AtheismCritical ThinkingCultureReligion

I’ve Got Your “Intellectual Snobbery” Right Here

I generally love The Atlantic, but they really shit the bed with me today with this nonsense about “conspicuous atheism.”

The problem is, the “culture war” is a false construct created by politicians and public intellectuals, left and right. The state of faith in the world is much grayer, much humbler, and much less divided than atheist academics and preaching politicians claim. Especially in the U.S., social conservatives are often called out in the media for reifying and inflaming this cultural divide: The rhetoric of once and future White House hopefuls like Rick SantorumSarah Palin, and Bobby Jindalreinforces an “us” and “them” distinction between those with faith and those without. Knowing God helps them live and legislate in the “right” way, they say.

But vocal atheists reinforce this binary of Godly vs. godless, too—the argument is just not as obvious. Theirs is a subtle assertion: Believers aren’t educated or thoughtful enough to debunk God, and if they only knew more, rational evidence would surely offset faith.

This prim baloney drives me crazy. I’ve seen this same article, in essence, with the same EXACT arguments, over and over and over, and it’s always just this devoid of content. Essentially, it’s a “both sides” argument festooned with a lot of straw men–you know, some of us just don’t believe because we don’t, not because we’re on some crusade about it or because we’re obsessed with being smarter than everyone else. Statistics indeed show that religious belief often decreases as education increases, especially in the sciences and at postgraduate levels, and there are lots of factors involved in that correlation beyond “oh, you think you’re so smart,” yet this article doesn’t even address it. I know it’s tough to take, but sometimes things get popular with educated people because they are true, or because they are supported by more evidence, or because they make the most sense. Not always, but sometimes, and calling it “snobbery” instead of engaging with the actual content is nothing but nonsequitur, of the ad hominem variety.

The article discusses the book The Age of Atheists by Peter Watson as its example of shameful snobby conspicuous atheism:

Watson tells stories of famous thinkers and artists who have struggled to reconcile themselves to a godless world. And these are helpful, in that they offer insight into how dynamic, creative people have tried to live. But that doesn’t mean the average believer’s search for meaning and understanding is any less rigorous or valuable—it just ends with a different conclusion: that God exists. Watson implies that full engagement with the project of being human in the modern world leads to atheism, and that’s just not true.

We know it’s not true because the vast majority of the world still believes in God or some sort higher power.

And then, as you no doubt could have predicted, the author launches into a lovely argument from popularity, with all those familiar numbers about how many people in the world self-identify as believers. It must have some truth value because lots of people believe it. (Sigh.) And “God exists” is “just a different conclusion.” Which points to the most egregious problem with this kind of piece, that these chastisements about snobbery and smartypantsedness never address the question we all should be asking, which is how can we find out WHAT IS ACTUALLY TRUE. They talk all around “dogma” and “intellectual snobbery” and “humility” and a lot of deferrals and euphemisms and never, ever do they suggest that maybe the important thing about big questions is trying to answer them.

Oh, and “conspicuous” atheism? Please. Just because I can be “out” these days and not worry too much about losing friends or worse, I should feel “conspicuous?” Like all the people around me whose cars and bodies are draped in crosses at all times, and who talk about their churches and their god and their youth group and their mission trips without ever feeling “conspicuous” because they are culturally and socially normed? This is why high school students who want an SSA chapter on their campus have so much trouble, because being an atheist and being honest about it keeps getting framed–in secular national media sources, not just by religious groups–as polemical and thus controversial by virtue of its very existence. No one levels that charge at religious systems. How dare you openly reveal your Protestantism! You’re just trying to rub it in the Catholics’ faces, with your Reformation that you think makes you so much smarter! Why do you have to be so conspicuous and snotty?

Be better, Atlantic.

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DrShell is an Associate Professor of English at a small liberal arts college. She teaches world literature, composition, popular culture, and speculative fiction and serves as faculty sponsor for the Secular Student Alliance. DrShell lives in tame suburbia with her husband and son and a pack of rescued pets, where she spends a lot of time running, taking Body Pump classes, and thinking about getting another tattoo.

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