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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.

March 15, 2011

Why atheism is winning-10: Religion and insecurity

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In this post, I want to look at what is happening in the US and why. The US is the outlier nation in that it still maintains high levels of religiosity despite its modernity.

Gregory Paul and Phil Zuckerman in their article titled Why the gods are not winning say that this is likely a temporary phenomenon and that the US will eventually fall in line with the trends in other modern developed states. As I have discussed earlier, the data suggest that this is already taking place.

The authors suggest that one factor that will drive this increasing disbelief in the US is that men are less likely to go to church. "Women church goers greatly outnumber men, who find church too dull. Here's the kicker. Children tend to pick up their beliefs from their fathers. So, despite a vibrant evangelical youth cohort, young Americans taken as a whole are the least religious and most culturally tolerant age group in the nation."

Paul and Zuckerman point to another factor that distinguishes other developed societies from the US and that impinges on religiosity. The security of middle class life in those societies leads to less of a dependence on god.

Such circumstances dramatically reduces peoples' need to believe in supernatural forces that protect them from life's calamities, help them get what they don't have, or at least make up for them with the ultimate Club Med of heaven. One of us (Zuckerman) interviewed secular Europeans and verified that the process of secularization is casual; most hardly think about the issue of God, not finding the concept relevant to their contented lives.

The result is plain to see. Not a single advanced democracy that enjoys benign, progressive socio-economic conditions retains a high level of popular religiosity. They all go material.

Compared to people in the rest of the industrialized developed world, Americans have little sense of security. For most Americans, they are only too aware that they are just a pink slip away from dropping out the middle class and one major illness away from bankruptcy and even homelessness. In that climate of anxiety, religion finds a welcoming niche, providing soothing, if fraudulent words of comfort.

Rather than religion being an integral part of the American character, the main reason the United States is the only prosperous democracy that retains a high level of religious belief and activity is because we have substandard socio-economic conditions and the highest level of disparity… To put it starkly, the level of popular religion is not a spiritual matter, it is actually the result of social, political and especially economic conditions (please note we are discussing large scale, long term population trends, not individual cases). Mass rejection of the gods invariably blossoms in the context of the equally distributed prosperity and education found in almost all 1st world democracies. There are no exceptions on a national basis. That is why only disbelief has proven able to grow via democratic conversion in the benign environment of education and egalitarian prosperity. Mass faith prospers solely in the context of the comparatively primitive social, economic and educational disparities and poverty still characteristic of the 2nd and 3rd worlds and the US.

Paul and Zuckerman conclude, "In the end what humanity chooses to believe will be more a matter of economics than of debate, deliberately considered choice, or reproduction. The more national societies that provide financial and physical security to the population, the fewer that will be religiously devout. The more that cannot provide their citizens with these high standards the more that will hope that supernatural forces will alleviate their anxieties. It is probable that there is little that can be done by either side to alter this fundamental pattern."

The overall rise in modernity even in the face of increasing disparities within countries due to the growth of the transglobal oligarchy will lead to the inevitable decline of religion, even in those countries that are currently the most superstitious, such as the US and much of the Islamic world. The factors that favor religion's continuance are the fecundity of some religious groups and fears of economic and social insecurity while what is working against religion is modernity.

The internet and ubiquitous global communication tends to increase levels of modernity while breaking down the isolation that results in people thinking that their own beliefs are the only ones that matter or even exist. When looked at dispassionately, religion is nothing more than ancient superstitions dressed up in modern dress. What it has going for it is the determined efforts of some people to make the superstitions seem to have some plausible basis. But it will go the way of other similar superstitions such as fear of black cats or the number 13 or walking under a ladder. A few people may take them seriously enough to take actions based on them while for most it will be at most a casual concern.

To be religious and believe in gods will increasingly be seen as anachronistic.

Next: Some concluding thoughts.

March 10, 2011

Why atheism is winning-9: The global picture

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

Gregory Paul and Phil Zuckerman in a long article titled Why the gods are not winning point out that the percentage of Christians worldwide is declining, that of Hindus is stagnant even as the proportion of people in its homeland India is rising, and the proportion of Buddhists is on a steady decline.

The only growth area is Islam but even here the picture is not optimistic for religion.

One Great Faith has risen from one eighth to one fifth of the globe in a hundred years, and is projected to rise to one quarter by 2050. Islam. But education and the vote have little to do with it. Generally impoverished and poorly educated, most Muslims live in nations where democracy is minimalist or absent. Nor are many infidels converting to Allah. Longman was correct on one point; Islam is growing because Muslims are literally having lots of unprotected sex.

The authors conclude that "The absence of a grand revival of Christ, Allah and Vishnu worship via democratic free choice brings us to a point, as important as it is little appreciated — the chronic inability of religion to recruit new adherents on a consistent, global basis."

The numbers of people choosing to adopt religion is declining while the number leaving it is increasing. Paul and Zuckerman point out that religion has declined rapidly in Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan and signs that religion in those countries is on life-support are everywhere. "Churches are being converted into libraries, laundromats and pubs. Those who disbelieve in deities typically make up large portions of the population, according to some surveys they make up the majority of citizens in Scandinavia, France and Japan. Evolution is accepted by the majority in all secular nations, up to four in five in some."

It is this fact that is most dangerous for religion because it shows that "religion is dangerously vulnerable to modernity, that secularism and disbelief do best in nations that are the most democratic, educated and prosperous." As societies become more modern, and we see this happening everywhere, people give up religion. The trend towards modernity cannot be reversed and one should expect to see the decline of religion along with it. That is the key point.

But what about the supposed rise in religion in the 'new Europe', the countries of the former Soviet bloc? The authors argue that religions in those countries seem more nationalistic than devout. "Just a quarter of Russians absolutely believe in God, the portion who say that religion is important in their lives are down in the teens, and irreligion may be continuing to rise in very atheistic eastern Germany and the Czech Republic. Even in Poland, the one eastern bloc nation in which religion played an important role in overturning atheistic communism, just one third consider religion to be very important in their lives, and faith is declining towards the old European norm. It turns out that the "new" Europe is not turning out particularly godly."

The one bright spot for religion is the developing world but even here it is tenuous as modernity takes root. "Mass devotion remains strong in most of the 2nd and 3rd world, but even there there is theistic concern. South of our border a quarter to over half the population describe religion as only somewhat important in their lives. Rather than becoming more patriarchal as democracy and education expand, Mexico is liberalizing as progressive forces successfully push laws favoring abortion and gay rights to the vexation of the Roman and evangelical churches. There is even trouble for Islam in its own realm. A third of Turks think religion is not highly important in their lives, and Iranian urban youth have been highly secularized in reaction to the inept corruption of the Mullahs. In Asia 40% of the citizens of booming South Korea don't believe in God, and only a quarter (most evangelical Christians) identify themselves as strongly religious."

Even in America, the outlier among modern societies that still seems to be holding on to religion, the trend is away from religion and what seems to be driving it is that belief in the literal truth of the Bible is decreasing. "What has changed is how people view the Bible. In the 1970s nearly four in ten took the testaments literally, just a little over one in ten thought it was a mixture of history, fables, and legends, a three to one ratio in favor of the Biblical view. Since then a persistent trend has seen literalism decline to between a quarter and a third of the population, and skeptics have doubled to nearly one in five. If the trend continues the fableists will equal and then surpass the literalists in a couple of decades."

Next: Religion and insecurity

March 08, 2011

Why atheism is winning-8: Objective measures of religion's decline

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

There are more concrete signs that the end of religion is nigh than the ones I gave in the previous post in this series. We have the phenomenon of churches closing all over the place. In Cleveland, the Catholic diocese closed a huge number of churches recently, angering the dwindling number of parishioners who still attended them.

Howard Bess, a retired Baptist minister, says that young people are leaving religion in droves.

In a single generation, the Christian church dropout rate has increased fivefold. The Barna Group, a leading research organization focusing on the intersection of faith and culture, says 80 percent of the young people raised in a church will be "disengaged" before they are 30.

In the past 20 years, the number of American people who say they have no religion has doubled and has now reached 15 percent. Those numbers are concentrated in the under-30 population. The polling data continues to show that a dramatic exit is taking place from American Christian churches.

Beyond those numbers, denominations across the board are acknowledging loss of membership, but it is worse than they are reporting. Many churches report numbers based on baptized constituents, yet actual Sunday morning attendance doesn’t come close to those numbers.

The Secular Student Alliance is growing rapidly with new chapters opening up in colleges at an increasing pace and is even spreading to high schools because of the increased interest in atheism among younger and younger people. This would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

Even enrollment in the mega-churches, which once grew rapidly by cannibalizing the mainstream churches, has flattened.

Furthermore, the idea that Americans are much more religious than Europeans has taken a beating with a new study that compared what Americans say about church attendance with what actual diary records that they keep show. In short, Americans lie about how much they attend church.

While conventional survey data show high and stable American church attendance rates of about 35 to 45 percent, the time diary data over the past decade reveal attendance rates of just 24 to 25 percent---a figure in line with a number of European countries.

What about the polls that show that creationism is still going strong and that large numbers are skeptical about evolution? But the polls show that while large numbers of Americans are still creationists, their numbers are slowly declining.

Once declines like this start, things can go downhill very rapidly. We sometimes think that the largely secular countries in Europe have been that way for a long time. In fact, countries like Britain went from Christian to non-believers in just one generation.

When the survey first asked these questions in 1985, 63% of the respondents answered that they were Christians, compared with 34% who said they had no religion (the rest belonged to non-Christian religions).

Today, a quarter of a century on, there has been a steady and remarkable turnaround. In the latest 2010 BSA report, published earlier this month, only 42% said they were Christians while 51% now say they have no religion.

Gregory Paul and Phil Zuckerman in a long article titled Why the gods are not winning challenge the notion that religion is on the rise and give plenty of other reasons to think that religion is dying. They look at the evidence and come to some encouraging conclusions:

Religion is in serious trouble. The status of faith is especially dire in the west, where the churches face an unprecedented crisis that threatens the existence of organized faith as a viable entity, and there is surprisingly little that can be done to change the circumstances.

They quote the authors of the World Christian Encyclopedia (which it must be noted is an evangelical Christian publication) who say that the rapid rise is disbelief has surprised everybody and that no Christian

"in 1900 expected the massive defections from Christianity that subsequently took place in Western Europe due to secularism…. and in the Americas due to materialism…. The number of nonreligionists…. throughout the 20th century has skyrocketed from 3.2 million in 1900, to 697 million in 1970, and on to 918 million in AD 2000…. Equally startling has been the meteoritic growth of secularism…. Two immense quasi-religious systems have emerged at the expense of the world's religions: agnosticism…. and atheism…. From a miniscule presence in 1900, a mere 0.2% of the globe, these systems…. are today expanding at the extraordinary rate of 8.5 million new converts each year, and are likely to reach one billion adherents soon. A large percentage of their members are the children, grandchildren or the great-great-grandchildren of persons who in their lifetimes were practicing Christians" (italics added)

Far from providing unambiguous evidence of the rise of faith, the devout compliers of the WCE document what they characterize as the spectacular ballooning of secularism by a few hundred-fold! It has no historical match. It dwarfs the widely heralded Mormon climb to 12 million during the same time, even the growth within Protestantism of Pentecostals from nearly nothing to half a billion does not equal it.

Next: The global picture

March 03, 2011

Why atheism is winning-7: Signs of religion's decline

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

The idea that religion is in a period of inexorable decline is, unsurprisingly, not one that is shared by religious apologists. In fact, Alastair McGrath in his book The Twilight of Atheism argues the opposite, that it is atheism that is in decline. I have not read this book but Keith Parsons, a professor of philosophy at the University of Houston, has and in an essay that is well worth reading in full, challenges McGrath and in the process reinforces my case that it is atheism that is ascendant.

Parsons says that what is remarkable about the current debate on atheism is that it has generated enormous and widespread interest, extending far beyond the small intellectual circles that were the normal range for such controversies.

These days, says McGrath, we hear not faith's but atheism's withdrawing roar. Now, early in the 21st century, we are told that atheism is in decline and religion is resurgent.

How odd, in that case, to find atheist books recently heading up the bestseller lists and atheists showing up on the TV talk shows to make the case for unbelief. Is atheism becoming chic? The public response to Sam Harris' The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, as well as Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion and Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell, appears to indicate a swelling interest in arguments for unbelief. A bestselling atheist book is really quite a novelty. Speaking from my own personal experience, an atheist book typically sells in the dozens, and its author will die of old age long before seeing a royalty check.

But it is not simply the popularity of atheist books that makes me think that atheism is winning. Another sign is that the more sophisticated believers (theologians and lay) no longer even try to convince us that we are wrong. They do not try to persuade us that god exists apart from half-hearted appeals to the need for faith and the wonder and seeming inexplicability of nature. This is because atheists know these arguments as well as those of Aquinas and Augustine and why they fail. Believers realize that their idea of god in unsupported by science and history. So instead they plead with us to not be too direct and straightforward about why we don't believe, which is what all this deploring of our 'bad tone' is all about.

For example, Ricky Gervais recently wrote a holiday message in the Wall Street Journal. Gervais is, of course, an outspoken atheist and his essay does not hide the fact. He makes the case succinctly saying "I don't believe in God because there is absolutely no scientific evidence for his existence and from what I've heard the very definition is a logical impossibility in this known universe." You can't get more blunt and direct than that.

His essay raised a lot of questions that resulted in him being invited to a follow-up Q&A with readers which was quite hilarious. In it Gervais provides the perfect response to the criticism of where he thinks he gets off, a mere comedian, making pronouncements about god. This response can be used by anyone who is snootily told that they have no right to opine about such a weighty subject as the existence of god until they have studied the works of the major theologians, something that I hear a lot. Gervais says, "Since there is nothing to know about god, a comedian knows as much about god as any one else. An atheist however is alone in knowing that there is nothing to know so probably has the edge."

In response to the common assertion that atheism is as much a belief system as religion, Gervais responds: "Atheism isn't a belief system. I have a belief system but it's not "based on" atheism, it's just not based on the existence of a god. I make none of my moral, social, or artistic decisions based on any god or superstitions. Saying atheism is a belief system is like saying not going skiing is a hobby. I've never been skiing. It's my biggest hobby. I literally do it all the time. But to answer your question I am constantly faced with theories of God, and angels, and hell. It's everywhere. But unless there is an ounce of credibility to it, I reject." (My italics)

He also points out the problem with agnosticism, a position that I too have trouble understanding when it comes of the existence of god:

An agnostic would say that since you can neither prove the existence nor the non-existence of God then the only answer to the question "Is there a God?" is "I don't know." Basically they are saying just because you haven't found something yet doesn't mean it doesn't exist. Well firstly we have to know what definition of God we are asking about. Many can be dismissed as logical impossibilities. In the same way that if you were asked can you imagine a square circle the answer is of course "No." Let's give them the benefit of the doubt. Let's just say there is a definition of a God that is possible. Does he exist? "I don't know" in this case is indeed the correct answer. However this must also be the answer to many other questions. Is there an elephant up your a—? Even if you've looked you can't say "no." It could be that you just haven't found it yet. Please look again and this time really believe there is an elephant up there because however mad it sounds no one can prove that you don't have a lovely big African elephant up your a—.

The position of agnosticism makes sense for an issue in which the lack of knowledge is temporary. For example, if you ask me if dark energy exists, I could reasonably say "I don't know", that I am an agnostic in that I do not know at the moment but advances in science may provide an affirmative answer in the future or that scientists will declare that it is an unnecessary concept. But to say "I don't know" to question that is unknowable even in principle (you can never prove the non-existence of god) seems to me to be an evasion. The bases of agnostic actions are indistinguishable from that of atheists. There is no observable difference in the behavior of someone who, in Gervais's more colorful framing, is sure that there is no elephant up his a— and one who is agnostic on the question.

Even though Gervais is as forceful an atheist as any new atheist, Mary Elizabeth Williams, a religious believer, does not try to defend her belief or say why Gervais is wrong but actually praises him as the most persuasive of atheists because he says it is fine with him if people believe in god as long as their beliefs don't ending up harming others and because he uses humor to get his point across. But almost all the new atheists are just like Gervais in that we do not demand that people stop believing, an absurd and unrealistic demand at the best of times. We are all like him in denouncing the harm that religion does to others. We are all like him in that we think believing in a god is silly and say so. The only difference is that we do not have Gervais's deft comedic touch.

Is using humor while propagating the new atheist message all that it takes to placate believers? Believers seem to have given up on defending the truth of their beliefs and seem to be merely seeking to be let down gently, to be allowed to laugh as their religious world collapses all around them. If that is not a sign of religion in decline, I don't know what is.

Next: More objective measures of religion's decline.

February 28, 2011

Has atheism won already?

Some of you may be wondering what has happened to my series of essays on why atheism is winning. Do not fret, it has not been forgotten! It has just been displaced as the focus of the daily essay by the more immediate and timely issues of labor and the struggles in the Middle East. It will be continued.

But until then, here is Marcus Brigstocke in a debate arguing in favor of the proposition that religion has had its day.

The response by the Christian is pathetic. No wonder the largely young audience overwhelmingly agrees with the proposition.

February 25, 2011

Why atheism is winning-6: The death of religious philosophy

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

Keith Parsons, a professor of philosophy at the University of Houston, recently caused a bit of a stir when he said that he has given up teaching the philosophy of religion to his students because all the arguments for religion, old and new, have been so effectively debunked that he simply could not even pretend to take them seriously anymore. He felt that he would be doing a disservice to his students because of his inability to present those arguments as if they made any sense, which is what good teachers try to do when teaching ideas that they personally disagree with.

For one thing, I think a number of philosophers have made the case for atheism and naturalism about as well as it can be made. Graham Oppy, Jordan Howard Sobel, Nicholas Everitt, Michael Martin, Robin Le Poidevin and Richard Gale have produced works of enormous sophistication that devastate the theistic arguments in their classical and most recent formulations. Ted Drange, J.L. Schellenberg, Andrea Weisberger, and Nicholas Trakakis have presented powerful, and, in my view, unanswerable atheological arguments. Gregory Dawes has a terrific little book showing just what is wrong with theistic "explanations." Erik Wielenberg shows very clearly that ethics does not need God. With honest humility, I really do not think that I have much to add to these extraordinary works.

Chiefly, though, I am motivated by a sense of ennui on the one hand and urgency on the other. A couple of years ago I was teaching a course in the philosophy of religion. We were using, among other works, C. Stephen Layman's Letters to a Doubting Thomas: A Case for the Existence of God. In teaching class I try to present material that I find antithetical to my own views as fairly and in as unbiased a manner as possible. With the Layman book I was having a real struggle to do so. I found myself literally dreading having to go over this material in class—NOT, let me emphasize, because I was intimidated by the cogency of the arguments. On the contrary, I found the arguments so execrably awful and pointless that they bored and disgusted me (Layman is not a kook or an ignoramus; he is the author of a very useful logic textbook). I have to confess that I now regard "the case for theism" as a fraud and I can no longer take it seriously enough to present it to a class as a respectable philosophical position—no more than I could present intelligent design as a legitimate biological theory. BTW, in saying that I now consider the case for theism to be a fraud, I do not mean to charge that the people making that case are frauds who aim to fool us with claims they know to be empty. No, theistic philosophers and apologists are almost painfully earnest and honest; I don't think there is a Bernie Madoff in the bunch. I just cannot take their arguments seriously any more, and if you cannot take something seriously, you should not try to devote serious academic attention to it. I've turned the philosophy of religion courses over to a colleague. (My italics)

In response to a request from a commenter, Parsons provides a list of books by philosophers that he says provide excellent arguments for atheism: (1) Wallace Matson: The Existence of God; (2) Michael Martin: Atheism: A Philosophical Justification; (3) Graham Oppy: Arguing About Gods; (4) Jordan Howard Sobel: Logic and Theism; (5) Richard Gale: On the Nature and Existence of God; (6) Nicholas Everitt: The Nonexistence of God; (7) J.L. Mackie: The Miracle of Theism; (8) Theodore M. Drange: Nonbelief and Evil; (9) J.L. Schellennberg: Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason; (10) Nick Trakakis: The God Beyond Belief; (11) Robin Le Poidevin: Arguing for Atheism; (12) Richard Robinson: An Atheist's Values; (13) Erik Wielenberg: Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe.

He adds that "these books provide a far better justification for atheism than can be found in the recently popular Dawkins/Hitchens/Harris style books."

I have no reason to doubt Parson's claim that the above books are philosophically more sound in their arguments for atheism than the current crop of atheist best sellers. But note that these are all heavy-duty philosophical books aimed at other philosophers, both religious and atheistic. It is a safe bet that most ordinary religious people have never even heard of these authors, let alone read their works. That is true for me (I have read one essay by Mackie and that's about it) and I have been a serious atheist for some time.

The point of the books by Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Dennett, Stenger, and others is that they are not targeted at philosophers of religion but are taking direct aim at ordinary religious believers and the bases of their beliefs. These people constitute almost the entirety of the religious populace and for them religion is not an abstract philosophy but requires a real god who acts in this world to influence actual history. This is why these authors have riled up the religious establishment in a very short time (new atheists books have been around only since 2004 when Harris published The End of Faith) in a way that atheist philosophers of religion haven't, even though the latter have been around for much longer and, as Parsons says, may have made much more cogent arguments.

The fact that the works of sophisticated philosophers have had little impact on popular religious beliefs while those of the new atheists have is why I think that the strategy of the new atheists is the correct one.

Next: Signs of religion's decline.

February 22, 2011

Why atheism is winning-5: The battle for hearts and minds

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

Although the Archbishop of Canterbury says he opposes new atheists for our 'less tolerant attitude towards religion', what I think is driving his concern is the fear that the new atheist message is reaching the ordinary flock. After all, atheists are currently in the minority. We have no power over anyone except the power of persuasion. If we are as intolerant or arrogant or rude as our critics claim, we are only hurting ourselves by such alienating behaviors and religious institutions should be pleased. Their concern about the new atheist message only makes sense if they are worried that our message is getting through to large numbers of people. The news report about the Archbishop's call says that "The Church is keen to address the rise of new atheism, which has grown over recent years with the publication of bestselling books arguing against religion." (My italics)

It is the fear that knowledge about religion's shaky foundations are percolating amongst ordinary people that I think lies behind the other diversionary tactic, the repeated condescending criticism that new atheists argue at a low-level of sophistication by attacking the historical and scientific claims of religions. We are told that we should be engaging in high-level arguments of theology and philosophy.

This is a seductive appeal that has persuaded even some atheists who have theological and philosophical backgrounds, which is not surprising since it involves their disciplines and elevates the importance of their expertise. For example, John Shook of the Center for Inquiry, an atheist, critiques those whom he claims attack religion without knowing much of modern theology, saying "Atheists are getting a reputation for being a bunch of know-nothings. They know nothing of God, and not much more about religion, and they seem proud of their ignorance… Astonished that intellectual defenses of religion are still maintained, many prominent atheists disparage theology."

I for one proudly plead guilty to the charge. I have said that theology is a useless discipline and believe that new atheists are perfectly right is pushing it to the sidelines as peripheral. If there is no evidence that god exists, discussing the nature of god is as pointless as discussing what color a unicorn is or whether it is mean or mild-tempered.

These appeals are meant to draw new atheists back into the academic and intellectual world of theological ideas that are far removed from the actual world of religion as practiced by most people. Following their advice would continue to leave religion largely untouched because most religious believers do not care for such discussions and will simply ignore them, however absorbing or compelling those arguments might seem to the participants in them. However, tell the ordinary believer that Moses or Jesus or Mohammed never lived, and they sit up and take notice.

New atheists should not take the bait and get distracted by appeals to return to the rarefied world of theology. Debating theologians may be an enjoyable intellectual exercise to engage in from time to time (because theologians are often clever people and matching wits with them can be fun in small doses) but we should understand that theological discussions are irrelevant to the major goal of combating religion. What sophisticated theologians engage in are exercises in which they can find some vague sense of spirituality to believe in because they know that the evidence and science are against there being a tangible god. So they concoct abstract theories of god such as 'apophatic theology' and metaphors for god such as 'ground of all being' and (my personal favorite) a 'plenitude of actuality'.

You will never convince a theologian that there is no god because they have essentially given up on god already by defining it out of any real existence. The entire work of modern theologians consists of finding ways to believe in a non-god. Their god, such as it is, is a slacker, dead, inert, passive, absent. There is simply no there there. It is a waste of time to look for any signs for him. To paraphrase Monty Python's dead parrot sketch, it has ceased to be. It is demised. It is a stiff. It is an ex-god.

Even the pope probably realizes that his god is dead and in trying to explain his unresponsiveness is reduced to saying that god 'surprises' us. By that he means that when people pray to god, their answer may not be what they expect, which is a way of saying that whatever happens is god's answer to the prayer. How one distinguishes that from god not being there at all, he does not say. This is the excuse religion has always used to gull believers who are disappointed by their prayers not being answered by a god who supposedly loves them dearly and cares for them.

Theologians provide nothing of value to ordinary religious believers except the cold comfort that some smart people also believe in some form of god. But the god the theologians believe in is not one that the average person in the church or mosque or synagogue would recognize, and if they were more aware of what theologians actually believe, ordinary religious people and even people like Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary would consider them as much atheists as us. Rather than fighting with these theologians, new atheists should encourage these theologians to spread their concept of god more widely to religious believers because such a non-god would alienate most religious believers and undermine their beliefs.

Most ordinary believers want an activist god whom they can pray to in the hope that he will intervene and supersede the laws of science in their favor, just like he supposedly did in the good old days of the Bible. To say that god did not really do the things in the Bible, that those stories are fictional and that god is a 'plenitude of actuality' would be a real turn-off.

Next: The death of religious philosophy

February 21, 2011

Why atheism is winning-4: The new and decisive shift by the new atheists

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In the previous posts, I said that it is the firm knowledge that almost everything in religious texts like the Bible and the Koran are fiction that will destroy religion. But right now that knowledge largely exists amongst a small group of theologians and philosophers of religion and does not percolate out to influence ordinary religious believers who do not read their works. The clergy who deal on a daily basis with ordinary believers have some awareness of this knowledge but also realize that to disseminate it to their flock would cause an uproar and destroy their careers and so they keep it to themselves or discreetly share it with a very few of their colleagues and parishioners. As a result of this, beliefs that religious texts are mostly true have remained largely unscathed.

It is the new atheists who have upset the status quo. The new atheists are well aware of the power of this knowledge in undermining religion and have been using it in their attacks on religion, repeatedly pointing out that there is no evidence to supports its strong claims and that the religious texts are largely fictional and contradicted by science.

Doubts about the plausibility of god are not new. Many philosophers going back to the ancient Greeks argued persuasively that the idea of god made no sense and created all manner of logical contradictions. What those philosophers did not have were the insights provided by modern science. The rapid advancement of science that began with physics in the 16th century and joined in the late nineteenth century by dramatic advances in biology and geology resulted in deepening our understanding that the world works perfectly well without the need for divine intervention at any stage. The archeological findings in the late twentieth century that have shed light on human history have been combined with these other scientific findings to discredit the factual claims of religion.

The decisive new development is that we now know that not only is god unnecessary as an explanatory concept for anything, but that the Bible itself is false in almost all its historical details and that its main characters are fictional. What is new about the new atheism is that it is the new atheists who are taking this knowledge out of academia and intellectual circles and broadcasting it to ordinary people, to the believers in the churches and mosques and temples, using popular books, newspaper articles, radio, TV, films, the internet, in short any and all forms of accessible media.

I think that the new atheists are on the right track in thinking that the best way of fighting religious extremism is by attacking it at its foundations, the literal truth of religious texts, and taking that message directly to the general public. But it is undoubtedly true that this will result in moderate religion suffering irreparable collateral damage because they too depend, even if to a lesser extent, on believing in the truth of those texts. Even if I were sympathetic to the accommodationist idea of preserving moderate religion, I frankly do not see any way out of this.

As long as doubts about the existence of god and the truth of the Bible stayed within elite circles, it did not cause serious damage. I think that it is clear that the leadership of mainstream religions is well aware of the danger that this knowledge presents if it became widely known. This is why there has been such a strong reaction to the new atheists amongst the religious hierarchy. They cannot, of course, argue that the new atheists are wrong on the facts because they realize we are right. They want to avoid at all costs a debate on the historical truth of the religious texts because that would only give more publicity the fact that is false. Instead they attempt diversionary tactics.

One such tactic is to attack the 'tone' taken by new atheists and argue that we are not 'tolerant'. For example, the Archbishop of Canterbury, whom one could label as a religious moderate, has called upon his clergy to fight back against the new atheist message.

Clergy are to be urged to be more vocal in countering the arguments put forward by a more hard-line group of atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, who have campaigned for a less tolerant attitude towards religion.

A report endorsed by Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, warns that the Church faces a battle to prevent faith being seen as "a social problem" and says the next five years are set to be a period of "exceptional challenge".

Pope Ratzinger has also decided to come out swinging against what he calls "atheist extremism", an undefined quantity. What would he consider non-extreme atheism, I wonder? His top aide Cardinal Walter Kasper also stoked fears about the danger of the atheist message taking hold amongst the general population.

I am actually heartened by the responses of Williams and Ratzinger. It shows that the new atheists are having a major impact on the minds of ordinary believers.

Next: The battle for hearts and minds.

February 18, 2011

Why atheism is winning-3: The dilemma facing clergy

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In the previous post, I wrote about how modern scholarship based on scientific and literary analysis has shown that almost all the things claimed in the Bible and their stories and characters are fictional.

One can immediately see why this knowledge is so dangerous to religious institutions and why they would not be anxious to have it widely known. The religious establishments have a vested interest in hiding the truth about the religious texts because they must be well aware that their entire business model and revenue stream depends on people thinking that at least some of the major parts of their religions are true. All religious institutions thus have to find a way to keep their followers in the dark about what their own scholars know.

After all, what would it mean to be a Christian if Jesus did not actually rise from the dead? What would it mean to be a religious Jew if the story of Moses and the exodus and the ten commandments were false? What would it mean to be a Muslim if the Koran had not been directly dictated by god or if there was no historical Mohammed? People would be uncomfortable living their lives according to the lessons of a work of fiction, however compelling a narrative it provides. One could make a persuasive case that the works of Shakespeare provide more useful moral lessons than the Bible but one is unlikely to find people willing to base their lives on a religion that is derived from the lessons learned from Macbeth. It is the belief that the religious texts are at least substantially true that give them their power.

It should not be surprising that most religious people grow up with a knowledge of religion based largely on what they learned in Sunday school or from their parents, consisting of a loose collection of stories, chosen for the purposes of delivering a moral lesson, with the selection of stories and how they are emphasized depending on what message that particular religious faction wishes to convey. 'Moderate' religions end up using a highly expurgated series of feel-good stories that omit all the cruel, murderous, racist, xenophobic, homophobic, and misogynistic elements, while those religious groups with different social agendas pick different sets of stories to emphasize.

Since children are never explicitly told that these stories are fictional, they naturally assume that these stories are based on history. Unless they actively seek it out on their own, people will never in the normal course of their lives learn the full extent of what their religious texts say or discover that those texts have little or no historical basis. Those who do can find it undermining the religious beliefs they developed in their formative years. The more one studies these questions, the more one becomes convinced that the texts simply lack any historical validity. Hence it should not be at all surprising why so many professors of religious studies are either atheists or agnostics and why sophisticated theologians of religion develop complex belief structures that are not dependent upon the historicity or truth of the texts. But since such people live in a largely academic and intellectually self-contained world of like-minded people, their lack of belief in the truth of religious texts do not disturb the world of everyday religions.

The people for whom this knowledge causes the most difficulty are those clergy who have to deal on a daily basis with ordinary religious believers. They are caught between a world of knowledge that they acquired as part of their training and a fundamentally different world of knowledge that they feel obliged to tell their flock.

Most clergy start out in life like most religious believers with a naïve Sunday-school based set of religious beliefs. Those warm and uplifting stories are probably what inspired many to seek to become clergy. But when they attend any fairly decent seminary that has scholars as instructors (as opposed to religious ideologues) and learn that there is no evidence for most of the people and events in their religious texts, their Sunday school based beliefs can be shaken to the core, to the extent that some become outright unbelievers while still undergoing their training. In their study of unbelieving clergy Daniel Dennett and Linda La Scola quote one such priest as saying, "Oh, you can't go through seminary and come out believing in God!" and in an article based on that same study they say that two jokes they often heard were "If you emerge from seminary still believing in God, you haven't been paying attention," and "Seminary is where God goes to die."

But whether they remain believers or not, all clergy know that it would be a terrible career move to share their scholarly knowledge about their religious texts with their parishioners because it would destroy their Sunday school knowledge too and cause an uproar. So they skirt the whole issue, never saying that there is no evidence for much of their texts. As one such priest said about why his fellow clergy cannot share the full extent of their knowledge with their parishioners "They don't want to rock the boat. They don’t want to lose donations. They want to keep their jobs. They don't want to stir up trouble in the congregation. They've got enough trouble as it is, keeping things moving along. They don't want to make people mad at them. They don't want to lose members."

While they may personally think of all the Biblical stories as nothing more than metaphors, these clergy never come right out and say so from their pulpits, except in the case of those few stories which mainstream churches have already conceded are metaphors, such as the story of Adam and Eve. These clergy are burdened with having knowledge that if generally revealed would likely destroy the religious beliefs of the very people upon whose beliefs their livelihood depends. As such they may even persuade themselves that they 'sort of' believe, just in order to preserve their sanity. As Upton Sinclair said, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."

Next: The decisive shift by the new atheists

February 16, 2011

Why atheism is winning-2: Religion's Achilles heel

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In the previous post, I looked at some of the theoretical arguments made by accommodationists for not criticizing religion and discussed why I did not think them very credible.

The other arguments that accommodationists make are practical ones. Belief in a god, we are told, serves some positive ends, such as inculcating moral values or causing people to refrain from bad actions for fear of divine retribution, and eliminating it would result in antisocial behavior by some. The counter to this argument is that there is no evidence that religious people are more moral than non-religious people or that lack of religious beliefs drive people to evil actions.

The other practical argument is that religions have been around forever and will continue to be around forever so fighting to eliminate them is futile and only serves to alienate those moderate religious people whose assistance we need in the struggle against dangerous and pernicious forms of religious extremism. Hence the best that atheists can hope for is to form an alliance with moderate religious believers. To attack religion in all its forms is to risk pushing the moderate religious faction into an alliance with the extremists. This is the argument that I am going to address in some depth in this series by arguing that the seeming durability of religion is an accidental byproduct of history and those factors that sustained it for so long are no longer the force they once were.

The idea that one can hope to eliminate extreme forms of religion and be left with just the cuddly moderate forms is an illusion. On the contrary, it is the very existence of any form of religion at all that enables the extreme forms to survive. The followers of extreme forms of religion do not in the least see themselves as extreme. On the contrary they see themselves as the true believers, the center, because they are the ones who take the commands of their religious texts seriously and follow them diligently. The moderates are seen by them as people who lack seriousness and have compromised their religion in order to gain social acceptance in the secular world and enjoy worldly pleasures despite the commands of their religious texts.

As long as these religious texts are treated as venerable and as the 'word of god' (however one interprets that ambiguous phrase), there will always be extreme forms of religion and endless debates between moderates and extremists as to who has the correct interpretation of the texts. Such an argument is necessarily going to be inconclusive, since there is no objective means of arriving at a conclusion and what is the best interpretation is always going to be in the eyes of the beholder.

A better way to counter religious extremism is to strike at its very core and point out that the very basis of their religious beliefs, the texts themselves, are basically ideological tracts written by people at particular times in history to serve particular ends. They are little more than works of fiction using the occasional bit of actual history to create a fanciful narrative. They bear even less of a relationship to actual history than the highly tenuous ones that the film Birth of a Nation and the book Gone With the Wind do to the history of the Civil War and the period of the Reconstruction.

It is easy to make this case objectively and conclusively because the evidence is already at hand and the scholarly work has been done, is well established and this knowledge is widely known within the scholarly community that studies religious texts. For example, using all the tools at their disposal, such as archeological findings, modern scientific tools, and textual analysis, the evidence is overwhelming that almost everything in the Old Testament of the Bible is unsupported by any evidence whatsoever. All the major characters and events (Adam, Eve, Noah, Abraham, the captivity of Jews in Egypt, the exodus, Moses, David, Solomon, etc.) are fictional. The story that the books of the Old Testament tells is interesting and complex and full of charismatic figures and magical events but so is the Harry Potter series but we do not believe it to be true for that reason.

Many people, even non-believers, will be surprised at the claims that I make in the previous paragraph, because even those who do not accept the Adam and Eve and Noah stories still tend to think that the later stories of Egyptian captivity and Moses and David and Solomon are based on facts. They will question why, if the falsity of these things are so well known within the scholarly community that studies religious texts, and given the importance of this topic and its obvious relevance, this knowledge has not been disseminated to the general public.

I suspect that these facts are not broadcast widely or even mentioned in polite company because Christianity and Judaism and Islam, even in their so-called moderate forms, cannot survive if these things are widely known because their theology all depend on varying degrees in believing in the historicity of at least some of these people and events. This is religion's Achilles heel. The advent of modern tools of scientific analysis has exposed this heel and has tilted the balance away from religion in a decisive way. It is impossible to see how re-truthify (to coin a word) these legends. There is no going back and this is why religion is doomed.

Next: The clergy's dilemma

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