When Should Atheists Keep Their Mouths Shut? (And When Not?)

“God is the immemorial refuge of the incompetent, the helpless, the miserable.  They find not only sanctuary in His arms, but also a kind of superiority, soothing to their macerated egos: He will set them above their betters.”

H.L. Mencken


“I find it necessary to wash my hands after I have come   into contact with religious people.”

Friedrich Nietzsche


Recent A/N threads have generated much thoughtful comment on what to say when some retarded believer says that Jesus loves you.  It’s a provocative remark, designed to trump anything the atheist says because it assumes that the believer’s religious psychosis must prevail.

But there’s much more.  We unbelievers get offensive religious talk thrown at us all the time. 

Jews are rarely subjected to – and rarely have to deal with -- worshipful talk about Allah or Shiva. That’s because they mostly hang with other Jews, sometimes cloistering themselves completely, as in certain communities in Brooklyn, New Jersey, and elsewhere.

Tectonics of religion

I like to compare religions to tectonic places.  When they meet, there is friction, fire, death.  Mostly they stay apart if they can help it.

But atheists stand between the plates.  Or perhaps at the edge of one, as with Humanistic Jews and Unitarians.  In any event, we mix with all kinds of folks – family, friends, business associates – who espouse different levels of religiosity.  We will inevitably bump up against people who engage in a little – or a lot of – God-talk.

How to respond?

How do I respond when Mom thanks God for every positive event and piece of luck?  She’s going to say it, she can’t help it, she really does believe that someone’s looking out for her (her words) – and she knows damn well what I think of God. 

Should we thank him for my father’s dying at a mere 69, missing two whole generations of his progeny (and two of my marriages)?  I’m weary of that discussion.  I usually just let it pass, though sometimes I still call her on it. 

You never know.

"Thank God" is just the beginning. You never know when you’re going to be hit with a piece of religious BS.  On the way to a jam session in VT, my fellow-musician friend drove a young neighbor couple to Brattleboro, which was where we were going. 

For way too long I had to listen to the travails of the gluten-free life  -- the arduous chore of baking pizza crust from millet seed, oh, pity us, our special diet/religion and the attendant inconvenience, which must be of intense fascination to EVERYONE.

No, they’re not.  The diet may be medically necessary (but what are the odds that two gluten-intolerant people would marry?).  But nobody gives a shit.  At least I don’t.  My niece and nephew are vegans, which is respected when they go to their father’s house.  Well, there always is a vegetarian dish anyway. Last time, we had swordfish, noodles, and corn. 

By what deranged belief system do you pass up something as delicious and healthy as grilled swordfish (or, in the case of Jews, shrimp and lobster)?  Because you’re special, and your specialness must be on display at all times, even to the extent of bringing your own kosher food to someone else’s house (in this case, mine; had I found out earlier, these religious idiots would have been invited to leave my non-kosher house and eat their special food on the patio, where the temperature was six degrees).

I felt powerfully compelled to turn around and calmly tell the we’re-so-special people that my body may be rife with gluten, whatever the problem with it is, but I’ve made it this far following nutritional common sense, eating chicken and fish, nuts, tomato sauce, salmon, green tea, and a bunch of other boring but effective stuff.  And not boring other people with it!

Philosophical refutation

And as far as the rationale for vegetarianism, Carlos Mencia points out that sanctimonious vegans are reducing the amount of plant life, which means less oxygen and more CO2, a greenhouse gas…and hey, don’t plants have feelings too?  Who’s to say the thresher doesn’t create a field of pain and agony?

Anyway, back to the young neo-hippie couple.  After an innocuous remark about a child, the wife said, “Well they’re young.  They just came from the spirit world.”  Again, I kept my mouth shut.  I’ll never see these people again, and so I could resist my urge to say, “No, they don’t, you fucktards.  There is no spirit world.  They came from their mothers’ wombs.  They’re immature because… they’re children!”

Yielding to God-talk

My point is that many atheists are subjected to God-talk repeatedly, even if it’s just your old Mom saying “thank God” – and often unexpectedly.

Still, I harbor, as I’m sure many readers do, an urge to talk back.  Over and over I yield, to maintain social comity.  They can’t see me roll my eyes. 

But some day I might just have had enough.  I know I have the courage to confront religious believers.  I just haven’t had the opportunity.

Opportunity to talk back

It may come.  Mom is 95, healthy but very frail. Jews insist on getting the body in the ground in 24 hours (I really prefer the casket-in-the-parlor, everybody-get-hammered type of sendoff), so all this will have to be decided in advance.  And it has been.

She has asked me to attend her funeral, at her (formerly our) synagogue in my home town.  I agreed to attend, but not to stand, pray, or wear a skullcap.

Scenarios of disobedience

I doubt that this will be acceptable to the congregants.  One way it could play out is that I’m asked to leave the sanctuary.  Or somehow I give in, but when I get up there to say something, it will be about the special evil and intolerance of religion. 

I will say that honoring her expressed wish -- and the bargain we struck – is the proper way to bury her.  Fuck your stupid rules, holy books, humiliating prayers, and costumes.  Your god is barbaric and nonexistent.  Revering the “wisdom” of some stupid pre-scientific barbarians is just nuts.  There’s nothing in your holy scroll that is of interest or benefit to me – or you.

I imagine myself saying such things, in public, from the pulpit.



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Comment by Alan Perlman on August 27, 2012 at 5:02pm

To Gary: I read the piece.  Kurtz has long been one of my heroes.  Rabbi Sherwin Wine also contended that humanism had to stand for something positive. 

I especially like Kurtz' idea that humanism must embrace the whole human spirit. Indeed, one of the first such acts comes from shedding religion's chains: it is a great liberation not to worry about God's plan, what he meant in this or that Biblical passage, whether he'll answer my prayers...to know that life can be well lived without any of that stuff.  It's a freedom I revel in, especially when I watch believers praying or doing other religious schtick.

Comment by Alan Perlman on August 27, 2012 at 4:45pm

Pat...My wife is a victim of religious ostracism - the only one of four sisters who wouldn't toe the Orthodox Jewish line; a hard-core atheist like me.  She was systematically excluded from family events, even though earlier, she had gone with the Jewish thing for years.  Her father showered the other three with houses, handouts, and more.


To Gary: It IS an issue of integrity and moral courage.  Unlike so many of those who will be there, I can't fake it.

Comment by Pat on August 27, 2012 at 12:25pm

This is residual anger, shared by every A/N member, that religious BS goes on and on, forever trying to exclude unbelievers, trying to take over governments and societies (often successfully), wasting lives in the pursuit of fantasy (or, at worst, terrorism), wreaking its havoc on the planet...

Alan, you're correct. And, it's even more maddeningly frustrating when it directly affects the lives of those we care about the most.

Comment by Gary Berg-Cross on August 27, 2012 at 11:25am

I like Pat's advice on how to communicate your feelings about the rituals and its implications for the believers.

"Had I done so, as a non-believer, I would have mocking the very thing I was engaged in doing, at a time when it was inappropriate. And, had I done so, I would have committed an act of cowardice to my own conscience."

Holding up some secular and humanist ideals to others is a way of showing others the possibilities of life without religion as the arbiter of morals and behavior.

Comment by Alan Perlman on August 27, 2012 at 11:18am

To Pat and Lillie,

I said only that I would imagine making anti-religious pronouncements at my mother's funeral...reason, as you say so well in your opening two sentences, draws me back from the brink of actually doing it.  But I can't not go.  Your behavior at your aunt's funeral seems like a compromise that a principled atheist can live with.

My anger is not that of one who's recovering from religion - it's not as if I recently tried to extricate myself from orthodoxy.  This is residual anger, shared by every A/N member, that religious BS goes on and on, forever trying to exclude unbelievers, trying to take over governmets and societies (often successfully), wasting lives in the pursuit of fantasy (or, at worst, terrorism), wreaking its havoc on the planet, as Rich Goscicki has explained so compellingly in "10 Reasons Not To Believe." 

Thanks to Gary - I'll check out the link.  I'm sure there is a middle road by which I can (sort of) do what's expected and keep my dignity. 

Comment by Pat on August 27, 2012 at 9:27am

I'm not so sure I would do my inaugural address as an atheist from a pulpit to a group of congregants. Kind of reminds me of what you yourself said here. Seems to me to be the same as bringing kosher food to your dinner party. While I realize it's your mother, it is her sendoff, at her chosen locale. At that point, there's really nothing you can, or in my estimation, should do about it. While it's your mother, it's her wish. As to the yarmulke, I would skip wearing it. I certainly wouldn't do anything to lead anyone on that you approve or otherwise acquiesce in their beliefs. But I wouldn't disrupt it either.

A few years ago I went the Catholic funeral of my aunt, who helped raise me after my mother died at a very young age. I was raised Catholic, but didn't go through the magic rituals at the funeral mass - didn't take communion, and as a pall bearer, was the only one in front of the entire congregation that didn't do the sign of the cross or genuflect when I passed in front of the alter. I kept my mouth shut, was respectful, and when a few people gave me "looks," I glared back at them. They then averted their gaze.

I was later asked by a family member why I didn't engage in the rituals, even though I'm an atheist. My response was that it would have been disrespectful to both the believers and myself. Had I done so, as a non-believer, I would have mocking the very thing I was engaged in doing, at a time when it was inappropriate. And, had I done so, I would have committed an act of cowardice to my own conscience.

Comment by Lillie on August 26, 2012 at 10:06pm

You may like to visit the Recovering From Religion group.  We have been dealing with anger a good bit lately.

Comment by Gary Berg-Cross on August 26, 2012 at 5:08pm

Maybe there is something in between confronting and keeping your mouth shut.  Be prepared to speak positively about gives you comfort and strength (such as humanist principles, free inquiry) and what your values/ethics are.

This is sort of the approach of a secular humanist like Paul Kurtz. See


Comment by Alan Perlman on August 26, 2012 at 11:14am

Thanks to Lillie and Phoenix.  I look forward to further comments.  I don't know when the funeral decision is coming -- could be next year or next week -- so I have to think it through.

Lillie is right - this is the place to share the frustrations that religion visits upon us. 

To Phoenix, yes, I would love to preach the joys of a god-free life to anyone who sticks God or Jesus in my face, but I don't. 

Comment by Lillie on August 26, 2012 at 10:45am

Even though you promised, I suggest you not attend.  It is definitely not worth it.  Getting your anger out on A/N is healthy.  I certainly understand and encourage you to do this.  Visit her grave later to place flowers in respect for the love you shared.



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