An Atheist’s Duty

Question from Ktaboo:
I am an atheist, but first and foremost I’m an anthropologist. I am going to school to be one and have worked in the field (ie Archaeology, cultural studies, biomedical research etc. in other countries). However, recently I have been feeling more deist because of the actions other atheists I happen to know.

In the field of anthropology, I was always taught to respect cultural differences, including religion, because we are there to study them not judge them. Recently I became the president of my school’s anthropology club and as a way to make my club bigger I invited students from the international club, many of which are very religious but are open minded (most of them are in the fields of science and pre-med). This is where my issue and question comes from. I have a handful of members, who happen to be atheists (though most members are), who took it upon themselves to ridicule and tell the the religious students that they and their beliefs have no place in society or science. When I tried reminding the those members what we were all taught about cultural differenecs many of them disregarded me, stating that as an atheist it is our duty to tell people when they are “wrong” and being “anti-intellectuals.” Needless to say I was mortified as I happen to do research with many of them (many of them happen to be researchers in the chemistry, biology, and geology departments).

So here is my question, is it an atheist’s “duty” to tell people what they believe is “wrong” and they are being “anti-intellectuals” because they believe in something different?

Answer by SmartLX:
No duty comes from being an atheist. There isn’t a god telling you to do things, there is no sacred text containing commandments and advice for living, and what atheist organisations do exist generally make no demands of their members with regard to lifestyle. (Even if they do, the demands apply only to members, not to all atheists.) You are under no obligation to behave as your colleagues do, and the next time they demand it of you, you might ask them what they’re basing that on.

Your colleagues are not just atheists, they’re anti-theists who want to attack religion at any opportunity. I’m an anti-theist too in that I think the world would be better off without religion, but I don’t think less of people just because they believe, and I don’t think constantly attacking faith at every moment is a good way to get rid of it. It only makes believers defensive. To be clear, I think public criticism of faith is warranted and essential, but it doesn’t need to be in people’s faces all day, not all of it has to be aggressive and none of it has to be personal. One simple exposure to general criticism can be enough to sow doubt, as indeed it was with me.

I want to make one other point. Although I understand your feelings it’s not really warranted that you should lean more towards “deist” after being around some particularly uncivil atheists. The fact that some atheists attack the religious too much has absolutely nothing to do with the actual likelihood of a god existing. You haven’t stated your reasons for being an atheist in the first place; they should not be affected by these encounters or else they’re odd reasons indeed.

One thought on “An Atheist’s Duty”

  1. I am tempted to ask about the average age of the atheists in your club … I am guessing it must be a youngish set of individuals. There’s always a passion in the youth to “spread the word” so to say. With time that passion fades away a bit. And this whole thing of ridiculing the religious is probably based around 2 – 3 strong personalities in your atheist group.

    Before I get accused of “ageism”, I’d just like to point out that I don’t think maturer atheists would go about ridiculing religion and the religious especially in face to face gatherings. They would attack the religious – but through debate and by listening to the arguments of the religious and countering them.

    Atheists do get hot under the collar when the religious, after having their arguments / beliefs countered revert to the position “I believe this because it’s faith and faith needs not reasoning but acceptance” type of responses. Now this response is intellectual dishonesty on the part of the religious.
    However, the response is understandable as the theist is clinging on more to a way of life than to a religion. A christian for e.g. is clinging on to the church and the community around it, a hindu to his temple and gatherings, a muslim to his mosque and the community around it.

    Its not an atheist’s duty to tell others that they are wrong. It is each individual’s responsibility to discover what’s right and wrong for themselves. Your club’s atheists may think that the religious in the club have abandoned that responsibility – they would probably be mistaken if they think so. Finding the truth about religion and the existence of god is probably not at the top of the agenda for most.

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