I’ve said this for quite some time, and now there’s some significant data to back up the claim. The preliminary findings from the study “Beyond Disbelief” strongly suggest that what a lot of us have been saying for a long time is true: “Atheism” is too strong a word for a large percentage of people who are, strictly speaking, atheists.
A lot of the study’s findings will not be surprising. Most of us are pretty self-aware and know that we’re socially very liberal. We know that we are not bandwagon riders when it comes to politics, and that we are distrustful of any extremist political position. We know that we’re not atheists because we’re mad at our families.
But some of the findings may be disturbing to some of us. Most notably, there’s probably something behind the accusations against “new atheism.” People who most consistently agreed with very anti-religious statements, and who endorsed very strong positions like “all religions are harmful to society” overwhelmingly identified as “atheist” while people who were less judgmental or even sympathetic to religion identified overwhelmingly as “agnostic.”
So there may be some truth to the accusation that we atheists are scaring away some of our support by being very strongly against religion in any form. Particularly among women, there is reason to believe that complete rejection of spirituality may be off-putting. Many women describe themselves as “spiritual,” but when allowed to qualify that descriptor, it becomes obvious that to them, spirituality is a set of sensibilities, not a set of metaphysical claims.
So once again, we’re confronted with a brick wall. Words are powerful things, and regardless of what we want it to mean, atheism means hostile anti-theism. Similarly, the perception of blanket condemnation is viewed negatively by a lot of people who substantially agree, but have a healthy skepticism of any sort of all-or-nothing thinking.
Let me put that last paragraph in simpler terms. We strong atheist types are doing ourselves a disservice by ostracizing people who agree with us but choose to adopt healthy skeptical language and healthy social tolerance.
I know I haven’t been posting a lot this week, and part of the reason is that I’ve been trying to digest quite a bit of information that’s fairly foreign to me. I’m not going to tell you what it is until I’m ready to make the full presentation. But a lot of what I’ve been thinking about is the mechanics of influence and ways to reduce hostility while accomplishing goals.
While you wait on me to wrap my brain around a few concepts, I’d like you to think about atheism and agnosticism in terms of social value and ask yourself a very important question: What label, regardless of its epistemological correctness, is most valuable in the advancement of secular society with scientific liberal values?