The Problem with Atheism Is Atheists

In the Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell memorably described the brutal conditions under which coal miners worked in the first part of the book, and then devoted the second part of the book to decrying the utter ineffectuality of Socialism, or more accurately, Socialists, in addressing the problems of the working class. Orwell was roundly criticized for the second half of the book at the time by his publisher, Victor Gollancz, and has been roundly criticized ever since. Orwell's critique of Socialists does as much to reveal his own prejudices as anything else, and it is a bit humorous today because many of things he clearly regards as outre are things that we consider quite within the bounds of normality today:

One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words ‘Socialism’ and ‘Communism’ draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist, and feminist in England.

Id. Chapter 11 Notwithstanding the comedy behind what Orwell considered radical and "crankish" at the time,the point stands that Socialism was going nowhere so long as it failed to appeal to the mainstream, and it was not going to appeal to the mainstream so long as Socialism not only appeared to be a marginal movement, but also Socialists appeared to be marginal people. It is a little bit like the failure of the Democratic Party to win elections if it cannot appeal to what used to be known as "Reagan Democrats": solid middle class citizens who were moderately liberal economically and moderately conservative socially. If a social movement cannot appeal to the solid middle class, it is going nowhere.

Cranks and Atheists

Atheism suffers from a similar problem today. While we may have moved beyond Madalyn Murray O'Hair to Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, atheism is not simply grouped as one of many minor systems of belief (or non-belief), but is decidedly still stigmatized in polite middle class society: it retains an association with cranks and weirdos.

The behavior of leading atheists does nothing to dispel this image. This was admittedly not always the case, when such eminent intellectual figures as David Hume combined intellectual leadership, respectability, and notorious unbelief. Prominent atheists such as Dawkins and Hitchens have such a pronounced desire to epater les bourgeois and such a naked assumption of their intellectual superiority that they appeal more to snobbery than solidarity. (The fact that they are smarter than the average person does not make the average person any more appreciative of being reminded of it.) Moreover, they have unacknowledged blind spots, particularly their rather ugly anti-Muslim prejudice and arguably a certain condescension toward women.

There is nothing wrong with an intellectual critique of any particular religion; most of them are on pretty shaky ground when subjected to any kind of rational analysis. However, it is a mistake to conclude based on such a critique that the practioners of that religion are necessarily stupid or malevolent. There are stupid and malevolent practictioners of almost any religion, of course. Moreover, many religions have bizarre tenets which are objectionable when put into practice. (Christianity and slavery, anyone?) But there are clearly just as many good and generous believers as there are atheists, and just as clearly they both succumb to the same fallacy when they assume that it is their religion that determines their character.