Fugitives from Fundamentalism

The Musings of Adult Missionary Kids (MKs) & Former Born-Again Believers

Huffington Post Author Makes Weak Attempt to Understand Atheists

Posted by Clamence/The Chaplain on January 23, 2011

I meant to post this article, “Why Do Atheists Read the Religion Section?” when it first appeared on The Huffington Post two weeks ago. The author, Shira Hirschman Weiss, offers several possible answers to the question in her title. None of her answers are very credible, and a few of them show a real lack of understanding, when it comes to the internal workings of the non-believer’s mind. Her underlying assumption–that atheists actually go to the religious section to read the articles–is a bit suspect. After all, I only read her article because it was featured on the front page of The Huffington Post and had the word “atheists” in it. I don’t want to belabor the point though, since I have read the religious section of the local paper numerous times.

My very simple answer to her question relates back to her statement that “Atheists want to be well-informed.” Exactly, but I don’t think it is for the same reason she assumes: “to keep up with all that they’re contesting.” And it most certainly isn’t her other explanation that “some self-professed atheists may actually be agnostics who are seeking answers to address internal doubts.” The real reason atheists will bother to read an essay written from a religious perspective, and have more knowledge about religion in general than even believers do, is probably due to the fact that we read more than believers. For the most part, believers just aren’t a very curious or intellectual bunch.

It wasn’t too surprising to see that the best explanations for why atheists read the religion section come from the atheists quoted in the article. An atheist who writes for The Huffington Post religion section, Alex Wilhelm, is quoted as saying, “I must admit that I read the religion section partially for a laugh,” Wilhelm wrote to me, “Why else? To keep an eye on things that I am wary of: anti-intellectualism, pseudo-science, lying to children, extremism, scriptural literalism, anti-blasphemy laws and the like. If you don’t know what you are up against, you can’t fight it as well as you could or should. I am for a free and secular society where the individual is protected from not just the majority, but from the moral laws of the religious. And so while I do read the oddest articles for a cheap chuckle, I tend to read to gird myself to protect individual liberty.” I love this explanation, but my reasons for reading articles on religion and by the religious are so much simpler! I just like to read. Period. If a headline catches my attention, I will read it, and there are no higher motives involved at all.

The thing about reading that really drew me in at a young age is the experience of living through the thoughts, feelings, and actions of someone other than myself. If you have ever tried to get a believer to place themselves in the shoes of another–just as a simple exercise to illustrate a point–I’m guessing you soon found yourself banging your head against a wall. I have heard believers insist they are capable of seeing outside of their belief system, but I don’t believe them for a second. They are never truly able to see outside of the believers’ paradigm, because to do so would feel like apostasy to them. At least, that’s what it was like for me when I was a believer. To be able to strip yourself of the idea of good and evil is what allows you to see others and their actions non judgmentally. If you can’t do that–if everything always looks like sin or goodness–you are still trapped within the labyrinth of irrationality with that minotaur named Faith. This is why the believers’ explanations for atheist-reading behavior in this article all point back to faith: atheists read religious articles because they are searching for God! No moron, that’s you. I read because I like to read and think. You read about religion (and practically nothing from a secular perspective, if you can avoid it), because you think it will provide you with more insider tips on how to grovel more effectively for your invisible deity.


3 Responses to “Huffington Post Author Makes Weak Attempt to Understand Atheists”

  1. Ann said

    “because you think it will provide you with more insider tips on how to grovel more effectively for your invisible deity.” This made me laugh, although I know it’s serious (lol). A thought: I’m wondering if they are also scared of dying and disappearing, so their belief system becomes more elaborate as they get older. Maybe the more attacked they feel, the more real it seems to them as they attempt to reason and defend their beliefs. And, of course, who doesn’t want to be right.

  2. shirschy1 said

    Hi, I was originally trying to write a semi-humorous piece and I actually have a deep respect for atheists and refer to my own “inner agnostic” in the piece. The views you expressed as mine were actually those of the many folks I interviewed. The piece is somewhat tongue-in-cheek as you see that comedians as well as atheists, clergy and theologians were interviewed. I really tried to give everyone a voice and also inject some humor into the topic. -Shira

    • Jesus said

      Shira, thanks for the clarification on what your goals were for the essay. I enjoyed reading it, and it is a topic that demands to be written about; it’s no secret that non-believers read articles in religious columns. I am aware the people you quoted are presenting their own explanations and not your own. I was not trying to attribute the “agnostics who are seeking answers to address internal doubts” explanation to you directly. However, you did choose to place this second explanation right next to your own explanation (the one that states atheists want to be well-informed about what they are contesting), and there was no transition from the one idea to the next. This gives the impression that it should be combined with your own view. My apologies if you meant for that explanation to be totally unconnected to your own opinion.

      Regardless of this, the explanations offered up by the believers are all flawed from their inception, since they look to religious and supernatural explanations for atheists reading habits. I question why you would even need to provide the opinions of believers when it comes to figuring out the behaviors of another group. Imagine reading an article that tries to guess at the internal motivations of a group of people like African Americans. Would I write an article that quotes mostly White people? Of course not. That would be preposterous and would do more to spread ignorance than understanding. Your article does raise an interesting question though, so I appreciate it for that reason. I would be interested to read an extended version that contains the results of surveys and polls (maybe even more scientific research) of actual non-believers, as opposed to random quotes by supposed “experts” with little explanatory power.

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