Thursday, October 18, 2012
I got interviewed by the local CBS affiliate today about some of my fans: Professor Gets Threats Over His Book and Blog
Admittedly she's being a bit sensationalist for the sake of the news, but the opportunity presents itself to say a few things.
First, Americans, and probably lots of other cultures that measure high on the religiousness scale, do not like having religious doubters in their midst. For believers, being around an atheist or someone who doesn't buy into religious doctrines, it is a lot like having a vegetarian at the table with a bunch of meat eaters. His very existence is enough to make them feel judged, pressured, or disrespected. Most Americans are enthusiastic about freedom of religion, but in practice the real exercise of that freedom that they are comfortable with is adopting some flavor of Christianity. Adhere to some more exotic religion, and some people's tolerance for dissent gets stretched. And if someone rejects religious belief altogether, that's more than many can bear. The multitude of hostile, personal, nasty, and disrespectful comments I've gotten on this blog over the years is a testimony to this hyper sensitivity.
Americans also have a heightened sensitivity about religious matters that resembles what we see in some of the more volatile Middle Eastern cultures. The very act of asking questions, doubting, pressing objections, or being reluctant to accept flimsy theological justifications themselves are seen as inherently disrespectful, hostile, strident, and angry. For years, reviews of atheist books in the mainstream press have focused, almost to the exclusion of all other considerations about their content, on the angry, intolerant tone of the authors. Reviews of atheist books very often condemn and dismiss because of the tone rather than because of substantial objections to the content of the arguments.
The other problem is that there are a wide range of common psychiatric disorders where hyper religiosity, hyper moralism, evangelism, and religious urgency are symptoms. There are no psychiatric disorders, at least that I can find, that list skepticism, doubt, or a refusal to accept religious doctrines as primary symptoms. So, simply put, there is a significant population of mentally ill people out there who focus their anti social tendencies, their anger, and even their propensities to violence on vocal non-believers. Authors like PZ Meyers, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Michael Martin, Daniel Dennett, and Michael Shermer are the targets of shockingly threatening, hostile, and violent communications.
There is also good evidence from evolutionary psychology now that the religious urge has a neurobiological foundation deep in the history of natural selection for humans. The growing consensus is that we are wired by evolution to be religious. So it is not at all surprising, although it is lamentable, that so many people believe, and they believe with an enthusiasm and level of sensitivity that leads them to be hostile to non believers and skeptics. Atheists are perhaps the most reviled minority in the country, according to recent polling data.
So if we are committed to the basic principles of democracy, including a sensitivity to free speech, many of us should do some serious soul searching about our feelings of intolerance towards non believers.
Posted by Matt McCormick at 7:50 PM