Ask Richard: Do I Belong Here at Friendly Atheist? October 14, 2010

Ask Richard: Do I Belong Here at Friendly Atheist?

Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.

I was raised Catholic. I am now a Buddhist. After the death of Madelyn Murray O’Hare (I disliked her abrasive style), I became more sympathetic towards Atheist Rights. Free speech and all that. I find myself “sitting on the fence” with regards to Atheism. Although I don’t believe in the “Christian” god; I do hope that there is a pleasant after-life. But I’m really not sure if one exists. Nonetheless, I feel more sympathetic towards atheists and I enjoy reading the contents of this site. After all this my question is this. Is there a place for me in this group of friendly atheists?


Dear Paul,

Yes, there is definitely a place for you here. This is a place where people with all sorts of beliefs and opinions are welcome, or certainly should be welcome, and I hope to help keep it that way and make it better. In fact, this is an excellent place for someone who is “sitting on the fence” about atheism. That’s an uncomfortable place to sit, and here you will find many people who know what it is like. They’ve gone through some tough times and are now standing firmly on their own feet.

The only people I’ve ever seen who are very unwelcome here are trolls who deliberately degrade the conversations and get them to center around themselves, and use every opportunity for sneaky insults. It’s a problem of online behavior, not beliefs. Once in a while there’s an annoying “drive-by proselytizer,” but they’re merely a nuisance, and they have become less common here over the years.

However be ready, this site is full of skeptics. Skepticism is the foundation for most of the atheists’ views here, so your beliefs, if you bring them into the discussion, will probably be challenged. Think of it as a fencing school, and the rapiers used are arguments. Many people here love to argue, and they can be remarkably good at it. Everybody gets poked from time to time. It goes with the territory. Ouch! Dammit! I mean, touche!

The title “friendly” does not mean “make nice.” It means that the general etiquette is if you disagree, you should attack the person’s argument rather than the person himself. It means try to get better at understanding and persuading rather than getting better at putting someone down.

Sometimes people complain, “Gee, you aren’t being very friendly.” Sometimes these are people who have become so attached to their beliefs or opinions that they think they are their beliefs or opinions. So they feel hurt when someone dismantles those ideas right in front of them. That experience, while uncomfortable, can help us to see that identifying ourselves with our beliefs or opinions can lead to tunnel vision, impaired critical thinking, and emotional rather than rational decisions. It’s better to see our own beliefs or opinions as possessions, things we use like the items in our pockets, but not our essence. Otherwise, they end up possessing us.

There is a sprinkling of smart alecks who like to tease, and that’s perfectly okay; I’m one of them. But there are also a very few here who sometimes actually are unfriendly. Sometimes they’re a little too impressed with their own arguing skills, or they’re bitter and hurting from some injury, or they’ve reached a threshold of some kind of frustration. That may be understandable, but they seem to forget that there is always a real person behind the text they’re reading on their monitors. It’s easy to slip into sadism when we cannot see the faces of our victims and they cannot see us. Once in a while I speak unkindly, and soon after I feel guilty about it. That’s why I use my own name and my own picture. It helps me to stay mindful of the real people to whom I’m talking.

Even if we are diametrically opposed on some issue, that is a tiny part compared to the humanity we have in common; our desires to feel safe, to love and be loved, to feel worthy, to protect our family and friends, to participate in our community, and to make a meaningful contribution beyond our own survival. If I remember those huge things while discussing the tiny things, I can remain a friendly atheist and promote dialogue rather than diatribe.

Paul, I thank you for your compassion toward atheists and their rights, even while you are not quite on “our side of the fence,” and for your support of free speech. That’s a very big plus here, especially when you support the freedom of someone who disagrees with you.

Several people here understand your wish that there would be a pleasant afterlife. Two recent posts dealt with atheism and death, and many of the comments on both were very insightful and helpful.

Finding your center of gravity for these things that remain unsettled for you, such as the existence of deities or an afterlife, is a gradual and sometimes difficult process for people who really think for themselves, and I get the strong impression that you are one. You’re in good company. Welcome.


You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond in a timely manner.

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  • Silent Service

    What? You mean we aren’t evil blighters that devourer babies of the faithful every day?

  • sc0tt

    Fresh meat!!

    LOL, welcome Paul.

  • Steve

    @Silent Service

    Only every other day

  • Deepak Shetty

    I do hope that there is a pleasant after-life.

    I found that this was easy to work around (To paraphrase Ingersoll’s if there is one Ill see what to do when I get there).
    The bigger issue you might face is when you come to your loved ones – being seriously ill or near death and where you cant quite get yourself to decide on prayer. After being exposed to skeptics you might have similar doubts of prayer and you might miss the comforts it offers.

  • Liz

    not subscribing to Christianity or Catholicism usually gives people props in my book. even if they do want to believe in an afterlife, at least they aren’t naive enough to say they know the truth.

    aren’t most Buddhists atheist anyway?

  • The pleasant afterlife thing is one of the major selling points of religion. But you know, not existing is neither pleasant nor unpleasant. Remember what Mark Twain said:

    I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.

    Not the slightest inconvenience.

  • Miko

    I’ve never thought of Buddhism and atheism as being necessarily opposed, especially the forms of Buddhism with fewer (or no) metaphysical claims. Indeed, while I don’t self-identify as a Buddhist, I would say that the Buddhist texts are probably the most worth reading for mythic catharsis. Religions really only become problematic when people assume that they’re true and/or descriptive of reality. If you view them as myth and acknowledge that (for example) the Iliad is just as good a source of myth as the Bible is, there are some interesting stories and life-lessons to be found.

    It’s better to see our own beliefs or opinions as possessions, things we use like the items in our pockets, but not our essence.

    Hm. From an existentialist perspective (i.e., “existence precedes essence”), I’m not sure what would constitute our essence if not our reflective consciousness. Naturally, this means that any significant change of beliefs will potentially involve both anxiety and despair (in the technical philosophical sense of those terms), but I’d argue that those would be there even if we tried to rationalize that they aren’t. Changing beliefs is often a good thing (especially in cases where reflection reveals that we held them in bad faith), but that’s no reason to trivialize the extent to which our existing beliefs were a part of us by calling them possessions.

  • Come to the dark side, we have cake!!!

  • ManaCostly


  • Paul,

    Welcome to the group. If you like discussing religion, championing skepticism, and keeping up with separation of church and state issues then you should enjoy this blog. Most people here are quite sympathetic to Buddhism (especially the more naturalistic, atheistic versions). Some will probably want to nit-pic the details, but that is just because they “came here for a good argument” – AKA Monty Python.

    This is also the most hip atheism site in the World Wide Web and we are all very humble. 😉

    The tone here is mostly friendly although sometimes there is no friendly way to say that someone’s whole world-view is merely wishfull-thinking.

    As far as an afterlife, if I die and happen to have a choice of either jumping in a pit of maggots or walking through door #2, I’ll probably take door #2. But I think it is folly for the religious to go around acting like they know that there are two doors and there are certain preconditions as to what door you can go through. Since Buddhism isn’t really about afterlife predictions and proclamations, you will fair well here.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    After the death of Madelyn Murray O’Hare (I disliked her abrasive style)…

    Apparently you dislike Madalyn Murray O’Hair so much that you refuse to spell her name properly.

  • godfree

    Think of that night when you were exhausted, & got a GREAT nights sleep. That is death time infinity. At 84, looking for it, it gets to looking better every day.

  • Richard Wade

    Miko, that is an interesting idea. Perhaps I should have written the more prosaic “…but not what we are” rather than the philosophically-laden word “essence.”

    Coincidentally, this idea of not being attached to things comes from my own 20 year-long Buddhist practice decades ago. The teaching that being attached to all sorts of things, both exterior and interior, causes suffering is one of the few Buddhist principles that persist for me. Whatever we become attached to, or confuse our “self” with, be it our job, our relationship, our wealth, our status, or our cherished beliefs, we, as you point out, will suffer if and when those things pass away from us. The greater the attachment or identification, the longer we will try to keep them even when they no longer work for us, and the worse will be our mourning when we finally do have to discard them.

    I don’t mean to trivialize important beliefs by calling them possessions, but they still are possessions, because we can acquire them, change them and get rid of them, yet we continue to exist. I had a coat, but I outgrew it. So I had to get rid of it. I had a belief, but I outgrew it. So I had to get rid of it. I really really loved that coat, and I really, really loved that belief, and I grieved when they were gone. After a while I got better, because I was less constricted and less confused.

    So if our beliefs are also not our “self,” or our “essence,” any more than the solid stuff we acquire and find valuable, if they’re just thoughts that we tend to value, cherish, adore, cling to, and enjoy repeating like playing an old favorite song on a record, then perhaps there is no meaningful definition to those terms. Perhaps the most we can say is that we are the empty space in which all that activity happens. We’re not the actor, or his soliloquy, or his costume or props, we’re the stage.

    I don’t want to get too attached to this idea either. I’m just using it as long as it works.

  • Dear “Paul:”

    I mostly concur with Richard’s comments. I welcome you here, and at my own atheist blog, and in any meatspace place in which I’m a part. I’m glad to hear views from people who hold different beliefs and values than me. However, I want you to know: I am not like the masters of this website. I am “hostile” and “militant” and lots of other insulting terms people use to talk about atheists. The reason why has to do with what I perceive, as a nonbeliever and queer person. Which is to say: some of your fellow believers are trying to kill me. It’s a funny feeling, and I served in the military so it’s one I know well. When one is constantly under attack, one tends to be, well, less forgiving of even the medical personal working for the enemy, let alone the infantry, if you get my drift.

    I went to divinity school and I appreciate the testament to human imagination that can be found in theology and mythology. It’s interesting and fun to review and talk about, and I welcome conversation with people like you. But if sometimes I seem a little “angry” or “unforgiving,” please understand: I have a very good reason for it. My BFF, a fellow atheist and gay man, recently moved to the Bible belt in a Southern State, after living his whole life in tolerant Northern regions. Wow, have his eyes been opened. Just last week, when he was walking down the street in his “gay” clothes on his way to a date, people hissed at him and said things like “All fags should die, you sinner!” It’s really, really hard for people like me not to perceive what religion really, actually does in our society. Which is to say, convince a large number of people that I’m diseased scum and I should be put to death, just to appease their imaginary sky fairy.

    Thanks for reading this blog and being open minded.

  • I’ve never thought of Buddhism and atheism as being necessarily opposed, especially the forms of Buddhism with fewer (or no) metaphysical claims.

    there are certainly some forms of Buddhism which are more “compatible” with atheism. but let’s not kid ourselves here, ok? the traditional forms of that faith? stuffed to the gills with mythology and supernaturalism. it’s an annoying thing i see all the time in Western folks, who want to find… something in Buddhism that’s “better” than western monotheism, so they overlook Buddhism’s silly claims where they are critical of those of Christianity. i have studied historical Buddhist tradition extensively, and I’m sorry to say, much of it is grounded in bullshit. sure, just like UU Christians mostly ignore the bible and have come up with a more liberal, open interpretation of that faith than the fundies’ version, so too are there more liberal Buddhist traditions that pretty much ignore what the original practitioners said it should be. which is: sexist, superstitious, and grounded in the idea that a human being can “transcend” into some sort of supernatural being, if only they come to agree with and understand some subjective claims about life.

    don’t get me wrong: i like Buddhists. they’re nice people. i practice yoga daily. but it’s still a superstition, at heart. just as i reject that there is such a thing as “good” or “rational” Christianity, so too do i reject the idea that “atheist” forms of Buddhism exist. dood, the very name of the religion itself belies such a claim. he is supposed to have been “the Buddha.” research what that word means, and get back to me about how it “can be like atheism.”

  • Phrosty

    Richard’s response is precisely why I prefer reading Friendly Atheist and other sites of the same style, over sites such as Pharyngula, where the articles and conversations almost always degrade into a pissing contest of insults (however, I still read Pharyngula, because sometimes I’m just in ‘that kind of mood’). I wish more atheist sites and blogs took the time to concentrate more on the debates at hand, and not pander to calling people names and belittling their intelligence (you’re never going to convince people if you say things like, “You’re stupidz lolz!”) Civilized dialogue FTW!

  • sailor

    Paul, Welcome! I thought buddhists believed in reincarnation rather than a “pleasant afterlife”
    Say that was true. You may have been born before and you might be born again, but you will have no memory or connection with that rebirth so in practical terms does it mean anything different to no afterlife? After all some child will be born again whether it is you or not….

  • The Captain

    Welcome. As you will learn this is a far friendlier site than normal, but some of us (me very much included) are a little more guff and abrasive in challenging peoples ideas. Fortunately I’m also not a regular poster. But It’s really not meant to be rude, and I do avoid personal attacks, but I may not come off as “polite”. For instance…

    So you said “After the death of Madelyn Murray O’Hare (I disliked her abrasive style), I became more sympathetic towards Atheist Rights.” Really? Do you really mean that your support or un-support of the rights of an entire group of people all rest with how “rude” you view the most vocal of them to be? Are an individuals rights only allowable if all members of some “group” they are in are polite to you?

  • JB Tait

    Welcome, Paul, and please disagree with me. How else will I learn?

  • Peter

    I saw a great documentary on the BBC’s Everyman about Buddhism. It was quite some time ago. At the time I was an atheist with a morbid fear of death, it would keep me awake at night. But this documentary got me interested in buddhism because it explained how the indian prince Siddhartha became an atheist and it was his eventual achievement of nirvana that help him to live in peace.

    Unfortunately from the few versions of organized Buddhism I’ve come across, most have tacked on things like reincarnation to give some next life comfort to the followers. So although I like buddhism as a philosophy the organized versions fail for me.

  • Welcome! Uncertainty is ok. The fact that you want to figure out what makes sense to you is the most important thing. Obviously, your faith, or lack of faith is very important to you. It’s important to everyone hear as well.

  • Claudia

    Welcome Paul 🙂 I assume you’ve been reading the site for some time, but just in case I would add a few things:

    – Atheism and skepticism are not the same thing, sadly. I’m willing to bet that the traits you admire in atheists are those that most closely relate to their skepticism and, if I make a gross generalization, you being a Buddhist convert, probably has something to do with the fact atheists are ordinarily socially liberal. You will find that atheists as a group tend to be highly skeptical of any and all supernatural claims, whether or not they involve god, and almost as skeptical about much of “alternative medicine” (homeopathy, crystal healing, chakras etc.). However, the realization of how many of my fellow atheists are truthers has taught me the depressing lesson that I should not assume atheists are all skeptics.

    – Generally people on this blog are civil towards the individual but can be highly uncivil towards the belief. Snarking is common (I plead guilty, your honor). You may find that some people have a bit of a problem with overgeneralization (i.e you’re a Buddhist so that means you MUST believe in reincarnation and you MUST believe the Dalai Lama is a god-king and therefore you MUST believe people born with deformities are paying for bad karma) and you should feel free to call them on it, particularly when your religion (philosophy?) is one that does not require you to pay homage or money to corrupt organizations, like the Catholic Church and especially if yours are privately held, non-aggressive beliefs.

  • Thegoodman

    To be technical, in they eyes of a Christian/Muslim/Jew, Buddhists are in fact atheists.

    If you only recognize one “god”, and a person denies that “god”; they are, to you, an atheist (“without god”).

    While it may only be a technicality, you are still going to burn in hell, heathen! 🙂

    Seriously though, nothing will enlighten (pun!) you more than learning more about the worlds’ religions. Atheist websites, strangely, seem to be the only reliable sources of religious information.

  • GTFO !!

    … is something that you will probably never hear from the wonderfully warm and inviting godless heathens at

  • Kiera

    “Sometimes these are people who have become so attached to their beliefs or opinions that they think they are their beliefs or opinions. So they feel hurt when someone dismantles those ideas right in front of them. That experience, while uncomfortable, can help us to see that identifying ourselves with our beliefs or opinions can lead to tunnel vision, impaired critical thinking, and emotional rather than rational decisions. It’s better to see our own beliefs or opinions as possessions, things we use like the items in our pockets, but not our essence. Otherwise, they end up possessing us.”

    I love this part, Richard. I’ve been in a few discussions recently where folks have felt hurt at my words even though I never attacked or questioned their character, just their viewpoints. This is a nice description for what may be going on, and a nice reminder that while we might be able to separate ourselves from some of our opinions or beliefs, not everyone can, and not many can 100%.

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