Why Religious Believers Are So Desperate for the Atheist Seal of Approval
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If you hang around the online atheist world long enough, you'll notice an interesting pattern. Many religious and spiritual believers who engage with atheists seem very intent on getting atheists' approval for their beliefs.
Typically, these believers acknowledge that many religions are profoundly troubling. They share atheists' revulsion against religious hatreds and sectarian wars. They share our repugnance with religious fraud, the charlatans who abuse people's trust to swindle them out of money and sex and more. They share our disgust with willful religious ignorance, the flat denials of overwhelming scientific evidence that contradicts people's beliefs. They can totally see why many atheists are so incredulous, even outraged, about the world of religion.
But they think their religion is an exception. They think their religion is harmless, a kinder, gentler faith. They think their religion is philosophically consistent, supported by reason and evidence -- or at least, not flatly contradicted by it.
And they want atheists to agree.
They really, really want atheists to agree. They want atheists to say, "No, of course, your beliefs aren't like all those others -- those other beliefs are crazy, but yours make sense." Or they want atheists to say, "Wow, I hadn't heard that one before -- how fascinating and well thought-out!" Of course they understand why atheists object to all those other bad religions. They just don't understand why we object to theirs. They get very hurt when we object to theirs. And they will spend a significant amount of time and energy trying to persuade us to stop objecting.
Why do they care what atheists think?
I've been getting into these debates with religious believers for many years now. I've seen how they start out, and where they end up. I've seen many, many theists desperately try to get the Atheist Seal of Approval for their religion. And I've reached two conclusions about why they're doing it. They think atheists have higher standards than most believers, so our approval will mean more. And they don't want to think their religion has anything in common with those other sucky religions... and getting atheists' approval would let them keep on thinking that.
The Gold Standard
Believers seeking the Atheist Seal of Approval for their beliefs seem to see atheists as the gold standard. They know that most atheists have rejected religion for a reason: they know we take religion seriously, and that we've examined it carefully and thoughtfully before rejecting it. They know that we're more familiar with the tenets and traditions of religion than most believers: that we not only know more about religion in general than most believers do, but that we know more about specific religious beliefs than the people who actually adhere to those beliefs. They see that, as Julia Sweeney so eloquently put it, we take religion too seriously to believe in it. They see how passionately we value the truth -- and they respect that.
So if they can get us to give their religion a thumbs-up... that would really mean something. They understand that religious believers -- other believers, that is, not themselves of course -- often don't have very good reasons for their beliefs. They sincerely care about the truth, I think (this is definitely not the case for all believers, but it is for these folks), and they want to test their faith against the harshest critics they can think of. They want their cognitive dissonance resolved -- the tension between the religious faith they hold to be true, and the evidence and arguments showing that the case for their faith is crap -- and they understand enough about the communal reinforcement and other cognitive errors to know that Other People Who Already Agree With Them isn't the most rigorous way to resolve that dissonance. If they could get some atheists to tell them their belief is okay, that would resolve that annoying dissonance in a heartbeat.