In the spring of 2007, I attended a banquet at the University of Toronto honoring student and community leaders. A few days previously, I had been physically assaulted on campus while putting up posters for a speech by physicist Victor Stenger, making me something of a local atheist celebrity. So it was no surprise when, in the course of a conversation with members of the student affairs department, the topic of religion reared its head. The discussion was entirely amicable, with one department member admitting to being an unapologetic freethinker. A second commented that she once was a “smug atheist” but had since become a believer and, presumably, given up her smugness. No one responded to what she seemed to consider a rather innocuous adjective. But it reflected what seems to be a widespread perception that while believers are pious, humble, and retiring, atheists are smug, righteous, and arrogant.
I let this go. Sometime later, I appeared on Canada’s Christian television network debating a rabbi on “Atheism vs. Theism.” In the course of the debate, the rabbi, not thinking anything of it, claimed that atheism was behind the Nazi regime and all the evils of the twentieth century. I asked if it were not the case that Hitler was a practicing Catholic or used Catholicism as a convenient motivating force. The moderator, a practicing Jew, claimed that I was being incredibly arrogant and insulting.
Richard Dawkins has introduced the concept of consciousness-raising with respect to the deferential treatment accorded to the religious, and I would like to explore that concept in relation to the question whether atheism somehow necessarily entails arrogance.
Are the categorizations “humble believer” and “arrogant atheist” correct? It is the pope, not the professor, who has the power to make infallible decrees, and here in Canada our government continues to subject us to the mention of the divine in our national anthem, in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and at the beginning of many town-hall meetings. Individual believers, too, can display astounding arrogance on a day-to-day level. What else would you call it when someone prays for their favorite hockey team to win the Stanley Cup while infants are dying of AIDS in other countries or when someone thanks God for being with them when they survive some catastrophe that claimed the lives of hundreds of others? A friend of a friend once claimed that if she asked nicely, Jesus would help her find a missing sock. Perhaps it’s her humility that brings him to her rescue while a child goes missing every forty seconds in the United States.
Believers often argue that they can square outrageous suffering with the existence of a good God: such suffering is necessary to bring us into a more faithful, meaningful relationship with God and is part of a greater plan. Kant’s second formulation, to treat others as ends rather than means, seems to have been lost on God and his champions.
At a wedding reception I attended last year, grace was said before the meal; it was expected that all attendees would stand, bow their heads, and participate in this religious ritual. After my girlfriend and I chose instead to leave the room, we were called “disrespectful.” The idea here was that the bride and groom get to call all the shots, and everyone else must fall in line. This is even truer at a funeral, where it would be unthinkable to fail to honor the wishes of the grieving, regardless of one’s personal beliefs and feelings. But isn’t using one’s position of authority to cow others into submission usually considered arrogant? And wouldn’t many Christian believers ask to be excused from an uncomfortable moment in a humanist wedding in which God was denied or perhaps excuse themselves entirely from attending a satanist wedding? As an example, in an Ontario municipal building where various religious leaders have offered opening prayers at council meetings, when a humanist invocation was once given instead, many Christians did in fact leave the room in protest.
Or consider this quirk in the laws of my native Ontario. Under the pretext of constitutional privilege, the Catholic Church effectively controls an accurately termed “separate school board” in whose schools—publicly funded though they are—permission to teach is granted only to Catholics in sufficiently good standing and admission is closed to primary school pupils without a baptismal record.
Perhaps the greatest arrogance at the intersection of church and state lies in the designation of tax-privileged charities. In Canada, the advancement of religion is considered sufficient grounds for granting charitable status—along with the relief of poverty, the advancement of education, and purposes beneficial to the community. But religious charities enjoy a carte blanche denied to any of the other types of charity. In the other three categories, a new organization applying for charitable status must give details about how the organization will accomplish its goals. Permissible activities are very limited by past precedent. Poor relief organizations must relieve poverty and nothing else. An educational charity must present facts fully and fairly and can lose its charitable status if it acts as an advocacy organization that pushes one side of a controversial issue.
In contrast, aspiring religious charities need only state their activities to promote belief as such. So religious institutions can issue tax-deductible receipts to donors and then fund the printing of handbooks proudly proclaiming evolution to be brainwashing, provided that this promotes a part of their religious beliefs. An organization dedicated to defending the worldview of scientific naturalism, on the other hand, might have a hard time qualifying as an educational charity.
When certain local Canadian humanist associations attempted to gain a religious designation—arguing that they promoted an ethical alternative—they were confronted by a recitation of that rule, stating in part: “to foster a belief in proper morals or ethics alone is not enough to qualify as a charity under this [religious] category.” In one example, only after threatening to take the matter before the Supreme Court of Canada was the Humanist Association of Toronto granted charitable designation, and only under the odd category “Miscellaneous Charitable Organizations.”
To be clear, I am in no way advocating that humanist organizations seek designation as religious charities. Rather, I am arguing that for such a designation even to exist under the law is itself a clear violation of secular principles. It privileges religious organizations over nonreligious ones with a unique ability to grant tax-exemptions for donations that support indoctrination rather than education. When such religious bodies greedily accept what amount to public subsidies and special property-tax dispensations—but continue to demand the right to do what no private entity can, namely discriminate in hiring staff or in the solemnizing of marriages—that is when it is appropriate to speak of arrogance.
Even word choices reinforce the arrogance of faith. Religious truths are self-proclaimed “higher truths” rather than more humbly called “different truths.” I suggest we start labeling scientific truths as “higher truths,” since it is they that demand a much higher level of discipline, openness, humility, and self-criticism. Scientists acknowledge their fallibility and recognize their propensity for error. They even introduce new tools and techniques to improve the reliability of their experiments. This is smugness and arrogance? Far from heightening human arrogance, the results of science hav
e tended to deflate our species’ image of itself and in the process has created a much healthier worldview for humankind as delicately and intimately connected with all life on the planet.
Scientists enjoy uncertainty and the unknown, but they enjoy it as a puzzle they hope to one day solve. They do not revel in the mystery alone. It is the religious who profess humility while seeing no hypocrisy in believing they get personal messages from God that give them access to the one and only Truth.
I intend to continue adding to my roster of arrogant religious remarks and actions, and so should you. To help you decide, replace in your mind the name of the religion involved with atheism and ask yourself how the average person would view the act. I doubt, for example, we’d have much support for the “Atheist Children’s Fund,” but perhaps we should try anyway.