I was wrong. I used to think that ignorance of the scientific origins of the universe, life and mankind was behind the faith of the believers. And I used to recommend to my fellow atheists & Secular humanists that they should read the introductory literature on cosmology, astrophysics, evolutionary biology, anthropology & Evolutionary psychology so that they can convince the believers of the natural causes of origins (Universe, Life & Man) & hence persuade them to stop believing in these imaginary gods.
But I have now discovered that it is not so simple.
Realize what it is you do when you attack religion. Contrary to what it seems, you are actually not attacking somebody’s view of how the universe, life & man came to exist. In my experience most believers like my beloved wife Prema, are not that curious about how the universe happened, whether it was produced by the Big Bang, by some Gods or by the fart of some giant cosmic turtle. As long as they are here, alive and kicking and full of hope, all is well.
Fear of Death & Oblivion
What you are actually telling them when you criticize their religion and the existence of their God is that they will not survive their own death. You are proposing another model in which they die into nothingness at the end of the story. This is totally unacceptable to them. Each time I hear scientists talk about God and the universe or the absence of God in the universe, it’s always to debate how the universe started. Never to wonder whether or not ‘little me’ will survive my own death.
A believer’s problem is not so much “no God, no universe” but “no God, no soul, no afterlife, I fade to eternal blackness, end of the party, my party”. What you attack when you attack people’s God is not a God that created a universe. You attack the God that will give them eternal life. What is at the center of religion is really the survival, forever, of the believer. No religious person would worship a God who created a universe in which humans did not have a soul that survived death.
That’s why religion is always off limits for discussion. You can argue as much as you want about astrophysics and how the universe came into being. But you simply can’t go around telling people that they don’t have a soul that survives death and that they will end into nothingness.
Need for community & social support
Also, despite their differing creeds, all religions are alike in that they give their adherents a sense of community, of belonging, and of identity: a social support structure, if you will. Atheists have nothing comparable, and this is easily interpreted as a statement that people may not need the structure of religion to survive in this world.
This is what angers and upsets believers who encounter atheists. They have devoted so much of their lives to their support structure, and their identity is so intimately bound up with it, that meeting a person who needs none of those things is naturally threatening to them, because it suggests that all their effort was unnecessary, even wasted. And from there, it is only a small step to the conclusion that atheists must think them deficient in intelligence not to have seen the better way, if there is one.
In my experience, even people who care nothing for dogma and doctrine, who disagree with their religious leadership on virtually every issue, often react with anger or incredulity to the suggestion that they leave their religion, because they have been brought up in it and participated in it for so long that it has become an indispensable part of how they see themselves.
This hypothesis explains why believers are generally not offended by the existence of other believers: even if two groups of theists differ drastically about their actual beliefs, each can see that the other group provides its members with the same kind of social structure that their own religion provides them. In its way, this is a tacit affirmation that belonging to religious groups is normal and desirable and is how human beings are meant to live, and therefore reassuring.
But the existence of atheists threatens to wreck this whole gentleman's agreement, and so it is no surprise that theists mistrust and fear us. They are offended and angered not so much by what we say or do, but by what we represent.
So it is not the lack of literacy in the above cited scientific domains that creates gullible believers but lack of self-reliance, inquisitiveness & the raw courage to face life's vicissitudes and its trials & tribulations without the help of sky daddies & mommies. All these traits become a part of our personality if we were lucky enough to have had parents who encouraged us to be curious & didn't discourage our questioning, nurtured a sense of self-esteem & self-reliance in us and didn't discourage independent thinking. But the sad reality is that most parents are too preoccupied with their own careers, health issues & interpersonal conflicts to be role-models for their kids. Hence the limited number of contrarians in our society and the proliferation of credulous believers!