|The chapter on atheism is revealing.|
Atheists aren’t really jerks, but we sure can come across as jerks sometimes. I know I’ve been guilty of that. On the Internet in particular, we have a habit of being insulting, snarky, and offensive. You can review the #atheism hashtag on Twitter or Google+ for examples. Around Christmas, the American Atheists organization likes to put up mean-spirited billboards. New Atheist authors sell millions of one-sided, negative books denouncing religion. As a result of all this negativity, lots of people who don’t believe in God refuse to label themselves atheists. I’ve advised my college-age daughter to consider telling people she’s agnostic just so people don’t lump her in with the most vocal and negative atheists. Honestly, this harsh side of the community is something I’d like to see mellow out. It would be good for us in a lot of ways. This negative, combative side of atheism seems to arise from three sources. First, people are mean to us, and we often respond in kind. Second, humans are tribal, and atheists are no exception. Third, the community expresses a certain testosterone-friendly combativeness. Male atheists are the worst offenders, and the whole community is weighted toward males in its demographics and its personality. Can we achieve a less male-dominated, less tribal, more likable secular community? Let’s hope so.
Mistrust: The US populace holds a low opinion of atheists, and online we like to swap links to the latest poll or psychological study to reveal these prejudices. We’re mistrusted more than just about anyone else, infamously on par with rapists according to one study. Here in my social circle in Seattle, where politically correct tolerance for every other kind of diversity is mandatory (hurray), someone occasionally says something derogatory about us atheists. Even Oprah doesn’t like us. One famous D&D fantasy world singled out atheists for supreme punishment in its imaginary afterlife. It’s no surprise that some atheists are angry. Occasionally, an atheist comes “out of the closet” in a hail of angry Facebook posts, horrifying their extended family. The anger, of course, feeds into the mistrust in a vicious cycle. It’s the angry atheists that stand out.
Tribal Conflict: The mistrust and the revenge hate are both sustained by primeval tribal instincts. To the believers, we atheists have rejected God and in doing so we have rejected the decent society that reveres Him. Since we don’t fear divine judgment, many believers suppose we’re free to be immoral. To atheists, the atheist community is their new tribe. Like any normal in-group, we unfairly smear the opposition, considering religious people to me more homogeneous and less praiseworthy than they actually are. A subtype of atheist, the anti-theist, goes after religion with zeal that feels a bit religious itself. Again, this minority of anti-theists makes the most noise, put up mean billboards at Christmas, and make us atheists look like haters. So we’re back to people not liking us.
Verbal Combat: As if mistrust and tribalism weren’t enough, the jerk factor gets kicked up a notch because atheists are more analytical and less empathic than average (see Big Gods by Ara Norenzayan). The less empathic one is, that is the less one intuits the mental states of others, and the less likely one is to intuit a personality running the universe. The more analytical one is, the more ones sees impersonal forces at work in the world. Since men, for various reasons, tend to be more analytical and less empathic than woman, atheism is more attractive, on average, to men. But really atheism is more attractive to the person who doesn’t notice when their spouse is upset, and most of those people happen to be men. This personality profile also fits people on the autism spectrum, a predominantly male population that is over-represented among atheists. Of course, all these correlations are statistical over large populations, not definitive in any particular case. Whatever gender they may be, people who are more analytical and less empathic are the sorts of people who say mean things on the Internet more often than average. In fact, the Internet is perfect for just these people, the ones who want to operate in the realm of abstract ideas (text) rather than the world of living, feeling people. Worse, without live human interaction to moderate them, Internet debates easily spin out into escalating insults and flame wars. On atheist forums, you can even see atheists insulting each other over hot-button issues such a drone strikes or circumcision. As sociologist Deborah Tannen has documented, women tend to use conversation to form connections more than men, and men speak to compete for status. On the Internet, it’s easy to hear virtual antlers locking in combat as Internet “bucks” clash over ideas. Sam Harris says that the combative, testosterone-friendly vibe in the atheist community drives away more women than men (link), and I think he’s right (regardless of why this difference exists). And the more men there are in a community, the higher the chance that a woman will run into a sexist pig, a harasser, or some other hazard. The male majority sustains itself by creating an atmosphere that’s less inviting to women than to men.
New New Atheism?: Can there be a friendlier, gentler atheism? I hope so. First, we need to acknowledge our own biases. We’re tribal like anyone else. When we feel the urge to defend our tribe’s honor with insults, we should think twice. We’re extra-analytical and under-empathic. When we feel the urge to use our smarts to try to make others look or feel stupid, we should think twice. When we feel the urge to lock horns over our differences, we should think twice. If we want to develop into a well-rounded community, and a more likable one, then we need to intentionally work against our biases. With any luck, we’ll create a feedback loop in which friendlier atheism attracts friendlier atheists, creating an even friendlier community, and so on. A couple prominent atheists are already leading the way, including Alain de Botton (author of Religion for Atheists), Chris Stedman (author of Faitheist) and Hemant Mehta (“The Friendly Atheist”). They don’t make as much noise as the combative atheists, but I trust they’re making a difference.
“Empathy”: In Big Gods, Norenzayan uses the term “mentalizing” for what I’ve been calling empathy. It’s also called theory of mind or the intentional stance. The spouse who doesn’t notice when you’re angry is under-mentalizing. The spouse who is always reading something into your innocuous remarks is over-mentalizing.
Gender differences: One can use the idea of gender differences to resist change (“nothing we can do”) or we can use the idea of gender differences to help men in a male-dominated field question their own assumptions of how people in the field should relate to each other. I favor the latter approach.
Anti-theists: You can read about this particularly dogmatic and angry type of atheist, and five other types, in this article. According to this formula. I'm an RAA.