Treat True Believers with Humanity, not Contempt

Woman sneeringEven assuming credulity is a weakness, decent people don’t jeer at others who are functioning poorly in some part of life.

With religious belief holding such an outsized influence on our society, it is reasonable that atheists, humanists and other freethinkers push back against religious superstitions, outdated social scripts and archaic rules. But one way we often do this is by ridiculing believers themselves, which is less reasonable.

To be fair, most secular scorn does tend to be directed toward a specific kind of believer—with good reason. Not all religious beliefs are equally noxious or untrue. Gods can be defined in ways that are unfalsifiable, and there is a realm of metaphysical conjecture in which all any of us can do is make our own best guesses. Some people embrace god concepts drawn from this realm, which they hold with a great degree of humility. Further, all of us make at least tentative commitments to a worldview that includes opinions about supernaturalism, and that many of our non-religious ideas are viral and socially transmitted. We all could do with a little more humbleness on this point.

That said, some religious beliefs are patently false or immoral; and the ones that tend to do the most harm and be the most socially aggressiveand so receive the most derision fall into this latter camp. When I raise questions about treating believers with disdain or kindness, it is this kind of religion I’m talking about—where the beliefs themselves aren’t really worthy of respect, or even a pass. But that doesn’t mean the same is true of persons who hold them.

Frustration, Judgment

We freethinkers give ourselves permission to sneer because we tend to think of religious belief as voluntary and lazy, irresponsible and harmful. We often see believers, especially fundamentalists and biblical literalists, as people who have chosen not to do the work of examining their faith and asking the hard questions that could show them wrong.

Their sloppy thinking frustrates us, but what really gets us going is this: Having not done their homework, many seek to impose iron age beliefs and scripts on not only themselves and their children but on the rest of society. Even worse, with traditions and laws stacked in their favor, they often get away with it. So, when we sneer at them or treat them with disdain, we see ourselves as behaving this way towards people who are powerful and abusing that power. In the language of the millennial left, we tell ourselves that we are punching up, which makes it OK.

But does it?

Why People Believe

Freethinkers are well positioned to recognize complex, real-world causal factors that shape human beliefs and behavior, because we don’t look at humankind through a lens of sin and righteousness. We are free to recognize that life experiences and social influences may incline one person to commit crimes and another to win a Nobel prize.

Liberated from a traditional worldview that dichotomizes society into saints and sinners, we are also free to acknowledge complexity within people, to see good and bad in combination and to seek common ground in the good.  But we often forget our nuanced, psychologically-informed understanding of human behavior and we abandon our quest for common ground when confronted with superstition and bad behavior that are motivated by religion.

Mind Viruses

A number of atheist writers, including me, have described religion as a family of viral self-replicators, mind viruses that are in varying degrees benign or harmful. To the extent that this description fits, what we know about bacteria—how they are subject to selective pressures and how they spread—offers some insights into religion. So do fields of scholarship like epidemiology. And increasingly, cognitive psychology and neuroscience allow us to understand how false ideas slip past our defenses, how they spread, and why humans are vulnerable to specific kinds of “grand stories.”

But if religious believers are people who are infected with socially transmitted mind viruses and the fundamentalisms are the most malignant of those viruses, then does it actually make sense to scorn and belittle them in the ways we so often do? We wouldn’t do that to someone living with hepatitis or HIV.

Bad People vs Bad Ideas

Careful critics of Islam, like Quilliam founder Maajid Nawaz, draw an important distinction between criticizing bad ideas and hating on people. By way of analogy, I think about my sister who is mentally ill, because it is clear in my own mind that I’m capable of loving her while hating the bipolar illness that has caused so much suffering to her and people around her—including through her own behavior. It can be hard to hold this difference in mind when surrounded by religiously-motivated harms, but it has powerful implications for how we treat people and, in the long run, whether society becomes more civilized or more cruel.

How might the behavior of atheists change if we stayed true to our recognition that religions are powerful contagions optimized by natural selection to slip past human defenses? Even assuming credulity is a weakness, decent people don’t jeer at others who are functioning poorly in some part of life, in part because we don’t assume that under-functioning is always, wholly a choice. Most believers have their religious views literally indoctrinated during childhood, shaping thought patterns and emotions that become extremely difficult to change and, perhaps for some, impossible. The boundaries and even existence of free will seem to be up for debate of late, so perhaps we should give religious dogmatists some benefit of the doubt on this.

I should add, too, that every religion is a factual and ethical mixed bag; a religion that contained only falsehoods and did only harm likely wouldn’t get passed down very long. The Bible and Quran may be full of tribalism and violence. They may have verses that identify women as chattel and offer instructions for slavery. But that is not all they contain. Thomas Jefferson called the wiser parts of the Bible, “diamonds in a dunghill.”  The beliefs and values of Christians and other believers are, likewise, jumbled (as is true for all of us); and when we think of people with contempt, we miss their diamonds. We also miss the opportunity to invite them into their better selves.

Recognizing these complexities doesn’t in any way change the need to address the harms done by religion in our world. We must continue to thwart the corrupted moral priorities of those religious believers who are driven by handed-down texts and doctrines to impose iron-age thinking on society. Harmful dogmas and derivative behaviors can and must be met with a firm no.

But if treating even dogmatic believers with dignity rather than disdain allows bridging conversations, reducing religious harms may become more possible rather than less. A kinder approach also keeps us from falling into some of the very same patterns that we so dislike in some of the religious—dehumanizing tribal outsiders while excusing one’s own bad behavior. By confronting toxic faith with kindness as well as clarity, we stay true to our better selves.

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of  Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including The Huffington Post, Salon, The Independent, Free Inquiry, The Humanist, AlterNet, Raw Story, Grist, Jezebel, and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies.  Subscribe at

About Valerie Tarico

Seattle psychologist and writer. Author - Trusting Doubt; Deas and Other Imaginings.
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33 Responses to Treat True Believers with Humanity, not Contempt

  1. @expreacher says:

    Hello Valerie,
    So sorry about your sister.
    Hope things get better.
    Unfortunately some religious can not escape the “chosen by ‘God” mentality, ‘God” i.e. I/we has/have the right to impose “God’s will” on those who have long since rejected the concepts.
    Hope things go well for you.


  2. bewilderbeast says:

    What about what most people do: Simply keep quiet. I think a) It’s understandable; but b) It’s a cop-out and harmful on the grounds of silence = acquiescence = consent. Any comment?
    Maybe silence where it doesn’t matter and speak up and out when any harm or prejudice is done or spoken?
    BTW, I fully agree with address the idea not the person.


    • Yes, I like your idea about choosing when to engage–and basing that on whether the issue in question is causing harm. Challenging someone on a harmful idea or behavior works best when it happens in a context of relationship and when it is surrounded by more positive interactions.


  3. Paul Douglas says:

    This is such a good reminder of the potential benefit to myself as well as the hearer, of taking a kinder path with most believers in discussions about religion.

    I’m not so sure that this tactic works with the most militant and professional christianists, however. As far as I can see, they are virtually beyond redemption (think Pat Roberstson, James Dobson, Franklin Graham and their political dopplegangers). Part of me thinks that ridicule and shame do have a role to play, at least to influence some in the christianist audience watching their leaders be cut down to size. Any thoughts on this, Valerie (or anyone else)?


    • Hi Paul –
      I definitely think there are people who are stuck and unable to change. Those you mentioned are highly invested, from an identity and monetary standpoint, in staying the way they are. But I think, also, that we get surprised sometimes by who gets brought by life to a pivot point. I don’t think that being mean to the person helps people change. Challenging and even poking fun at bad ideas definitely can. But you have to find a way to challenge the ideas without the person themselves feeling attacked. The goal (I don’t always accomplish this) is to treat the ideas as separate from the person so that they can do the same.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Peter N says:

      I think mockery and satire are perfectly good tools — like any tool, they need to be used only when and where appropriate, but they definitely have their place. Mockery is how we demonstrate that something that used to terrify us no longer has any power.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. hostirad says:

    This article is a nice complement to an article recently posted on the Skeptic website, “Meeting Our ‘Enemies’ Where They Are,” . That article suggests that beliefs are like software running in our brains, and that we do not have absolute free choice when it comes to the installation of that software. Therefore, people whose brains are running faulty software are victims of circumstance, and we should treat them with compassion. Given this state of affairs, the article suggests ways in which people whose beliefs differ from ours might be most fruitfully approached. I added in a comment to the article that showing respect for and establishing common ground with people who differ from us are vital for winning minds and hearts.


  5. Steve Ruis says:

    As the religious finally came around to “hate the sin, not the sinner” (which is nowhere to be found in scripture) we need to have a similar epiphany. Well said, well written … as always. Thanks, Valerie!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I thought about that parallel. :) The thing is, to the extent that the “sin” is part of the person’s positive identity and not changeable, that really doesn’t work. When the “sin” is changeable and the person can see it as something outside themselves, something they can embrace or leave go of (as in some people’s religious beliefs) then it makes more sense.


    • Swarn Gill says:

      Hate the belief, and not the believer works well. :)


  6. honorthegodsblog says:

    There are many different kinds of religion, and many different kinds of believers. Some of us who have done the hard work and asked the hard questions, who see in religion a power to make our own lives better in various ways, and have no intention on imposing our beliefs on other people. We believe that decent people choose to live and let live, and support the freedom for non-believers to do the same.

    Pagans and reconstructionist polytheists benefit from and support religious freedom. I, among many, support the separation of Church and State. I used to be a supporter of the nonprofit Freedom From Religion Foundation until the “graveyard of the gods” projects popped up to jeer at me and other humanists who also happen to be pagans and polytheists.

    There’s already too many people jeering at others in the name of freedom; doing so alienates potential allies and accomplishes little in addressing the harms done by religion in our world.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Jim Lee says:

    Christianity had modified it’s behaviour in the last few hundred years to one of peace and love, but it wasn’t always like this as Christian history reveals for those who seek it.
    Islam today is still a religion that’s out to dominate the west, and everyone who is not a Muslim is an Infidel, and for those who will not convert when Islam has the numbers to dominate the west will be executed. I do not see us taking a passive attitude to these extremists is the way to go. We need to reveal to the entire communities of the Western world the evilness that underlies this type of behaviour. I don’t have any problems with today’s Sunday Christian so I leave them be. But religions who are radical in their ideas are a different kettle of fish that need to be exposed.


    • Swarn Gill says:

      Christianity had modified it’s behaviour in the last few hundred years to one of peace and love, but it wasn’t always like this as Christian history reveals for those who seek it.

      This is not entirely true in the present. The fundamentalist Christians in the southern U.S. are proof of this. They might not be burning wishes, but they are still causing a great deal of harm to people of other races and sexual orientation. Many still adopt hyper-masculine values that is embedded into Christianity. Indoctrination of children into believing that they will burn for eternity for their misdeeds is a form of child abuse. As a whole I agree that Christianity has become more peaceful, but let’s not wash over the still harmful practices that many denominations of Christianity still practice and the political influence they have to make those policies more widespread.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Perry says:

        “Christianity had modified it’s behaviour in the last few hundred years to one of peace and love…”. Tell that to the millions of Indigenous peoples wiped out by genocidal Christians spreading their spiritual and biological viruses.

        Liked by 2 people

      • Swarn Gill says:

        Yeah there are plenty of examples over the last few hundred years that demonstrates that peace and love through Christianity is a slow…slow process. lol

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Swarn Gill says:

    I think if we are going to liken religious thinking to a disease…in this case of the mind…we must not compare the scorn we give them to the scorn we would give someone with HIV. Because if something is wrong with the mind then it could be that harsh words might change someone’s thinking. It certainly has an effect on the brain. And if so if we are interested in healing sick brains it could be that scorn works. However, we know from a psychological and neurological point of view that such things don’t. And so if as atheists we are the ones who should be looking at the complexity of the world and trying to understand how things work, we know that scorn tends to actually entrench somebody in their beliefs. If we study how people come to change beliefs, and the best practices for persuading people to change them, we know that insults and shame, if they even work at all, it’s in rare cases. Kindness always a more effective tool when trying to help people. :)


  9. Pingback: Here’s an idea: Treat Believers with Kindness, not Contempt |


    It’s funny, sort of…because I am not really, LITERALLY, an atheist, because I have a deep spiritual sense of the Universe, what one could/should call “God,” but in the eyes of Christians and likely Muslims and Jews, and pretty much anyone whose religion depends on written laws, mythological beings and any kind of obedience to an ideology, I am always considered one.

    I have for a long time simply considered my spiritual path to be a common one that evolves after a childhood of Christian overshoot. A reaction to the narrowness of any particular religion, as they all seem to leave most of the world’s population out of their cult. By inviting the whole world into my “religion,” I found myself kicked out of all the official religions.

    Apparently, if you invite too many people to the party, it isn’t fun anymore.

    Oh, well.


  11. Our Western democratic societies are predicated on the ‘Logos’ and many of the Christian teachings including the divinity of the individual. Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. I’d prefer a world with Christians and their theology in it than without it.


  12. Generally, I can deal with belief by others .
    When I hit a hard spot is when a believer (self-announced) clearly living in utter hypocrisy with their own stated beliefs starts in on my belief or lack thereof. Since I’m a humanistic pagan I frequently get told I have “no religion, no spiritual life at all” and oh, yes, btw, I am damned to hell. (Of course?).

    I’ve asked this type of “soldier for God” as they sometimes insist they are, whether it is rational of their God to damn someone who is living a good, thoughtful, charitable life — someone they had NO issue with until they found out I was not a Christian, usually. Their “sins” are forgiven, thus they say they are not “really” hypocrites, but I am still damned? They stare at me as if I am speaking Greek!

    Which, at that point, I usually wish I WAS, lol!


  13. bbjourneys says:

    Though I realize how offended my devout evangelical relatives would be if I suggested that they suffer from mental illness, I am helped by allowing that diagnosis to allow compassion to blossom in me.
    My late demented mother couldn’t remember if she’d had a meal – within minutes of leaving the table – but guiding the conversation gently to another subject was always easier than trying to convince her that the gravy on her blouse matched the contents of her full belly.
    But she still wasn’t allowed to drive the car.
    Sometimes love bites its tongue; sometimes it smiles and says “no”.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. john zande says:

    The average theist, the one who finds relief in belief, is of no interest to me. Personally speaking. However, the apologist, that person who pushes their beliefs, who presents nonsense arguments and feels it their right to meddle in the operation of our secular societies, well to that person I have much interest.

    Liked by 4 people

  15. says:

    LIKE! One of my favorite “themes,” treated with Your wonderful talent! Yea, let us Listen to one another. So’s to reach one another.


  16. Reblogged this on Dead Wild Roses and commented:
    A slightly different tone from the usual DWR Sunday Disservice, but an important insight into the value of a change of contextual frame for those still mired in religion.


  17. Mary says:

    I am sorry, but however meek we seek to be, there comes a time to call Christians out, for ruthless genocidal narcissism, ask the 500,000 confirmed incinerated children is Iraq. In north Carolina where i live, I showed a perfect saved christian the last supper by Da vinci, I pointed out the knife covered with popes purple clothe on the knife, I pointed out how the mans others hand was on Mary of Magdalene’s throat, how the disciple next to her was stealing her bread, how the lemon had the tip cut off which was used for a birth control device back then, he walked out on the job, I got hate mail, I lost customers, you can not “buy or sell” unless you wear their bloody graven image, they have a lic. to kill, my only feeling to them is terror, and i pray daily
    and i believe Christ conciseness is in all people who call for it, atheist and believers.
    empathy is empathy, like a rose by any other name.


  18. Thanks for an insightful article. I would like to add one thought from biology. It is common for infectious disease to become less pernicious over time. An example is SIV (Simian Immunodeficiency Virus) which monkeys can live with asymptomatically for their whole lives, as opposed to recent and deadly HIV.

    I am convinced that religion is not ever going away, because it is so core to the human experience. I do think the biology model gives hope that they will all do more good and less harm over time.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Perry says:

      Virus is a good metaphor for religion. A few years ago I was a runner-up in a blasphemy contest held by the Center for Inquiry, part of a campaign for free expression, and to commemorate Blasphemy Day International. I won a t-shirt printed with my entry: “I survived the God virus”. Perhaps the biology model does give hope that religion will evolve into something less harmful. But what about AI? In Battlestar Galactica, the evil robots had bad religion too.


      • One of the questions believers ask is, “If there is no god, then why does almost everyone think there is”? I think it is a good question but “there really is a god” is a bad answer. There are understandable reasons in our biology why this propensity has evolved. At it’s base is the fact that imagining agency where there is none is a better survival strategy than ignoring agency that is real (Was that a tiger? I’ll take evasive action, just in case). Of course this is simplistic and books have been written on the topic but, in the case of sentient machines, they will not have had an evolutionary history like ours and so, I see no incentive for them to imagine gods into existence.

        Also, it’s not just a hope: I think there is good evidence that the religion memes have been evolving to be less pernicious. We don’t burn heretics and “witches” anymore.


    • hostirad says:

      That’s a very hopeful message, Jeremy, and I think there is evidence for your suggestion, e.g., Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature. While there are still religious people who behead infidels (and stories about this are what grab the news), there are so many, many more religious people who are doing no harm (and are therefore not in the news).

      Religiosity may never go away, but my hope is that the human urge to connect to something greater than one’s self will move away from deity worship to movements for improving the human condition. Things like environmentalism, veganism, and yoga can become substitutes for religion, satisfying religious striving with fewer harmful effects.


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