I am not a “Good Atheist”

I am not a “Good Atheist” September 12, 2011
I have on several different occasions been called “condescending” for stating that, as an atheist, I think that those who believe in a God, or in the spiritual, are mistaken. It makes me think of something P.Z. Myers once said:

S.E. Cupp [an atheist blogger] is a peculiar creature: she insists that she is an atheist, but I’ve never actually seen her defend or promote or even accept the idea of atheism. Instead, all she ever does is carp at atheists for being arrogant or smug or militant or whatever the current term of opprobrium might be. I don’t really understand her game, but then, I also don’t really care — she never says anything interesting, either.

But reading her latest column, I suddenly realized what she is: she’s the Good Atheist the believers want us all to be like. Good Atheists don’t criticize religion; they praise it and make excuses for it and pine away, wishin’ they had the faith themselves. Good Atheists do criticize atheism and atheists. They work hard to tell the Bad Atheists to shut up and stop making it hard for believers to be comfortable with their superstitions. Good Atheists love C.S. Lewis, and read theologians in their spare time, and marvel at their wonderful insights.

This phenomenon of believers’ conception of the “good atheist” is closely related a similar phenomenon that has been discussed by Greta Christina.

Many religious believers are intent on getting atheists’ approval for their beliefs. If you’re hoping for that — don’t hold your breath.

“But surely you don’t mean my religion!”

If you hang around the online atheist world long enough, you’ll notice an interesting pattern. Many religious and spiritual believers who engage with atheists seem very intent on getting atheists’ approval for their beliefs.

Typically, these believers acknowledge that many religions are profoundly troubling. They share atheists’ revulsion against religious hatreds and sectarian wars. They share our repugnance with religious fraud, the charlatans who abuse people’s trust to swindle them out of money and sex and more. They share our disgust with willful religious ignorance, the flat denials of overwhelming scientific evidence that contradicts people’s beliefs. They can totally see why many atheists are so incredulous, even outraged, about the world of religion.

But they think their religion is an exception. They think their religion is harmless, a kinder, gentler faith. They think their religion is philosophically consistent, supported by reason and evidence — or at least, not flatly contradicted by it.

And they want atheists to agree.

Greta Christina calls this “the atheist seal of approval.” Essentially, the believer is okay with the atheist criticizing fundamentalist religion in general, but wants the atheist to approve of her own more liberal faith and becomes upset if the atheist criticizes faith or religion in general.
Well, the thing is, I’m not a “good atheist,” and I am not handing out seals of approval. I really honestly think that there is no God and no spiritual realm, and I actually think that any spiritual belief is in some way problematic, because the spiritual realm lies outside of the world of evidence and is beyond testing. There is no safety mechanism, no reality check, no way of discerning which belief or conviction is right and which is wrong, it’s all based on subjective and experience and individual say-so. Now I am perfectly aware that liberal Christians, or those who simply call themselves “spiritual,” generally do not cause others harm the way fundamentalists’ do, but that doesn’t mean I think their beliefs are any more valid or true or correct than the fundamentalists’ are. I don’t.

Now don’t get me wrong – I understand that if you are religious or spiritual, your beliefs are very real to you. I understand that you are sincere. I understand that you feel that your beliefs make you a better, kinder, more peaceful person. Fundamentalists think the same. For over twenty years of my life, I had religious and spiritual experiences, I believed with all my heart, and I was very sincere. I get it. It’s just that I no longer think that those spiritual experiences are the result of the existence of a God or some sort of spiritual realm. Rather, I think that human brains are hardwired to look for patterns and meaning and to seek answers to existential questions, and that “spiritual experiences” are the result. I think that any belief in the actual existence of the spiritual, outside of our own brains, is irrational and incorrect. If you want me to pat you on the back for your “reasonable beliefs” or “rational faith,” you’ve come to the wrong place.

I think there’s a bit of a double standard that goes on here. Religious believers criticize atheism and atheists alike, and think it’s some combination of wrong, misled, and dangerous, but as soon as an atheist criticizes faith or religion, or says she thinks it’s wrong or misled or dangerous, they jump all over themselves calling that atheist a meanie. I’ve seen it happen many times. The thing is, criticism goes both ways. Just as believers are free to think that atheists are wrong, atheists are free to think that believers are wrong.  Thinking someone else is wrong, and saying as much, is not the same thing as being condescending or rude. I don’t have to live up to some sort of “good atheist” standard where I pussyfoot around the problems I see with faith and religion and declare everyone who isn’t a fundamentalist to be consistent or logical.

That all said, I have a lot of respect for many religious people. I can respect a religious person without respecting or agreeing with that person’s religious beliefs. I may see serious problems with religion, but that doesn’t mean I think every religious believer is a kook or dangerous or stupid. I don’t. I would hope that people who disagree with me could similarly respect me as a person even as they think my beliefs are incorrect or misguided or what have you. After all, I may think that there is no God, but I’m not going to try to force anyone to agree with me or legislate atheism. There is a difference between respecting a person and respecting that person’s religious beliefs (or lack thereof).
Furthermore, disagreement in belief should not stop people with similar goals and values from working together. I hold out my hand in cooperation to those who share my values and goals – things like equality, self-determination, love, and a desire to work toward the betterment of this world in the here and now – regardless of religious belief or lack thereof.  I believe strongly in freedom of religious belief, and my readers are free to believe whatever they like. I think people should be able to agree to disagree and concentrate on working together for the better good. After all, liberal minded religious or spiritual individuals frequently share many of my core goals and values, and it would be petty and counterproductive to refuse to reach across the aisle to work toward the betterment of society just because I disagree with their beliefs about what happens after death. At the same time, though, I’m not going to pat anyone on the back and tell them I think their religious or spiritual beliefs are logical or supported by evidence, because I don’t.

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