Like a particularly persistent bluebottle fly, one question has been buzzing round my head these last few weeks: why do atheists and theists seem incapable of communicating with one another?
Time and again, we rationalists believe that our position has been expressed clearly and cannot possibly be misunderstood, yet, time and again, we find that it has been—and that it has aroused a degree of hostility that takes us by surprise and makes some of us despair of ever getting our message across. Richard Dawkins’s book The God Delusion, for instance, is written with a courteous yet unmistakable clarity and is a beacon of both reason and reasonableness. How could anyone misinterpret it? How could anyone mistake it for a hysterical and bigoted rant? It seems impossible. And yet, as we all know, it is misinterpreted—grossly so.
Until recently, I’ve tended to interpret this as cynical behavior on the part of believers, a way for them to reject the book without having to engage with its arguments. But now I’m beginning to wonder. Is it possible that this response has its roots not in cynicism but in fear?
This idea struck me forcibly the other week, when Dawkins’s new television series, The Enemies of Reason, was broadcast in the United Kingdom. I was quite taken aback at the hostility of many of the reactions it engendered, even from people I would have expected to belong to our natural constituency. Their comments followed a pattern: first, they claimed that Dawkins was “shooting fish in a barrel” and that he had treated only the most extreme and ridiculous examples. Having thus established to their own satisfaction that Dawkins’s criticism was over the top, the complainants then “came out” as fans of alternative medicine (in principle at least), and, before we knew it, we had a full-scale outbreak of “Science is scary, don’t touch it with a bargepole.” What’s really bizarre, though, is that, having thus demonstrated that they were precisely the sort of people that the program was trying to enlighten, they chose to believe that it was really just aimed at complete and utter nutcases and not people like them at all.
Is this not precisely the same kind of reaction that we see on the part of the religious? “Oh, Richard Dawkins just sees the fanatics—but I’m not one of them, so his comments don’t apply to me.” “Yes, well, we all wish the fundies would crawl away and keep quiet—you don’t need to be an atheist for that.” And, just as with the alternative therapy fans, the next stage is that, having convinced themselves that the issues raised don’t apply to them, they move on to “But my religion is a force for good” and away they go.
In both cases, I am struck by how utterly indifferent these people are to the fact that their beliefs have been shown—clearly, unmistakably, courteously—to be unsubstantiated by anything resembling proper evidence.
Most of us, I would suggest, are atheists because we can find no evidence to support belief in a god or gods. Most of us, I would further suggest, would revise our position if such evidence were to become available. To us, what matters is the truth or otherwise of any given claim, and so, naturally enough, we couch our arguments in those terms. I don’t believe in God because there is no evidence to suggest such a being exists; I don’t go to alternative therapists because there is no evidence to suggest that they do any good. What matters to me is not what I’d like to be true but, quite simply, what is true. It seems such an unassailable position to take, doesn’t it? Yet, like a scene in a horror movie, we launch these rational arguments at the advancing phalanx of believers and then watch in appalled disbelief as our arguments bounce straight off again with all the impact of a paper plane against a charging rhino.
Has the time come for us to review our tactics? So far we have been concentrating on the issue—truth—that seems most convincing to us. But we’re not the ones who need to be convinced. What to us seems like the only question in town is apparently pretty secondary to many others. Whether or not alternative therapies actually work, many people find them more appealing than scientific therapies. Whether or not there really is a god, many people don’t want to cope with their lives without the hope that there is one.
More and more, I’m beginning to think that, for many people, the question of God is one of hope rather than belief. Without that hope, they would find life an intolerable burden. There’s no evidence to support that hope? So what? That’s not the issue. They believe in God for the same reason they buy a lottery ticket. Do they really, deep down, believe they’re going to win the jackpot this weekend? No, of course they don’t. Nevertheless, just knowing that they might is often enough to keep them going through a week that may otherwise be very grim. Are they remotely put off by statisticians pointing out that their chances of winning are so infinitesimal as to be virtually zero? No, of course not. That lottery ticket in their pocket gives them a glimmer of hope, something to daydream about, something that offers just the slightest chance of escape from whatever it is in their lives that grinds them down.
We see the same process at work in religion. Observing the endless stream of attacks on The God Delusion, it is clear that the response isn’t a calm exposition of why the claims of religion might be true. Instead it boils down to how much harder life would be without belief to cling to. The truth (or otherwise) of the religious belief is almost irrelevant. To us that seems incomprehensible, preposterous, almost obscene. But just look at the shrillness of believers’ responses. It reminds me of nothing more than the piercing shrieks of a small child sent to bed without her favorite teddy bear. It’s more than protest: it’s sheer terror.
I know plenty of Christians who are neither stupid nor fundamentalist. When asked why they believe, their replies tend to fall into three categories:
- “How could there be any meaning to life if there wasn’t a god?”
- “I can’t get my head round the idea of everything just stopping when I die—all that experience, all that knowledge: it can’t all just disappear, it can’t all be for nothing.”
- “My faith gives me so much strength, I don’t know how people manage without it.”
To those of us who pride ourselves on facing up to the truth and just getting on with life, this seems extraordinary. I can honestly say I don’t have a great horror of death—in its nonviolent forms it seems such a natural part of life. Equally, I don’t feel remotely put out that my life doesn’t have any cosmic purpose. Its purpose is what I make of it—I don’t need ancient texts or frisky vicars to make sense of it for me. But—those of us who feel able to look life in the eye and say “Bring it on” should not underestimate how daunting that prospect may feel to others.
Many people cling to their beliefs for the same reason that many people stay in abusive relationships: because they are scared of having to face life on their own. The fear of life without ultimate meaning, of life that’s ended by death, or of life that has no guaranteed happy ending, is so great and so deeply rooted in many people that when we point out—truthfully—that life has no ultimate meaning and does end
with death and that there is no force greater than ourselves in control of our destiny—they regard us as some kind of aberration, less than fully human. Of course atheists seem scary to them: if we can face the prospect of our own demise so coolly, why should we care about theirs? How can someone who can handle the reality of mortality be in possession of the full range of human emotions, like love and joy, compassion and fear?
We know we can, and we know their fears are unfounded, even bizarre. But just look at the responses elicited by The God Delusion and see whether you can’t detect in them something of what I suggest.
If I am right, this presents us with a challenge: if people reject atheism because they feel unable to deal with its implications, rather than because they’re not convinced by its arguments, where do we go from here? There can be no retreat from reason, science, and evidence, but until we can also convince the religious that a life without faith is worth living and, just as important, that it is possible to live it without being either sub- or superhuman, I suspect our reason-based arguments will continue to fall on deaf ears. If we want to be heard, being rational may not be enough: we may need to be reassuring too.