The Baker and the Useful Idiot

People who object to atheism qua atheism have some fairly predictable patterns.  I’ve identified a few.

The Baker

Atheists who come from Christian and especially Catholic parents will recognize this one immediately. The Baker’s catch phrase is, “So you’re an atheist? You must be angry with God.” In some ways a special case of the Bad Sorter, the Baker is flatly unable to process the existence of nonbelievers. Instead of even attempting to understand what an atheist is or why a particular atheist believes what they do, they jump to the rationalization that the atheist simply has a problem with the rules, rituals, or members of the prevailing faith, and calls himself such so as to not feel bound by those rules. The Baker imagines atheism as an insincere statement, a trick some guilt-ridden believers and wannabe iconoclasts play on themselves, and nothing more.

This view has always struck me as somewhere between amusing and insulting. On the one hand, it casts atheists as people clinging to mistaken ideas because it makes them feel good, which is one of the better definitions of “believer” that I’ve encountered—projecting much? On the other, it attempts to reduce atheism, which is most often the conclusion of a careful weighing of evidence, to simple denial. The Baker’s arguments get especially grating when they portray atheism, especially atheism emerging in minors, as an adolescent rebellion against the strictures of religion, much as various teenage fads are abortive efforts at establishing a new, adult-independent self-identity. Some religions codify this as a period in “the desert of doubt” or some such, in an attempt to trivialize and deflate the very idea of questioning religious doctrine.

But none of this is what really defines a Baker, and why I call them Bakers.

When a Baker is done trivializing atheism, and notices that this hasn’t changed anything, they break out a host of related arguments, each more irrelevantly silly than the last. Some of them are well-worn stereotypes about atheists—that we’re emotionless robots incapable of experiencing beauty or love, that we’re depressed nihilists one rainy day away from showering with the toaster, that we’re insincere attention-seekers (a rephrase of their opening statement), and more rarely, that we’re depraved, homicidal lunatics bereft of any sense of right or wrong. My personal favorite is one my mother used the last time we spoke about my atheism, which inspired a post on my old LiveJournal and our present we-will-never-bring-this-topic-up-around-each-other-again détente:

If you ever want to find love, you’d better be a Christian, because there are a lot more Christian girls in America than any other kind.

I can’t even type that without hearing, “Come to the dark side! We have cookies!”

I like to imagine that my mother was getting desperate when she reached for that gambit, that she would only have resorted to combining good old Hispanic machismo with a calculated stab at my then-fragile sense of desirability if she had tried absolutely everything else she could think of and was getting well and truly worried for my immortal soul. The alternative is that the idea that I would not share her Catholicism made her so vindictive that she was willing to target the sorest point in my nineteen-year-old psyche to pull me into the fold, an idea that only highlights the kind of cruelty that passes for care in religious circles.

This argument and the dozens of similar ones that Bakers use highlight something about how they approach religion. More than a way of thinking, for Bakers, religion is about naked, shameless tribalism. It is about Us versus Them, about the perks of belonging to this particular in-group, about social benefits versus social costs, and about the many, many ways that Bakers try not to say, “There’s a social benefit to being in this group and a social cost to being outside it. Why do you need to know anything else?” It is for this reason that their first instinct when encountering an atheist in their ranks is to accuse them of being “angry at God.” For them, God is as much a symbol of their community as a supernatural overlord, and any disregard for the one is indistinguishable from an infantile desire to be somehow distinct from the other. Atheists from cultures where a particular religion is at the center of community activities—Catholicism for most Hispanic groups, Sunni Islam for most Arabs, Sikhism for Punjabi Indians, etc—are very familiar with this phenomenon. It is a kind of small-scale authoritarianism: they are not concerned, necessarily, with one’s thoughts, as long as one shows the proper deference to religious authority and ritual and in that way keeps the overall society cohesive.

This makes the Bakers of the world rather a conundrum. Because their faith is as much a matter of social as cognitive organization, if not more so, it is likely that any given member of the community has a fairly low commitment to the faith as a belief system. However, that very same social aspect also imposes a high cost on those who would recognize the fact claims of religion as the bunk they are, since these admissions are taken as attacks on the group and dealt with via the various insults and stereotypes noted above.

Dealing with a Baker—someone prepared to defend the integrity of their in-group by insulting anyone who criticizes it, including other in-group members—can be a challenge. By their very nature, they do not debate religion on reasonable terms, much as it’s often difficult to convince a sports fan to favor a different team.  Getting through to a Baker is often a matter of weakening the connections between religion and culture in their minds, a task eased by pointing out the contradictions and absurdities in faith. For all that their defense of religion doesn’t even pretend to be rational, Bakers are uniquely amenable to reasoned discussion, precisely because their allegiance to faith is social rather than cognitive. Even those who sorely disappoint their religious brethren by leaving their faith don’t necessarily have to abandon the connections made through that faith, and they gain new connections via humanist organizations and similar groups. It is for Bakers that humanist organizations go out of their way to make atheism a safe place to land.

The Useful Idiot

Veterans of the atheosphere will recognize this category, since its members are routinely derided as “accomodationists,” “appeasers,” and, amusingly, “faitheists.” I find that the Cold War term for a Communist sympathizer in the West is even more apt, as it encapsulates the role that these people play in the overall struggle against religious evil.

Whether liberal Christian, not-religious-but-spiritual, atheist, or part of some more unusual sect, the Useful Idiot has one goal and one goal alone: to avoid conflict. For the Useful Idiot, “can’t we all just get along?” is a rallying cry, and “live and let live” the only worldview conversation they’re willing to have. Similar to the Militant Agnostic but even more obnoxious, the Useful Idiot can be a theosophist, imagining that every religion has something of value to contribute to an overarching Meta-Faith and thus that criticism of individual faiths is pointless; or else regards religion as a completely personal choice, divorced from any kind of relevance or connection to the wider world and thus that criticism of anyone’s religious views is hurtful and insensitive at the level of insulting one’s family or culture.

What all of these people have in common is a deep and abiding desire not to discuss the terms of their beliefs, and to keep anyone else from doing so. One attains the status of Useful Idiot by being more concerned with getting along with other people, by treating any and every idea and source thereof as inherently and equally valuable so as not to ever have to tell one of them that it’s not right.

It is for this reason that Useful Idiots react with such characteristic fury and vitriol when confronted with an outspoken atheist, likening them to a host of genocidal 20th-century dictators and invoking such peculiar slurs as “closed-minded” and “dogmatic.” I’ve had it suggested to me that the vigor with which I criticize religion in my online presence makes people (in this case, an atheist Useful Idiot I used to regard as reasonable) fear that an Atheist Inquisition will send kill squads after believers as soon as the atheist movement has the power to do so. Apparently I have to write a few more blog posts, to help numbskulls like this figure out the difference between 2000 words and a crime scene. An outspoken atheist in a room full of Useful Idiots is much like the child at the end of The Emperor’s New Clothes, except that everyone else shrieks that the child is being bigoted and mean by mentioning the Emperor’s nakedness.

But more than that, the Useful Idiots of the world reveal some very discomfiting facts about themselves with the way they react. In order to regard every religious sentiment (except disavowing the lot of it, of course) as equally valid and equally above criticism, they have to abandon any pretense of caring about the truth. To be concerned about whether any given worldview is in fact an accurate description of reality would require them to regard some religious claims as more true than others, so that level of critical examination goes out the window, and in comes the idea that one can have a “personal truth.” Useful Idiots tend to believe whatever brings them the most comfort and ease (usually something they picked up as children), and take umbrage at whoever would dare damage that security blanket, no matter how nonsensical it might be. This makes Useful Idiots prime targets for the claims of alternative medicine and new-age quantum babble, since they already disavow the idea of verifying or even particularly caring that stuff actually works the way people say it does.

Equally terrifying, Useful Idiots refuse to acknowledge how religious belief affects and is affected by the wider world—or they imagine that only “extreme” commitments can have negative effects. The idea that religious beliefs influence how people get around in the world, how they vote, how they treat their fellow humans and the environment, and pretty much everything else about how humans interact with the cosmos is anathema to the Useful Idiot, who regards all of these things as completely independent processes.  Confronted with religion’s crimes against humanity, its child-rape cartels and Lord’s Resistance Armies and Talibans, they insist that none of them are in fact motivated by religion, and all of them instead show religion co-opted to assist with run-of-the-mill human evil. One wonders just how little these people think of the religion they otherwise go through so much trouble to defend, if it’s such a trivial matter to turn it toward monstrosity. These are people confronted constantly with the evidence of religion’s innate iniquity, but they insist on targeting the symptoms rather than the disease, because targeting the disease hurts people’s feelings.

This is what makes them Useful Idiots, in the tradition of the Communist sympathizers that occasionally served as spies and political advocates for the Soviet Union. They put the idea in people’s heads that religions are not responsible for motivating the extremists among them, and legitimize religion as an institution by helping to disconnect it in people’s minds from the crimes it commits. Thanks to the efforts of Useful Idiots the world over, when religion motivates acts of charity, it’s religion’s doing, but when religion motivates acts of astounding, earth-shaking cruelty and evil, it’s individual evil humans who get the blame. In effect, Useful Idiots belong to a faith group all their own, which holds on faith that faith is good despite insurmountable evidence to the contrary.

Useful Idiots don’t do much in conversation besides shout accusations and insist, in the face of all argument, that religion is an inherently good thing, despite the qualities that make it uniquely capable of instigating the most inhuman evil. Dealing with them is often contingent on getting them to understand what atheism means, and to deal with it apart from their visceral, emotional reaction to anything that challenges their ecumenical stance. Once science and logic chink the Useful Idiot’s armor of tolerance, the very experience with many faiths that characterizes this group makes them likely to investigate further and, eventually, realize how mistaken they were. Until then, though, they’ll rail against the New Atheists and anyone else who dares to suggest that religion leaves a lot to be desired as a way of understanding and living in the world.
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