Browsing the internet one can’t help but observe a lot of snark across causes and groups, and the atheist community is no exception. Memes decrying believers’ intelligence and taunting nonbeliever’s intellectual prowess, many of them humorous and many of them not, get circulated frequently. One has to wonder what’s behind this sort of tribal behavior, and whether the benefits of such behavior outweigh the detriments. Certainly tribalistic behavior is a double-edged sword in that it sorts people into in-groups and out-groups, which to some extent is the root of distrust between groups. It’s well documented in the persuasion literature that people trust those they view as similar more than they trust those they view as different. For confirmation of this one only has to look to the numbers when Americans are polled about their likelihood of voting for a well qualified atheist who happens to be a member of their own party; the numbers are grim.
The question for atheists if we indeed want to become more powerful is “how do we become more trusted without losing our identity and values?” The answer here is that we need to do more to demonstrate and talk about values we share with believers. In his book “Start With Why” and his TED talk “How Great Leaders Inspire Action” Simon Sinek discusses how shared values motivate behavior. The basic take away is that people buy into not what you do but why you do it, and that if you want to inspire people to action (perhaps the action of trusting you with legitimate power) you need to discuss why you do what you do, how your beliefs and passions motivate your own behavior. This is of course backed up not just by Sinek’s own observations, but by over 2000 years of rhetorical theory starting with Aristotle, who first pointed out that to be considered credible one must not just appear to have expertise, but also demonstrate good moral character and goodwill for others. Here at this blog I’ve been using the phrase “sharing our yes I am” (credit for coining this phrase goes to Jeff Isbell) to talk about this very thing.
The problem we face is that much of the “why” behind a lot of our public discourse doesn’t reflect very good moral character or good will toward those whose beliefs differ from ours. When we post memes making fun of religious folks’ intelligence and critical thinking ability, we don’t appear to have good will toward them. And there are entire blogs and Facebook groups that seem to exist for this very purpose. Whether it’s true or not, these behaviors appear to be motivated by a need or desire to be superior to others, which probably isn’t perceived by believers as demonstrating particularly good moral character.
I have to admit that I’m guilty of this very act. When I’ve done it, I’ve done it because of the laughs and likes it gets from my fellow nonbelievers. It draws us closer together; what we laugh at is a great tool for identifying shared values. But as atheists draw closer to each other in this way, we move ourselves further away from our religious coworkers, neighbors, friends, and family. The question we must ask ourselves is “which is more productive, to draw us closer to each other in this way or to draw ourselves closer to those who believe?” There’s no easy answer to this question, and there’s probably no uniform answer either. Because all communication is strategic and goal oriented, which behavior will be appropriate when will always be contextual. I’ll admit, however, that as I’ve grown older I find myself siding in more instances with wanting to be respectful toward those with whom I disagree than I had in my youth.
And that in itself is an interesting phenomenon. Sometime back I found myself studying identity formation and I found Cass’ Stage Model of Sexual Identity intriguing. Even though this model is focused on homosexual identity formation, its stages seemed relevant to my own atheist identity development, particularly the identity pride and identity synthesis stages. The identity pride stage is marked by a certain arrogance/pride in one’s own identity and resentment of the majority identity. In the case of atheists, memes demeaning believers are likely a manifestation of people who are experiencing and may even be stuck in the pride phase. In the identity synthesis stage one still takes pride in his or her identity, but is more at peace with their identity and is less likely to be hostile to the majority group.
At the end of the day, I’m not sure how we move ourselves from identity pride to identity synthesis, but identity synthesis seems like a better place for the majority of our community to be from a public relations stand point. Perhaps the journey from pride to synthesis is a personal one, or maybe it’s a fundamental part of the human experience, something akin to Jospeh Campbell’s cosomogonic cycle in which the hero comes into his or her own by coming to confront the truth about herself with the help of guides and helpers before coming a helper or guide herself. If that is the case, we perhaps have a duty to each other as atheists to guide those coming after us through their stages of development. One way to do that may just be a matter of encouraging each other to mindful when criticizing those who are different from us. Maybe we should be asking ourselves important questions like, “what are my values and how does this behavior reflect them?” and “does this behavior adequately share my ‘yes I am’ or does it share my “no I’m not,’ and which is it more important for me to do in this space?”