Branding ourselves as the opposition
The last blog in this four-part series centered on why the word “Atheist” lugs with it a plethora of negative stereotypes. In this blog, I focus on one of the most politically debilitating – that all Atheists are against religion and other inexplicable phenomena.
Although the word “Atheist” merely means “without god,” the culturally entrenched stereotype that we want to do away with all religion and other supernatural claims will probably outlive the youngest of Atheist activists. For this reason, by naming ourselves as the opposition, we are jumping with “both feet” into a “trap deliberately set for us,” says Sam Harris in his revelational “Dangers” of “Atheism” YouTube talk.
Why does a label that implies we are against religion handicap us even when we feel we are only being reasonable and reality-based? There are a variety of reasons ranging from politically pesky to politically incapacitating. Starting with the weaker reasons, although atheism is not a philosophy or a worldview people attack it as such and “consenting to be thought of as a marginal interest group” or a “cranky subculture,” says Harris.
As a blogger for The Guardian put in “I don't believe in God, so why is it that I don't want to be labeled an [A]theist?” He says the definition of “Atheist” belongs to the “same dull category as 'non-driver' or 'ex-smoker'...There are so many richer and more positive ways” one can summarize themselves, rather than the “scorning ring of ‘Atheist.’”
Another problem, Harris notes, is that we must seem to oppose all faith claims – a waste of time and squandering of resources in a “myth-infatuated” world.
Many people have had experiences identical to scientific awe and aesthetic appreciation or believe they have experienced what appears to be psychic phenomena and attribute these to “something” (read: supernatural) out there. Others believe religion grounds you or gives you good morals, that the soul lives on since matter can neither be created nor destroyed (a physics law), or that the principles of physics and math are so perfect they must come from a “higher power.
Add to this near death experiences like floating out of one’s body and seeing a bright light at the end of a tunnel. Many people don't realize there are neurophysiological explanations, including oxygen deprivation, for such universal phenomena, leading them to believe in god(s) and other mystical events.
There is a host of scientific reasons related to survival that evolutionary biologists say prime the brain for belief in the supernatural (please see Why We Believe in God(s) by Clare Aukofer for more information on this topic). Most people aren't aware of the science behind mystical-seeming occurrences, which makes them incomprehensible on a rational level.
Harris says these unexplainable and often transformative moments can count among our most “significant life experiences.” To discount them is a “monumental task” and “makes us look less wise than even our craziest religious opponents.” Why? Because most people, even fanatical Christians, think they are extremely reasonable – after all, continues Harris, “no one wants to believe things on bad evidence.”
Naming ourselves in opposition also feeds into the “war on Christians” meme, which provokes sympathy for them and their causes. Another advantage it gives them is nothing unites better than a common enemy. This gives fundamentalist Christians stronger numbers in which to do their damage against women’s and LGBT rights, injecting “intelligent design”/creationism in the schools, hampering efforts at stem cell research and climate change mitigation, etc.
These are among the reasons why choosing a name that implies opposition to religion and notions involving the supernatural is not really a goal many people can relate to or want to invest time and money into. Harris notes racism is going away but not because people called themselves “nonracists."
Identifying ourselves with something positive like upholding and rebuilding our constitutional First Amendment rights to secular government is something that plays on – rather than violates – people’s tendency to see the world optimistically. Optimism, according to evolutionary biologists, is innate because it helped early humans to survive.
How I long for the day when the name of our political party will strike a more optimistic chord among both those who support us and those who differ, so that when I bemoan that religious tax privileging funnels away money from much-needed social programs the response I evoke from my minster friend will be more something more substantive than the usual dismissive “Meow!”