Charlie Jane Anders has a post up at io9 in which she urges atheists to read more science fiction… which isn’t a bad idea, except she frames her argument as something atheists should do because we are smug, arrogant people with no humility or respect for viewpoints other than our own.
You can’t be on Twitter these days without being bombarded with atheistic smugness. You know what I mean. People who can’t just profess that they don’t believe in God — they have to taunt religious people for believing in “fairy tales.” Or the Tooth Fairy. Most of the time, these are geeks who have immense respect for science… and yet, they won’t recognize a situation where they simply have no data, one way or the other.
In any case, plenty of people have personal experiences, which could be immensely meaningful or could just be their own faulty perceptions. They can’t say which is which, with an absolute certainty, and neither can any of us, from the outside. Once you’ve read enough science fiction, you start to allow for at least the possibility that other people might be seeing stuff that you can’t see but which still affects you in some massive, important way.
… it’s great to be atheist — and I strongly support arguing publicly and loudly in favor of atheism as a point of view. Just, you know, don’t be smug about it. You don’t actually know any more than the rest of us, and the universe is a much stranger, more bewildering place than any of us can really begin to grasp, and the only thing that would be surprising is if we stop being constantly surprised. If you don’t believe me, just read some science fiction.
Anders fails to give any examples of this atheist smugness, of course. She falls into the same trap as so many Christian apologists. She thinks atheists are smug because we brush off religious claims as silly and demand evidence for supernatural claims. She thinks that calling out unsupported beliefs for what they are is disrespectful. She thinks that the fact that there are many things about our universe we don’t know about means that we should let religious uncertainties slide.
Calling that out doesn’t make us smug. It makes us smart. It means we’re skeptical. I wish everyone criticized faulty thinking.
Just because you’re an atheist doesn’t mean you’re right about everything, obviously, but it means you’re probably somewhat decent at demanding evidence for unbelievable claims. After all, many of you became atheists after realizing your parents’ religion lacked a logical foundation.
To point out otherwise doesn’t automatically make you smug or arrogant.
Anders also writes that “someone else’s subjective experience is as valid as yours.” No, it’s not. Atheists don’t deny that subjective experience can have a life-altering effect on people, but we reserve the right to challenge whether others’ experiences are grounded in reality or something they conjured up in their own minds.
Wes Fenza at Polyskeptic has a much more thorough takedown of Anders’ entire piece and I’d encourage you to read the whole thing, but his closing is worth repeating here:
… Almost all of the atheists that I know agree wholeheartedly that the universe is a strange, bewildering, and ultimately unknowable place. Our frustration is with religious believers who claim to know things that they cannot possibly know, based on holy books or intuition. It’s the atheists who are insisting that the universe is a giant mystery, and the believers who claim that they have it all figured out. Atheism is nothing more that the belief that the idea of “god” is unsupported by the available evidence.
As other atheists have said so many times before, it’s not a bad thing to question baseless ideas or take pride in your skepticism. You can have wonder and humility about your surroundings and still know that a worldview based on our scientific understanding of the world is better than one based in mythology and pure faith.