Slate has an article by Paul Bloom on why religious people are nice and atheists are mean. As you might guess, I have some difficulty with the premise of the article — in my experience, atheists have been far friendlier, while the religious have been downright vicious — but it does make some interesting points (and, of course, it cites me as “prominent”, which is very flattering).
In particular, his main argument, which I entirely agree with, is that if religion has any virtue, it is not in the belief itself, but in the community that forms around it.
The positive effect of religion in the real world, to my mind, is tied to this last, community component–rather than a belief in constant surveillance by a higher power. Humans are social beings, and we are happier, and better, when connected to others. This is the moral of sociologist Robert Putnam’s work on American life. In Bowling Alone, he argues that voluntary association with other people is integral to a fulfilled and productive existence–it makes us “smarter, healthier, safer, richer, and better able to govern a just and stable democracy.”
The Danes and the Swedes, despite being godless, have strong communities. In fact, Zuckerman points out that most Danes and Swedes identify themselves as Christian. They get married in church, have their babies baptized, give some of their income to the chu! rch, and feel attached to their religious community–they just don’t believe in God. Zuckerman suggests that Scandinavian Christians are a lot like American Jews, who are also highly secularized in belief and practice, have strong communal feelings, and tend to be well-behaved.
American atheists, by contrast, are often left out of community life. The studies that Brooks cites in Gross National Happiness, which find that the religious are happier and more generous then the secular, do not define religious and secular in terms of belief. They define it in terms of religious attendance. It is not hard to see how being left out of one of the dominant modes of American togetherness can have a corrosive effect on morality. As P.Z. Myers, the biologist and prominent atheist, puts it, “[S]cattered individuals who are excluded from communities do not receive the benefits of community, nor do they feel willing to contribute to the communities that exclude them.”
The sorry state of American atheists, then, may have nothing to do with their lack of religious belief. It may instead be the result of their outsider status within a highly religious country where many of their fellow citizens, including very vocal ones like Schlessinger, find them immoral and unpatriotic. Religion may not poison everything, but it deserves part of the blame for this one.
I don’t think atheists are miserable, or in a sorry state, and I do not believe our morality has been at all damaged, but I think it is important to understand that if this New Atheist movement (which is not new, yadda yadda yadda) is to increase its ability to influence the culture, being able to recognize our essential unity as a community is essential. People identify more strongly with other people than with ideas — often the ideas come along as part of the baggage.
I’ve noticed lately that some of the recent threads have contained some disparagement of certain godless groups. People are a bit concerned that I have said good things about the Communist Party, and about the Rational Response Squad. I don’t think this is right — we need to build unity and consensus. I do not agree with the Communists on most things, but I’ve talked to many, and I respect the fact that their single most common motivation is a drive for social justice. This is a good thing, and I think the wider community of godless people would do well to appreciate it. I don’t know much about the controversies people have mentioned behind the RRS, but I respect their passion and willingness to stick their necks out boldly. I also think this is a good thing.
One of the essentials of community building is the construction of principles of tolerance. We don’t have to agree with each other on everything, nor can we, and as we all know, freethinkers are going to be especially diverse and fractious. Learn to take the best that each subset of us offers — you do not have to swallow all of the Communist party line to see that some of what they say is useful. You do not have to be a member of the RRS to see that we share some common goals, and that we can work together. Heck, there are Christians who share some of our goals (secular government, religious liberty, good science education, and so forth), and we can and must work together with them. And at the same time, as skeptics and science-minded people, the principles of tolerance we adopt are going to have to include frank disagreement and criticism of ourselves and others. That should be a central part of who we are, that we do not muzzle our ideas and that we can go up to our fellow atheists and say, “you’re wrong” on just about anything, but without simultaneously implying that they’re going to be ostracized from the community.
Demanding godless purity would mean that there could never be a godless community, so get used to it.
And as Bloom says and I’ve said before, we are social animals and community is essential for our health and happiness. What can kill atheism best is if we refuse to make accommodations to build a true Interessengemeinschaft, a fellowship of interests, a community of godless folk dedicated to living rational lives. A fractured group of hermits and misfits can not change the world.
That said, I do confess that some of the commenters in the Pharyngula community do stretch my ability to tolerate…but I try. We all have to if this budding experiment is going to survive.