Atheism Alone Does Not Protect Us From Tribalistic Outrage

Atheism offers little protection from tribalistic outrage

As I sit down to write this post, I'm outraged about [the latest thing my tribe says I'm supposed to be outraged about]. By expressing my outrage on social media for all to see, I am signaling my virtue. That is, my public expression of outrage is evidence that I am a good person. But this isn't the only benefit. My expression of outrage also broadcasts my allegiance to my tribe. It says, "I am one of you because I am outraged about the right things." My expressions of outrage grant me a sense of moral righteousness and belonging.

If I try to be reasonable and succeed in calming myself down, I discover that my outrage melts away. I realize that one or more of the things my tribe insists I should be outraged about isn't that big of a deal. If I make an effort to think about it, I find that I can disagree with something without being outraged about it.

But if I express this sentiment, I surrender the opportunity to signal my virtue. I run the risk of my tribe turning on me. By not being outraged over the right things, I become "part of the problem." This does not even require me to express myself. After all, my tribe insists that those who remain silent are complicit in wrongdoing.

It has become clear to me that nothing I described above requires religion. There are aspects of religious dogma or faith that facilitate this sort of thing. One could also argue that devotion to a socio-political ideology often resembles religious faith. I would not disagree, but I'm still reluctant to equate the two. Blind adherence to a secular ideology shares many characteristics with religion, but that does not make it a religion. Whether we want to acknowledge it or not, religion does not seem necessary for people to behave like this.

Atheism offers little protection from tribalistic outrage. This should be humbling for those of us who are atheists. It is something we should keep in mind as we criticize religious beliefs or religious believers. Yes, religious belief is irrational and destructive. So is tribalistic outrage, including that which is secular.

In both religious tribalism and secular tribalism, one finds barriers to reason and freethought. We gain acceptance and belonging through conformity. And when one deviates from the tribe's orthodoxy, one becomes an enemy of the tribe. One becomes a heretic or "part of the problem."

This is where I find it helpful to remember that atheism is not enough. Discarding religion is an important step in the right direction, but it is far from sufficient. Many atheists are not rational apart from how they've dealt with the question of gods. Many are not freethinkers. Some even manage to be as petty, cruel, and tribalistic as the worst religious believers.

Those of us who value reason, critical thinking, and freethought must commit to working against our own tribalistic tendencies. If we are serious about these things, we have to recognize that they require effort. We can reign in our tribalism, but we will have to work at it.