Is This a Bad Time to Critique a Religious Belief?

After I posted my thoughts about “praising God in the storm” one reader wrote to complain that my remarks were insensitive, especially so close on the heels of a tragedy.  Here is what she said:

I am a Christian, and I have read both the article and many of the comments. I’m a student at the University of Arkansas. My family lives 20 minutes from Vilonia, Arkansas where one of the tornadoes went through and I have many friends who live there. My first comment (and main issue with this article) is simply this; if someone goes through such a tragedy, and they are able to find hope or peace in something, then why are you trying to tear that hope apart? I understand that to you it is false hope, but to those people it Is not. Whatever religion you belong to, you should have the right to take comfort in it after a tragedy without being criticized. I’m extremely lucky because everyone who I know in Vilonia was safe and were not injured in the storm. I have no problem with everyone criticizing Christianity, because that happens every day. However, I do think that it is horrible that you are taking a tragedy and using it as a way to debunk Christianity less than a week after this has happened. Let these people grieve the loss of their loved ones and their homes in peace for at least a little while before you begin to criticize them. I have no idea how close any of you are to the situation in Arkansas, but from someone who spent Sunday night and all day Monday and Tuesday calling people to make sure that they were even alive, all of these comments are extremely insensitive.


Shame on you, atheist!

Her words touch a nerve, as well they should.  Real human loss is devastating, and the pain of it is nothing to flippantly dismiss.  I would never want to hurt someone by callously ignoring their pain and using their loss as an opportunity to trumpet my own opinions. So as with most criticism I received, I stopped and tried to examine what’s happening here.  And I see the potential for hurt there.  But I also see something else going on here, and I think it’s worth pointing out.

From your perspective what I have done here is capitalize on people’s moment of weakness and loss, using it to advance an agenda. May I submit to you that this is precisely what all the preachers and Sunday School teachers and deacons and elders will be doing as well? Why is it okay for them to use a significant moment to do this but it’s not okay for me?

You say it’s because I am removing a sense of hope and comfort (one which you acknowledge I believe is a fiction). But am I even doing that? Do you as a Christian even agree with anything I have said above? If not, then what have I even taken from you, or them? It appears that I have taken nothing.

I happen to believe that religion can be a harmful thing in people’s lives, but that it harms them in ways that they learn to see as beneficial rather than detrimental. That means I am in the awkward position of trying to tell people things they don’t want to hear, attempting to help them by doing things they see as hateful instead of loving (the very same reaction most of us have when our loved ones threaten us with hell). From my perspective, now is as good a time as any to talk about this. If it’s okay for preachers to swoop in at this moment and interpret these events their way, it’s only fair that I can share mine as well. My intention is not to harm but to help. And as a parent and a teacher, I am quite used to hearing that something I am doing for their own good is “mean.” If that fazed me, I’d be terrible at both those jobs.

There were other responses, as you might expect.  A handful of commenters dutifully parroted the fundamentalist belief that storms happen because of what people have done.  Rather than claiming that the individuals who lost homes and lives were responsible, they opined that storms in general are the result of mankind sinning, somehow.  Evidently people doing bad things affects meteorology.  That’s highly ironic, since as most climatologists will tell you, what people do really does affect the environment…just not in the way in which these people are suggesting.  What’s so ironic is that fundamentalists scoff at threats of global warming, as if that whole topic were just a hoax perpetrated by tree-huggers and socialists looking for yet another way to force government oversight into the free market.  But then they turn around and say tornadoes and hurricanes are the result of a guy eating a forbidden fruit in roughly 4004 BC.  SMH

Another commenter, repeating the first commenter’s sentiments, offered this critique:

At what point do some become just as bad as AFA or Westboro Baptist church. You are shrinking to the level of those fanatics with this an other comments I’m seeing. Some of them are not backing down because they think the have God on their side, so tell me why you are not respecting of their beliefs. I’m a gay man that lives in Tupelo MS that wants respect but I first know to receive or even get close to receiving it, I must respect others. I may not agree with them but as long as they respect me as most true southern Christians do, I will respect them. Only the fanatics need to be overlooked, cause no matter how much respect you give them they will still trample you.

I’ve said before and will be happy to say again:  People deserve respect; ideas do not.  Ideas deserve scrutiny, because ideas have consequences and bad ideas have bad consequences.  Religious beliefs, as Greta Christina has persuasively argued, do not get a free pass simply because people feel them really strongly.  But disagreeing with someone’s beliefs isn’t disrespecting them.  And besides, there is a terrible double standard at work here which privileges the religious perspective and attempts to silence the secular one.  Here is my brief response to this second comment:

I see writing a perspective on a blog as a far cry from showing up to the scene of devastation and waving signs in their faces. If people in my neighborhood were suffering losses of that magnitude, I’d be helping pick up the pieces, too (at least I would TRY to. I work an awful lot and don’t get the luxury of time off). So would the Christians around me. The main difference is: I offer my interpretation of these things a few steps removed from the situation. The church folks will not be so restrained. They will offer their interpretation of these things immediately and on the spot. Again I ask, why is it okay for them to tell what all this means and it’s not okay for me to?

What do you think about this?  Is it wrong to speak up at a moment like this and criticize the faith that gives comfort to those who are dealing with tragedy?  Have I even spoken to them directly?  Are they even reading anything I write?  I’m sincerely asking for your thoughts.  What do you think?

Aside | This entry was posted in Atheism, Christianity, Religion and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

36 Responses to Is This a Bad Time to Critique a Religious Belief?

  1. mikespeir says:

    If you had gone to the site of the devastation and paraded around with placards reading, “See? Your God failed you again!” I’d be condemning you, too. But you just posted on your own–frankly, rather backwater–blog. If Christians are going to be offended by what you wrote, they’re pretty much going to have to do it on purpose.

    • Arkenaten says:

      Maybe if enough people did begin waving such placards people might sit up and wonder? Let’s face it, there are more than enough similar such examples that should make even the most dense fundamentalist consider the very real possibility that if this deity exists it has a very capricious nature is plain callous or possibly worse, completely indifferent.

      • mikespeir says:

        Not necessary. They don’t need placards to see it. They see it as clearly as we do. Why do you suppose they always rush in with canned apologetics at times like these?

        • Arkenaten says:

          Oh, I was merely being rhetorical….however, having bus loads of placard waving non-believers arrive at disaster scenes avec lots of aid etc AND placards and leaflets just might reach a few. You never know, right?
          Baby steps and all that.

    • LOL@”backwater blog.”

      It’s because I’m in Mississippi, isn’t it?

      • mikespeir says:

        No slight intended. It’s just that you’re not exactly out there hunting down people to offend. They have to come to you if they want to be offended.

        • John Shores says:

          Which make those who posted the sign true offenders. They took the opportunity of devastation to promote a disgusting religious idea and put it in people’s faces. I find it completely revolting, not dissimilar to all the crap after 9/11 when religious nuts were claiming that this was god’s punishment.

          3rd century thinkers, the lot of them. Time for people to grow up, IMO.

  2. Richard Dawkins has been challenging us for decades to ask why it is considered inappropriate to question or criticize religious beliefs and institutions. Believers are encouraged to question and criticize secular beliefs and institutions as a part of their faith development. When I was a member of a church, I never heard any mention of when were appropriate times to question those who did not agree with my church. We were not told to refrain from questioning those who did not conform during a tragedy or difficult emotional or physical experience. We were never counseled to respect the differing beliefs of others during these times because these beliefs were a comfort to them. On the contrary, we were told that the beliefs of those who were not in our church were false beliefs and could not comfort them as effectively as the ‘truth’. The criticisms you received reveal the double standard many religious people have been conditioned to accept without question: they can and should speak God’s truth (as they see it) all the time and under any circumstance, but it is inappropriate for people who don’t share their beliefs to question them or criticize them unless they invite them into a debate. There is never a ‘good time’ to challenge people to look critically at their belief system who would rather not be challenged.

    • Empire1432 says:

      I would disagree with you completely in regards to your last statement “There is never a ‘good time’ to challenge people to look critically at their belief system who would rather not be challenged.”. I could agree with this statement if you said, during times of crisis, it may not be the best time to challenge someones belief, but saying their is never a good time is incorrect. I think people should be challenging not only other peoples beliefs, but should be challenging their own beliefs constantly to ensure those beliefs are valid and in line with our constantly changing knowledge or reality.

      • John Shores says:

        I think it wold be more accurate to have said “it is pointless to challenge people to look critically at their belief system…” I have yet to come across one instance when someone left their religious ideas behind due to simple logic and reason. It is generally true that seeing through the BS is a slow and gradual process, and one that is propelled by disasters such as the one this blog addressed.

        The truth is that those religious people posted the sign because deep down they want to believe that god is loving and good despite the obvious maelstrom that surrounds them. They somehow believe that God could have prevented the storm but didn’t. But they’re going to praise him anyways. Much in the same way that the German people did nothing to overthrow Hitler when the true evil of his policies was revealed to them.

        It seems to me to be far less taxing on the human psyche to just say, “It was a storm, it sucks, let’s mourn the loss and rebuild” than to introduce a supposed all-powerful deity who could have prevented it and who may very well have caused it.

  3. Michael D says:

    My experience at the Christian funerals of family members is that preachers never fail to use a moment of grief as a an opportunity to preach hellfire to a captive audience.

    • Ruth says:

      Exactly this. Preying in the name of God.

    • Absolutely true! I was thinking the same thing. A funeral is an ‘open door’ to ‘reach out’ to the heathen family of the deceased—and this blatant opportunism is justified because it is ‘for their own good’ (= ‘salvation’).

    • Linda R says:

      Which explains why I have chosen to never attend another funeral again, not even mine.
      [Cremation, no funeral. Kids can use my leftover funds to party if they chose.]

      • Lee Miller says:

        Yes. Exactly. Have a party, serve snacks, but don’t throw money away on funerals or rituals or monuments. I have explicit instructions to my family about this.

  4. I found your original article appropriate and pertinent—and the response you present above to various criticisms non-defensive and sensitive. I also find your original words personally convicting, because I still tend to remain mute about my non-belief when in the presence of loved ones who appear to be comforted by their non-rational and (I believe) ultimately untrue beliefs. As Carl Sagan wrote, “It is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.”

    • Shannon says:

      This comment by Darrell are my sentiments exactly.

    • David W says:

      I agree with Darrell’s comment as well.

      I would like to add one comment to the discussion, though.
      It is not necessarily what you said, or when you said it, or how you said it that offends, it is the mere existence of atheists that offends the believer.

  5. Damon says:

    I pity a god so frail that words on a blog can harm him.

  6. Bunni says:

    I wish more people would point to such things and ask the questions you asked. At the very least, it would lead to a more honest review of their own belief systems. The difficulty is that such belief systems often lead to these same people avoiding questions in order to maintain faith. It’s a vicious cycle.

    I like what you said about respecting people and not ideas. Ideas should always be reviewed and questioned.

  7. Mark says:

    I agree with the rest of the choir, above.

    Exposing the hypocrisy of the double standard is reasonable – particularly at a distance (i.e. from a “backwater” blog Vs. kicking someone when they’re down with placards, et al.)

    I’m with Damon – if such a petty god existed he wouldn’t deserve worship, but rather pity.

  8. Megan Ratts says:

    I do not believe that being straightforward is the same thing as being disrespectful. The use of tact does not diminish your point.

    I find getting out and doing something infinitely more helpful than wondering what it all means. Instead of Facebook memes saying “pray for Tupelo” I would much rather see “what needs to be done right now and in the future, and how can I help?” because prayers aren’t getting storm shelters built or restoring power to the city. Clearly, prayers didn’t save everyone’s home – demographically speaking, I’m betting most people with damaged homes were praying.

    I believe that, specifically in cases of tragedy like natural disaster, religion is a problem because it takes control out of the hands of people and places it with god. That means that people do not take the initiative to prepare – it’s in god’s hands. Much like attributing things to luck or karma, an external locus of control simply gives people an excuse to not take responsibility for making preparations since whatever will be will be.

    Do you “get” straight As or do you “earn” straight As? Do you pray for safety or do you ensure your own safety? Do you thank the almighty that it wasn’t worse, or do you go out and make it better?

    • Just Sayin says:

      I love your last paragraph! My very religious wife is fond of quoting ‘pray as if everything depends on god; act as if everything depends on you.’ I don’t have the heart to tell her that her answered prayers are really just a good work ethic.

  9. Sam Daniels says:

    If it is any consolation, I get the same criticism (“Insensitive!” “Judgmental!” “Mr. Perfect!”) when I comment on our local news website about traffic deaths due to drunk driving, texting while driving, speeding, etc. I comment because I continue to see distracted driving every day despite the Darwinian thinning of the herd. I and my loved ones must share the same roads, so it is a real (as opposed to imagined) threat.

    The default anonymity of the Internet allows for people to flame others for pointing out the obvious. I imagine people feel ashamed by their own behavior, while simultaneously thinking “It can never happen to me”. Many arrested adolescents out there — at the keyboard and behind the wheel.

  10. el_slapper says:

    Sometimes, lessons are learned through painful events. Sometimes not.

    It’s rather brutal to make such a post when people are still mourning. Yet, if it helps just a few people to move their ass & work towards damage prevention(like building houses more adapted to storms, or reducing CO2 emissions, or whatever usefum), then timing was accurate.

    Life is full of lessons. Some are very nice to learn(The day I began learning blender, I discovered I was able to create cool graphics. How sweet!), some are very painful to learn(2 minutes of anger 6 years ago have closed many professional doors to me forever).

    But brutality can be a very efficient teacher. When, twice in 4 days, I’ve been told “you’re the man for the job, but we won’t take you because we’ve been told you were able of anger”, it was really slicing my guts into sheesh-kebab. Yet I finally learned the lesson : anger at work is never an option(and probably at home neither). The same lesson came to me on sweeter ways before – but I didn’t pay attention. I had to be slapped hard in what I had the highest confidence in (i.e. my capacity to convince anyone I’m the man for the job) to get the lesson.

    Sometimes it works like that, sometimes not. Yet, I see no problem with teaching during tough times. It can be very pedagogic. Those who will not get your message will react stronger, because of the extreme emotions they are going through. Others will be more perceptive to it specifically because of the same emotions. That’s the price to pay, I guess : more convincing, more hurtful to the non-convinced.

    (apologies for the bad English, I’m french).

  11. bananafaced says:

    Religion gets a free pass in every disaster. Remember Wolf Blitzer asked an atheist if she “thanked God” that she survived a tornado in OK assuming that she was Christian. Blitzer said: “You’re blessed. Brian your husband is blessed. Anders is blessed… I guess you got to thank the lord, right? … Do you thank the lord for that split-second decision?” Rebecca told Blitzer that she was an atheist but then added: “I don’t blame anybody for thanking the lord.” AWKWARD!

  12. Reg says:

    I think one of the benefits of your post that you could have brought out more directly is how it can free those believers who suffered tragedy from self-condemnation. If your church believes that god can protect you in the storm, and he doesn’t protect you, then rationalizations have to be created to explain that, and they tend to be about some “lack” in you.

    Whether “sin in your life”, “not enough prayer” or “not enough faith”, the rationalizations make you the source of the failure, not god. The repercussions can include negative words and attitudes from others in the congregations, to avoidance and shunning, to self-criticism and anxiety because you didn’t measure up.

    By showing them that the game is rigged from the start to preserve god’s image, not their well-being, as well as the other non-judgemental interpretations for the events, you might just save some church folks from a load of guilt and condemnation on top of the crisis they’ve just experienced.

    • alanlarue says:

      This is so very important! How many people wonder, when they pray and pray and their problems, emotional, physical, whatever, are not relieved at all, why God isn’t helping them? And how often do they conclude, or at least wonder whether, it’s because they aren’t good enough? They aren’t doing enough for God? They don’t have enough faith? Yet they demonstrate through their begging, their continual turning to God that they have more faith than most others. They are tormented not only because of their problem, but because they imagine some sin or failing in their lives that could result in an eternity in Hell, completely out of their control because they don’t know what else they could be doing.

      When else should a post like this be written!? When else would anyone read it and take it to heart? How else to counter the preachers insisting that the absence of God somehow proves his presence? How else to make people realize what a horrible and self-centered thing they’re doing in praising God for their own safety when so many others died?

    • Reg says:

      Sorry to come back for seconds, but I just read this on Friendly Atheist and it seems so pertinent to the discussion. Here’s an example of a Christian using tragedy to push their agenda, while being totally insensitive to the plight of the people affected. To me it’s night and day in comparison with your nuanced and measured discussion of the issue.

      This is exploitation pure and simple-obviously god didn’t do anything to improve his manners.

  13. Courtney says:

    I don’t think it was wrong of you to write about the storm. Death and destruction are sensitive topics, and I think a lot of people would probably prefer not to talk about them at all. As you pointed out, however, the religious are capitalizing on it for one reason or another – thanking God for saving them, pointing out how this is his wrathful punishment for sin, etc. – so it’s a double standard to say that you’re being insensitive by also commenting on it. In my experience, when Christians say they want “respect” or “tolerance,” what they actually mean is “unquestioning acceptance of my ideas.” I suppose that’s bound to happen when you believe you have Ultimate Truth(c).

    I’ve also frequently heard the argument that it’s bad to “take away” religion because it brings comfort to people, but I’m not sure how true that is. I was still a devout Christian when my grandmother passed away (she was also a devout Christian), but thinking she was in heaven brought me no comfort at all. In fact, the Biblical representation of heaven doesn’t suggest to me that we’d see our loved ones again even if we did all end up there. I was taught that we’d spend eternity worshiping God, in which case we wouldn’t be hanging out with family and friends anyway. I’ve yet to attend a funeral (and I’ve been to quite a few) where people are less sad about their loss because of their religious beliefs.

    On the contrary, I’ve found that being religious in the face of tragedy can actually be quite damaging. When my grandfather on the other side of the family passed away when I was a child, I spent a lot of time worrying about his soul because he was Catholic, which I was taught was the “wrong kind” of Christian. The sadness of my loss was compounded by the idea that my beloved grandfather, who was a good man, might be spending eternity in hell. Sure, Christians would like to think that everyone they love gets to go to heaven, but that’s not what their religion teaches. How terrible and destructive is it to add a concern about eternal hellfire on top of what is already a very sad occasion?

    • spitz says:

      “I’ve also frequently heard the argument that it’s bad to “take away” religion because it brings comfort to people, but I’m not sure how true that is. ”

      It’s false. If having their religious beliefs challenged means they can’t be comforted,then the beliefs don’t lead to comfort, they lead to fragility. The individuals are left unable to handle an irreligious world and it’s up to others to protect them where the religious beliefs fail. ie: since the religion doesn’t prepare them for the reality of a tragedy, others have to step in to protect them from hearing about it.

      Of course, we don’t live in bubbles where we’re perfectly shielded from anything that challenges our beliefs, and there’s certainly nothing to prevent us from creating those challenges ourselves, so while the pitch of “comfort” is frequently made, the reality is closer to people lashing out in frustration whenever presented with the ideas they never learned how handle. And when they do create those ideas themselves, their religious beliefs and religious peers offer nothing to help them. What happens when the tornado victim wonders about their own religious beliefs? They’ll have to wrestle with ideas that range from anything to being tormented for turning from a god to no longer having a purpose in life, ability to be happy, or reasons to be moral. Turning to religious peers will only re-emphasize those points, at which point “you need this religion to be comforted” loses its positive connotation and shows itself as the threat that it is. Fundamental aspects of people’s being are presented as held hostage by a religion so that there are no options besides hopelessness or turning back to it. The people who can pull themselves out of that system frequently have to do it on their own.

      And after they have, it’s remarkably silly to re-emphasize those dependencies when trying to preach the good of religion to them.

  14. Tim Wolf says:

    I didn’t find your original article to be insensitive in the slightest. You were simply using current events to point out the completely illogical statements about what god did or didn’t do during a natural disaster. If you had said that somebody suffered or even died due to some perceived “sin”, then THAT would be insensitive. I’m sure that type of argument will be ringing from pulpit all over the country on Sunday morning.
    Secondly, what part of “godless in dixie” did the reader not understand? What was she expecting to find on this blog? It’s like you put in new carpet in your bedroom and your neighbor knocks on your front door to complain about the color of the carpet. “Sorry chief, I didn’t put this carpet in for you.” I spend a lot of time over at I am flabbergasted by how many christians post there about how offended they are about what EX-christians are saying.
    I think your story of the four people on the cul-de-sac does an excellent job of pointing out how ridiculous the god arguments are in these situations. And to borrow an idea from Evid3nc3, one can replace “god” in those arguments with the term “jug of milk” and notice that it doesn’t change the argument or the outcome one bit.

  15. Tony says:

    I think it is the height of hypocrysy for religious people to criticize us for “using a tragedy” when that’s pretty much what religion does all the time. Especially when you consider how much of the money they raise under the pretense of helping disaster victims goes for proselytizing. My question is: with the money and manpower religious organizations can muster, why haven’t they built more community storm shelters? Why haven’t they funded newer and better early warning systems? Why aren’t they putting money and manpower into tornado research so that we can better predict when they will occur? I have asked the same thing about poverty when confronted with why “atheists dont do more charity work for the poor.” Why havent religiois organizations eradicated poverty? A cynical person might think that maybe its because tornadoes and natural disasters and poverty and such all serve a purpose to religion. Maybe religion needs that stuff to happen. Which maybe ought to tell you something about religion.

  16. Any anti-theist opinion that is expressed with some wit and humor (as you do) is going to strike a nerve with someone, somewhere. I do not believe you were directing your comments at those affected by the Tornado in AK. In the last couple of weeks there have been a lot of tornados all over this country. Why? Because it’s TORNADO SEASON. If you had written it at a different time of year people would whine about you being insensitive to the recent Hurricane victims, months later you would be offending those affected by severe flash flooding due to heavy rains or maybe you will be called insensitive for not taking into consideration the feelings of those living without power for 2 weeks in sub zero temps due to a severe Ice storm, then a couple of months after that you need to be mindful of the victims in that flooding disaster in yet another state.

    Do the people writing you watch the news? I realize that when a tragedy happens to you it is very personal and becomes your entire world for a bit. It is difficult at times to step outside of yourself and realize that areas of the country and world are brimming with other human beings who were NOT personally affected by YOUR tragedy and thus are continuing with their normal daily routines. They are not disrespecting you when they get stupid drunk at a bar at the same time you are struggling through a funeral service for a dear friend or family member. They simply do not have you on their radar, just as I don’t have billions of people on my radar either.

    Next time they are at a party or celebratory gathering, as they are singing or cheering or laughing, maybe someone should point out to them that somewhere in the world at that very moment some woman is being raped, and someone else is being brutally murdered. Furthermore, since they started cheering their cause several children have been sexually abused, and right at this moment two cars somewhere in the world are colliding and there will be fatalities.

    Ask them if they think that going to their cheerful gathering and laughing and carrying on as if they have not a care in the world is appropriate considering all the tragedy occurring all over this planet at that very moment. Maybe then it will sound as silly as it really is.

  17. spitz says:

    The vast majority of people spend the vast majority of their time not responding to or experiencing tragedies. If the topic of religion could be adequately addressed at those times, they would be. But you will not find a rush of religious people ready to seriously look into the topic of religion and only take short breaks from doing so when life has put far more on their plate to deal with.

    Take a simple criticism like that of prayer:

    If you bring it up when people are praying after a tragedy, you’ll be written off as insensitive by many.

    If you bring it up when people are simply praying to avoid something tragic occurring, you’ll get a similar response

    If you bring it up when people just make a simple prayer, you’re an asshole for criticizing someone who is simply praying and not hurting anyone.

    If you bring it up when something actually happens because people tried to depend on the power of prayer, you’ll be written off for trying to exploit a tragedy once again, and be reminded that not all prayer ends in harm.

    If you simply bring it up on your own, people will complain about why you’re bringing it up at all, as religion is not something to be brought up in polite company

    If you even tell people you’re an atheist at times that’s seen as going too far.

    So we’re frequently in a peculiar situation where you’re expected to avoid challenging religion in every circumstance from idle chit chat to directly responding to religious beliefs directly contributing to someone’s death. They don’t want it brought up over anything trivial; they don’t want it brought up over anything serious; they don’t want it brought up at all. The idea that the topic is just being avoided during special circumstances is pure fiction. It’s just easier for some people to make the complaint during a tragedy or trivial issue then at other times, but it is always being made.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s