My fellow nonbelievers,
Whether you call yourself an atheist, an agnostic—or even spiritual but not religious—there’s a decent chance that you weren’t raised to accept such a position. Many of us were taught from an early age that the stories of one holy text or another were true, and that there was a god or gods watching over us. Naturally, some households emphasized their religion’s dogmatic elements more than others. And, even after rejecting religion as literally true, the relationship between the nonbeliever and her family’s divine creed is hardly the same for every heretic—some retain the traditions, while others are forever hostile to the dogma fed to them as children. Even the journey from faith to non-faith is not uniform. Some of us intuited from an early age that the claims of religion couldn’t possibly be true. Others—myself included—grew suspicious of Biblical tales only once we had been introduced to other ideas, such as those from science and history.
But nonbelievers who were raised to accept religion have this in common: we all judged an idea to be false that authority figures told us was true. Given the rise in atheism and agnosticism across the world, this may seem like a trivial fact. But, for the vast majority of human history, conscious rejection of authority-endorsed ideas was almost literally an unthinkable act. We might now be comfortable entertaining alternative ideas without outright accepting them, but that requires a level of intellectual maturity and security that was not achieved by most of our ancestors.
Nonbelievers who scrutinized the dogma handed to them and judged it unsatisfying, I applaud you. You did not accept arguments merely because they were asserted with the authority of your parents, pastors, imams or rabbis. You required of them more than because I said so or have faith. Moreover, you did not accept shame tactics as valid arguments. No number of charges of moral inferiority or heresy, no amount of aggressive scolding could pressurize you into conformity to what you knew to be false.
Many nonbelievers recognize their own independent thinking as such and come away feeling self-satisfaction. As they should. But many fail to appreciate that dogma is not confined to the cathedral. The uncomfortable truth is that there are bad ideas all over the place, and many of them have evolved some standard religious garb to keep themselves in circulation. These nontraditional religions can be harder to spot, since they’re not labeled as such, and so are better able to hide in plain sight. But once you know the universal telltale signs of dogmatic thinking, their kinship with their traditional counterparts becomes obvious.
If an idea or ideology is false, in the long run it will find itself at a huge disadvantage against truer alternatives. For example, the idea of a flat Earth will struggle to spread more than the rival notion that the earth is round, since the latter is consistent with theories from physics, while the former is not. But false ideas are still with us, so clearly an idea’s correspondence with reality is not the only factor that determines its relative ubiquity. Since false ideas cannot compete on their own merits, they have evolved different paths toward prominence. Instead of rational arguments, these bad ideologies are packaged alongside feelings of moral superiority, shame tactics, and tribal affiliations, all of which are levied against those who disagree.
It is these social weapons that can cause a merely bad idea to morph into a religious one. Consider the reaction to criticism of US foreign policy among right-leaning friends. Call a US intervention in the politics of a Middle Eastern country a modern incarnation of imperialism and you may be branded anti-American or accused of being someone who doesn’t support the troops. You may receive similar invectives for questioning the dogma of American exceptionalism. But these are shame tactics, not arguments, and should be exposed as such.
Or try questioning the left-wing narrative that any group differences are due to patriarchal oppression, or to cultural indoctrination (or any other variant of this cluster of assertions). In some quarters, you will not be met with counterarguments and evidence if you question these claims, but instead accused of bigotry. Again, shaming and name-calling are not arguments.
Notice that, in both cases, you often run up against the brick wall that is perceived moral superiority. Only ingrates question the US military, and only the unsympathetic question narratives of patriarchal oppression, after all, so arguments from such people should be dismissed out of hand. Worse still, you run the risk of social ostracism from the tribe in question. That alone can pressurize people into ideological conformity in the form of self-deception or self-silencing. All this should be familiar to nonbelievers. This is the religious mindset, whose justifications we rejected as the unsatisfactory non-arguments they are, when they came from church, mosque, synagogue or temple.
Many nonbelievers pride themselves on their commitment to rationality. That’s a fine sentiment. I simply implore you to keep going. Don’t stop at the Torah or the Qur’an. As secular humanists, we should resist intellectual tyranny wherever we find it. Stay vigilant about the signs of religion I’ve outlined. What happens if you question an assumption? Are you met with an explanation, or something more venomous? Do you find yourself biting your tongue when some topics are broached in conversation? Is it because you don’t have an opinion, or because you fear banishment at the utterance of the wrong word?
In addition to looking out for modern dogmas held by others, the nonbeliever should be wary of becoming consumed by a new religion himself. Ask yourself: do I think that those who disagree with me on issue x are morally inferior? If you cannot fathom that a good person might hold an alternative position on an issue, then you might be in the grip of dogma. It’s intoxicating to assume the moral high ground, to unite with like-minded individuals in a fight against evil—i.e. against those whose opinions differ from ours—to bask in absolute certainty. But critical thinking stops where moralizing begins. We cannot be sure that we are on the correct path, whether in pursuing truth or in determining proper courses of action, if we refuse to engage in criticism of the ideas we hold dearest. If you find yourself in thrall to this religious mindset, it can be helpful to reexamine the fundamentals from which these ideas are derived. Why do you think that these axioms, rather than some others, are correct? Another fruitful practice is to understand the best arguments against your own position. Are all those who disagree with it really morally inferior to you, or could there be some other reason that they hold the views they hold?
As nonbelievers, we proudly accept all of these strategies when it comes to traditional religions. But dogma is dogma, wherever it lurks. We must continue to reject arguments from authority, ignore shame tactics and resist moralizing: both in ourselves and in others.
Let us push forward, beyond the cathedral.
This essay is dedicated to the memory of Mark Pfeffer.