Ask an Atheist with Sam Mulvey

Nobody gets us… We’re the wind, baby

As atheists have increasingly become more vocal, I’ve noticed that  the faith-based community at-large has generally had two strains of opposition:

  • Outright hostility, as personified by anti-atheist books by Chris Hedges, Dinesh D’Souza, Christopher Hitchens’ brother and the countless books that sprung up to specifically counter Richard Dawkins’ the God Delusion (the Atheist Delusion and the Dawkins Delusion, to name two.) and countless articles on websites ranging from WorldNetDaily to the Huffington Post and from all ends of the ideological spectrum. These arguments are typically very defensive and  just rehash the same old apologetic arguments that theists have been trotting out for ages. They make arguments from ignorance or popularity. They appeal to emotion. They accuse atheists of being “fundamentalists” or “militant” for even having the gall to join the public debate on religion and belief.
  • Bad faith displays of wanting to “understand us.” This is typically the passive aggressive version of the above. It’s thinly-veiled attack on our morality, accusations that we live joyless lives or attempts to convert us – but trotted out as empathy and an attempt to reach out to us. Not uncommon are lists of tips for religious people on talking to atheists. Lists written by people who have either never talked to an atheist or clearly didn’t understand us very well.  Often, in trying to explain us to other believers, they only expose how little they really understand us. They slap you across the face with an olive branch and then act shocked and horrified when you say “ouch” and ask them to stop.

I actually respect the former more than the latter. At least it’s honest in its disdain of non-believers. It doesn’t try to cloak its bigotry in eccumenicalism. The writings of the passive aggressive second breed likes to write articles about “how to talk to atheists” on religious websites. They’re really little more than misrepresentations of what and why we believe (or don’t believe) and poorly thought out instructions on converting us. Too often they read like instructions on how to give an addict an intervention rather than a genuine attempt to understand atheists or open a dialogue.

The most recent offender is Jennifer Fulwiler’s The Catholic Guide to Atheists. She’s a self described ex-atheist and wants to correct the reader on what she feels is ” the average atheist’s mentality.”  Apparently this is the key to turning them, like her, to Catholicism. She addresses what she describes are the top five misconceptions about atheists. Let’s take a look at what she has to say:

1. They feel like something’s missing

“Don’t you feel like something’s missing in your life?” Christians would often ask me when I was an atheist. I really didn’t. And neither did any of the other atheists I know. I didn’t feel incomplete, and I didn’t secretly yearn for a sense of spiritual fulfillment.”

This would be great if she had just stopped there. This really is a common mistake that religious people make about atheists. If she had just moved on, she’d have made a really good point. But she doesn’t…

However, looking back, I actually did have a pervasive sense of incompleteness, but I simply didn’t know how to recognize it. I do believe that each of us has a God-shaped hole in our hearts, that only God alone can heal.

And she goes off of the rails and demonstrates that she doesn’t understand us at all. What I find most Orwellian is that she starts by calling it a misconception and then immediately reverses herself and expounds on how it’s not a misconception at all. Guh.

No, Jennifer, we’re not empty, incomplete people because we don’t believe in your god. I know many, many atheists who grew up in religious families, left the church and now live far more meaningful and happier lives than those they left behind. One of religion’s biggest sales tactics is its often-claimed monopoly on happiness and meaning.  It’s a bald faced lie, and the greatest threat to that lie is the example of a single contented atheist who doesn’t have a spiritual wound making them sad or empty. Accepting the existence of such a happy non-believer is to admit that that religion isn’t the only path to a meaningful life and some folks like the author, can’t accept that. 

If you are serious about wanting to be our friends, or dialoguing with us or understanding us, you need to abandon this utter falsehood. We are not sick and we’re not looking for you to “heal” us. If you’re my friend, I don’t expect or demand you to respect my beliefs or absence of them, but I do expect you to respect my right to them.

Friendships between atheists and religious people can often be turbulent. Arguments are inevitable and both will say things that offend one another. A real friend can look past religious, philosophical or political differences to the things they do have in common and simply enjoy one another’s company and conversation. Friends don’t treat friends like fixer-upper opportunities or Amway customers. If my relationship with you is a Trojan horse for you to change my beliefs, then we aren’t really friends.

2. They find the Bible persuasive

When I see online debates between Christians and atheists, I’m surprised at how often Christians reference the Bible to make a point. It’s one thing to give examples of its historical accuracy or explain how well the texts have been preserved over the millennia, but keep in mind that the Bible does not carry any special weight with most atheists, so quoting John 3:16 or Romans 5:8 is not going to have much impact. It’s easy to forget if you were raised in a house with a deep reverence for Sacred Scripture, but most atheists think that large parts of the Bible simply aren’t true, and many see the entire thing as a work of fiction.

Soak that one in, because it’s the only completely true passage in this article. Deep breaths, everyone.  It gets really stupid from here…

3. They are well-versed in Catholic doctrine

The vast majority of atheists I talk to do not have accurate knowledge about Catholic doctrine—even those who were raised nominally Catholic. … I find that when misconceptions like this are cleared up, my atheist friends are pleasantly surprised at how fair and reasonable Catholic doctrine is.

Why is this even in this article? This has nothing to do with atheists. It’s a Catholic whining about how the mean old atheists don’t understand them. I won’t pretend to be a religious scholar, but I can tell you that based on the things actually said and done by the church leadership, Catholic doctrine is neither fair, nor is it reasonable.

4. They can be convinced by arguments alone

This one is tricky because I do think that making a reasonable case for faith and the truth of Catholic doctrine is critical, especially when conversing with atheists with a scientific mindset. They would never believe something that is fundamentally unreasonable, so it’s important that they understand that a person does not need to check his rational mind at the door to become Catholic—that, in fact, the Catholic worldview is the most reasonable of all…

Well, the title is correct, at least. Arguments aren’t enough to change the mind of most atheists, we need those arguments to be based on independently verifiable evidence. Have they got any? And I have a hard time believing that a cracker turns into a First Century Palestinian carpenter when you eat it. Or that punishing a raped girl’s abortion doctor and mother is more important than punishing her rapist. Or the notion that the spread of AIDS is preferable to the spread of condom use.  Or proving that they believe that the protection of the church’s reputation trumps the protection of the children in its charge. Several times. These are all claims that the Catholic Church makes.  Not only do I need to check my rational mind at the door, I would have to sacrifice my basic humanity and moral compass to accept them as well.

Again, this “misconception” isn’t even about atheists again. It’s just the author patting herself on the back  for being Catholic some more.

5. They are immune to the power of prayer

The other day a lady asked me for suggestions about how to approach her militant atheist son-in-law about faith.

“Militant?” This is a double standard we’ve discussed on the show. Is her friend’s son advocating violence in the name of atheism? Or, is he just outspoken about his opinions? If the latter is the case, the author should either be consistent and describe herself as a “militant Christian” or drop the loaded language.

When I suggested that she spend a long time doing nothing but praying for him, she rolled her eyes and said, “Okay, but I’m going to need something more than that. This guy is a tough case!”

I can relate to that. I’m an action-oriented person, and sometimes it’s hard for me to rely on the power of prayer in a concrete way. In fact, sometimes I unintentionally slip into thinking that some people I know have gone so far down a path away from God that my prayers would be pointless. But we have to be on the lookout for this line of thinking and reject it as soon as it arises, because what people without faith need more than anything—more than our arguments and facts and books—is simply our prayers.

This the third consecutive “misconception about atheists” that has nothing to do with atheists. She doesn’t even provide any evidence for the efficacy of prayer. She just asserts it. This is a meta-argument, a favorite tool of politicians and religious leaders, where instead of actually making an argument, they tell a story that careful avoids articulating the argument, while telling the audience how great and devastating the argument is.  My brain hurts from the stupid.

Let’s review this list:

“Misconception” #1: Atheists don’t feel empty inside…although they really, actually do. They just don’t know it yet.

“Misconception” #2: Atheists don’t give weight or authority to Biblical arguments. True.

“Misconception” #3: Atheists aren’t all experts on Catholic doctrine…. but if they were, they’d totally be Catholic.

“Misconception” #4: Catholicism is totally reasonable.

“Misconception” #5: The power of prayer works. Pray for atheists.

Given that this is the woman that wrote another piece entitled, “4 Tips for Using Graphic Abortion Images Effectively,” I suppose I should be impressed that they she got even one thing right in this piece. I have to say, I’m glad she’s not an atheist anymore. If she’s a Catholic for reasons as ludicrious as this, I have to imagine she was an atheist for stupid reasons as well. Maybe she was convinced by Zeitgeist or something. Either way, there’s nothing more annoying or creepy than a convert. Just look at Tom Cruise.

Darth Benedict and his posse of frocked, child-leering toadies can have her, for all I care.  Any chance they want to take the Raelians off our hands, too?

And now for something completely different!

And this norm is what makes what follows both truly amazing and wonderful. Every so often, you’ll fine a believer that actually gets us. One who sees us as human beings rather than potential marks for their Jesus timeshare presentation. A blogger, Alise Wright, has her own list of atheist misconceptions. And what’s more astounding….they’re dead on correct. See, Alise is married to an atheist and instead of instructing people on how to badger us into changing, she asks people to avoid a number of mistakes while talking to us. Let’s dive in.

1.  Please don’t assume that they’re evil. I ate dinner with over 200 atheists a few months ago and despite Hemant Mehta’s numerous posts about eating babies, I didn’t see “human infants” on a special menu. Truly, in the past 18 months, one of the most offensive things I’ve seen was this billboard put up by Answers In Genesis. The idea that because someone doesn’t believe in God means that they will become a murderer is very frustrating, particularly as the wife of one of “those people.” C.S. Lewis suggested that one of the proofs for God is our common morality. To assume that because someone lacks belief in God means that they no longer possess a sense of right and wrong strikes me as a strange way to prove God’s existence.

I could quibble about the Lewis bit, but I’ll let it slide because the rest of what she wrote is so refreshing.

2. Please don’t assume that it’s just a phase. Most atheists who have “deconverted” from a religious background have studied it and other religions thoroughly before choosing not to believe. Painting it as a “phase” denies the seriousness of both their study and their decision. I would certainly not want to have any encounter with God resulting in a closer devotion to my faith called a phase and neither should we use that terminology for those who have left the faith.

I know that I’ve given my beliefs and values a lot of thought — and I continue to do so. In fact I’ve met very few atheists for whom the journey to non-belief wasn’t long and confusing.  Trust me, the process of admitting to yourself and then other people that you don’t believe in the most common religious concept in the world is a big step and one that we don’t take lightly. I suspect this process and the stigma of admitting yourself an atheist likely plays a role in why we tend to score so highly in general knowledge on the world’s religions.

3. Please don’t say “It takes just as much faith to be an atheist as it does to be a Christian.” Most atheists will say that they are empiricists. That being the case, they are just looking for proof. It doesn’t take faith for me to not believe in Big Foot. If there was proof that he existed, I’d be open to it, but it’s come up short so far. Atheists feel the same way about Christian proofs for God. Non-faith is not the same as faith.

I’m floored that she used the Big Foot analogy here. I’ve never seen a Christian do that. I want to give her a hug.

4. Please don’t assume that they weren’t really saved before they became an atheist. No one wants to be called a liar and this kind of statement reads that way. Maybe this is more for me than for my husband, but I don’t like to think that I spent 13 years with someone who may have lied to me about such a foundational part of our relationship, particularly because I know that he was very sincere in his Christian faith. Throwing more doubt at someone’s unbelief, particularly if they were a believer before is damaging to them and to those who love them.

Again, yes! Many atheists like the Atheist Experience’s Matt Dillahunty or our own Rich Lyons were devout believers before the faith just didn’t work anymore. This argument also reeks of the No True Scotsman fallacy, where the believer is desparately trying to protect their belief that a true believer could never walk away from the faith, when they have a clear living refutation standing in front of them.

5. Please don’t assume that they’re unhappy. As Christians we often say that our joy is found in our faith. As a result, it’s easy to make the assumption that those who have no faith are unhappy. But as generalizations go, this is just not true. There are a number of things in the world that are fascinating and beautiful and most atheists I have met are fully appreciative of those things and find joy in them.

Another gold star for Ms. Wright.

The most common mistake we make with just about any group that is “the other” is that we tend to make assumptions. And the best way to avoid assumptions is to ask questions. And the best way to get to the questions is to just be a friend. Which is really what most of us want anyway. To be known.

One need not share a faith to share that.

And this is likely the source of Alise Wright’s accurate understanding of how atheists tick. She was curious enough to ask questions and intellectually honest enough to accept answers without trying to spin them against her husband. Bravo, to her!

What she accepts — and what the daft and insipid Fulwiler misses — is that any relationship is about the reciprocity of love and respect. While we don’t need to agree with a friend or loved one’s beliefs or opinions, we need to respect their right to them. And if we love someone, we love them in spite of those differences. As atheists, when interacting with our religious friends, we should treat them and their differences of belief in the way we want to be treated. Yes, we’ll challenge each other and call each other out when we say something stupid — the sign of a true friend — but we won’t do so maliciously or with the attempt to slap a stamp on the side of our imaginary biplane.

I like to argue and discuss serious issues, and these misconceptions about atheists are one of the main reasons we created this show. Our goal is not to evangelize or convert. We’re simply having our say in the evolving discussion on the questions of religion and belief that we’ve been excluded from for far too long.  In the end, it’s that discussion which will eradicate the bigotry that fuels the false beliefs people hold about non-believers. Discussions, and the refusal to remain silent in the face of liars and quacks like Jennifer Fulwiler.



About the Author: Mike Gillis

Mike Gillis is co-creator, and co-host of Ask an Atheist. He hosts the Radio vs. the Martians! and Mike and Pól Save the Universe! podcasts. He also enjoys comic books, the Planet of the Apes, and the band Queen.

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Deanna Joy Lyons

A fantastic analysis of the two posts. Great job, Mike!


When one group bashes another, or wants to explain this other group to their own ilk, they aren’t interested in understanding the other group at all, just issuing a smear campaign to their own “kind” to entrench a separateness through defamation. Otherwise they’d let the other group have the floor without interruptions or reinterpretation, or go directly to the source. My ex’s dad had a whole series of dozens of small volumes of books of different page lengths to “understand” numerous world religions, all written from a very distinctly biased angle (except, I assume, for the publication’s preferred religion, whatever… Read more »


Nice post, Mike, and THANK YOU to Alise Wright for a really thorough and honest article.


Great post, Mike! This will be a great reference for people that I am currently in a religious discussion with.

[…] When we last met Jennifer Fulwiler, the self-described “former atheist” was pointing out some “misconceptions about atheists.” Rather than debunking them, her a… […]


Fulwiler is following the tradition of the charlatans of religion and just being true to form. She may have been atheist, she may still be atheist. But what sells best to the religious market. Someone who says I am an atheist and you are all wrong. Or someone who says I was an atheist but through God and the Bible I found religion and I was wrong to have been an atheist. Oh and here is my story $22.99 that proves my journey back to faith and the truth. So good luck to her as just someone else ripping off… Read more »

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