Thursday, January 12, 2012

Why are atheists so smug?

Atheists get called a lot of things, but arrogant and smug are two of the most common. I get where you're coming from by asking, the New Atheist movement has no problem shoving their opinions in everyone's face and, when you watch videos of Dawkins or Hitchens casually dismissing away thousands of years of belief as superstition, it doesn't sit well with the average believer who has built their life on a foundation of ritual and faith. There are also innumerable Facebook groups created seemingly only for the reason of mocking faith, and the condescending attitude that we atheists cam have towards the faithful can be downright infuriating to those who don't understand us.

So, in the interest of creating a greater understanding, here are a few of the reasons why I believe we atheists can be such dickbags when it comes to dealing with people who don't see the world like we do.

1.) Santa Claus

This is how you teach your children not to trust everything you tell them.

This first one is going to require a little bit of imagination on your part. Now, I understand that it's easy to get defensive about what you believe, but if you're really curious about what makes us tick, try to keep it bottled up and ignore the imperfections in the analogy.

Imagine, if you will, a world in which almost everyone you knew never stopped believing in Santa Claus. When you drove to work, there would be posters of him everywhere, and his message of secretly watching you and your behavior for an upcoming judgement day would just casually slip out of the mouth of nearly everybody, from newscasters to politicians everyone believes in Santa.

But here's the thing, you don't. Now, for the most part you can just ignore it, after all, what harm does it really do? But then you start noticing that an uncommonly large amount of daily discussion has to do with this mythical creature. You turn on the news and there's wars overseas over the names of his reindeer or what color he is. Santa's rules for who is naughty or nice seem kind of arbitrary or common sense, but people will straight up punch you in the face if you disagree with them.

Most of the time you keep your mouth shut, but eventually everything just seems so silly. We've been to the North Pole, there's no sweatshop full of elves making toys. When you mention that at a family dinner, your mother tells you that parents buy the toys themselves and are happy to assist in Santa's good work. You want your mother to see the truth, but when you try to have a nice, logical discussion about it she clams up and you can see the disappointment in her eyes. Clearly she agrees with the community that if you don't believe that Santa is watching you every minute, there's no reason for you NOT to go on a murderous rape rampage any day.

I know that sounds silly, but that's pretty close to the world that we live in. You might believe in God, you might not, but if you don't there is absolutely no way to talk about the subject without sounding like you know something everybody else doesn't, because that is exactly the way that you view the world. And when only one out of ten people agree with you, it can get very frustrating.


I think I can see my genome from here!

Humans like to codify their existence. We've always enjoyed naming and then grouping things together, and there are few arguments more intense than over the minutia that separates two very similar things, thoughts, or ideas. We've been noticing patterns in reality for thousands of years and this has led to every single modern advancement, be it beer, cellphones, eyeglasses, or even the Internet you're using to read this. This conversation amongst ourselves has involved every single type of person, religious creed, sex, or nationality that wanted to get involved. It isn't owned by anybody and the advancement of knowledge could arguably be considered one of the best pursuits of our time on this planet. Science isn't a religion, it's the way of the human species. It's how we've grown and evolved from wandering groups of barbaric tribes to civilizations with robots in space.

That being said, a lot of the war about religion takes place here and, while it's true that a lot of scientists are also atheists, it is not an atheist endeavor; there are many people of many faiths involved in the process and if you are ever interested in any aspect of it, the information is practically free for you to discover. The more you know about science, the more amazing the world around us is. So it seems strange to me that this is where the battles are most frequently waged, and the people with decades of experience, knowledge, and training, are somehow given less weight in the discussion when it happens in the public. If you watch a talk show about psychics there are going to be three or four charlatans well versed in duping the crowd, and exactly one person who everyone despises who will try to politely discuss how psychics work and nobody will listen to him. A politician can casually dismiss millions of man-hours of dedicated research, laboratory testing, and heated discussion hammering out theories that stand up to reality, many of them completed by people who believe exactly what he does, and the audience will actually cheer him for it.

Let's pause on that for a second.

There is no other occupation that I know of where the smartest people in the room are considered the least qualified people to listen to. Here in America over 50% of the GOP think biologists are full of garbage. Even the Catholic Church admits that evolution is true, and we even have evidence of it, but that doesn't stop the faithful for dismissing the greatest achievements of human intelligence because it's too complicated for the uneducated to understand. People would instead rather trust the man behind the pulpit (not the molester, we have a new one) who tells them differently because of something he read in a book once. Apparently it's easier to believe that thousands of the smartest people in the entire world are somehow trying to scam the rest of us because, profit? I'm not sure how it works, but that seems to be the discussion.

So, how do you talk to talk to someone who doesn't even believe in reality without sounding smug? I don't know, but it's difficult.

3.) Revenge. 

This is why we get angry.

 I'm going to be perfectly frank here: religion is about control. That's not necessarily a bad thing, parents have to watch their children, but unchecked authority rarely turns out well for the people involved. The list of crimes against religion are legion, and they are still happening every single day.
Is it really arrogant to tell the same group of people who used to burn herbalists for being witches that it's superstition that makes them believe that a woman who owns a cat she so doesn't get the plague must be using the powers of Satan? Sure we don't believe that anymore, because of science, but when the conversation is brought into something that matters today, like who has permission to get married, the arguments against it are unscientific and superstitious. Sure the Bible suggests that we should kill gay people, but there are also a ton of verses that equate women to property, and we're mostly smart enough not to take those seriously anymore. You also aren't allowed to shave or wear mixed fibers in your clothing, but nobody marches in the street over those issues.

Atheists and nonbelievers have been treated badly for thousands of years, almost worse than people tend to treat the heretics of a different (read: almost identical) faith. Now that we understand enough of the universe to be able to close many of the gaps in human knowledge, the conversation and deference to power have started to shift. New Atheists like myself aren't against you or even what we consider to be your quaint and harmless rituals and sacrifices, but when religion is still trying to control us when we know better, the conversation easily takes on a new and different flavor.

If you've been grinding someone's face in the dirt for untold centuries you shouldn't complain when they start to fight back. And now, mostly thanks to the internet and free information, the numbers of nonbelievers are increasing every day. We don't try to actively convert most of them, all it takes is a simple internet search and everything that your religious leaders don't want you to know is right in front of you.

And it's not smug to point at things if you're the only one who has their eyes open.


  1. GREAT piece of writing. Clear and to the point. I really appreciate the way you communicate using truth and gentle persuasion.
    There are plenty of people who can make the complex arguments...we need more like you who can speak to "regular folks" like me.

  2. If someone doesn't value evidence, what evidence are you going to provide to prove that he should value it?... If someone doesn't value logic, what logical argument could you provide, to show the importance of logic?

  3. You can't. I don't think that most people place zero value on evidence, but they do disagree on what evidence should be believed.

  4. That accusation of being smug and arrogant really pisses me off. These are people who think they know what's in the mind of god. How can anyone compete with that arrogance?

    1. To them it isn't arrogance, that's just how the world works. I don't need to compete with them, but maybe some of them will listen if I'm not too aggressive. :)

  5. As usual, a complete misconstrual of religion, building a convenient straw-man to knock down.

    Speaking from the standpoint of Judaism, as it has been for most of history:

    (1) People in the street believe something you don't? Get over it. Plenty of people believe that aliens exist, others believe that they don/t. But I have never seen people in the street vomiting at the mention of aliens and starting a one cares. You happen to be extremely tuned in to thoughts of non-god, so any mention of god pisses you off. This is an oversensitivity in you (and one with deep psychological roots, as much of strong atheism is psychologically and sociologically, rather than intellectually, rooted). We Jews have walked around for centuries facing overwhelming numbers of people who believed in things we don't, and we never uttered a peep, didn't matter. It was totally irrelevant to our lives. Many Jews even think all the Christmas stuff is cute, who doesn't like pretty lights and music? Atheist's preoccupation and anger at completely irrelevant and noninvasive aspects of other's lives is...very telling.

    (2) For science...I can't believe there are still Atheists claiming that science and religion are incompatible. You should read up on Steven Jay Gould. This is yet another straw man that Atheists love to retreat to. As a Jew, there is no incompatibility. Many great scientists are observant Jews. In synagogue, I never heard a word contradicting science. It is fully accepted as the rules God layed out for the world, and evolution, much to the consternation of atheist rabble-rousers, is fully acceptable in Jewish thought. Historically, the ancient commentators extensively commented on the religion-science interaction and it has always been the view that the study of science is the study of the ways of God, and that Judaism's, and religion's, jurisdiction never extended far into science. Religion and science were always separate, but comaptible and mutually complementing, aspects of worldview. Sciecen was always willingly and gladly left to scientists of the time, and new discoveries are always admired as even more evidence for the miraculous nature of...nature.

    (3) Revenge. Yes, now we are talking...finally, something honest.
    But a few salient points: first of all, atheists have rarely ben barred from anything. Atheism as a movement didn't even exist, in any significant way, until the enlightenement; the 1500 year figure is absurd. The tortures you quote were things usually done during the inquisition to people of other faiths, not atheists. Furthermore, religion is about control...if this were true, we would expect people to drop out of religion in DROVES byt the millions once the world became free and religion was no longer mandatory, us being stubborn and freedom loving american folk. This is certainly not the case, and the eact opposite is true for Judaism: Jews were burned, tortured and stoned, and, with almost no exceptions, they willingly went to the stake rather than renounce their faith. They beleieved. They were not coerced or controlled. Oh and, i;d love to see the source where the bible says, or even suggests, we kill gay people. I'd also love to hear how you, in your personal life, felt like you were being controlled or coerced in the name of religion. If the people who Do have faith do not feel controlled or hijacked, you really have no right to accuse them of being blind, unwilling victims. We are quite willing to believe, in fact.

    "And it's not smug to point at things if you're the only one who has their eyes open."

    And finally, the bottom line is revealed. You are the only one who "sees" the truth. Sound's a lot like the people you are criticizing...