The Arrogance of Atheism?
A few weeks ago I found myself engaged in an all-too-familiar debate. She was frustrated that I was not subscribing to her idea that ‘everything happens for a reason,’ and that even tragedies are ‘meant to teach us something.’
For the most part, such statements are usually invalidated with a simple question. I asked whether or not Super Typhoon Haiyan, which devastated a large swath of the Philippines and killed over 6,000 people, was part of any sort of cosmic plan.
“Yes,” was her reply, followed by, “those deaths happened to teach the rest of us a lesson.” For the most part even the most hopeful believers usually play agnostic on the question of natural tragedies, but this one refused to lose any ground. Since admitting that the typhoon could have just been a tragic occurrence did not fit into her take on reality, she had to instead craft it to fit into her blueprint.
I've heard similar logic from astrology devotees: it works sometimes, but not always, but when it does it really works. This is the mental equivalent of creating a vision board with 30 objects and swearing that if one 'manifests,' it must have been the intention of the board, conveniently forgetting the other 29.
You know, like science.
I was admittedly stunned to hear that this woman truly thought thousands of people had to die to teach ‘us’ a lesson, especially given that she could not conjure one possible example of what that lesson was. Yet what didn’t surprise me was her notion that ‘atheism is arrogant,’ something I hear often when involved in any such conversation.
Arrogance is not reserved for the realm of the non-believing, of course. In fact, as Sam Harris noted, there exists an innumerable list of things we don’t believe in, yet none warrant a special name. Without engaging in a dialectical battle of what atheism ‘means,’ for now I’ll keep it simple: people are shocked to find out you don’t believe what they know must be true, thus earning you the title of arrogant.
To be fair, there is plenty of pompousness displayed by people of every outlook. Sometimes what is portrayed as arrogance, however, is simply someone making a larger point. Recall the recent ‘controversy’ of the Festivus display in Florida, where a pole constructed from Pabst Blue Ribbon beer cans was erected next to a nativity manger.
Since a 1997 Seinfeld episode put the invented holiday into our consciousness, Festivus became known as a comedic take on a serious topic: the commercialization of Christmas. With this year’s trend of businesses opening on Thanksgiving Day instead of Black Friday, the notion of Festivus, often written off as a joke (which it was, to some extent), points to unconscious shopping reflexes we’ve culturally developed.
Chaz Stevens’ six-foot pole in Tallahassee calls out the mindset of believers who appropriated a pagan solstice celebration as a religious ritual and think this does not contradict the separation of church and state. Underlying this ideology is the notion that a brand of religion set the foundation of this country, and while a democratic process allows for anyone to believe (or not believe) in whatever you’d like, the baseline has already been set. It must then be you who is diverging from it, regardless of direction.
And atheists, recall, are arrogant.
This supposition runs deeply in many faithful minds, originating with one clichéd question: How could you not believe? What’s ultimately frustrating about this mentality is that being an ethical person must be intertwined with a higher power. Grieving over 6,000 humans in a faraway country and donating to an organization that helps rebuild that nation takes no beliefs whatsoever. Thinking that the typhoon made landfall for a divine reason, however, does.
Perhaps next time I’m confronted with such an impossible argument I’ll remember Herb Silverman’s advice. It strikes the heart of the arrogance argument by using rationality. I’m not convinced any ground will be gained, but it’s one of the best I’ve come across in stating things as they are.
Next time you hear someone making the claim of arrogant atheism, present these statements and see which actually sounds more arrogant. You could say the second worldview is more agnostic than atheistic, but in terms of the arrogance argument, the result is the same.
Worldview 1. I know God created the entire universe just for the benefit of humans. He watches me constantly and cares about everything I say and do. I know how He wants me and everyone else to behave and believe. He is perfect and just, which is why we face an eternity of either bliss or torture, depending on whether or not we believe in Him.
Worldview 2. We’re the product of millions of years of evolution. Most species are extinct, as humans will eventually be. I hope to make a positive difference because it’s the right thing to do, not because of future rewards or punishments in an afterlife. When I don’t know something, which is often, I say, “I don’t know.”
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A guide to making difficult conversations possible—and peaceful—in an increasingly polarized nation.
- How can we reach out to people on the other side of the divide? Get to know the other person as a human being before you get to know them as a set of tribal political beliefs, says Sarah Ruger. Don't launch straight into the difficult topics—connect on a more basic level first.
- To bond, use icebreakers backed by neuroscience and psychology: Share a meal, watch some comedy, see awe-inspiring art, go on a tough hike together—sharing tribulation helps break down some of the mental barriers we have between us. Then, get down to talking, putting your humanity before your ideology.
- The Charles Koch Foundation is committed to understanding what drives intolerance and the best ways to cure it. The foundation supports interdisciplinary research to overcome intolerance, new models for peaceful interactions, and experiments that can heal fractured communities. For more information, visit charleskochfoundation.org/courageous-collaborations.
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