Smug, Arrogant Atheists - How Are Atheists Smug or Arrogant?

Maybe Smugness and Arrogance is Justified

It's common to see complaints and accusations that atheists are arrogant or even smug. The point seems to be that atheists should re-frame their position radically so as to present themselves in a more appealing, amicable manner. There are at least two problems: it's not always clear that the accusation is legitimate and, even when it is, that the alleged arrogance is genuinely a problem. Too often, the accusation is made as if it were self-evidently true and bad.

This needs to be challenged.


What is Arrogance or Smugness?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines arrogance and arrogant as:

Arrogance: The taking of too much upon oneself as one's right; the assertion of unwarrantable claims in respect of one's own importance; undue assumption of dignity, authority, or knowledge; aggressive conceit, presumption, or haughtiness.

Smug: Having a self-satisfied, conceited, or consciously respectable air. Confident of one's ability or correctness; complacent.

There seems to be two ways in which the labels "arrogant" or "smug" would be legitimately used in our context: to describe people who are claiming authority or knowledge which they have no basis in claiming or people who are claiming legitimate authority or knowledge but doing so in a manner that is too "haughty" and "self-satisfied" — i.e., scornful, disdainful, contemptuous, superior, etc.


Do Atheists Make Unwarrantable Claims?

The first sense of "arrogance" which atheists might be accused of is that they make "unwarrantable claims." Notice that the adjective is unwarrantable, not unwarranted.

This is a huge difference: an unwarranted claim is one that is not (yet) justified or supported; an unwarrantable claim is one that is not even capable of being justified or supported. Thus merely making unsupported claims to authority or knowledge is not arrogant; to be arrogant, one must make claims to authority or knowledge which they could not even in theory support.

So for an accusation of this sort of arrogance to be legitimate, atheists must be making claims that they couldn't possibly justify or support. If someone thinks it's impossible to prove the non-existence of any sort of alleged deity and also thinks that the definition of atheist is someone who claims to know that no gods exist, then "arrogance" is a logical and direct conclusion. Because both premises are incorrect, though, the conclusion itself is also incorrect.

That is probably the best case that can be made for atheists generally or commonly being arrogant in this sense. It's entirely possible that there are individual cases of atheists being arrogant in this sense when it comes to the subject of atheism, theism, and/or religion, but very specific evidence would have to be given to support the accusation. The accuser would have to be able to point to specific claims to authority or knowledge, whether explicit or implicit, and furthermore be able to demonstrate that such claims are indeed "unwarratable." This would be difficult to say the least.


Are Atheists Scornful, Self-Satisfied, Disdainful, Contemptuous?

The second sense of "arrogant" or "smug" deals with the attitude of the person.

It doesn't matter whether the claims they are making are true or not, proven or not, or theoretically justifiable. What matters is that they are making their claims in a manner that is disdainful of others, haughty, and/or contemptuous. This can be a difficult accusation to justify because unless a person directly admits to such attitudes, most "evidence" depends on how one interprets word choice, tone of voice, facial expressions, etc. What one person interprets as disdain might be interpreted by other as mere dismissal — and intended by the speaker as disinterest.

It would certainly be difficult to justify this accusation of atheists or "new" atheists generally — it can only be justified when made about particular people with particular evidence. As before, this is an accusation that requires specific support, not just vague and generalized claims with a few out-of-context quotes of unknown origin.

What's more, even if we assume for the sake of argument that an atheist is guilty of being "smug" in the sense discussed here, it's not legitimate to conclude that they are necessarily wrong for this and should change. Such a conclusion requires assuming that being haughty, self-satisfied, disdainful, or contemptuous is always wrong and that a person with such attitudes must always change — but that's simply not the case.


What's Wrong with Smug Arrogance?

I believe that the earth orbits the sun. I am disdainful, contemptuous, and scornful towards anyone trying to argue that the sun orbits the earth — that they have examined the case for heliocentrism and are convinced that the case for geocentrism is superior. I believe that the earth is about 4.5 billion years. I am disdainful, contemptuous, and scornful towards anyone trying to argue that the earth is really only about 6,000 years old.

In both cases, I'm confident of being correct and in dismissing the alternatives. Both cases seem to fit the definition of "smug" or "arrogant," but I reject the idea that there is anything wrong with my position in either — not simply that there is anything wrong with my conclusion, but that there is anything wrong with being disdainful of what others are arguing for or with being confident that my position is correct. If sufficient evidence is presented that I'm incorrect then I'll change my position, but so far I've seen so much evidence supporting my position that I simply can't take that likelihood very seriously.

It would be easy to come up with dozens and dozens of similar examples. We all have positions which we are confident of being correct about. We can all think of ideas which we would be incredibly disdainful and contemptuous of because they are so clearly nonsensical. I don't believe that anyone thinks this is very wrong — there really are some ideas that are too silly to take seriously or treat seriously.

This means that atheists aren't automatically or necessarily wrong even if they are smug about some position they hold.

To be accused of smugness isn't the same as being accused of doing something wrong. If a person wants to accuse an atheist of being wrongly smug, they must demonstrate that there really is no good reason for them to be satisfied with their own position and disdainful, scornful, or contemptuous of some other position. This would require engaging the atheist's position in a substantive way, which is unlikely because so often the accusations of "smugness" and "arrogance" appear to be little more than "Poisoning the Well" fallacies designed to discourage people from engaging atheists' ideas.


Stop Being Smug Anyway

Even if it's not possible to insist that smugness is automatically wrong, people still dislike it when they perceive that it's directed their way. That's understandable, but it doesn't justify demands that a person not be smug. Remember, smugness in this case is being confident that one is right while being disdainful of others' positions — thus the demand that one not be smug is the demand that cease being so confident in their correctness and start taking another's position seriously.

What reason might be offered for doing that? Well, obviously we should do that when presented with good evidence that another position is at least reasonable, if not perhaps correct. That, however, requires an argument — it requires that a person make a strong case for their position. They can therefore only demand that another not be so smug after they have made a strong case that the other person is wrong; they cannot legitimately make that demand before they make their case. Do note that there is a difference between taking some position seriously and taking a serious look at some evidence or argument I'm offering for my position.


Aren't Christians the Arrogant and Smug Ones?

Especially ironic about all this is that religious theists, and Christians in particular, are arguably at least as guilty of being arrogant and/or smug as atheists and perhaps even more so — but it's only atheists who get the accusation and who are expected to change. Why? Perhaps it's because the same arrogance and smugness has so long been standard in religion that people don't see it anymore; atheists asserting themselves, though, is a more recent phenomenon and people are too unaccustomed to it to.

If arrogance is the assertion of authority or knowledge which cannot be supported, that's certainly something we see in religion a lot. Christians and other religious theists claim that they know that they have access to information which has a divine source or influence. They claim to know not only that a deity exists, but also what it wants. They claim to have the authority to structure all of society according to the standards they say their god has provided. Many admit that their beliefs are founded on faith and cannot be supported — which means they are unwarrantable.

If smugness is a scornful, contemptuous, disdainful attitude, then it's easy to find this in religion. Religious theists are frequently and consistently scornful, contemptuous, and disdainful of each other's religions, religious texts, and religious beliefs. They all frequently join each other in sharing those attitudes towards atheists who don't accept any of their supernatural, religious claims. Contempt and scorn is so frequent in religion that it seems to be the norm for religious believers to try to deny other religions equal rights whenever they get enough political power.