Well, it’s the Telegraph, Jake, but even so, the paper has viciously attacked atheism and atheists twice in two days, and, as you know, these attacks are burgeoning everywhere.
Why is this happening? I can think of several reasons, including the success and visibility of New Atheism, a slow news summer, or simply a feeding frenzy, with one shark biting and the others smelling blood in the water. It can’t be Dawkins and his tweets, for that’s just an excuse for people who already dislike Richard to chew on his tuchus. I’d be interested in readers’ take on the spate of recent attacks, but there’s little doubt it’s a real phenomenon.
The worst is by novelist and journalist Sean Thomas, who also writes under the name of Tom Knox. His thesis is summed up in the piece’s title, “Are atheists mentally ill?” His answer, of course, is “yes.” Why are we mentally ill? Because, according to a “vast body of research”, the data show this:
- A study at UCLA nine years ago showed that “college students involved in religious activities are likely to have better mental health”
- A 2009 study at Harvard discovered that believers with broken hips healed faster and had shorter stays in the hospital
- Believers have better medical outcomes than atheists when afflicted by coronary disease breast cancer, AIDS, and even more success using IVF
- Believers are happier and less likely to commit suicide
- Believers are less likely to smoke, drink, or take drugs
- Believers are nicer than heathens (Thomas cites a study from Harvard discussed in the Sydney Morning Herald)
- Believers donate more to charity
Thomas doesn’t pull any punches in his conclusion:
So which is the smart party, here? Is it the atheists, who live short, selfish, stunted little lives – often childless – before they approach hopeless death in despair, and their worthless corpses are chucked in a trench (or, if they are wrong, they go to Hell)? Or is it the believers, who live longer, happier, healthier, more generous lives, and who have more kids, and who go to their quietus with ritual dignity, expecting to be greeted by a smiling and benevolent God?
Obviously, it’s the believers who are smarter. Anyone who thinks otherwise is mentally ill.
And I mean that literally: the evidence today implies that atheism is a form of mental illness. And this is because science is showing that the human mind is hard-wired for faith: we have, as a species, evolved to believe, which is one crucial reason why believers are happier – religious people have all their faculties intact, they are fully functioning humans.
Therefore, being an atheist – lacking the vital faculty of faith – should be seen as an affliction, and a tragic deficiency: something akin to blindness. Which makes Richard Dawkins the intellectual equivalent of an amputee, furiously waving his stumps in the air, boasting that he has no hands.
Of course, he doesn’t ask whether religious beliefs are actually true; that’s irrelevant to his thesis. Nor does he mention that there’s a strong negative correlation between the well being of societies and the health of those societies: the healthiest societies are the most atheistic, and there’s evidence that this is not just a spurious correlation.
If atheism is a mental illness, then put me in that asylum.
No, Thomas is arguing for belief in belief. Now, I haven’t read any of the studies that Thomas cites, but even if they’re all true, I couldn’t force myself to believe just so I’d become a nicer and healthier person. How could anyone do that? Thomas’s is clearly not an argument for atheists to adopt religion; it’s an argument to diss atheists and help religious people feel better about themselves. And the part about Dawkins waving his stumps is not only mean-spirited, but silly. We all know that God can’t heal amputees.
O’Neill’s attack lacks data but makes up for it with plenty of spleen. (O’Neill describes himself as an “atheist libertarian”.) He has his own little list of accusations:
- “Atheists online are forever sharing memes about how stupid religious people are.” He supports this by linking to a site called Atheist Meme Base.
- Atheists are smug and irritating (he uses Dawkins’s tweets about Muslims as an example). Of course, I could link to any number of religious sites that are even more smug and irritating, but for some reason O’Neill leaves out the bad behavior of the faithful.
- Atheists are self-congratulatory; O’Neill’s evidence is his attendance at at least one atheist convention, where he sees patronizing people “afflicted with repetitive strain injury from so furiously patting themselves on the back” and where one sees “unprecedented levels of intellectual smugness and hostility towards hoi polloi.” I wonder if O’Neill has ever gone to a religious revival? Talk about back-patting! At least atheists don’t claim that believers face eternal perdition.
- “Atheists in the public sphere spend their every tragic waking hour doing little more than mocking the faithful.” Has O’Neill read any books by New Atheists? First, when they’re not discussing other issues, like evidence and the lack thereof, they’re mock faith, not the faithful. Second, he overlooks many atheists’s attempts to not mock faith, but limn a secular alternative to religion and religious ethics (viz., Peter Singer and Anthony Grayling).
Why, asks O’Neill, are atheists behaving this way.? After all, he says, the good old atheists, and I suppose he means people like Camus or Sartre, were content to keep atheism as a small and inconspicuous part of their persona. (But has he read Bertrand Russell, H. L. Mencken, or Robert Ingersoll?) No, the problem is that the New Atheists have turned nonbelief into a worldview.
So, what’s gone wrong with atheism? The problem isn’t atheism itself, of course, which is just non-belief, a nothing, a lack of something. Rather it is 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. Which is bizarre. Atheism merely signals what you don’t believe in, not what you do believe in. It’s a negative. And therefore, basing your entire worldview on it is bound to generate immense amounts of negativity. Where earlier generations of the Godless viewed their atheism as a pretty minor part of their personality, or at most as the starting point of their broader identity as socialists or humanists or whatever, today’s ostentatiously Godless folk constantly declare “I am an atheist!” as if that tells you everything you need to know about a person, when it doesn’t. The utter hollowness of this transformation of a nothing into an identity is summed up by the fact that some American atheists now refer to themselves as “Nones” – that is, their response to the question “What is your religious affiliation?” is “None”. Okay, big deal, you don’t believe in God, well done. But what do you believe in?
This is ludicrous. If by “what do you believe in?”, O’Neill means, “What do you accept without evidence, or in the face of evidence?”, then, yes, atheists believe in fewer things than the faithful. But that’s good!
But I think here O’Neill is accusing atheists of lacking values and positive worldviews. And that’s just dumb.
Here, among others, are some of the things I “believe” in. I believe in trying to be nice to other people, and helping them with their problems. I believe that there should be no discrimination against people based on things they can’t change, like gender, sexual orientation, or ethnicity. I believe in being kind to animals and respecting and preserving nature. I believe that science helps make a better world for everyone. I believe that teaching people science will expand their world. I believe that, in general, Republicans are selfish, greedy, and far inferior to Democrats. I believe that governments should strive to make free medical care available for everyone. I believe that the most important thing in life is the love of friends, family, and companions, and that achievement and work rank below that. I believe that good food and drink are essential pleasures of life. I believe that literature, art, and music are components of a well-lived life.
And I’m sure any of us could produce such a list. I know a lot of atheists, and some religious folks as well, and I can’t say that atheists have a worldview more negative than that of believers. Atheists appreciate that life is transitory, and many are devoted to making the best of our short span here. That makes them better company than many believers, especially those who want to natter on about their supernatural and unevidenced beliefs.
I remember last fall when I spent several hours in the company of two Big Atheists, Dawkins and Dennett, as we drove from Boston to Stockbridge for the conference on naturalism. It was a great pleasure to be in their company. Did we talk about atheism? No, we talked of this and that, including philosophy, science, and world affairs. Because we arrived early, we all went to the Normal Rockwell Museum to admire the paintings. Was it dolorous? Not at all; it was fun, and we had a fine lunch. And I can’t remember a single moment of “negativity.”
Finally, O’Neill comes up with the ultimate accusation: atheism leads to nihilism!
Today’s atheism-as-identity is really about absolving oneself of the tough task of explaining what one is for, what one loves, what one has faith in, in favour of the far easier and fun pastime of saying what one is against and what one hates. An identity based on a nothing will inevitably be a quite hostile identity, sometimes viciously so, particularly towards opposite identities that are based on a something – in this case on a belief in God. There is a very thin line between being a None and a nihilist; after all, if your whole identity is based on not believing in something, then why give a damn about anything?
If O’Neill can level accusations like that, he must not know many atheists. And has he been to Sweden, Denmark, or France, countries teeming with atheists? Are those people “viciously hostile”? When I think of France, I think of a country where people try to enjoy their lives; and Sweden and Denmark are extraordinarily kind, accommodating, and socially caring countries.
Here O’Neill is simply mouthing the same hollow complaints leveled by other journalists looking to give atheists a good spanking . Of course some atheists are jerks, are negative, and natter on too long about their unbelief. But I’ve spent a lot of time in the company of atheists, and I find them generally positive, cheerful, and, importantly, enamored of science. As Billy Joel wrote, “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints.”