Better than the Others

This is a response to this post (which is itself a response to this one).

“But the sheer condescending dickery on the post above isn’t a lack of polish. It’s indicative of one of the worst tendencies of the atheist community – to be smugly superior. Think Dennett’s attempt to create a “Bright’s” movement. It thankfully never took off, but there is a tendency in certain quarters to assume being an atheist automatically makes you cleverer than anyone else. I can see where this might crop up, especially in the States, if the only religious people you ever encounter are Tea Party-esque evangelicals, or Bill Donohue of the Catholic League. But for the most part, atheists are not smarter than anyone else, just (in my view) right about a single thing.”

I’ve noticed this.  There is certainly a tendency among some in the atheist community to think that we’re smarter than everyone else.  But, I don’t think this problem of feeling smugly superior is at all unique to us.  Let’s review.  People can be atheists for all sorts of reasons: the only significant generalization that can be made about us is that we don’t believe in any god.  However, there is more that can be said about people involved in the atheist movement than can be said of atheists generally.  This is a community which defines itself largely in terms of a shared epistemology: we value reason, critical thinking, freethought, scepticism, and that sort of thing.  We value these things because we think they are useful for ascertaining the truth of matters of a certain sort and for recognizing claims which are false.  As a community we distinguish ourselves from others on the basis of these things.  It’s no wonder then that there are many within the community who think that we’re smarter than everyone else, since we define our community –a process of setting ourselves apart from others– in these intellectual terms.  This is therefore not simply a matter of atheists in our view being “right about a single thing,” since we are speaking about the atheist community and not merely everyone who happens to be an atheist.  As a community we define ourselves as a group who are right about a number of things on account of our superior epistemology…

Of course, that last bit isn’t quite true.  For it to be true we would have to assume that humans are internally consistent in their thoughts, entirely rational, etc, and these things are demonstrably false.  It is by recognizing our limitations that we can realize an expressed commitment to a certain method of ascertaining the truth does not inevitably mean being right about anything at all, and in this, perhaps somewhat regrettably, lies the escape from a misguided feeling of smug superiority.

If what I’m saying is at all true, then it would follow that other communities may also feel superior to others on the basis of those things by which they define themselves as a group.  Based on my own experience in some of these communities, I would say that this is indeed so.  A good example can be seen in the vegetarian/vegan/animal movement.  Once again, the only generalization that can be made of all vegetarians is that they don’t eat meat.  There are any number of reasons why people mightn’t eat meat, and so little else of any significance can be said of them.  But once again, there is more that can be said of people involved in the animal movement.  This time, we define ourselves largely in terms of a shared ethics, or rather that we largely share an ethics which grants more consideration of a certain kind to animals than is usually done.  The reasons for this are actually rather varied, probably much more so than the reasons for which people in the atheist movement value scepticism and whatnot, and so generalization is somewhat more difficult.  Whatever the reason, the community defines itself largely in ethical and moral terms, and so it is not surprising that there is a tendency among some to feel morally superior to everyone outside the movement.  (Of course, some of this is related to the religious reasons for which some people are part of the movement, since religion is itself another way in which communities are defined.  Even in the West, where most religious discourse has not encouraged vegetarianism for a very long time, there is still a powerful narrative of purity originating in part from certain strands of religion in Antiquity that did, ready to be tapped by anyone.)

This is why the stereotypical animal-rights activist has a marked holier-than-thou attitude, and it is for the same basic reason that the stereotypical atheist is a snob who thinks he (I think the stereotypical atheist is a guy) is smarter than everyone around him.  For the reasons described, there are people like that.  That said, there is also an extent to which these stereotypes emerge from people outside the communities involved.  For instance, if I tell someone who isn’t an atheist that I’m an atheist, then at least implicitly it is probably clear to that person that I think they’re wrong about something: I can’t help but have something of an oppositional stance when I do this.  My interlocutor may then make a similar mistake to the smug atheists and assume that, because I think I’m probably right about these matters for the reasons mentioned, then I must think that I’m smarter than everyone else.  In other words, to someone to whom I say that I’m an atheist, I could be thought to be deeply conceited either because they’ve encountered other atheists who are, or simply because they think it must follow inevitably from atheism.  Or both.  In any case, it wouldn’t follow: it would be a mistake to assume this of someone for such a reason as that.

So, while I agree that there is a problem with some people in the movement thinking they’re smarter than everyone else, I think this is simply the particular manifestation of a more widespread phenomenon common to (among others) self-selecting communities seeking social change, arising from the way in which these communities define themselves in relation to others.  This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t resist this tendency to have misguided feelings of communal superiority, nor that I think there is anything wrong with having activist movements like the ones I’ve mentioned, but merely that to be effective we have to keep in mind what sort of a deep-seated human tendency we are probably dealing with here.

4 comments on “Better than the Others

  1. Benjamin says:

    Fair point. Especially, that the atheist community has a shared epistemology that we have good reason to think is more useful and better reflects reality than others. I shouldn’t downplay the generality of the way of thinking, since skepticism, science, reason, etc, do apply to more than just “the existence of god”.

    And you make a good point about atheism being a pretty inherently oppositional stance, akin to others like veganism. I’m not quite as sure the “smugness” is simply a product of in-group thinking, though. I think it has more to do with any group’s feeling that they have better access to how things “really are”, and a certain disdain for those who haven’t “seen the light”.

    But I agree that it’s a constant danger for any movement based around epistemological, political, moral, or ethical claims.

    • Heorrenda says:

      Hey, thanks!

      “I’m not quite as sure the “smugness” is simply a product of in-group thinking, though. I think it has more to do with any group’s feeling that they have better access to how things “really are”, and a certain disdain for those who haven’t “seen the light”.”

      I don’t think I know what you mean. What’s the distinction there?

      • Benjamin says:

        Upon re-reading this bit: “I think this is simply the particular manifestation of a more widespread phenomenon common to (among others) self-selecting communities seeking social change, arising from the way in which these communities define themselves in relation to others.”, I withdraw my quibble.

        I was trying to draw a distinction between this attitude in certain groups, and this attitude in groups generally, and missed that you already made it.

        There’s this bit on “self-evident” truths by Karl Popper I really ought to show you sometime.

        I focused on the “smugness” thing because I feel like atheism is particularly vulnerable to ableism, especially as regards mental abilities, because of the intellectual basis of the community.

        • Heorrenda says:

          “I focused on the “smugness” thing because I feel like atheism is particularly vulnerable to ableism, especially as regards mental abilities, because of the intellectual basis of the community.”
          Oh, good point. I didn’t recognize that angle of it.

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