The difference between writing articles for the popular press and writing posts for one’s own blog is that some things invariably get left out, due to editorial decisions. Most publications want pieces to be around 1,200 words or so. When I feel that my argument hasn’t been presented thoroughly in a published article, I’ll supplement it with a post here on my blog.
In article of mine that was published today at The Daily Beast, a few important things were necessarily left out due to the nature of that type of publication. Here I’d like to offer what got left out so those who read the article can have a better picture of my argument against firebrand atheism.
The main thing that got left out of my article was my citation of research by political scientist Brendan Nyhan:
Brendan Nyhan, professor of political science at Dartmouth, recently co-authored a study that explored what happens when someone’s beliefs are challenged. They tested whether affirming someone’s self-worth beforehand safeguarded them against threats to their worldview. In each experiment, they randomly chose whether a participant received a “self-affirmation treatment,” which consisted of asking each participant to recall an experience in which they felt good about themselves. What they found was that self-affirmation did in fact reduce misperceptions among those most likely to hold them, suggesting that “people cling to false beliefs in part because giving them up would threaten their sense of self.”
Think about what religion is—a total worldview that lets each believer feel like she’s found meaning and purpose in a bewildering universe. It’s one thing to contemplate giving up a belief about a political or scientific fact that doesn’t directly affect your life, like whether or not global warming is caused by humans, but it’s another thing to give up a belief that you think determines whether you’ll be strumming a harp with angels or stuck on the business end of the Devil’s pitchfork when you die.
I believe we still can (and should still try) change someone’s beliefs, but we’re going to have to resist the temptation to roast them while we’re doing it. As Nyhan’s research suggests, we have to present our arguments in a way that doesn’t trigger a defensive, emotional reaction:
But listen to what David Silverman has said in his talks promoting firebrand atheism: “Religion is a lie—all of it—that’s the truth.” “Respect is earned, and religion hasn’t earned any.” Even if he’s right, the tone of these comments is just going to raise the emotional hackles of your average believer.
My argument isn’t that we should “just be nice” and bend over while public opinion continues denigrate atheism. I believe we should and must continue to stand up for atheism by both highlighting atheism’s positive attribute while also critiquing religion. My argument is that how we go about doing that matters—and I believe that the claim that firebrand atheism is counterproductive can be supported by an appeal to research in the social sciences, like the work of Nyhan and others.