Atheist pride . . .?

Normally I hate it when I see atheism accused of being just another religion (or worse: just another faith) because of, well, the usual “is bald a hair color?” (or “Is ‘not collecting stamps’ a hobby?”) argument that I won’t waste your time repeating here today. Yet I was perversely pleased to see atheists make it onto some of the lists of groups who — like Mormons — think they’re better than everyone else in a comment here.

Why was this a pleasant surprise? Mostly because it’s an accurate and legitimate criticism. I get tired of believers who recite that gibberish about how if you don’t have a higher power directing your life you’ll surely wind up dead in a ditch from a heroin overdose and/or without fear of God’s punishment there’s nothing to keep you from going on a rape-pillage-murder spree. Those speculations are the result of only the purest, most unadulterated ignorance. Whereas when I see believers saying “Those uppity atheists can’t stop patting each other on the back for how clever, ethical, and non-violent they are,” then I think “Aha! This person probably knows some real live atheists, or at least has read some atheist blogs.” See? The atheist visibility strategy is working.

Now I’m not going to claim that all or even most atheists think that atheists are (on average) smarter and/or more virtuous than religious people. However, if you spend any time in the atheosphere, it’s pretty clear that some of them do think that. And given atheists’ famous love of hard data, they have a fair amount of stats to back it up, showing atheism correlated with high levels of education and low rates of things like criminality, violence, divorce, abortion, STDs, etc. (Here’s one recent article about it, for example.)

As with any correlation, it’s hard to be sure which thing(s) caused what, and many have suggested that atheism is likely to be the result of having a happy and satisfying life rather than the cause. (There’s an interesting article arguing that point here.)

And this brings me to the point where I’d like to play devil’s (or God’s?) advocate: I could have sworn there was a major theme in the Book of Mormon where people who are prosperous start to lose interest in God (until He smites them back into submission). Is this a case of the Book of Mormon being right about something?

p.s. This purely theoretical and introspective discussion is in no way to be construed as encouraging believers to help their God(s) smite atheists.

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chanson

C. L. Hanson is the friendly American ExMormon atheist mom living in Switzerland! See "letters from a broad" and the novel ExMormon for further adventures!!

29 thoughts on “Atheist pride . . .?

  1. Apparently, there is now a debate among neurologists whether the golden rule is hard wired into our brains.

    The notion that we need to fear the last judgement to behave responsibly is indeed a myth. Just think of antiquity when nobody believed in heaven or hell and yet people were not any less responsible than we are today.

    Besides, there are plenty of cases where people used religion to justify cruelty. The 9/11 bombers acted on the belief that killing women and children was the will of God. The same is true of the crusaders or the Mountain Meadows Massacre. The slogans of the murderers were Deus Lo Vult, which means “God Wills It,” and “Do Your Duty!”

    Atheist metaphysical systems can produce both the negative and the positive outcomes of religious faith. Just look at the anarchist suicide bombers before World War I. These are traits of human nature that are not limited to one particular culture.

  2. I’ve been criticized for quoting scripture as an atheist. But just because I reject the alleged divine source for these books doesn’t mean I don’t occasionally find something of value in them. For instance, Matthew 7:3 is a great piece of advice “So why do you see the piece of sawdust in another believer’s eye and not notice the wooden beam in your own eye?” I don’t care if you believe in god, rocks, or cocks, hypocrisy is always worth pointing out (though not always a useful tool in an argument).

    So, does the Book of Mormon have some noteworthy things to say? Sure. In a subtle twist I think you could transform King Benjamin’s speech on how a King should serve his people into a commentary on modern political systems – a president shouldn’t “preside” but should serve. I can buy that. And, I think there is some truth to the idea that people, groups, and nations can get fat and lazy and ultimately become lackadaisically. That doesn’t mean god smites them, but it may mean they cease to be powerful. It doesn’t take “divine inspiration” to notice that pattern in human history – Rome, Greece, Babylon, Egypt, UK, and possibly even the U.S. today. So, yes, the Book of Mormon isn’t completely wrong – just mostly wrong.

    As for atheists being a bit proud, turns out they are not more proud than believers: Rowatt, W.C., Ottenbreit, A., Nesselroade Jr., K.P., et al. (2002). On Being Holier-Than-Thou or Humbler-Than-Thee: A Social-Psychological Perspective on Religiousness and Humility. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 41(2), 227. Sure, there are exceptions, but, on average, non-believers are more humble than believers.

  3. “Just think of antiquity when nobody believed in heaven or hell and yet people were not any less responsible than we are today.”
    Which antiquity are you talking about exactly?

  4. “Rowatt, W.C., Ottenbreit, A., Nesselroade Jr., K.P., et al. (2002). On Being Holier-Than-Thou or Humbler-Than-Thee: A Social-Psychological Perspective on Religiousness and Humility. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 41(2), 227. Sure, there are exceptions, but, on average, non-believers are more humble than believers.”

    exmoron,
    I haven’t read the study and won’t comment on its findings, but seeing that it comes from the journal of an organization that actively argues against faith-based belief, I am not surprised that they found Atheists to be “better” than religious folk.

  5. Good to see you, John. I guess that statement would apply to any part of the pre-Christian antiquity.

    I don’t know about the Journal of the Scientific Study of Religion. Who is that group, please?

  6. Hellmut- Can pre-christian people really be called Athiest?

    I mean Hinduism is much older than Christianity
    Even Buddhism is at least 2000 years before Christ was born.

    Chanson- A Friend of mine went on her mission to Bolivia, she was totally confounded by the
    habits of some of the members there. When the banana harvest was good people did not go to church but spent their time partying. When the banana harvest was bad they went to church and prayed.

    Did god discontinue when things went well?

    I think that if I worshiped a god, I think I would do it just like them. Party when things are going well; pray and be humble when they are not.

  7. For myself, my own awakening to atheism happened only after I was strong enough to overcome all the fear that held me back from admitting my own doubts. I was happy and wanting to learn more. I was finally ready to really face Moroni’s challenge like a man (if you’ll excuse the sexism) and really accept it if God didn’t answer my prayers yea or nay. Only when I was strong and happy was I willing to face the thought of abandoning God and Mormonism and everything that goes with those beliefs.

    So I see some truth in my own life to the idea that content people tend to disbelieve more than those who struggle. I see the cause differently though. I don’t think it’s hubris but strength to overcome fear that enables disbelief.

  8. Wayne,

    I took Hellmut as saying that the pre-Christian world didn’t believe in heaven and hell. Certainly there were gods before Christ, but heaven and hell are less certain. I’m no expert, but I think Zoroaster takes the blame for inventing the idea of good and evil upon which all Abrahamic religion is based. The idea of heaven and hell probably could not predate Zoroaster if this is true. Perhaps there was the idea of an underworld and an abode of the gods, but that’s really different, n’est-ce pas?

  9. Thanks, Jonathan.

    You are certainly right, Wayne, that pre-Christian people were not atheists. The point I was trying to make is that they were not kept in line with fear of the last judgement.

  10. It’s true that even fictional works can contain some realistic details….

    I was also thinking of this as another example of religion playing “heads I win, tails you lose” like with answers to prayer: If you leave the church and your life goes down the tubes, many believers will certainly attribute it to God’s punishment. But if you do better, are happier, etc. after you stop believing? There’s got to be an explanation for that as well… 😉

    As far as humility is concerned, I think it would be difficult to measure accurately. As a group, atheists tend to value a different set of traits, qualities, and behaviors than devout people of faith value. This can affect how groups perceive themselves and each other, and ultimately one’s idea of what is humility and what is pride.

  11. pre-Christians were kept in line by the idea of an afterlife. Sure it doesn’t necessary correspond to the Christian notion, but most religions believe in an afterlife. You can’t tell me that a devout Hindu who would be faced with reincarnation as a cockroach or a hungry ghost if he was a bad person was not kept in line by that idea.

    As for pride and humility, I follow Mark Twain who said:

    “When people do not respect us we are sharply offended; yet deep down in his private heart no man much respects himself.”

  12. Chanson said

    “I was also thinking of this as another example of religion playing “heads I win, tails you lose” like with answers to prayer: If you leave the church and your life goes down the tubes, many believers will certainly attribute it to God’s punishment. But if you do better, are happier, etc. after you stop believing? There’s got to be an explanation for that as well…”

    False consciousness 😉

  13. That’s right, dpc. Reincarnation is a disciplining concept. I was thinking more Hellenistic cultures. My fault for failing to make myself clear.

  14. Hellmut,
    here is their website. I was once invited to participate in a conference of theirs, where I could hear people call religious belief irrational. I already think that, so there wasn’t much point in my attending.

  15. I think the hardest part for atheists is answering the three big questions Who am I? Why am I here? What happens when I die? If religions are formed to answer those questions, how does atheism answer those questions? In addition, atheism can’t even answer the ultimate metaphysical question: Why are there beings instead of nothing at all? I think pride vanishes when you don’t have the answers to these questions.

  16. Also, regarding pre-Christian western antiquity, in the west, at least, the belief that the afterlife was pretty dismal for everybody who wasn’t a special friend of the gods (or very nice to their rich children). By pleasing or pissing off the gods you could radically affect your afterlife in ancient Greece, Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Israel.

  17. I am Hellmut, a member of the human species.
    I am here because life is so persistent that it overcame all the odds.
    When I die, life is over.

    I don’t see why there would be a problem. If one is reconciled with human nature, none of this is an issue.

  18. Yes, that’s true. Hellenic gods could be vindictive but their wrath was about self-indulgence rather than justice. Hence the fear of divine punishment did not sustain society.

  19. My concept of heaven and hell were turned inside out recently. Buddhists at least have a heaven and hell as two of the six human realms.

    It seems though, that they are states of mind and can be left rather than final destinations.

    The pressure on atheists is to prove that morality is a human invention, that has inherent value not, given by some deity or even handed out by the law of Karma.

  20. dpc — regarding the questions “Who am I? Why am I here? What happens when I die? Why are there beings instead of nothing at all?”: athiesm doesn’t answer these questions. It is merely absence of belief in god(s).

    Many individual atheists do come up with their own answers for these questions, though, and a lot of them agree with one another. Daylight Atheism is a good place to start to get a taste of some typical/common atheistic responses to the big questions.

  21. dpc,

    Regarding the question about why there is something rather than nothing, no one has a good answer to that, not even believers in religion. It’s ultimately unanswerable, like a toddler repeating the question “Why?” ad infinitum. Eventually we have to throw up our hands and say “I don’t know. That’s just the way it is.”

  22. Jonathan Blake:

    There is a difference between an unanswerable question and an unanswered question.

    The question is not unanswerable if you believe in God, regardless of how that particular answer raises vexing questions regarding metaphysics, theology and philosophy of religion.

    In this same way that the problem of evil makes theists shudder, the ultimate question makes a lot of atheists uncomfortable because, as of yet, it cannot be answered by an appeal to human reason alone.

    Hellmut

    The second question, “Why am I here” is more of a “What is my purpose here” as opposed to “Why do I exist”. Sorry if there was some confusion.

    chanson

    I find it interesting that there is an atheist’s creed. I guess that atheism is a religion just like any other, except that the object of its worship is not God, but the accomplishments and experiences of humankind. I also find it interesting that the creed is internally-inconsistent. Maybe Atheism is the new Mormonism.

    “Only through reason and the scientific method can we hope to learn how the world works. No other method of gaining knowledge is reliable and all claims to knowledge not gained through this method should be considered suspect.”

    How exactly did the author arrive at this conclusion? What scientific method verifies this statement? I thought logical positivism died a long time ago. Very little ideas in the creed could be properly considered ‘reasonable’ or ‘scientifc’.

  23. dpc — I just meant that this guy’s philosophy is fairly typical for atheists, not that he’s the leader who gets to dictate doctrine, and certainly not that all atheists are going to agree with him point-by-point. Getting atheists to agree on anything is typically compared to “herding cats.” I agree with a lot of things that the author of “Daylight Atheism” has written on various subjects, but not everything, and in particular, I think it’s odd on principle to imagine there’s an “atheist’s creed.”

    Regarding the idea of “unanswerable vs. unanswered” — really I’m more comfortable accepting certain questions as open-ended than thinking a foolish answer is better than no answer. Additionally, just because atheism per se doesn’t give an answer to “what is the purpose of life?” that doesn’t prevent individual atheists from finding their own purpose nor does it mean that atheists are typically bothered or upset by a lack of “higher” “universal” or “divine” purpose. I wouldn’t compare this even remotely to the question of theologians being uncomfortable about their God having created evil.

  24. dpc,

    If the question is “Why is there something instead of nothing?” then all answers I’ve heard are unsatisfying.

    Saying that God caused there to be something doesn’t really answer the question because it doesn’t offer an explanation for God’s existence. Even playing definitional games by defining God as uncontingent doesn’t explain how such a being exists, nor does it demonstrate that such a being necessarily exists.

    Atheists don’t have a good answer either. I think the most honest answer anyone can give is “I don’t know, and I don’t even have a good, supportable guess.”

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