The Best Defence Is To Take Offence

Question from Rieno:
Many Christians express views about many aspects of life. In addition, they also express their honest beliefs in their deity and even preach it. Atheists also express their views on many aspects of life (morality, politics, science, faith, etc.)

Why is it that when Christians express themselves, it is deemed acceptable, but when atheist express themselves it is considered offensive? I, personally, have been called a blasphemer once just by saying “I don’t believe in god”.

I would like to hear your thoughts on this. Thank you very much in advance.

Answer by SmartLX:
This unequal treatment of views springs from an intrinsic asymmetry between believers and non-believers. This asymmetry is genuine, and the reason for the outrage is sometimes clear, but that doesn’t truly justify it.

Religion is claimed by many to be the sole source of their morals, comfort and/or reason for being. If you question some people’s faith, you are ostensibly shaking the very foundations of their lives; no wonder they take it personally.

This can be taken to extremes, as you’ve already discovered. Recently a bus company refused to run an ad with a one-word message: “Atheists.” It was deemed controversial to do nothing more than alert the public to the existence of people who don’t believe in gods. There are people, the ad says to believers, who think you are wrong.

By way of contrast, atheists usually protest religious advertising either because their own advertising has been refused or because the religious message is effectively delivered by a secular state authority. Aside from these practical concerns, why don’t atheists take as much personal offence from the topic as believers? Because atheism is not an equivalent source of morals or purpose. Atheists source these essential parts of life from other places (I briefly delved into this here), so when their position on the existence of gods is challenged they do not feel that their entire worldview is under attack.

The important thing to get across to believers, though of course it’s not easy, is that the targets of criticism are religions themselves, not their adherents. Religion really is under attack, in a sense, but believers aren’t. The statement that one’s religion is false implies merely that one is wrong, not that one is stupid, insane, wicked or deceitful. If more believers understood this, organisations as the Catholic League would look a lot sillier with their persecution complexes on show.


Question from Jeremy:
Will you please explain to me the difference between an atheist and a heretic?

Answer by SmartLX:
Atheists don’t believe in a god. Heretics commit heresy – they say and/or do things which contradict religious dogma.

Heresy is different from blasphemy, which is specifically a show of irreverence toward religion. It’s possible to be heretical without being blasphemous (for example by praising the actions of a church while debunking its beliefs) or to be blasphemous without being heretical (for example by insulting a god without questioning its existence) but it’s usually easier to be both at once.

All outspoken atheists and agnostics are also heretics in the eyes of the religious, because openly questioning the existence of an established god is a basic form of heresy. Silent or closeted atheists (the kind churches prefer) may not be heretics, especially if they pretend to worship out of some social obligation.

Not all heretics are atheists; in fact, the word is now most often used to describe those with religious beliefs that differ from the speaker’s to a relatively small degree. To a Catholic, a Muslim is a heretic, but Muslim beliefs are so far removed that the words “pagan” or “heathen” might seem more appropriate. A Catholic is more likely to use “heretic” to describe a Protestant, or a Mormon. Atheists may again be called “heathens”, or else unique words like “unbelievers” or “godless”.

Generally speaking, the word “heretic” has been de-emphasised when heresy has ceased to be a criminal offence. There are still places where heresy can get you killed, legally or otherwise, and there the word is still in regular use. For the rest of us living in pluralistic societies, heresy is a somewhat antiquated concept.