Religious believers can be weird. Very, very weird. I know it’s not considered polite to say that – and that’s why I tend to avoid them rather than engage them in dialogue. Precisely because there is so much that it is not considered polite to say about religious believers, that yet becomes so glaringly obvious when one does try to engage them in dialogue. It’s kind of a You can’t win situation. You simply can’t say certain things, and yet the things you can’t say are at the center of the whole discussion – so the discussion is lamed and hobbled and disabled before it ever starts. It’s a stalemate. So the familiar and much-repeated idea that discussion on this subject is possible and desirable (and even useful and productive) seems to me to be absurd. And every time the subject comes up, fresh confirmation is offered. Religious believers like to say ‘You can say anything you like! Of course you can! Do you think we’ve never heard anyone say “There is no God” before? How naive! Go on, say whatever you like!’ So you do (if you’re very stupid and credulous, at least) – and you are immediately greeted with yells of rage, with blatant misinterpretations of what you say, and with aspersions on your capacity for moral reflection. Oh. So when you say ‘You can say anything you like!’ you mean I can say anything I like provided I don’t mind having what I say translated into something else and being called immoral. Oh, okay, that sounds good.
I suppose ‘You can say’ in that context means ‘You are physically able to say’ as opposed to ‘You can without risk of having to deal with frothing intemperate dishonest reactions say.’ Okay. But that’s not what I mean by ‘You can say.’ However, I have learned through years of irritating experience that that is often what other people mean by it, so I don’t always take it at face value. Thus I choose to avoid discussions of religion with religious believers – when I can. It’s not always possible, because sometimes they pursue me back to my secular lair, and insist on having their productive dialogue anyway. This can be a trifle dispiriting. One wants to ask them to go away, but one doesn’t like to be quite that rude – so one sighs heavily and attempts to answer – and is immediately greeted with yells of rage and blatant misinterpretations of what one says. One really can’t win. One can make firm resolutions not to get drawn into such discussions to begin with, of course, but that doesn’t always work either – because one doesn’t always know in advance that they are going to happen. It’s not as if every time an invitation arrives in the mail, there is a notice at the bottom – ‘Warning: There will be one or more religious believers present who will insist on talking about God and prayer and higher authority, whether you like it or not.’ If invitations were always so equipped, one would know what to do, but they’re not.
It’s unfortunate that they’re not, though, because one result is that once such a discussion does start, and the skeptics remember an urgent appointment elsewhere and try to sidle away – what do you suppose happens? They are accused of censorship, that’s what. They are accused of not knowing how to tolerate freedom of speech and thought, of wanting to ban religion. That’s quite a leap – a leap of faith, one might say. A similar leap, and one even more popular with religious believers, is to equate non-adherence to their belief in a deity with absolute, unequivocal, irrevocable, undiluted, without doubt certitude, and then to marvel at such a degree of certitude. One religious believer I’ve encountered here and there accused me of exactly that just today. But of course that’s stark nonsense – I don’t have that kind of certitude about anything – I don’t even have one of those adjective’s worth of certitude. It doesn’t require certitude simply to decline to believe in something. And, of course, believers often display a fair amount of certitude themselves, which is exactly what makes discussions with them so unproductive – the secularists and atheists tend to hedge their assertions while the believers say what they know. As with this remark, which came from the very same believer who attributed all that certitude to me – ‘It’s about understanding that divine authority stands in judgment on all human agency.’
So. That’s what I said – religious believers can be very weird.