Individualism, association, and atheism

A recent post on Camels with Hammers about intellectual temptations atheists must avoid voices a lot of my thoughts better than I could. Fincke generally allies himself with the New Atheists, but often speaks out against the cruder and less thoughtful instances of New Atheist thought, in a way I really appreciate (since I’m basically in his position as well.) #6 in his list is one I’ve thought about a lot, and want to expand on somewhat here.

Atheists, on the whole, are a pretty individualistic bunch. Relative to the rest of humanity, they feel okay going against the grain, risking social pariah-hood, and rejecting customs that exist for the sole purpose of making humans feel more connected to each other. This makes sense: to adopt a position so counter to cultural norms, a person needs to have a pretty thick skin toward social disapproval. Individualism is a self-selecting quality for atheists in this day and age.

What I see happening a lot is that atheists conflate this individualistic personality trait with superior rationality. They care less about social approval and social bonding, they see that other atheists feel similarly and that people subscribing to all kinds of woo and religion care more about it, and they assume that caring about social approval and social bonding are in themselves less rational. So any time an attempt is made to incorporate community, ritual, and institutions which prioritize social bonding into an atheist frame, you get some voices pooh-poohing the attempt as worthless and meaningless and anti-rational. When someone confesses that they have difficulty leaving religion because of the inevitable social isolation, this is seen as a sign of weakness.

This point of view “I’m individualistic and rational, if you were rational you’d be individualistic too” ignores a basic fact of humanity: we are social animals. We were social animals before we were intellectual, inquisitive animals, and the rise of curiosity and higher-order intelligence did not erase that part of our nature. The social impulse is as valid a part of our humanity as the truth-seeking impulse, and to try to weed out either is to try to change the fundamental nature of humanity.

Humanity is greatly indebted to the individualists: they ask the questions no one else will ask, they think of things no one else has thought of, and they create new ways of being when no one else dares to try. But in doing this, they must also remember that they are statistical outliers: that if the rest of humanity is going to follow them, we’re going to transform the vision into something that meets our common need for connection and social order. This will always happen: this is the kind of beings we are.

I hear some individualists say, “Well, of course I understand that it’s hard to risk social rejection… I struggle with it too.” Yes indeed… individualism and the need for association are not mutually exclusive, and nearly all of us have elements of both. But what I would like more individualists to understand is that their need for association, while genuine, may be far less strong than another person’s. What, for you, was hard in the way running a marathon is hard, might for another person be hard in the way that climbing Mt. Everest is hard. We’re all calibrated differently; we all have different threshholds of need for different human necessities.

And yes, depending on social connection can be a bar to rationality. Of course it can. I’m a good example: several months after my initial deconversion, I was desperately searching for a way back into Christianity. Eventually I found a definition of “faith” I could accept, and I went with it, and continued calling myself a Christian for several years. It wasn’t until I began dating an atheist that I could call myself an atheist again, and that’s not a coincidence. I wanted back in because I was lonely. Because all the people who loved me were Christians, and I felt hopelessly cut off from them — even though they still loved me, I needed a sense of belonging. I couldn’t hack it as an atheist on my own. My need for social connection guided my intellectual investigations, and biased me towards one conclusion.

So, a need to “belong” can influence and distort rational thinking. You know what else can influence and distort rational thinking? A need to be smarter and more correct than other people… a personality trait that self-selecting atheists are overall in no shortage of. The wise, mature ones acknowledge this tendency, recognize how it can bias them, and find ways to minimize its effect. Similarly, I’ve come to acknowledge my profound need for social connection, recognize how it can bias me, and find ways to minimize its effect. One thing that doesn’t work is deciding to care less. That only leads to self-deception.

There are a lot of people who are socially dependent to a degree that cripples them, that cuts them off from acknowledging truths that would improve their lives. A LOT of people. But the way to self-improvement, for many, is not to become diehard individualists, but to become more thoughtful and choosy in the ways they form and maintain their social bonds. The diehard individualists would do well to remember this.


5 thoughts on “Individualism, association, and atheism

  1. I have always been rather reclusive. As a child it made me seem simply shy and withdrawn. As an adult it makes me look anti-social. And while I don’t mind doing things with close friends, if there’s a crowd involved, I do not stray from those friends unless I must. I am just not comfortable around a lot of people.

    Despite this, however, I was a christian for several years from my mid teens until I was 19 or so. And while I loved the feeling of belonging, I still had that sense of being an outlier because I wasn’t a popular kid on top of being “right with god.” I honestly feel more comfortable finally admitting, even if it’s just to myself, that I don’t believe in god. Feels more natural to me and has actually relieved a lot of my anxiety over the years.

    But despite my lone wolf mentality, I absolutely see why community is so important and why it’s good to have a community so that people at all levels of social activity have a place they can congregate.

  2. Do you have an example of the type of “needing community is irrational” argument you’ve been hearing? Most of what I’ve read on the topic are criticisms of specific mechanisms of building community. The example that most easily springs to mind is PZ Myers “no priests” critique. I’ve heard reference to the argument to which you’re referring, but I don’t think I’ve ever really come across it myself.

    In terms of the “movement,” aren’t atheists trying to build community all the time? Isn’t that what the Reason Rally was about? And atheist meetup groups? And the Secular Student Alliance? Is it just people you know who seem to devalue community, or is it leaders of the atheist community? I haven’t been keeping up with my blogs (sigh), so I don’t know if there’s a big debate going on.

    When someone confesses that they have difficulty leaving religion because of the inevitable social isolation, this is seen as a sign of weakness

    Isn’t that a sign of weakness, albeit an understandable one? If someone confesses to having difficulty accepting a rational proposition (in this case, “there is not god”) because of social factors, I would see that as a personal weakness. It would be the same if I said “I’m having trouble accepting Jesus because it would mean that I was wrong all these years.” It’s a bad reason, and anytime anyone does things for bad reasons, I see that as a weakness. Just because something is a weakness doesn’t mean it’s unforgivable.

  3. Similar to Wes’ comment, I wonder who this is directed at. I certainly have met people who seem to think that they are more rational than theists and that their individuality is part of this, but these people are not the leaders of the community. These people are pretty fringe, those who sometimes come to meetups and such.

    For me, weakness is the inability to apply rational thinking due to mere social concern for the conclusions. One applies rational thinking in creating communities, but what kind of communities? I hope we would not want communities like those I have seen at church services. And while not everyone will be a leader, nobody should be a mere follower.

    I object to some tactics in community creation. I have Alain de Botton in mind, but also some aspects of Greg Epstein’s (Harvard Humanist chaplaincy) approach as well. What I object to is ritualistic thinking tied to co-dependencies, not community building in general.

    Rational thinking is, in some ways, wholly individualistic. While we take bits of premises, logical structure, etc from others, but like all things profound (such as death, wants/needs, etc) we are left to ourselves in working out our own perspective. The part of us which yearns for community is indeed detrimental to that process, because it only adds caution to how far we go in communicating our conclusions. That desire for community adds nothing to the rationality of our opinions per se.

    We must first be completely individualistic in terms of figuring out what our opinions are. Communal concerns are only relevant when we decide what to say and do about those ideas. For me, the solution is to be who I am, and those that have used skepticism will be worth communing with. I have little desire to commune with other people. Although with family and long term friends, you have other bases for communion.

    For those that do have the problem of wanting communion with people outside of skeptics (or whomever their group is), then there truly is a tension. But if you sacrifice thinking things simply because they will be unpopular ideas, that is weakness.

  4. “we are social animals. We were social animals before we were intellectual, inquisitive animals, and the rise of curiosity and higher-order intelligence did not erase that part of our nature.”

    I would in fact go even farther. I would suggest that our intellectual nature is resultant from social behavior. What sets us apart from other species is our diachronic shared knowledge. A human raised in a state of nature, with no access to the accumulated knowledge of thousands of years of human civilization, might not be as different from a chimpanzee as we would be inclined to think. It is our advanced ability to communicate, and to extend that process of knowledge through generations, that makes us so very different. I say this as a reclusive individual who has a diminished interpersonal modality. Although I’m perfectly content being such an individualist, and I think it is often the individualists who make great contributions to that process of building knowledge, I also understand that, if all humans were like me, we would have never advanced past the rudimentary tribal culture we observe in our closest evolutionary cousins.

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