Atheist Arrogance

Atheists are arrogant. Who hasn't heard it?

Arrogance is just one of their repellent qualities, of course. They are also ungenerous, cold, lonely, untrustworthy, amoral, and aggressive. You shouldn't leave them around children. When I spoke last week to a group called Seattle Atheists, the organizer positioned me far from the door, and I speculated aloud about whether I should be worried for my safety, given what we know about atheist ethics.

But the most common accusation hurled against atheists is that they are insufferably arrogant. In my experience, this accusation is rarely about a specific encounter: I was talking with Joan, my atheist neighbor down the street last week and do you know how I was treated by that insufferable witch?!

No, it is more like a mantra.

In Seattle, there's a chain of hamburger joints called Dick's. People who find themselves on the topic of hamburgers will say, "Dick's is great" almost as an opener, before they move on to the details of the conversation. Amazingly, I've heard this even from folks who have never eaten there. Dick's is great. Atheists are arrogant.

The unflinching tones adopted by The Four Horsemen
are not more harsh or critical than what we accept routinely in academic debate or civic life. It is the subject matter that is the issue.
The accusation provides cover for those who want dismiss thinkers like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, or Christopher Hitchens. I've often marveled that anyone could read Harris' manifesto--written as graduate student's post-9-11 cry of anguish, or Hitchens' litany of social corrosion and atrocity in the names of gods, or Dawkins' urgent appeal to evidence and reason, or Dennett's nerdy analysis of human information processing, and find themselves reacting above all to perceived arrogance. Images of people jumping from fiery buildings. Mutilated genitals. Radically cool glimpses of our mental circuitry - and the dominant reaction is disgust about arrogance?

Interestingly, the accusation also provides cover for those who agree with the Four Horsemen. Young non-theists writing even for edgy places like Wired Magazine or The Stranger go to some lengths to say I'm not like those atheist guys. We all can agree to loathe them. Mind you, they do make a decent point or two . . . . The ugly atheist stereotype is so strong, that people feel like they need to distance from atheism's iconic figures if they want a shot at being heard--or perhaps, even, liking themselves.

But what's underneath the stereotype? For years, as a practicing psychologist, it was my job to listen for the feelings and needs behind the tone, and I think a host of feelings and yearnings are obscured by the "arrogance" label. Below are some of the emotions I hear in the writings and conversations of self-identified atheists, and some my imperfect hypotheses about where they come from:

Resolve
Nobody self-labels as an atheist in our culture unless he or she is "out" for a reason. It's like looking white in Alabama and making a point to tell people about your black father. Freethinkers who adopt the label publicly have decided for one reason or another to take the heat, and they are not necessarily representative of the broad range of freethinkers who may choose other labels or none at all.

For some people, being out as an atheist is personality driven or developmental. (All of us know natural born contrarians; many of us experiment with identities on the way to adulthood.) For some it is political. For some it comes from a deep conviction that we must find some way to change the public conversation about what is good and what is real and how to live in community with each other. All self-labeled atheists are braced, steeled against the stereotype, but they have varied reasons for looking society in the eye and saying, This is who I am. What they have in common is a sense of determination and the willingness to pay a price.

Frustration
Theism gets a pass on the rules of reason and evidence that normally guide our social discourse. In a boardroom or a laboratory, we don't get to say, "I just know in my heart that this product is going to sell," or "This drug works even though the experiment didn't come out that way."

Cartoonist Wiley Miller captured atheist frustration perfectly in a recent Non Sequitur entitled "The Invention of Ideology:"
One caveman stands in the rain.
Another behind him under shelter comments, "Um, why you standing in the rain?"
"It not raining"
"Yes it is."
"No it not."
"Huh? Water fall from sky. That rain."
"That your opinion."
"Not opinion. Fact. See? Raindrops."
"Don't need to look. Already know it not rain."
"If it not rain, then why you wet and me dry?"
(Pause) "Define 'wet' . . . "
"Oww . . . Brain hurt!"
What does frustration sound like? When it doesn't sound like brain pain, it sounds impatient,sharp and distancing.

Incredulity
Believers look at the dogmas of religions other than their own and see them as silly, and yet find their own perfectly reasonable. Atheists, except for those few with formal training in the psychology of belief, find it incredible, almost unbelievable that the faithful don't perceive some higher order parallel between their religion and others--and run the numbers, so to speak. Of course that's not how ideology works, and per cognitive scientist Pascal Boyer, rationality is like Swiss Cheese for all of us. But if you buy the Enlightenment view of man as a rational being, it's easy to get sucked in and expect rationality and then be incredulous when you simply can't get smart people to bind themselves to the obligations of logic and evidence.

Offense
It feels obnoxious to have people assume that you have no moral core, that you rejected Christianity because you wanted to sin without guilt, or that you are damaged goods, the object of pity. Fundamentalist Christians, when they have given up on conversion, treat non-believers as agents of evil who reject God, like Lucifer did, out of willful defiance. Modernist Christians express benign sympathy -- and look for early childhood wounding (in particular at the hands of fundamentalists that left the scarred freethinker unable to enjoy the wonder and joy of faith. Both fundamentalists and modernists often assume that freethinkers miss out on wonder, joy and a sense of transcendent meaning. Atheists take offense, even when these assumptions are couched kindly and are well intended.

Resentment
Atheists, along with the rest of America, listened to a presidential inauguration in which the preachers, combined, got almost as much talk time as the president. They help their kids figure out what to do with the anti-communist, "under God" line in the Pledge of Allegiance(Go along with it? Stand silently? Substitute "under magic"? How about "under Canada?"). They pay their bills with "In God we trust." They listen to born-again testimonials as a part of public high school graduation ceremonies and reunions. They do twelve years of training and then twelve hours of surgery and then read in the paper that a child was saved miraculously by prayer. Sometimes they get mad.

Pain
On websites like exChristian.net, doubters often lurk for months or even years before they finally confess their loss of faith. Because apostasy is so taboo, they struggle over how to tell their children, or spouses or parents or congregations--especially the fallen ministers. They wrestle with guilt and fear, just like their religions say they should. They deal with rejection, even shunning. Some of them come out at tremendous personal cost. See "When Leaving Jesus means Losing Your Family." Although this doesn't apply to all freethinkers, for those who are in the process of losing their religion, the pain is real. And pain has an edge. Try selling anything, including dogma, to a woman with a migraine.

Empathy
Not all atheist pain about religion is personal. Many nontheists feel anguished by the sexual abuse that is enabled by religious hierarchy, by women shrouded in black and girls barred from schools, by the implements of inquisition that lie in museums, by ongoing Christian witch burnings in Africa and India, or by those images of people leaping from windows. Even less dramatic suffering can be hard to witness- children who fear eternal torture, teens who attempt suicide because they are gay and so condemned, women who submit to their own abuse or the abuse of their children because God hates divorce. To the extent that we experience empathy, these events are can feel unbearable, the more so because they seem so unnecessary.

Moral Indignation
Atheist morality is rooted in notions of universal ethical principles, either philosophical or biological, and often centered on compassion and equity. Since the point of atheist morality is to serve wellbeing, suffering caused by religion often triggers not only horror but moral outrage. Each believer sees his or her religion as a positive moral force in a corrupt world. Most think that morality comes straight from their god. Because of this, believers fail to recognize when atheist outrage is morally rooted. They don't understand that atheists frequently see religion as a force that pushes otherwise decent people to have immoral priorities. When, for example, the religious oppose vaccinations, or contraception, or they come to care more about gay marriage than hunger, an atheist is likely to perceive that religion undermines morality. When theism sanctifies terrorism or honor killings, atheists are apalled.

Love and Longing
What folks like Sam Harris and Bill Maher are saying, as loudly as they know how, is that they love this imperfect world, and they fear for it. They long to see that which they cherish most: natural beauty, global community, human rights, and the fruits of scientific discovery handed down to their children and ours. But they believe wholeheartedly in the power of religion to destroy that which they hold dear. Why?

Need we even ask? Think about the Twin Towers, the Taliban, the Religious Right's yearning for Armageddon, the geometric progression of our global population curve and the Church's opposition to family planning as a moral responsibility. Think about the trajectory of human religious history - what has happened in the past when unquestioned ideologies controlled government and military. Think abstractly about a social/economic/international policy approach that is unaccountable to data, one that sees doubt as weakness, agreement among insiders as proof, and change as bad. Think concretely about suitcase nukes in the hands of Pentecostals or Wahabis who believe that a deity is speaking directly through their impulses and intuitions.

The prophets of the godless are crying out that 21st century technologies guided by Bronze Age priorities may bring about a scale of suffering that our ancestors could describe only as hell. You might not agree with them, but to understand their in-your-face stridency as anything more complex than arrogance, you have hear the depth of their urgency.

Desperation
Have you ever had a dream in which, no matter how hard you try no-one can hear you? Many freethinkers feel like that whenever they try to talk about their journey of discovery.
"Hey," say former fundies. "Guess what I found out. The Bible contradicts itself. Do you want to see where?"
"I never meant to end up godless," say former moderates. "Do you want to hear how it happened?"
"'A theory' isn't something we dream up afterhours," say biologists. "Can we tell you what a scientific theory is to us?"
"We think we've figured out how those out-of-body experiences and bright lights work - at a neurological level," say neuroscientists. "Care to know?"
"Religion may increase compassion toward insiders at the expense of outsiders," say sociologists. "Are you interested in finding out?"
"What if we can no longer afford beliefs without evidentiary basis?" ask the bell ringers. "What if unaccountable belief inevitably produces some that are dangerous?"

It's not the fundamentalists they are hoping to engage. It is moderate, decent people of faith--the majority of the human race. But are moderate believers open to such questions? Many outsiders think not, and people who feel hopeless about being heard either go silent or get loud.

So, let's come back to arrogance.

Yes. Atheists are susceptible. They think they have it right. (So do we all.) And yes, those nonbelievers who underestimate the power of viral ideologies and transcendent experiences tend to think that belief must be an IQ thing, meaning a lack thereof. And yes, dismay, pain, outrage, incredulity and desperation all make people tactless, sometimes aggressively so.

But I don't think any of these is why frank talk from atheists so consistently triggers accusations of arrogance. The unflinching tones adopted by the Four Horsemen are not more harsh or critical than what we accept routinely in academic debate or civic life. It is the subject matter that is the issue.

I would argue that atheist talk about religion seems particularly harsh because it violates unspoken norms about how we should approach religion in our relationships and conversations. Here are some of those rules:
  • It's plain old mean to shake the faith that gives another person comfort and community, so don't do it.
  • If you doubt, keep it to yourself.
  • Practice don't-ask-don't tell about unbelief.
  • Be respectful of other people--respecting people means respecting their beliefs.
  • If someone tries to convert you, be polite because they only mean well.
  • Remember that faith is good and even a brittle, misguided faith is better than none at all.


Outspoken atheists break all of these rules. They do and say things that are verboten. They insert their evidences and opinions where these are clearly unwelcome. Is this the height of self-importance?

Recently I interviewed former Pentecostal minister Rich Lyons about his journey out of Christianity. We found ourselves laughing about the velvet arrogance of our former beliefs: that we, among all humans knew for sure what was real; that we knew what the Bible writers actually meant; that our instincts, hunches and emotions were the voice of God; that we were designated messengers for the power that created the galaxies and DNA code -- and that He just happened to have an oh-so-human psyche, like ours. What other hubris could compare, really?

Maybe it is time for all of us glass-house dwellers, theists and freethinkers alike, to move beyond conversations about arrogance and onto much needed conversations about substance.

Valerie Tarico is the author of The Dark Side, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org.

14 comments:

Arizona Atheist said...

Very good, very accurate post. I think you nailed it right on the head about many of the reasons I, and others, speak out.

goprairie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
goprairie said...

'arrogant atheist' might be progress for us. it is something we can agree to. what is arrogant but a firm beleif you are right and someone else is wrong. catholics are arrogant about lutherans and vice versa. but their differences are small. we reject all of their stuff and so our arrogance must be a little stronger. we should welcome the change in title, because to a certain extent, it has replaced words like 'godless' and 'pagan' and 'heathen' that were much more negative and hostile. 'arrogant' is a label i can live with. i am proud to be smart enough to have given up the constant wrangling it took to try to make things fit. I am proud of my scientific analytical thinking.

Gandolf said...

I thought it likely arrogance would connect more with assuming.It seems to be connected in the dictionary anyway.

Atheism seems to be against whats overbearingly assuming ,so why is it considered so arrogant.

Assuming is to take for granted or without proof

Lunamor said...

Interesting post...I did a post about "what does an atheist look like" the other day...nowhere near as good as this!

Paul Fidalgo said...

Excellent post. I especially want the message to get out that all one needs do is read the New Atheist books to know that arrogance is not one of their characteristics.

noxidereus said...

Excellent! I could not agree more with this analysis.

denelian said...

very nice post. i'm pagan, not athiest, but i go through very similar things. and my dad is an athiest, and he gets put through some hell.

i could wish the rabid theists were less arrogant themselves.

Seek4Truth said...

I think arrogance is a fundamental issue regarding the human condition. It stunts people from searching for truth and evaluating their core beliefs. Instead, people tend to staunchly defend what they want to believe and/or for the sake of merely desiring to win an argument. As a result, they refuse to agree even if the opposing argument makes more sense!

While I enjoy debates, I believe they tend to fuel arrogance and pride. Instead of actually considering the opposing view, debaters tend to (not always) focus on merely being "right" or "winning." I think dialoging in a loving way with others is the best approach. By this approach, it's good to make sure the opposing view is understood, find points of agreement, then move into why you think it's nonsense. This way they might actually listen to what you have to say. If neither person is able to convince the other, then they should agree to disagree and move on. Of course, the dialogue should continue, but resulting to just wanting to win an argument or being "right" stunts intellectual progress.

Pete said...

I've always thought the arrogant ones were those who believe that they were made in the image of a supreme deity who then gave them mastery over all other life-forms on the planet.

R O'Brien said...

"Arrogance is just one of their [i.e., atheists] repellent qualities, of course. They are also ungenerous, cold, lonely, untrustworthy, amoral, and aggressive."

That's not true of all atheists (just most).

strangebrew said...

Fair enough attempt...but ultimately mild and condescending a tad.
A few points that irritate...

Resolve:

Basically trying to comfort the christian ego...Poor Atheists are going through rebellious stage..let us indulge them...Purile nonsense from beginning to end of that sub-heading.

Atheism is not a self labeling ...'look at me'...statement...it is a cosmological fact ...and for most it is a resolution of personal analysis...

Frustration:

Not so much frustration in the atheist world just pity for generation that never grew up!

Incredulity:

Argument from subjectivity...nobody does that better then the theist...

Offense:

The only sense of offense is that theism is a betrayal of Mankind...simple like so...all the rest of the excuses theists enjoy are there to give themselves comfort not the atheist...it is elementary self centered wishful thinking and pompous words used as a shield for their uneasiness in a strange land...where belief is not the be all and end all!

The fact is that theists believe in just one more god then atheists...
Their atheistic attitude to other gods is based on thinly veiled racism...or a lack of balance!

Pain:

Peer pressure is the pain...'what will folk think of me'...because the mouthpieces of religion... any religion... prefer to label those that lose their faith...or rather lose the blinkers...as outcasts of society...it is one of the oldest tricks in the ecclesiastical box...fabricated from their own fear and foisted on the rest of the congregation...
No doubt there is pain...but that pain is from the bitter heart of religious intolerance and sheer ignorance...and that ignorance should be painful to everyone in society...tis self inflicted!

Empathy:

WTF...it is business as usual then...how come suddenly when atheist this is a problem...cos when 'prasin de lawd' it was all christian kosher...that sub-heading smacks of unresolved guilt complex!

Moral Indignation:

If you want morals never ask a Christian...Politicians and media are the arbiter of the moral compass anyway...they like to guide folks in their direction of stumbling!
The church follows because it is far to weak to push any other action...and the populace vote is the one that counts!
No one will ever ask an atheist for a moral decision...because the political and the media prefer argument from religious angles...seeing as most proprietors never got of their knees from childhood church attendance...it gives them more leverage in a society where significant numbers of folks still worship a vicar...minister...pastor or local ju ju man.

Love and Longing:

'The prophets of the godless'

Nice projection...must have prophets... it is a frame of reference... that totally misses the point.

A bunny with a belief in the inerrancy of a fictitious fairy story is a dangerous beast...they have no humanity only the greater glory of their god at stake!

'It's plain old mean to shake the faith that gives another person comfort and community'

But it is fine and dandy to ram religion down the throats of children and native islanders?
Or irritate folks going about their daily business...or pontificate in the media...or threaten ex-communication...or turn a blind eye to pedophilia...or curse folk to hell on the internet or from the pulpit...

'Be respectful of other people--respecting people means respecting their beliefs'

Or non belief...
I see precious little accommodation for atheistic attitudes in the world certainly!

'If someone tries to convert you, be polite because they only mean well'

And I only mean well when I tell them to go away and grow some rationality!

'Remember that faith is good and even a brittle, misguided faith is better than none at all.'

Well that is a moderate to weak theist attitude...as such it should be regarded in the contempt it is given!
Pity the theist do not play by similar rules...amongst each other!

'Maybe it is time for all of us glass-house dwellers, theists and freethinkers alike, to move beyond conversations about arrogance and onto much needed conversations about substance.'

That has been the request from atheism for centuries...unfortunately that avenue of oh so civilized debate is barred and locked tightly...on the theist side of the barrier...for good measure fingers in the ears and loud lah lahing is the preferred fall back position for the faithful...until a blinker slips out of place!

There have been few revelations delivered unto theists that have rendered them godless by atheist argument...those that are graced by rationality get there under their own steam...might take them a while but they do get there...and that is impressive given the obstacles they face!
That process tends to suggest that belief and faith are self constructed...they are also self de-constructed...depending on wind direction and honesty!

DrMark said...

I am aware of the Christian rationale against arrogance. Is there an atheist rationale against it? I am also aware of the Christian rationale against hypocritical judging; and the post and comments from atheists reveal that a lot of Christians are not doing too well on that one. Bad Ambassadors so many of us often are for what is our lord, even if such is ourselves or a deity.

eheffa said...

Thanks you Valerie, This was a very insightful & thought provoking post.

I first started reading Dawkins et al when I was still a Christian. They did not strike me as arrogant but rather clear & lucid in their analysis of ill-founded belief systems. Yes, Hitchens & Dawkins can sound arrogant at times but I can hardly blame them when their opponents refuse to engage the issues & yet have lots of time to send them repeated email death threats. I see their sometimes evident exasperation as a human response to their vitriolic detractors.

You note though that much of their writing & debate is presented in the same sort of tone as one would argue for any academic or objective idea. I agree. I think it is the ideas that they present that give the offense.

Austin Dacey in his book "The Secular Conscience" makes the point that the dogma of political correctness has forbidden this sort of discussion in the community at large. Those atheists who refuse to be cowed, are by their very act of pushing this discussion into the public, are by definition arrogant. They refuse to comply with the unspoken rules of political correctness that allow the religious proponents to peddle their ideas unhindered.

Thanks for your thoughtful contribution to this board.

-evan