September 18, 2020

Too Weak To Be An Atheist?

Atheist Cat

You've heard the saying "ignorance is bliss." For many people, it rings true. Perhaps not everyone is cut out to strike out on one's own and pursue truth no matter how unpopular it might be. For many people, moment-to-moment comfort, even false comfort, is far more preferable. I suspect most of us would agree that it is easier to adopt the position of the majority and refrain from questioning it as long as one can. If we are sufficiently motivated to "go along to get along," it is easy enough to turn on the TV and let others tell us what to think, shut down our minds, and refuse to dwell on the difficult questions. Some of us might not be successful at doing this for long, but others manage to pull it off for their entire lives.

It is not my intention to suggest that these people are necessarily weaker than those who do not do this. In some ways, I envy them. They seem to have at least one ability I lack in that they are able to quiet their questioning mind when the questions become inconvenient.

If I had a dollar for every time I've heard something like the following, I'd be one of those filthy rich "job creators" the Republican Party loves to tell us about so much:

I could never be an atheist. I need something to believe in.
Once we get past the obvious problem (i.e., the speaker's assumption that because atheists do not believe gods, we do not believe in anything), we arrive at the question of weakness. Is the speaker saying that he or she is too weak to be an atheist? I think so. At least, I have had several Christians say this directly to me over the years (i.e., that they are too weak to be atheists).

My initial response is usually to suggest that the speaker is being too hard on himself or herself. But that probably reflects my hope for them more than any external reality. Could it be that some people really are too weak to be atheists?

It does take a decent measure of strength and courage to throw off the shackles of religious belief, and I'm not sure this is changed by the fact that many of us did not experience this as a voluntary process. At some point, we still had to come to terms with it and decide how (or if) it was going to factor into our identity. That all involves a measure of courage. Not only does one become a member of a hated minority group when one identifies as an atheist, but one loses the false comforts offered by religion. And because religion can be psychologically damaging to youth, one may also have some repair work to do. If there is one concept one can count on encountering among most of the formerly religious, it would be that of trauma.

I think what troubles me most about the notion of people being too weak to be atheists is that it makes me uncomfortable to suggest that individuals with a strong need to belong are somehow weaker because of it. In my experience, many religious believers cling to their faith because of the social connections it confers. I have a hard time seeing them as weak just because their desire to belong might be stronger than mine.

What do you think? Are some people really too weak to be atheists? Or maybe, some people just aren't well-suited to be atheists and it has nothing to do with weakness.

This is a revised and expanded version of a post that originally appeared on Atheist Revolution in 2011.