Wanted: Them damned atheists!

James Ishmael Ford Headshot
Posted: 01/02/2014 2:12 pm EST Updated: 03/04/2014 5:59 am EST

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There’s a recent essay making the rounds in my part of the Facebook world, where the author reveals that atheists are educated elites who can afford to indulge their belief — or probably it’s more accurate to say non-belief — and are absolute jerks for saying out loud what a lot of people fear might be true: There is no God.

Their unpleasant character is taken as evidence of something. What that something is, appears obvious to me.

According to a Pew study half of Americans say they would never vote for a qualified candidate from their political party if that person were an atheist. According to another study conducted by the University of Minnesota, the most hated group of people in America are atheists; nearly half of Americans would disapprove of their child marrying an atheist. The authors of the study observed the communal antipathy to atheists is “a glaring exception to the rule of increasing tolerance over the last 30 years.”

This antipathy cuts across social and political lines. Forty-two percent of Republicans and 36 percent of Democrats do not believe atheists represent American values. Ironically 17 percent of Americans who do not go to church think that atheists do not share their values.

So, attacking atheists has no cost.

Want to feel better than someone else? Go for the atheists.

People will cheer.

So, that’s one thing that really bothers me about the essay and other comments such as I see now and again.

But there was something else in that essay that hangs like rotten fruit:

There’s another current in our American culture that runs deep and is seriously problematic, probably even the worm that will eventually lead to the fall of the American empire: We are profoundly anti-intellectual.

The principal argument presented in the essay was essentially that atheists are educated. And the privilege of being educated invalidates their position. It is interesting in that anti-intellectualism is now being dressed up as a class issue. This is aimed at, I assume, or at least justified mainly because of the New Atheists — people particularly reviled for their take-no-prisoners pointing to what they see as the emperor’s lack of clothing. This takedown isn’t an argument: It is a rhetorical device, playing into our deep-seated cultural antipathies. And it ain’t pretty.

Of course, it doesn’t take wide reading and leisure time to suspect there’s something wrong with the received story of deities and souls. People in every circumstance have noticed this, the origin of the old term and canard, “village atheist.”

But these folk are a pretty small part of our culture. Most of us fall into line. Whatever our educational level, we just accept the received version.

Along with the baseline anti-intellectualism here, there’s something else in the accompanying line, that only the privileged can “afford” unbelief. Meaning what, precisely? That if you’re poor, all you have is a promise of a better afterlife? And shame on those who will take that small cold comfort?

From soup to nuts this is pretty unpleasant stuff.

Here’s what I have to say:

The atheist position is pretty easy to defend. The New Atheists whatever their style, and how few their number, show that.

If you think you have a counterargument, make it.

If you don’t want to play, don’t.

But don’t pretend faith comes as higher moral ground. And that atheists are bad people. Near as I can tell there is no particular correlation between faith or unbelief and basic human decency, not even particularly with one’s formal education.

But there is the madness of crowds. And there is scapegoating. There is the majority silencing the minority. Watching how the overwhelming majority faithful treat the tiny minority atheists says a whole lot about that.

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