June 26, 2009
Whenever the subject of atheism comes up, anywhere that isn't an atheist discussion group or something, one sentiment almost inevitably comes up:
"I wish atheists wouldn't talk so much about atheism."
The sentiment gets worded in many different ways. "The new atheists are so evangelical." "This atheist criticism of religion is just intolerant." "You atheists are just as close-minded as the hard-line religious believers you're criticizing."
But the essence of it is the same: The fact that many atheists are talking publicly about our atheism, and are trying to persuade people that we're right about it, shows that we're ... well, evangelical, intolerant and close-minded. So today, I want to explain why so many atheists think it's important to talk about atheism ... and why many of us try to persuade other people that atheism is correct.
The first answer is the most obvious: Anti-atheist bigotry. Atheists talk about atheism because there's a lot of misunderstanding and hostility toward us. It's nowhere near as severe as racism or sexism; but it does exist, and it has real-world consequences.
Parents are denied custody of their children for being atheists; people are harassed and and their homes vandalized by their neighbors for being atheists; teachers are suspended for being atheists; teenagers are harassed and suspended from school for being atheists; politicians whip up anti-atheist fear to try to get elected. (And that's just in the U.S. I'm not even talking about parts of the world where atheism is a crime punishable by imprisonment or death.)
Making ourselves visible, coming out about who we are and what we do and don't believe, is the best way we have to counter that.
That's only a small part of the story, though. Another part -- and probably more important -- is that many atheists see religion not just as a mistaken idea but as a harmful one. We see it as a serious social problem, a type of belief that on the whole does significantly more harm than good ... and one that, because of its ultimately unfalsifiable nature, has little or none of the reality checks that other belief systems eventually have to measure up to.
We see people bombing buildings, abusing children, committing flagrant fraud, shooting political dissenters, etc., etc., etc., all behind the armor of religion ... and we feel a need to speak out.
Even that, though, is missing the crux of the issue. The crux of the issue, the most important answer to the question, "Why do atheists have to talk about atheism?" is this: Why shouldn't we?
Thinking you're right, and trying to persuade other people you're right, is not intolerant or close-minded -- it's a cornerstone of democracy. That's how it works: people explain their ideas, debate them, make arguments to support them, revise or refine or drop them in the face of valid criticism, make snarky jokes in the face of stupid criticism.
The marketplace of ideas won't flourish if people don't bring their ideas to the market. Being close-minded doesn't mean thinking you're right; it means refusing to reconsider your position, even when the evidence suggests that you're wrong. And being intolerant doesn't mean thinking other people are wrong; it means refusing to listen to them, and dismissing them entirely as stupid or wicked, simply because you disagree with them.
Think of it this way. Is it intolerant or close-minded to say that single-payer is the best plan for the American health care system? That public funding for solar power will reduce our dependence on foreign oil? That global warming is real? That the theory of evolution is right? Is it intolerant or close-minded to try to persuade people to come around to any of these points of view? And if not ... then why is it intolerant or close-minded for atheists to explain why we don't believe in God and to try to persuade people that, of all the ideas people have about religion, atheism is the most plausible?
See, here's the thing, atheists see religion as a lot of things. But for many of us, religion is, above all else, a hypothesis about how the world works and why it is the way it is.
Obviously, we think it's a mistaken hypothesis: inconsistent with itself, inconsistent with reality, unsupported by any good evidence. We can't prove our case with 100 percent certainty -- that's pretty much impossible, especially when you're trying to prove a negative -- but we think we can make a pretty good case.
So we therefore think criticizing religion is not only valid, but important. It doesn't just chip away at religious beliefs themselves. It chips away at the idea that religious beliefs should be immune to criticism. It chips away at the armor that religion has used so effectively for so many centuries to shield itself from any and all questions and critiques.
Now, playing devil's advocate for a moment: Some may argue that I'm being hypocritical; that I'll decry the evangelism of evangelical believers, but am willing to defend it in atheists.
But I don't, in fact, have a problem with evangelical believers trying to persuade others that they're right. Don't get me wrong: I think many of their specific beliefs are mistaken. I think many of their specific beliefs are bigoted, hateful and harmful. I have serious problems with many of the methods they use to persuade, with their reliance on fear and false promises and, in some cases, outright lies.
And I think far too many of their rhetorical devices simply deflect legitimate criticism instead of answering it. But I don't think it's wrong of them to express their beliefs and to try to persuade others that they're right. Again -- that's the marketplace of ideas. And I'm in favor of that. I can disagree passionately with someone's ideas without thinking they're jerks simply for wanting to share them.
I think a little historical context may be in order. This "I'm so tired of hearing about (X), proponents of (X) who advance their views in the public eye are intolerant" trope has been used against every major social-change movement I can think of.
Queer activists were "in your face"; civil rights activists were "hostile"; feminists were "strident." And now atheists who make our case are "intolerant" and "evangelical." When people speak out, not against atheism, but against the very idea of atheists persuasively expressing their views, I always want to ask if that's really the side of history they want to end up on.
But more to the point: We see no reason to treat religion any differently from any other hypothesis about the world. We think it's valid to ask it to support its case just like any other hypothesis ... and just like any other hypothesis, we think it's valid to poke holes in it in public.
And we think one of the main reasons religion has survived for so long is that it's so impressively armored and indeed against the very idea that criticism of it is an acceptable thing to do.
Besides, it's not like we're standing outside anyone's window with a bullhorn at 3 a.m. We're not holding a gun to anyone's head and making them read Pharyngula. We're not even knocking on people's doors at 8 o'clock on Saturday morning to share the good word about Darwin. (Well, except for that one guy...)
If people don't want to hear what atheists have to say, there is a wide, wide world of blogs, newspaper articles, magazine articles, YouTube videos, movies, TV shows and oodles of other media available with just a flip of the page or a click of the remote or the mouse. If someone is seriously angered because they occasionally see the word "atheist" in a headline, or have to change the channel if Richard Dawkins is on, then I have to wonder if what's upsetting them is not the evangelical intolerance of atheist activists, but the very idea of atheism itself.
Now, if someone disagrees with us, then by all means, I want them to say so. If someone thinks that there's solid, reliable evidence supporting religious belief, or that the good done in the name of religion outweighs the harm, then I strongly encourage them to bring their ideas to the conversation and to make their case.
But there's a world of difference between, "Here's why I don't agree with you," and, "You are a bad person for even opening your mouth." The former is an attempt to engage in the conversation. The latter is simply an attempt to shut us up.
If someone comes to the marketplace of ideas and the only thing they have to offer is, "How dare those atheists set up a stand here! They're trying to convince us that we're mistaken and that their ideas are better! That's so intolerant!"... then I don't see any reason why I should take that seriously.
"Religion easily has the best bullshit story of all time. Think about it. Religion has actually convinced people that there's an invisible man living in the sky."
-George Carlin (1937-2008)