Friday, April 11, 2008

Not all atheists are snobs

"We are all atheists about most of the gods that societies have ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further."
-Richard Dawkins

There's a blog I read with great regularity (whenever a new article pops up on my RSS feed), called Violent Acres; I like it so much, it's one of the few links in my sidebar. Generally, V (as the author is known) is astute and clever; often controversial, but generally she at least makes good points. But I feel that her recent post, Atheists are Snobs, misses the mark in a way very few of her others ever had. It's not because I'm an atheist myself (I am); it's because I think she falls prey to the exact same generalisations she preaches against.

Take this quotation, for example:
Atheists think they’re being clever with their spaghetti monster analogies and fairy tale rhetoric, but at the end of the day, they come off sound like condescending pricks.

This is where I think the first flaw comes in. She paints all atheists with the same brush. This includes zealots (and there are atheistic zealots) and moderates, intellectuals and dumbasses. She paints Richard Dawkins-a well-spoken, erudite opponent of organised religion-with the same brush as the mouth-breathers who decide that a facebook forum about Apple computers is the right place to rehash the same old creationism-vs-evolution argument again and again in stilted English and poorly-constructed critiques.

The problem is, there are many of us, and we're just as diverse as any other group. I'm an atheist, but I've been to Baptist, Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian and Protestant churches. I've been in love twice-once with a Mennonite and once with a Catholic, and have dated girls who were Christian, Hindu and atheist. I discuss religion frequently with my friends, religious and atheist alike. I think religion does some wonderful things in the world (charity, preaching morals, anti-drug programs and so forth), and does some terrible things (inspiring divisiveness, crusading against science, blocking the distribution of condoms to Africa and so forth). I have no problem with someone being religious, and am actually intrigued as to what compels them to their faith. Not so I can dissuade them from it, but because I think it speaks to a core need in ourselves, something V addresses when she says:
I, myself, have not been able to claim belief in a higher power for many, many years. However, I can still see the value in Religion. Perhaps growing up without a strong parental figure in my life made me recognize the possible value of a loving Father figure up in the sky watching out for me. And hey, I try my best not forget that sometimes we all need something to believe in.
So, I get it-I accept that faith in a higher power is an almost intrinsic characteristic of humanity. Hell, I often wish I could feel what religious people feel. That confidence, that peace which must accompany an unwavering belief in something bigger than us, with a plan for all of us, a glorified father figure who wants us all to be happy (despite plagues, famine war, and so on). I really do wish I could believe that. But too many things don't add up and I can't bring myself to believe (I won't go into the details here, you probably know them all by now).

Later on, V gets somewhat personal in her attacks, and pushes her stereotype further:
Most Atheists have the tendency to thumb their noses at Jesus, and then log onto World of Warcraft so they can pretend to be an orc for a couple of hours. They sneer at the Bible, but have no problem playing endless hours of vampire role playing games. The message is clear. Fantasies are OK as long as they include gratuitous violence and some sort of porn.

She has now labelled the majority of atheists as basement-dwelling anti-social troglodytes (not to mention implying that being a World of Warcraft fan makes one guilty of being just that). I don't play WoW, I don't even play much in the way of computer games. I'm a Ph.D. student in Electrical and Electronic Engineering, a nerdy profession indeed, but I nonetheless have a significant social life and the social skills to match. But again, that's not the point. The point is those last two sentences.

"The message is clear. Fantasies are OK as long as they include gratuitous violence and some sort of porn," she says smugly and-dare I say it-rather snobbishly. Putting aside the inherent superiority she touts over the 8.5 million people with the audacity to enjoy an online game, it is here that she shows her lack of comprehension. Because the message is clear, she just didn't read it right; the message is this: "Fantasies are OK, as long as everyone knows they're fantasies, and nobody tried to work them into broader life and legislation and as long as they do no harm". Nobody credible, or with any authority, believes that World of Warcraft is factual, and nobody proposes laws requiring that children be equipped with a helmet of +5 protection when leaving the house.

See, this is the main bone of contention amongst the atheists, to the extent that we can all agree on something: religion isn't science. Creationism has become one of the core battlegrounds in the brewing religious furor between the believers and we godless heathens. I have no real problem with people choosing to believe that the earth was created in seven days by an omnipotent deity. I think it's a little crazy, but I believe in their right to believe in crazy things. What bothers me is when school boards in Kansas vote to teach Intelligent Design (a thinly-veiled code-word for Creationism) in schools. What bothers me is when I get told I'm inferior and damned to an eternity of hellfire and torture because I don't believe. What bothers me is when religion gets in the way of common sense, ultimately causing harm. In short, what bothers me is the zealots, the religious extremists.

But you know what? I don't think all Christians are like this. In fact, I don't think the overwhelming majority of Christians are like this. While we're at it, I don't think the majority of Muslims are suicide bombers in waiting. I think, regardless of the religion, that the majority of the people who practise said religion are decent, moderate, often intelligent people who happen to believe something I don't. And you know what? It would be categorically wrong of me to classify all Christians as bible-thumping, evolution-denying wacknuts. But those are the ones that get the media attention; it is those squeaky wheels that get the grease and therefore many people castigate all Christians for the outlandish actions of a vocal few. And people who do paint with this broad are brush are shortsighted and quick to judgement. So why is it OK to paint all atheists with the same broad brush?

Most atheists are decent, moderate, often intelligent people. We are well-intentioned and tolerant, we work we play and we socialise. We just happen to not believe in something that religious people do. But you know what-the wacknuts, the extremists, the ones who are not just non-religious, but who are actively against religion in all its forms, and are on some misguided quest to annihilate it? They're the ones who get the attention; they're the ones you remember. But someone as smart as V should know better, should look beyond that and realise they are the vocal minority. They are the atheistic equivalent to the Creation-preaching Kansas extremist Christians, they are the atheistic equivalent to Al-Qaeda (only less well-armed and well-funded). Their reaction is natural-when confronted with a strong, vocal minority, it makes some sense to react with equal fervour, but they do the rest of us a disservice because otherwise-right-thinking people like V are misled by that very fervour into believing we're all extremist atheists. And we're just not.

V, if you somehow read this, I hope you will realise that your post describes a mere minority of atheists, albeit those you're most likely to notice and remember. Just don't make the same foibles they do, by blaming the many for the extreme actions of the few. That's ill-informed, myopic and-to be brutally honest-a little bit snobby.

"It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it."
-Albert Einstein.

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