The Importance of Atheism
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In a national survey, part of a broader project on multiculturalism and solidarity in American life that we call the American Mosaic Project, we found that one group stood out from all others in terms of the level of rejection they received from the general public. That was atheists. And not by a small margin, either.
This was a surprise to us, at least at first...How does such a small group pose such a threat to a large majority? The more we explored this finding, the more we came back to a simple answer for it. Like it or not, many (possibly most) Americans see religion as a marker of morality,,,
Should this have been a surprise to us? Maybe not, but the fact is that people tend to talk mostly to other folks who are like them, and academics can be as sheltered as anyone. Academics of course are by and large a secular bunch. If anyone approximates the European model of the Godless secular humanist, it is the academic. Our colleagues were genuinely interested in our finding, but many also had a hard time accepting it.
I have a suspicion that respondents might have been equally negative if asked about "feminist" or any other ideological tag that carries countercultural baggage. Most people declare that they are "not feminists but" they are on board with with all the central goals of feminism as historically understood--equal political rights for women and equal access to education and jobs. Because feminism has become mainstream there is no real work for the tag "feminist" to do, so it now suggests left-wing belligerence and flakiness. That is why I think it may be time to retire the F word.
"Atheist" has been a countercultural tag for much longer than "feminist" and carries much of the same ideological baggage: people who self-identify as "atheists" have axes to grind and reject normal standards of civility; they campaign against hilltop crosses, creches in public parks and all manner of harmless cultural practices; they are even against Christmas, so the story goes.
Most Americans however have nothing against non-churchgoers or even people who, by ordinary criteria, don't believe in God--so long as they don't use the A word. When I give anonymous surveys to new freshman in my critical reasoning class, modeled on gallup polls canvassing belief in the paranormal and supernatural--including ESP, UFOs, alternative medicine, haunted houses and the like--approximately 70% profess to believe in God. The remaining 30% are about equally divided between those who say they don't and those who say they don't know--that is, between atheists and agnostics. However on their student records, which I have since they're my advisees, almost all put a religious affiliation--about 2/3 Catholic since my college is Catholic. This isn't surprising: I can't find the reference now but amongst the general population only 70 some odd percent of individuals who consider themselves Catholic, a smaller percentage of self-identified Protestants and a larger percentage of those who identify as Jews, say they believe in God.
These Catholic, Protestant and Jewish non-believers aren't liars or hypocrites. Their statements reflect the fact that for many Americans--particularly those who identify as Catholic or Jewish, religious preference is a matter of cultural or ethnic affiliation rather than ontological commitment. Moreover Hoge et. al. in Vanishing Boundaries: The Religion of Mainline Protestant Baby Boomers note that about half of Protestant churchgoers are "lay liberals" who are indifferent to theological claims and hold that "it doesn't matter what you believe as long as you live right." They have no theological or atheological axes to grind: they simply aren't interested in these matters. If pressed they may say that they're "spiritual but not religious" or that "there might be something there" but they are, at most, agnostics--thought they would never dream of using that term because they are, of course, by religious preference and social affiliation Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Methodists or Lutherans.
Self-identifying atheists are another kettle of fish. Most are more reflective and clear about what they believe, more interested in theology and much more knowledgeable. Who wouldn't rather deal with Dennett or Dawkins, for all their ranting, or with Flew, Ayer or Russell? So, apart from a widespread distaste for active ideologues (which I don't share) it takes some explaining to understand why atheists, apparently, get such a bad rap.
In large part it is because Americans do indeed "see religion as a marker for morality." This should hardly be surprising since religious leaders promoted this view, particularly in the US when they sought to engage a population that was highly practical, impatient with philosophical abstractions and largely uneducated. From the fire-and-brimstone preachers and promoters of the Prosperity Gospel to Norman Vincent Peale and other purveyors of generically religious self-help literature to contemporary megachurch gurus peddling the "purpose-driven life," the pitch in the US has always been practical: religious belief (in whatever) and good behavior will improve your life.
Liberal clergy were especially keen on the idea that religion was at its core ethical and that theology was, at best, peripheral. Concerned to promote pluralism and tolerance, they had the notion that whereas theology was divisive, ethics was ecumenical: theology, which launched crusades, inquisitions and holy wars, should be minimized, fudged and made generic in the spirit Pope's Universal Prayer: "Father of all! In every age, In every clime adored, By saint, by savage and by sage, Jehovah, Jove or Lord!" Moreover, since the Enlightenment, metaphysics and theology in particular had become something of an embarrassment, and there was a sense amongst liberal clergy that if churches were to survive and appeal to educated people they needed to get into some other line of business. Ethics was, in any case, more salable than metaphysics--as philosophy course enrollments consistently show.
There is however a deeper, less parochial reason for the identification of religion and ethics--the idea that morality has to be metaphysically grounded and externally enforced. This idea becomes especially compelling at times and places where there is mass migration from villages to cities or when large groups of people accustomed to living in homogeneous, face-to-face communities find themselves is impersonal, heterogeneous, cosmopolitan societies. In these circumstances they run amok: think of the world of Gay's Beggars' Opera, Hogarth's Gin Alley or contemporary Nairobi--reminiscent of London during the Industrial Revolution, replete with street urchins picking pockets.
This is hardly an original observation. In the village people behave themselves because there are external constraints: custom, kinship, publicity, fear of social disapproval and fear of the gods keep people in line. Villagers don't "internalize" moral rules or councils of prudence because they don't need to--like the kids in the math class I'm taking, clicking away at calculators because they can't do even simple arithmetic in their heads since they don't have to. In the Secular City, where they're anonymous and the constraints are loosened they see no reason to behave themselves: these people are strangers--why shouldn't I steal from them or beat them up? No one is going to stop me or even notice--why shouldn't I just stay drunk all the time? These credit cards are free money--why shouldn't I spend until I max them all out?
These are bad life strategies--not only, or primarily because they they promote anti-social behavior but because they individuals who adopt them get mired in poverty, stuck in debt, and wasted. Strong religion fixes that. Conservative churches provide trailer trash with scenarios for successful living; they encourage them to look more than a day ahead and set goals; they preach horse sense, give external, theological reasons for good behavior, impose discipline and provide face-to-face communities in lieu of the village and kinship group. Puritanism is the royal road to social mobility. People who buy in find that their lives are improved: they sober up and get their acts together, pay off their debts, work harder and get ahead--and discover a kinder, gentler, more organized, and altogether more pleasant world. They infer that they've been saved by the grace of God and, further, that without without religion most people will behave as they would if they hadn't been saved.
They simply haven't got the idea that people can reliably exercise prudence and self-discipline without external constraints--provided by the fear of God, the stern father and the cops. The Lakoff hypothesis--stern father vs. nurturing parent is correct as far as it goes but it isn't a deep explanation: preference for the strict, patriarchal family is just a special case of preference for external constraint. Religion provides such constraint for the masses. This is an old idea too, reminiscent of the notions of Victorian freethinkers who went to church to set a good example for the servants--convinced that even if they knew better, the lower classes needed religion to keep them in line.
I'm more optimistic. People can and do learn: most, within a few years or a generation, acclimate to anonymous, urban living and get the idea that they should behave themselves even when no one is looking. But lots of Americans--not only the few who have been saved in conservative churches but a great many more who assume that religion, however minimal, is the basis of morality--are not convinced. They don't realize how many well-behaved educated people--not just academics--are secularists and in any case assume that, even if there are good people who are not religious believers, secularism is risky: like the Victorian freethinkers, they believe that without religious constraints lots of people (not themselves of course) would run amok.
For them, "atheist" does not simply mean one who does not believe that God exists: it means a crusading ideologue who aims to undermine the religious beliefs, institutions and practices that keep people under control and maintain social order. This is also an old idea--Dostoyevsky's dictum that "without God all is permitted." Even if there are a few skeptical but conscientious intellectuals like Ivan Karamazov--or members of the American professoriat--who are, by themselves, harmless, their views if propagated can only lead to violence and chaos: Raskolnikov's senseless crime or the anarchist schemes of The Possessed. How do you convince people otherwise? That's the key to ending Culture Wars--getting it across that people can be civilized: that you don't need churches or religious regulations, guns, get-tough policies, harsher punishments, more external discipline, more jails or more cops to have a decent, pleasant, safe society.
Popular misconceptions aside, self-identifying atheists are by and large people who believe that atheism is important. Given the literal, strict constructionist definition of "atheism" as nothing more than disbelief in the existence of God it is hard to see why: beliefs about controversial metaphysical issues have no practical import and there is no reason why disbelief in God should be of any more importance than disbelief in Platonic forms.
One reason I suspect that some atheists think atheism is important is the assumption that belief in God is a symptom of a more general soft-headedness and irrationality--like belief in the power of crystals or herbal medicines and various occult phenomena. This isn't true--in general, views about controversial matters of ontology have little or nothing to do with hardheadedness or rationality. I know some very smart philosophers whose ontological views are bizarre: one believes that there are no people and has argued for this in a famous article; another believes that there are people, and organisms, but no inanimate objects other than "simples"; yet another believes that all that really exists is Stuff and Platonic forms.
Mainly though I suspect atheists think atheism is important because like most religious believers they imagine that religion is inextricably linked to morality--though, they believe, the wrong morality: they note the assumption of many religious believers that morality requires external constraints and their propensity to promote oppressive, conservative social and political agendas. If that's the problem though atheists should work to break the association between religion and ethics instead of campaigning against metaphysical theses, religious symbols and cultic practices. And that may not be as hard as many people imagine. The association between religion in the narrow sense--the belief in supernatural beings or states of affairs, myths, fetishes and cultic practices--and morality is a relative novelty. The Greek gods didn't give two hoots about morality and generally behaved badly themselves.
If atheists are serious about the importance of atheism they should stop preaching metaphysics to the choir, stop crusading against religious symbols in the public square and drop the pretense that harmless religious customs and practices are the thin end of the wedge driving in fundamentalist theocracy. Certainly it is important for atheists, and everyone else, to fight against the introduction of "intelligent design" in public school biology classes and work to stop fundamentalists from imposing their socially conservative agenda on the rest of us; it is however impossible to understand what good waging an expensive, long-running legal campaign to move the cross on Mount Soledad does for atheists or for anyone else.
During the heyday of American civil religion in the 1950s, Peter Berger, a conservative Christian though no fundamentalist, complained that Americans were inoculated with a weakened form of religion at an early age and so were ever afterward immune to the real thing. As a liberal Christian I'm for Christianity in it's weakened form--for the myths, symbols and practices people enjoy and for the cultural practices of other religions as well. I like Buddha statues in Chinese restaurants and the little earth god shrine at the entrance to the Vietnamese supermarket where I shop. I'd like it if public schools celebrated Hanukah as well as Christmas, and holidays of any other religions as well, and if public parks featured midsummer celebrations for Wiccans and naked pagans dancing around the maypole. I'd like to live in a world where religion was broad but shallow, where churches, temples and shrines were thick on the ground, where everyone knew the myths, observed the holidays and enjoyed the music--but no one imagined that religion provided a basis for morality, looked to it for rules to guide their lives or attempted to impose those rules on others.
Atheists who believe that atheism is important should consider supporting religion in this weakened form to inoculate people against more virulent strains. You can't get rid of religion--there are too many people who simply like it too much. You can only de-fang and civilize it so that people can enjoy it without being harmed or doing harm to others.