Leveling Up From Village Atheism — A Dialogue with Randal Rauser

What follows is an open dialogue between me and theologian and author, Randal Rauser. We discuss social awareness, the chasm between atheists and theists, common ground, and humanism.

 

 

Sincere Kirabo: A few months ago I addressed an issue I’ve seen fester within secular circles for a while. I described the assorted beliefs as “village atheism,” a worldview observed by atheists who embrace a preoccupation with critiquing religiosity and tend to be socially unaware. This kind of mindset helps preserve various cultural prejudices while denigrating those who dare challenge these discrepancies.

Not long after, I came across your work which struck a similar tenor as my assessment, referring to village atheism as a “lack of prior theoretical reflection” and the “proliferation of tribalism,” among other things. I’m curious: How would you summarize village atheism? What do you identify as the problem with village atheists insofar as what they both promote and represent?

 

Randal Rauser: Sincere, thanks for inviting me into this dialogue. However, let me begin with something of a disclaimer: I am a Christian and as such I am sensitive to the perception that there is something unseemly about critiquing groups outside my tribe. So let me stress that what I’m going to say here is something I typically only say after critiquing the same trends within my own community: critique, like charity, should begin at home.

As I understand it, the term “village atheist” was first popularized in the nineteenth century when it was used to describe an individual within a wider religious community who expresses his/her dissent from that community. In keeping with this original usage, the great Christian writer G.K. Chesterton identified the urbane novelist Thomas Hardy as a village atheist.

More recently, the term has evolved to refer to a species of atheistic expression which tends to be brash in presentation and lacking in critical nuance. And that’s what I mean when I use the term. The “village atheist,” like the “village Christian,” is a person who tends to be vocal in their opinions and rather lacking in their knowledge, a fact that is manifested in the absence of critical nuance. The village atheist dismisses the Christian as a “faithhead” (Richard Dawkins’ term) as surely as the village Christian dismisses the atheist as a “fool.” In short, each finds security in a quick and ham-fisted dismissal of the other.

So that’s my two cents. That said, I’ve certainly appreciated the way that you’ve begun to address the problem of village atheism. And generally speaking, I find the voice of the insider to carry more authority and insight than an outsider like myself. So perhaps I can turn it back to you: what do you think about village atheism and how it might best be addressed?

 

Sincere: Since it seems a major source of the problem arises from unchallenged biases, I think an effective way to treat village atheism is through introspection and immersion.

Many atheists imagine themselves to have “arrived” at some plateau of critical thinking because they reject the god hypothesis, not appreciating the fact that a slew of implicit biases and learned prejudices yet influence their attitudes, decision-making, and behavior.

Social psychologist Patricia Devine—who specializes in prejudice, stereotypes, and intergroup relations—likens implicit bias to a habit. And just like habits, an important first step is acknowledging the presence of bias and being motivated to self-regulate. However, being aware that you have the potential to be biased is not enough—strategic forms of intervention are necessary.

This is why I continue to stress the importance of immersion. I use the term “immersion” to refer to active and consistent interaction with members of different social groups, counter-stereotype exposure (engaging with people and media who defy stereotypic expectations), perspective-taking (actively contemplating the experiences of others), and evaluative conditioning (intentional attitude adjustment learning exercises). Immersion basically means deliberately unlearning negative beliefs and seeking out encounters with misrepresented and marginalized groups through interface, media, and education.

Books like God Is Not Great, The End of Faith, and The God Delusion are well-known, widely read, and often cited among nonbelievers. But how many from this crowd have read Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels or Writing God’s Obituary? How many are familiar with books that increases awareness about relevant matters such as What Does It Mean To Be White?, Sister Outsider, Whipping Girl, or Between The World and Me? We can—and should—extend this principle to our social media and in-person interactions.

What are your thoughts about the tackling this problem?

 

Randal: First off, I’d want to underscore the importance of your advice. It’s critical to read widely and be intentional about ferreting out cognitive biases and other blindspots.

I think the one point I’d really want to underscore is that becoming a self-described free thinker doesn’t automatically make one a good thinker. Here’s what I mean. I have met many atheists raised with a religious belief system who came to repudiate the religious worldview of their upbringing. Having rejected authority, creed, and ritual communal practice, they now envision themselves as rational free thinkers. But the reality is typically far more complicated.

To begin with, the disavowal of a formal worldview doesn’t automatically ensure that you reason well or are liberated from any cognitive bias. Indeed, if a person exercised cognitive biases and poor reasoning as a Christian (or whatever), there is a good chance that person will take those biases and poor reasoning into their life as a post-Christian atheist.

Second, whether or not a person is a part of a belief community that has a formal authority, creed, and ritual communal practice, we all inevitably do have a worldview, a set of background assumptions from which we reason. That’s as true of any self-described free thinker as it is of any religious devotee. And a critical aspect to reasoning well is becoming self-aware of the tacit and informal authorities, presuppositions, and ritual practices that shape our beliefs.

The fact is that I’ve met many self-described free thinkers who were anything but free because they were still slaves to provincial assumptions and unchecked cognitive biases.

 

Sincere: That reminds me of a poignant statement made by humanist author Dale McGowan: “Atheism is the first step; humanism is the thousand steps that follow.”

I cannot do my part to heal the world by rehashing reason number 1,254,912 of why I’m an atheist or by merely critiquing religion with a monomaniacal bent. Addressing religious hegemony when it harms or discriminates is important to me, but so is finding ways to emphasize the shared humanity of all and speaking to forms of marginalization that injure, exclude, hinder, or stigmatize certain groups of people beyond the scope of religiosity and god beliefs.

This is why we need humanism, a life philosophy grounded in human accountability and human capacity to contribute to the greater good of humanity without relying on supernatural expectations. By definition, the humanist outlook includes the pursuit of both addressing and remedying injustice through social responsibility.

While certain atheists and even those who embrace the humanist label occupy the sidelines, the rest of us are getting on with the business of being catalysts for change in society. This “us” also includes interfaith initiatives operating on common ground.

By “common ground” I mean situations where two or more parties may come from different perspectives or silos and seek to find a basis of mutual agreement. How can we work on creating a more healthy culture where there is greater mutual understanding and less animosity between believers and nonbelievers?

 

Randal: Great question. I think a good place to begin finding common ground with “the other” is by nuancing some of the “us vs. them” binaries that tend to separate us. So, for example, while it is common to distinguish between “believers” and “unbelievers,” I’d want to point out that everybody is a believer in some set of claims and a disbeliever in another set of claims. The religious adherent believes one set of claims about the nature of ultimate reality, human flourishing, and the future, and the nonreligious adherent believes another set of claims about these same topics. But both groups are believers in some claims and skeptics of other claims. In short, the so-called believers don’t own belief and the so-called unbelievers don’t own skepticism.

Perhaps even more importantly, there is often more shared belief across deep ideological divides than we recognize. Consider two communities that are often deeply polarized: Christian and secular humanist. While these groups are often viewed as being ideological enemies, in fact, both Christians and secular humanists share a commitment to the value and potential of the human species. Indeed, the work of Renaissance Christian scholars like Erasmus of Rotterdam helped lay a foundation for modern humanism. Some years ago theologians Thomas Howard and J.I. Packer even wrote a book with the somewhat cheeky title: Christianity: The True Humanism. While I suspect you’d disagree with that assessment (!), at least we can agree that Christians and secular humanists share a high valuation of the human species in a way that some other groups (like some deep ecologists, for example), do not.

One last thing: I think we always need to be careful about assuming too much about others based on a label. I’ve found that identifying myself to a new group as an “evangelical” or a “theologian,” an “apologist,” or even a “Christian” usually brings a lot of baggage. So if I’m going to use those labels, I often need to spend as much time explaining what I don’t mean as what I do mean. The same goes, of course, for labels like “humanist” and “atheist.” We’d all do far better if we just let our conversation partners define their own labels for themselves.

 

Sincere:  Yeah, I strongly disagree with those authors asserting Christianity is the most genuine form of humanism. I’d argue that claim is inconsistent with history as well as oppressive social systems and theocratic legislation influenced by Christian mores. That said, when it comes to common ground and the points you made, I see some overlap with our positions.

I wrote something regarding belief-disassociation and how this attitude found among many nonbelievers stigmatizes the term belief. In the piece, I unpack the linguistic, philosophical, and epistemological implications of the concept. Of course we all possess beliefs. I’m amazed at those who seriously try to deny this fact.

Ultimately, atheists and theists disagree about epistemological principles and what does and does not qualify as justified beliefs. But I don’t see this as a deal breaker so long as one’s beliefs don’t translate into prejudice or actions that dehumanize or otherwise adversely impact the lives of others.

Also, what you said about labels is right on the money. One need look no further than the term “social justice” and all the pejorative assumptions associated with it. And this ties back to where we started. Village atheism fosters social inaction and an inadequate concept of critical thinking limited to the domain of scrutinizing religious faith, supernaturalism, or paranormal claims. It’s selective perception and acts far more as a hindrance than a solution to all the problems humanity (and other life) faces.

I have friends and working relationships with acquaintances who represent a wide spectrum of religious and spiritual belief. Said beliefs certainly don’t reflect mental defect. Further, we are able to unite on common ground and oppose cultural norms.

And that’s the thing. There’s a lot of good initiatives within the secular community centered on this mutual goal. I can only imagine how much more the atheist and humanist communities could accomplish once we’re able to more broadly integrate an inclusive social consciousness into our philosophy, aspirations, and agendas.

 

Randal Rauser, along with atheist and religious skeptic Justin Schieber, is the co-author of the upcoming book “An Atheist and a Christian Walk Into A Bar.”

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