The other day I watched an Orthodox Jew engage in a little ritual that struck me as being strikingly pointless. No doubt it had some point in the ancient past, or was at least thought to have a point. But it was pointless—a trivial, superstitious obsession institutionalized into the whole Orthodox lifestyle. And that got me thinking. Here’s somebody’s silly little superstition, that somehow got attached to the religion, and now the religion can’t get rid of it. For thousands of years, they’ve been stuck with it, even when it ceased to make any sense. And there’s nothing they can do about it, because the core of the religious worldview is the supreme authority of tradition. Whatever was believed and practiced in the past is, by definition, the truth. Any attempt to amend it or remove part of it must be apostasy. Hence, religion is not only lacking a way to correct its errors and deficiencies, the very nature of religion is antithetical to the possibility of improvement. To be improvable, religion must first admit that it does not possess the infallibility upon which its authority and existence depend.
This puts religion in something of a bind, because religions do contain mistakes, omissions, obsolete concepts and practices, and so on. I’m not just talking about Judaism here, I’m talking about all dogmatic religions. The whole basis of religious authority limits religion to a “my way or highway” approach to truth. And that means that once you’ve spotted a problem in your religion, there’s nothing you can do about it. Your options are (a) continue to believe and practice your religion even though you know it’s wrong, or (b) leave your religion. There’s no third alternative that would allow you to change your religion to eliminate the error, because once you admit the possibility that your religion might need improvement, there’s no end to the changes you and your fellow believers are likely to come up with. (Look what happened with the Reformation.)
As for those who continue to cling to religion after discovering its errors, they may be saving their faith (or something similar to faith), but they’re also creating an environment of hypocrisy and denial. They may be preserving their own church membership, but along the way they’re going to impart to their children a sense of religion’s hollowness and insincerity. The resulting atheism may take a generation or two, but give it time.
Thus, the leading cause of atheism is religion itself. No religion is perfect. People change religions all the time. But the nature of religion leaves no room for improving the god itself, so merely changing religions only lets you hop from one frying pan into another. You’ve got no shortage of frying pans, and you can conceivably hop from pan to pan your whole life. But every hop makes it easier to see the common flaw in all religions, and suggests the obvious alternative: embrace a worldview that’s not founded on dogmatic authority, so you can respond to new information by improving your beliefs.
That’s a recipe for atheism, and it’s the story of countless deconversions. The incidental details tell us which errors the church was incapable of correcting, but the common thread is religion’s inability to improve, and indeed, its inability to admit even the possibility of any improvement. Religion itself, by its very nature, sows the seeds that blossom into atheism.
At least, in a free society.