Last week, I talked about the insidious assortment of “Shut up, that’s why” arguments that get made against atheists and atheism.
Today, I want to talk about where I think the “Shut up, that’s why” arguments come from.
There was a story on “This American Life” last week that hit me really strongly. It wasn’t about atheism, but I think it cuts to the heart of the “Shut up, that’s why” argument, so I’m going to sum it up here quickly, to show you what I’m talking about.
The story was about a family with a family legend. The grandfather of the family had been lost on a camping trip when he was a child, but was recovered eight months later, from (the legend said) the itinerant tinker who had kidnapped him. One of the granddaughters became intensely curious about this legend, and started doing research to find out more about the story — a story that had been widely reported in many newspapers, and which even had a folk song written about it.
But the more she dug, the more oddities and inconsistencies she found in the story, as reported by both the papers and the legend. In particular, there was another woman who had claimed that the kidnapped child was really hers. Her offspring also had a family legend: the legend of the kidnapped child, who, through a travesty of justice, wound up being given to another family. Long story short: The more the granddaughter dug, the more she realized that this other woman’s claims had merit. Every piece of solid evidence seemed to confirm it. Eventually she had DNA testing done… and found that, in fact, this other woman was right. Whether consciously, or un-, or some combination of the two, her great- grandparents had taken her grandfather from his real mother.
And the granddaughter’s family was furious.
At her. For digging this story up.
They didn’t want to know the truth. Seriously, passionately, entirely consciously — they didn’t want to know. They said as much. Many of them refused to accept it, despite an insurmountable body of evidence. And it caused a great family schism, with many members of the family barely speaking to the woman who had uncovered the difficult truth.
Do you see where I’m going with this?
Here’s what struck me about this story. When Ingrid and I were talking about it, both of us were utterly baffled at the family members who didn’t want to know the truth. It’s not that we couldn’t grasp the “not wanting to know” concept. We’ve both had icky “I didn’t want to know that” experiences, things we’ve learned about friends or colleagues that didn’t enrich our lives and that just made things difficult. We got that. But we didn’t get how, once you knew that there was a mystery, you could just let it go. We understood how you could fool yourself unconsciously — that’s just human nature, we all do it — but we didn’t understand how you could fool yourself consciously. For both of us, knowing that there was a big unanswered question that might have a complex and difficult answer… that would eat away at us, way, way more than the complex and difficult answer itself.
I think there are two kinds of people. (Okay, that’s a gross oversimplification. It’s more like all people have two personality traits, and some of us have more of one, and some have more of the other. But for simplicityâs sake, let’s call that “two kinds of people” for now.) There are people who are content and want to stay that way; people who don’t want conflict or upset; people who want a peaceful life in which everybody gets along… and if that means you don’t talk about certain things or ask certain questions, they consider that a fair price. People who, like Slartibartfast, would rather be happy than right.
And there are people who, once curiosity bites us, cannot shake it.
Now, although it may sound like it, I’m not actually saying that one type is inherently better than the other. Obviously, I’m more the stubbornly curious type, and I’m strongly biased in that direction. But I can see the value in both. It may well be that the human race needs both. I have a lot of the “diplomat/ reconciler/ seeing both sides/ trying to defuse conflict” personality in me too, and I think that’s important — without it, we’d all be at each other’s throats constantly.
And unshakeable curiosity can be a very mixed blessing. Not just because it can stir shit up and alienate people, either. It can be a mixed blessing because sometimes it’s a dead end. Ask any true crime aficionado: detectives or reporters with unsolved cases can be driven mad by them.
So I’m not trying to say, “Atheists are better than theists.”
What I’m saying is this:
I think this is one of the reasons that conversations between atheists and theists can get so difficult.
I think that, when we argue with theists, atheists tend to assume that of course theists want to know the truth. Of course they want to follow the God question to its logical conclusion. Don’t they? The question of whether God does or does not exist is a huge one, with enormous consequences in how we live our lives and how we understand the world. Who doesn’t want to understand the world as well and as clearly as they can?
And I think — this is more of a stretch, since I don’t quite grasp this mindset or what it feels like — but I think that theists tend to assume that of course atheists are looking for a worldview that they find appealing and useful, rather than one that they find consistent and plausible. I think that many theists really don’t get why atheists would rather be right than happy. (Not that we’re not happy… but you know what I mean.) Who doesn’t want a peaceful life of contentment?
Look at the “Shut up, that’s why” arguments I talked about last week. “Atheists are so whiny.” “Atheists think they’re so smart.” “Atheists keep talking about atheism and expecting us to care about it, but we don’t, and other things are more important.” “This is private business, and it’s not nice to talk about it or to argue with people about it.” “This isn’t about arguments and evidence, anyway. “”We’re sick of hearing about it.” “Why do they care so much what other people believe?” “Can’t we all just get along?”
What else are these but arguments for getting along, over insatiable curiosity?
And look at how theists react when they debate atheists. I can’t be the only atheist who’s had this experience: theists start off debating us, all excited and revved up and proud of themselves for their open-minded willingness to engage with the atheists and question their own faith… and, as the debate wears on, they get increasingly unhappy, and upset, and angry. Anger that gets aimed at us. It’s always baffled me. I’m like, “But you said you wanted to debate this! Don’t you?”
The answer is no. They don’t. They want to want to debate it. They want to be the kind of person who wants to debate it. They want to be the insatiable curiosity type, the intellectually courageous type who will ask any question and follow the answers wherever they lead. But they’re not. Not when it comes to God.
I’m not saying that all theists are incurious sheep. Far from it. But I do think that — when it comes to the God question, at least — theists are willing to take their investigations only so far, and no further. Some won’t take it more than a step or two, as you see with hardcore young- earth creationist fundies who won’t even consider the possibility that their 5,000 year old book might be mistaken in one or two places. Some will take it very far indeed, as you see with some modern theologians who make better arguments for atheism than a lot of atheists… but then can’t quite take that final step. (And obviously, there are theists who do take that final step, and become atheists.) But the unwillingness to follow this question to its logical conclusion seems to be a hallmark of religion. I mean, isn’t that the very definition of religious faith — believing in God, even when all the evidence and arguments are telling you not to believe?
And I do think that atheists — at least, the ones who once had religious belief and left it behind — tend to have that stubbornness, that unwillingness to just let things slide, that dogged determination once we get our minds around a question to take it as far as it goes, wherever it goes, even if it goes somewhere that freaks us the fuck out. When it comes to the God question, at least.
So I think when atheists and theists debate, we’re often debating at cross purposes. We’re assuming that we have the same goals. And often we don’t. Often in a discussion or a debate, the atheist’s goal is in direct conflict with the believer’s goal. And I don’t just mean the obvious goal of “persuade this person that religion is right/ persuade this person that atheism is right.” The goal of relentlessly pursuing a difficult question to its logical conclusion is often in direct conflict with the goal of keeping things peaceful, content, and on an even keel.
And I think this explains the “blame the messenger” quality that defines so many theist/ atheist debates. If you think that the goal of a conversation is to pursue the truth as far as you possibly can, then blaming the messenger makes no sense. But if you think that the goal of a conversation is to resolve conflict and return society to the status quo, then relentlessly curious messengers are to blame. (It also explains the feeling I’ve sometimes had, one that other atheists have said they’ve had: the feeling of being a killjoy, the rain god on everybody’s parade.)
I’m not quite sure where I’m going with this. I’m not sure where the solution might lie; if anyone has any thoughts on that, I’d love to hear them. But two things are coming to mind.
One is that atheists need to be better about making atheism a safe place to land. We need to make it clear that being an atheist doesn’t mean being dissatisfied, restless, and constantly at odds with everyone around you. We need to make it clear that atheists can not only have happy lives, and meaningful lives, but calm and peaceful lives.
The other is that atheists need to keep the conversation going: not just so we can persuade more people, but so the conversation itself can become more normal.
Right now, I think one of the reasons these debates are so fraught and divisive is that, for a lot of people, the ideas in them are so new. If we keep the conversation going, in both the public sphere and our private lives, I think the flavor of it is likely to shift: from a shocking assault on people’s most fundamental values, to an ongoing family argument that everyone’s a little tired of but that everyone’s familiar with. The cat will be well and truly out of the bag. And the attempts to stop the discussion with “Shut up, that’s why” arguments will become increasingly pointless and irrelevant.