Good Atheist, Bad Atheist

I’d like to start off this morning’s homily, Good Atheist, Bad Atheist, with a quote from a work entitled The Psychology of Intelligence Analysis from the CIA website, followed by stories from my own life, followed by my report from the front of the culture war between faith and atheism, from the standpoint of an atheist.


Here’s the quote from The Psychology of Intelligence Analysis.


“Herbert Simon first advanced the concept of “bounded” or limited rationality.  Because of limits in human mental capacity, he argued, the mind cannot cope directly with the complexity of the world. Rather, we construct a simplified mental model of reality and then work with this model. We behave rationally within the confines of our mental model, but this model is not always well adapted to the requirements of the real world. The concept of bounded rationality has come to be recognized widely…. both as an accurate portrayal of human judgment and choice and as a sensible adjustment to the limitations inherent in how the human mind functions.”
Atheists love saying, “There’s a rational explanation!” but there is one small problem.  Human beings ain’t rational.  We end up with gods to match, too, irrational, fussy, and easily annoyed. What do I mean by Good Atheist, Bad Atheist?  Well, it depends.  Some people in this culture believe that if every atheist dropped dead, the world would be a better place.  If you don’t believe me, do an internet search on the words “The only good atheist is a dead one”.  Everyone in this room knows a good atheist, but there are a lot of people who can’t even conceive of such a notion.  We are left with two opposing camps, cranking up violence-enabling rhetoric, about how morality with God — or without God — is impossible.


There are atheists in the bestseller list these days.  Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchen are two you may have heard of, and frankly, I’m rather annoyed with both of them.  They don’t come anywhere close to where I am on the spectrum of belief and unbelief.  For them, science and rationality are stable ideals, fit for building all of human life on, but I don’t find them so level, all of the time.  When science divorces religious norms and marries laissez-faire capitalism, I’m not so sure the world instantly becomes a better place.


Worse, from my perspective, is that they believe the superiority of their view, briefly, Atheism Yay, Belief in God Boo, is intrinsically obvious. They make their points and they are rude about them.  Dawkins at one point defended his sweeping condemnation of religion by comparing the tone to that of a very negative restaurant review, and saying he was much milder.  That’s precisely the kind of behaviour that makes me roll my eyes; religious views are much more important to many more people than a restaurant review, and the disrespect he shows in comparing them adds weight to the notion that Dawkins is a little too socially inept to be taking on such a big project.


I know I’m participating in a low form of argument here.  Attacking the tone rather than the substance of an argument is a sign of a weak case.  But my case is based on the premise that people don’t like to be yelled at or scolded for being stupid, and that tone is extremely important in changing somebody’s mind.  Otherwise, you’re just venting to fellow atheists, and making any of the faithful in your audience think atheists are elitist stuck up bigots.


Of course religion has been used as an excuse for repression, massacre, starvation, occupation and inquisition.  But history teaches us that atheists are just as capable of suppressing science and committing genocide as the most heinous theocracy — one has only to think of Lysenkoism and the Ukrainian famine to be able to conclude that.  An atheist regime might arguably be less likely to suppress scientific truth to achieve political goals, but as for less capable, it happened before and might very well happen again.  It behooves atheists to remember, when making rhetorical hay with the follies of religion, that there may be a bitter cud of reflection to chew later when your words have made enemies instead of friends.  Every word you say may be true… but is it loving and useful?  Maybe you’re right, but so what?


Atheists and theists deal with each other in daily life according to their mental map.  Work is the place we don’t talk about religion so we can get along with our coworkers.  Why don’t we talk about religion at work?  Because it gets in the way of getting the real work done, it gets people mad, it kills morale stone dead, and you can shortly be crawling with investigators from the Human Rights Commission.


Sometimes things go wrong, and people are harassed for their beliefs.  But in the 30 years I’ve been working, I’ve never been harassed for being an atheist, and I sure have seen Muslim and Christian co-workers get hassled for their beliefs.


When I was in Grade 6, two of my schoolmates, a Jew and a Mormon, ganged up on me in the schoolyard to argue the existence of a supreme being.  This was in response to my publicly stated belief that not only was there no god, anyone who believed in one was a moron.  I agreed with them because the prospect of getting harangued for hours for my beliefs had very little appeal.


Of course I should have had the courage of my convictions, but I was outnumbered, as atheists usually are when we aren’t scooping out a niche of sanity and calm for ourselves like Beacon.  Beacon is a place where, in keeping with our principles, atheists and theists and pagans and shamanic warriors may be in community, as part of ‘the free and responsible search for truth and meaning’.  There’s no getting around how this is in direct contravention of everything established religion stands for, both for mixing atheists and theists, and for encouraging them to think about what’s important without telling them what to think along the way.


But getting back to the schoolyard, I am not convinced that the public discussion of faith and atheism has improved in either tone or content in 40 years.  In fact, if anything, I think things have gotten worse.  Atheists are still calling the faithful morons; the faithful are still hauling atheists into the street and killing them and putting their heads on spikes.  Not so much in North America; it used to be that atheists would shake their heads over the follies, peccadilloes and outright illegalities committed by the representatives of various religions, but not comment aloud; now there’s an atheist pride movement which relishes every stupidity of the faithful as if it was somehow automatically meritorious to point it out.


I sit at lunch with coworkers who say with apparent seriousness that religious people are so stupid that they ought to be lined up and shot.  There are subgroups of atheists that would like nothing better than to publicly humiliate and kill religious people, or talk about doing it at great length.  My response is always the same… yeah, let’s do that, but before we do that let’s make sure they all have to wear yellow stars, and we all wear swastikas, so we don’t lose sight of it being a form of genocide.


By the same token, Christians say very bad things about atheists on the internet.  I’m not going to dignify so much as a syllable of it by repeating it, but if you haven’t looked, I recommend searching on Fundies Say the Darnedest Things.  I don’t really care about the wacky nonsense on the internet, but unfortunately sometimes Christians shoot atheists for being atheists.  Not often, but occasionally; it was reported in the US as recently as 2004.  Once again, the atheists are talking up a storm and being rude, and the Christians are talking up a storm and being rude, but I’d say the Christians are still winning, because God is on every coin in your pocket right now, and it’s hard to get elected anywhere in North America if you are an avowed atheist.  Yes, we are discriminated against.  Frankly, it’s a price I’m more than prepared to pay for the freedom to think as I choose.  As a rude aside, I was joking with my mother, in response to learning that 25% of Canadians are atheists, that I now understood why contemporary atheists are so crabby.  Not only to we have to do the thinking for four people, we had to have the manners for 4 people too.


I believe that fundamentalism has blighted far more lives, proportionally, than atheism — and I defy anybody to prove me wrong, at least on the basis of statistics on such things as illiteracy, genital mutilation, slavery, child marriage and other blessings which accrue with monolithic religious dictatorships.  If I sound bitter, it’s because for every person whose interior life has been improved and ennobled by religion, it seems there are many others who have been demeaned and degraded by being forced to adhere to its customs and dictates.


Most U*U congregations in the US and Canada try to be a safe place for atheists and theists to be in community.  We covenant to affirm and promote “acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations”.  There’s nothing in there about kicking you out if you’re a theist, or mocking you if you have problems with God language.  On balance, I’d say Beacon is a pretty humanist place, and safe for people like me, who enjoy God language for its grandeur and poetry, without subscribing in the slightest to the notion of a god who takes interest in my doings, or in the existence of any personal god.


The difference between Unitarians and best selling atheists is not just that we have a hymnbook with God in it; not just that some of us believe in a god or some gods; nor are the similarities that we think the scientific method is cool or that religion has no place denigrating women, those of different faiths or queerfolk.  The biggest difference is that Unitarians try to remember their manners when they object to something, and that we are living our chosen faith in community, whereas best selling atheists have no spiritual home outside the lab, or in front of a video camera.  Not that there’s anything wrong with having a lab as a spiritual home, but I prefer to be here, and if someone thinks I’m being sentimental I’ll just smile.  For as much as theists have problems with my philosophy, many atheists can’t understand why I’d bother with church at all.


In all this talk, though, I’ve neglected to define what an atheist is. Picture my surprise, on researching this homily, when it turned out I didn’t have it clear in my head what, exactly, an atheist was.  It turns out that there are two main kinds of atheist.  The majority of atheists say, “I don’t believe in a god, or any gods”.  The minority say, “Not only don’t I believe, I know there is no God” which is a harder position to defend because you have to provide proof.  Either way, an atheist is somebody who doesn’t believe in God.  A substantial fraction of atheists feel that a question like, “Is there a God?” is flat out meaningless, and a waste of time.


But when it comes to God, we all have our cognitive cross to bear.


With God believing people, this cross takes the form of the belief that an all-powerful being chooses to be invisible, silent and immaterial while simultaneously having loving custody of the universe, including every one of us.


With atheists, our cognitive cross is the belief that the people who believe in God are stupid, irrational, self-serving, crazy, evil, wretched, hypocritical, sexist, ageist, homophobic, fascistic, perverted and mean… or some combination of the above.


When I entitled this homily, Good Atheist, Bad Atheist, it was because I’ve done a lot of thinking about the cultural construct that is atheism.   It’s true that we’re all atheists in a state of nature, but it’s been a while since we were in a state of nature, so let’s put that aside and think about the world as it is.  It appears to me that atheism exists in modern culture as almost a chemical, or possibly alchemical reaction to religion, mostly Christianity, and continues because in every year, thirteen year old boys and girls sit in church and think, while their hearts tremble with shock, “This is total nonsense.”  They walk out free of God — but not free of the questions that plague human existence.  Questions like, “Why are we here?” and “What is evil and why does it exist?” and “How will I know when I’m a good person?”


I am also, when I think the words, Good Atheist, Bad Atheist, thinking about my own spiritual journey.  If somebody asks me, are you an atheist, I have to respond “Yes,” because I know there is no God.  More properly, I know there is no personage, no individual personality playing that role, and there’s nobody to petition or thank or blaspheme against.  Please don’t ask me to prove it.  Frankly, I feel I don’t have to; I kind of take it on faith.  I was raised atheist, you know, and it’s hard to renounce the faith of my parents.


So here I am in church, delivering a homily, which makes me a very bad atheist indeed, because I am countenancing God language with my choice of hymns, and I stand before you saying that I don’t think theists are necessarily evil or stupid or even delusional.


I am, indeed, a very bad atheist, but I have a checklist for a good one.


A Good Atheist is one who understands the process by which she became an atheist; she can speak up about her religious rights; she can logically defend her beliefs; she understands that she may have cognitive barriers to being sympathetic to religious people and makes allowances for it; she understands that religion is both deeply useful and deeply meaningful to many of us, whether it can be demonstrated to be delusional or not, and she can talk about all of these things without recourse to name-calling or disrespect.


That’s a lot to demand of a Good Atheist, but that’s my list, and I hope I’ve given you something to think about, whether you believe in God or not.


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