As I see it, atheism as a movement is about two things. First, it’s about skepticism and the advancement of knowledge free of dogma. Second, it’s about achieving social change. We want to remove the stigma of atheism, allowing atheists to be open and honest about their non-belief while minimizing fear of prejudice and hostility against them.
Speaking as someone actively involved with atheist visibility, I know that it can be really frustrating when it seems like progress is not happening. In fact, people commonly write us to ask, “Why do you bother? It’s not like you’re going to turn Christians into atheists.”
Social progress always happens slowly, but there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the possibility of long term change, and even reasons to believe that you might have a small part to play as an instrument of that change. In this post and the planned follow-up, I want to talk a bit about taking a big picture perspective on social change.
You say you want a revolution
In the 1950’s and 60’s, a philosopher of science named Thomas Kuhn wrote a couple of books that gained widespread attention. The first was called The Copernican Revolution; the second, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.
In The Copernican Revolution, Kuhn outlined the history of public acceptance of the notion of a heliocentric solar system. Prior to the publication of Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus, the western world commonly believed that the earth was the center of the universe. Changing this opinion over the course of the next century and a half (give or take) was a slow and arduous process. It was made slower and more arduous by the strong resistance of both Catholic and Protestant churches, with many religious leaders asserting that Earth must occupy a special place in the universe or the Bible could not be true. In the scientific community as well, there was an uphill battle to change mainstream thinking.
What happened in order to get us to where we are now, when even the most hardcore fundamentalists do not dispute heliocentrism? Did the priests receive divine revelation telling them that Copernicus was right? Was a new book of the Bible discovered, or an old one reinterpreted, to convince everyone that this was what God “really” meant to say? Did the old school followers of Ptolemy’s epicycles come around and publish corrections?
No. What happened, Kuhn argues, is that the opponents of Copernicus died. I mean, not all at once. Those who accepted the heliocentric model were at first iconoclasts; but when the model held up to scrutiny, it began catching on with younger scientists, bolstered by contributions from Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler. Over time, people who stuck to the old ways aged and died, and they were not replaced by new Ptolemaists.
Nearly a hundred years later, when Galileo was jailed for defending the heliocentric system, you could consider it to be the last gasp of an institution losing their control over the terms of discussion. They had mostly lost scientific support, popular opinion was lagging behind but still beginning to catch up, and the only way the Catholics could assert the relevance of their position was by a show of brute force.
As you’ll notice, it didn’t work. Before much longer, geocentrism was a dead issue for scholars. And in 1992, Pope John Paul II issued a formal apology to Galileo on behalf of the church.
No, seriously! That totally happened, a mere two decades ago. And you might say that three hundred years is a ridiculous amount of time for the church to openly acknowledge that they were wrong, but hey — better late than never, right?
Not only do theists fully embrace heliocentrism today, but in many cases they deny that the “true” church ever opposed it. Protestants often try to lay all the blame on Catholics, while Catholics deny that the church was ever justified in opposing Galileo at all. It’s a testament to how thoroughly opinions have shifted in three hundred years that only a few crazy fringe sites would dream of defending the idea that the church was right and Galileo was wrong.
We all want to change the world
In his next book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn generalized this concept. Somewhere around this time, Kuhn coined the phrase paradigm shift, which remains popular today. We all have beliefs which are based on evidence, but ultimately those beliefs will trace back to a core model of beliefs and values, which are so firmly entrenched at the root of everything else we think that they are all but immune to questioning. These are our paradigms.
Not everyone shares the same paradigm — a fact that should be obvious if you’ve ever spent any amount of time speaking to a fundamentalist. You can waste a lot of breath asking “Why should I believe the Bible?” or “What evidence do you have that God exists?” before you realize that as often as not, they don’t really understand the questions. In their minds, the Bible is just true. Ask how they know God exists, and you’re liable to get the same kind of quizzical look that you would give somebody else asking how you know your mom exists. In fact, they’ll sometimes ask you that very question in response.
The point is that the assumptions that God exists and the Bible is infallible are baggage that’s built directly into their paradigm, and you can’t get it out of there without unpacking a whole lot of their basic mental model of the way the world is supposed to work.
Well, science is susceptible to paradigms too. In the pre-Copernican world, part of the prevailing paradigm was that the Earth is the center of the universe. To effectively challenge this basic assumption, both in the scientific and religious spheres, Copernicus and Galileo had to do a lot more than simply present their evidence and let the facts speak for themselves. Lots of people in the old guard could never be convinced, because they had lived too long with the geocentric paradigm.
But, as Kuhn goes on to explain, large scale paradigm shifts do happen in science pretty regularly. Just as with the Copernican Revolution, you don’t have to change everyone’s mind to be successful. Over time, people holding the outdated paradigms have less and less popular support, and when they die, they don’t get replaced.
Consider a more recent paradigm shift, the eventual triumph of quantum mechanics over classical mechanics. Quantum mechanics was so deeply weird that one of its most influential proponents, Albert Einstein, actually refused to believe the conclusions that his data pointed to. When he repeatedly said that “God doesn’t play dice with the world,” he was indicating that there must be some as-yet undiscovered flaw with the interpretations of quantum mechanics. Decades later, after still more testing against Einstein’s objections, we’re pretty sure that there wasn’t.
You ain’t going to make it with anyone anyhow
At this point I need to take a time-out and warn that you have to be careful to understand how legitimate scientific revolutions take place. Because in fact, many creationists — and their craftier cousins, cdesign proponentsists — are also familiar with Kuhn’s work, and cast themselves as the misunderstood heroes of the next great future paradigm shift.
By way of response, I’m just going to quote physicist Robert L. Park:
“It is not enough to wear the mantle of Galileo: that you be persecuted by an unkind establishment. You must also be right.”
One more from Carl Sagan:
“But the fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.”
Everybody understands that the state of human knowledge is constantly in flux, and just as Kuhn says, what’s commonly understood by science today might undergo a major upheaval by the next century. But everyone who conflicts with mainstream ideas thinks that theirs is going to be the dominant belief in the future, because they all think they’re right. Most are not. Paradigms become accepted in the first place because they are overwhelmingly recognized as fitting the available evidence better than the old model. Any competing paradigm requires explaining all that the old model did and more. In many cases, as with Einstein’s relativity replacing classical Newtonian mechanics, it’s still understood that Newton’s equations are correct within reasonable limits.
Bringing about major change to the prevailing opinions requires that you bring evidence and solid reasoning to the table. It’s not a sufficient condition, but it’s a necessary one. And when your “new” idea is just warmed over superstition rehashed from ideas that were already discredited by the paradigm shift from 150 years ago, you’ve got your work cut out for you.
That’s right, Discovery Institute, I’m talking to you.
Don’t you know it’s gonna be all right
So what has this got to do with social change, as opposed to scientific change? In my next post, I’ll be talking about social movements that have followed similar upheavals, and speculating on where atheism fits in.
Update: Here’s part 2.