Debating other atheists

Guest Blog by Marc Alan Di Martino.

I’m a dual American-Italian citizen living in Perugia, Italy. On my blog I write occasionally about things I love – bagels, my current reading, life in Italy – and far more often about things I find annoying: religion and superstition predominate. In Italy, church and state are porous. Many people – many Italians, too! – don’t even realize that it’s home to citizens of all religions and none, sexual preferences and philosophical persuasions. They just assume: Italy = Catholic. I’d like that equation to change. I’m an atheist of the materialist-rationalist variety. I’m also a poet and translator. You can follow me on Twitter. It’s an honor to guest-blog at Monica’s place.


This may surprise some of you, but I’ve probably debated more with other atheists than with believers. It usually becomes clear rather quickly that the main gripe leveled at me is that I’m basically wasting my time – and theirs – with this militant atheism business.

My debate partners normally fall into three categories:

♦ Type I debater begins amicably, “Listen, I’m an atheist, too. I agree with you about most things.” Then a swift condescension: “But I don’t go around waving flags and proselytizing to others. You’re acting just like they do.” Yes, proselytizing. That’s the word they use. If you point out that, no, you’re doing nothing of the sort, then you might hear an annoyed, “Yes you are. But you’re preaching to the converted. You’d do better writing poetry (I also write poetry). Nothing will change because of that red “A” in the corner of your blog.”

♦ Type II debater is the de facto atheist who clings to the word “God” as if it were a life raft. This person has no definable religious adherence, doesn’t believe in holy books and is quite embarrassed by the idea of a white-bearded autocrat in the sky. He or she accepts science as the best explanation of phenomena and has little or no patience for the supernatural (e.g. UFOs, ghosts, etc…) – except where “God” makes an appearance in the ultra-rarified guise of the voice-in-the-head. But when you ask for clarification, don’t hold your breath. You might receive an answer like, “God is what makes us who we are.” Or a sleight-of-hand like, “Do you believe in love?” The difficulty in debating this person is that, no matter what points you feel you score, they just smile politely and take credit for the hit. They’ll even quote Einstein at you. Ugh.

(Don’t call Type II an atheist. Oh, no. Type II is a true believer. But if you hint that his or her belief doesn’t remotely correspond to that of 99% of religious believers, you’ll see a wounded look. “Why are you confusing my super-sophisticated conception of the divine quintessence with that bearded fellow on the Christmas cards?” it seems to say. Why, indeed?)

♦ Type III debater tends toward the postmodern. Type III will throw everything at you, confound you with a Žižekian cornucopia of pop culture and deep philosophical concerns, then abruptly proclaim the impossibility of all knowledge. You’ll wonder what that debate was about for days.

It’s really a matter of method, in the end. Many non-believers (yes, Type II, you are a non-believer) feel they’re supposed to suck it up, stick it out and patiently wait for the paradigm shift as if it were the messiah. They don’t like being lumped in with those of us who engage the world directly as atheists. For them, being an atheist is nothing more than having dark hair or wearing glasses.

“You can’t force people to stop believing in God,” they’ll observe. But who’s forcing anyone to do anything? Is arguing a philosophical point all of a sudden holding a pistol to granny’s temple and hollering, “Admit it you old bag, there is no God!”? That’s misrepresenting what’s really going on, which is that many atheists want in on the action. We’re tired of sitting on the sidelines watching the game.

But no matter how much atheists may squabble over the rules of engagement, we’ll still be more consistent than religious believers who can’t agree on anything – except that we are the common enemy.


7 thoughts on “Debating other atheists

  1. “It’s really a matter of method, in the end. Many non-believers (yes, Type II, you are a non-believer) feel they’re supposed to suck it up, stick it out and patiently wait for the paradigm shift as if it were the messiah.”

    For the record, this barely resembles my point of view.  I believe that it is completely worthwhile for people to talk about their points of disagreement.  (Why else would I talk to you about this?)  I do not, however, walk into a room and declare a series of central tenants that shape who I am.  (I use this metaphor because this is how I see much of your online behavior.)   I would rather that my conduct illustrate for people who I am and what I believe.  When asked, I am prepared to tell people about the things that I believe.  And if I see someone engaging in behavior that is detrimental to our mutual interest to live and let live, I’m prepared to discuss it with them.  But I do not need to rehearse these exchanges throughout my day.  I think most of us are ready to stand up for what we believe when necessary.  But randomly throwing out justifications for your beliefs seems like you’re either deeply insecure or spoiling for a fight, perhaps both at the same time.   For instance, I care about progressive politics, but I’d rather not put forth an endless series of justifications along the lines of “why I am a liberal,” or furthermore “what conservatives fail to understand about liberals,” alongside salvos that attack not only conservatives but the very basic human impulses that would compel someone to identify as a conservative.  It’s as if you’re addicted to the moment of conflict, and consequently keep rehearsing it, publicly, over and over.

    And is the paradigm shift we’re waiting on the same?  I’d like for people to hold fewer negative religious beliefs, and for those who preach religion to no longer espouse those negative beliefs.  I also value a secular society that separates church and state.  You, on the other hand, think that religion is inherently malevolent.   If I’m wrong about this, correct me.  (But if I’m wrong, you’ll have a lot of explaining to do in order to reconcile what I see you say routinely about religion and spirituality in general.)  I think we also have fundamentally different views on how people process religious teachings; I do not view religion as the root cause of the prejudices and tribalism that it often serves to support.  These are major differences of opinion, and they’re why I don’t find statements that take the shape of “no one flies a plane into a building after reading David Hume” trenchant.

    “They don’t like being lumped in with those of us who engage the world directly as atheists. For them, being an atheist is nothing more than having dark hair or wearing glasses.”

    I think it’s pretty easy for me to distinguish where my views overlap with and differ from movement atheism, so I don’t see this as a serious concern.  Also, please shoot me if I ever post things on Twitter like “People think wearing glasses is about putting on airs, but it’s really about having clearer vision in all things.  #glasseswearers.”  This comparison you make does get at another key difference between ‘normal’ atheists and movement atheists.  Atheism is the absence of religious faith, but movement atheism in particular is defined by opposition to faith.  I am not defining myself in the shadow of others beliefs that I don’t share.  

    . . . many atheists want in on the action.  We’re tired of sitting on the sidelines watching the game.” 

    This is as clear an articulation of the identity politics aspirations of movement atheism as I’ve seen from you.  The game you want in on is an ongoing one between religious fundamentalists of various stripes, and your opposite numbers among the faithful are those who are intolerant of other faiths and the absence of faith.  Wanting a seat at that table strikes me as like wanting in on the Eazy-E/Dr. Dre feud.  It is to actively wish for participation in a circus act that isn’t even amusing from the sidelines.

  2. Apologies, this has nothing to do with the matter actually at hand, but I couldn’t resist mentioning the delicious mental image that came to mind when I read: “…a series of central tenants that shape who I am.” Some kind of group sculpture exercise by a queue made up of the most influential payers of rent…

  3. Joe, thanks for your well-argued and provocative comment. On many points I can’t help but agree with you. One thing I’d like to clarify is the matter of “atheist identity politics.” While I’m sure these are inevitable to some extent, I don’t feel that “movement atheists” as you call them are really out to secure a foothold in a wider society which discriminates against them in a way similar to, say, a religious or ethnic minority. As I see it, we are defending many of the same progressive principles you indicated above: separation of church and state being of paramount importance, but also the basic principles of human rights that make up most liberal agendas. These apply to the whole of society, not just “our gang”. I’m sure you will find exceptions (Harris on torture, Hitchens on Iraq) but I think we’re almost entirely on the same side.

    Which brings me to a second point: atheism is not a goal. To paraphrase Sam Harris, the word shouldn’t even need to exist. Atheism is part of a larger skeptical worldview which eschews superstition, magic and the supernatural. Religion is simply the most widespread, influential – and powerful – form of bad thinking we know of. That’s why atheism is such a prominent stance. Look at a country like Denmark, which is very secular, and you won’t see this kind of thing. There’s little need for it.

    Many people are stuck in situations they think they can’t get out of. Often, this is the case in communities with strong religious commitments. Religion works that way even in the presence of moderate belief. So the other main aim of atheism is to make it socially acceptable to “come out”; don’t cringe, because that’s apt. Just ask anyone who came out as an unbeliever in, say, a Hasidic family, or any number of insular sects that wall themselves off from the world. The internet gets the message out at light speed: Hey, over here! You’re normal! I’ve spoken to people who’ve come from those places who think we are just wonderful, even if they’re just sitting on the sidelines with their nachos.

  4. It isn’t a matter of walking into a room and announcing a series of central tenets. It’s a matter of talking about a range of things, and a secular and/or atheist view becoming apparent, or responding to someone else’s announcement of a (theist or “spiritual”) central tenet.

  5. Just to clarify that I’m speaking for myself and what I believe “movement” atheism is trying to do, inasmuch as it is trying to do anything. Clearly, we’re much less organized as a group than those with religious motives. I think most of us just like to feel like there are others out there we can be honest with about our views. I think it’s that simple, really.

  6. Pingback: Debating other atheists | Marc Alan Di Martino

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