For the Sake of Argument - "Secularists: Why We Need to be Different"


by J. Andrew Zalucky

(Photo: CNN)

There was a very good piece the other day in the UK paper, The Telegraph, by writer Brendan O’Neill about the culture of modern atheism and how its become degraded into a caste of self-righteous know-it-all elitists. Funny thing is, Brendan O’Neill is actually an atheist himself, but remarks that “Things are now so bad that I tend to keep my atheism to myself, and instead mumble something about being a very lapsed Catholic if I’m put on the spot, for fear that uttering the A-word will make people think I’m a Dawkins drone with a mammoth superiority complex and a hives-like allergy to nurses wearing crucifixes.”

Though I have not quite reached that point myself, I can definitely relate to O’Neill’s sentiments here. Towards the end of college and for a short time after that, I went through my “movement-atheist” phase, where I read The God Delusion and God is Not Great and watched endless hours of debates and lectures on YouTube by “The New Atheists”. Truth be told, I still hold much of the same views I did then, but have just become more nuanced about the way I think about the subject. More than anything, I agree the most with Martin Amis’ position where he says that the “rational position is to be an agnostic teetering on the very brink of atheism”. I’m still a firm secularist, and I consider the strong separation of church and state, the promotion of rational scientific discourse over superstition, and the general secularization of politics and geo-politics (see: Israel/Palestine, Northern Ireland, ect.) as some of the things I care about the most. But because I care about these things so much, I find so many atheists I run into now so unlikeable and embarrassing to be associated with. You will find that many of the loudest spokesmen for the irreligious cause are the absolute WORST people to be speaking on its behalf. O’Neill says much of the same thing (emphasis my own):

Atheists online are forever sharing memes about how stupid religious people are…Atheists in the public sphere spend their every tragic waking hour doing little more than mocking the faithful. In the words of Robin Wright, they seem determined “to make it not just uncool to believe, but cool to ridicule believers”. To that end if you ever have the misfortune, as I once did, to step foot into an atheistic get-together, which are now common occurrences in the Western world, patronised by people afflicted with repetitive strain injury from so furiously patting themselves on the back for being clever, you will witness unprecedented levels of intellectual smugness and hostility towards hoi polloi.

I wouldn’t call it intellectual smugness so much as intellectual laziness. O’Neill’s closes by saying Atheism’s main problem is that it’s little more than a denial of a positive, or “the transformation of this nothing into an identity, into the basis of one’s outlook on life, which gives rise to today’s monumentally annoying atheism. The problem with today’s campaigning atheists is that they have turned their absence of belief in God into the be-all and end-all of their personality.” In other words, the denial of a certain metaphysical position becomes the defining feature of a person’s character.

In this sense, the problem arises that instead of standing for certain concrete causes and principles that ALL humanity can benefit from and unite around, the issue instead becomes: what can we do to benefit fellow atheists and make sure people stop hurting our feelings? As is typical in Anglo-American culture, atheism has become yet another matter of identity politics, of a group rallying around common historical grievances, forming associations with long acronyms, and wasting their time bitching about nativity scenes on the highway because of how “offensive” they are. This has done tragically little to spread the cause of secularism and done much more to turn atheists in cartoon-character snobs who never shut up about how “free-thinking” and “logical” they are because of their ability to string big words together.

All this has done is to play right into the hands of equally smug and self-righteous religious conservatives who then think they have carte blanche to write off secularists all together and go on thinking “See! I was right all along!”

Sam Harris actually warned about this back in 2007 at an Atheist conference where he said that:

in accepting a label, particularly the label of “atheist,” it seems to me that we are consenting to be viewed as a cranky sub-culture. We are consenting to be viewed as a marginal interest group that meets in hotel ballrooms. I’m not saying that meetings like this aren’t important. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think it was important. But I am saying that as a matter of philosophy we are guilty of confusion, and as a matter of strategy, we have walked into a trap. It is a trap that has been, in many cases, deliberately set for us. And we have jumped into it with both feet.

That really is the problem in a nutshell, and spoken by one of the people most commonly…well, er…worshiped by movement-atheists. But because it comes from someone in that position (and someone I admire quite a bit by the way), I think its a warning worth reflecting on because after all, as Sam says, “our opponents draw the chalk-outline of a dead man on the sidewalk, and we just walk up and lie down in it.” This is a mistake, and if you care about how future mass-movements may impact the relationship of religion to the state, you should recognize it as such. There is of course another thing to watch out for. It’s not unlike the loudmouth, bearded radicals who, when they reach old age, become the most insufferable and self-pitying conservatives. There’s a real risk that in an atheism that is obsessive, preachy, and self-righteous, many of these same people might one day whiplash themselves into becoming the worst kind of religious zealots.

Sam Harris leaves us with a good bit of advice, one that we can all act on, both among religious people who would try to impose their faith on others, and on fellow atheists who just love to completely ruin it for the rest of us:

So, let me make my somewhat seditious proposal explicit: We should not call ourselves “atheists.” We should not call ourselves “secularists.” We should not call ourselves “humanists,” or “secular humanists,” or “naturalists,” or “skeptics,” or “anti-theists,” or “rationalists,” or “freethinkers,” or “brights.” We should not call ourselves anything. We should go under the radar—for the rest of our lives. And while there, we should be decent, responsible people who destroy bad ideas wherever we find them.

Secular humanist seems to me a fine term, one that’s not nearly as obnoxious as some others, but I can see what Sam is driving at. There was also a very worthwhile video made by Christopher Hitchens when he was interviewed by Reddit back in 2010. In the section featured below, he talks about the term “Brights” as promoted by Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, and why the use of the word is a mistake (skip to 4:22):

His point that it’s not a question of IQ is very important, and if you look hard enough, you will find definite examples of this. Case in point: Ross Douthat.

Again, I still care about these things a lot and have written about them here, here, and here. And I still like most of the authors that have popularized atheism in recent years. If I had to recommend one at this point, it would definitely be Daniel Dennett’s* Breaking the Spell. I still get emails from “Secular Coalition for America” and if someone was to invite me to a rally or an event, I’d still go- if anything to make the same points to people as I’ve made here.

We should criticize religion to keep clerical authorities honest about what they tell their congregations. This criticism must have at its side historical knowledge, philosophical rigor, and a set of universal positives to make up for what we are denying. Much still needs to be done to undo the horrific legacy left to us by Roman imperialism and its appropriation of Catholicism as its official dogma, and the influence (whether real or sub-conscious) that alliance has had over political institutions across the centuries. We need to foster a culture that values the rule of pluralistic secular law in the public sphere and the free, individual pursuit of spiritual questions (curtailed by the harm-principle of course) in the private sphere. We need our notions of property and diplomacy informed by the standards of voluntary exchange and common interests, not by hysterical notions of which god gave what land to whom in the first place.

But none of this will be achieved by sharing another stupid meme, or cramming a load of long words together in an angry, obsessive email to your religious grandmother.


*By the way, someone should totally start a Kickstarter campaign to have Daniel Dennett dress up as Santa Claus at least once for a mall appearance or something. Hell, anything to prevent another Tim Allen Christmas movie.

Courtesy of For the Sake of Argument.

For more from J Andrew Zalucky, check out an interview with him on today’s episode of Biology of the Blog.