Ian Murphy has written a fun little article called Five Atheists Who Ruin it For Everyone Else. In it, he notes that there is a growing population of people without faith, but that this movement is being hindered by a few high profile atheists, who, for lack of a better word, are assholes. I take issue with the first part of this claim: I don’t think there is a growing population of people without faith. I think they were always there and maybe now they feel more comfortable self-identifying as atheists and agnostics. True believers are pretty rare in my experience.
Murphy’s list of asshole atheists is a good one: Sam Harris, Bill Maher, Penn Jillette, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and S.E. Cupp. What do all of these people have in common? They all lean libertarian. And this isn’t just true of them; it is true for a large portion of the atheist community. And I have long wondered about this.
It is not, as would seem to be the case, because they are all followers of Ayn Rand. But it is related to this. I think that Ayn Rand was an atheist for the same reason the Assholes Five are. Libertarian thought is based upon the myth of individual accomplishment. Humans are social animals and must be—Mitt Romney at the peak of his brilliance would have quickly died if stranded alone on an atoll; no car elevator for him! Belief in this myth allows people to not think just that they are an important member of their society or even that they are marginally better than other people; it allows them to think that they are discreetly better than other people: one, two, or more sociological quantum leaps beyond the common herd.
This is how we end up with a book like Atlas Shrugged, with its demigod heroes. All of these great “producers” decide to go on strike because the world would be lost without them. And of course, in the novel, the government falls apart and John Galt is there to create a new society from scratch: a free market utopia of the type we’ve heard so much about in post-war Iraq. In reality, we would see something different.
Consider this example that I got from The Winner-Take-All Society: suppose we had an edict that said only people with IQs of less than 70 could practice law. This would not affect the world in any way. People with the most money would still hire the best lawyers and so on. Now this would not be true of, say, engineering. If all our engineering was done with very limited minds, our cars wouldn’t work. But if we did something less extreme, and just removed the top people in the field, their work would be taken over by the second string engineers, and you know what? Nothing would change.
I’ve written about this before. The huge distinctions we make between the best and almost the best are mythical: they don’t exist. I admire Einstein, but his thinking wasn’t that revolutionary. I admire Usain Bolt, but he isn’t that much faster than other runners. I admire Darwin, but his thinking wasn’t that revolutionary—wait: Alfred Russel Wallace!
The core of libertarian thought is based on the deification of people who, through a combination of genes, environment, and luck, succeed spectacularly in society. It is not surprising then, that people who lose faith in one mythology (e.g. Christianity) would grab onto another (e.g. libertarianism or communism)—especially when that new mythology has the trappings of rationality and science.
What tends to make both libertarians and atheists such assholes is their shared belief that they see the world so much more clearly than others. It is rare indeed to find a libertarian who doesn’t think that his ideology can be derived from first principles. And this is not only annoying, it is dangerous.
I consider myself an atheist—or at least as much as one can reasonably be. There is still raison d’être, which very many atheists embarrassingly seem to mistake with cosmology. I also have a lot of anarchical leanings. I do think that people should just leave each other the hell alone. But for most people, atheism and libertarianism are religions. I have great concern about people who combine these things. It is much easier to assume that someone like Richard Carrier, who combines atheism with secular humanism, is not blinded by ideology, and hence, theology.