Why Abrasive Atheism Will Always Sell Better

Why Abrasive Atheism Will Always Sell Better September 27, 2015

People often approach me to tell me how much they appreciate my tone when I write and speak about leaving my former faith.  Of course, I do still offer criticism when I feel it’s appropriate, but I don’t resort to name calling, belittling, or impugning the intelligence or character of those who disagree with me. I was once an insider myself, so I’m not as prone to misrepresenting those who are still in the faith.

Also, unlike so many I know, I wasn’t really burned by my religious past as long as I was still in it. That’s not to say that I was never mistreated; but you have to realize that I internalized a powerful narrative that excused and validated any mistreatment as “the Lord disciplining those whom he loves.”  So I never experienced mistreatment as such. I performed the mental gymnastics it took to turn it all into gold—a blessing from the Lord meant to keep me humble and dependent on him, so to speak.  I never really experienced the nasty side of my religion until I found myself on the outside of it and saw the way people began to look at me. The difference was jarring.

But a positive church experience—together with a strong emotional need to stay connected to people I love who are still on Team Jesus—has produced in me a strong desire to find a middle ground on which we can still converse.  I am always looking for those people—regardless of personal belief system—who can engage in respectful, meaningful interaction. I actually love the process of hashing through things, debating issues and parsing out the nuances of perspective, especially when it effectively challenges my own beliefs.

Like most thoroughgoing skeptics, I actually enjoy having my assumptions challenged. That’s how I got to be where I am in the first place. It’s how I keep myself sharp—how I keep learning new things. Since learning and discovery are essential joys in my life, intellectual stagnation is among my greatest fears, and that’s why I despise most of all the prospect of living my life in an echo chamber.

Rooting for Team Atheist

But nuanced dialogue doesn’t always sell well.  Appreciated though it may be among those who are as addicted to rhetorical precision as I am, it still doesn’t draw as much attention as does the more caustic, acerbic, polemical approach of the critics of religion who paint with a much broader brush.  It seems the harsher, more sweeping your diatribe, the further it goes in garnering support from the masses. That’s true of individual voices, and I’m beginning to think it’s also true of organizations.  If you want folks to support your organization, come out swinging as hard as you can against religion of all kinds. That’s going to score you more money than measured, nuanced dialogue.

In case you haven’t noticed, atheists are just as prone to tribalism as are the members of any religion they oppose, and I think that has at least something to do with it. I know I’m not alone in observing that too many members of Team Atheist seem to think that deciding the correct number of gods equals zero means that everything else the human race needs in order to advance will magically fall into place, because science, I guess.

[Read Sincere Kirabo‘s “Why Atheism Isn’t Itself the Nexus to Human Progress.”]

Some of this may come from an inescapable need to differentiate ourselves from our previous social context.  Like adolescents going through a rebellious phase, some of the angry atheism may be a natural outworking of the individuation process. In order to wrest control of our culture from the greedy hands of religious empire, maybe a certain amount of tribalism is absolutely necessary.  The celebrity worship, the groupthink, the branding, and even the merchandising may actually be necessary elements in our efforts to achieve the critical mass it takes to turn the tide of the culture wars.

But I suspect there’s something else playing into this as well.  I suspect that negative “memes” (you can thank Richard Dawkins for that term) garner more support than positive ones. This fantastic video that went viral a few months ago expertly explains why that would be the case, and furthermore why it is the memes that make you angry that will truly achieve immortality.

Around the 1:20 mark the video claims that it’s the memes which make you angry that get shared the most. I think the same principle applies to narratives in general, and as a friend pointed out, this makes sense if you think about it:  Those memes and narratives which make us feel good leave us feeling satisfied with the world as it is. On the other hand, it is those thoughts which make us angry that make us want to get up and do something to change the way the world is.  In a way, those negative emotions enjoy their own reward structure which enables them to outstrip their competing emotions every time.

So it turns out that the thesis of Inception was wrong (with full respects to Chris Nolan, who has become one of my favorite filmmakers of all time). It’s not the positive impulses that most effectively inspire action, it’s the negative ones. It’s those things that upset us that motivate us to do something, to change things.

Cobb:  Now, the subconscious motivates through emotion, not reason, so we have to translate the idea into an emotional concept.
Arthur:  How do you translate a business strategy into an emotion?
Cobb:  That’s what we have to figure out. Robert and his father have a tense relationship. Worse, even, than the gossip columns have suggested…
Eames: Do you play on that? Suggest breaking up his father’s company as a ‘screw you’ to the old man?
Cobb:  No. Positive emotion trumps negative emotion every time. We yearn for people to be reconciled, for catharsis. We need positive emotional logic.
Eames:  Try this… “My father accepts that I want to create for myself, not follow in his footsteps.”
Cobb:  That might work.

That interchange bothered me the very first time I heard it.  It’s a noble idea, but I don’t think it’s necessarily how human psychology plays out. And I’m virtually convinced it’s not how things play out sociologically. Groups thrive on maintaining tribal boundaries, and a large part of that involves singling out who the common enemy is, and rehearsing the narratives that remind the group why it is that they must fight the bad guys and win the day.

What Does This Mean for Humanism?

I think this explains why it’s the fundamentalist churches that keep growing, keep raking in the cash, and keep duplicating themselves all over the United States.  It’s the harsher, more austere forms of Christianity that die the hardest, especially the ones which can successfully repackage that narrative in more romanticized terms. If you can make fundamentalism look attractive to millennials, you can rule the world.  It’s the people who sugar coat fundamentalism who do it the most effectively.

Atheists are fond of claiming that religion will soon die away because we just know too much, but I think the opposite is the case.  People said the exact same thing in the late 1800’s because of the Darwinian revolution within science, but they couldn’t have been more wrong.  Religion has acquired a stronger hold on American life now than it did a hundred years ago, and religiously motivated far-right extremism threatens to derail our political process today in ways that no one would believe even 50 years ago.

Because fear sells. That’s why people run out to buy books about the end of the world. That’s why people listen to pundits who claim Obama’s the antichrist, or is making the way for the antichrist, or whatever the next bogeyman of choice happens to be.

[Read “Blood Moons and the Gullibility of American Evangelicals.”]

My question is:  What implications does this have for secular humanism as an identity, as an ideology?  What lessons can we learn from this if we are about trying to fashion a new way of looking at the world?  Humanism has been around for a long time, but it seems to me that it still hasn’t fully matured into an identity that unifies large groups of diverse people the way that religion has over the centuries.  It seems to me as if humanism is more of an element that weaves itself into multiple identities, influencing them in a progressive direction without necessarily making them aware that what they’re doing is becoming more humanistic.

From a branding perspective, I’m not sure humanism sells well because it isn’t angry about enough things.

You have to understand how reluctantly I am conceding this point.  I am conciliatory by nature, and I’d like for us all to just get along. But I’m also noticing that it’s the angry forms of ideologies—the ones which have clear enemies and looming disasters to avoid—which garner the most support.  Large groups of people just don’t rally around a positive message in the same way they will around something they commonly hate.

I don’t like saying this, you understand. I’m just calling it like it is, and I’m asking what you think we should do about it?

It seems apparent to me that it’s the abrasive atheism that gets the most “upvotes,” so to speak. It’s the brand that accumulates the most financial support, and it’s certainly the kind that scores the most traffic on a website.  People love a good show, and as the old journalism adage says, if it bleeds, it leads.  The more dramatic the story—and the angrier it makes you—the better it sells.

But the parts that makes you the angriest aren’t always representative of the whole.  On the contrary, they can often obscure the bulk of experience that most people have within their respective religious traditions.  That leaves us reacting to outliers that don’t match what most people think of when they think of their faith, which means we’re only talking to ourselves.

So What Are We To Do?

I’m not sure. I think a starting point is identifying those things which truly are a threat to human thriving.  In some ways we’ve already begun to do that.  Most progressive humanists feel that things like income inequality, racial injustice, sexism, overpopulation and planetary waste are threats to societal well-being.  Not all agree on those things, of course, as so many of my friends remind me regularly.  Atheists come in all shapes and sizes, and not all of them are even convinced that things like climate change or science and critical thinking are as valuable as we make them out to be.

But for those who are convinced, I think there are opportunities for forging alliances among the devout as well as the irreligious.  Scores of theists are just as concerned about managing natural resources as we are, and many of them roll their eyes just as hard at the anti-intellectualism of their more gullible ideological cousins.  I don’t see any reason not to gang up with them to fight those things we feel are a threat to the advancement of the human race (along with any other race within our ecosystem, because why does it have to be all about us?).

Doing that requires finding middle ground, and learning to start conversations that don’t skew into the extremes the way the video above demonstrates.  I’m suggesting we use our love of critical thinking to analyze our own attraction to extreme sensational forms of thinking within our own tribe.  If we’re really so smart, why don’t we use that to discover our own innate biases and fight them by learning to listen to people who see the world differently from how we see it?  Maybe we aren’t convinced they have anything to teach us (I disagree, personally). But even if that’s the case, we still could use their cooperation in order to reach the goals we share as a species.

So it behooves us to learn to play nice.  Learn to show respect toward those who aren’t like ourselves even in the midst of sometimes disagreeing with what they believe. There’s value in finding the things we have in common. And honestly, I don’t think we stand a chance at succeeding as a species unless we learn to do that.  In case you haven’t noticed, in the most powerful country on the planet right now, the tribe which this blog channel represents only accounts for about 7% of the population.  I don’t think we can afford to go it alone.

[Image source: Shutterstock]

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