If you want to see a gratuitous piece of accommodationism, one that manages to avoid every substantive issue that divides believer from nonbeliever, read a new piece in The Atlantic by associate editor Emma Green, “The intellectual snobbery of conspicuous atheism.” Its whole point is to bash atheists for being haughty and effete, buttressed by the confidence that we’re better than everyone else. In the process, Green argues that there is no culture war going on—at least not one between religionists and unbelievers—and that atheism isn’t making any headway because the bulk of the world is still religious. In truth, her piece is nothing but prejudice and unevidenced personal opinion, lacking any substantive arguments. She just doesn’t like atheists, ignores their arguments against God, and in the end adheres to the famous xkcd cartoon about “feeling superior to both.” In fact, it is Green who winds up looking like an intellectual snob.
Here are Green’s three claims, which she proffers while reviewing the book The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God by Peter Watson (she gives a mixed review to the book but largely ignores it).
1. We’re snobs. Here’s what Green says about that:
This [a quote from Adam Gopnik saying that unbelievers have a "monopoly on legitimate forms of knowledge"] is a perfect summary of the intellectual claim of those who set out to prove that God is dead and religion is false: Atheists have legitimate knowledge, and those who believe do not. This is the epistemological assumption looming in the so-called “culture war” between the caricatures of godless liberals and Bible-thumping conservatives in America: One group wields rational argumentation and intellectual history as an indictment of God, while the other looks to tradition and text as defenses against modernity’s encroachment on religious life.
Note how she characterizes the disagreement: one side has “rational argument and intellectual history” and the other has “tradition and text.” First of all, atheists have not only rational argument, but a lack of evidence for god, as well as good counterarguments against many conceptions of God (the argument for natural evil, for example, does not comport with the omnibenevolent, omniscient, and omnipotent Abrahamic god). And who the hell cares about “intellectual history,” since we never use that as an argument against beliefs? For crying out loud, most of intellectual history is sodden with religious belief. But note as well that instead of citing “superstition, revelation, and faith” as the weapons of religionists, she mentions “tradition and text,” which almost sounds respectable. In fact, the war is between faith and superstition on one side and rationalism and evidence on the other. Period. “Tradition and text” are not substitutes for evidence.
But Green goes on:
. . . And this is where the intellectual snobbery comes in: Watson assumes that because a group of smart, respected, insightful people thought and felt their way out of believing in God, everyone else should, too. Because intellectual history trends toward non-belief, human history must, too.
This is problematic for several reasons. For one thing, it suggests that believers are inherently less thoughtful than non-believers. 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.
Ever ever there was a straw man, this is one. First of all, yes, many of us do believe that human history is trending toward nonbelief. All the data show that. And yes, most of us feel that the world would be better off without religion. But we have good reasons for that, including the lack of evidence for religion’s foundational beliefs (including the disparate beliefs of different faiths), and the numerous harms that religion continues to incite.
As for whether believers are “inherently less thoughtful than nonbelievers,” Green is conflating a difference of belief about God (with one side’s views based on evidence—or the lack thereof—and the other’s on faith), with a general pronouncement about intellectual superiority. And yes, the average believer’s search for meaning and understanding is surely less rigorous, for it rests not on going where the data take us, but on accepting as “data” only the things that support what you want to believe in the first place. The average believer is afflicted with confirmation bias, and that is not a rational way to figure out how to live. Indeed, most people hold the beliefs they do not out of reason, but simply because they were brought up that way.
Green could in fact make the same argument for for Bigfoot or homeopathy, or ESP, or any common superstition: there are lots of believers there, too, and we must be intellectual snobs if we flatly reject their “search for meaning.” After all, those people are just as engaged “with the project of being human” (that’s a deepity) as we are.
It is not intellectual snobbery to think that you have the better argument because you have the better reasons and the better epistomology. But if you want to play hardball, note that there is a strong correlation between education and atheism: the more educated people get, the less they believe in God. That’s just a fact, and Green can make of it what she will. I will limit myself to saying that arguing our viewpoints, and giving reasons for our nonbelief while criticizing the pathetically weak arguments for God, does not make us snobs.
Green also characterizes our argument like this:
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.
No, what we think is that if people were more rational, and less wedded to faith, they’d be less likely to be religious, but the world wouldn’t magically turn into Denmark. That’s because rational argument only goes so far in dispelling religion. I’ve often argued—with lots of evidence to back me up—that religiosity is largely a product of social dysfunction. The most dysfunctional societies are the most religious, and there’s evidence that the former causes the latter rather than vice versa. Marx was right in characterizing religion as the sigh of the oppressed masses, and if we want to get rid of it, we must first recognize and dismantle the aspects of society that breed religiosity. Happily, those happen to be the very things that most of us want to eliminate anyway: gross income inequality, a lack of government medical care, societies that don’t take care of their aged and sick citizens, and so on.
2. There is no culture war involving religion.
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 Santorum, Sarah Palin, and Bobby Jindal reinforces 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.
. . . Most people form their beliefs and live their lives somewhere in the middle of the so-called “culture divide” that outspoken atheists and believers shout across. The more these shouters shout, the more public discourse veers away from the subtle struggle of the average person’s attempt to be human.
If ever there was a culture war, it’s not between the science and the humanities, but between unbelievers and religionists. If there isn’t, why are the New Atheists going after religion so hard, and why are theologians and faitheists writing dozens of books attacking New Atheism? The divide between atheists and believers is not artificial, but real—and strong. 70% of Americans definitely believe in a God or supreme being and 67.5% in a personal God who “concerns himself with every human being personally. ” According to a 2013 Harris poll, 66% of Americans are absolutely certain there’s a God, and 12% are “somewhat certain.”. Only 12% are “not sure”, with the rest being somewhat certain there’s no god (5%) or absolutely certain (6%) that there is no God. That’s polarization!
True, many religionists are not as extreme in their social views as Santorum or Palin, but there’s a difference between the concept of an overall culture war and a culture war about the existence of God. These are conflated by Green, who doesn’t seem to be thinking too hard anyway.
3. Religion is pervasive so atheism won’t win. I quoted Green above as saying this: “Watson implies that full engagement with the project of being human in the modern world leads to atheism, and that’s just not true.”
Why isn’t it true? Here’s Green’s Big Argument: because religion is ubiquitous in the world. I quote her argument, which to me has overtones of “Nyah nyah nyah: you atheists can’t win because there are so many believers”:
We know it’s not true because the vast majority of the world believes in God or some sort higher power. Worldwide, religious belief and observance vary widely by region. It’s tough to get a fully accurate global picture of faith in God or a “higher power,” but the metric of religiosity serves as a helpful proxy. Only 16 percent of the world’s population was not affiliated with a particular faith as of 2010, although many of these people believe in God or a spiritual deity, according to the Pew Research Center. More than three-fourths of the religiously unaffiliated live in the Asia-Pacific region, with a majority (62 percent) living in China. In other regions, the percentage of those who say they have no religious affiliation are much smaller: 7.7 percent in Latin America; 3.2 percent in sub-Saharan Africa; 0.6 percent in the Middle East.
If the age of atheism started in 1882, most people still haven’t caught on.
Arguably, Watson wasn’t writing for the whole world—he stuck to Western thinkers and artists. But even if we focus on Europe and North America, his implicit argument isn’t supported by statistics. Eighteen percent of Europeans are religiously unaffiliated, but again, many of those people believe in God—30 percent of unaffiliated French people do, for example. And even though Christianity is growing fastest in Latin America and sub-Saharan African, as of 2010, Europe was still home to a quarter of the world’s Christians—the largest population in the world.
In America, which sociologists often describe as a uniquely religious country compared with the rest of the Western world, a vast majority of people have faith. According to Pew, 86 percent of Millennials, or people aged 18-33, say they believe in God, and 94 percent of people 34 and older say the same. It’s true that a growing group say they’re “not certain” about this belief, and it’s also true that affiliation with formal religious institutions is declining. But in terms of pure belief, self-described atheists and agnostics are a small minority, making up only six percent of the population.
What Green fails to absorb, but actually alludes to, is that religion is declining in most parts of the world, and certainly in the U.S. and Europe. Further, the world is far less religious today than it was a few centuries ago. In Europe until about the 18th century, it was unthinkable to not be religious. You’d be killed at the worst, an apostate like Spinoza at best. Now there is no penalty (except in some Islamic countries) for unbelief, and many people are atheists and agnostics—probably far more than admit it.
Green is remarkably obtuse here as she is throughout her piece. Just because change is slow does not mean that the “project of being human in the world” (whatever that means) doesn’t lead to atheism. Slow change is not no change. One could just as easily say that the “project of being human in the modern world” won’t lead to women’s equality, because women are still second-class citizens in most of the world.