Friday, March 14, 2014

The threat of "conspicuous atheism"

A quarter of Americans apparently do not understand that the Earth revolves around the Sun and not the other way around, and just over half of us understand that antibiotics are not effective against viruses. Yet three quarters of us are "convinced God exists," and almost half of us believe in ghosts.

But how many of us are aware of (much less observed) any actual evidence that the Earth spins on its axis every day and revolves around the sun once a year? Earth feels quite stationary to me, and you can watch the Sun, Moon, planets, and stars move across the sky with your own eyes! Still I suspect there are a fair number of dogmatic heliocentrists among us who would be hard pressed to explain (much less show) why we think this counterintuitive fact about our world is true.

And unlike the real world that we cling to as it spins and revolves around the Sun, "God" is a concept that means many different things to many different people. Einstein's "God" is very different from Ken Ham's or Fred Phelps' concept. Neil deGrasse Tyson points this out before explaining that he is unconvinced about the traditional "God" of religion, but he avoids the "atheist" label "because it causes people to make all sorts of unflattering (and often untrue) assumptions." He is "agnostic" about the traditional "God" in the same way that he is agnostic about tooth-fairies and unicorns, but he still enjoys watching Jesus Christ Superstar and stands for the Hallelujah Chorus.

The secular community includes many agnostics, freethinkers, humanists, and skeptics who shun the atheist label for these and other reasons. Some still go to church for community (or to preach). Others wear the scarlet 'A' as a badge of honor, or to combat prejudice and distrust, or to simply be honest. And far too many still suffer negative social consequences for revealing to others that they just don't believe in a "God." An editor at The Atlantic sees "conspicuous atheism" as "intellectual snobbery" while others see it as the work of Satan - with "secular humanist" being just as bad as "atheist" to some of the former and many of the latter. Some want atheists to stay in the closet while others encourage atheist clergy and politicians to come out.

In some countries, "conspicuous atheism" can still result in your arrest by the "authorities." In the US, "out" atheists can lose their job or be shunned by their family and community in some areas. Atheism may be intellectually fashionable, but not all "conspicuous atheists" are intellectual snobs (nor are all agnostics indecisive, or all conspicuous theists ignorant Neanderthals).

Doubt and disbelief comes with many labels. Atheist is the most despised. I avoided it for a long time. And I agree with Tyson that labels sometimes cause us to avoid having a conservation, but sometimes they can also clarify conservations with someone who's concept one seriously doubts.

I am an atheist, out and out. It took me a long time to say it. I've been an atheist for years and years, but somehow I felt it was intellectually unrespectable to say one was an atheist, because it assumed knowledge that one didn't have. Somehow, it was better to say one was a humanist or an agnostic. I finally decided that I'm a creature of emotion as well as of reason. Emotionally, I am an atheist. I don't have the evidence to prove that [everyone's conception of] God doesn't exist, but I so strongly suspect he [most*] doesn't that I don't want to waste my time.
 - Isaac Asimov
If that causes you "to make all sorts of unflattering (and often untrue) assumptions" about me, or to accuse me of "intellectual snobbery," then you should ask yourself why my (conspicuous) existence is such a threat to you. I suspect it has more to do with your doubts than mine.

* Unless you just mean the Cosmos, or awe and wonder or other human feelings - in which case I guess I'm really a theist? - but that seems misleading...

1 comment:

  1. I am an African-American, and I came out as an atheist on facebook on my birthday. I found that the whole of the entire African-American community broke out in a religious reflex, starting a gospel challenge, to sing gospel songs. I think we underestimate just how threatening it is to believers, our existence, that is. Our disbelief directly contradicts a belief that they have incorporated into their sense of self and way of life. It is a little sad. They show disdain only because they are afraid. They are literally terrified of losing their belief to the point that they know that if they even begin to think rationally (skeptically) about what they actually believe, the foundation will crumble. This, along with the incorporation into self, may explain the usual default to ad nauseam, emotional appeal, and other fallacious responses triggered by encounters with disbelief.