Monday, May 7, 2012

The squeaky wheel will never be trusted...or something

I do not like Psychology Today. I'll say that up front.

That's primarily because "fluff" would be a gracious term to apply to most of its articles, and they have the annoying habit of presenting whatever trend or subject being discussed as a brand new phenomenon, accompanied by the inevitable cover advertising the preeminent story of the issue by manipulating an image of an attractive white woman's face and/or body in some way-- the newest issue (June) features a discussion on "difficult people," so the cover image is of an attractive white woman's face painted with a symbol for radioactive materials. Clever.

But my attention was drawn to that cover, not so much because of an urge to find out why difficult people resemble models dressed up as hazardous waste as because of another headline: "The Atheist in the Next Pew: A New Breed of Nonbelievers." The article is actually called "The Atheist at the Breakfast Table," which is behind a paywall at Psychology Today's website but you can read the full version at the site of its author, Bruce Grierson. Grierson wrote an interesting overview of what life is like for "quiet atheists" who go about their daily lives being generally indistinguishable from theists, even attending church, and taking great pains to make sure their children are exposed to religion-- to the point of hiding their own lack of faith so as to avoid "foisting" their atheism on them. And right on cue he portrays these quiet atheists as a new breed of nonbelievers that you really ought to get to know in order to avoid stereotyping the whole lot as being like those nasty, obstreperous, faith-trampling New Atheists we've heard so much about.

And what about them, anyway? Well, Grierson doesn't use that term, but...
The kind you hear about are crusaders with a specific agenda: to challenge religious bigotry wherever it raises its head. Since 9/11 particularly, they have stepped up their campaign, galloping through the chapel with the guns-ablaze fervor of a persecuted minority, cataloguing the harms that have been done in the name of organized religion. That strategy, while it has definitely raised atheism’s profile — partly by polarizing the religious debate — hasn’t exactly endeared atheists to the majority of Americans. Indeed, polls consistently show that dislike and distrust for atheists goes wider than for any other identifiable group.
Hoo boy.

Okay, first of has been pointed out already by commenters on Friendly Atheist, there is a bit of bitter irony in that description of atheists metaphorically "galloping through the chapel with the guns-ablaze fervor." The "galloping" I am guessing is an oblique reference to the famed Four Horsemen of the Atheist Apocalypse, aka the "New Atheists" Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris. The bitterness comes in considering that there have been some literal guns blazing in chapels in the past few years, and it hasn't been by atheists. The incident of which most near (again, literally) and dear to me being, of course, the murder of Dr. George Tiller in 2009. So, perhaps not the best mental image to evoke there.

Second, the "fervor of a persecuted minority"? Atheists are undoubtedly a minority, at the 15% of the population Grierson claims they represent after their numbers have doubled in the last twenty years. Are they persecuted? Well, let's see. One openly atheist member of Congress, support groups for clergy who find that they've lost their faith and need help finding new employment and adjusting to the social fallout, teenage atheists being called horrible things and sent death threats, the majority of Americans by far deeming them untrustworthy, ranking below Muslims and homosexuals and about on the level of depends on how you define persecution, I suppose.

But the big whammy comes in the final two sentences of that paragraph. "That strategy," meaning all of this aggressive fussing-- in particular since 9/11-- has not endeared atheists to the majority of Americans, who dislike and distrust them more than any other identifiable group. Which mustn't, I guess, be mistaken for persecution because atheists brought it on themselves. This is an obvious example of the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy in that Grierson makes no attempt to actually show that any "campaign" by atheists resulted in the popular animosity against them, and that's a problem not just because it's a highly questionable suggestion to make (and I'll explain why in a moment), but also because Grierson's article can be summed up as an attempt to introduce readers to a kinder, gentler, quieter form of atheist that is presumably more normal and likable, who don't deserve the ill will that those loud obstreperous Which is quite like saying "Let me introduce you to some closeted gays, so that you don't think all gays are flamboyant leather daddies like the kind that march down the street with the floats and the banners and the balloons." True, maybe, and an important distinction to make, but not exactly the best way to honestly combat prejudice.

And prejudice is, frankly, what it is. It didn't begin with the advent of the "New Atheists" (which I would tentatively date at mid-2004, when Sam Harris' The End of Faith was published--  Breaking the Spell and The God Delusion came along in 2006, and God is Not Great in 2007). 48% of Americans said that they would not consider voting for an atheist for president in 1999, more than those who would refuse to vote for a Muslim, homosexual, Mormon, Baptist, or Jew (all of whom were below "Black," by the way), which was evidence of a gradual improvement in esteem from 1958's 75%. The majority of those polled have regarded atheists as "untrustworthy" for quite a while, plus there is the consideration that when confronted with thoughts of death (which a terrorist attack that annihilates two buildings and kills almost 3,000 people is likely to encourage), people tend to hold tightly to their ideologies of family, religion, nation, etc. and judge more harshly those who defy them. You would expect (and, if you've been paying attention, have seen) massive lashing out at Muslims in America since 2001, but the antipathy toward atheists was unanticipated. It makes sense, however, in light of a communal urge to join together on a meaningful basis. And an interfaith community (We all worship God, in our own way) is a short but cavernous step away from accepting those with no faith at all. Cavernous, as in that scene in The Fellowship of the Ring when the entire company is attempting to escape from the Balrog in the Mines of Moria by leaping from one precarious promontory of broken bridge to the next?

Yes, about like that.


  1. General comment: Very, ve-ry interesting blog you have here. I've been struggling with the issue of religion vs. non-religion for years now, with minimal gain in my grasp of this chameleoctopus, and I hope that your writing may help me along. BTW, I downloaded your dissertation, and am looking forward to reading it!
    M J Kubat

  2. My wife likes to offer our home, specifically our guest room, to friends visiting from out of town. Often these are people she has known from high school. Just this last weekend a former high school friend stayed with us while she visited her very ill mother in a local nursing home. My wife's friend is VERY religious.

    After our guest left, I asked my wife what she would have done/said if an issue regarding religion had come up during her friend's visit (like wanting to pray together, or saying grace over dinner). Not one to speculate on hypotheticals, my wife simply said she just wanted to be remembered for her kindness, compassion and hospitality. "If someone finds out I am an Atheist, I want them to be pleasantly surprised", she said.

    I believe that there are millions of quiet, unassuming Atheists like my wife living among believers who don't even know it.


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