Stereotype Threat

It’s a testament to how massively atheism has penetrated our culture’s imagination that the body of anti-atheist memes has grown as large as it has.  Whether ancient slur against specific non-Christians or new insinuation from a “modern” thinker, atheists face an assortment of stereotypes and libels that form the core of why 50% of the United States finds us “threatening.”  And that’s WITH hardly anyone thinking we actually eat babies.

But if there’s one invective that raises my atheist scientist hackles until I might be mistaken for some sort of heathen Australian dragon, it’s the idea that evolution is responsible for “societal decline.”

We hear it again and again, from every direction: the accusation that evolutionary theory tells people to treat each other like dirt, whereas the religious view tells us to be kind and generous.  We hear it droned from pulpits and solemnly invoked at dinner tables: the view that evolutionary theory renders us all into “just animals,” whereas religion tells us we’re all ensouled beings with value granted by a supreme moral arbiter.

I faced this accusation directly at a family reunion.  An unexpectedly devout uncle felt the need to denounce the basis of biology while saying grace, impugning the integrity of those who hold that we “came from monkeys.”  I let that one go—one does not simply make a scene at the first time in 20 years that five siblings are all in the same place when most of them are ex-military and almost everyone in the room agrees with them.

That’s not the story I’m here to tell today.  My ex-Marine uncle is child’s play compared to an acquaintance who spends most of his Facebook hours serenely praising Turkish classical music, posting pictures of Persian landmarks, and blaming the depravity of “secular” society on insufficient devoutness.  For today, his name is Dagnabbit.  This exchange was emblematic:

Dagnabbit: The words of a 13th century Sufi saint (Saadi):

“Human beings are members of a whole, In creation of one essence and soul”

The words of a 19th century Victorian scientist (Darwin):

“At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world.”

Dagnabbit’s Friend: Darwinism has brought nothing but destruction because it is survival based on extermination

Dagnabbit: and the root cause of Darwinism is materialism. When a man loses touch with his conscience and with the heavens, he is no different than the lowliest and vulgarest beasts.

Such a convincing argument!  A quote from an Islamic Golden Age poet and another quote from a famous Victorian-era scientist, showing the moral superiority of the former.  Surely I can render no counter.


1.       As for the thief, both male and female, cut off their hands. It is the reward of their own deeds, an exemplary punishment from Allah. Allah is Mighty, Wise.
2.       We have a responsibility toward the other life-forms of our planet whose continued existence is threatened by the thoughtless behavior of our own human species…Environmental responsibility – for if there is no God, then, obviously, it is up to us to put things right.
1.       I think the world is being much helped by the suffering of the poor people.
2.       Until we’re educating every kid in a fantastic way, until every inner city is cleaned up, there is no shortage of things to do.
While we’re here: Which of those built “hospitals” to encourage people to convert to Catholicism instead of giving them medical care?  Which one runs a massive charity dedicated to improving world health and education?
And which of these two is from someone who predates the discovery of evolution by seven centuries or so who spent his days flogging slaves and building pyramids of skulls in Asia, and which one is from one of the defining pioneers of atheism as a 20th-century political force in the United States?
1.       I am the punishment of God…If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you.
2.       An Atheist strives for involvement in life and not escape into death. He wants disease conquered, poverty vanquished, war eliminated. He wants man to understand and love man. He wants an ethical way of life. He knows that we cannot rely on a god nor channel action into prayer nor hope for an end to troubles in the hereafter. He knows that we are our brother’s keeper and keepers of our lives; that we are responsible persons, that the job is here and the time is now.
But this comparison might be the most telling, for my Iranian acquaintance.  Which one is from the Shiite cleric who founded the Islamic Republic of Iran in the late 1970s, and which one is from arguably the foremost non-Christian of the American Revolution?
1.       Don’t listen to those who speak of democracy. They all are against Islam. They want to take the nation away from its mission. We will break all the poison pens of those who speak of nationalism, democracy, and such things.
2.       All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression.

Clearly, when pronouncements of the vilest evil predate evolutionary thinking by centuries and dominate the written legacy of numerous prominent preachers and imams, and principle, charity, and activism mark the record of any of various atheists whose nonbelief has been largely kept out of the historical record, the appropriate conclusion is that “Darwinism” makes people into treacherous monsters and “keeping in touch with the heavens” makes us all into saints.  Clearly.

Here’s the reality: for every priest who implores his flock to treat their fellow humans with dignity and grace, there is another one telling the population of Russia that women are lesser beings and anyone with the temerity to point out how fucked up that is is an enemy of the state.  For every Sufi mystic or Wiccan devotee proclaiming the unity of humankind, there is an imam preaching one of the thousands of Quranic verses promising fiery torment to non-Muslims and anyone who befriends non-Muslims.  For every congregation that uses the idea of humanity as their god’s special children as a means to try to get people to cooperate, there are 20 who confine “humanity” to members of their group and freely butcher by the millions anyone else who gets in their way.

And for everyone who recognizes that the statistical reality of evolution means that all life on earth, let alone all humans, are fundamentally kin and treats it/them accordingly…there are a few assholes who think that evolution means that anything or anyone who experiences some sort of disadvantage “deserves” it and therefore does not merit compassion, charity, or even empathy and should be left to suffer in the name of someone or something “better” replacing it/them.  Even though evolution is a statistical law, a mere thing that happens, and not a moral axiom of any kind.

Those people are NOT Hitler, Stalin, or any of the other bogeymen that people like Dagnabbit like to invoke whenever they assert the superiority of religious over secular morality.  For starters, Hitler was religious and Stalin denied evolutionary thinking to the point of setting Soviet science back decades.  Those people are the Social Darwinists, and they are kith, kin, and direct antecedents of today’s Randians and libertarians.  They are not nice people, and most of the atheists I know regard them as sociopaths in polite clothing.

Wait, where else have we heard the idea that people deserve whatever misfortunes have fallen their way?

In the end, what people like Dagnabbit are lamenting isn’t actually a moral decline.  Crime rates have been going down continuously for decades all over the Western world, often despite drug criminalization and other laws that exist primarily to keep racist inequalities and the prison-industrial complex going.  Most interestingly, indices of devoutness and religious observance have also gone down over the same period, to the point that one in five Americans claims no religion as their own and vast swaths of Europe have such “Nones” as their largest “faith” group.  And science has been right there, enabling the advancement of the human condition in every possible way, including showing that the “reasons” that religious groups use to treat each other and other minorities as non-persons fit only for ostracism and suicide are bullshit.  No—Dagnabbit is complaining about something altogether smaller.

He’s complaining about nuclear-family living patterns.

His disdain for science as a means of informing people’s ethical reasoning is piggybacking on horror at the way that the normal organization of Western communities in this century is built around small families—parents and their children—rather than large extended families.  He is complaining, not about an actual “moral decline” that would involve people doing evil things more than they used to, but about a shift from traditional (and tradition-bound) societies where people don’t move far from where they started and where the “small-town” atmosphere of people knowing their neighbors and treating everyone they meet as honored guests is an assumed baseline rather than a provincial novelty.

Complaining about the next generation in this way is as old as Socrates, if not older.  And with people moving from those little villages like his hometown in Iran to big cities by the thousands every day, that “decline” is only going to continue, and every generation will find some new way to express it.  Or we’ll go Dagnabbit’s way, and just use the same way as the last three or four.

But there’s still something interesting happening here.  We move far from where we started, but such moves come with economic opportunity and the freedom to advance society in ways that those small communities often stifle.  Teeming cities full of diverse people have, since the days of Sumer, been the crucibles in which the future is forged.

But that future can be lonely.  Even with (atheistbuilt, by the way) technology that our ancestors couldn’t begin to imagine keeping us connected across vast distances, this enormous new world can feel small and cold to someone used to an extended village’s expansive warmth.  It’s a cruel thought for those among us whose families have not been the most effective at solace and understanding, but all too real for others.  And when so, so many cultures use religion as a way to keep communities together and pass on their customs and lore, the connection is easy to spot.

It’s also wrong.

Religiosity has persisted for thousands of years after the invention of the city, after mass migrations around the world that put Africans in Britain and Persians in China and Japanese in Peru, after revolutions that set people fleeing by the thousands from their homelands in every direction they could.  Nuclear families are far older than the present decline in devoutness, and extended families will keep on forming and growing long after religion is a distant memory of a more savage and superstitious time.  Hell, there are extended families of atheists out there right now—entire villages that maintain the same cohesion that Dagnabbit so desperately craves without the aid of the hocus-pocus he imagines is necessary for it.

Every step in Dagnabbit’s chain—from evolutionary thinking to atheism to not valuing one’s fellow man to atrocities and social decay—is wrong.  Some of it is so wrong that the truth is very nearly the exact opposite of Dagnabbit’s version.  Well, except the connection between understanding science and abandoning religion.  That part is mostly true.

This chain is ridiculous on its face and says far more terrifying things about believers than it ever said about atheists.  The idea that believers need to be restrained from rape and genocide by the threat of eternal torment?  The idea that believers are so monstrous that they cannot see the evil of these things on their own and need to be cajoled into even this minimum standard of civilized behavior?  That is a slur most atheists would be too principled to throw at our perennial oppressors the way they heave accusations at us, and they place it on themselves as a badge.

No cosmic entity is threatening me with painful dissolution if I rape or murder, and I do neither of those things.

I know that my species, like so many others, evolved from an earlier form though chance-driven, slow, ineluctable processes, and that doesn’t prod me to regard the people across the border as subhumans worthy only of slavery and extermination like some people’s gods tell them to.

I know that my species, like so many others, is still evolving, still changing, still subject to those same chance-driven, slow, ineluctable processes, and that doesn’t prod me to think of my fellow humans as disposable or lacking in value.

I know that each of us has one life, this life, and that makes life a wonder and its loss a tragedy.  I know that no eternal extension awaits us when this life ends, and that prods me to make this life count.

I know that we are kin to the other creatures of this world, even plants and bacteria, and that doesn’t make me treat humans worse—it makes me treat those other creatures better.  I know that what makes humans special isn’t magical soul-stuff some say we carry within us, and that makes me appreciate where true ethical agency lies.

But Dagnabbit, like legions of the world’s faithful, doesn’t know that, and that makes this increasingly irreligious world a terrifying place for him.  Their only solace is to propagate this series of hateful slurs against the character of atheists, and that will only last them until we’re visible and common enough that people can’t nod along.  That day is coming.
Stereotype Threat