While reading an excerpt of David McAfee’s Mom, Dad, I’m an Atheist: The Guide to Coming Out as a Non-believer over at Friendly Atheist (a loooong time ago), I came across this bit that reminded me of something I’ve been meaning to write about:
When you tell someone — even if it is a family member or close friend — that you don’t believe in their God, a defensive reaction isn’t surprising. Oftentimes, you’re telling them that everything they’ve ever known, everything their parents and their childhood idols ever told them, is wrong.
McAfee goes on to give realistic, insightful advice about how to deal with this sort of situation, and it’s not in any way my intention to take issue with that. But I do think the fact that a defensive reaction is so expected does itself say something interesting about this whole religion issue.
Let’s consider, as we so often do, an analogy. Everyone I’ve ever known my whole life has always told me that when I drop something, it will fall down. I have always believed that gravity is real, and while my understanding of gravity has grown slightly more refined as I’ve gotten older (to incorporate special circumstances such as one’s apparent weightlessness while in orbit or in a zero-g aircraft, which I have been taught to interpret as the subject falling at the same rate as their environment), it has always been a fundamental part of my understanding of the world around me. I honestly don’t know how I would conceive of the physical world and its phenomena without gravity existing. Now let’s suppose someone comes to me and says, “NFQ, I have to tell you something: I don’t believe in gravity. I just don’t think it’s real.” How am I likely to react?
I might laugh, or if I were able to keep it together, stifle some laughter. I would certainly be surprised. I would also be sad that this person’s scientific literacy is so poor. But would I get defensive about it? I highly doubt that. What would I even be defensive about? Someone else’s ignorance, which doesn’t impugn me in the slightest? The idea hardly makes sense. Even if someone wanted to argue with me, to try to convince me to stop “believing in gravity,” I wouldn’t be offended — mostly just amused, and eventually bored.
When I think about religious beliefs, I tend to think of them as statements of fact about how reality works. Like gravity — you do this, then this will happen; or, this is a driving force underlying the shape of the universe as we experience it. If a religious person truly believes their own doctrines in that way, I don’t think they would be defensive about them. Someone else’s disbelief would simply seem bizarre and/or sad. Yet most people do become defensive when you challenge their religious beliefs, or even just state that you don’t happen to share those beliefs. It seems to me, then, that most people don’t think of their religions as fact.
I’m going to say that again, because it’s really strange: Most people don’t think of their religions as fact.
But … if a religious person doesn’t think their own religious doctrines are true statements, what on earth does it mean to be a believer?