Eden Ellis's recent post really disturbed me, and it's taken a couple of days to really nail down in my mind exactly what about it was so objectionable. Ms. Ellis said, "Rejoicing over the nothingness and uselessness of life seems profoundly unreasonable to me."
Comfort is one thing, but comforting yourself by wishing reality were some definite way is the essence of "wishing makes it so" infantilism. The most important lesson we must learn as we mature and become adults is that reality just is what it is; our preferences, hopes, fears, dreams, and wishes have no effect on reality except through our actions. There's nothing wrong with hope per se, but as adults we have to direct our hope towards changing the future in ways that are physically possible. And to change the world, we have to understand the world as it is, and how it actually works. Resisting this mature viewpoint is objectionable in several ways.
It's one thing for a three-year-old to play make-believe, but taking make-believe seriously is just pitiable in an adult. It's not just the religious who do so — check out P. Z. Myers latest post on Star Trek and Star Wars — but the religious have been taking make-believe the most seriously and for the longest time. I'm not talking about the "deeper" or "universal" truths we can find in fiction, I'm talking about believing there really is a magical "Harry Potter" world hidden (perhaps imperfectly) from us prosaic muggles. Seriously: Grow up. You're not ten years old.
The specifically religious type of make-believe has an especially disturbing characteristic: Meaning and purpose come from without. Ms. Ellis cannot understand the most basic and fundamental principle of atheism, saying that atheism entails that "my value as a human being is determined by whatever merit others happen to ascribe to me at any given time." No! Only you yourself determine your value as a human being. Others' opinions matter only to the extent that you choose to value their opinions about yourself.
Of course, the religious believer is creating her own value; choosing to believe that God values you is in a sense the same as simply choosing value yourself. But there's a subtle and important difference: By artificially externalizing the value, value takes on an inherently submissive and dependent character — an infantile character — rather than the adult character of independence and self-sufficiency. God doesn't actually talk to people; once you childishly externalize your value to God, it's just a small step to externalize it to those who speak for God (the church) or those whose authority has been established by God (the state). It is not the inner-directed atheist who bases his value on the opinions of others, but the theist. To a (skeptical) atheist, value, meaning, and purpose come from within; Ms. Ellis just projects her outer-directedness onto atheists.
Most importantly, it requires tremendous discipline to understand the world as it is. It is not just that our subconscious minds occasionally give us bad information; our subconscious minds routinely and predictably give us bad information. Outside the narrow band of the pre-civilization and pre-scientific environment our brains evolved under (and even within that environment) our subconscious minds are loaded with cognitive biases. It requires the determined and constant activity of our conscious minds to understand our modern, civilized, technological world. Again, it is one small step from believing it's really so that there's an invisible sky daddy who "gives you value", to believing that the world is 6,000 years old, and then to believing that God hates all the people who disgust you. It's hard enough for skeptics and atheists to keep a clear eye on the real world — no less a mind than Feynman struggled with his cognitive biases — it must be a thousand times more difficult when you have intentionally torn a hole in your rational mind to let a God in. We know what slips in behind a seemingly benign or even "meaningless" God: misogyny, homophobia, colonialism, religious wars, and social and economic stagnation.
It would be nice to just be pluralistic, to say that well, we're still going to need people to clean our toilets, and those who cannot consistently understand reality in a rational, adult manner will always be at a substantial disadvantage. The problem is that skeptics make lousy slave-owners. We can do it, but the reality has to be so far removed from our consciousness that we can override our innate discipline and rationality; bring the reality too close to our consciousness and we very naturally start thinking of the slaves as fellow human beings. No, the religious end up as slaves to those who can think just skeptically enough to cynically manipulate the inherently outer-directed nature of religious belief. But you can't compartmentalize skepticism: Such people are not nearly skeptical or rational enough to actually manage a complex, technological society of six billion connected human beings. They have a tendency — as we've seen time and again in the Republican party — to start to believe their own bullshit.
Fundamentally, skeptical atheists are intolerant of religion not because religious belief per se offends our sensibilities. (I mean, it does offend our sensibilities, but that's not why we're intolerant.) We're intolerant because we don't want to get ground up between the slave masters and the slaves, because we don't want to discard our complex, technological civilization — a civilization that demands adult rationality and adult responsibility to operate, a civilization that's taken a hundred generations of abject suffering to develop.