Can we avoid insulting believers?

By James A. Haught | 6 December 2023
Freethought Now

(Image by Paweł Englender from Pixabay)

Editor’s note: Although FFRF columnist James Haught died, sadly, on July 23 at age 91, we are lucky to still have a collection of pieces Jim gave us to use — some fresh and others previously published — that we will be sending out till we exhaust this treasure trove. This piece is adapted from a column originally published at Daylight Atheism/Patheos on July 8, 2019.

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 people of religion to hold open, sincere, friendly discussions.

How can we make dialogue possible?

First, it’s glaringly clear that some believers are outraged when their faith is challenged. Why do believers react so strongly? Bertrand Russell wrote 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. 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 lightheartedly — 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. Ask questions designed to make believers see flaws in their faith. For example:

Q: The bible (Exodus 31:15) 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 bible 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 the clincher: 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?

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 died on 23 July 2023. He was editor emeritus of West Virginia’s The Charleston Gazette-Mail and was a senior editor of the Free Inquiry magazine. He was also the author of numerous books and articles; his most recent book was Religion is Dying: Soaring Secularism in America and the West (Gustav Broukal Press, 2010). Haught won 21 national newswriting awards and thirty of his columns were distributed by national syndicates. He was in Who’s Who in America, Who’s Who in the World, Contemporary Authors, and 2000 Outstanding Intellectuals of the 21st Century.

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