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Feb 15 2010

The alleged arrogance of atheists

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

Over at Machines Like Us, my post on introducing the label ‘Unapologetic Atheist’ started a lively debate in the comments section. In the course of it, people have once again raised the charge that unapologetic atheists (also known as ‘new atheists’) are rude and arrogant and uncivil and needlessly hostile towards religious people. (The cartoon strip Jesus and Mo comments on this charge of ‘atheist bile’.)

The catch is that we are never told exactly what statements fall under these categories. To so to try and clarify things, I will list the statements that I commonly make and I would be curious to know which ones religious people find objectionable and why. So here goes:

  1. There is no more credible evidence to believe in god, heaven, hell, and the afterlife than there is for fairies, Santa Claus, wizards, Elohim, Satan, Xenu, The Flying Spaghetti Monster, and unicorns.
  2. Science and religion are incompatible worldviews.
  3. The world would be better off without any religion or beliefs in the supernatural.

Everything else I or any other new/unapologetic atheists write follow from these premises and are arguments designed to support and advance them. (Jerry Coyne has a nice summary of the atheists position.) So are the above statements rude, arrogant, hostile, uncivil, etc.?

To help us make a judgment, let us formulate what the opposite pole of those statements might look like:

  1. There is more credible evidence to believe in god, heaven, hell, and the afterlife than there is for fairies, Santa Claus, wizards, Elohim, Xenu, The Flying Spaghetti Monster, and unicorns.
  2. Science and religion are compatible worldviews.
  3. The world would be worse off without any religion or beliefs in the supernatural.

If any statement in the first set is rude, then by symmetry one should concede that so is the corresponding opposite statement. I think that I am safe in saying that most people would say that the second set of statements are completely inoffensive. In fact such statements are routinely made by religious apologists and are praised as ‘moderate’. And yet you never find atheists saying that religious people are being arrogant and rude because they say that god exists and atheists are wrong. It is this difference that is telling.

So if what we atheists say is rude and hostile, why doesn’t it hold true for the opposite? The situation is even worse than a mere lack of symmetry. Religious people don’t feel that there is anything wrong in even saying that nonbelievers are going to hell and making absurd demands in the guise of seeking accommodation. In fact, that is their standard shtick, as my conversations with the Jesus people showed. (See here, here, and here.)

I think I know what really offends religious people about what new/unapologetic atheists say and why. What they want us to say is that belief in some form of traditional religion is somehow respectable and rational to believe in. What they desperately want to avoid is having their beliefs lumped in with all the other evidence-free superstitions, like astrology or witchcraft or Scientology or Xenu or Elohim or Rael or unicorns or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. When we say that there is no credible evidence for any of these things and hence they must be treated equally, they get upset. They desperately want to distinguish themselves from what they consider to be fringe beliefs but they cannot find any meaningful criteria by which to do so. So they want us to stop reminding them of the embarrassing fact that they are no different.

If you listen to the many debates that have been held on whether god exists what you essentially hear from the religious side is the plaintive cry “Please, please don’t say that our beliefs are irrational. Please, please say that it is reasonable for us to believe in Jehovah/Yahweh/Melvin/Jesus/Harvey/Allah/Krishna/…(circle the name of your preferred god or insert your write-in candidate) and we will join you in denouncing things like astrology, witchcraft and the like.”

But of course atheists will not say that because to do so is to give up atheism and we are not going to do so without evidence.

Atheists are confident that there is no god or other form of supernatural agency. Having believers simply say we are wrong or even going to hell does not offend us because they never provide any evidence in support so why should we care? But religious people know that they have no evidence to support their belief and are embarrassed by the thought that their beliefs are irrational and unscientific, and haunted by the fear that they are wrong. Rather than shutting their own ears to avoid hearing things they dislike, they want us to shut our mouths.

Maybe I am wrong in my analysis of why believers make the charge that new/unapologetic atheists are arrogant. So here is my request to those who believe it is true: Tell me exactly what statements that the new/unapologetic atheists make that are arrogant/rude/uncivil and why.

POST SCRIPT: Bertrand Russell on atheism and its implications

This clip reminds us that the ‘new’ atheism is pretty old.

6 comments

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  1. 1
    Jared Bendis

    Mano, I have read your posts for years – and I know you in person. I’m often shocked about how confrontational your posts can be. I can’t imagine any other person I know not just discussing their opinion publicly but making clear their feeling on the beliefs of others.

    Today I was hurt by what I read. I don’t think you meant it to hurt – I know it wasn’t directed at me personally – and I don’t think you will care for my counterargument but I felt I needed to say it: Today your words hurt me.

    Your three arguments.

    1 There is no more credible evidence to believe in god, heaven, hell, and the afterlife than there is for fairies, Santa Claus, wizards, Elohim, Satan, Xenu, The Flying Spaghetti Monster, and unicorns.

    I agree there isn’t – 100%!

    2 Science and religion are incompatible worldviews.

    From a worldview perspective I would have to agree but I think its a narrow minded outlook (not your narrow minded just a general one ie a worldview). I believe in both science and religion. I was raised to believe that God created this perfect system and that it is our duty to explore it using science. I even believe you can be a creationist and a scientist. I don’t believe creationism should be taught in a science class nor do I believe science should be taught in a religion class. They use different methods to achieve their goals – they admittedly don’t mix well but they can easily co-exist. (Though they haven’t)

    3 The world would be better off without any religion or beliefs in the supernatural.

    This hurt me. It hurt me because I know about religious oppression. I know that many people think you are going to Hell for being an Atheist as much as they think I am going to Hell for being a Jew. We are alike, I assume, in that we don’t care about their opinions :)

    However – I think you really don’t get how deep rooted religion is into the psyche of those that are religious or have a faith. To wish away their religion is almost to wish away them.

    I could read your statement as
    The world would be better off without Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. (etc)

    And I could read your statement as
    The world would be better off without Jews, Christians, and Muslims. (etc)

    Now I am not saying you meant that, but, to propose the nullification of that part of me is to propose my nullification. And I read it as hate speech.

    And I don’t deny that some of the worst things the world have ever seen has been done in the name of religion.

    I’m not asking you to stop being an Atheist.
    I don’t believe you are going to Hell.
    I don’t want to convert you to my way of thinking.

    I would just hope that when you publicly “wish us away” that you realize it’s not friendly. And if you know it and you don’t care – then its just not nice.

    I am writing from my heart here because I really felt wounded by this. I felt much better just writing it and debated on if I should post it or not but then I figured that wouldn’t be fair to you.

    I know and respect you enough to know you will read what I have written – I don’t want you to change your mind – just ponder the point of view.

    Jared

  2. 2
    Jared P

    :-) I like it when Professor Singham writes about non-religious topics. Those can be enlightening. Religious talk bores me though, so I skip those articles.

    He’s probably mentioned the point of the religious articles, somewhere inside them, where I never read. But to me, being an atheist/agnostic is functionally equivalent, and once you arrive at that conclusion…there’s nothing more to think about. If you conclude that there’s no god, or that there likely isn’t one, continuing to even think the word ‘god’ doesn’t serve a purpose. Unless you’re insecure in your beliefs, or consider the thought of gods aesthetically pleasing in some way (I fall into the latter category, myself. I read the Ellimist Chronicles at a tender age, and it’s hard not to have a romanticized vision of ‘gods’ after reading that).

    If somebody isn’t an atheist/agnostic, then they’ve accepted an irrational viewpoint of the world, and talking about their beliefs would be pointless. Rational thinking didn’t bring them to their viewpoint, and rational thinking won’t bring them out of it. At best, an FAQ explaining their fallacies might be called for. I’m sure that many such documents exist around the internet. But the *endless* debating about the subject is endless for a very good reason. I guess it provides hours of entertainment for its participants, so cheers for that.

    I can really only conceive of two reasons to talk about religion- from a human psychology perspective, to examine what human neuroses caused religious belief to occur in religious people. Or what neuroses cause a lack of belief :-) I imagine the topic has already been discussed to death by innumerable authors.
    The other reason would be to examine how religion affects public policy. Which many news sites I’m sure already do.

    Meh, in other words, I look forward to any future non-religious articles you produce, Professor Singham!

  3. 3
    Dulcy

    Hi Mano,
    I really like it when you talk about religion. I loved your posts about conversations with the Jesus people. I like your essays on atheism.

    Jared B.- I do not understand your love of irrationality. You say that you understand that there is no proof of god. Yet you treasure your religion? It sounds like you were indoctrinated from a young age. I can see how customs that have been with you your whole life might seem comforting to you. But I do not understand why you would want to perpetuate a system of untruth. To me, that is evil.

  4. 4
    Mano

    Hi Jared B.,

    Thanks for your comment. I know it is heartfelt and I appreciate it.

    You make a lot of thoughtful points and I started to write a response but it got too long so I thought I would post it as a separate post which will appear soon.

    I have been traveling for the past ten days and only just returned which is why I have been tardy in responding.

  5. 5
    Jared Bendis

    Mano, thanks for your quick note :) I know you tend to write more on weekends and I joked to myself how unfair it was to post on a Monday.

    To quickly respond to two the two other posts.

    There is indeed a logic to think that the discussion of religion is a futile effort because those who have a religion or faith are just delusional. There is an old saying that says “Never argue with an idiot – they will drag you down to their level and then beat you with experience.” I was not engaging Mano in a discussion on the existence of God.

    I really believe that God is fundamentally unprovable. For some I just “made your point” and that’s the end of the conversation. Some will just ignore everything I had to say because I said “I believe in God”. How you can exist in today’s society is beyond me – as a Jew if I only interacted with other Jews then the world would be a lonely place (we are only 2% of the planet). How many Atheist are there out there? (Wikipedia says 2.5%)

    Dulcy says they don’t understand my “Love of Irrationality” clearly from the tone of their writing wouldn’t want to. I chuckled at the use of the world “evil” which I think has such a faith based connotation (and a concept I am not fond of in general).

    One of my closest friends is an Atheist and we often talk about religion in an academic way – we trade ideas, we share ideas, and we explore each others’ beliefs. I generally know what makes him tick, and I know why he doesn’t need a belief in God in the way I do. Science can’t prove that there is a God – but it has demonstrated that people have the capacity to believe in God. If I played a skeptic for a moment can’t I just be a “slave” to that biological and psychological need – and if I am then what’s wrong with that? Its part of who we are to have a belief. Can’t you respect that?

  6. 6
    Jared Allred

    It’s attack of the Jareds this week!

    This is just a quick response to Jared Bendis:

    I can empathize with how you feel because I was in a very similar place about 8 or so years ago, but now I am closer in opinion to the other commenters. I just want to say that while I see WHY you can feel personally attacked by the statement “The world would be better off without Judaism, Christianity, and Islam”, it really isn’t fair to say that it is equivalent to the statement “The world would be better off without Jews, Christians, and Muslims.”

    Why aren’t the two statements exactly the same? The same reason the two statements “The world would be better off if people agreed that stealing is not ok” and “The world would be better off without thieves.” There is some overlap in the meaning, and someone could believe both, but there are some very important differences, too. Think about it for awhile.

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