The Silent Atheists

When atheists are vocal, in nearly any manner, we get accused of being horribly negative, no matter what we actually say. Now, I don’t think this should be taken as an excuse to be unrestrainedly negative. I don’t think we should judge, as many atheists whine, that since we will take flak no matter what, we had might as well be careless or cruel in our criticism of theism or of religious people generally. We should not give people good cause to hate us and want to silence us simply because they already try to silence us without legitimate provocation. But nonetheless, we have to recognize that when we are criticized for being vocal, it’s often simply because there are unjust social norms against criticizing people’s personal religious beliefs and against criticizing beliefs in gods in general.

And, somewhat more understandably but still problematically, there are mainstream social norms against proselytizing in any way (even in an ironically atheistic way) when it comes to matters of religion. These norms are not only important to many non-fundamentalist religious people but are especially prevalent among atheists and irreligious people, and they are often the most adamant of anyone about them. And so whether our criticisms of theism or its religions are actually good or actually bad. or civilly presented or uncivilly lobbed, is all a matter of indifference on a social level. There are implicit norms we are breaking just by speaking. And some of them are enforced vociferously by fellow atheists. These atheists’ masterplan is to just preach that no one ever really and seriously talk about the substance of religious beliefs with each other so that in that way religious conflict will go away and everything will be more peaceful. They don’t want atheists fighting for their own viewpoints and values and adding yet another side in conflict with the others. Apparently debates about fundamental metaphysics and ethics can only ever be carried out in hopelessly irrationalistic and tribalistic ways, because that’s what inter-religious strife has always amounted. And so atheists cannot offer anything more than the same and so should not be active participants in debates about the truth of such things, but instead just protest all inter-religious conflict. Meanwhile the groups that ignore such encouragement to stop recruiting keep growing in numbers and political influence all the time. One day maybe they will voluntarily just stop because the conflict averse non-believers keep insisting.

We vocal atheists will hardly get any credit for silence even if we join the silent atheists who foolhardily chide us for vocalizing our opinions (which they themselves actually share but think it too impolite to very publicly utter or fight for). While vocal religions flourish and while we vocal atheists get flak for actually lifting a finger to advance our own perspectives, our acquiescently silent cohorts have historically never gotten much of a pat on the head for not speaking. They do not get so much as a cookie for the favor of staying out of religions’ way as they run rampant.

The majority of unbelievers are either closeted or relatively silent and deferent to the theistic beliefs, identities, feelings, and traditions that surround all of us. They already are the silent majority of us unbelievers. And their way has only led to us being marginalized with impunity and demonized without retort. And the broader public is so grateful to all their silence that it reflexively tars all of atheism as one ironically foolish religion, all on account of a few of us having the gall to speak up. That’s how much your silence and disassociation from organization has been noted and respected, silent atheists. You’re conscripted to the cause of the first atheist to open his or her mouth. And this is not by other atheists, mind you. Other atheists recognize that while there can be atheistic religions, our atheism does not conscript us into any of them automatically or default into being any one of them all by itself. (In fact many atheists choose to evade religiousness altogether and do so successfully.) But those for whom you silent atheists have walked on egg shells feel completely at ease in tarring you and mischaracterizing you since, thanks to your obeisant silence, they don’t know a goddamned thing about you.

To understand the silent atheist’s predicament, a detour into moral psychology is helpful.

There are (at least) two kinds of moral actions. One kind of moral action involves doing something that is minimally expected of you and which is expected to be easy. No one pats you on the back for these moral acts. No one congratulates you for not pushing old people down flights of stairs. No one congratulates you for not thieving or lying or cheating or stealing. You’re just not supposed to. And the reason you probably don’t do these things is simply because you are prudent and want to avoid the risks involved anyway. And oftentimes there’s really not much of anything in it for you to do these terrible things. Unless you’re some sort of a sociopath or a psychopath, you’d be much happier not hurting people anyway.

Another kind of moral action involves doing something so extraordinarily morally good that people think you are not just minimally and obligatorily morally decent like an average person with an average conscience and set of moral feelings, but that you are actually someone who deserves special moral credit. You are actually morally praiseworthy. You are an especially moral person or you at least have done an especially morally good deed.

Sometimes these actions may even be considered supererogatory; i.e., so demanding, or even heroic, that they go well beyond merely the fulfillment of duty. These actions are sometimes seen as things we could never blame the average person for not doing but that we are especially appreciative that some people do anyway. It is an interesting moral philosophy debate to have whether there really are acts that, in this way, “go beyond the call of duty” or whether we all are really duty bound to be heroic and the majority of us are simply morally lazy and want to lower the bar when we designate the really hard moral demands as “supererogatory”.

And then there are some cases of simply not doing evil that will garner a lot of special praise, though never be seen as supererogatory. These are cases where you had a clear and advantageous opportunity to do something evil that was both highly beneficial to your own interests and something which you nearly certainly could have gotten away with. People tend to cynically assume that the average person is unlikely to withstand such a temptation and so will praise people who do, even though the action is itself only of the minimally decent kind. Or, even if they do think withstanding is normal and likely, they will still praise those who withstand as a way of reinforcing the behavior and encouraging it in others: “Be good even when you can really get one over on us, and we’ll make it up to you with admiration and maybe even some tangible future advantages in return.”

But I digress.

There is nothing immoral at all about being an atheist or propounding one’s atheism. But, unfairly, there are perverse social norms against it. And the atheists who remain silent do not get rewarded for doing anything especially praiseworthy even under these perverse norms because it is not seen as either especially heroic to silence one’s atheistic thoughts and nor is it seen as requiring any special resistance to temptation. It falls into the category of thankless obedient acts. Typically, you keep silent as an atheist just to avoid trouble, not because there’s any respect to be had or future return favors on account of your silence.

But someone who puts their religion ever so partially aside to be conciliatory or gracious to others is congratulated. And also when they insist on adherence to their faith and take principled stands on it then that must be respected. It’s their religion, after all. Of course that reasonably matters to them and trumps other concerns. Now, it is uncomfortable when their religious insistences are really detrimental to others and then we may either call them a false realization of their religion (thereby sparing the poor abused and exploited religion any blame on account of their sordidness) or we may criticize the content of their ideas as narrowly as necessary and still respect what is religious about it as good.

The atheist does not get any congratulations for shutting up because what is their atheism? Some nothingness? Why should they care about that? It’s not like a matter of conscience. Who cares or could possibly be passionate about what they don’t believe. What an absurdity. And really atheism is just a negativity anyway so only a rude person would want to spread that negativity to others. Only a negative person would want to cut down what others believe in, take comfort in, and form their identity with.  So, no cookie, silent atheist.

Unless…

What if enough vocal atheists come along? Ones who do see their atheism as an important part of their identity—and not because the gods who they think do not exist actually matter to them, but because they think commitment to those rational principles that show them that no gods exist are important, and because dispelling others of false beliefs and practices is something they passionately take to be a moral imperative.

What if these atheists come along and adamantly argue that atheism is one of the (many) tests of moral probity and thorough intellectual rigor? What if atheism comes to be understood as the sort of thing that contributes to many people’s identities in a key way? What if it comes to be understood as related to people’s core values and beliefs about the way the world is? What if these atheists make people stop thinking of atheism as merely a nothing, a negative, or a matter of indifference and mere nuisance? What if they make people see atheists in general as people for whom religious matters are worth analyzing and taking stands on because of their consequences to people’s lives?

Then maybe the silent atheists would get some credit too, the way committed religious people do, for holding all that fierce passion and identity in and for not trying to change anyone’s minds. Maybe they would be appreciated for the ways they affably abide their neighbors’ delusions? Maybe they would be admired for the ways that they are tolerantly indifferent when religious people make terrible ethical or personal or spiritual decisions because of their religious errors. Maybe they would get some credit for the ways they avoid the cardinal sin of proselytization.

So maybe we vocal atheists help the silent atheists after all. Just being silent on their own sure wasn’t getting them (or us) anywhere.

Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • valleycat1

    I can think of at least 2 more reasons why some atheists are silent. My spouse has been an atheist for so long that religion & discussion about beliefs is a complete non-issue & not worth the time out of living one’s life.

    The second group, in which I include myself, are those who for whatever reason aren’t comfortable trying to defend themselves in a discussion of atheism vs. religion, particularly in a situation where we’re outnumbered. I personally don’t feel I’m quick-witted enough to adequately defend my nonbelief or counter a believer’s statements. I don’t deny I am an atheist, but am not seeking out situations where I’m put on the spot to try to convince someone else I’m right. I’ve been reading lots of blogs & books by/for atheists to shore up my confidence in this area, but I don’t expect I’ll ever become a more proselytizing or evangelical atheist, just based on my personality type.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Yes, mostly I am talking about the silent atheists who are silent as a matter of principle because they disdain the very concept of talking about what they think or of correcting others’ errors. Normal personality traits like introversion or inarticulateness and cases of people in the closet for fear are not really who I am throwing the gauntlet to here. I am not saying every atheist needs to outright actively try to disuade others of their religious beliefs when they don’t come up naturally. But when they do come up, atheists should be frank and not deferential out of fear of norm breaking far more often than they are.

  • steveschulers

    False Dichotomy, vocal vs silent atheists, that is.

    Although raised Protestant (church, sunday school, etc,) I had become a non-believer in Christianity by the age of 12. By the time I was 15 I had become vocally atheistic in the sense of challenging people, somewhat indiscriminately, on the truth or falsehood of a Christian diety. Around the same time I also began to explore and investigate other religions of the world. I had a near ‘born again’ conversion experience which came about as a result of my immature atheist activism in which I confronted some (adult) evangelicals who were prosyletizing in a high school class at my high school. This was in Anchorage, Alaska in 1971. After experiencing a ‘pink cloud’ sense of euphoria for about a day as a result of my ‘spiritual awakening’, it occured to me that there was absolutely no way that I could become a Christian. I had already become aware of the many problems with the Bible as an authoritative religious text through self-study (remember, this was long before the appearance New Atheism and the internet as an informational and social resource) and there was simply no way that I could believe or accept the Bible as the “Word of God”. Making a longer story shorter, I descended into a very long lasting period of nihilistic existential dispair and profound depression, although I certainly couldn’t have articulated it as such at that time making it all the worse to endure.

    What good came out of that experience is the realization of how little I knew, and how much less I understood about life and the nature of the universe. My budding identity as an Atheist was demolished and has never been restored. Like it or not, atheism provides absolutely no foundation upon which to build any philosophy. Only by redefining atheism is it remotely possible to do so, an endeavor some New Ateists are engaged in now. Time will tell how that works out, I suppose.

    I have never hidden my religious disbelief, although I suspect that I would qualify as a “silent atheist” by your criterion.

    Let me ask you a question, Dan. If you had the choice between deconverting your brother the fundamentalist from evangelical Christianity to Atheism knowing that the result would be a tortured psycho-emotional condition of never ending nihilistic existential dispair or letting him continue in his beliefs with whatever peace he is able to derive from them, which would it be?

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      The idea that people have a choice between unrelenting existential despair and Christianity? THERE’S the false dichotomy! You have shown none in my piece.

      My brother would do just fine as an atheist. Meanwhile I know someone quite in particular who has stayed a Christian, I think psychologically because the existential despair of his interpretation of atheism was driving him to suicide. But being a Christian has not stopped the clinical depression from making this an ongoing issue in his life.

      For the most part, I am persuaded that our temperaments are much deeper than our abstract ideas. Happy people will for the most part be happy regardless and despairing people will for the most part be despairing regardless. People whose lives can go up and down based on ideas, not because they are just psychologically that way, are going to have those changes influenced by whether or not their overall life goes well. And I contend our lives usually have a better chance of going well the more we make choices rooted in truths about how the world really is than not.

    • steveschulers

      Good enough, Dan.

      I offered you a hypothetical situation to consider, not what I think that you erroneously determined to be a dichotomous choice. Yes, I agree that our temperaments are probably pretty deeply rooted and I think that consistent with that that there are probably temperaments that necessarily need religion to make life bearable. Perhaps choosing your brother as an example to consider in a hypothetical scenario was a bad choice on my part. Please consider my question again, this time as a hypotheical scenario with an abstract candidate for the conversion experience. Also, to what do you attribute your brother’s religiosity?

      By the way, my own little conversion story was probably inspired by your own recent articles on the same topic. Very different paths we have trod.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Yes, I agree that our temperaments are probably pretty deeply rooted and I think that consistent with that that there are probably temperaments that necessarily need religion to make life bearable.

      That’s not what I said. I said the religious person whom I know who most remained religious to avoid suicide, is still suicidal. Religion was not a panacea.

      As to why my brother is religious? I can only speculate. I cannot really speak for him. I would say he was overwhelmed and persuaded as a 13 year old at a sleepaway camp that proselytized aggressively. That gave his life previously missing purpose and sense of opportunities. With that placebo he concentrated harder on setting and fulfilling ambitious life goals and adhered to rigorous personal standards (given to him by his religion). And this new found resolve and set of practices were useful to him in getting the kinds of good things he wanted in life. So they seem to confirm in his mind the truth of the belief set that was operative in him. And add to all of this the incredible power of religious beliefs over minds that get hooked on them, given all the ways religions reinforce themselves, he was disposed to stick with what he believed at 13, like most people.

      Now, I know this, when he went back to school for his Master’s in psychology, he excelled and got straight A’s and started to think and talk much more academically. There were changes to his intellectual personality–and none for the worse. He is by no means a stupid person and by no means an immutable one. There are conceivable tracks of inquiry he could take or could have taken if only he were motivated and receptive that would lead to conclusions that would shock him, as they shocked me. But he didn’t take those paths. So he is where he is and I am where I am. But I doubt if he took those paths he would have wound up in a gutter somewhere. And I doubt if he had had the right secular influences as a teenager he could not have wound up equally (or more) successful in life than he is now. I do not see false religious beliefs as a sine qua non to his happiness or success. Essentially, as a matter of the accidents, the contingencies, of his particular life, they were the particular form that his motivations and inspirations came from. But countless secular people show that such things come from a wide variety of possible sources. People raised without religious beliefs do just fine without them—or as fine as their counterparts in temperament and life situation.

    • steveschulers

      Yeah, with the right biological and cultural circumstances I’d be the Crown Prince of Wales right now, but I’m not. (Laugh! It’s a joke!)

      Life is a mystery, and a messy one at that!

      Oh, I know you didn’t say that “consistent with that there are probably temperamental types that need religion to make life bearable”. That’s what I said as conjecture as to why some people persist in religious beliefs and/or identities. That is, I agree that temperament runs deep but I suspect that there is a strong correlation between temperament and religiosity. My younger brother is a pretty devout Catholic. I think that in ways that I do not understand he needs religion, possibly as a condition of being of a particular personality type or temperament. On the other hand, I don’t need religion, again I wonder to what degree my temperament, not intellect, makes that determination. I dunno?

      Thanks for the exchange.

      Peace at Ya’, Bro!

      Steve

    • steveschulers

      Bad Closing Thought.

      I should have said,…”to what degree my temperament and intellect collude to make that determination” instead of what I said.

  • Stacy

    Happy people will for the most part be happy regardless and despairing people will for the most part be despairing regardless. People whose lives can go up and down based on ideas, not because they are just psychologically that way

    Dan, please do not confuse clinical depression with “temperament”. It is a mental illness, a mood disorder, and is not a reflection of the sufferer’s temperament. And it is usually amenable to treatment.

    I get what you are saying about your Christian acquaintance*, and that this is a side point.

    * Clearly he needs treatment, not religion!

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Yes, I didn’t mean to minimize clinical depression as identical with temperament. I was referring to a larger phenomenon I have read about where, according to studies, people seem to return to happiness equilibriums no matter their life circumstances. Major ups and major downs affect them but after a while people report being basically as happy or unhappy over time once they adjust to their circumstances.

      An extreme subset of such people are the clinically depressed for reasons even more severe.

  • Ryan

    Hi Dan,

    I have just been discussing this with Hank recently, and I notice that you two tend to share the same perspective, which I currently disagree with. It’s actually the common point between Theists and Atheists that I can’t agree with, hence my happy landing place as an Agnostic.

    The point I take with both parties is the claim that either one KNOWS the answer. There is no humility built into the fact that neither party can truly know. Coming to the logical conclusion that there is no god makes sense. Using that conclusion to securely ground yourself in an identity, confidently living life believing that you are correct in your conclusion also makes sense. But outside of all of this, there exists the mysterious aspect of the question at hand that cannot ever be proved or disproved, and the claim of ultimate knowledge does not show this aspect the respect that it’s due. This is why I want Theists and Atheists to commonly agree that they don’t really know, live life with that knowledge and allow THAT realization to shape how they interact with people, vs. the certain correctness which 50% of you have to be 100% wrong about.

    For me, the only camp I could align myself with is the one that allows me to believe what I believe (I don’t believe the stories) while holding the mystery and some humility in my palm at the same time. I definitely don’t see this with the Theists, but I unfortunately do not find it with Atheists, either.

    • http://cfiottawa.com Eamon Knight

      But outside of all of this, there exists the mysterious aspect of the question at hand that cannot ever be proved or disproved, and the claim of ultimate knowledge does not show this aspect the respect that it’s due. This is why I want Theists and Atheists to commonly agree that they don’t really know…

      IOW, you want us all to become agnostics like you and sing Kum Ba Ya together. In order for me to agree to that, you’ll have to show that I “don’t really know” that there is no God.

      With respect to gods of anything like conventional religion, I know that there is no such thing to the same confidence (and for fairly similar reasons) that I know there are no perpetual motion machines, no humans on Venus, no unicorns or dragons, no thousands of other things — no evidence for, significant evidence against, and (often) not even a coherent hypothesis. Note that I’m not claiming any “ultimate knowledge”, only the same epistemic standards I (and probably you) routinely apply to most other aspects of our experience.

      What “mysterious aspect of the question” am I missing?

    • steveschulers

      Hey Eamon!

      Not to short circuit your question to Ryan, but if you don’t mind me pitching in here I can offer my own answer to your query. If you read my brief conversion story above I mentioned that my Atheist identity was destroyed through my experience. What I came to realize was how little I knew about the ultimate nature of the universe and what may, or may not, lay beyond, behind, or within it. The mysterium tremendum in the language of philosophy. And yes, I still find the universe and my place in it to be a seemingly ineffable and tremendous mystery, hence my agnosticism.

    • baal

      ohh linky

      Did you have a link to your story that really refutes the n minus 1 argument Eamon brings up? There is literally an infinity of stuff that I don’t believe that I feel very little need to disprove. Chief of those ideas are Thor, the tooth fairy and “turtles-all-the-way-down.” I do love each of those for different reasons. I can’t say that I love the xtian god idea or the attendant religions (yes plural); however, I don’t see why it’s special or different than the other three (sub in Hinduism, Jainism or Islam if you need a more parallel triad).

      It’s also thanks to posts like Dan’s here that I much less in the closet these days. I’m also not fond of the universe is A and not-A formulations but that doesn’t necessarily mean the discussion or point is unintelligible or unmerited.

    • http://cfiottawa.com Eamon Knight

      @steveschulers

      Yes, will if the mystery is ineffable, then I guess no one will be able to explain to me what is the Deep Unanswerable Question I am apparently oblivious to, but which nullifies my confident atheism.

      Maybe it helps that I spent 28 years as some kind of Christian or other, contemplating the Mystery of God, until I finally realized that there was no big mystery, only a void dressed up in obfuscatory language. Phrases like “ultimate truth” are what Dan Dennett calls “deepities”.

  • vel

    saying that someone “needs” religion is a cop out. Nothign shows this at all and this seems to be just a fancy excuse to allow religion to exist by deciding that some humans are “less” than others, so you can pat them on the head and leave them with their delusions.

    Claiming that atheism somehow is responsible for some nihilistic nonsense is pretty amusing too. Sorry, no correlation and no causation demonstrated at all and is the same pitiful unsupported claim used by ignorant theists.

    In my experience, many atheists don’t to be seen as the “bad guy” buying into the nonsense that “good” equals religion and that everyone’s opinion should be considered equal. They want their atheism but they do not want the responsiblities of it and thus attack the “rough men” that do the hard work of keeping religion at bay. They do not want to admit that they benefit from the work of the vocal atheists. They want to shower themselves with words like “humility” and “respect” so they feel special. They want to claim that “golly, since I say no one knows anything for sure, then *I’m* the wise one of the universe with the magical mysterious secret”, all the while willfully ignoring the fact that there is *no* evidence at all for any theistic claim and that this demonstrates their claims of “equalness” to be a lie.

    • steveschulers

      Hey Vel!

      Clearly you have knowledge, understanding and insights far in excess of my own, so I can nothing less than allow you to trust them!

      Peace

      Steve

  • Tracey

    In my experience, many atheists are silent simply because any time they open their mouths, the response is hysterical screaming about ‘militant atheism’. A typical example might be something like this:

    Christian: “Jesus is Lord! Jesus is King! We should all bow down to Jesus on this Jesus-y day! Hey, you’re not bowing down to Jesus! I demand you bow down to Jesus and profess God is your Lord right this very minute.”

    Atheist: “No thanks, I don’t believe the way you do.”

    Christian: “Waaaaaaah! I was just minding my own business and this MILITANT ATHEIST tried to shove his beliefs down my throat! I’m being persecuted by MILITANT ATHEISTS! Christians are the only group in America that anyone can harass and persecute!”


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