The Danger of Atheist Pride

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Did you know that it’s atheist pride week? March 20 - 26 has been designated by a group of atheists as A Week, a time when nonbelievers are encouraged to step forward and announce themselves as atheists “to raise awareness of how many people are ‘Good Without God’ and don’t need religion to influence their lives.” With over 18,000 Likes on Facebook and 15,000 participants last year, this movement is certainly getting some traction.

I’ll leave it to the Archbolds to come up with some witty suggestions for how one might celebrate A Week (watching reruns of NOVA and gathering ‘round a wreath that is decidedly symbolic of nothing, perhaps?). Instead, I’ll focus on what strikes me most about this movement:

As I read posts like Hemant Mehta’s exhortation for nonbelievers to change their Facebook profile pictures to a big “A”, or Trevor Boeckmann’s call for people to take pictures of themselves holding signs that say “I am an atheist”, I’m torn. On the one hand I think it’s sweet that the organizers have gone out of their way to make it a respectful event, and of course I wouldn’t object to someone publicly stating their religious beliefs (or lack thereof). But as I read through all the blogs covering this event, I am overwhelmed by one thought:

I don’t think this is healthy.

Back in my day, atheists didn’t walk around with signs that said “I am an atheist.” They didn’t put atheist pride stickers on their two-pound cell phones or replace their grainy yearbook photos with a red “A.” Okay, I’m 34, so maybe I am not yet at the legal age where I can start sentences with “Back in my day…”, but as someone who was a second-generation atheist, I have enough perspective to see that all of this A Week, OUT Campaign atheist pride stuff is a big departure from the way atheists of previous generations have done things. And, contrary to the modern atheist pride message, I doubt that the relative silence of history’s average nonbeliever was primarily motivated by fear of persecution.

Among adult atheists I knew in my youth, there seemed to be an ambivalence, if not an outright discomfort, with the label “atheist.” I always wondered about that: We didn’t believe in God, and nobody I knew was afraid to admit as much, so why did they shy away from the A-word?

Looking back, I think there was an understanding that defining yourself by what you are against isn’t psychologically healthy. With all other belief systems, adherents submit to something higher than themselves. Christians, Muslims, Jews, even Secular Humanists set their sights on a positive set of principles that supersedes their own personal whims. This is good. This is healthy. By directing your energy toward overarching values to which you willingly submit, it acts as a check against the natural human urge to turn yourself into a god.

To say that your guiding belief system is atheism literally means nothing more than not theism. There’s nothing positive to focus on, nothing higher than yourself to which you can submit selfish urges. The process of fleshing out your own views is a process of constant rejection: I don’t believe this religion, I don’t believe in that form of spirituality, I don’t believe in that superstition, and so on. And, as I know from personal experience, that mentality of constant dismissal of other ideas can fester to the point that the sin of pride becomes your driving force in life. (I don’t think I’m the only one who’s noticed that there is a markedly nasty tone among many “new atheists” such as Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers, Sam Harris, et al whenever the subject of belief systems comes up.)

Obviously, this is not the case with every atheist; some of the most kind and humble folks I know self-identify with that label. It’s also not the case that adhering to a belief system based on positive principles automatically makes you a moral paragon (and I count myself as Exhibit A there). But these two different types of belief systems put people on radically different paths: Atheism is ordered toward rejection and pride, where as positive-principle-based belief systems are ordered toward acceptance and humility. The latter is much better for you psychologically and morally than the former, and the lack of understanding of this concept is one of the key things that distinguishes the “new atheists” from their nonbelieving forebearers.

And so, to the folks participating in A Week, I would say one thing: Become Catholic. Well, okay, that probably wouldn’t get me very far, so maybe I’d say something else, too: Be careful about embracing atheism as an identity. Explore the tenets of Secular Humanism, or even some of the atheistic flavors of Buddhism. But know that you’re heading down a dangerous path if you spend more time thinking about what you are against than what you embrace.