One of the near universal instincts which human beings have is that—whatever may be the path to salvation—we can’t all be damned. “All”, of course, is defined in terms of the group, not all human beings as a species. And by “be damned”, I mostly mean, “perish”. And of course the if stated directly, as a proposition, it is obviously false. Despite all that, it is still a foundational belief for a great many people.
If we’re not all going to be damned, it raises the question of who will? Since it’s not all, it must be the people who stand out in some way. And there are two sub-groups of people who stand out: the best, and the worst. There’s something important to note about the best, but I’m going to save that for last. Clearly between the two, it is the worst who are the most likely candidates for damnation. This has obvious effects, like reality shows that showcase the worst people to reassure the rest of us that we’re in the middle, not the bottom. But it also has another, less obvious, but more pernicious effect. It makes most people very unwilling to stand out from the group at all.
If one stands out, there are—logically speaking—only two ways to do it. One can be better or one can be worse. To be merely different would be possible only if the characteristic in question had no moral implications. This should be possible, but in a complicated world where one does not comprehend the remote consequences of one’s actions, everything probably has some sort of moral implications. According to the people who charge double for the chocolate they sell, their competitors use slave labor and pass the savings on to you. Failing to cut the rings on a six-pack holder may strangle a seagull. Driving to the beach causes global warming, and buying a t-shirt may support a sweat shop. Buying a dress shirt made by a tailor might cause your co-worker to become self-conscious about their cheaper, less well-fitting shirt. Everything is problematic, so the only safe thing is to stick with the group. If you stand out, you might be better, but since it’s much easier to be worse, odds are good that if you risk being different, it will mean you’re worse.
The overriding principle thus becomes conformity. What will save one, in a confusing and uncertain world, is blending in with the group. It doesn’t really matter what group, of course. The only requirement is that it be a respectable group—not generally respectable, of course, only respectable to the individual. Any group for which one can feel affection is respectable in this sense, and any group one is used to who is reasonably accepting can have affection felt for it, so there is an inevitable mix of the people who happen to be around and the ones that one is willing to spend time with. Once the group has been selected, people outside of this group are irrelevant, except insofar as they affect the group, e.g. they vote for laws that the group must obey. These can be small groups—tribes, villages, etc—but in the west they are generally much larger and more amorphous. Patriotic Americans, Christian Fundamentalists, Democrats, Atheists, geeks etc. can all be such groups.
This group identity becomes the thing to which the individual will have primary allegiance. It is the one thing which they will never contradict or forsake. It is also the source of most of the contradictions which the individual will believe. The christian fundamentalist holds that the bible is literally true, but it says that the Eucharist is the body and blood of Jesus. This is resolved through verbal tricks which don’t fool anyone, but which aren’t supposed to. They serve only to put space between the contradicting halves until the argument can be escaped, because their culture does not admit the real presence in the eucharist, and it doesn’t admit non-literal interpretaitons of the bible. There is no way to reconcile these, so it is not reconciled.
This becomes very clear in the case of atheists—most, not all, obviously, but just about all of the “new atheists”—who hold science to be an authority, but who also live like human beings. Science—in the sense of subculturally approved popular science—holds that the mind is nothing but neurons. So it is nothing but neurons, and therefore free will does not exist. On the other hand, people make choices and must be held responsible for them, so they do. There’s no way to reconcile these things, so no attempt is made to reconcile them. (Technically, there is compatibilism, but the less said about that the better.) Science is an authority, but at the same time the great thing about it is that it corrects all of its errors. There is no way to reconcile these things—the definition of an (intellectual) authority is something which cannot be wrong. Here there is a slight attempt made to reconcile the two: “it’s the best we have”. What happens when your best isn’t good enough is never addressed, nor can it be. Anything but slogans would just point out the contradiction. So all we get are slogans. Neither side of the contradiction can be given up, because the culture demands both. The only response you get to challenging any of this is to be cast out into the darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, because that’s the only possible response. If you don’t accept both halves, you are simply not part of the group. The group dis-identification can be creatively named, of course. “Denier”, “irrational”, etc. A thorn by any other name pricks just the same.
There is still the question of whether this is an initial error, or a consequence of other errors. Any individual may of course come here as the result of rejecting God and so looking for him in the world, and in what else but the culture can one hope? Still, I think that for the majority of people who fall into this mistake, it is one of the first mistakes which they make, because it is taught to them as children. Teaching children to fit into the culture in which they live is one of the duties of a parent. It starts early, and if parents leave off teaching how to not fit in, their children must be very lucky indeed to learn it. One would suppose Christianity—which has as a central theme that God is more important than culture, and one must be dependent on God and independent of Man—would crush this, but some (many) people turn attendance at church into a cultural practice. It’s one of the shared rituals that bind people together. It doesn’t matter if you understand, it matters that you attend.
So this, I contend, is the source of most Atheists’ error. It is a primary allegiance to their culture, brought about by a training to conform to their culture, and a deep-seated belief that in the great race of life, the devil will take the hindmost, so the only safe thing to do is to hide in the crowd.