerned with ritual purity so as to be able to serve inside the Inner Court of the Temple in Jerusalem. Once you learn this, then the issue of things like the whole cloth made from two threads makes some kind of sense. Dosen't mean it isn't superstitious, but one begins to understand the original context of the prohibition: it is mainly meant for priests and those Jews (always male, BTW), who are going to the Temple in order to sacrifice to Yaweh. BTW, Rabbical scholars basically point out that, since the Temple no longer exists, pretty much all of Deuteronomy and Leviticus really no longer applies (it is, however, preserved against the hope that one day the Temple will be restored.)

    And one final word on using the Bible in your arguments with serious believers: always remember, that the translation (or version) of the Bible you are using always matters, as does the original context of the text itself!

  2. And the important parallel question: Should we?

    Religious believers have been passing laws against and punishing blasphemy, heresy and even the existence of us non-believers probably since religion was invented. They don't want a debate about their beliefs, nor any challenge thereto. But considering also the amount of damage done to society in the name of religion, the question arises:

    Why should we worry about insulting believers? Should we be equally worried about insulting the tender feelings of racists, xenophobes, misogynists, pedophiles etc. etc., all of which are parts of religions in one form or another.

    Face it, we're in a no-win situation. We have no respect for such foul and corrupt beliefs, won't change any minds by polite discussion, and will be scorned and attacked if we even bring up the subject.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here