Francis Spufford:

I really think you lot need to be a bit clearer about what the emotional content of your atheism is. You are the ones who claim to be acting on a mere lack, on a non-belief, but as absences go, contemporary atheism doesn’t half seem to involve some strong feelings. It isn’t all reading Lucretius, or thinking about the many forms most beautiful. For many of you, the point of atheism appears to be not the non-relationship with God but a live and hostile relationship with believers. It isn’t enough that you yourselves don’t believe: atheism permits a delicious self-righteous anger at those who do. The very existence of religion seems to be an affront, a liberty being taken, a scab you can’t help picking. People who don’t like stamp-collecting don’t have a special magazine called The Anti-Philatelist. But you do. You do the equivalent of hanging about in front of Stanley Gibbons to orate about the detestability of phosphor bands and perforations. The Belief section of the Guardian’s Comment Is Free site – where you’d think that it wouldn’t be that surprising to find discussion of, you know, belief – is inhabited almost entirely by commenters waiting for someone to have the temerity to express a religious sentiment, whereupon they can be sprayed with scorn at fire-extinguisher pressure. It’s as if there is some transgressive little ripple of satisfaction which can only be obtained by uttering the words “sky fairy” or “zombie rabbi” where a real live Christian might hear them.

Jerry Coyne asks if we think this is accurate. I do, yeah. I’ve said recently, and will repeat here, that you see all the exact same group dynamics at play in a comment thread full of atheists as you do anywhere else on the Internet. A bunch of assholes, full of self-righteousness, snarking at their enemies and patting each other on the back for being so clever. It only seems different when you’re emotionally invested in it. Having the crest of Reason & Rationality emblazoned on your flag doesn’t change the fact that you are, well, just another group of people rallying around a flag and behaving accordingly.

It will be pointed out, rightly, that religion is hardly a quiet, private hobby like stamp collecting, and as such, it’s to be expected that people will have strong, normative opinions about it. And no doubt, people who act like assholes during religious arguments will tell themselves and others that the importance of the cause compels them to forego politeness. But though it may be a common conceit to believe otherwise, most of what people do on the Internet is not valuable. You’re not changing the world by commenting on blogs; you’re just hanging out with your friends. Your sarcastic jokes and remarks aren’t cumulatively adding up to progressive social change; you’re just showing off to win praise from the rest of the group. Pointing and denouncing might feel satisfying, but they’re not the same thing as activism. You’re just one more insignificant individual who takes pleasure from feeling justified in being mean and causing pain to someone from the out-group, especially if it raises your own status.

The striving for distinction keeps a constant eye on the next man and wants to know what his feelings are, but the empathy which this drive requires for its gratification is far from being harmless or sympathetic or kind. We want, rather, to perceive or divine how the next man outwardly or inwardly suffers from us, how he loses control over himself and surrenders to the impressions our hand or merely the sight of us makes upon him; and even when he who strives after distinction makes and wants to make a joyful, elevating or cheering impression, he nonetheless enjoys this success not inasmuch as he has given joy to the next man or elevated him or cheered him, but inasmuch as he has impressed himself on the soul of the other, changed its shape and ruled over it at his own sweet will.

— Nietzsche

In other words, it can make us feel powerful to be even a little mean. The need to feel powerful is so ingrained in us that even professions of humility can become subtle means of self-promotion (“I’m less interested in one-upsmanship than you are”, as Alan Watts said). And even those of us who genuinely want to spread joy and benevolence get an ego-charge out of exerting a powerful effect on another person, on winning their admiration, on inspiring awe (or even a little fear), on mattering in an undeniable way. Most of what we do on blogs is a way of convincing ourselves and others that we matter, of elevating ourselves, and a quick and easy way to get that assurance is to knock someone else down.

Yes, yes, I know, of course they deserve it. You just might want to take note of the fact that almost everyone who acts hatefully or aggressively toward another claims that they’re only doing it for a higher cause, or in order to defend themselves or someone weaker. It seems to be a deeper truth about human psychology, no matter what the intellectual rationalizations—it doesn’t take much to get people to choose sides and start throwing rocks and making raids on the enemy’s territory. The hats and armbands and fight songs may change, but from a slightly removed vantage point, all of human history has been nothing but an increasingly sophisticated story of rock-throwing and territory-raiding. And no, I don’t believe that being an atheist means that we are somehow more aware of our subconscious, preverbal instincts and thus better able to keep them from taking us over—if anything, the smug satisfaction we take in our special status makes us complacent against them. Nor do I believe that those lizard brain urges, like the fabled dictatorship of the proletariat, will fade away once we’ve completely eliminated our enemies and achieved a mythical state of perfection.