July 4, 2013

Is There a Strain of Anti-Intellectualism Among Atheists?

Tim Notari
I think there may be something brewing around the edges of the atheist community that is too subtle to be characterized as conflict, drama, rift, or anything quite so disruptive. I don't have any colorful name for it, and I'm not completely sure I am even right about its presence. I could just be imagining things. But if I am right, I think it has the potential to turn into something ugly down the road. I have skirted the subject a number of times when I addressed power, hierarchy, credibility, and expertise. I'm jumping in now.

I have seen more than a few atheists whose writing (e.g., comments left on others' blogs, Facebook, Twitter) suggests that they are harboring resentment toward persons with advanced education, rejecting skepticism, and even holding many of the same attitudes we describe as anti-intellectualism when referring to religious believers. While some of the comments I've seen are fairly explicit and require little in the way of inference, many are more subtle. Perhaps I am misinterpreting what I am seeing and it is something other than anti-intellectualism. If so, I trust my readers will help to set me straight.

I know I am being vague here, so I'll try to elaborate a bit without calling anyone out. Some of the more blatant comments are things like, "I know just as much as anyone with a damn Ph.D" or "I believe in ghosts because I felt one pass through me." The more subtle ones include references to "so-called experts" or "eggheads," disparaging remarks about "hyper-skepticism" whenever one is met with questions about one's own beliefs, and repeated insistence that someone's personal experience and only personal experience qualifies one as an expert. Needless to say, this valuing of personal experience ahead of empirical data or scientific consensus is something I've come to expect from the religious and never thought I'd never see as a tangible presence in the atheist community.

At this point, some of you are almost certainly thinking that I am referring to Freethought Blogs/Skepchick/Atheism+ here. I am not. While I have seen some of what I am describing from their fans and associates, I am not referring to things I've seen primarily at Freethought Blogs, Skepchick, or the Atheism+ forum. It might be happening there too, but this is not where I have been seeing most of it. Similarly, while I have also seen some of what I am describing here coming from some people who appear to be sworn enemies Freethought Blogs/Skepchick/Atheism+, this is also not primarily where I am seeing it. It seems to be broader than members of either of these groups.

What is happening here? I'm not sure yet. What it looks like to me is that we've got quite a few atheists out there who are not particularly well versed in critical thinking, who are not familiar with how skepticism works (or have rejected it), and who have fairly negative attitudes toward the value of education. But that can't be right, can it? Post-modernism seems like a possible culprit. I am also looking for some indication that what I am seeking is motivated by economic resentment (i.e., "It isn't fair that you got to go to college and I didn't"), but I haven't seen much evidence of that so far. Instead, I keep seeing variations on the theme, "My feelings and subjective experiences trump your fancy book learnin' and pointless degrees any day of the week!"

How about you? Have you seen anything like this out there among atheists? If so, do you have any ideas about what might be driving it? Hopefully I am just imagining things.

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