This is a continuation of my series on atheists which is based on a book I have coming out, co-written with David Williamson, titled There is no God: Atheists in America (Rowman and Littlefield). In the first blog I discussed how I collected data on atheists. Now I can dive into the findings. The first finding I want to explore is how atheists perceive science.
In contemporary society there is a tension between science and religion. While there may have always been a tension between science and religion, it is not clear that science and religion have to be seen in conflict with each other. In fact, there is solid philosophical work arguing that science and religion do not contradict. Perhaps most famous is the argument of “non-overlapping magisterial” by Gould which suggests that there are areas where science reigns supreme and areas where religion reigns supreme but that those two areas are distinct from each other. Regardless of arguments such as this one, it is clear that science-religion conflict is seen as normative today. In that conflict atheists envision themselves on the side of science. The image of science as a rational methodology for understanding reality appeals to the average atheist’s own sense that he/she bases his/her actions on rationality instead of on emotionalism.
In Ralph we see the belief of the incompatibility of religion and science. His interpretation of this conflict is religion being conflated with ignorance and irrationality while science is connected to a rational approach to life. Another one of our interviewees reinforces this perspective:
Science is about finding the best way of doing things, the best knowledge that we can acquire. Religion has nothing to do with either of those, absolutely nothing. They’re not compatible ‘cause they’re going to ignore the facts. You can’t be a scientist. If you wanna be a scientist you can’t be religious. They don’t fit together. Oil and water.
For many atheists, science is the way to discover truth. Our atheist respondents were rarely nihilists who state that there is no truth. Perhaps the belief that truth cannot be discovered is more common among agnostics or those who are spiritual but not religious. But atheists contend that truth can be discovered with the proper application of science. They see people of faith as afraid to seek out truth since finding that truth may mean the end of their faith. In the example below, note how this respondent is sympathetic to her friend but envisions her friend as hiding from the truth through religion:
For some people, they may not be willing to question things or are happy where they’re at. I know someone who’s very, very strongly a Christian, mostly because she has found happiness in religion, so to her, why upset that? Because she doesn’t feel that truth has its own intrinsic value. She feels that the search for happiness has its own intrinsic value, and so it has a lot to do with your values, your personality, of course your upbringing and how you’re been taught to question things and think about things.
Atheists see themselves as clear thinkers in comparison to their religious peers. They do not limit this perception to their ideas about social and political activism, but also envision their decisions in their everyday lives as the products of clear thinking.
Humans have a need to create a social identity that supports their self-esteem and one which they believe leads to the right values. This is true across different cultures and sub-cultures so it is not a surprise that atheists create a social identity that meets such social needs. In light of their need for a social identity that builds esteem, we can make more sense of the atheist claims of understanding reality in a superior manner to religious individuals. This confidence leads to the development of an atheist social identity based on the perception that their personal and social decisions are centered in “rational” science as opposed to “irrational” religion. For some atheists it is not just that religion is illogical. Religion is also problematic to society. This is particularity the case when religion threatens to interfere with government. Because atheists tend to have a dichotomous vision of science being logical and religion illogical, they tend to see the intrusion of “illogical” religion into government as troublesome. In a future blog I will look more at the sort of solutions atheists suggest for our society, but obviously those solutions will include less religious influence in the government and our general society.