I’ve considered myself an atheist for nearly seven years now and have been openly writing about it for the last three of them. In my very first “coming out” talk (video here) I made a point at the end of saying that “not all atheists are anti-theists,” and I probably got more grief for that than anything else I said over the next year or so.
To be fair, I probably could have done a much better job of fleshing out what I meant by that. I was new at speaking publicly about my exit from the fold, and were I to do it over again I would have qualified more of what I said to account for subsequent shifts in perspective. My feelings have certainly changed about some things after interacting with a wider variety of both theists and atheists during that time.
But I’m still not an anti-theist.
First, I’ll have to explain what I mean when I use the term “anti-theist” so there won’t be any confusion. Then I’ll give you three reasons why after several years of thinking about all of this I still consider myself more of an anti-fundamentalist than an anti-theist.
What Do I Mean by Anti-Theist?
Strictly speaking, anti-theism could merely refer to an intellectual position or else it could refer to a more public posture—a mode of relating to religious people. In other words, some people are anti-theists in that they strongly reject the notion of gods and supreme beings, and perhaps they wish the rest of the world would get with the program and do the same. But others in their anti-theism go a step further and actively seek to disabuse religious people of their theism altogether. Some do this with tact and respect, some not so much, and still others frankly are complete turds.
To be honest, I probably have some anti-theistic leanings myself, especially on days when I feel my surroundings, the “Christ-haunted South,” impinging on my personal freedom to be who I am. I contend that I have at times endured palpably discriminatory treatment from my fellow Southerners (often without their own awareness), and it impacts both my personal and my professional life to a degree which some days threatens to break my spirit.
I do seek to persuade others to let go of their least defensible positions, especially when I see those beliefs actively harming the people themselves or others. I can even name some of those beliefs for you in case you were wondering. I would love to remove from the planet the following notions:
- You are fundamentally broken and wicked.
- There is a book that is perfect (in any conceivable way) and cannot be disagreed with.
- Science, intelligence, and higher education are tools of the bogeyman intended to lead you astray.
- Women should submit to men and let them be in charge, and finally…
- After you die, you will be tortured forever for not believing the right things.
All of the above beliefs are woven into the fabric of the theological tradition in which I grew up. Granted, they are often stated in positive, whitewashed terms or else they are diluted to make them more palatable to a modern audience. But even then, most these distinctively anti-human tenets are still there, even if understated. In time I have come to see these as harmful beliefs for reasons which I’ve elucidated numerous times over the last three years (feel free to browse the Godless in Dixie archives to explore what I mean).
I will argue about these at the drop of a hat, and if that makes me an anti-theist, then I suppose to some degree I am. But I don’t think that’s what most people mean when they use that label, and it’s certainly not what I mean by it, either. I would call myself more of an “anti-fundamentalist” because I realize that #NotAllChristians really subscribe to those beliefs, even if vestiges of those beliefs still lurk beneath the surface. More on that distinction in just a little bit.
Why I’m Not an Anti-Theist
So why does this matter to me? Why do I feel it is necessary to clarify my position on this issue? I can think of three reasons to differentiate my own approach from that of the anti-theist.
1. Because religion isn’t ultimately the problem, WE are.
Okay, so this sounds alarmingly like what Christian theology says about the human race. And I know it may throw some readers off, but there’s a significant difference between their perspective and mine: I believe we are also our own best hope for a solution.
I realize that’s a paradox, but I’ll stand by it. I consider myself a humanist, which means that I have a more positive outlook on the potential for the human race to devise remedies for the things which ail us, both as a species and as members of a larger ecosystem. But that doesn’t mean I believe humans have some shiny golden center that makes us pure and perfect at our core. That is a caricature of humanism propagated by people who don’t really understand it.
I never argue that humans are fundamentally good. But neither will I accept that we are fundamentally evil. The way I see it, we are neither. We are highly evolved primates who only recently learned how to stand upright, grow crops, cook our own food, and send emails (that last one may have been a mistake). We have an equally great capacity for benefitting others and for causing harm.
I think religion evolved as a way for us to shape and mold our collective behavior in directions that benefit the species, but like most things we create it is a tool that can be misused when it falls into the wrong hands. Perhaps in time they always fall into the wrong hands, which may be part of the problem. But here’s my point:
If we were to rid the world of religion tomorrow, we would still have basically the same problems we had before, only now we would have even fewer tools for trying to remedy them. Obviously there are pros and cons to this. Some would say that reason, properly used, could serve as a substitute for religion. Theoretically that may be true, but as long as humans are the ones who hold the tools, they will aways be prone to error.
How do I know this? I’ll tell you why: Because I’ve watched how non-theists handle themselves both privately and as a group, and I’m telling you they’re not much better than religious people when you really get down to it. I will agree that it benefits people to develop a greater appreciation for the scientific method and for critical thinking skills. On paper it seems like we should be better than our religious counterparts. But I’ve watched how atheists behave in large groups, and I’m telling you they don’t really behave in ways that are significantly better than the rest of the world.
And yes, I know about Scandinavian countries, and I realize that within my own country it is the least religious states that measure highest on all of the things you want to see in a region. I also know that it is the uber-religious states like my own which score the highest on all the things you don’t want. I’ve countered with that myself as well. But I’ve also learned from empirical observation and hard life experience that atheists can be just as tribalistic, just as prone to emotional bias, and just as likely to treat others badly when resources are limited and social competition is introduced.
Which means that religion isn’t the problem, WE ourselves are. The theism/atheism divide isn’t the one that’s decisive, here. Obviously this doesn’t mean I think we should go back to telling people they’re fundamentally wicked or that we should seek forgiveness from an invisible supreme being. I no longer think there is sufficient evidence to believe in such things myself. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t observe that most of the things we hate about religion can be found in non-religious environments as well (yes, violent extremism included). What’s more, the presence of religion alone doesn’t necessarily mean that all the other anti-humanistic things will also be there. It just depends on which kind of theism we’re talking about. They’re not all created equally.
Maybe religion isn’t a discrete thing that can be eradicated from the earth. Maybe instead it is a manifestation of things woven into who we are as a species—things which we must own up to and figure out how to harness and steer into a positive, more humanistic direction.
Which brings me to my second reason why I don’t consider myself an anti-theist:
2. Because as a strategy I think full-on anti-theism won’t be as successful as something more nuanced.
Pragmatically speaking, I think a more confrontational posture toward religion as a whole will produce fewer positive outcomes. Hear me out on this for a second. Let’s consider a parallel topic to see what we find.
Have you tried talking people out of their political positions lately? Have you not noticed how incredibly frustrating that is, and how predictably it goes nowhere at all? For example, if you happen to be against Donald Trump becoming president of the United States, have you tried talking a pro-Trump advocate out of their position? Did you get very far? Did you try directly countering their narrative with contradictory facts and then see a noticeable change in their position?
I’m going to go out on a limb and wager you weren’t successful. Why do you suppose that is? And don’t just say, “Because they’re morons!” because I’m also willing to wager they’re saying the same thing about you. More to the point, after failing to change anyone’s mind, did it ever occur to you that you might need to change your strategy because the one you were using wasn’t working?
If you consider yourself an evidence-based person, it behooves you to notice when the methods you use aren’t working and to try something else instead.
An opinion piece from the Washington Post recently reminded us of the 1979 Stanford study outlining what some call “the backfire effect” (see also David McRaney over at You Are Not So Smart, who reminds us of a similar study at Dartmouth). McRaney explains the backfire effect this way:
The Misconception: When your beliefs are challenged with facts, you alter your opinions and incorporate the new information into your thinking.
The Truth: When your deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory evidence, your beliefs get stronger.
After trudging through month after month of online debates and dueling monologues (a.k.a. “nonversations”), it is finally beginning to dawn on some people how useless it is to try to engage those who occupy a significantly different position on the political spectrum. Thanks to the rise of partisan media in the U.S., we now may choose from a number of mutually exclusive reality bubbles or “epistemic enclosures,” complete with their own internally coherent sets of facts and figures. We no longer have a common base of knowledge to which we can appeal for a meeting of the minds in our political discourse.
In short, American politics has come to resemble American religion. Here lately, they seem almost inseparable. Perhaps there is something we can learn from this which will help us address our approach to religious conversations.
I would suggest that the direct challenge approach is not typically the best way to go for either arena because of the backfire effect. The more you bear down on the other person’s deeply held beliefs, the harder they will dig in and defend what they believe, all the while assuring themselves that they’re only stating the facts, leaving personal opinion completely out of the matter (because humans are so good at being objective, right?).
Before long, exclamation points start multiplying like rabbits and things start showing up in ALL CAPS.
Maybe this is your cue to back away from the shouting match to realize that, while this method of discourse is self-gratifying and tribal boundary reinforcing, it isn’t really producing any mutually beneficial results. No one’s mind is changing, which means you’re really wasting your time.
I will get to my third reason for being an anti-theist in just a moment, but this would be a good place to stop and ask an important question:
Is There a Better Way to Disagree?
For starters, I think it is overly ambitious to try and replace a person’s entire frame of reference with a completely different one, as if a train could simply jump tracks and change direction on a dime. That’s not how minds typically change. If you’re really wanting to alter someone’s perspective (and not merely “win” an argument), you’re going to need to learn a little patience. And while you’re at it, a dash of empathy would go a long way as well.
As a teacher I can tell you that most learning starts with activating prior learning. You figure out what the other person already thinks (trying not to assume that you already know), then you build onto that by a combination of talking and listening which lets the latter steer the former and not the other way around.
I can also tell you that incremental change works much better than trying to obliterate a person’s entire worldview in one fell swoop. Try picking something specific but relevant to larger issues and see what kind of common ground you can find in conversation with the other person. I would much rather try to get a person to see that the Bible isn’t perfect than try to get them to reject any and every concept of divinity they’ve known. I’m not personally convinced that mere belief in God, considered by itself, really harms anyone at all. That’s why you’ll rarely hear me trying to argue against the existence of gods. There are too many to count, anyway.
The Dartmouth study mentioned above also found a couple of things which David Ignatius of the Post summarized succinctly:
People are more likely to accept information if it’s presented unemotionally, in graphs; and they’re even more accepting if the factual presentation is accompanied by “affirmation” that asks respondents to recall an experience that made them feel good about themselves… (emphasis mine)
So you’ll get their hackles up less if you stick to the facts and keep your own emotions out of it as much as possible. Also who doesn’t love a well-designed visual representation of data? You can communicate so much with just a single graphic.
For example, during our last election cycle, GOP nominee Mitt Romney was arguing about the pressing need to trim the national budget. At one point during a debate he made a dismissive comment about using federal dollars to subsidize the production of Sesame Street, after which a number of people began posting a pie chart that roughly shows where our federal dollars go.
Do you see that tiny wedge representing Education? Even that turned out to be too big. Once people started digging deeper they found that the federal government earmarks about 1/100th of 1 percent (.0001 of federal budget) for public broadcasting, and only one-twentieth of that tiny percentage for PBS specifically.*
Needless to say, the Big Bird memes started to fly not long after this, and Governor Romney quickly learned to strike that particular part of his agenda from his talking points. It didn’t help that Big Bird even made an appearance on Saturday Night Live to remind everyone how much they loved him when they were kids. Maybe that speaks to the second point in the Dartmouth study—connecting the issue to something about which people have strong feelings, even if your presentation of the facts themselves is relatively objective and unemotional.
Speaking of the study, it offered one more consideration:
The final point that emerged from Graves’s survey is that people will resist abandoning a false belief unless they have a compelling alternative explanation. (emphasis mine)
This is the place where I think atheists need to do the most work. I’ve written about this before: It’s not enough to simply try to do away with gods if we have nothing to take their place.
Religion exists and persists for a reason, and we need to do a lot of “big picture” thinking about what function it serves in people’s lives. What role has religion played in the development of civilization, and what benefits to individuals and to society would be lost if it were to be removed entirely? Do the non-religious have viable alternatives which will meet the psychological and emotional needs of human beings, which are essentially “apes with anxiety?” I think we still have a lot of work to do in that department. Something to chew on for future reference.
The Water in Which I Swim
Finally, there is one last reason I am not an anti-theist in my posture toward the religious, and this one is highly personal:
3. Most of the people in my daily life are Christians.
My parents are Christians. My siblings are Christians. Even my own four daughters are Christians. So are my aunts, uncles, and cousins. Most of my coworkers are Christians of one sort or another, and the parents and students with whom I deal on a daily basis are themselves largely theistic. My bosses are virtually always devout believers, and so are the people who run things at the city, county, and state levels. Evangelical Christianity is my matrix, my culture, the water in which I swim.
If I am ever to have a functioning life where I live, I will have to learn to live with theism as a pervasive presence. It’s thick in the air where I live, and it’s not going anywhere any time soon. As a necessary consequence, my posture toward theism will be tempered by this realization no matter how convinced I become that invisible beings aren’t real or that people don’t come back to life after they die. Almost everyone around me sees these things differently, and that impacts the way I think about this.
So I wouldn’t expect to see my posture on theism changing any time soon, not as long as all these factors remain as they are. As difficult as it may be to maintain at times, especially in the face of persistent (and usually passive-aggressive) opposition, my particular brand of atheism will have to make do with living among the religious as harmoniously as I can manage. I hope you will take that into consideration the next time you find yourself thinking I’m taking an easy way out.
- Why I Keep Talking to People Who Won’t Listen
- Why I Am an Anti-Fundamentalist (and Not an Anti-Theist) Part 1
- Why I Am an Anti-Fundamentalist (and Not an Anti-Theist) Part 2
[Image Source: Adobe Stock]
* For what it’s worth, federal subsidies only accounted for about 12% of PBS’s budget at the time, the rest coming from foundation grants and direct fundraising among viewers. It was still an unwise move to hate on Big Bird, and it had its own kind of “backfire effect.”