I just finished Daniel Dennet’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. The book was a welcome change of pace from the Dawkins/Harris/Hitchins trilogy, in that it explores in-depth the question of how religion potentially could be understood as a natural phenomenon, an issue the others treat only briefly in an “armchair quarterback” sort of way. (Although I do note that Dennett inexplicably deviates from his considered proposals for reseach toward the end of the book, throwing in an anti-religion argument not unlike the others. I can’t for the life of me figure out why it’s in there.)
Dennett devotes a large part of one chapter to the concept of “belief in belief,” and how such belief may be as strong as the actual belief in a god claimed by most religious people. That insight clicked with me, and provides at least a partial explanation for one of the questions that most bugs atheists: Where do religious people get off calling me immoral?
That question frequently leads to discussions of moral social behavior, with the atheist concluding that we are no more or less “moral” in our dealings with other people than the average religious person. Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens all drum on this theme, emphasizing that religion throughout the ages has actually spawned a great deal of immoral behavior, and that some religious doctrines are immoral in themselves. I’ve likewise engaged in this analysis, arguing that a person cowed into “morality” by the promise of heaven or threat of hell is more like a trained dog than a moral agent.
But Dennett’s discussion of “belief in belief” helped me realize (or actually, remember from my own fundie days) that, no matter how good a person I am, no matter what good works, kindness or love can be attributed to me, I will always be an immoral person in the eyes of the religious simply because I do not believe. That is the atheist’s unavoidable sin.
Speaking from the Christian perspective (where my background is), the atheist’s sin is frequently phrased in terms of rejecting Christ, or, more strongly, rejecting Christ’s sacrifice. “What a wicked person you must be,” the Christian thinks, “to refuse to believe in Jesus. He died for your sins, and you can’t even muster the gratitude to believe in him. What a selfish, arrogant person you are.” Something regarding the foolishness of trusting in the wisdom of men (i.e., science) may also be thrown in for good measure. From this, the Christian often assumes that the atheist must engage in all sorts of debased, immoral behavior, but this is not necessary. The atheist is damned simply for his or her state of unbelief, not for anything he or she has actually done.
The belief in belief and its accompanying damnation of unbelievers helps explain why polls show that the majority-Christian population of the U.S. would elect a Muslim or Jew to public office far more readily than an atheist. The Muslim and Jew, after all, at least believe in something.
Although formidable, I don’t see this as an insurmoutable obstacle to gaining greater acceptance and understanding of atheists. The position I sketch out above may be stronger among fundamentalists (as are most negative positions), meaning that less dogmatic religious people may at least be willing to consider the moral merits of individual atheists aside from our unbelief. In the meantime, the only thing the atheist can do is own and proudly declare his or her unavoidable sin, and emphasize its lack of importance in seeking the greater good of humanity.