Atheists in America – Part 2

Atheists in America – Part 2 April 20, 2013

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 the first blog, I noted that atheists tend to use science to legitimate their beliefs. I am not just talking about their beliefs about the possible existence of the supernatural, but also their beliefs about themselves and what is important in life. This is reasonable given that atheists, for obvious reasons, cannot use religion to justify their concerns. Atheists tend to see science as the way to create a better world and religion as the barrier to that better world.
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.

It is not surprising that atheists see religion as incompatible with science. For example, one of the atheists we interviewed, let’s call him Ralph, is especially confused at the idea that scientists can be religious. For Ralph science and religion do not mix as he sees science as “based on the idea of experimentation involving knowledge and change of knowledge” while religion is “fundamentally based on faith and I don’t see particularly how they (science and religion) can coexist.” Accordingly, Ralph contends that for individuals to have religious beliefs they must be ignorant of science. When the topic of religious scientists came up he made it clear that he had a hard time understanding how a highly educated scientist is able to retain religious faith. In fact, one of the last statements he made at the end of the interview was “ …it would be an interesting conversation to have somebody highly intelligent, you know well educated person that has a religious belief that might be a conversation I will undertake, it is going to be really curious to see how they can reconcile that.”
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.

This was a common theme in both the interviews and online responses. This perception establishes the relationship of religion to science in the eyes of the atheists. It also plays an important role in the social identity atheists have developed. Atheists clearly define themselves as not religious and since they do not see themselves as religious, they perceive themselves as not having the problems they associate with religion, such as the inability of the religious to understand scientific truth. For many respondents, being an atheist is akin to being a lover of science and a lover of truth.
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.

Atheists envision the priority of science as a key component of their social identity. Science is not merely a social tool to many atheists, but it is also an important way they conceptualize a vision of their place in our society. Understanding an atheist social identity is important for comprehending why certain individuals become atheists. Given the centrality of science in the creation of the atheist social identity, there is little wonder that atheists are overrepresented in elite positions in scientific fields. But it is not the only element of an atheist social identity. In my next blog I will look closely at another important element of that social identity.

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