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September 20, 2007, 8:27 AM

Humans are communal creatures, and we have been ever since we roamed the African savannas. Our greatest evolutionary advantage is our intelligence, but even the world's greatest genius would probably find that to be little help if forced to survive in total isolation. Intelligence is inherently a social adaptation; it works best among groups that can share ideas, pass down knowledge, and brainstorm solutions to problems.

Since we have always lived in clans and tribes, it's not surprising that the decisions of those around us exert such a potent pull on our own process of reasoning. As the Asch conformity experiment showed, humans are in a sense designed to go along with the group. When every member of your tribe is going one way, your brain is set up to believe they all probably know something you don't. Conversely, the rare individuals who resist peer pressure and defy the group consensus are likely to attract angry reactions.

Nowhere is this peer pressure more evident than in religion. People often seem incredulous, even angry when an atheist answers the question "What religion are you?" with a cheery "None of the above, thanks" - as if the mere existence of atheism was a personal affront to believers.

I don't find it at all surprising that a declaration of nonbelief is often met with such hostility. After all, religion is based on faith, not facts, and nothing is more threatening to a faith-based consensus than reasonable dissent. Even though evidence is lacking, believers can persuade themselves that they are in the right simply by banding together to reassure one another, only listening to each other's supportive voices. But the mere existence of dissent threatens to undermine this herd mentality and bring unwelcome rays of reason spearing into the darkness of conformity. It forces them to think about the possibility of error, which they would otherwise not have had to confront, and realize just how fragile their groupthink consensus may be. It's no surprise, then, that the less persuasive the evidence is, the shriller and more insistent the voices demanding conformity will always be.

But the angry demands to conform take their toll in the opposite direction as well. People naturally seek to be part of an in-group, a community of like-minded individuals where they can fit in and be welcomed. When the overwhelming majority of society is religious, that can be very difficult, and the fatigue of resisting can begin to take its toll. That's why, if we're not to abandon our principles, we need to hold firm in the face of peer pressure - even practice doing so. Like many other things, this is a skill that can be learned and reinforced through practice.

This is why I believe atheists should always speak their minds whenever it is practical. By learning to express our views, even on issues that aren't necessarily important, we break down the harmful habit of self-censorship and make it more likely that we'll speak up on the issues that truly matter.

Experiencing peer pressure, however, is by no means a problem limited to atheists. It's only because we're currently in the minority that we're subjected to the brunt of it, but there's no reason why we cannot form a community of freethinkers that give us greater license to freely speak our minds and choose as we wish. And peer pressure works both ways. Consider the experience of a Christian who went to see a showing of Brian Flemming's documentary The God Who Wasn't There:

after the movie, there was a short Q&A with the director. (the first showing was followed by a panel of theologians & scholars discussing and taking questions. but we just got the director). i was expecting a range of emotions from the people who stood up to ask questions, but was surprised when the overwhelming majority said: thank you for making this film.

one man was especially memorable. he was old, gray hair and shabby pants. he was sitting right in front of me. he stood up and said, "I want to thank you for making this film. I am a son of a missionary, was raised baptist, and it took me 60 years to break free." More gratitude, more gushing.

another man made a very similar comment: "It's taken me 70 years, but I can finally say: I do not believe in God." This greeted with applause that pierced my heart and shook my insides.

i felt alone in that auditorium...close to tears and aching. ryan made the point that it was like being on the outside of an inside joke...which I imagine is how many non-christians have felt their whole lives- in a circle of believers using "churchy" terminology or when they visit a church, feeling like they don't belong, that they don't get the joke, or worse: that they are the joke.

we were the joke tonight.

The author of this piece perceptively notes that the feeling of exclusion and isolation she experienced at this gathering is very much like what many atheists feel on a daily basis. This doesn't mean that we should seek to become the majority so we can turn the tables and subject all theists to similar discrimination. But such social force, if it was at our disposal, could prove very useful in pressuring the truly intolerant and dangerous believers whose immoral views have persisted into modern times.


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