The War on Atheists

There’s a recent essay making the rounds in my part of the Facebook world, where the author reveals that atheists are educated elites who can afford to indulge their belief, or, probably its more accurate to say non-belief, and are absolute jerks for saying out loud what a lot of people fear might be true: there is no God.

Their unpleasant character is taken as evidence of something. What that something is, appears obvious to me.

According to a Pew study half of Americans say they would never vote for a qualified candidate from their political party if that person were an atheist. According to another study conducted by the University of Minnesota, the most hated group of people in America are atheists, nearly half of Americans would disapprove of their child marrying an atheist. The authors of the study observed the communal antipathy to atheists is “a glaring exception to the rule of increasing tolerance over the last thirty years.”

This antipathy cuts across social and political lines. Forty-three percent of Republicans and thirty-six percent of Democrats do not believe atheists represent American values. Ironically a quarter of Americans who do not go to church think that atheists do not share their values.

So, attacking atheists has no cost.

Want to feel better than someone else, go for the atheists.

People will cheer.

So, that’s one thing that really bothers me about the essay and other comments such as I see now and again.

But, there was something else in that essay that hangs like rotten fruit.

There’s another current in our American culture that runs deep and is seriously problematic, probably even the worm that will eventually lead to the fall of the American empire. We are profoundly anti-intellectual.

The principal argument presented in the essay was essentially that atheists are educated. And the privilege of being educated invalidates their position. It is interesting in that anti-intellectualism is now being dressed up as a class issue. This is aimed at, I assume, or at least justified mainly because of the New Atheists; people particularly reviled for their take no prisoners pointing to what they see as the emperor’s lack of clothing. This takedown isn’t an argument it is a rhetorical device, playing into our deep-seated cultural antipathies. And it ain’t pretty.

Of course, it doesn’t take wide reading and leisure time to suspect there’s something wrong with the received story of deities and souls. People in every circumstance have noticed this, the origin of the old term and canard, “village atheist.”

But these folk are a pretty small part of our culture. Most of us fall into line. Whatever our educational level, we just accept the received version.

Along with the baseline anti-intellectualism here, there’s something else in the accompanying line, that only the privileged can “afford” unbelief. Meaning what, precisely? That if you’re poor, all you have is a promise of a better afterlife? And shame on those who will take that small cold comfort?

From soup to nuts this is pretty unpleasant stuff.

Here’s what I have to say.

The atheist position is pretty easy to defend. The New Atheists whatever their style and how few their number, show that.

If you think you have a counter argument, make it.

If you don’t want to play, don’t.

But, don’t pretend faith comes as higher moral ground. And that atheists are bad people. Near as I can tell there is no particular correlation between faith or unbelief and basic human decency, not even particularly with one’s formal education.

But there is the madness of crowds. And there is scapegoating. There is the majority silencing the minority. Watching how the overwhelming majority faithful treat the tiny minority atheists says a whole lot about that.

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  • Cushing

    On the subject of anti-intellectualism I happened to read this just after reading a Daily Kos item on James Buchanan, consistently ranked by American history scholars as the “the worst president ever.” One of his strongly held convictions was that there were too many educated people in the country and he vetoed measures to create more colleges.

    Best wishes for a very happy and thoroughly intellectual 2014.

  • Steve Caldwell

    There’s a recent essay making the rounds in my part of the Facebook
    world, where the author reveals that atheists are educated elites …

    James – I haven’t seen this essay but I have heard at least one person today comment on Facebook about atheists being elitist. Can you post the essay text or a link to the essay? Thanks.

  • Desdemona3
  • Chris

    Zen, in America, is mostly white, educated and affluent. Unitarians fall into the same pattern. Nontheists as well. I wonder what about those institutions aren’t attractive to people of different colors and classes? What about them is comfortable for people of privilege?

    I don’t find that the atheists I come into contact with are interested in a discourse. As a theist, I find many of the arguments of atheists worthy of discussion but the more popular versions of those arguments deal with caricatures of theism or fundamentalist versions. Generally more nuanced incarnations of theism aren’t explored but the straw man of a God who has human qualities is rejected. Read some Charles Taylor or any apophatic writings in any theistic tradition and you’d find something worth arguing about. To paint any theism or rejection of atheism as anti-intellectual or theism on shaky ground is difficult for me to take seriously. I don’t find atheist positions that overwhelming and I have several degrees.

    Certainly a conversation worth having…….

    • DKeane123

      Atheist organizations have recently been attempting to include a greater width of people under the tent. Many minority based atheist groups and authors have been achieving greater prominence in “movement” (if that is what it is). If you like, I’m sure I could link to a number of them.

      As an atheist, I certainly find theism on shaky ground – as there really isn’t any verifiable evidence either a deist or theist position – we end up with either a god of the gaps or flying spaghetti monster type arguments. The best answer in the absence of evidence is “I don’t know”.

      • Chris

        I don’t know is agnostic not atheist. Maybe this ‘don’t know’ is where we could meet!?

        The ‘if you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist’ argument is one component of post-modernity that I find troubling. Leonard Cohen deftly deals with it is his song “The Future”. Love and beauty cannot be measured, so do they exist?

        • DKeane123

          Atheists can be agnostics (and I would state that they all are). The terminology gets fuzzy, but agnosticism is generally about what we know, and atheism is about what we believe. I can not know about God for sure, but act as if it is real. I happen to not know about all the forms a god could take, but generally act as if any of the ones presented so far are not.

          Love and beauty can be “measured” in a sense. They are the outcome of chemical reactions in our brains – which are certainly measurable. They cannot exist outside of our brain matter. Additionally, the fact that I love my family is certainly demonstrable via my actions.


    That belief systems fear education, says it all. Truth never fears inquiry, for truth is that which stands up to any degree of questioning.