Atheists are not popular. This comes as no surprise to us or anyone, really. As far as I can tell we are dead last in every U.S. poll in which we are included and explicit terrorists, Nazis, and the Westboro Baptist Church are not.
I suppose the cultural assumption that ‘you need God to be good’ should be explanation enough for our banishment from the realm of the acceptable (Would you want your sister to marry one? Would you want to be one? Nuh uh.) But I keep running into a common plea that no, the problem is not really atheism. Atheism isn’t necessarily okay, of course … but after all it’s a free country and people have the right to believe what they want to believe. It takes all kinds. Just be nice and you’re okay.
No, the problem isn’t atheism itself – it’s atheists. But not all atheists. The tolerant believers discern critical distinctions in the group. There are Good Atheists who don’t manage to believe in God themselves but who still manage to show the courtesy to respect those who do. And then there are the ones like Richard Dawkins . The outspoken ones, the militant ones, the shrill ones who won’t shut up and try to blend in and instead write books and articles and letters meant for the general public. The stigma is focused like a laser on the atheists who act ‘just like fundamentalists’ by trying to convert people and thereby change their minds. The arrogant. The not-nice.
It’s an insidious trope which appeals to values like respect, acceptance, and inclusion: why would anyone be so rude as to try to get other people to not believe in God? What about diversity? Diversity is good. We ought to let people be who they are.
Outspoken atheists then are disparaged even by those who claim to be “fine” with atheism because we are seen as breaking the social contract which values diversity and individuality. Atheists attack people’s deepest identity the way racists attack race or bullies attack those who are different than them. When you get right down to it — they’re bigots. Telling people their religion is wrong is being judgmental.
This is apparently a major charge made against us. I feel as if I see and read and encounter variations of it all around. I suspect most of us do. It’s a theme which seems to run more often through liberal communities than the conservative ones (which are usually just fine with the assumption that you can’t be good without God) but many of us live in such communities and engage regularly with those who seem so frustratingly on the edge of rationality.
So I’ve been attempting to figure out exactly what is happening and why, working it out mostly here and there in parts and pieces. Since PZ gave me the keys while he’s away, though, I’ll take advantage and will to try to expand a bit, to see whether people in this forum think it makes sense. Because I think that, once again, theists are making a category error when it comes to religion. And they’re getting a lot of non-theists to go along with them because they are appealing to values which are essentially not religious, but humanist.
Bottom line, there is a sort of equivocation going on with the concept of “diversity” – and it’s helping to fuel the general antipathy towards atheists.
Consider it this way: it might be said that there are two basic frameworks in which we value ‘diversity’ as a modern virtue. One of them is what I call the Diversity Smorgasbord. The other is what we can call the Diverse Problem-Solving Group.
The Diversity Smorgasbord is one where everyone brings their favorite “dish” – their preferences, their lifestyles, their values, their choices, and everything else that contributes to their identity, to what makes them them and not someone else. Maybe you bring a chocolate cake and I don’t like chocolate cake. That’s fine. No judgment here – it’s not a cooking contest. Take what you need and leave the rest.
It’s all good. Some people like living in the country and some people like living in the city. Some people are brown and some people are white. Some people prefer Star Trek over Star Wars and some people choose banking over a career in modern dance. Whatever floats your boat, whatever you love … whoever you are. A humanist society focuses on the rights and flourishing of the individual. The more diversity, the better.
That’s an important point. No right, no wrong – just different. Genuine tolerance demands that you accept people just as they are. Come into a Diversity Smorgasbord with the idea that you are going to criticize, debate, or set people straight and you’re a bully, a bigot, or both. That’s because the stakes of the argument are so inherently personal. If one person “wins,” then the other person loses in a battle for status and identity. You’re wrong to like the music you like. You’re wrong to love the person you love. You’re wrong to be the person you are. Because I’m better than you and you’re lower. In such a contentious atmosphere it is not safe to express yourself.
That is what we mean when we say someone is being “judgmental.”
So no. Trying to change someone’s mind in a Diversity Smorgasbord is seen as harmful, disruptive, and rude. You’re not supposed to do that (unless the other person can take it in good spirit and agrees to go along.) In a civil society we’re not just supposed to accept differences – we’re supposed to welcome them. Doing otherwise displays an unbecoming arrogance and insensitivity. It’s judgmental.
But then there is the Diverse Problem-Solving Group. The diversity here has a different purpose than allowing self-expression to flourish unhindered. In a problem-solving group individuals are united together on common ground: they share a problem. They’re trying to find an answer or a solution or an agreement reached. And this search for consensus can only be as good and open and honest as it gets if you have both an assumption of equality and a lot of diversity, a lot of contending ideas being sifted through and argued for and argued against to provide checks and balances against the tendency towards human error. The more diversity the better, yes – but not as the goal.
The ultimate goal is to find out what is right and what is wrong: solve the problem. Judge. Not who is right — as if all anyone cared about was expressing their individual “opinion” and there it rests. It’s the marketplace of ideas and so there are winners and losers. But if you honestly care about the problematic issue then every defeat is a victory. You made a mistake and we all learned something – including you. Win-win.
For example: all the fish are dying in our lake. Why? Is the lake polluted? How? What should we do? Should we do anything at all? Arguments and evidence and ideas are bandied about and every time someone says “you’re wrong” and can prove it then we’ve got a healthy situation. The diverse group is making progress. They are finding a solution. There is no progress if nobody can make a mistake. You can shut down an idea … but you better not shut down a voice. That voice might be the very check and balance you need.
Assuming, that is, that you care more about discovering truth than you care about protecting your turf, your ego, and your identity.
And this I think is the crux of the matter when it comes to gnu atheism and the charge of bigotry: categorization. Where does the general category of “religion” go? “Religious beliefs?” When push comes to shove and we get right down to what religion actually is about — which Diversity Group does it go under?
You have already guessed. Yes, atheists place ‘religion’ in the Diverse-Problem Solving Group.
The religious place “religion’ in the Diversity Smorgasbord.
AND they put it in the Problem-Solving Group, too. It gets to be both. Such is the insidious, sneaking, self-referential nature of “faith” and the idea that what you believe about God is all going to come down to a reflection of the kind of person you are and the “choices” you make because of this.
Philosopher Stephen Law talks about “immunizing strategies” – mental tricks and tactics which follow bad ideas along in order to protect them from critical scrutiny (like a dowser suddenly and forever more insisting that dowsing ‘can’t be tested’ after a failed test.) If what a person believes about God is treated like a fundamental unit of self-identity then religion falls into the Diversity Smorgasbord and it can’t be touched. Try to change someone’s mind and you’re trying to take who they are away from them. “Differences” need to be respected here, not challenged. Don’t be judgmental.
And thus religion manages to ride to credibility and acceptance on the back of a general public agreement for harmony which is grounded in humanistic tolerance. No, we don’t want to be judgmental, do we?
Which would all be fine if all religion was and all spirituality entailed was a sort of aesthetic appreciation for nature and virtue and art. If religion were like knitting and it’s okay if you don’t knit or are allergic to wool then there would be no problem with the Smorgasbord approach. But it isn’t. Religion is a model of the world. It’s supposed to involve knowledge about the way reality works, how it’s set up — and what we ought to do about that. They look and observe and think and draw conclusions that the natural world is not a sufficient explanation. These are the religionists own standards: the meaning of life and the key to wisdom and understanding.
Whether God exists or not is supposed to matter. It’s an empirical conclusion which is supposed to be right … and atheism is supposed to be wrong. It’s supposed to be wrong regardless of whether or not the atheist is “nice” enough to shut up and respect the rules of the Diversity Smorgasbord. The so-called Good Atheists are kidding themselves if they think the God-believers on the other side really, really have no problem with them because hey, it’s all a matter of taste, right? No. Not really.
The pious need to pick a horse and ride it. If religion is nothing more than a matter of taste, a personal inclination which expresses feelings and concerns – then stop the endless emphasis on God, God, God and how important it is that God exists and how important it is to believe in God. You don’t give a crap about whether it exists: you’re only going with what works for you as part of your identity. As Daniel Dennett puts it, you believe in belief.
But if whether your religion is actually true actually matters – then take religion off of the Diversity Smorgasbord and place it firmly in the Problem-Solving Group. Advance “the existence of God” as a proposed explanation for observations and enter an honest debate. Don’t suddenly shift back into the Smorgasbord when you encounter active resistance and demand respect for your private little “choice.” And don’t then slip right back into the Problem-Solving Group when you get together again with those seekers who have found the same solution you have. We atheists are in on the search, too. We are part of your group. We share the common ground. Win-win.
As I said above, I think there is more than just a desire for self-protection behind the back-and-forth equivocation in how believers want religion to be categorized. I think there’s a fundamental confusion which comes directly from entangling the concept of “faith” into how we derive conclusions about the supernatural.
When it gets right down to it religious faith isn’t “belief without evidence.” It’s believing on evidence which is insufficient to convince a low, narrow, arrogant, cold, heartless, closed-minded person – but which is sufficient to convince someone like you! It’s a personal commitment to always and forever spin the evidence in the “right” direction. Faith is the psychic mind call to the higher minds — those rare individuals with the deep, humble, warm openness of heart that allows them to connect with the divine and appreciate the sacred. Bypass reason — or at least curtail it. With faith, people are supposed to derive their conclusion (“therefore, God exists”) by drawing on their identity (“I want to be the kind of person who believes.”)
And this entire set-up screws not only epistemology; it screws the atheist. It removes us from the common ground of rational debate and places us in the situation of being a very sorry dish indeed on the Smorgasbord of Personalities. It takes away our reasons and arguments and forces not-believing-in-God into the role of self-expressive personal choice. And no matter how liberal and spiritual a believer may be, being the ‘kind of person” who doesn’t believe in God is not good. We have brought liver-and-onions to the Cake Table.
When religion is considered part of the Diversity Smorgasbord it doesn’t contribute to the harmony and tolerance of diverse viewpoints. On the contrary. Because ‘religion’ is supposed to be in the Diverse Problem-Solving Group – because it belongs in that group as long as the truth of the beliefs matter to the believer — then this move only effectively shuts up a voice by shutting down dissent. It’s divisive. And it ends up being a form of bullying and bigotry itself.
It seems to me that using this conceptual model of diversity – the Diversity Smorgasbord vs. the Diverse Problem-Solving Group – has helped me clarify my thoughts somewhat and perhaps aided my understanding of the automatic hostility often directed towards atheists from people who don’t seem to fall into the usual You-Need-God-to-Be-Good crowd. The diverse diversities might even help explain some of the reasoning behind the anti-gnu atheists, the faitheists and accomodationists who would never, ever be so rude as to try to change another person’s religious beliefs. They’re letting the religious set the framework. They’re buying into the equivocation. And then they’re being reasonable, fair, tolerant, accepting, and good. They’re not judgmental.
No. I think we need to go back and look at categories. The religious have turned category error into an art form. Don’t let them get away with it. Solve a problem. Judge.