Dealing with antitheist and “new atheist” rhetoric

I really enjoy studying philosophy, but am often confronted (especially online, but also in person at university) with hostile rhetoric directed at religion, Christianity/Christians, Islam, etc. What frustrates me the most about this is many of the people using this sort of rhetoric (the standard “sky daddy,” “fairy tales,” etc) is that it often seems based on ridicule and straw manning rather than actual argumentation, which on philosophy and science forms should be unwelcome in my view. I also realize that this sort of rhetoric often creates a hostile environment to students of color who disproportionately identify as religious.

I usually want to respond with judgment and ridicule of my own, but I realize I would be doing the same thing and not responding as Jesus at St Paul challenges us to. I’ve been talking with a few people about this (such as social scientist Jonathan Heidt and philosopher of science Michael Ruse, both atheists and respectful towards religion for the most part in my experience) on how to make these conversations more productive. The problem is twofold-that some new atheists think Christianity, and sometimes Christians as a whole, are unworthy of respect/discussion, and that religion is harmful and should be done away with.

Have you ever experienced this sort of ridicule or behavior, and how do you stay calm and rational? Any resources or evidence you use to counter these claims?


So what did Haidt say to you?

The greatest defence is humility in strong benevolent true orthodoxy. Fully acknowledging every evil done in the name of religion and that there is no apologetic that works. If your motive is to save the unsaved, then you’re already damned by your weak hostility, or rather hostile weakness. I never undermine the folk faith I encounter in person, on the contrary I endorse and reinforce it, here in the agora it’s a different thing.

I’d relish dealing with ‘antitheist and “new atheist” rhetoric’, but it never happens unfortunately. So what one encounters is hostile weak theism, here.

Oh, and I did try on the Dawkins site, but it is overwhelmed by whack jobs. I might go back there just to fly my kite again that nature is so weird God is hardly weirder and in fact rational by comparison.

Your question is a bit more complicated than it appears on the surface, because you mentioned a few different contexts and some without much detail. I’ll guess at some contexts where you and others may find yourselves. These have been mine, but not in the study of philosophy.

Online: If you don’t like the flavor of discussions in one or another place online, go somewhere else. Perhaps the library, where the real philosophers are waiting on the shelves for you. Every cat and dog can make an account and spew idiocy in public. Let them. But you don’t need to be a witness. If you want to discuss philosophy with some of the people you find good partners, propose creating a small, private subgroup, which includes intelligent people who disagree with you.

In Public (I’m assuming MAYBE university)
In class: The prof dictates and steers the class. That’s what people are paying her to do. University costs a fortune. No one wants to be paying, while a fellow student undermines the purpose and content of the class. If you have concerns about the culture of the class being disrespectful, explain your concerns to the prof during her office hours and then listen to her wisdom. She may tell you that you need a thicker skin. I certainly did.

In Public
Around Campus/Hanging out with fellow students:
Stop steering conversations toward philosophy or religion or apologetics and get to know these people. Let them get to know you as a real, live human being. Develop respect for each other. In the end, it’s better to have them say, “Paul’s got some odd ideas about religion, but he’s been a good friend,” than “Christians are all such idiot folk-religionists, and Paul’s among the worst. He just won’t leave me alone about it.”

At work:
DO YOUR JOB WELL. It’s what you’ve been hired to do. As much as is in your power make your coworkers’ work place a good place to go. So, that at the end of the day, they’re not running out the door to get away, but maybe hanging around afterward and talking about an interesting book or the car they are looking at, or what’s wrong with the boss (who is away at a conference at the time).

Become a better listener. I’ve been working on it for about 30 yeas and am finally making a little progress. Studying anything implies taking in content and mastering a large body of material. Work at mastery, comprehension, thought-skill-buildilng.
When you float ideas out to someone who will challenge you well, do it with the understanding that you don’t get to reply for a week. During that week, study the response hard and learn what the other person’s critique means and how it can make your thinking better.

Being out in the world is precisely that. Don’t expect people who aren’t Christians or religious to even understand why they might be respectful. That’s the background. Angry defensiveness just makes you look angry and defensive.
How did Jesus handle the world? Who did he argue with and insult? It wasn’t the tax collectors and prostitutes. He ate with them.

Some of us are dealing with tangetial questions to yours over at this thread. You might find it of interest. Please feel free to read around there. The link to the book we’re reading is in the O.P. (original post).

Also, finally, a question: You mentioned students of color. Are YOU a student of color?


I’m curious, too.
Will be interesting to find out.

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I think to an extent you can’t. At least not directly, if they truly care about intellectual honesty you can challenge them on their logical fallacies but to be honest that is unlikely to work because they probably don’t and it will likely undermine the next strategy.

What you can do is try to get close to them. An initial judgment of someone’s character based on preconceptions rarely survives any extended contact. We observe that alot with racism. Slowly people have to get passed their preconceptions and actually get to know the person and that when their preconceptions fall apart. It’s a slow process but it can work. For example their is a black guy who managed to bring one of the leaders of the Ku Klux Klan out of it by going to Ku Klux Klan rallies. This can be long but it can work, the question is is it worth your time.

First, Paul, thank you for posting, It is good to hear your voice. I hope you will find this a supportive community, safe to express your thoughts in even when we bicker a bit.
I think Kendal has offered some great advice. My personal experience has not been in a culture with such vigorous opposition to religion so fear that I have less to offer, but we all find some hostility no matter what. In fact, the hostility that arises from some forms of fundamentalism disturbs me more. In any case, attacks on both sides of the spectrum are ultimately helpful in the formation of your own ideas and beliefs as you respond and defend your position.
I look forward to hearing more of your thoughts and experience.


I was trained in a secular university where such derogatory and mocking comments by athiest students and professors were common. Yeah, it’s super annoying when people “straw man” the arguments but I think that Gavin Kemp offered some good advice about picking your battles and Kendel some good advice about developing a thick skin. I may try asking a few questions about the person first, to judge their motives, before launching into my own tirade. Is the person really seeking answers and is just misinformed? Or do they have a vendetta against religion and don’t want to listen? In the latter case, Jesus said “Don’t cast your pearls before swine”…shake the dust off your feet, move on, and spend your efforts on people actually wanting to engage in civil discussion.


Absolutely. Before finding this forum I spent some time on atheist forums where I regularly witnessed enormous hostility on the part of the regulars toward believers who would stop in. Most of these were simply practicing apologists hoping to pose an argument to shake up atheist satisfaction with disbelief. The more dogmatic of these were no great loss when they’d finally move on. But rarely there’d be someone more sincere in their desire to understand other points of view and less in a hurry to push an agenda. But these would always be pushed out by the unrelenting hatred of many anti theists.

My theory is that the most hard bitten of these anti religionists are those raised in one in a manner they found intolerable, in the end leaving feeling they’d been lied to by those entrusted with his development. I have no objective support for that nor do I care to look for any.

What drove me away from those sites was the resentment and suspicion I’d draw by challenging the reasonableness of the way believers were treated and suggesting that something was off in anyone who treated others this way. Trust me I don’t miss anything about it not even the casual reinforcement of baseline agreement. They were every bit as consumed with arguing the positive nonexistent of something they couldn’t explain as believers often are to justify their belief in something ultimately unexplainable. I was always willing to concede the reasonableness of God belief so long as that didn’t include “and so should you”. I believe I understand what it is about the human condition which supports and probably contributed to the advent of God belief. What that is real, important and dynamic. I just don’t feel right about viewing what that is as emanating from a being in its own right who has created everything and offers an outstanding suite of afterlife benefits. So I’m a non Christian but I have to acknowledge that Christianity does provide a cultural basis for recognizing and promoting the subtle but very important aspect of our humanity which God belief supports. I certainly have no brilliant alternative to offer and anyway something like that would have to emerge organically. It could never succeed as someone’s super duper great idea. See for example Dianetics.


This would be an excellent insight to add over on the apologetics thread too (not that we need to move it or anything). But I think it shows that apologetics is not something exclusive to Christiainity or even necessarily to organized religion (though it may have been the Christian west that turned it into an art-form and spawned so much antithetical reaction.)

Would it be safe to say that nearly anyone, so long as they feel they’ve got something of value in their life, will be an apologist for that thing? If I’ve got something good going on in my life, I want to share it. And I suspect that’s a reflection of wider human nature regarding anything from a great book to an enjoyable movie watched, or of course, a fulfilling religious experience. Some things are more ephemeral (like a movie) and probably won’t much be remembered a decade or two hence, but other more substantial things that stick with us (and for the better) will likely be the sorts of things we most want to pass along to others. Christians just have a head start on formalizing all this and (for both better and worse) turning it into an artform with a specific name: “Apologetics”. But we are by no means the only ones who so often approach the world and others around us “agenda first”. Atheists like Dawkins would seem to be every bit the apologists that believers are (and again - both for better and worse, as you remind us, Mark).

I’m appreciating Penner’s perspective more and more over in our book thread.


I concur, BTW. Next best thing to getting “a new toy” is “show-and-tell” time: every public school kid’s introduction to “apologetics”.

“Hey! you can’t bring that dead animal to school, even if it does make you “an instant star” in front of the class.”


I think it’s somewhat common and in my experience it’s usually by someone who has been harmed, or seen harm carried out by specific forms of Christianity. In my conversations it’s always been a form associated with the alt right and the generation that likes to call everything satanic.

Horror movies, yoga, Harry Potter books, metal , rap, wearing all black, unnaturally dyed hair , sagging pants and so on are called “ appearance of evil or satanic.

It’s the same group that routinely supports anti social justice concepts. They want to ban gay marriage, they want to band women’s rights with what to do with their body, they want to reject peoples choices for what pronouns are used about them and generally say things like , “ I don’t want to bake them a cake because it’s a sin and I don’t support it”. They routinely are trying to undermine the freedoms of marginalized people.

It’s the same group that rejects science. They reject evolution, they reject geology, they reject this and that. They tend to oppose environmentalism. They tend to be the kind of people who responds to someone’s claim of being vegetarian that “ god have them to us to eat “.

So it’s a very toxic form of Christianity. So as I begin to ask questions , and provide alternative responses to them about more left winged progressive forms of Christianity the majority will calm down.

When they ask for evidence I say there is none, it’s faith, and i accept science and so on. They tend to relax. When they bring up specific terrible things like slavery, the slave Bible, the Salem witch trials, satanic panic of the 80s, I agree with them that all those things are disgusting. When they bring up “miraculous healings of cancer, or the dead coming back to life by just a touch , I agree it’s all phony.

TowRds the end of the discussions they are aware that we share far more in common than I do with those who belong to this toxic forms of Christianity.

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Haidt had good advice-he said most people tend to respond to honest intellectual argumentation and just to ignore the barbs of those hostile to religion.

I agree with many of the people here that a lot of the complaints atheists have with “religion” are things that bother me too. In fact, they’d probably be on the side of Jesus. As Andy Bannister says

“Critiquing bad religion is not something that Christopher Hitchens first dreamt up as he sat down at his word processor one evening to bang out God Is Not Great. That religions sometimes can go badly wrong is a much older point, indeed one made some 2,000 years earlier by Jesus himself. His most frequent clashes were with the religious leaders of his day,
whom he accused of using religion for personal gain, or as a tool to exploit and to marginalize. In short, if you’re going to criticize religion when it goes wrong, you’re probably closer to Jesus on that issue than you might ever have imagined.”

The issue is when this becomes a statement about religion as a whole, or “all” Christians, Muslims, etc.


Yes. “All religious people are brainwashed terrorist numbskulls” (as I have heard someone paraphrase something by Dawkins) is not a good claim. “Religion has been used to justify many bad things” is a perfectly reasonable one.


As with any group of human beings, there are going to be insensitive jerks. Atheists haven’t been treated too kindly over the years, either (not that this is an excuse).

In my experience, a little bit of humility, empathy, and respect goes a long way. As an atheist, I have great respect for people of faith and find no reason to disparage those who believe differently than me. Their faith is obviously important to them, so I respect that. I also believe that religious faith is part of the human experience for many people, and so who I am to tell them how to be human?

If you do come across an irredeemably hostile atheist I would just smile, say “Thanks for the discussion,” and move on. Time is better spent interacting with people who are capable of recognizing the humanity in other people.


Hearing rhetoric, effective and persuasive speech, from any point of view is a good thing.
But you don’t seem to be describing hearing rhetoric but merely illogically invectives.

So feel free to respond or not. A wise man once said:
Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
lest you yourself also be like him.
Answer a fool according to his folly,
lest he be wise in his own estimation.

As a person speaks from an unbalanced historical or logical perspective it may be worth adding in the balance that they ignore to safe guard their own beliefs. Some common examples I hear are below.
Religion kills a lot of people
The point of this statement is to infer a lack of religion is less deadly that one with a religion. Of course many have been killed for religion. It is good to have them name what historical event(s) they are thinking of. It is often the Inquisitions or the Crusades. But regardless of their answer it is good to know where they are coming from. And to perhaps agree with the evil if you find their example evil.
But in reality, this is a very demented view of History especially as we had 10’s of millions of people summarily executed in the recent past by the atheist regimes of Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot. And if you bring this up please don’t do so in a heartless fashion. This unimaginable horror for so many should not be so dishonoring to their lives as to state it in a cold statistical manner.
Often the retort is a no true Scotsman fallacy or even a claim that atheism is a lack of belief so it doesn’t motivate anyone to do anything. I had a person vigorously argue this and simply noted that he was protesting far too strongly to claim such. Several also try to differentiate it being atheist versus political entities. But often their claim of religion killing people is about a political entity.
So you believe [insert miracle described for the most ridicule]
This is merely an emotional appeal which logically is a mere restatement that they don’t believe in God.
Usually I restate the miracle in a less invective manner. And then acknowledge that I understand that they don’t believe in God but to try to understand for one who has (the very reasonable) notion of our universe of matter/time coming from someone from outside of it creating it all - “which miracle would be too hard for the Creator of the universe to do?”

It should be good practice for us to think on a false invectives and then discern what is true and what is being distorted. But then to determine the best curt rhetoric to reply for when we feel like replying. A longer discussion would be good and show how well we thought about the issue, but it is also very rarely going to lead to a long discussion from a person more comfortable hurling invectives.


To me that is like saying… “Life kills a lot of people.” LOL

It is true… it is thinking that proves something which is stupid.

It seems atheism has been jealous of religion’s murderous accomplishments and has tried to even the score in the last century. The death toll of atheist communism is quite impressive. Oh but atheists like to say… “that is not atheism!” Yeah and Christians like say that those examples of religion killing people is not Christian either. blah blah blah…

Here is a better one.

Religion is dangerous.

And guess what. The Bible teaches us that religion is dangerous. Yeah. It is true. Religion is dangerous. But… religion is not God. Religion is people full of self-destructive habits trying to fit God into their sinful lives.


“With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil - that takes religion.”–Steven Weinberg

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Do you find Weinberg’s statement to be true?

It’s not universally true, but there is a nugget of wisdom in it. Religions can cause people to ignore their own moral voice and exchange it for obedience to the tenets of a religion.


Somewhat. But I would expand the statement to include ideology.

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

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