Atheists are the least trusted minority in America, according to a University of Minnesota study (funded by an org called the David Edelstein Family Foundation – no URL for them that I can find – as part of their American Mosaic Project).
Now, I have no opinion on the existence or non-existence of God – the claim that God doesn’t exist seems to me to be just as unprovable as the claim that he does – but this strikes me as problematic. I don’t want faith eradicated as badly as evolutionist Richard Dawkins does, although I’m more sympathetic to his cause these days after reading neurobiologist Sam Harris’ The End Of Faith (on which more in a sec). What I want eradicated is the strict-father moral model that grew out of faith, and the totalitarianism that operates on the same principles as faith. So, I’m not directly concerned with the direct concern of atheists. What I’m concerned about are what I think are the real roots of the distrust.
I’ve written in this space before about the visceral, unconscious reactions we have against people who do too much thinking. A lot of atheists are very serious about reason, and there’s probably some overlap between them and folks who’re, you know, very serious about minutiae, argumentativeness, and quoting Monty Python. But that isn’t even my point. My point is much more basic to any reasonable person.
And that’s this: we know that emotion precedes reason. Before we get to have any other processing, the ol’ amygdala kicks in. We know this; insofar as we trust neurobiology at all, we can trust this. Yet even End of Faith author Sam Harris, himself a neurobiologist, can’t seem to bring himself to remember that religious moderates (ostensibly the people whom he wants to persuade) might – sorry, that’s will – bring their emotions to bear. He can’t seem to stop himself from throwing in little bits that sound snide, that get a little caught up in pique, that drive home the ridiculousness of things just a little too hard. You don’t make friends, or influence people, that way. (So many people, in progressive causes of all kinds, need to read that book. By which I mean How to Win Friends and Influence People, not The End of Faith, although that’s good too – much better than the Dawkins documentary, from what I’ve seen.) You just come off as a joke yourself, replacing the preacher’s shouts of “God!” with the same exclamation, “God!”, as sneered to the side by Napoleon Dynamite.
I mean, this can’t possibly be a hard one, can it? You’ve just met someone who has always believed that when they die they’ll be reunited with all their lost loved ones in heaven, and you’ve told them, “uh, yeah, dude, ain’t gonna happen,” as dismissively as that. Of course they’re going to hate you. Not just for the obvious reasons of love and death and loss, but for all the same reasons that Smurf Village, one of the most perfect and peaceful places ever conceived in children’s fiction, regularly threw its professed intellectual out on his fucking head.
You know? You’d think that the modern-day cult of reason would have the presence of mind to get a little more pragmatic than that. You’d think we’d at least try to create some understanding. But most of us in the atheist camp have an emotional investment in being smarter than other people. We’ve been tossed out of the village on our heads more than once. Too many of us have got something to prove. And emotion precedes reason, even in the most allegedly reasonable.