On “Religious” Atheists and “Rational” Believers

I don’t know about you, but I am tired of the simplistic “Religion vs Science” trope. As if humans can be so easily categorized and therefore readily “adored or ignored.” But in my experience after working with humans for over two decades, we are a bit more complex. There are indeed conformists who believe in a traditional religious view of the world. And of course, there are humanists who follow a modern rational view of the world. I am not suggesting that the simple binary here is false, only that it is partial and to that degree unhelpful.

Consider a different binary. There are plenty of people who blindly follow the science (i.e., they conform to the opinions of experts). And there are plenty of people who rationally approach their religion (i.e., they methodically create and shape a bespoke belief system; you might say they turn the “stone” of their once-naïve beliefs into “clay” that they shape into a unique view). Let me tell you, the religious people who rationally approach their religion are much more fun at parties. But you wouldn’t know that because you don’t invite them. To be fair, they’re probably not inviting you either.

And that may be the problem. As contentious as the Founding Fathers were when debating how conservative or liberal they should be in leading the fledgling United States of America, they would spend their evenings drinking together at City Tavern in Philadelphia (right around the corner from the Continental Congress – you can still get a beer there!). The parties partied – together.

We have our lazy minds to thank for the bad blood in the ever-present “Religion vs Science” culture war.

Conformist-Scientific Atheist Someone who follows the codes of a Materialist belief systemRational-Scientific Agnostic Someone who creates principles & practices from a Methodology (Empiricism, Observation)
Conformist-Religious Acolyte Someone who follows the codes of a Religious belief systemRational-Religious Moralist Someone who creates principles & practices from a Text (Prayer, Meditation)

Table 1:  “Traditional Religious” and “Modern Scientific” are Not a Binary

Just because someone focuses on the morality and ethics of a religion does not mean that they are simple-minded conformists who blindly follow the codes and rules of conduct from some holy book written thousands of years ago. And just because someone believes there is no god does not mean that they are reasonable people who test their assumptions using a logic-based methodology.

When I listen to atheists who are vocal about their views, I pay attention to how tightly they hold those views. I differentiate between the “blind atheists” and the “inspirational atheists.”

For example, I would cite Richard Dawkins, Susan Blackmore, James “The Amazing” Randi, Christopher Hitchens, and Bill Maher as blind atheists. And for the record, none of them are scientists. The skeptic Daniel Dennett is a true scientist, so I trust his blind atheism more. (Dawkins is a science historian and media figure; Blackmore is a psychologist; Randi is a stage magician of ill repute; Nye is an engineer; Hitchens was a journalist; and Maher is a comedian.)

I am not saying that they have nothing to say about belief or atheism because they are not true scientists. What I am saying is that there is nothing at all in the scientific method that says anything about the absence of God. Even the engineer Bill Nye “The Science Guy” (not a scientist!) acknowledges this. The scientific method is an extremely powerful tool that has allowed us to lift billions of humans out of ignorance, disease, and poverty.

I can even defend “scientism,” which is a belief system based on a materialistic worldview. I agree with them that it is important for people to eventually abandon a blind faith to their religion, to approach it with a critical eye. Religion must be updated, it must evolve. I believe that what drives the blind atheists is an understandable distaste for the ills that traditional religion has wrought upon the world. And they are right to do so. But they do so blindly.

They tend to leave out the importance of humility and even guilt/shame for the developing human. We need to become socialized, starting at around puberty, or else we will remain selfish as adults. Guilt and shame are powerful tools – and historically speaking, some terrible people took advantage of these tools to destroy rather than to build. They were religious because everyone was religious (externally). And the blind atheists tend to have a nasty tone because of this, they seem to believe that ridicule and contempt will exorcise whatever demons from their adolescence they seem to carry with them to this day. I would argue that their development is arrested at this “negation of conformity” phase. However, it is a phase that not all atheists are stuck within.

There are several inspirational atheists who I believe do a better job of remaining open to awe and wonder as important human states: Sam Harris, Neil Degrasse Tyson, Howard Bloom, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Steven Pinker. These atheists do not seem subject to the same vitriol as their blind counterparts. I would guess on some days that they are agnostic (as Bill Nye seems to be).

But more important than whether they are atheistic or agnostic is this: they inspire us to create, to identify not with any religion, or code, or even with materialism as a belief system. They are true humanists, principled by nature, compelling others to look up at the stars, to look at the good in others (and to grow that goodness), to reform religion into a bridge (not merely blow the bridge up and take shots at the other side).

Before moving on to some conclusions, there is one important point I must add here. Both inspirational atheists and blind atheists are serving an important function – debunking the millions of quacks that take advantage of desperate people. There is no shortage of psychopaths and garden-variety opportunists out there who follow P.T. Barnum’s adage that “…there’s a sucker born every minute.” These parasites take advantage of people. Even world-class, high I.Q., high E.Q. people are fooled every day. (It is worth pointing out that Ken Langone – the billionaire venture capitalist behind The Home Depot – is one of the few targets who was not subsequently duped by Bernie Madoff, and he is a devout Roman Catholic believer.)

But religion can be a bridge to rational discourse and humanistic principles. Just look at the evolution of God in the bible from the Old Testament to the New Testament. God was transformed from a unipolar force of fire and brimstone to a tripartite force of loving kindness. This reflects the nascent blueprint for further differentiations, where participation becomes the internalizing and eventual evaluation of belief itself.

This shift from a tight conformity to a more participatory, curious, and awe inducing space is universally a good thing. Differentiation is the first step in evolution – be it biological or psychological. And differentiating from conformity is the first, hardest step in becoming a mature adult. Remember all the times a teacher told you to “…put it in your own words?” That’s what they meant.

As it turns out, the data from 50 years of research on adult development supports that general arc. Most people are neither fully “Traditional” nor fully “Modern” (in the developmental sense). Most people are already on that bridge between blind faith in a text/expert on one side, and systematic methods of truth-seeking on the other. The Rational Agnostics and Rational Moralists are the “majority middle.” And just as the political majority middle needs to create bridges, so must these two under-appreciated groups of people.

One issue with building better bridges between people in this majority middle is that they are difficult to see. Not physically, I’m talking about worldviews. As soon as someone brings up religion or God, they know they will be cast in a predestined role in the minds of strangers. So, they probably just don’t say anything. Inversely, someone who brings up anything scientific can hide in plain sight, because they needn’t report on whether they believe that only empirical data is valid data.

It may be that the old saying to never discuss religion or politics at a party has rendered us ill-equipped to build bridges. We are like the police officers who never got into fights in high school and are therefore much more nervous in situations involving physical contact, and therefore more likely to pull our gun too early. We need practice discussing these matters, because both belief and methodical truth seeking are here to stay. How can we be “united” if we don’t talk about real issues? How can we speak with those who are not like us if we always stick with a small group of people (i.e., an “Echo Chamber”)?

To start building bridges, you need to remain curious as you present both sides of this bridge in social occasions: “You know, on the one hand, many atheists don’t seem open to being wrong; but on the other, believers can go too far. I think most people are not on the extremes, just like in politics.”

The short version is this:  when you speak about a dynamic rather than from one side or the other, you open all parties to a more engaged learning experience. It is a risk, to be sure; but people on their deathbeds don’t talk about the risks they took and got wrong, only the ones they never took.

Consider that the next time you are at a cocktail party “adoring or ignoring” others – you may be missing an opportunity to learn something about your fellow humans. The bridge is more interesting than either side.