My closest friend in my time in the Army was a devout Christian, and he once asked me why atheists are so hostile towards those that have faith.
I theorized that some people were probably resentful at being told to be religious, and then took out their anger at religious people. I also guessed that most of those people are probably positive atheists, those who assert that there is no higher power. It was difficult to answer with any certainty, though, because none of it applied to me.
It’s not that difficult to understand how some people have faith, nor how some do not.
Being religious is something of a natural instinct. People are both curious and creative, and we create myths and religious concepts when those two attributes are mixed. “Why do the seasons change? Well, there was this girl, and a pomegranate, and this guy that lives underground…”, as one obvious example. People noticed aspects of the world and the vastness of the night sky and came up with numerous creations to explain our existence and everything about it.
In this day and age, many still have an inclination to believe in something greater. It provides a sense of hope, of perspective, of security in a world where we can’t possibly know what death brings us. Tradition is obviously a factor as well, since parents tend to raise their children with their own set of beliefs, while our inherent drive to survive leads us to form and adhere to groups of those that are similar to us. Further, we’re born as blank slates, and we only know what we’re taught; if you are kept in your house without any outside influence and told that books are called “rutabagas”, then you will leave that house some day bound to have an odd conversation whenever you first enter a library. When we’re taught that something is true, there is a tendency to accept it, since that’s the only way that the world can make any sense at all.
To make it even clearer, there’s nothing wrong with any of that, as a matter of personal belief. If it brings a sense of peace, community, inspiration, or whatever else, I say to just go with it. So, I personally don’t understand the need to lash out at people who believe something that I don’t.
On the flip side, I find hostility towards atheists to be just as odd.
Think of the entire concept as a locked safe, and nobody alive knows what’s in it. Those that have faith believe that a certain object is in it. This group thinks it’s a piggybank, that group thinks it’s a toaster, etc. The positive atheist will insist that there’s nothing in it at all, which to me seems even less logical. But the typical atheist, also known as an agnostic, simply does not accept a belief about what’s in there. We have no way of knowing, so there’s no logical reason to make a claim about it one way or another.
To expand on that, it is literally impossible to prove that a deity exists. And that includes anything that appears to be self-revelation by a deity. That may sound odd at first, but think about the nature of a higher power. It is, as suggested, higher. That means that we lack the capacity to understand it. It’s a bit like being a goldfish and theorizing about what the humans are doing based on sounds or the warped view through the glass; it doesn’t really matter if you’re the smartest goldfish in the world, you still couldn’t possibly have a clue.
So, the undeniable possibility of other life in the universe precludes us from stating as fact that a deity exists, because any possible occurrence could be the work of that other form of life. And, yes, a booming voice from the sky which says “I am God and everything in the Bible is true” would make such a belief more justifiable and understandable, but it could not logically prove it to be true. We simply can never be in a position to make that call.
Further, I’ve probably seen every “there must be a God” argument out there. “It’s like if you found a watch on a beach, you’d know that there’s a creator….” Yes, but there’s no similar contrast between the natural and the manufactured in our existence. “What happened before the Big Bang?” What happened before there was light and the word and the tree of knowledge with the forbidden fruit? “What are the odds that this planet could create and sustain life on its own?” It doesn’t matter one whit, since even if the odds are 1 in 74,000,000,000,000,000, the people on that one lucky planet would then be asking the same question. It’s sort of like a worldwide raffle where you ask “what are the odds of this random person winning” and comparing that to the existence of a winner anywhere; someone was going to win, so the odds of this person or that person winning it are irrelevant. I’m sure that there are others that I will be reminded of, but those are the ones that I’ve heard the most often.
Finally, we have the issues of morality and law, which are actually separate concepts. There doesn’t need to be any belief in a deity to be moral, and there especially doesn’t need to be any such faith in order for one to form or follow laws. American laws aren’t generally based on any religious text or tablets, or else it would be illegal to disrespect your parents, have an affair, or to get drunk on a Sunday. Instead, our laws are largely based on a sense of harm, which is usually objective in nature. Don’t kill, injure, rape, endanger, steal, or impede justice. Outside of anti-drug laws, age restrictions on certain purchases, and a handful of inappropriate “you can’t buy beer today”-type of laws, that pretty much covers the forbidden acts in our society. Why would I need to believe in a higher power to follow any objective laws, or to understand their basis?
So, the obvious converse of the question posed to me seems like a natural query as well. What’s the purpose of hostility towards people that don’t believe in a deity? Why are we somehow assumed to be immoral or amoral, when any number of religious people show a lack of morality themselves? As long as we’re not telling those of faith that they are wrong, and as long as others aren’t trying to force us into their system of belief, then what possible reason could there be for there to be any animosity on either side?