February 15, 2011
Why atheism is winning-1: The current state
For some time now I have had this feeling that the struggle between atheism and religion is over and atheism has won. I believe a tipping point has been reached in which religion has begun an inexorable slide towards oblivion. Not total oblivion, of course. There will always be pockets of people who feel the need for belief in some supernatural being. But sooner rather than later, perhaps within two generations, religious people will not be the majority that they have been up to now but will consist of small scattered sects like the Amish, viewed with amused indulgence for their devotion to maintaining a bygone lifestyle. This will seem counter-intuitive when viewed with the public religiosity we see all around us, especially in the US and the next series of posts will flesh out why I think this is the case.
Readers of this blog are aware of the current debate between so-called new (or unapologetic) atheists (some of whom refer to themselves jokingly as 'gnu atheists') and accommodationists. The former group (of which I am a member) feels that belief in gods and the supernatural are unsupported by evidence and that at a fundamental level religion is incompatible with science and should be treated in much the same way that we treat other myths and superstitions like unicorns and fairies and Santa Claus, beliefs that we might indulge in children but which no self-respecting adult would admit to. The new atheists think that one of the reasons that beliefs in gods survive is because religion has created a protective cocoon around it and made it a social taboo for people to point out that it has no credibility.
These views have ruffled the feathers of some and there has been some pushback. We are told that we must respect the sincerely held beliefs of religious people and not offend them by asking awkward questions as to why religious people believe what they do or pointing out all the logical and evidentiary contradictions. It is never made clear why we should give religion this special privilege that is not extended to other sincerely held beliefs concerning politics or history or human behavior. In every area of knowledge other than religion, shining the bright light of reason and science on it is seen as desirable, a way of separating truth from falsehood and the credible from the absurd.
Accommodationists, on the other hand, consist of people (some of whom are self-proclaimed atheists) who think that science and religion are either compatible or that if we do not think so, we still should not violate the taboo of pointing out the incompatibilities. The compatibility argument, when probed, eventually comes down to saying that there are areas of knowledge that science does not and cannot investigate and thus god can act in that sphere and hence religion has dominion over that area of knowledge. Of course, the claim that some area is outside the reach of science is an old one that has been refuted repeatedly as formerly inexplicable phenomena have been subsequently shown to be explainable by science. There is no reason to think that the currently alleged designated areas of inexplicability (the origin of the universe and of life) are any more immune to scientific encroachment than the behavior of the solar system and the diversity of life, former candidates for inexplicability subsequently explained by Newtonian mechanics and Darwinian natural selection.
An alternative form of this accommodationist argument is that issues such as morality and ethics and some vaguely defined spirituality are intangibles that do not have the material basis that is amenable to scientific investigation and that we must look to religion as the source of such values. One counter to this is that it is not at all clear that such things do not have a material basis. After all, all thoughts and behavior are governed by decisions of the brain which does have a material basis. In fact, there is a huge field of evolutionary biology and psychology directed towards understanding just how our behaviors evolved.
The other counter is that it is not self-evident why, even if we concede for the sake of argument that science cannot investigate these claims, these areas of knowledge should be ceded to religion. Why should only religion be credentialed to say what is and is not moral and ethical behavior? Why not psychology or sociology or anthropology or literature? Why should we infer our moral values from the Bible (to choose one source of religious values) instead of the works of William Shakespeare or Leo Tolstoy or Rabindranath Tagore or Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Confucius? The only reason to do so is if we think the Bible (or the Koran or equivalent other religious text) has been shown to be true. The fact that it has not been shown to be true and in fact is riddled with claims that we know to be flat-out false means that there is no reason to give it preferred status. Religion has not earned the right to claim default status of truth for those areas of knowledge that are supposedly outside the realm of science.
Next: Other arguments for religion's durability