An Open Letter to the Atheist Community
To begin, I want to say that I’m glad we’ve managed to create a community, and I’m proud of the work many of us do to champion the virtues of reason, empiricism and irony. I know many of us have overcome a lot of adversity to get to our beliefs and still suffer for them (we are the least-trusted demographic in the United States, after all,) and I believe that we have something of an ethical responsibility to remain politically visible and active, even if it’s only to lessen the stigma associated with unbelief. But I also think we may have some problems as a culture that we need to address.
We need to recognize that we’re not logical. Our brains weren’t built that way, which would show if we were capable of objective self-criticism, but we can’t really do that either. The fact that we removed one of our more obviously irrational beliefs doesn’t change the fact that we have the same wetware as everyone else, including the theists that a lot of us look down on. That means we still need to be careful, especially if we’re touting ourselves as the “reason and science” quadrant of society. We need to be wary of that attractive belief that surrounding ourselves with science-themed cultural identifiers makes our actual lives and thought patterns scientific. I know. It sucks. But this is what you signed onto when you bought the Carl Sagan poster. Valuing reason and logic means never having quite as much sexy certainty as the next guy.
Sexy, sexy certainty.
I know, you probably know all this already, but it bears repeating, especially now that we have our own groups and have developed our own hivemind. You’re also probably cringing at the word “hivemind,” but it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Well, okay, it is a bad thing, but it’s something that happens to every subculture and all it really means is that we’re not special. We have sacred cows and idols, and while every participant in a culture theoretically vets the memes that they pick up, people are still more likely to get hot over someone all their friends are talking about, and still more likely to bite their tongue when what they’re thinking is a threat to their social bonds.
This is doubly important when the conversation inevitably turns to religion’s relationship with society. By and large the atheist icons that we have are natural scientists, but the topic that we’re discussing usually has more to do with the social sciences. What this means is that icons like Richard Dawkins are likely to be at least somewhat out of their depth when they talk about whether or not religion holds society back or motivates violent behavior, and a lot of the truisms that float around in our culture are likely to not be based off of anything empirical. I mean, I’ve spent a lot of time watching big name religion debates on YouTube and I’ve been lurking atheist forums since I was thirteen, and I’ve never once seen someone reference Stark and Bainbridge’s foundational studies on cult membership or debate the explanatory power of the religious markets theory.
The Project on Middle Eastern Science knows what’s up.
This is another unsexy thing because getting sound findings in the social sciences is a huge headache, and a lot of the findings aren’t going to be all that politically gratifying, but if we really value science and reason as the answers to social problems, as a group we should probably be at least as familiar with scholarly findings on the political behavior of churches as we are with fossil records. This is hard because it’s really easy to make arguments about society without referencing anything scientific. We don’t really need to do research to feel like we know what’s going on and society as a whole has something of a tradition of prognosticating about social issues without considering that gathering data might be a necessary step. But to operate off of this rationalist method of explanation, to privilege the anecdotal over the statistical, is to commit the same sin of unsubstantiated belief that we’ve based our philosophy around resisting.
I know this isn’t something that’ll come easy, and I don’t think that visiting FSTDT or getting a Flying Spaghetti Monster bumper sticker should require a peer-reviewed article on religion and voting trends. But, if we claim to be men and women of science, we need to mean it, and that means handling even the subjects that are personal to us with an eye towards empiricism. The discourse will be richer for it, and I think we’ll all be able to sleep a bit easier knowing that we’ve tested our beliefs.