Big Tent Atheism

Guest blogger Paul Spinrad first wrote about meme warfare in Adbusters #11. 

In politics, I think there are two competing motivations for voters to support a cause publicly. One is to influence the majority to agree, to make changes that you believe in, and the other is to distinguish your opinions as superior to most other peoples'. These two motivations generally cause people to act in similar ways, but I've found some "tells" that reveal the underlying elitist motivation:

  • Leaving up losing campaign stickers and signs long after the election is over. (I passed a Ron Paul window sign today…)
  • Dressing and behaving at political demonstrations in a non-respectful way (partying, trying to "shock people out of their complacency," etc.).
  • Saying that it requires superior knowledge or compassion to arrive at the views you hold.
  • Saying that it makes you "uncomfortable" or "scared" that a group you don't identify with actually agrees with your view.

Under a democracy, the elitist motivation is self-defeating: If your true aim is to distinguish yourself from the masses, you really don't want your side to win– your aim is better served when more people vote the other way, and then you can be disgusted with most peoples' stupidity and wash your hands of responsibility.

With religion, I think atheists have the same dissonance going on. If they really think the world would be better off without religion, they shouldn't hate religion and call believers fools. Any successful new belief system must appreciate the beauty of what it's replacing and strive for backwards-compatibility. If Matthew 1:1-16 hadn't explained how Jesus' lineage fulfills the prophecy in Isaiah 1:1-5, it wouldn't have gotten where it is today.

So I put it to declared atheists– the ones who fly the flag about it, not the ones who are quiet or closeted: Do you think that most of humanity is A) hopeless and doomed to kill each other because of their stupid religious beliefs, or B) capable of coming to and benefiting from your views?

I think closeted atheists who participate in other religious activities are the future of atheism. They know that prayer feels good without a needing brain scientist to tell them, and they know you don't need God to want to feed the hungry, heal the sick, and provide homes for the orphaned. What if they simply stopped reciting the words that they didn't agree with during religious services, without calling attention to it? In many places I don't think they would be kicked out or turned upon and beaten just for that.

An atheism that's well-designed for broad appeal wouldn't need miracles. What miracles do for a belief system is ensure greater investment on the part of the adherent. If something's easily believable, it's easy to take or leave, but doubtful claims require a leap and then ongoing mental maintenance. If a group subscribes to some miraculous claim, it demands shared support, repetition, declarations, indoctrination, etc.– all of which bind the group together. For a new atheism, the miracle-we-believe function would be served by the question of whether the whole scheme could actually succeed. If the "us" people say yes and are excited at the prospect while the "them" people view it as absurd, that's the identical, effective dynamic.

Meanwhile, I'm putting The Crooked Letter on my reading list– it sounds great!