Bourbon Cowboy

The adventures of an urbane bar-hopping transplant to New York.

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Location: New York, New York, United States

I'm a storyteller in the New York area who is a regular on NPR's "This American Life" and at shows around the city. Moved to New York in 2006 and am working on selling a memoir of my years as a greeting card writer, and (as a personal, noncommercial obsession) a nonfiction book called "How to Love God Without Being a Jerk." My agent is Adam Chromy at Artists and Artisans. If you came here after hearing about my book on "This American Life" and Googling my name, the "How to Love God" book itself isn't in print yet, and may not even see print in its current form (I'm focusing on humorous memoir), but here's a sample I've posted in case you're curious anyway: Sample How To Love God Introduction, Pt. 1 of 3. Or just look through the archives for September 18, 2007.) The book you should be expecting is the greeting card book, about which more information is pending. Keep checking back!

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Trouble With Atheism, Part 1

Here is the first part of the first draft section from How to Love God Without Being a Jerk titled How to Be an Atheist Without Being a Jerk. As always, I welcome comments, because this is a rough draft, and I already feel like some of my accusations may have been intemperate or insufficiently clear. It also feels unusually disorganized. Help!

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.


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, ' 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.



Blogger Norman said...

My initial gut reactions:

1) You're very careful to separate hard-core fundies from the majority of Christians, but you don't do anything like that here. Many of us atheists are just people minding our own business, and would be thrilled if the people who love to demonize atheists would do the same.

2) You can live your life with reason yet still have emotional responses to art, fall in love, and so on. I believe that by slowly rejecting mythology and accepting reason as the best way for me to interact with the world, I'm actually BETTER equipped to have personal emotional reactions to things that I was when I felt dependent upon otherworldly moral guidance. So I think your basic argument here is a straw man.

3) Your last few paragraphs make no sense to me. Perhaps I'm not understanding them properly. Yes, there are insane people who believed in reason. Yes, there are mean smart people. What does this have to do with anything? Am I supposed to start believing in unprovable forces because I want to be "more popular", or so that I don't end up insane by overthinking?

I don't know -- this whole piece feels to me like you didn't have a strong argument, and "You shouldn't overthink! You should have a heart too!" is all you could come up with. Which is inarguable, but it's not to the point, I don't think. If you have an argument to make (and I can see why you feel the book needs one, for balance), it may be with the style of arguments in some of the recent anti-religion literature. But to suggest there's an inherent emotional problem with atheism (as this piece seems to read) is, frankly, nonsense. And I'm sure that's not what you mean to convey.

2/21/2008 4:11 PM  
Blogger Cowboy Dave Dickerson said...

Oh, thanks so much! I knew I was doing this wrong! Here's how I intend to tweak these arguments in the second draft:

1.) You're correct. I have always tried to make a distinction between hardcore atheists (the folks who come to Atheist Meetup groups and sign Humanist petitions, etc.) and the ones who simply opt out of any overt identification. Why I forgot it in this case, I don't know. I'll correct it.

2.) The point of this section is not that atheists are, in some way, emotionally stunted, but that people PERCEIVE atheists to be making emotionally untenable choices, and this results in the atheists being seen as somehow beyond the pale. So it's not that I think that atheists have been emotionally foolish; I do think, however, that they have been more socially transgressive than they sometimes realize.

3.) In the next section (I'm writing it now), I will try to point out some of the connections between Atheism and geek culture, which DOES derive from over-thinking things, and which IS (I think) more likely to express itself in emotional imbalance at times, for the simple reason that geekery can become a way of avoiding interaction with the world. [Many fundamentalists are also geeks, and there is, in fact, a lot of rigorous, emotion-ignoring brainplay going on in both camps. But I haven't quite figured out how to compose that section yet.]

2/21/2008 4:31 PM  
Blogger Rhu/nmHz said...

I think you need to be a bit more careful about distinguishing between irrational and arational (which is where I think you're going with "not rational").

I went into this in my blog in my first essay about "What I Believe" (which was partly inspired by your thoughts on this blog). [It's friends-locked for now; if you want to be added to that list you'll need to comment here]

The main point that I make there is that while I'm willing to accept certain ideas that can neither be proven nor disproven as the basis for my actions (and that's my definition of "faith" and "belief"), those premises must be logically consistent and their implications must be logically derived. I'd describe that as a rational system on an arational base.

And so I object to your contention that "if all you have is reason, then religion vanishes almost instantly." That makes it sound as though reason and religion are fundamentally incompatible, which I think is not always the case.

2/21/2008 4:32 PM  
Blogger Francis said...

Also, if you agree that most atheists aren't humorless people who smugly proclaim their love of the concept of reason above all else, but are disliked because that's how people view them -- is that somehow *not* a PR problem?

2/21/2008 8:16 PM  
Blogger airheadgenius said...

If pressed, I would define myself as atheist, but it is not the *overt decision* that you describe. I had "Religious Education" for a time at school, decided that it was mostly bollocks and chose not to follow any of it. This stance was taken aged 12 and I have had no reason to think it was a mistake.

Religion looms large in America and it continues to baffle me how seriously it is taken. I cannot remember ever having had a conversation about my faith, or lack thereof, before arriving here. I have N. Irish friends and I don't know if they are Catholic or Protestant.

My point. I have never chosen a religion because a) I've never felt the need and/or b) none has ever grabbed me. But I most certainly have faith - it just happens to be faith in me.

2/21/2008 10:47 PM  
Blogger Chad E Burns said...


I enjoyed this post, the Caveat and HTLG Chp 8 (pts 2 of 3or4). However, I am seeing a "trend"--and I hate to use that word.

They seem a bit less "point driven". I think they ramble a bit more than previous portions; and they don't quite say (what I assume) you are trying to say.
It is almost as if you are trying to explain something using very clinical words or examples, but then the sanitariness (not sure that is a word) and/or the examples wind up overshadowing or taking us away from the point.

One of the things I have LOVED about your previous posts is how clear and articulate you are about showcasing the flaw in "fundy thought" In these recent posts it seems much more like you are attempting to tailor your word choice, stories and point-making to "thinking Fundy's" and you are trying not to alienate them.

My thinking is that you should be yourself and continue to do what is best--the fundy's who are "thinking" enough or open-minded enough to really read your book will not be insulted, in fact they will probably feel you have more respect for their position and existance--i.e. observing the fact that their are "thinking" fundy's out there who are NOT afraid of science.

I am not saying you are pandering or washing down what you are saying, I just don't feel these more recent posts have the bite, wit and point that your other posts did.

Just my opinion.

2/22/2008 2:26 PM  

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