Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The big bad atheist will blow your religion down?

Ronald Lindsay, president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry (CFI), wrote a piece for the Huffington Post comparing coming out as an atheist to coming out as LGBT. In it he urges atheists to reveal their existence to the world for much the same reason that it's good for "queers" of all sorts to come out-- for their own happiness and for the world to recognize their ubiquity and similarity to themselves. Just normal folks, as worthy and intelligent and moral and loving as anyone else. Recognition of this is the single biggest factor in social acceptance, and it's good to encourage. But while making this comparison, Lindsay also draws what he sees as an important contrast:
I don't think coming out will have the same level of success for atheists as it's had for LGBT individuals. Why? Because even after we come out, some fear will persist. For some, the level of fear, the sense of being threatened, may actually increase. 
There's a big difference between being gay and being an atheist. Someone can persuade you to be an atheist; no one is going to persuade you to be gay (no matter what the extremist anti-gay propaganda says). 
I don't foresee a best-selling book entitled "The Straight Delusion" or "Heterosexuality Poisons Everything." The LGBT community wants acceptance; they don't want to persuade others to join their "team," and even if they had that objective, they would strive for it in vain. 
By contrast, the amount of literature that has been produced in the last decade criticizing religious belief is extensive and continues to grow. Moreover, these critiques of religion seem to have had some effect. 
Of course, many atheists have little or no interest in persuading the religious to abandon their beliefs. They merely want to be treated as equals and to end the influence that religion has on public policy. That doesn't matter. The realization that many atheists once were religious and then "lost" their faith has an unnerving effect on some of the religious. How far will atheism spread? Will I be next? Or my children?
Okay, so prejudice against atheists-- in America, at least-- has been demonstrated to exist. It takes the form of a distrust, a belief that atheists are different and mysterious, fundamentally "other," and that they cannot be relied upon to support the same ideals, to "share the same vision of American society." However, there are some interesting aspects to that. The first is that this impression of atheists as a threat to societal values can be significantly diminished by reminders of social controls-- if people receive messages indicating a strong justice system is in place, their anxiety of wanting a supernatural form of police as backup seems to drop substantially. In addition to this, there's a factor that runs counter to Lindsay's suggestions:
In the third experiment, Gervais gave the subjects one of three passages to read and react to - one on food, an excerpt from The God Delusion in which Dawkins argues that belief is nonsensical, and a passage detailing the increasing numbers of atheists in the USA in recent decades. This last passage included the crucial fact that at least 20% of Americans aged 18-25 are atheists. 
For the religious, reading that atheism was rather more common than they previously believed had a remarkable effect. It effectively abolished their distrust of atheists. 
To me, this result strongly suggests that distrust of atheists is mostly due to fear of 'others'. It suggests that the main reason for the distrust is that the subjects had not realised that many of their fellow students were, in fact, atheists. 
Once they learned that atheists were not a weird, alien group, but rather people just like them, they felt able to trust them. And I think this conclusion is supported by the experience of atheists in places like the UK, where overt atheism is much more prevalent and distrust of atheists is correspondingly lower.
How to say this? I think Lindsay is treating the issue a little too...rationally. And by that I mean, he seems to believe that the greatest threat that atheists present to theists is the fact of their having a different opinion about what would seem to be a foundational matter, the existence of a creator. And yes, clearly efforts to argue that matter such as The God Delusion are a turn-off for people of faith, and should be viewed much more as sources of reassurance for atheists, especially the new kind, than as tools of conversion for the religious. Given how many times I've seen the same refutations of the same arguments done more and less artfully in various forms in books and internet forums and chat rooms over the past couple of decades to no apparent avail, I don't find that idea hard to swallow at all. Religion is far from a purely intellectual matter, and-- let's be honest-- so is atheism. Acceptance seems far more likely to be dependent on tripping the right empathy triggers than anything else.

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