Andrew Sullivan just posted some recent research that suggests that the stereotype of the “dogmatic, belligerent” atheist is largely false. A study from the University of Tennessee found that the largest group of atheists fit into the category that researchers “call ‘academic’ or ‘intellectual atheists’: people who are well-educated, interested in religion, informed about it, but not themselves believers” and these are nearly twice as large of a group as the more militant “anti-theist” group associated with prominent atheist figures like Bill Maher. None of this comes as a big surprise to me, since most of the atheists I know would probably fit into the “academic atheist” grouping. Just as most Christians aren’t the raving fundamentalists who seem to pop up in the news, so also most atheists aren’t chomping at the bit to end religious belief.
What was most interesting to me in the story, however, was that their place in or out of the “anti-theist” grouping had little effect on the degree to which atheism affected the study participant’s daily lives. Sullivan quotes Amanda Marcotte at Salon:
Only 15 percent of non-believers […] fit in the category of those who actively seek out religious people to argue with, and the subset that are dogmatic about it are probably even smaller than that. But that doesn’t mean that the majority of non-believers are just sitting around, twiddling their thumbs and not letting atheism affect their worldview. On the contrary, researchers found that the majority of non-believers take some kind of action in the world to promote humanism, atheism or secularism.
In short, it seems like most atheists face the same conundrum that most religious people do: how do you live out your beliefs authentically without simply turning into a jerk? I’ve posted recently on how tired I am of an academic setting in which no one seems to care enough about ideas to really and truly assert them; instead, it feels like a long, extended exercise in “I’m okay, you’re okay.” So, I’m all for open, serious, and thoughtful engagement with one’s own beliefs—which sometimes involves directly disagreeing with others about theirs. But how to do this without becoming a raving pundit (the only alternative our culture seems to offer to bland indifference)? And must commitment to one’s own ideas always take the dubious form of “seeking out people to argue with”?
I don’t have a solid answer to those questions—but I have an inkling that part of the answer might lie in literature (surprise, surprise). Flannery O’Connor didn’t write long polemics against the people she religiously disagreed with (though there was that famous exchange with Mary McCarthy), but it’s hard to imagine a work of literature more distinctly Catholic (without ever, to the best of my recollection, containing the word) than Wise Blood. It’s a thoroughly committed and honest book—which is, perhaps, what allows it to sail safely between the Scylla and Charybdis of “I’m okay, you’re okay” and blustering belligerence, both of which are far more affected than an authentic attempt to clearly and plainly articulate truth.
It’s this raw honesty that makes Wise Blood a great novel—and not just a religious tract. Regardless of whether you agree with O’Connor, you recognize the presence of sincere truth-seeking. It’s that same truth-seeking that makes me love most everything James Joyce wrote (I’ll admit I never got more than 10 pages into Finnegan’s Wake, but still…), even though I’ve grown to love and enter the same Church that Joyce grew to despise and effectively exit. I might not share all of Stephen Dedalus‘s anger, but I sure as hell know that it’s real and I will never mistake Portrait of the Artist as Young Man as a mere exercise in either bland religious tolerance or pure polemics.