The Trouble With Atheism, Part 1
UPDATE: I'm actually really unhappy with this post, and I'd like to thank Norman, in the comments, for figuring out a few of the more salient things that are wrong with it. My own comments there include a plan for setting this straight. In the meantime, read this post with the equivalent of a clothespin over your nose. (And read the comments.) I'll get to fixing it later, after I've written the rest of it at all.
THE PROBLEM WITH ATHEISTS: ATHEISTS AS HYPERRATIONAL
In a televised debate with pastor Rick “The Purpose-Driven Life” Warren, Sam Harris was asked why some many people have negative impressions of atheism. He laughed and replied, “We have terrible P.R.” and Rick Warren said, simply, “No you don’t.” Warren’s point was clear: why blame bad P.R. when atheists are doing perfectly horribly without any help? In the same way that evangelicals often don’t notice when they’re being dicks, atheists often don’t seem to understand why they’re so widely disliked. I’m an atheist, and I know precisely why people loathe atheists, and I know what we can do about it. That’s what this chapter is about.
To put it most bluntly, atheists are often accused of being immoral because they have quite overtly made a decision that seems a trifle inhuman: they have chosen reason over intuition, reason over emotion, simply by not having faith.
Faith is not rational. I don’t care how often you talk about philosophers like Hegel or scientists like Francis Bacon who were both religious, or talk, as the Catholic church often has, about the importance and value of the God-given faculty of reason. (In one of the great Father Brown mysteries, the priest-sleuth easily identifies a false priest because, he explains, “He attacked reason. That’s bad theology.”) All of this protests too much. The math is simple: if all you have is reason, then religion vanishes almost instantly. Religion is, in some ways, the sort of patch job that we place on our view of the world when reason alone doesn’t seem to answer everything. Or, to put it another way, religion rises when we sort of leap towards our best hunches about the meaning of the world, and reason is the patch job we apply to make sure our asses are covered; we use reason to show that the religious leap, though ultimately non-rational, was at least as sensible as possible.
Of course, to a religious person like the one I was, the entire enterprise seems rational. I prayed, it worked (by my religious definition of “working”), and therefore religion is real. QED. But of course this isn’t so much a logical syllogism as it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Like the woman who says, “I’m going to prove that apples cause cancer!”—and then finds, surprise surprise, exactly the link she was looking for. If we find exactly what we decided to look for anyway, there’s an obvious sequence involved that progresses like a kind of logic. But if you claim it’s purely logical, and motivated only by reason, you’ve missed at least half of the journey. I’ll say it again, because it bears repeating: Faith is not rational. It doesn’t even come asymptotically close to reason. It uses different tools, comes to different conclusions, and has completely different ideas about what counts as proof. What the two have in common is the shape of their stories: I had a problem; I applied faith/reason; I got a solution that I read a certain meaning into. The only thing that’s different between them is everything else.
Atheists know this, and they’ve identified with reason quite heavily. The Infidel Guy closes every show by saying, “In reason!” Robert Price wrote an atheist’s answer to The Purpose-Driven Life that he titled The Reason-Driven Life. The Internet Infidels website calls itself “A drop of reason in a sea of confusion.” The list goes on. The problem with atheists who identify with reason is that they often take the next step and assume that being rational means being smarter, and then they start talking as if they’re all, every one of them, smarter than any priest who ever lived. (As I will explain in my next section, I think some of this tendency often echoes behaviors that date back to when the atheists were in high school.)
When I’ve posted my thoughts about the nonrational nature of faith online, I’ve often been accused of claiming that Christians are stupid. Christopher Hitchens, as we’ve seen, all but asserts the same thing, so some confusion is understandable. So let me clarify: I don’t think Christians are stupid. I think they’re often not rational, but that’s not the same thing. I say “not rational” because calling someone “irrational” is an insult, suggesting caprice, unreliability, overemotionalism…all the things 50’s-era sexists ascribed to women. By saying “not rational” I hope (perhaps vainly) to defang the accusation a little.
Reason isn’t everything, and thank goodness for that. I can hardly imagine anything more depressing than two people getting married for rational reasons. In fact, the really fun stuff of life—love, sex, and art—is best approached through instinct. Obviously, reason undergirds the structure, since a great painting is impossible if the artist is ignorant of the facts about paint, canvas, color, and such. But the actual painting itself is at its best when it’s done with passion, and when the painting itself resists the question, “What does it mean?” Even a painter as logical as M.C. Escher, whose works often look like the working out of a math problem, achieves his best art when his fish transform into birds or the hand escapes from the paper to draw itself. Reason is often at its most beautiful only in the added light of whimsy.
“But wait!” some of you may say. “Isn’t reason—meaning logic, facts, all things calculated and unemotional—the safest way to approach life? Wouldn’t life be better and more stable if we really were rational all the time? And isn’t consigning reason to a second tier just guaranteeing a series of horrible mistakes?” This ignores a rock-bottom fact about life: mistakes are the best way forward.
A friend of mine once made a huge mistake. She dated a pathological liar who, it turned out, was married to a woman in another state (there was a child, too). She feels stupid now, but at the time I don’t think you could have called her stupid; just non-rational. She had incomplete information, and filtered it like an optimist, which is what happy people do. All of her friends helped in this: she hadn’t dated before, and we were all eager to see her make it work, so when she said, “He claims he used to work for the CIA and he can’t talk about his past,” we all said, “He treats you nicely, right? Some people do work for the CIA!” We were so thrilled to see her dating that we couldn’t bear emotionally to be as cynical as we logically (and in hindsight) should have been. The mistake cost her thousands of dollars.
But my friend was smart. She got right back on the horse, as it were, and is now married to a wonderful guy and has a child of her own. Because the lesson is to never let mistakes affect how you act in the world. While it is logical to suggest that anyone might be a pathological liar, it would be too logical—one could say inhuman—to treat everyone as if they were a potential pathological liar. Such a person—one who does background checks on everyone she meets, or who asks questions not because she’s interested in the person but because she’s hoping to trip someone up in an easily verifiable falsehood—would, in the strictest sense of the term, be behaving logically. The problem is not her reasoning; it’s that her reasoning is itself grounded in fear of the improbable. Trust, that healthiest of human instincts, is a religion-shaped leap.
And this is what I feel is the chief problem facing most of the atheists I know and love, including myself: there is a tendency to trust reason too much, and the move from Trusting In Reason Whenever Possible over to the land of Being Deathly Afraid of All Irrationality is as easy as the next off-ramp. It’s a toll road, too: it’ll cost you some small measure of your trust in humanity. So when evangelicals claim, as they often do, that atheists are just as much of fundamentalists as Christians are accused of being, they are wrong in many important ways, but they’re right about the motivations of some of the people they’re accusing. Not all, but definitely some. I see atheistic tribalists at every atheist gathering I go to, and as I watch them rail against anyone who isn’t an extreme rationalist, I remember how I used to feel when I would go to church meetings and hear speakers who never tired of preaching the “hard truths of the gospel,” of preaching things that would “convict” us; who seemed to enjoy dividing the sheep from the goats. In many ways, they are the same asshole, and they’re bad for everyone’s happiness.
It might be wise, then, to remember that for most people, Reason is cold comfort, and the Reason Driven Life, however sure it may be, is less colorful than the Purpose-Driven one: quite intolerably so. The stories of our culture, the movies where we talk to ourselves about our concerns, are one lesson after another about the dangers of too much thinking: of computers that take over the world; of research-minded scientists who let The Thing escape; of brilliant people who are also, alas, colorfully insane. This is perhaps best epitomized in Elwood P. Dowd's (Jimmy Stewart's) statement in the movie Harvey: "My mother used to tell me, 'Elwood...in this world you must be oh so clever, or oh so kind.' I've been clever. I recommend kind."
There's a democratic impulse to this: we can't all be Einstein, but even the dumbest girl on the block can be gentle to a kittycat; anyone can learn to be big-hearted. (Even that mean old Grinch!) And this is why, when the movie The Wizard of Oz is over, people have always cried far more tears for the Scarecrow than the Tin Man. By choosing atheism--by being absolutely sure of it--the atheist is essentially announcing her alliance with the Tin Man. This is an understandable thing for someone to do. But you can't then turn around and be baffled about why you're not more popular.