Why not live and let live?

Hello everyone! Dave Muscato here.

This is a difficult post for me to write. I’ve spent two days on this, actually. For most of my life, I’ve been natural inclined to be non-confrontational, and I think my friends and family would characterize me as a gentle person. It is not easy for me to say these things, but I feel like the time has come for me to take a stand.

I had lunch with a friend the other day and the subject of religion came up—I know, big surprise. My friend’s girlfriend had posed to him a question about the purpose of atheism activism:

“Why not live and let live?”

Aside from being intellectually wrong, what’s so bad about believing in a god? What’s the harm? Is it just academic?

Some background: His girlfriend is “not religious, but open-minded,” and teaches their 3 kids to be accepting of all different religions. He is an atheist and passionate about critical thinking and skepticism. He is concerned because he overheard one of their children praying before going to bed.

He asked me, “What can I tell her?”

Here’s my response:

Because they’re not letting us live and let live. Because, for no rational reason, gay people can’t get married in my state. Because they’re teaching the Genesis creation myth as fact in science classes. Because they’re teaching “abstinence-only” sex ed, which is demonstrably ineffective. Because, despite Roe v. Wade recently celebrating its 40th anniversary, we’re STILL fighting for abortion and birth-control access. Because priests are molesting children and nobody is getting in trouble for it. It’s been said before, but if an 80-member religious cult in Texas allowed some of their leaders to molest children, there would be a huge outcry. It would be front-page news. People would be up in arms! But when it’s the Catholic Church, we barely even notice. It’s gotten to the point where we’re not even surprised anymore—it’s barely even news anymore—when another molestation is uncovered. Like the saying goes, “The only difference between a cult and a religion is the number of followers.” Or worse, “One rape is a tragedy; a thousand is a statistic.”

I brought up Greta Christina’s wonderful book, “Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off The Godless,” and told him to read it, and to ask his girlfriend to read it. Nothing would make me happier than to live and let live. I dream of a world where humanity spends its time solving “real” problems, doing medical research, exploring space, fixing the climate, making art and music, studying philosophy. I would love for there to be no need for atheism activism. But I can’t do that, because I have a conscience.

He agreed with me on these points, but wanted to know about the problem with liberal churches. What’s the harm of religion so long as it supports gay marriage, comprehensive sex-ed, etc?

First off, it’s important to distinguish between believing in a deity, and believing in God. If we’re talking about a deistic creator, a god who allegedly sparked the Big Bang and hasn’t interfered since, I don’t really see any harm in this, other than that it’s unscientific and vastly improbable. I’d call this harmlessly irrational, on par with crossing your fingers for good luck. It’s magical thinking, which I think should be avoided, but it doesn’t really hurt anything.


But once we start talking about Yahweh, the Abrahamic god, the god of the Bible, we get into some sticky stuff.  I’m not the first to say so but the reason moderate religion is bad, even dangerous, is that it opens the door for religious bigotry and worse. If a religious moderate believes the proposition that the Bible is the inspired word of God, who is he to fault a religious extremist for actually doing what it says to do?

If you use faith as your justification for moral decision-making, you cannot reasonably point at someone more committed than you doing the exact same thing and make the charge that they’re wrong. A religious moderate cannot call a religious extremist crazy without being hypocritical.

There is this idea among moderates that religious tolerance is an ideal condition. The whole “COEXIST” campaign is a prime example. There is this idea that all religions are somehow valid, despite contradicting one another. That no matter how much we disagree with someone, if it falls under the umbrella of religious tolerance, we should make every effort to find a way not to be offended.

To paraphrase Sam Harris, the idea that all human beings should be free to believe whatever they want—the foundation of “religious tolerance”—is something we need to reconsider. Now.

I will not stand by and tolerate the belief that it is moral to mutilate a little girl’s genitals.

I will not stand by and tolerate the belief that it is moral to hinder the promotion of condom use in AIDS-ridden regions, because they believe wasting semen is a “sin.”

I will not stand by and tolerate the belief that it is moral to lie to children and tell them that they will see their dead relatives again, or give them nightmares about a made-up “Hell.”

I will not stand by and tolerate the absurd and unsubstantiated proposition that humans are somehow born bad or evil, that we need to be “saved.”

It is offensive to me that, in the year 2013, people still think intercessory prayer works. Every time I hear about some poor sick child who has died because her parents decided to pray instead of take her to a hospital, I am horribly offended. When religious moderates tell me—although they also believe in intercessory prayer—that they, too, are offended by this, I am appalled at the hypocrisy. We should know better by now than to believe in childish things like prayer.

I am so sick of this crap. There is a time and a place for being accommodating of differences of opinion. If you think tea is the best hot drink, and I think it’s coffee, fine. No one is harmed by this. Insofar as your beliefs don’t negatively affect others, I do not care if we agree or not. But, I contend, your right to believe whatever you want ends where my rights begin. Religious moderation is literally dangerous because it opens the gate wide for religious extremism. A moderate cannot point to a religious extremist and say, “You are wrong. You are dangerous. You must not be allowed to continue.” However, I can. To stand up to religious extremism, we must come from a place of rational thought, of freedom to criticize, of ethics that do not depend on revelation or arguments from authority.

I make no apology for asserting that secular humanism is the most reasonable, most ethical, and best way for us to live. It is more rational than superstitious faith. It is more productive and humane than any religion. It is the ethical choice. To quote Sam Harris, “There is no society in human history that ever suffered because its people became too reasonable.”

We must become more reasonable if we want to survive. Our planet is in trouble. There is no divine guarantee that the Earth will always be able to support us nor that we will always be here. There is no life after this. What matters is how we are remembered, and the contributions to society we make while we’re alive. I assert that there is nothing more important or more urgent than this: Atheists, I call upon you to stand up to absurdity. If you see something, say something. Start the conversation.

I know that it is difficult to make waves. I know that it can be intimidating, especially when you’re outnumbered. But the facts are on our side, and the stakes are high. We must not be afraid to call bullshit where we see it. We must not allow religions to dictate what is and is not moral. We must speak up in the face of wrongdoing. We must make ourselves known. It can be as simple as correcting someone for using the word “fag,” or mentioning that you are an atheist if the subject of religion comes up.

Ending the danger and oppression of religion will not be easy, but if we work toward it, we can make it happen.

  • mechtheist

    Mr. Appleby, your comment is mostly irrelevant non sequiturs.. Atheist simply see no evidence that a god or gods exist, or even anything at all supernatural exist. Gaps? Oh my god, science doesn’t yet know everything? God did it. That is the quality of most theists arguments, hence atheists lack of seeing any legitimacy to their natterings. We don’t asserts there is no god, only that we see no reason to think there is.

    The rather tired assertion about murderous atheist regimes has been addressed repeatedly, they did not murder in the name of atheism, don’t forget Hitler and Stalin had mustaches too, can we blame the murders on facial fur? Belief or non-belief is indeed a personal choice, but as was so well pointed out in the above article, your typical believer has a habit of insisting everyone have their personal belief. Fighting to keep free of religious laws is not the same as fighting to pass laws based on religion. Believers seem to be incapable of making this distinction.

  • Barry Appleby

    Do atheists consider that they have tangible proof of the non-existence of a deity? I find it impossible to believe in the the non-existence of something. In any case, since atheists claim to be entirely logical and rational, belief is not applicable. Scientists claim to be motivated purely by reason yet medical experimenters still maintain that diseases that plague human beings can be studied by doing horrible things to mice, dogs, cats, guinea pigs, chimpanzees etc etc.
    Electric shock treatment, lobotomy and drugs have all been advanced as viable therapies for mental illness without conclusive proof that they are beneficial. Scientists make mistakes and are constantly confronted by gaps in their knowledge or things that they cannot explain, for example, how acupuncture works, despite trials that seem to indicate that it helps to alleviate certain conditions. Science asks me to believe in quarks, neutrinos, string theory and many other weird and wonderful things but calls me an idiot because to me the idea that there might very well be a being or beings that are far more advanced in every way than our species, which I prefer to call homo simian, is no more unreasonable than quantum mechanics or relativity. I might point out that psychiatry and psychology deal in things that are purely abstract, the id, the ego, the Oedipus complex, etc., while the theories that underpin linguistics such as “universal grammar”, sociology and economics are equally nebulous.

    Humanity does not live by reason alone. Are emotions rational? Is love or compassion a rational feeling. Yet morally correct actions may spring from such feelings. The Quakers were responsible in England for pioneering prison reform and founding and running companies that were renown for treating their employees in a way that was far superior to
    how things are presently done in our soulless globalised world. Atheism like religion can also be abused. If there is no God, then those in power may do as they like with those who are weak and defenceless. Atheismwasan element of Nazism and Communism, two movements whose victims killed in the name of the State or Das Volk far outnumber those killed in the name of God.

    Dawkins seems to be obsessed with promoting atheism at every turn. I cannot help but think of Billy Graham when I see him bashing the ten commandments. If he were able to read them in the original Hebrew he would understand that the commandment is “thou shall not murder”. This was understood in Elizabethan England where it was phrased as “thou shallt do no murder”, but modern usage seems to have completely blurred the crucial distinction between premeditated and involuntary killing.. I was not impressed with his depth of knowledge of religion or his use of ridicule to advance his case. He reminds me of a Swedish woman I once knew whose son married a Hindu woman, who, to her great horror, appeared to worship an elephant, because of the figure of Ganesh, commonly found in most Hindu households.

    To sum up. I believe that belief or non-belief is a matter for the individual conscience. I resent every attempt by Christians to convert me as much as I loathe the same behavior on the part of Communists, Socialists, Anarchist, Existentialists and Atheists. What I believe is nobody else’s business.

    Dawkin’s boundless energy would be better employed in getting his fellow scientists to demonstrate the superior of their “rational” beliefs by observing some basic ethical principles with regard to the impact of their activities and the commercial development and application of their discoveries on humans and animals alike, since their callousness and arrogance in the face of the suffering that they cause is unacceptable. Dr Mengele may be dead and burning in Hell but their are far too many of his present-day colleagues alive who believe like him that the end justifies the means and that in the absence of a God, they have the right to do things whose long-term consequences cannot be predicted.

  • nathan p

    Thanks for this post, Dave. It’s been heavy on my mind since I read it several days ago. Like John B above, I’ve also held a live-and-let-live attitude mostly because my family are Baptists, and I feel strongly that they are good, admirable, loving, kind people.

    I have reconsidered, though. My mind is changed. (Mainly, for the record, due to your comment about filling kids’ heads with nightmares and false hope. That is harmful, and I worry that my niece and nephew will to have to cope with indoctrination like I did.)

    But I’m having trouble reconciling this change of heart with the understanding that there are religious groups who do real good through charity and community service. Churches are a huge help to their member families (and relatives and friends of those families) in times of need. However, if I point this out, I’m labeled an “apologist” – a nasty term, by the way – by other atheists.

    So, I might say, “You (atheists) are demonizing good people just because of a broad label that describes their specific, nuanced, intricate, personal, spiritual beliefs. All you’re seeing are the Fred Phelpses and James Dobsons, but you’re applying those tropes to all Christians! This is prejudice, plain and simple.”

    As an atheist activist, what is an adequate response to that criticism?

  • Denise Hilton

    This article sparked a quandary to me. I believe women have the right to make decisions about their bodies (abortion issue). However, your article clearly states we should stand up to those that harm their constituents. I know that pro-lifers vehemently believe abortion kills life. How do you address this dichotomy?

    • http://www.davemuscato.com Dave Muscato

      I don’t really see it as a dichotomy. Scientifically and ethically, a zygote/embryo/fetus is not a person yet. Pro-lifers are not really concerned with protecting life (if they were, they would all be vegans as well). They are concerned with protecting souls, which they believe [only] humans to have, and since the moment of conception. Since souls aren’t real, I think it’s a non-issue.

      I do think every effort should be made to use birth control if a couple doesn’t want to reproduce. I see no ethical problem with aborting a zygote or an embryo. There is possibly an ethical problem with aborting a fetus that is in its third trimester, but that’s a different essay :)

  • John Smith


    Nice post .. except .. it seems that many atheists are “Catholic Bashers.” Can you explain that? There are many religions that have the same problems as the Catholic church … but I guess since it is the largest and oldest Christian religion out there … kind of like the Elephant in the room analogy, huh?

    I am not bashing atheists. Everyone can make their point without “singling” out one particular group? Agree?

    The “reasonable’ choice to make people make a choice. If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.

    Thanks for listening.


    • http://www.davemuscato.com Dave Muscato

      Catholicism is not the worst one by far, but it’s the biggest and most systematic. I do my best not to single out groups but to stick to the behaviors themselves as examples of why the beliefs are wrong.

      • Mark W

        The article kind of answers that itself – nobody goes around bashing inoffensive mild & meek churches, just the ones that stand up & make asses of themselves – so Catholics*, Muslims*, odd little sects that go bananas… These are the ones that make EVERYBODY look at them just like they’re batty – but the problem is, they’re ALL deluded & they ALL support these rarer but higher profile loonies, at least by making them stick out less.
        Go back & re-read it – this is the point here!

        * Yes, yes, not all of them…. I know that…

  • John B. Egan

    Wow! I’ve always considered myself a live and let live atheist until someone gets in my face, but the author spelled out quite clearly that I’ve been wrong. In fact, I’ve actually facilitated bigotry and divisiveness. I’ll have to reconsider my position. Thank you.

    • http://www.davemuscato.com Dave Muscato

      Thank you for your note. I’m glad the article was helpful to you.

  • JJ

    Thanks for this. I’ll have to give Greta’s book a read, but overall, I feel that those who follow the Bible are deluded. Thinking that it’s ok to tout ‘Love thy neighbor’ and ignore stoning of a woman based on really basic things, or going against Levticus almost wholly but using the one line in it to spout anti-homosexuality BS is bogus. You either believe in it completely, word for word which is irrational, or you don’t believe in/follow it at all. Have some self respect… God did not get you through that situation, you and your support system did. That is something I have a huge issue with. It’s not hubris to have confidence enough in yourself to admit you got yourself through a trying time. I see this most with my religious family and friends. It blows my mind and saddens me.

  • Eric Pepke

    This is good, but there’s more. I’m acquainted with many liberal churches, and I’m on a Facebook group called The Christian Left. (http://www.facebook.com/TheChristianLeft) They get from Christians every bit as much hate as and perhaps more than atheists do.

    But they’re truly liberal. Most “liberal” churches aren’t really liberal; they just stay under the radar.

  • http://willkriski.com Will

    Great article! One thing to note is that when someone supports a church financially they are supporting the systemic problems of religion. So it’s not just an innocent person believing in a god anymore.

    • JosefVirek

      Very good point. I often try to alert others to this very observation, that most of the ‘moderate’ christians are going to their churches, filling pews and coffers, and thereby supporting what their church and its leaders do. This is particularly galling in that my own mother is a very devout catholic and always supports the church monetarily, and here I am, gay, and quite irked!

  • http://mindaugmentation.com Josef Virek

    Beautiful post, thank you. Greta Christina’s book is a superb reference, I want all religious and semi-religious people to read it, then come and tell me why they’re not angry.

    • http://www.davemuscato.com Dave Muscato

      I’m glad you enjoyed it :)

  • Aita

    Well put, and I fully agree.

    Utilitarian checking in, and I’m happy you’re fighting the good fight. Your command of language lends itself well to your cause. I work in cybernetics and automation because I think that the best way to get rid of religion is to get rid of what causes it: people needing hope in a hopeless situation, and not paying attention to source.

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