Are atheists intellectual snobs?

March 15, 2014 • 8:51 am

If you want to see a gratuitous piece of accommodationism, one that manages to avoid every substantive issue that divides believer from nonbeliever, read a new piece in The Atlantic by associate editor Emma Green, “The intellectual snobbery of conspicuous atheism.” Its whole point is to bash atheists for being haughty and effete, buttressed by the confidence that we’re better than everyone else. In the process, Green argues that there is no culture war going on—at least not one between religionists and unbelievers—and that atheism isn’t making any headway  because the bulk of the world is still religious.  In truth, her piece is nothing but prejudice and unevidenced personal opinion, lacking any substantive arguments. She just doesn’t like atheists, ignores their arguments against God, and in the end adheres to the famous xkcd cartoon about “feeling superior to both.” In fact, it is Green who winds up looking like an intellectual snob.

Here are Green’s three claims, which she proffers while reviewing the book The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God by Peter Watson (she gives a mixed review to the book but largely ignores it).

1. We’re snobs.  Here’s what Green says about that:

This [a quote from Adam Gopnik saying that unbelievers have a “monopoly on legitimate forms of knowledge”] is a perfect summary of the intellectual claim of those who set out to prove that God is dead and religion is false: Atheists have legitimate knowledge, and those who believe do not. This is the epistemological assumption looming in the so-called “culture war” between the caricatures of godless liberals and Bible-thumping conservatives in America: One group wields rational argumentation and intellectual history as an indictment of God, while the other looks to tradition and text as defenses against modernity’s encroachment on religious life.

Note how she characterizes the disagreement: one side has “rational argument and intellectual history” and the other has “tradition and text.” First of all, atheists have not only rational argument, but a lack of evidence for god, as well as good counterarguments against many conceptions of God (the argument for natural evil, for example, does not comport with the omnibenevolent, omniscient, and omnipotent Abrahamic god).  And who the hell cares about “intellectual history,” since we never use that as an argument against beliefs? For crying out loud, most of intellectual history is sodden with religious belief.  But note as well that instead of citing “superstition, revelation, and faith” as the weapons of religionists, she mentions “tradition and text,” which almost sounds respectable.  In fact, the war is between faith and superstition on one side and rationalism and evidence on the other. Period. “Tradition and text” are not substitutes for evidence.

But Green goes on:

. . . And this is where the intellectual snobbery comes in: Watson assumes that because a group of smart, respected, insightful people thought and felt their way out of believing in God, everyone else should, too. Because intellectual history trends toward non-belief, human history must, too.

This is problematic for several reasons. For one thing, it suggests that believers are inherently less thoughtful than non-believers. Watson tells stories of famous thinkers and artists who have struggled to reconcile themselves to a godless world. And these are helpful, in that they offer insight into how dynamic, creative people have tried to live. But that doesn’t mean the average believer’s search for meaning and understanding is any less rigorous or valuable—it just ends with a different conclusion: that God exists. Watson implies that full engagement with the project of being human in the modern world leads to atheism, and that’s just not true.

Ever ever there was a straw man, this is one. First of all, yes, many of us do believe that human history is trending toward nonbelief. All the data show that. And yes, most of us feel that the world would be better off without religion. But we have good reasons for that, including the lack of evidence for religion’s foundational beliefs (including the disparate beliefs of different faiths), and the numerous harms that religion continues to incite.

As for whether believers are “inherently less thoughtful than nonbelievers,” Green is conflating a difference of belief about God (with one side’s views based on evidence—or the lack thereof—and the other’s on faith), with a general pronouncement about intellectual superiority. And yes, the average believer’s search for meaning and understanding is surely less rigorous, for it rests not on going where the data take us, but on accepting as “data” only the things that support what you want to believe in the first place.  The average believer is afflicted with confirmation bias, and that is not a rational way to figure out how to live. Indeed, most people hold the beliefs they do not out of reason, but simply because they were brought up that way.

Green could in fact make the same argument for for Bigfoot or homeopathy, or ESP, or any common superstition: there are lots of believers there, too, and we must be intellectual snobs if we flatly reject their “search for meaning.” After all, those people are just as engaged “with the project of being human” (that’s a deepity) as we are.

It is not intellectual snobbery to think that you have the better argument because you have the better reasons and the better epistomology. But if you want to play hardball, note that there is a strong correlation between education and atheism: the more educated people get, the less they believe in God. That’s just a fact, and Green can make of it what she will. I will limit myself to saying that arguing our viewpoints, and giving reasons for our nonbelief while criticizing the pathetically weak arguments for God, does not make us snobs.

Green also characterizes our argument like this:

But vocal atheists reinforce this binary of Godly vs. godless, too—the argument is just not as obvious. Theirs is a subtle assertion: Believers aren’t educated or thoughtful enough to debunk God, and if they only knew more, rational evidence would surely offset faith.

No, what we think is that if people were more rational, and less wedded to faith, they’d be less likely to be religious, but the world wouldn’t magically turn into Denmark. That’s because rational argument only goes so far in dispelling religion. I’ve often argued—with lots of evidence to back me up—that religiosity is largely a product of social dysfunction. The most dysfunctional societies are the most religious, and there’s evidence that the former causes the latter rather than vice versa. Marx was right in characterizing religion as the sigh of the oppressed masses, and if we want to get rid of it, we must first recognize and dismantle the aspects of society that breed religiosity. Happily, those happen to be the very things that most of us want to eliminate anyway: gross income inequality, a lack of government medical care, societies that don’t take care of their aged and sick citizens, and so on.

2. There is no culture war involving religion.

The problem is, the “culture war” is a false construct created by politicians and public intellectuals, left and right. The state of faith in the world is much grayer, much humbler, and much less divided than atheist academics and preaching politicians claim. Especially in the U.S., social conservatives are often called out in the media for reifying and inflaming this cultural divide: The rhetoric of once and future White House hopefuls like Rick Santorum, Sarah Palin, and Bobby Jindal reinforces an “us” and “them” distinction between those with faith and those without. Knowing God helps them live and legislate in the “right” way, they say.

. . . Most people form their beliefs and live their lives somewhere in the middle of the so-called “culture divide” that outspoken atheists and believers shout across. The more these shouters shout, the more public discourse veers away from the subtle struggle of the average person’s attempt to be human.

If ever there was a culture war, it’s not between the science and the humanities, but between unbelievers and religionists. If there isn’t, why are the New Atheists going after religion so hard, and why are theologians and faitheists writing dozens of books attacking New Atheism? The divide between atheists and believers is not artificial, but real—and strong.  70% of Americans definitely believe in a God or supreme being and 67.5% in a personal God who “concerns himself with every human being personally. ” According to a 2013 Harris poll, 66% of Americans are absolutely certain there’s a God, and 12% are “somewhat certain.”. Only 12% are “not sure”, with the rest being somewhat certain there’s no god (5%) or absolutely certain (6%) that there is no God. That’s polarization!

True, many religionists are not as extreme in their social views as Santorum or Palin, but there’s a difference between the concept of an overall culture war and a culture war about the existence of God. These are conflated by Green, who doesn’t seem to be thinking too hard anyway.

3.  Religion is pervasive so atheism won’t win. I quoted Green above as saying this: “Watson implies that full engagement with the project of being human in the modern world leads to atheism, and that’s just not true.”

Why isn’t it true? Here’s Green’s Big Argument: because religion is ubiquitous in the world. I quote her argument, which to me has overtones of “Nyah nyah nyah: you atheists can’t win because there are so many believers”:

We know it’s not true because the vast majority of the world believes in God or some sort higher power. Worldwide, religious belief and observance vary widely by region. It’s tough to get a fully accurate global picture of faith in God or a “higher power,” but the metric of religiosity serves as a helpful proxy. Only 16 percent of the world’s population was not affiliated with a particular faith as of 2010, although many of these people believe in God or a spiritual deity, according to the Pew Research Center. More than three-fourths of the religiously unaffiliated live in the Asia-Pacific region, with a majority (62 percent) living in China. In other regions, the percentage of those who say they have no religious affiliation are much smaller: 7.7 percent in Latin America; 3.2 percent in sub-Saharan Africa; 0.6 percent in the Middle East.

If the age of atheism started in 1882, most people still haven’t caught on.

Arguably, Watson wasn’t writing for the whole world—he stuck to Western thinkers and artists. But even if we focus on Europe and North America, his implicit argument isn’t supported by statistics. Eighteen percent of Europeans are religiously unaffiliated, but again, many of those people believe in God—30 percent of unaffiliated French people do, for example. And even though Christianity is growing fastest in Latin America and sub-Saharan African, as of 2010, Europe was still home to a quarter of the world’s Christians—the largest population in the world.

In America, which sociologists often describe as a uniquely religious country compared with the rest of the Western world, a vast majority of people have faith. According to Pew, 86 percent of Millennials, or people aged 18-33, say they believe in God, and 94 percent of people 34 and older say the same. It’s true that a growing group say they’re “not certain” about this belief, and it’s also true that affiliation with formal religious institutions is declining. But in terms of pure belief, self-described atheists and agnostics are a small minority, making up only six percent of the population.

What Green fails to absorb, but actually alludes to, is that religion is declining in most parts of the world, and certainly in the U.S. and Europe. Further, the world is far less religious today than it was a few centuries ago. In Europe until about the 18th century, it was unthinkable  to not be religious. You’d be killed at the worst, an apostate like Spinoza at best.  Now there is no penalty (except in some Islamic countries) for unbelief, and many people are atheists and agnostics—probably far more than admit it.

Green is remarkably obtuse here as she is throughout her piece. Just because change is slow does not mean that the “project of being human in the world” (whatever that means) doesn’t lead to atheism.  Slow change is not no change. One could just as easily say that the “project of being human in the modern world” won’t lead to women’s equality, because women are still second-class citizens in most of the world.

h/t: Alberto

85 thoughts on “Are atheists intellectual snobs?

  1. Just tell Green that she is right, and when we take over, the Hive is coming for her first.

    It’s also not godly versus godless. Many believers don’t act “godly” and those of us who don’t accept any evidence for deities are not “godless” any more than we are Zeusless or Thorless or Loch Monsterless.

  2. If we argue that many people stick with their childhood upbringing when it comes to belief, then the statistics about younger people may be misleading. With the birthrate falling in many Western countries there will be a steep decline in overall percentage ‘believers’ as the believing baby boomers die off.

    Similarly there may well be a correlation with dis-belief, if not cause, in the increasing amount of urbanization which tends to breakdown the ‘small community’ culture of conformity.

    Besides which there may be some snobbish ‘conspicuous atheism’ but no more than the priggish ‘conspicuous theism’ that has existed for far too long.

  3. The main difference between believers and non believers is not what they believe. It is what they were taught to believe and what they were taught about why they should believe things.

    The high number of religious believers in this world is not a testament to how sensible or right religious beliefs must be, but rather a testament to the power of indoctrination of children by parents, clergy, and community.

    Atheist and agnostic beliefs come from open minded assessment of all of the evidence, INCLUDING intuition and feelings. Where as religious beliefs do not come from the assessment of all available evidence but rather from indoctrination by culture or parenting.

    One group assesses the evidence to form their beliefs, and the other group is stuck in a cult. Oops. There I go being all snobby.

    1. What you say about childhood indoctrination is right on. But your use of the word “beliefs” as far as atheism goes is not right. Atheism is “not believing.” So atheists (or at least this one) do not have any beliefs. Non-believers do not have beliefs; for some odd reason, this has to be said over and over again! To say “There is no evidence to show the existence of any ‘god'” is to state a fact. It is a true statement. It is not a “belief!”

      1. Larry Esser,

        I’ve heard it argued that the belief/knowledge distinction turns on the foundational nature of the matter as it relates to the person’s level of knowledge.

        For example, I’m not terribly knowledgeable of science. But I do acquiesce to the general consensus of scientists since they are intellectually justified to hold their views given their expertise and direct knowledge. They know evolution is true, whereas I believe it is true based on their finds and conclusions.

        What are your thoughts of that distinction?

        – James

  4. One group wields rational argumentation and intellectual history as an indictment of God, while the other looks to tradition and text as defenses against modernity’s encroachment on religious life.

    Whenever I hear the word, “modernity” as a pejorative, red flags go up. Those who rail against it, often seek the good ol’ times of the past. In their minds, those days look like a Claude Lorraine painting in all its bucolic beauty. But for some us, those paintings don’t evoke memories of the bucolic so much as of the colic: the starvation, the disease and the early deaths. We are labelled intellectual snobs because we rely on facts and not feelings, on data and not revelation and ultimately, want what is best not what feels best.

    However, if we were true intellectual snobs, we wouldn’t invite others in – we’d snicker to ourselves and make sure to keep others out. This is why Emma Green misses the point when she says:

    And this is where the intellectual snobbery comes in: Watson assumes that because a group of smart, respected, insightful people thought and felt their way out of believing in God, everyone else should, too.

    A snob typically doesn’t want others to enter their group. Atheists want to make more atheists. We think we have some good ideas and we want to share them. Why would it be snobby to see an idea, think it’s a good idea and share that idea?

    1. Atheists want to make more atheists.

      Spot on, although this is where many liberal believers complain that we’re just like those we oppose.

      Lack of evidence in gods be damned.

    2. Excellent point. Green’s argument would have the Good Atheist saying “we don’t agree because we are too different. There’s no common ground. You stay on your side and we’ll stay on ours and we’ll respect each others differences.”

      That’s snobbish, given that religious beliefs are supposed to be true and not just individual expressions.

      It’s also the passive aggressive approach of the liberal religions towards each other.

    3. Noting has felt more right in my life than wanting to make more atheists. I do not proselytize, I do not even usually tell people that I am an atheist, but the inclusion I seek is one of free choice. People need to be able to make the choice for themselves, and when they figure it out on their own that religion is worthless, it is a great feeling.

    4. This “intellectual snobbery” quote stuck out for me as well. It stuck out because it is completely wrong. She picked up this tired, cliché turd of an argument and polished it because it has a great track record of engendering a feeling of justified indignation in religious believers. It is an argument that helps the religious feel good about themselves and draws them together. It sounds real good, so the fact that it isn’t accurate doesn’t really matter. And attempting to convince them that it isn’t accurate is like a man trying to convince his wife, whose doctor has just told her that if she has what he thinks she has then “one of you has been cheating,” that he hasn’t been cheating. As with a man in such a situation, in this situation you may as well not even try.

      About the only groups that consistently argue that the “god question” is complex are Sophisticated Theologians™ and Clergy. Those with a vested interest in gaining, or keeping hold of, adherents, and with a vested interest in having religion be perceived as something worthy of respect.

      In actuality most atheists I know of, including myself, think, and argue, that the “god question” is really freaking simple. No evidence to support it? Lots of evidence against it? No reason to believe it. Not a single verifiable account of god magic? No good reason to believe any of it. Simple.

      I would, however, argue that a good education leaves people less susceptible to buying into bullshit like religion. Actually I would argue that there is not a single thing for which a better education is not an advantage. That is why I wish everyone, including myself, was better educated. If that is intellectual snobbery, I am happy to be guilty as charged.

      1. Great comment.

        “About the only groups that consistently argue that the “god question” is complex are Sophisticated Theologians™ and Clergy. ”

        The true snobs, indeed.

    5. And in addition to your point about Freen getting the snobbery issue wrong, this:

      “because a group of smart, respected, insightful people thought and felt their way out of believing in God, everyone else should, too”

      is an extremely facile, superficial characterization of our attempt to get people to come to their senses. It papers over the myriad *reasons* for wanting others to come to their senses. Her description makes it sound like we just have huge who’s and want people to emulate us simply because we’re so great. It would be like accusing a doctor of wanting patients to exercise and eat healthy foods simply because the doctor exercises and eats healthy foods, while ignoring the fact that the doctor exercises and eats healthy foods because those are good things to do – and she has the same good reasons for doing those things in mind when she exhorts her patients to do them.

        1. But they’re so funny! For whatever reason, you have the most amusing typos; part of the fun is waiting for you to notice them. 😀

          (Takes me 5 hours to type anything on my iPhone 5…)

          1. I know, right! I spend twice as much time fixing incomprehensible autocorrects or trying to stop bizarre autocompletes as I do just typing what I want to type. I was texting a grocery list to my wife and I spelled “meat” correctly, but it wanted to autocorrect it to “meant”. ???

            Anyhoo, I find irritation and humor make great bedfellows.


          2. If you also owned the iPhone 4, do you notice a difference between the autocorrect/complete in iOS 7 and earlier versions? I spent much less time fixing things before iOS 7.

            1. The 5’s my first–had a Blackberry before.

              But if you used to post from your 4, it does seem as if you haven’t always been this inadvertently entertaining. 😀

              I think my iPhone’s autocorrect is bonkers, glad it’s not just me.

  5. Oh also, The Pew Research Center recently released a survey report that shows that many people around the world think that belief in God is necessary to be a moral person. Pew correlated this belief with age as well as levels of income and education: the younger you are, the less likely you are to believe that morality depends on belief in God. Moreover, people who live in poorer countries and have lower education levels, tended to conclude that belief in God is essential for morality. The US is, as so often, a strange outlier.

    The study is here and includes Pew’s methodology

    So, we have the data, na na na na na!

    1. Projection is a fairly common human failing, but it sure seems like the stronger a person’s religious convictions the higher the incidence of irony meter blowing, extremely unsubtle, projection.

      1. Not a few waitresses, waiters (I don’t like to use the word “server” – too much reminds me of “servant,” “serf,” I myself having waited tables in my adolescent years) have experienced the following:

        Waiter: “Would you care to look at our wine list?

        The Pious Snob, nasally and through gritted teeth: “No thank yew. We’re Christian so we don’t drink alcohol.”

        1. Pious Snob? I like it. I also like Sanctimonious Prick. I usually reserve that for clergy though. Not always, but usually.

  6. Filtering through the ad hominem content of the article, I can apply a bit of irony to say ‘gee, thanks’ to her opinion of me. I am not superior to religious folk, but I really do think that my science based views on reality, and my humanistic based views about humanity, are both intellectually and morally superior to those found in religion. It is as if she were to say ‘I think you are pretty smart, well educated, and not bad looking when the lighting is just right.’

    1. Exactly, and I’m sick to death of “educated” people who defend anti-intellectualism. What darelle said above bears repeating:
      “Actually I would argue that there is not a single thing for which a better education is not an advantage. That is why I wish everyone, including myself, was better educated. If that is intellectual snobbery, I am happy to be guilty as charged.”

    2. Ahh the irony, I’m currently tackling public statements by a Theology dept at a university.
      If anyone ever invented patronizing, snobbish, intellectual superiority, he would have to be a theologian…

  7. Considering that especially on a global basis, there is no definition of the word god, asking people whether they think he, she or it “exists” is just incoherent…I think.

  8. What is the opposite of “snob” (other than, of course, “non-snob”)?

    I have a blood relative whose knowledge of and interest in current events and (what I consider) interesting phenomena of reality is suspect. (If she don’t know or ain’t interested in hit, hit ain’t worth knowin.’) To the extent that I can see my way to do so, using her criteria I try to broach congenial topics of conversation, all for the sake of keeping open a “quality” line of communication and maintain “The Big Picture.” Far be it for me to be “above mah raisin.’ “

    1. Participle “maintaining,” not verb “maintain.” And I guess it should be “from,” and not “for.”

  9. TRUE story:

    Time – lunchtime / present day, sorta: last early autumn ‘fore this stat – past wintertime; we all nearly ended w / the hour’s gastronomical prehension

    Venue – by its workplace occupants affectionately known as “ the Front Porch, ” Dean’s building

    Event – Fall Term y2013’s and graduate students’ “ welcoming ” bbq

    Costuming – silver and black Evolvefish emblem of fish w feet = worn .daily. for years’ and years’ worth as necklace ( as some do … … wearing a cross or a star or whateveh emblem ) but, apparently, “ just noticed ” circa my neck this particular midday

    Dean’s secretary, loudly and gesturingly to All present: “ O NO ! What IS that, Blue ? ! How could you NOT have on your neck the proper fish symbol ? ! R.e.a.l.l.y., Blue. Get rid of that one. That is so NOT how it should be.
    I ! I will get you a correct one, Blue ! O, l.o.s.e. that one ! Today ! That one is NOT … .. ( wait for it … ) “ THE .RIGHT. ONE ! ”

    Without two seconds’ time slipping by, thus RIGHT BACK at All present from Blue: “ O NO ! You will NOT. This ?! This one ? ! This IS the proper one. This IS the correct one. The Right Fish. ”

    Her: “Wha’ ? Wha’ ’re y’ saying, Blue ? ! ”

    Me: “Well, … … Woman: this fish ? This correct fish symbol is of … … The Ancients. Long, long, long … … such a LONG time before ANY religions’ worth of people glommed on to it and took it apart and reconstructed it as theirs ! As their own symbol. LONG before that ever happened, this one WAS and IS THE symbol of The Ancients … … The Ones Who Knew The Truth of How Things Are. And Came to Be. It is THE symbol of The Ancients’ survival. Even, actually, … … of their prosperity, ___ Her Name ___. ”

    Her / Others: “Huh ? !” Dean’s secretary’s countenance on her face just then: One of , “ O dear ? ! Could Blue be right ? ! Surely NOT. Surely Blue is NOT right. … … Is she ? ! ”

    Pan to … … ALL w / Dead Silence – demeanors. Including … … the Dean’s.

    Evolvefish worn daily since — as well, of course, in the setting of … … The Academy,

      1. Perfect ! THAT is THE perfect name !
        —- her of … …

        I shall remember that … … for the next time ( ‘nd, ‘f course unfortunately in so – called ‘higher education,’ there ‘ll .still. be a next time ) when I shall require a rapid rebuttal to such missiled – at – me muck.

        Thank YOU.

  10. . . . Most people form their beliefs and live their lives somewhere in the middle of the so-called “culture divide” that outspoken atheists and believers shout across. The more these shouters shout, the more public discourse veers away from the subtle struggle of the average person’s attempt to be human.

    The subtle struggling attempt at being human ( wtf does that mean? ) for the average person wouldn’t be in the scope of atheism if they didn’t vote.

    The vast majority may not be concerned with religion vs no-religion, but the people they choose to endorse sure as hell are, or at least claim to be.

    Btw, if there isn’t a religious culture war going on in America, then why are atheists practically barred from holding public office in certain parts of the country?

    Not to mention the dangers of coming out as an atheist in various locations around the globe.

    In a sense I guess Green is right; There’s no atheistic war against religion, but there is a religious war against atheism.

    And quite a few of these warriors from the one side appears to be of the stern opinion that the sword is mightier than the pen.

    I wonder if Emma Green might be able to figure out for herself, which side it is?

  11. If you thought that was bad, you should read the latest blithering from John Gray: Nietzche. How does one argue against the voices in their collective heads, or better yet should one even bother trying?

    1. There can be little doubt that Nietzsche is the most important figure in modern atheism, but you would never know it from reading the current crop of unbelievers, who rarely cite his arguments or even mention him.

      And that’s where I stopped reading.

      1. It’s funny how they all love Nietzsche now. They use him as an example of a “serious” atheist filled with angst about The Death of God.

        But Nietzsche’s angst was not personal. He recognized that the scientific model of the world had killed the old conception of God, even though many people did not recognize that death. He also knew that any so major an event would be accompanied by chaos and war, and the 20th century proved his prediction right. That is what he feared. But in the long run he was an optimist.

  12. Green sees no culture war because she is blinded by religious privilege. “Faith” is an acknowledged virtue and supposed to be an expression of an individual’s identity, a mark of one’s own “attempt to be human.” Religion is part of the Diversity Smorgasbord and belongs with race, sex, personal lifestyles, goals, and preferences. No right; no wrong: just different.

    Open disagreement is therefore an attack on who-I-am, not a dispute about facts, and certainly not a dispute about facts which actually matter. No, atheists are like snobs who complain that you’re not meeting their high standards. “Don’t be like you; be like me.” So rude. Amirite?

    Why do the religious think atheists don’t believe in God? They never hit on our actual reasons. Instead, it’s everything from an unwillingness to be morally accountable to a lack of emotional depth to a hard and harsh nature which values cold reason over not just warm emotions, but truth itself.

    The hard part though is not just that theists really do believe in God as a fact and not just some poetic metaphor. It’s that theists believe that being the kind of person who believes in God — being the kind of person who WANTS to believe in God — is an attempt to be human.

    Gee, why should atheists get all offended over that meek, welcoming, accepting bit of dogma? They must be intellectual snobs.

    1. “…being the kind of person who WANTS to believe in God — is an attempt to be human.”

      A friend describes his belief in exactly those terms. When I asked if his focus which I found to be slippery is either on deism or theism, his answer was that it is on a sliding scale between those two markers. His connection with the numinous is based on his wanting to be the best human he possibly can without appearing to be an clueless fool. It is challenging to consider yourself as a nimble thinker while indulging in the non-evidential and that challenge will only increase.

      Hence, he is his own carrot and horse. But if he embraced that sharp point with intellectual honesty and emotional courage, the needed motivation to push himself beyond the banal, would deflate.

      Respect for religious tradition allows humans to be less mindful and therefore being prone to having their wish for excellence being hi-jacked by a cumbersome and often dangerous, not to mentioned, pathetically out-dated system that once worked to a certain degree of adequacy for prior times. Some people still think that this stale version of a metaphysical buggy whip is needed, the limp ‘belief in belief’.

      Green regards this tattered and rotting whip as still being potently useful.

      1. Nice post.

        The unspoken, usually, foundational premise that is assumed by believers to be the condition of all human beings, including atheists, is the feeling that it is too difficult to be a good human without the aid of a god. That the influence of a god is necessary for a human to figure out how to be a good human. And the really neat trick is how they turn this pitiful weakness into a proudly displayed mark of strength and virtue.

        I think this assumption is a major stumbling block that prevents committed believers from understanding an atheist position of just about any kind.

        They just can’t seem to conceive that some other people can conceive, and even believe, that not only can humans figure out how to be good humans, but that other humans are the only ones there are to turn to on that quest. And they really don’t seem to be capable of accepting that some people are not just okay with that, but greatly prefer that over the archaic barbarity that is religion.

    2. I think your analysis is just right. Green is wandering around in that foggy middle ground and can’t imagine that one side or the other might be right. “The state of faith in the world is much grayer, much humbler, and much less divided than atheist academics and preaching politicians claim.” Diana gags on “modernity”; I gag on “humble”.

      1. ” . . . much humbler . . . .”

        I wonder if not a few of these “much humbler” folk are not actually secretly quite proud of their intellectual non-curiosity.

        1. Humbler than thou? Very much so.

          I’ve come across quite a few of those, including some high profile theists on their syndicated TV shows.

        2. As one of the greatest American poets puts it:

          “Think you’re really righteous? Think you’re pure in heart?
          Well, I know I’m a million times as humble as thou art”

      2. A Catholic friend of mine once told me that he often questioned his faith: that faith does not preclude doubt. In fact, faith cannot really exist without doubt. I think he thought this would reassure me, that I would see that atheists and theists are closer than I think and that even though he believes in God, he can still understand my side.

        No. I smiled at the time and let it pass, but it didn’t have that effect. He meant well, but it only emphasized the gulf between us. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that he really, really didn’t get it. He was so used to ‘faith’ being a humble but virtuous position, he framed it that way to an atheist. Which was stupid and arrogant.

        Wtf? Didn’t he realize that from my point of view his doubts were coming from his conscience? From his honest, noble, rational side? How in the world could I not be further insulted, to have my rational conclusion treated as one would treat a weakness. “Yes, I too am flawed like you. I struggle against it. Feel the pain of my struggle.”

        I wonder if Emma Green is thinking that the faithful-struggling-with-doubts position is the “gray area” which would temper our criticism, if we could but acknowledge it. The hand across the chasm.

        When it’s a major problem, and the source of extremism.

        1. I can envision the tone and manner of your friend during that conversation. Something like “unctiously patronizing.” Catholic clergy is particularly good at that. They also seem to confuse such a manner with being humble. Passive agressive humble.

        2. Thing is, if he really, sincerely questioned his faith, really, sincerely had doubts, and really sincerely dealt with those doubts, would he still be a Catholic? Possibly.

          But I’d bet good money that when the things listed above are done sincerely, most often an atheist comes out the other side. Those who remain religious were likely not sincere.

          He may have thought he was talking a good game, but, as you say, he didn’t get it. I mean, even if we grant that he was sincerely questioning his faith, so what? He still came to the wrong conclusion. The conclusion is the important thing. Did he want a cookie for paying lip-service to doubt?

  13. First, secularism is pervasive. There is no evidence for religion in anything, except those things which are man made. All religious qualities of anything are self-enclosed, manufactured. When people stop believing in those qualities, they cease. Gravity, for example, does not stop working because one stops believing in it.

    Second, atheists question faith based postulates and accept knowledge based on evidence. If this is intellectual snobbery, then accolades are what the snobs deserve.

  14. If the age of atheism started in 1882, most people still haven’t caught on.

    She acts like that is a lot of time. Historically, 100 years is an eye blink. We’re still seeing religious belief erode at unprecedented levels. We’re living in a period of transition. But the change is slow enough that some people can pretend it isn’t happening.

    1. And the only thing that is making it go slowly is the power of childhood indoctrination coupled with community reinforcement. It’s certainly not because the message is weak. It’s because 90% of the world is cultified.

  15. My favorite version of the stats on religion in the world:

    67% do not believe in Christianity
    80% do not believe in Islam
    85% do not believe in Hinduism
    90% do not believe in Buddhism
    95% do not believe in any of the others

    So it depends on how you look at it.

    1. Nice. This should be quoted often. Do you have a direct source or did you extract it from some survey yourself?

    2. These percentages also clearly indicate a disjoint between belief and atheism, i.e., atheism is a religion like abstinence is a sex position.

  16. I note that Green’s nones as “16 percent of the world’s population” is an underestimate, since we know from other statistics that many of the affiliated are actually nones.

    Atheists have legitimate knowledge, and those who believe do not. This is the epistemological assumption looming in the so-called “culture war”

    It is a simple task to test and reject the claim that a philosophic “epistemological assumption” is a valid way to describe the situation: science. No “assumption” was harmed under its development. Or rather _a tremendous amount of assumptions_ were damaged, destroyed and obliterated, including the assumption that there were any “assumption” behind its development or use.

    Most people seem to ground their atheism in an objective skepticism*, hence empiricism.

    * Unless there’s statistics on that, we should need some!

    1. True of most vocal atheists, esp. gnus. We tend to be thoughtful and reflective about our atheism.

      But I suspect that a majority of nones (esp. in Europe) are simply apathetic about religion and unreflective about their reasons for their non-belief.

      However, that is largely conjecture. I don’t think we do have the stats. I seem to recall a year or so back there was a female researcher who was looking at this, but I don’t recall seeing the results of her survey.


      1. But I suspect that a majority of nones (esp. in Europe) are simply apathetic about religion and unreflective about their reasons for their non-belief.

        Concur. I’d guess the average Dane would identify as a non-believing agnostic if pushed, but the vast majority are still members, practically by default, of the national church.

        It’s barely a religion anymore and most people are just tagging along because it’s practical in regards to weddings and funerals.

    2. “…,since we know from other statistics that many of the affiliated are actually nones.”

      This made me remember one of my colleagues. The topic of religious affiliation came up, he told me he is Catholic. Under further inquiry he also told me he does think the Bible is a “fairy tale”. I also know he virtually never goes to Church. I asked him how could he define himself as a Catholic (and gave this answer on any poll) when he does not actually believe in it.

      It became clear that there is a definition difference. For me, Catholicism is a belief system. For him, it is a tribal tradition, part of his family heritage like the name of the family. He is an affiliated non-believer.

  17. We know it’s not true because the vast majority of the world believes in God or some sort higher power.

    Anyone invoking an argumentum ad populum for one phenomenon needs to explain why the same doesn’t also apply to everything else that’s widespread: sexism, racism, war, poverty…

  18. “Religion is pervasive so atheism won’t win.”

    So was Smallpox until the cowpox antigen was discovered. Atheism is the antigen for religious infection.

  19. Our latest census has “no religion” at 41%.I posted the following comment under the article for whati it’s worth….
    The lady doth protest too much, methinks.
    Atheists don’t need to prove God doesn’t exist any more than we need to prove that Thor or Osiris doesn’t exist. Atheists simply think that there is no difference between the Christian, Islamic, (or pick your own..) god and all the other gods that we all now agree don’t exist.
    It is up to the religious to show how their god, is somehow different from all the make-believe ones.
    Pointing out the obvious question: If most gods are make-believe, then how do we know that the god you believe in, isn’t? Does not constitute a broad pathology in conversations about belief, it is a serious question.
    The fact that atheists are not satisfied with any contemporary answers to that question does not make them dogmatic, the only dogma here is the way that the religious stick to their positions, in the face of the fact that they cannot provide an answer.
    If anything, this book demonstrates that the consistent failure of the religious to address the atheist viewpoint, has engendered such desperation that all that is left to them is, denigration and name-calling.

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