Sunday, December 24, 2006

Atheists as an oppressed minority

Sam Harris, one of the most outspoken defenders of atheism, works hard to explain his position. He doesn't always speak to the real issues that the religious struggle with. (See, for example, my posts on arguing about religion and anthropocentrism.) But I think he does attempt to deal with the issues he discusses in a thoughtful way. His latest, 10 myths—and 10 truths—about atheism, is an article in the LA Times, which he has reprinted on his own website. I think it's worth reading.

My favorite line, although one that some religious people may find offensive (tell me if you do or don't), is the following quotation from historian Stephen Henry Roberts (1901-71) of the University of Sydney, Australia. (Picture to the right.) When talking to a religious friend, Roberts once said:
I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.
The cleverness of the preceding notwithstanding, atheism is not doing very well — especially in this country. Harris' article attempts to confront that fact.
Atheists are often imagined to be intolerant, immoral, depressed, blind to the beauty of nature and dogmatically closed to evidence of the supernatural.

Even John Locke, one of the great patriarchs of the Enlightenment, believed that atheism was “not at all to be tolerated” because, he said, “promises, covenants and oaths, which are the bonds of human societies, can have no hold upon an atheist.”

That was more than 300 years ago. But in the United States today, little seems to have changed. A remarkable 87% of the population claims “never to doubt” the existence of God; fewer than 10% identify themselves as atheists — and their reputation appears to be deteriorating.
Although most intellectually honest religious people don't believe that atheists are by nature intolerant, immoral, etc., it's worth watching how Harris answers these charges.

Harris is really fighting two battles. On one front he argues that religion is a danger to society and that we would be better off without it. On the other he is fighting the defensive battle against the view that atheists are morally corrupt and generally unacceptable to much of society. As Harris says,
[atheism] has acquired such an extraordinary stigma in the United States that being an atheist is now a perfect impediment to a career in politics (in a way that being black, Muslim or homosexual is not).
I wonder how different we as a society would feel if atheism were as socially acceptable as faith.

One doesn't have to argue against religion to argue for tolerance of atheism — although Harris might claim that most religion is incompatible with tolerance of atheism. In the current atheism vs. religion debate, I'd like to see some prominent religious spokespeople argue for tolerance of atheism.

It might make more strategic sense for Harris to fight for tolerance of atheism (just as other oppressed minorities have argued for tolerance) than to focus on attacking religion. Not only would this challenge people in a more acceptable way, it would also force them to think through their own convictions. Pushing people to defend their convictions against his challenges produces defensiveness rather than self-awareness. Asking religious people to speak out in favor of tolerance is more likely to produce self-awareness on their part.

Just as people had to become personally aware of the prejudices they harbored against other oppressed groups before they could rid themselves of those prejudices, the same is true for their anti-atheism prejudices. The most important task is to create a climate in which people will examine their own beliefs with openness and honesty.

It seems to me that the struggle that will almost certainly ensure among the devout when they are confronted with the request to express tolerance for atheists will have a much more beneficial effect than any argument that Harris can mount.


nobody said...

About that quote, Christians believe in their god and not other ones because of faith, belief in something without the means to prove it. If according to that quote, atheists use the same reasoning about the non-existence of any god, then that means they also rely on a kind of "faith" - a claim that assuredly will offend some atheists.

Blue said...

The implication of the quote in the context of the previous comment is that since most people believe in their gods because of faith, how can anyone claim that their faith is more worthy than anyone else's faith?

Or are you saying that all faith is equivalent and that all gods are similarly equivalent and that therefore the god you believe in is no better or worse than the god others believe in?

Blue said...

For a scientist arguing that the coincidences of the basic physical constants are so unlikely that one is pushed to suppose that there must be a God to explain them, see this lecture by David Kingston.