The mere fact of not believing in the supernatural doesn’t make you a well-grounded rational individual, let alone a humane soul.
First a confession: I find most religious ideas patently absurd, if not outright ridiculous. I’ve seen no convincing argument about the existence of God, much less evidence of him, her or it. Wishy-washy mumbo jumbo about the need for “spirituality” grates on me. I’m an atheist, yes.
Now with that out of the way, here’s my gripe: I wish I were in better company.
Let me explain.
Judging by their lack of intellectual honesty and conceptual coherence, many of my fellow atheists appear to be rather sophomoric, no offense. Much of “new atheistic” discourse these days, so lovingly trotted out on social media from Facebook to YouTube, isn’t so much about taking a principled stance against religious obscurantism; rather, it has degenerated into a nonstop juvenile lampooning of the faithful for their foibles, real or imagined.
Latching onto the late and great polemicist Christopher Hitchens’s catchy but wrong-headed dictum that “religion poisons everything,” my fellow atheists clearly revel in flinging their barbs at all the faithful, seemingly all the time, without any attempt at some distinction among them. Talk about painting with a broad brush.
Popular atheism is turning into a fad whose main apparent purpose is to make you feel like you belong to an exclusive club of self-styled “brights” so that you can congratulate yourself on your cerebral superiority to those religious “morons.”
But here’s the thing: The mere fact of not believing in the supernatural doesn’t make you a well-grounded rational individual, let alone a humane soul. It’s a start, yes, but only that.
Being an atheist in and of itself is not a praiseworthy stance. Without sound underlying morality and humanistic principles, atheism is mere naysaying that finds its sole raison d’être in fierce opposition to anything that smacks of religion. Many self-styled “secular humanists” are strong on the “secular” part, but rather less so on the “humanistic” bit. You know, trifles like compassion for fellow human beings, including those who happen to think differently from you.
Don’t take my word for it. Check out the usual blather that passes for commentary, online or off, by “secular humanists.” To be sure, you’ll encounter some fine fellows, erudite, articulate, and fair-minded. More often, though, you’ll likely come across people like Tina X.
A self-proclaimed secular humanist in the US with an apparent love of organic food and barnyard animals, Tina recently had this to say on the Global Secular Humanist Movement, a highly popular Facebook forum for atheists, apropos a post about reports of Coptic Christians, including women and children, being brutalized by Islamist thugs in Egypt: “If they had been atheists I would care a bit. Otherwise, not. It’s just exchanging one murdering discriminating sect for another. Let them pick on each other.”
A fine humanism just shines through that sentiment, doesn’t it?
“I don’t feel sorry for them one bit,” Jeffery Y, another “progressive” atheist, chimed it. “[D]oes that make me a bad person? … nah.”
Presumably, Jeffery thinks his lack of concern for the fate of Egyptian Christians makes him a wonderful human being. After all, Christians were responsible for the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the burning of heretics, you know.
Turns out nonbelievers can be just as doctrinaire, just as parochial, just as intolerant as the religious fundamentalists they love to excoriate. They can be just as blinkered by received certainties, too.
Prod many self-styled “brights” a little, and out comes their dimmer side. Their views about their pet issues are invariably informed by the reflexive hand-me-down ideological pieties of their political tribe; ergo, their opinions tend to be just as predictable as the praise-the-Lord hosannas during an evening prayer by Pentecostals.
Capitalism? It’s pure evil, man. The US? A ghastly rogue state befouling a peaceful world. The Republicans? A bunch of primitive knuckle-draggers. Israel? A racist neo-colonialist apartheid regime. Noam Chomsky? The Second Coming that man!
That’s if they’re “liberal.”
If they’re more of the conservative or libertarian bent, they’ll be just as prone to regurgitating prepackaged opinions without much thought but with equal zeal. Except they’ll do so on a different set of topics. Climate change? Utter rubbish. Barack Obama? A closet communist and a Manchurian candidate. Gun control? Hands off my M16!
Not unlike religious demagogues, far too many atheists allow the clear-cut Manichean certainties of a blinkered dialectical worldview to shape their convictions about issues. By doing so, they remain blissfully unconcerned with trifles like counterevidence and are unperturbed by the slightest hint of doubt.
Now, what does that sound like? Yes, it sounds like religious belief. In the same way that religious dogma draws its doctrinal strength from mere repetition, political ideology and group think rely on fervently and frequently voiced opinions without much concern for facts.
We are all handicapped, to lesser and greater extents, by our own biases and petty prejudices. “Man prefers to believe,” the world’s first empiricist Francis Bacon observed, “what he prefers to be true.” The trick is to recognize our biases and strive not to become enslaved to them. The mark of true intellectual honesty is a willingness to question your own assumptions, not just those of others.
The question atheists should ask themselves is this: On what basis do I hold opinions about subjects other than religious beliefs?
I hate to break it to you, but a cursory Internet search or a glance at a newspaper headline or a Wikipedia page won’t make you an instant expert on religion, nor on any other hotly debated topics like gender relations, climate change, the global economy, or Middle Eastern politics. And no, a political or moral argument isn’t automatically invalidated just because it’s held by a person of faith.
“It’s not so much religion per se [but] false certainty that worries me,” American neuroscientist and leading “new atheist” Sam Harris has rightly pointed out. “I’m really concerned when I see people pretending to know things they clearly cannot [or do not, one should add] know.”
Harris was speaking of the religious, but he might as well be concerned about quite a few nonbelievers.
At its best atheism cultivates a sober, clear-eyed scientific view of the world as it is, not as we might wish it to be, while seeking to improve the fortunes of people, individually and collectively, through the propagation of rationality, tolerance, altruism, personal freedoms, and social responsibility. At its less stellar, atheism inspires smug, self-righteous bombast and cliquish chauvinism.
As many believers can attest, humility, forbearance and altruism aren’t just attitudes; they’re habits. Alas, being an atheist can be nothing but an attitude, and not a pretty one at that.
Any self-respecting nonbelievers should champion a rational view of the world where informed decisions are based on empirical evidence, progressive morality and simple common sense, yes. But they also ought to try and live up to the exacting ethical standards that Enlightenment values entail — or, for that matter, to standards of morality that several liberal schools of religious thought require of the faithful.
Verily, I wonder how many proud “new atheists” can claim to have done that.