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The alleged arrogance of atheists

Monday, 15 February 2010

My post on introducing the label 'Unapologetic Atheist' started a lively debate in the comments section. In the course of it, people have once again raised the charge that unapologetic atheists (also known as 'new atheists') are rude and arrogant and uncivil and needlessly hostile towards religious people.

By Mano Singham

(The cartoon strip Jesus and Mo comments on this charge of 'atheist bile'.)

The catch is that we are never told exactly what statements fall under these categories. So to try and clarify things, I will list the statements that I commonly make and I would be curious to know which ones religious people find objectionable and why. So here goes:

  1. There is no more credible evidence to believe in god, heaven, hell, and the afterlife than there is for fairies, Santa Claus, wizards, Elohim, Satan, Xenu, The Flying Spaghetti Monster, and unicorns.
  2. Science and religion are incompatible worldviews.
  3. The world would be better off without any religion or beliefs in the supernatural.

Everything else I or any other new/unapologetic atheists write follow from these premises and are arguments designed to support and advance them. (Jerry Coyne has a nice summary of the atheists position.) So are the above statements rude, arrogant, hostile, uncivil, etc.?

To help us make a judgment, let us formulate what the opposite pole of those statements might look like:

  1. There is more credible evidence to believe in god, heaven, hell, and the afterlife than there is for fairies, Santa Claus, wizards, Elohim, Xenu, The Flying Spaghetti Monster, and unicorns.
  2. Science and religion are compatible worldviews.
  3. The world would be worse off without any religion or beliefs in the supernatural.

If any statement in the first set is rude, then by symmetry one should concede that so is the corresponding opposite statement. I think that I am safe in saying that most people would say that the second set of statements are completely inoffensive. In fact such statements are routinely made by religious apologists and are praised as 'moderate'. And yet you never find atheists saying that religious people are being arrogant and rude because they say that god exists and atheists are wrong. It is this difference that is telling.

So if what we atheists say is rude and hostile, why doesn't it hold true for the opposite? The situation is even worse than a mere lack of symmetry. Religious people don't feel that there is anything wrong in even saying that nonbelievers are going to hell and making absurd demands in the guise of seeking accommodation. In fact, that is their standard shtick, as my conversations with the Jesus people showed. (See here, here, and here.)

I think I know what really offends religious people about what new/unapologetic atheists say and why. What they want us to say is that belief in some form of traditional religion is somehow respectable and rational to believe in. What they desperately want to avoid is having their beliefs lumped in with all the other evidence-free superstitions, like astrology or witchcraft or Scientology or Xenu or Elohim or Rael or unicorns or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. When we say that there is no credible evidence for any of these things and hence they must be treated equally, they get upset. They desperately want to distinguish themselves from what they consider to be fringe beliefs but they cannot find any meaningful criteria by which to do so. So they want us to stop reminding them of the embarrassing fact that they are no different.

If you listen to the many debates that have been held on whether god exists what you essentially hear from the religious side is the plaintive cry "Please, please don't say that our beliefs are irrational. Please, please say that it is reasonable for us to believe in Jehovah/Yahweh/Melvin/Jesus/Harvey/Allah/Krishna/…(circle the name of your preferred god or insert your write-in candidate) and we will join you in denouncing things like astrology, witchcraft and the like."

But of course atheists will not say that because to do so is to give up atheism and we are not going to do so without evidence.

Atheists are confident that there is no god or other form of supernatural agency. Having believers simply say we are wrong or even going to hell does not offend us because they never provide any evidence in support so why should we care? But religious people know that they have no evidence to support their belief and are embarrassed by the thought that their beliefs are irrational and unscientific, and haunted by the fear that they are wrong. Rather than shutting their own ears to avoid hearing things they dislike, they want us to shut our mouths.

Maybe I am wrong in my analysis of why believers make the charge that new/unapologetic atheists are arrogant. So here is my request to those who believe it is true: Tell me exactly what statements that the new/unapologetic atheists make that are arrogant/rude/uncivil and why.

POST SCRIPT: Bertrand Russell on atheism and its implications

This clip reminds us that the 'new' atheism is pretty old.