Atheistphobia

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The Huffington Post reports the results of yet another study showing that atheists are the least trusted minority in the world. This study also suggests an obvious explanation of why this is the case-

One motivation for the research was a Gallup poll that found that only 45 percent of American respondents would vote for a qualified atheist president, says Norenzayan. The figure was the lowest among several hypothetical minority candidates. Poll respondents rated atheists as the group that least agrees with their vision of America, and that they would most disapprove of their children marrying.

The religious behaviors of others may provide believers with important social cues, the researchers say. “Outward displays of belief in God may be viewed as a proxy for trustworthiness, particularly by religious believers who think that people behave better if they feel that God is watching them,” says Norenzayan. “While atheists may see their disbelief as a private matter on a metaphysical issue, believers may consider atheists’ absence of belief as a public threat to cooperation and honesty.”

It does stand to reason that a fear of God might cause some people to behave better than they otherwise would, and hence that lack of belief in God might cause these very same people to behave badly. But that the fear of atheism is nevertheless an irrational phobia follows from a simple corollary: if atheists actually were untrustworthy (and hence deceptive), they would likely not declare themselves to be atheists (since a deceiver surely wishes not to be recognized as such). Indeed, atheists would likely disguise their atheism by pretending to be the most ardent of believers! So it seems that, on this basis, if believers should distrust anyone, it is their fellow believers.

Of course, the idea that belief in a supernatural being is either a necessary or sufficient condition of moral behavior is so obviously false that it is hardly worth raising any of the myriad counterexamples. But it seems to me that there is another reason, besides the one mentioned above, for distrusting believers more than self-professed atheists. It is this: a believer can view behaving immorally as a nihilistic – or even courageous – act of rebellion (as adolescents do when disregarding their long-standing fear of their parents). By contrast, an atheist must view similarly bad behavior as little more than mundane self-indulgance, or petty selfishness. Even if she conceives of her immorality as a rebellion against social norms, this can hardly compete with the truly grandiose notion of disobeying the orders of a transcendent being. So there seems to be an independent reason to be more concerned with the potential immorality of believers than with that of atheists.

Now, I’m not suggesting here that atheists are necessarily any less immoral than believers; they are susceptible to the same temptations as anyone else. And, as believers are fond of pointing out, secular dogmas (such as Stalinism or Naziism) can be at least as damaging as traditional religious ones. But it does seem to me that a moral theory arrived at by the voluntary exercise of one’s rationality is likely to be just as reliable – if not more so – as one based merely on religious faith, particularly when that faith is only half-hearted (as it often is when it is simply inherited as a family tradition). The bottom line is that trust should be bestowed on or withheld from a person based on their actual behaviors, not their professed attitudes towards a theistic God.

3 thoughts on “Atheistphobia

  1. “if atheists actually were untrustworthy (and hence deceptive), they would likely not declare themselves to be atheists (since a deceiver surely wishes not to be recognized as such).”

    This is based on the assumption that atheists are generally aware of the mistrust that most of the population has toward them, and that it would be instrumentally beneficial for them to go about deceiving the religious. The former isn’t a platitudinous truth about atheists (unlike say, con-artists) and neither is the latter (again, unlike con-artists).

    Rather what can be established in terms of the irrationality of the theist’s atheism distrust is that the theist can’t see much reason to be moral other than it being entailed by having religious beliefs. If moral behaviour is absent otherwise then it is perhaps arguable that the average religious person doesn’t desire morality for its own sake, or has a derived concern for morality, or that they only deem morality instrumental for whatever is the central tenets of their particular religious practice. This is understandable insofar as what is required morally for most religions is required because a supreme being commands it, on pain of some form of punishment, spiritual or real.

    As soon as one ‘pulls out the rug’ (i.e. questions the existence of the supreme being issuing those commands) from underneath the tenets of that particular moral system, the justification is lost (whether this was a post-hoc justification for something that existed long before or not) and once justification is completely lost for some system of belief it stands to reason that most people will seek an alternative.

    The question this raises is whether people are grasping to the religion to support the morality, or grasping to the morality to support the religion. If the former, then the threat the theist feels from the atheist is irrational, insofar as one ought not deny the antecedent. If the latter, the worry they feel from that threat may be rational after all, since what is fundamental to them is arguably the religious beliefs. I think most decent people would agree that even if God turned out to not exist, they would still want to be moral to one another. As such I think it should be the role of education to sway the theist to the former perspective, rather than the latter, insofar as this makes for moral people, not fundamentalists.

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Andrew. Just a couple of thoughts. You write-

    “This is based on the assumption that atheists are generally aware of the mistrust that most of the population has toward them, and that it would be instrumentally beneficial for them to go about deceiving the religious. The former isn’t a platitudinous truth about atheists (unlike say, con-artists) and neither is the latter (again, unlike con-artists).”

    I agree that my assumptions are not platitudinous truths, but they are nevertheless highly probable hypotheses: regarding the former, most atheists I know are reluctant to admit their atheism publicly, particularly to strangers. As for the latter, remember that I am characterizing what the believer should believe about atheists, not what atheists should believe about themselves. To the extent that believers view atheists as morally bankrupt, or likely evil, consistency seems to demand that they also view them as likely to hide their (supposed) lack of morals in order to take advantage of them.

    In any case, I certainly don’t disagree with you that many believers fear atheists primarily because their own religious beliefs lack justification; such beliefs are a house of cards that must be protected against the slightest breeze of doubt. On the other hand, the most enthralled believers probably feel only sadness and perhaps compassion for atheists (although they still pray that their children don’t marry them), but reaching such a relatively secure level of faith is rare.

    I’m not sure that I understand your last paragraph; perhaps you could clarify it?

    By the way, while I know of no argument that gives a rational basis to theistic belief, I don’t discount the possibility that someone could have a (“mystical”) experience that would make it somewhat reasonable for them to believe. I also cut religions some slack insofar as they help people with shaky moral foundations (be they instinctual, sentimental, or rational) to act well. So my view of religion is less negative than my defense of atheism might suggest. Religious beliefs may be irrational, but they often underlie fairly decent sets of values. I would prefer that people recognize that ultimate values are never entailed by beliefs – holding any intrinsic value is, in its own way, an act of faith from a rational perspective. But lacking that insight (which may follow only from the achievement of what Sartre called “authenticity”, a notoriously difficult state to maintain), adopting a religion may be the best that at least some people can do.

  3. Andrew,

    I am a little confused about that last paragraph as well. Denying the antecedent is an invalid form of argument that begins with a conditional. Can you clarify what the argument is?

    Noah

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