Atheism is Not Intellectual Snobbery

You are too intellectual, that’s what you are. You live a snobby house and drive a snooty car.

The Atlantic’s Emma Green has written an article called the Intellectual Snobbery of Conspicuous Atheism where she goes on the assault against the “conspicuous” atheist. In other words? People like me.

So it’s only fair to defend myself.

See the idea that Atheism is “intellectually fashionable” is rather derisive. It’s as if I chose my lack of belief in Hinduism solely to fit in and be cool. That Green thinks I selected atheism in the same way that I select the pants I wear (boxers) and the trousers I wear (chinos) or my glasses. Which is nonsensical, what sort of fashion choice requires you to often pretend to be religious or at least not an atheist in order to live a normal life?

Atheism in effect is a curse, it leaves you outside the norm. You always have to adjust and pretend. And yes we do have a certain intellectual fire power in the same way that a Doctor has more intellectual fire power than the faith healer. Our understanding of atheism ties into the idea that the universe is a natural phenomenon and that all such phenomenon can be studied and tested. This gives us science. You do not need to be an atheist to do science but atheism is a perfectly rational way of looking at the world while religion by nature is entrenched in the supernatural. Atheism’s core idea of a “completely natural universe” is also the driving force of scientific endeavour and that is the driving force of our domination of the world as a species.

There is a “Culture War”. We have individuals trying to push the fantasy that we were created by a god instead of the more scientific principle of evolution in our science classes. We have individuals trying to establish a state religion. We have individuals who deny women basic rights because of a divine excuse. To downplay this is to downplay the existence of a systemic usage of religion to prop up political movements that have proven to have bad consequences. And the usage of religion makes these political views sacrosanct.

Now a large number of religious people are nice and normal and friendly and just want to be left in peace. That’s fine, so do we. But their freedoms are not being compromised. They see their view as moral and see no problem with everyone following it. The world would be a better place if everyone else was like us.

So they don’t realise that the push for a more religious society harms people.

But vocal atheists reinforce this binary of Godly vs. godless, too—the argument is just not as obvious. Theirs is a subtle assertion: Believers aren’t educated or thoughtful enough to debunk God, and if they only knew more, rational evidence would surely offset faith.

Unlikely but there is a correlation between education and scepticism, and that can lead to higher rates of atheism and more liberal forms of religion. What we see in the USA is a mix of superstition, religion and ignorance along with a series of cultural issues that dominate the dialogue that creates the religious fundie that the atheist is most often opposed to.

I am sure The Age of Atheists is a fascinating read, but W. B. Yeats bashing his head at a seance is hardly evidence for the supernatural, it is evidence that W. B. Yeats fell for the hysteria associated with seances. Why is it only white people superstition is valid? By that logic the euphoria felt by the Aztec at human sacrifices is equally valid.

Atheism has generally meant the same thing throughout history and Green’s conflation with secularism shows the problem. Secularism is a society where there is no religious bias, atheism is an absence of religion. You can be a secular Catholic who upholds secular ideals and who fights against the Catholic attempts to politicise faith.

Watson assumes that because a group of smart, respected, insightful people thought and felt their way out of believing in God, everyone else should, too. Because intellectual history trends toward non-belief, human history must, too.

For the same reason that we tell people not to believe in Bigfoot, we Atheists state that there are no gods. And the irrational arguments used to defend religion. It isn’t merely enough to believe in a god, one also needs to listen to his orders.

This is problematic for several reasons. For one thing, it suggests that believers are inherently less thoughtful than non-believers. Watson tells stories of famous thinkers and artists who have struggled to reconcile themselves to a godless world. And these are helpful, in that they offer insight into how dynamic, creative people have tried to live. But that doesn’t mean the average believer’s search for meaning and understanding is any less rigorous or valuable—it just ends with a different conclusion: that God exists. Watson implies that full engagement with the project of being human in the modern world leads to atheism, and that’s just not true.

Except we know it’s a belief in a non-existent entity. By definition a faulty belief and intellectual rigour by definition would define this as faulty. The core idea is an unproven entity that not only created the world but also tells you to deny GLBT equal rights.

These are not equal and opposite ideas or choices. This is not Kit Kat vs. Twix, but Apple vs. Snozzberries.

The vast majority of the world believing in the supernatural does not make the supernatural exist. Being a minority doesn’t make the majority’s view valid

We know it’s not true because the vast majority of the world believes in God or some sort higher power. Worldwide, religious belief and observance vary widely by region. It’s tough to get a fully accurate global picture of faith in God or a “higher power,” but the metric of religiosity serves as a helpful proxy. Only 16 percent of the world’s population was not affiliated with a particular faith as of 2010, although many of these people believe in God or a spiritual deity, according to the Pew Research Center. More than three-fourths of the religiously unaffiliated live in the Asia-Pacific region, with a majority (62 percent) living in China. In other regions, the percentage of those who say they have no religious affiliation are much smaller: 7.7 percent in Latin America; 3.2 percent in sub-Saharan Africa; 0.6 percent in the Middle East.

If the age of atheism started in 1882, most people still haven’t caught on.

Perhaps because in vast parts of the world education standards are linked to religion and religion is heavily entrenched and actively discriminates against atheists. Often by force.

The Western world in particular is probably less religious than it was 150 years ago, and the dynamics of belief and observance have certainly become more complex—the growing number of people who are unaffiliated with a specific religion is especially fascinating. But if the age of atheism started in 1882 as Watson claims, most people still haven’t caught on.

Perhaps you forget that those ideals forged our western world. That we have become a kinder, more humane world because of those humanist principles. You may still believe in a god but you don’t think the Bible is (for want of a better word) gospel. It is during this time atheists are the most open and most outspoken while prior to this, atheism was a private belief due to the persecution faced.

The Age of Atheists will likely stay confined to certain intellectual circles: The casual philosopher, the dogmatic non-believer, the coffee-table book collector. But insofar as its argument represents a broader pathology in contemporary conversations about belief, this book matters. Most people form their beliefs and live their lives somewhere in the middle of the so-called “culture divide” that outspoken atheists and believers shout across. The more these shouters shout, the more public discourse veers away from the subtle struggle of the average person’s attempt to be human.

I disagree, the cultural divide isn’t just shouting about the existence of the gods but how the people utilise their gods to affect us. There are such divides in Ex-Hindu and Muslim cultures too, not just the “Western” one. To say this you must be blessed to not be  affected by the Cultural Divide. That none of the issues being pushed affect you and so you are free to be an unaffected atheist.

But that doesn’t give you the right to be a snob about those who are affected by the cultural divide.


  1. tuibguy says

    Exactly. I am less interested in debates now that I have been an atheist for several years over the existence of god(s,) and would in that case describe myself as an apatheist. I don’t think that there is enough reason to believe in supernatural powers in order to shape my actions, my goals and my life nor even to hedge my bets as Pascal described in the wager. My concern is the backlash against the Enlightenment and secularism that leads people to push for public policy to be based on their religious beliefs.

    I have not found in my own experience that “religion is a private matter” for most religious people. Some few “Coexist” advocates may be able to see it that way, but religion is used far too often to justify political control over other people’s private lives.

  2. says

    Wow. That’s an impressive parade of straw-targets marching along there.

    summary of the intellectual claim of those who set out to prove that God is dead and religion is false

    I don’t know anyone with more than high school-level philosophy who tries to prove a negative.

    Theirs is a subtle assertion: Believers aren’t educated or thoughtful enough to debunk God

    I don’t know very many atheists that assert that.


    Wow, what a great big whacking load of poor argument and bad reasoning, overlaid with a thin veneer of whine.

  3. RJW says

    There is some research that indicates that religion, or a least a tendency to attribute a supernatural agency to natural phenomena, is a by-product of those psychological characteristics that provided an evolutionary advantage to humans. So there’s a psychological aspect that seems to be missing in all the philosophising about atheism and religion. I can’t remember ever as an adult being religious, and that’s despite a Christian education. I don’t understand why intelligent, educated people believe such nonsense, but they do, there’s a psychological aspect to faith that’s just incomprehensible to born atheists. Of course what supernatural beliefs people would actually hold if they were left to develop their own spirituality and were not brainwashed by the world’s various theocracies is another question entirely.

    “..atheism was a private belief due to the persecution faced.”

    —I don’t agree that atheism is a belief, it’s the absence of belief, although the spectacle of atheists arguing amongst themselves as if it were a doctrine certainly makes an easy target for religious critics of non-belief.

  4. Pieter B, FCD says

    I would argue that there is a subset who take the mantle of atheism as a way to feel superior to the unwashed masses.* They really do characterize believers as either delusional or stupid. I saw one put down Elizabeth Warren’s famous riff about how no one gets rich on their own because she used the phrase “God bless” as a way of saying “Well, good for you.” I can give many other examples, but there’s no need to bore you. To them, the opinions of religious folk are of little value, even if they agree with them.

    In my opinion they are the sort of people who use #FTBullies non-ironically.

    * Ed Brayton might add “And to piss off their parents.”


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