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Atheist Arrogance

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January 29 was the birthday of Thomas Paine. Paine named this country the United States of America. And yet, even 100 years after his death, Theodore Roosevelt once referred to him as a "filthy little atheist." With a man in the White House whose doesn't fit our tidy little boxes, maybe we have a chance to daylight some other long lived stereotypes.

Atheists are arrogant. Who hasn't heard it?

Arrogance is just one of their repellent qualities, of course. They are also ungenerous, cold, lonely, untrustworthy, amoral, and aggressive. You shouldn't leave them around children. When I spoke last week to a group called Seattle Atheists, the organizer positioned me far from the door, and I speculated aloud about whether I should be worried for my safety, given what we know about atheist ethics.

But the most common accusation hurled against atheists is that they are insufferably arrogant. In my experience, this accusation is rarely about a specific encounter: I was talking with Joan, my atheist neighbor down the street last week and do you know how I was treated by that insufferable witch?!

No, it is more like a mantra.

In Seattle, there's a chain of hamburger joints called Dick's. People who find themselves on the topic of hamburgers will say, "Dick's is great" almost as an opener, before they move on to the details of the conversation. Amazingly, I've heard this even from folks who have never eaten there. Dick's is great. Atheists are arrogant.

The accusation provides cover for those who want dismiss thinkers like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, or Christopher Hitchens. I've often marveled that anyone could read Harris' manifesto--written as graduate student's post-9-11 cry of anguish, or Hitchens' litany of social corrosion and atrocity in the names of gods, or Dawkins' urgent appeal to evidence and reason, or Dennett's nerdy analysis of human information processing, and find themselves reacting above all to perceived arrogance. Images of people jumping from fiery buildings. Mutilated genitals. Radically cool glimpses of our mental circuitry - and the dominant reaction is disgust about arrogance?

Interestingly, the accusation also provides cover for those who agree with the Four Horsemen. Young non-theists writing even for edgy places like Wired Magazine or The Stranger go to some lengths to say I'm not like those atheist guys. We all can agree to loathe them. Mind you, they do make a decent point or two . . . . The ugly atheist stereotype is so strong, that people feel like they need to distance from atheism's iconic figures if they want a shot at being heard--or perhaps, even, liking themselves.

But what's underneath the stereotype? For years, as a practicing psychologist, it was my job to listen for the feelings and needs behind the tone, and I think a host of feelings and yearnings are obscured by the "arrogance" label. Below are some of the emotions I hear in the writings and conversations of self-identified atheists, and some my imperfect hypotheses about where they come from:

Nobody self-labels as an atheist in our culture unless he or she is "out" for a reason. It's like looking white in Alabama and making a point to tell people about your black father. Freethinkers who adopt the label publicly have decided for one reason or another to take the heat, and they are not necessarily representative of the broad range of freethinkers who may choose other labels or none at all.

For some people, being out as an atheist is personality driven or developmental. (All of us know natural born contrarians; many of us experiment with identities on the way to adulthood.) For some it is political. For some it comes from a deep conviction that we must find some way to change the public conversation about what is good and what is real and how to live in community with each other. All self-labeled atheists are braced, steeled against the stereotype, but they have varied reasons for looking society in the eye and saying, This is who I am. What they have in common is a sense of determination and the willingness to pay a price.

Theism gets a pass on the rules of reason and evidence that normally guide our social discourse. In a boardroom or a laboratory, we don't get to say, "I just know in my heart that this product is going to sell," or "This drug works even though the experiment didn't come out that way."

Cartoonist Wiley Miller captured atheist frustration perfectly in a recent Non Sequitur entitled "The Invention of Ideology:"

One caveman stands in the rain.
Another behind him under shelter comments, "Um, why you standing in the rain?"
"It not raining"
"Yes it is."
"No it not."
"Huh? Water fall from sky. That rain."
"That your opinion."
"Not opinion. Fact. See? Raindrops."
"Don't need to look. Already know it not rain."
"If it not rain, then why you wet and me dry?"
(Pause) "Define 'wet' . . . "
"Oww . . . Brain hurt!"

What does frustration sound like? When it doesn't sound like brain pain, it sounds impatient,sharp and distancing.

Believers look at the dogmas of religions other than their own and see them as silly, and yet find their own perfectly reasonable. Atheists, except for those few with formal training in the psychology of belief, find it incredible, almost unbelievable that the faithful don't perceive some higher order parallel between their religion and others--and run the numbers, so to speak. Of course that's not how ideology works, and per cognitive scientist Pascal Boyer, rationality is like Swiss Cheese for all of us. But if you buy the Enlightenment view of man as a rational being, it's easy to get sucked in and expect rationality and then be incredulous when you simply can't get smart people to bind themselves to the obligations of logic and evidence.

It feels obnoxious to have people assume that you have no moral core, that you rejected Christianity because you wanted to sin without guilt, or that you are damaged goods, the object of pity. Fundamentalist Christians, when they have given up on conversion, treat non-believers as agents of evil who reject God, like Lucifer did, out of willful defiance. Modernist Christians express benign sympathy -- and look for early childhood wounding (in particular at the hands of fundamentalists that left the scarred freethinker unable to enjoy the wonder and joy of faith. Both fundamentalists and modernists often assume that freethinkers miss out on wonder, joy and a sense of transcendent meaning. Atheists take offense, even when these assumptions are couched kindly and are well intended.

Atheists, along with the rest of America, listened to a presidential inauguration in which the preachers, combined, got almost as much talk time as the president. They help their kids figure out what to do with the anti-communist, "under God" line in the Pledge of Allegiance. (Go along with it? Stand silently? Substitute "under magic"? How about "under Canada?") They pay their bills with "In God we trust." They listen to born-again testimonials as a part of public high school graduation ceremonies and reunions. They do twelve years of training and then twelve hours of surgery and then read in the paper that a child was saved miraculously by prayer. Sometimes they get mad.

On websites like, doubters often lurk for months or even years before they finally confess their loss of faith. Because apostasy is so taboo, they struggle over how to tell their children, or spouses or parents or congregations--especially the fallen ministers. They wrestle with guilt and fear, just like their religions say they should. They deal with rejection, even shunning. Some of them come out at tremendous personal cost. See "When Leaving Jesus means Losing Your Family." Although this doesn't apply to all freethinkers, for those who are in the process of losing their religion, the pain is real. And pain has an edge. Try selling anything, including dogma, to a woman with a migraine.

Not all atheist pain about religion is personal. Many nontheists feel anguished by the sexual abuse that is enabled by religious hierarchy, by women shrouded in black and girls barred from schools, by the implements of inquisition that lie in museums, by ongoing Christian witch burnings in Africa and India, or by those images of people leaping from windows. Even less dramatic suffering can be hard to witness- children who fear eternal torture, teens who attempt suicide because they are gay and so condemned, women who submit to their own abuse or the abuse of their children because God hates divorce. To the extent that we experience empathy, these events are can feel unbearable, the more so because they seem so unnecessary.

Moral Indignation
Atheist morality is rooted in notions of universal ethical principles, either philosophical or biological, and often centered on compassion and equity. Since the point of atheist morality is to serve wellbeing, suffering caused by religion often triggers not only horror but moral outrage. Each believer sees his or her religion as a positive moral force in a corrupt world. Most think that morality comes straight from their god. Because of this, believers fail to recognize when atheist outrage is morally rooted. They don't understand that atheists frequently see religion as a force that pushes otherwise decent people to have immoral priorities. When, for example, the religious oppose vaccinations, or contraception, or they come to care more about gay marriage than hunger, an atheist is likely to perceive that religion undermines morality. When theism sanctifies terrorism or honor killings, atheists are apalled.

Love and Longing
What folks like Sam Harris and Bill Maher are saying, as loudly as they know how, is that they love this imperfect world, and they fear for it. They long to see that which they cherish most: natural beauty, global community, human rights, and the fruits of scientific discovery handed down to their children and ours. But they believe wholeheartedly in the power of religion to destroy that which they hold dear. Why?

Need we even ask? Think about the Twin Towers, the Taliban, the Religious Right's yearning for Armageddon, the geometric progression of our global population curve and the Church's opposition to family planning as a moral responsibility. Think about the trajectory of human religious history - what has happened in the past when unquestioned ideologies controlled government and military. Think abstractly about a social/economic/international policy approach that is unaccountable to data, one that sees doubt as weakness, agreement among insiders as proof, and change as bad. Think concretely about suitcase nukes in the hands of Pentecostals or Wahabis who believe that a deity is speaking directly through their impulses and intuitions.

The prophets of the godless are crying out that 21st century technologies guided by Bronze Age priorities may bring about a scale of suffering that our ancestors could describe only as hell. You might not agree with them, but to understand their in-your-face stridency as anything more complex than arrogance, you have hear the depth of their urgency.

Have you ever had a dream in which, no matter how hard you try no-one can hear you? Many freethinkers feel like that whenever they try to talk about their journey of discovery.
"Hey," say former fundies. "Guess what I found out. The Bible contradicts itself. Do you want to see where?"
"I never meant to end up godless," say former moderates. "Do you want to hear how it happened?"
"'A theory' isn't something we dream up afterhours," say biologists. "Can we tell you what a scientific theory is to us?"
"We think we've figured out how those out-of-body experiences and bright lights work - at a neurological level," say neuroscientists. "Care to know?"
"Religion may increase compassion toward insiders at the expense of outsiders," say sociologists. "Are you interested in finding out?"
"What if we can no longer afford beliefs without evidentiary basis?" ask the bell ringers. "What if unaccountable belief inevitably produces some that are dangerous?"

It's not the fundamentalists they are hoping to engage. It is moderate, decent people of faith--the majority of the human race. But are moderate believers open to such questions? Many outsiders think not, and people who feel hopeless about being heard either go silent or get loud.

So, let's come back to arrogance.

Yes. Atheists are susceptible. They think they have it right. (So do we all.) And yes, those nonbelievers who underestimate the power of viral ideologies and transcendent experiences tend to think that belief must be an IQ thing, meaning a lack thereof. And yes, dismay, pain, outrage, incredulity and desperation all make people tactless, sometimes aggressively so.

But I don't think any of these is why frank talk from atheists so consistently triggers accusations of arrogance. The unflinching tones adopted by the Four Horsemen are not more harsh or critical than what we accept routinely in academic debate or civic life. It is the subject matter that is the issue.

I would argue that atheist talk about religion seems particularly harsh because it violates unspoken norms about how we should approach religion in our relationships and conversations. Here are some of those rules:
  • It's plain old mean to shake the faith that gives another person comfort and community, so don't do it.
  • If you doubt, keep it to yourself.
  • Practice don't-ask-don't tell about unbelief.
  • Be respectful of other people--respecting people means respecting their beliefs.
  • If someone tries to convert you, be polite because they only mean well.
  • Remember that faith is good and even a brittle, misguided faith is better than none at all.

Outspoken atheists break all of these rules. They do and say things that are verboten. They insert their evidences and opinions where these are clearly unwelcome. Is this the height of self-importance?

Recently I interviewed former Pentecostal minister Rich Lyons about his journey out of Christianity. We found ourselves laughing about the velvet arrogance of our former beliefs: that we, among all humans knew for sure what was real; that we knew what the Bible writers actually meant; that our instincts, hunches and emotions were the voice of God; that we were designated messengers for the power that created the galaxies and DNA code -- and that He just happened to have an oh-so-human psyche, like ours. What other hubris could compare, really?

Maybe it is time for all of us glass-house dwellers, theists and freethinkers alike, to move beyond conversations about arrogance and onto much needed conversations about substance.