March 17, 2011
Why atheism is winning-11: Some concluding thoughts
(For previous posts in this series, see here.)
The last hope of religion is the fear of death. Fear of death is what religion thinks of as its trump card. In any discussion with believers, they will invariably get around to talking about how you (as an atheist) are risking your immortal soul and ask whether you are not fearful of what will happen in the afterlife. I know that this is coming and tell people who raise this that when I die, nothing spectacular will happen and that I will simply cease to be, with my body returning to the basic elements. I am quite comfortable with the idea. This clearly disconcerts the people who raise it since they are so obviously scared of death and see god as some kind of 'get out of death' card. It is important that we develop an acceptance of death as an inevitable fact of life and I am preparing a series of posts on atheist views of death that will appear some time in the future, unless I die first, of course!
Why atheism is winning is because when a belief structure has no empirical basis, it only survives by everyone agreeing to maintain the illusion that it makes sense. It is the emperor's new clothes syndrome. But such beliefs are highly prone to sudden collapse as soon as it begins to be pointed out that there is nothing there. Once a tipping point is reached, changes in unsupported beliefs (whether it be god or racism and homophobia) can occur very rapidly.
Religion is more tenacious but even there I think that the switch to largely disbelief will occur within a couple of generations (maybe an extra generation in the Islamic world) as people realize that religion is little more than superstition and lies at the heart of many problems. The communication revolution, in addition to spreading the ideas of modernity to an ever-widening audience, will create a greater awareness, especially among young people, that one's religious beliefs are largely a product of where one is born and brought up, and not because they are self-evidently true.. Once you give up the idea that your own religion is obviously true, it is a short step to not viewing religion as a source of truth at all.
On the level of simply ideas, religion is losing because fewer are converting into religion than are converting out, especially amongst the young. That is the demographic time bomb that is going to doom religion. It is what is also working against racism and anti-gay bigotry. Attitudes that have no empirical basis persist mainly because people 'inherit' it from their parents, in that children learn these things at an early age from their families. It is unlikely that someone who grows up in a family that is accepting of people of other races and gays will turn against those views, while the reverse happens more frequently as modernity expands.
It is likely that the level of religiosity even now is overstated because the data usually comes from self-reports in surveys or from the religious institutions themselves and the numbers disagree with objective measures of actual practices. Take for example three key events in a person's life: birth, marriage, and death. According to the March/April 2011 issue of the New Humanist, in England in the 2001 census, 71.8% checked the box for Christian and this was taken as the number of actual Christians in the population. But in 2008 only 11% of children were baptized, only 20% of weddings took place in a church, and only 33% of dead bodies passed through a church on their way to burial or cremation. It would be interesting to see corresponding data for the US.
Religion is clearly on the defensive partly because the new atheists have taken the arguments against god out of the academic and philosophical and theological arenas and put them out in the public sphere and into the hands of ordinary people, and they are able to confront believers much more confidently. A recent article in the New York Times points out that believers are now having a hard time defending their faith against skeptics because the taboos that used to protect them from questioning have now been lifted.
"I don't know that there's more atheists in the country, but there are definitely more people who are openly atheist, especially on college campuses," said the Rev. R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., and author of "Atheism Remix: A Christian Confronts the New Atheists." He said students have asked him how to deal with nonbelievers.
"There is not one student on this campus who doesn't have at least one person in his circle of family and friends voicing these ideas," he said.
Note that the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary is one that adheres to the strict literal truth of the Bible, all the way down to a historical Adam and Eve and a 6,000 year old Earth. If its own students, drawn from the most doctrinaire fundamentalist communities, are hearing these criticisms from members of their immediate circle, you know that atheist ideas are spreading into regions hitherto unexplored.
Marcus Brigstocke has a hilarious rant on the absurdity of the three Abrahamic faiths and it is a good way to end this series because what is ultimately going to doom religion is the realization of the ridiculousness of religious beliefs. They are increasingly the targets for humor because they are so rich in absurdity. It is well worth listening to the full audio clip.
Brigstocke's last point is worth reiterating:
I know that most religious folk are moderate and nice and reasonable and wear tidy jumpers and eat cheese like real people. And on hearing this, they'll mainly feel pity for me rather than issue a death sentence. But they have to accept that they are the power base for the nutters. Without their passive support the loonies in charge of these faiths would just be loonies safely locked away and medicated, somewhere nice, you know with a view of some trees, where they can claim they have a direct channel to god between sessions making tapestry drinks coasters, watching Teletubbies, and talking about their days in the Hitler youth. The ordinary faithful make these vicious tyrannical thugs what they are… Without the audience to prop it up… fundamentalist religious fanaticism goes away." (My italics)
This is why the new atheists are pursuing the correct strategy of challenging all religious beliefs, not only the extremist/fundamentalist variants. They all spring from the same source, which is a belief in god and their holy books.
Atheism is winning and 'moderate' religious people will have to learn how to deal with it.