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"These are the days when the Christian is expected to praise every creed except his own." G.K.Chesterton

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Wednesday, January 26, 2005

the Village Atheist Syndrome

Pathological atheism and its discontents

The Village Atheist Syndrome by Vern L. Bullough & Bonnie Bullough Humanism Today, Vol. 10, 1996

This paper from The Humanist Institute publication Living as Humanists reads like a satire or a parody. However for anyone who has ever met the archetypal "village atheist" it is such a devastatingly accurate portrait of those suffering from the "syndrome" that it deserves to be savoured.

Some extracts:
In psychiatric terms, some humanists suffer from a dysphoria, a dysphoria which we have named the "Village Atheist Syndrome"...

In outward appearances the persons afflicted with the syndrome appear to be no different than anyone else. Most tend to hold respectable positions in society, have the normative family affiliations, and do most of the things that other people of their age or economic condition do. Some of our more sociobiologically oriented colleagues with whom we have discussed the behavior feel that there might well be genetic or be a result of other biological forces but if this is the case, no one to our knowledge has isolated them...

A few psychologists have suggested that the village atheist syndrome could be classed as a form of obsessive compulsive behavior. So far, however, no one has been able to test serotonin levels of any of those we would class as having the syndrome. We ourselves feel that multiple factors are involved and since we are primarily social scientists we tend to look for social and cultural factors...

We first became interested in the syndrome from our mutual experience on boards and committee meetings of humanist and free thought organizations. Once our interest was aroused we noted that sometimes in such settings, the individual becomes so dominating, we might even say irrational, that the proceedings are totally disrupted. We also have noted that certain words, for example "God" or "religion," seem to set them off, sometimes the reaction is so severe that it seems to be an apoplectic attack. If we were to follow the psychiatric model mentioned at the beginning of this paper, this apoplectic reaction could be called a sort of third stage syndrome, and could be labeled the paranoid village atheist syndrome. We have noted also that the symptoms seem to become more severe with age, although when the person reaches 80 or so there is a gradual decline in the response pattern.

Perhaps the most obvious symptom is an inability to compromise, to get along with others. This is first noticed in board meetings of humanist and free thought groups where the village atheist is attempting to get his/her way. We should state that though the condition most frequently appears in males, when females present with it they seem to get a more severe case. Obviously if it has any genetic source, it must be carried on one portion of an x chromosome and is a recessive trait in females where it can be overshadowed by the genetic inheritance on the paired x chromosome unless it too carries it. It, however, would be dominant in males because it is not carried on the y chromosome. Whether this explanation has any validity is certainly unproven, and we offer it not as a hypothesis but only as an interesting possibility which might explain why women with the syndrome suffer such severe dysphoria.

Apparently when the individuals with a proclivity for the syndrome find themselves among what they had believed to be like-minded free thinkers, they are both shocked and appalled to find that others disagree with them, often on major issues. This disagreement is marked by what can be only called anti-social behavior, a clear mark of the village atheist syndrome. In order to get their way they nit-pick everything to death, and if outvoted at one meeting will come back at the next and start over again. We should add that the condition is not only common in humanist and free thought groups, but a similar phenomenon exists in many Unitarian/Universalist congregations...

In fact, distinguishing the village atheist syndrome from the similar syndrome in Unitarianism/Universalism, and perhaps elsewhere, is the almost total intolerance of "religious" belief by those so afflicted. This hostility to religion is often accompanied by a feeling of superiority in their ability to function without religion. Sometimes this superiority is outright arrogance, an arrogance which only the possessor of the truth can have. Sometimes the arrogance seems to be accompanied by insecurity because they seem to almost lose control of their reason if a fellow humanist or free thinker does not view religion in the same way that they do. In severe cases they seem almost to foam at the mouth, their voices rise, and their whole body shakes. Related to this is their basic intolerance of religious professionals, whether ministers, priests, rabbis, imams, or in the more severely afflicted, ethical culture leaders and humanist counselors...

The person afflicted with the syndrome also spends considerable time hunting up obscure facts, feeling that nothing should be overlooked to buttress his or her case. In the process village atheists often loses themselves in detail, ignoring the larger picture. This behavior is obviously self-destructive. Unfortunately, it is not only self-destructive to the individual but to free thought groups themselves...

There are other factors also involved. We have found that a significant percentage of those with the village atheist syndrome were born into religiously orthodox religious traditions. Usually they themselves were very religious, until in their teens or in their twenties, they began questioning the tradition they grew up in and had accepted. As they did so, they found more and more errors and superstitions in it, and in the process became real experts on various systems of belief. This kind of background, however, is common to many in the free thought movement and by itself is not enough to give rise to the syndrome. Rejecting religion, however, was usually not an easy thing for the village atheist since it meant breaking with their family and loved ones. In many cases the trauma is so severe that the break with the family remains irreparable. Since they are so conscious of what their own commitment to free thought has cost them, they find it difficult to accept those who arrived at a free thought pattern more casually, or at least without the trauma they feel they suffered.

The most severe cases occur among those who either had not yet broken with their past when they married and their mate refused to join them in their thinking, or who entered into a marriage with a belief that they could change the thinking of their loved one. It seems that not infrequently the new convert to free thought is like any other convert, convinced that they have the truth and want others to have it. Many naively believed that once they presented the truth to their loved ones, they too would believe as they did. When this did not occur, hard choices had to be made and often peace was kept by not talking about such things at home. It seems quite plausible that forced to keep quiet at home about such issues, they often became embittered about religion, taking out on religion and the religious the antagonisms they feel to their own spouse. The situation is even worse if children are involved and the free thinking individual is unable to communicate his or her own ideas effectively to them.

Unfortunately there is no easy cure for what we can abbreviate as the VAS. Therapy has not helped and antibiotics do not touch it. This means that with the current knowledge we have to use subjective approaches, treat the symptoms and not necessarily try to effect any radical change. Probably the first step in dealing with the condition is to recognize it. We do not think that it needs to be entered into the DSM IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association) to be recognized, but we need to alert ourselves about the condition and the danger that it poses to our movement, not so much because of the destructiveness of the village atheist but because all of us are carriers of some of the elements that go into the syndrome. We think that perhaps a necessary second step is to recognize the emotional trauma that many of us had to go through to become humanists and free thinkers...

A more succint and accurate portrayal of "village atheism" would be harder to find than that given here by Humanists Vern and Bonnie Bullough. The article seems thoroughly legit, but even if it were a hoax the truth shines through loud and clear. The world is full of disturbed religiously-obsessed people, some of them are theists and some of them are atheists. "Free thinker", "rationalist" and "humanist" groups need to wake up to the fact that the atheism of many of their members is just another dogmatic and deformed manifestation of an innate human religion impulse and not a sign of superior wisdom, intelligence, reason or psychology.

9:28:00 pm