January 14, 2013

Susan Jacoby on the 'Blessings' of Atheism

Cover of "The Age of American Unreason"
Cover of The Age of American Unreason
Susan Jacoby's recent op-ed in The New York Times has been receiving quite a bit of attention around the atheist community, and for good reason. I have read two of Jacoby's books (Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism and The Age of American Unreason), was impressed with both, and have enjoyed almost everything I've heard from her. My reaction to her recent op-ed is mixed though, and I'd like to share it here.

Jacoby's thesis appears to be that atheists should work to change public perceptions by emphasizing our empathy and kindness as well as our intellect. She believes that the primary obstacle holding us back from achieving greater influence in society involves the widespread perception that we have nothing positive to offer.

I agree with much of what Jacoby says in her article. I certainly agree that speaking out is important. She describes how she used to avoid talking about her atheism but has found it quite rewarding to do so. She recounts experiences where it may have even influenced others. She's right about the power of atheist models showing the world that we are here and are perfectly capable of doing good things. I also applaud her effort to put a positive face on atheism.
The atheist is free to concentrate on the fate of this world — whether that means visiting a friend in a hospital or advocating for tougher gun control laws — without trying to square things with an unseen overlord in the next.
Absolutely. There is something freeing about atheism, as one can focus on what really matters in the here-and-now.

I even agree with what is sure to be one of the more controversial recommendations Jacoby offers - that we must embrace the "atheist" label and drop the many diluted alternatives. It is time to get off the fence and be ourselves.

My main disagreement centers around Jacoby's claim that the primary reason we atheists lack social and political influence in U.S. society is that we are perceived as having nothing positive to contribute during times of crisis. I see this as one of many reasons but not a particularly important one. She writes:
This widespread misapprehension that atheists believe in nothing positive is one of the main reasons secularly inclined Americans — roughly 20 percent of the population — do not wield public influence commensurate with their numbers.
I disagree. I think our lack of political influence is far more about our own diversity and the lack of agreement on political issues within our group, our nonconformist nature and the distaste of organization that seems to accompany it, and the bigotry and discrimination we face from outside our community. Jacoby is correct to stress the importance of the lack of secular community institutions and our reluctance to speak out. But even these strike me as far more important than the perception that we "believe in nothing positive."

For Jacoby, it is our reluctance to speak out in particular ways and at particular times that is so critical.
But the most powerful force holding us back is our own reluctance to speak, particularly at moments of high national drama and emotion, with the combination of reason and passion needed to erase the image of the atheist as a bloodless intellectual robot.
Again, I would agree that this may be one relevant factor, but it is not even close to being the most important one. In the wake of the Newtown mass murder, atheists spoke out all over the Internet. Virtually everyone addressed this, and I would be hard pressed to think of anyone who did so in a purely intellectual manner.

I reach out to my fellow humans in their times of crisis - not because I am an atheist but because I am human. A somewhat cynical reading of Jacoby's article might suggest that she would want me to be sure to identify myself as an atheist while doing this. But in these moments of real crisis where empathy and understanding are so desperately needed, to do so would strike me as a bit callous and self-serving. I'm not reaching out to make a political point but because it is the right thing to do. In fairness, I suspect that this is not quite what she meant.

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