Why Do You Believe?
by Noah Lugeons
One of my least favorite questions is, “Why are you an atheist?” and it’s nearly identical but more frequent form, “Why don’t you believe in God?”
It’s very tempting to answer “Because he doesn’t exist” and depending on my mood and the identity of the inquisitor, that’s often exactly how I answer. When somebody accosts me at a subway station to hand me some silly pamphlet I’ll usually say, “No thanks, I’m an atheist.” And if they pursue it any further, I’ll give them the short, testy answer.
But that’s not always appropriate. Like everyone else out there, I have a lot of friends, coworkers, family members and acquaintances that are religious and when they ask me why I’m an atheist, it’s usually out of a genuine curiosity and I feel like they deserve more than, “Because there is no Tooth Fairy.”
That is the honest answer, of course. I can dress it up in the language of politic and say, “Because there is no convincing evidence of the existence of a higher power, nor is there any logical reason to assume one exists in an absence of evidence”, but that doesn’t do much to soften the blow. The fact is, there is no way (that I’m aware of) to explain it without insulting the believer. What I’m saying, regardless of what words I choose, is, “I’m an atheist because I’m better at thinking than you.”
I honestly believe that this is why atheists have earned the stereotype of intellectual arrogance. The reason that one is an atheist is because one properly applied logic to the question of religion. Atheists are atheists because they thought correctly. Now how the hell does one explain that to a person who thought incorrectly without sounding pretentious?
The problem, as we all know, is that the question is facing the wrong way. It’s not for me to explain why I believe the negative proposition. We both claim A-Y, you just add Z. If you’re the one adding something, you’re the one with the burden of proof. But Google-forbid you flip the question on its head and ask them why they believe in God. You’ll get a laundry list of nonsense that goes on for an hour. You’ll hear about their personal relationship with Jesus and you’ll hear about the value of faith and tradition and the meaning that religion gives their lives and you’ll want to take a trowel to your eardrums by the time it’s all over.
So how does one tackle this question without coming off as scornful? More importantly, how does one tackle this question with any persuasive power?
The truth is that I have no idea. Tact is not one of my strong suits (you may have noticed) and usually I respond with something like, “So how ’bout them Yankees, huh?” But if somebody is insistent and I can’t avoid delving into it, I usually find something that we can both disagree with. I’ll ask them if they believe in Bigfoot or Alien abductions or Atlantis or Astrology or the giant diamond in Sam Harris’s backyard until I find something that we can both agree is bullshit. Then I’ll ask them why they don’t believe in it and let them make the argument against god for me.
And then, of course, I’ll play devil’s advocate by trying to convince them with all the arguments that are typically offered for religion; “But hunting sasquatches gives meaning to so many people’s lives”, “But how can you discount all those anecdotal accounts?”, “What about people who feel Bigfoot’s presence?”, “What about all the written accounts of Bigfoot over the many decades?”
Granted, I suppose I come off every bit as arrogant and scornful in this tactic, but it redirects the question and at the same time, it deflates all the worst arguments they can offer. When I then say, “So why do you believe in god?” they have to at least filter their answers through the “would-this-convince-me-there’s-a-bigfoot?” filter. Even things like “How do you explain the ‘order’ and ‘design’ of the universe?” can easily be answered with “Bigfoot makes noises in the night and there are noises in the night.” This is the intellectual equivalent of “God makes universes and there’s a universe” and is every bit as convincing if you strip away the veneer of intellectual honesty.
But in the end, as I said, I don’t spend too much time concerned with tactful answers to questions like that. It’s the question that is pretentious, assuming and arrogant so if I inadvertently insult the person who asks it, perhaps they’ll think twice about asking it next time.
And if it’s somebody that I really don’t want to offend; my mother, for example; I’ll just throw out this caveat: “You’re asking me why I think one of your most cherished beliefs is misguided and silly. Do you really want me to answer that question?”