What Do You Want, Anyway? An Atheist’s Mission Statement


Scarlet_a
So what do I want, anyway?

What do I expect to get out of all this atheist blogging? (Apart from stress reduction, I mean.) What's my ultimate goal? When it comes to religion and/or the lack thereof, what kind of world do I want to see?

I think it's important for atheists to think about this. Atheist writers and activists especially. Otherwise, we're just arguing for the sake of arguing, a form of mental exercise done at the expense of annoying people. And the kind of world we decide we're trying to make is going to affect the kind of action we take about it.

I have a couple of different answers to this question. One is my ideal, perfect-world scenario, the Religious World According To Greta. The other is the world that, while not perfect, I would be pretty much entirely happy with. The world where, if it somehow magically came into being, I would probably quit blogging about atheism almost entirely and turn my focus back to sex and politics and food.

So let's take the Greta's Perfect World scenario first.

ImagineNoReligion
In my perfect world, I would like to see religion gradually disappear from the human mindset. "Gradually" meaning over the next, say, one or two hundred years.

I do think religion is a mistaken idea, and I do think it's an idea that does more harm than good — if for no other reason than because it is a mistaken idea. I think it does harm, not just to atheists, but to believers themselves. And I think it does harm even in the absence of overt religious intolerance. I think it encourages gullibility, vulnerability to bad ideas and charlatans; I think it discourages critical thinking and the valuing of evidence; I think it supports people in prioritizing their personal beliefs and feelings over the reality of the world around them. I think it does more harm than good, and I think the world would, on the whole, be a better place without it. Not a perfect place, by any means — I'm not deluded enough to think that the disappearance of religion would somehow eradicate all social ills — but better.

But even in my most utopian fantasies, I can't imagine religion disappearing overnight, or even within my lifetime, without massive social upheaval creating tremendous suffering around the world. It's too central to too many people's lives. Hence the "one or two hundred years."

Law booksSo yes, I would like to see religion eventually disappear. I would not, however, like to see this disappearance happen in any sort of coerced or enforced way. I would not, for instance, like to see laws passed against religious beliefs or practices. I don't even want to see social pressure exerted against religion or religious believers, except insofar as "arguments against the ideas" constitutes social pressure. I would like to see religious believers be completely free to practice their beliefs however they choose, as long as that practice doesn't unreasonably impinge on my life and the lives of everyone else around them.

That should all go without saying. But there are plenty of idiots in the world who think that any atheist who wants to see an end to religion must want that end to come at the barrel of a gun. So it seems like a good idea to spell it out. I don't want to see religion ended by force. I want to see it ended by — insert barely-suppressed, self-deprecating guffaw here — persuasion.

No, really.

I told you this was idealistic.

So let's move on to the more scaled-back, more pragmatic vision.

I would be perfectly happy to live in a world in which:

Holding hands
(a) religious believers respected other believers and their beliefs — including atheists and our beliefs;

(b) religious believers understood that their beliefs were, in fact, beliefs and not facts, and didn't try to make laws and public policy based on them;

(c) people — especially kids growing up — understood that there were lots of different options when it came to religion… including the atheism option;

(d) religion didn't get the privileged, free-ride status it enjoys now, but instead was treated as simply another hypothesis about the world, one which had to defend itself in the marketplace of ideas just like any other idea.

If all that were true, I still wouldn't agree with religion. I'd still think it was mistaken. And I'd still probably debate it with people now and then. But I wouldn't be spending more than half of my precious writing time trying to argue against it. There are lots of mistaken ideas in the world. The urban legend debunking sites are full of them. I don't devote my blog to their eventual disappearance.
You wanna know the weird thing, though?

I actually think my first vision may be more plausible than the second.

I think it's actually a lot more likely that we'll someday see a world without religion, than a world in which religion is widespread but entirely tolerant and ecumenical.

Because, in my experience and observation, tolerant and ecumenical religion is the exception, not the rule.

Breaking the spell
Daniel Dennett talks about this a little bit in his book "Breaking the Spell." He argues that the essential baselessness of religion — the fact that it's unsupported by solid evidence or logic, the fact that it's essentially a shared opinion rather than a body of knowledge — actually makes people cling to it more tightly, defend it more vehemently, get more upset and angry when the ideas are questioned. And it makes people more likely to build elaborate cultural defense mechanisms around it: from the tacit understanding that questioning religion is ill-mannered, to the codification of religious beliefs and practices into harshly- enforced law.

ArmorYou don't need to build an entire mental and emotional and cultural suit of armor around an obvious fact, after all. If strange people come from over the hill and insist that the sky is orange and that it rains Jell-O, you probably won't go to war with them. But people do go to war when the strange people from over the hill insist that God is named Allah instead of Jesus, or vice versa. The idea that the sky is orange is easy to dismiss. You can clearly see that it isn't. The idea that your whole concept of God might be mistaken… it's less easy to dismiss. And it's therefore, psychologically, much more important to defend.

When I look at the history of religion in the world — and at religion in the world today — it seems clear that the groovy, accepting, "we're all looking at the same God in our own way" form of progressive ecumenicalism is very much in the minority. Hostility to other beliefs — and super- duper- hostility to no belief at all — is much more common… so common that it seems to be, not a foundation of religion exactly, but one of its defining characteristics.

So while, on a practical, day-to-day political level I'm going to fight for tolerance and ecumenicalism — creationism out of the public schools, evangelizing out of the military, public health policy not being written by fundamentalists, that sort of thing — I'm also going to keep fighting against religion in general. I'm going to keep doing what I can to keep atheism in the public eye, to make sure that more and more people every day know about it and see it as a valid option… so that in a few generations, my ultimate Utopian ideal of a world without religion might someday, long after I'm dead, be realized.

Because I think that it's actually a less Utopian goal than my other one.

Comments

  1. Nita says

    I think hostility is not a defining characteristic of religion, but it -is- one of the factors that help a religious movement draw and keep people in. It’s like ecology: most species are -not- invasive, but the ones that are end up colonizing more habitats and driving other species to extinction.
    And besides that, the tendency to divide people into Us and Them seems to be a part of human nature (perhaps an old mechanism to ensure assortative mating), so we need to learn and teach to recognize and counteract it from childhood.

  2. Jason Failes says

    I’m sorry I haven’t been able to replicate the exact misspelling this morning, but I thought you would find it amusing that if you garble a few letters in googling “Greta Christina Blog”, you can get a “did you mean Great Christian Blog?”
    And, once again, good post.

  3. says

    Very good post. I agree that, ultimately, a post-religious world will be more a more realistic goal than an ecumenical religious world. Religions unite people within their boundaries and identify clearly those who stand outside of the boundaries. There are lots of reasons for making these distinctions, some of which are socially useful and others of which are downright harmful.
    I also agree that force would not be a productive way to bring about a post-religious world, nor would it be an ethically acceptable means to achieve that end. A post-religious world will not surface in my lifetime. Perhaps humankind will move closer to it by the time my grandchildren (none of whom have been born yet) reach middle age. If not by then, perhaps when their children reach that same milestone. In other words, it’s probably at least 100 years away – if the kooks don’t obliterate all of us before then.

  4. Edward says

    It is refreshing to see a blog by an atheist that is as tolerant as yours. Personally, as a Christian, I see the behaviour of a lot of atheists to be as close-minded and antagonistic as the religious people they are attacking.
    Obviously, as a religious person myself, I am biased, but I see some value to having tolerant religion alongside science. For one thing, it can teach people that your default theory can be anything, as long as you are willing to hear contrary evidence (eg. absence of proof is not proof of absence, so belief in God isn’t unscientific, anymore than the belief that there is no god). I do agree that religion is often abused, which angers me, but that is more a reflection on the type of person that would abuse it than on the system.
    Please continue blogging

  5. sexposfemme says

    Do you feel the same way about atheist religions like Buddhism or mine, Satanism?

  6. Eclectic says

    Sexposfemme, in what way is Satanism an atheist religion? The satanists I know were from the Temple of Set, and I didn’t discuss theology that much, but I thought the basic idea was that Lucifer’s revolt was justified and blind obedience is not a virtue.
    We talked more about the moral implications than the mythology, but I thought the existence of angels, at least, was assumed. Is it not?
    (P.S. your old blogs posts are getting comment-spammed. You might want to clean them out.)

  7. Kagehi says

    PZ Myers put it best when he stated, “Our greatest goal is to become irrelevant, while the greatest goal of most religions is to become the only one.”
    I don’t agree with your assessment of “abuse of religion” though Edward. Which is an abuse, the cherry picking of verse to allow for a happy happy joy joy world in which everyone coexists in harmony and peace, or the cherry picking of other verses to present an authoritarian ideal, which demands that those who are different, or insufficiently faithful, or argue against authority, deserve to be either ignored, jailed or shot? In reality “both” are abuses of the original texts, at least in Christianity, but trying to follow them without cherry picking would be so schizophrenic that no one could manage it. You would have to spend a week deciding *which* kind of unbeliever someone was, just to figure out if you should a) convert them, b) ignore them, c) exorcise demons from them, d) give them all your money, on the grounds that they are authorities and thus like Caesar, or stone them to death for being the wrong tribe. (And that is the short list of contradictory methods of dealing with apostates and blasphemers.)
    You can’t *not* abuse something that is, by its nature, prone to misunderstanding, misjudgment, contradiction and, in some cases, outright intentional misuse. Everyone does it wrong, because there is no clear “right” way to do it, which isn’t as much a matter of made up rules and justifications for doing it that way, than actual professed instructions on what, when and how to do them.
    This isn’t me being antagonistic, just realistic. The Jews invented the whole thing and have reached the point where they are not so sure any more if it isn’t just all gibberish themselves, what with things like the god El seeming to have done “some” of the stuff attributed to the later Elohim/Eloah, which later renamed itself again, keeping most of the same stories, and calling itself Yahweh, only… editing out all the mentions of “other gods”, like Baal, Ahura-Mazda, Astarte and Ahriman (all originating in the same region, and Baal later being renamed Beelzebub in the OT). And those are just the majors, it doesn’t include Mithra or Atar, who where supposedly the sons of Ahura-Mazda, and so on.
    Well, I think you get my point. Define “abuse”, without referring to how someone else is abusing it, based solely on your own idea of what it “should be”, while their interpretation is just as supportable.
    There is a reason why we have a *general* problem with religion, and its because we recognize that there isn’t, hasn’t been, and likely never will be, one that is consistent, not of questionable providence and contains a completely “clear” message, without any little annoying wobbles, like the odd choice of a story about slave ownership to illustrate how one shouldn’t unduly punish someone (but not that you shouldn’t beat them at all). Very wacky choice, unless you perfectly well intended the “other” messages the story implies imho.

  8. Justin says

    Hi Greta,
    I tend to attribute horrible warfare and suffering to religions too, but at the same time, I’m never sure to what degree such suffering is really caused by them. I think it’s easy to show how awful religion can be for its own members — parents tormenting children, forced conformity, and so on.
    But what about the really awful internecine strife that makes headlines — the wars, the rabid mobs setting fire to each others’ churches, and so on? Is that /really/ caused by religion? I’m never quite sure.
    Clearly, religions play a part, and there are more than enough bloodthirsty preachers and the like. But, the real question I have is: how much of this is a clash between religions, and how much is a clash between cultures?
    That’s what I really can’t quite decide. It seems to me that through most of history, religion and culture have been deeply intertwined. Religions shape cultures through shared/forced beliefs, theocracy in the extreme form, and as religions change, cultures shape them too. So in these sorts of inter-religion strife, what you’re typically seeing is that two groups with different cultures are killing each other.
    Take the religion away, and would they still fight? Some days, I think they would, just as much. And some days, I think the world would be a far more peaceful place.
    When you talk to religious people who hate each other, one thing I notice is that it very quickly seems to turn from a religious thing into a cultural one. When people talk about what they hate about other people, they don’t talk about fine points of theology. It’s always an us-vs.-them thing, where people gather themselves into tribes and find reasons to despise each other. Does religion play a part? Of course… But I’m just not sure how much it foments violence and hatred, and how much it just serves as another tribal identifier that people use.
    So, in my more pessimistic moments, when I imagine your utopia, I think it would be pretty much the same as now, only without the religion (and with some other horrific establishment — rampant corporatism or fascist government perhaps, to replace it). But when I’m feeling more optimistic, I think that outgrowing mystical ways of thinking can only lead people to behave more rationally. And rational people can see things from different points of view, which is ultimately what leads to understanding.

  9. says

    This essay is spot on! I disagree with your conclusion, but since you’ve stated it so well, I know exactly where I disagree.
    I disagree in that I think it is easier to achieve a world in which religion is more tolerant. For one thing, it seems to have been achieved to some extent in certain locations. And I don’t really think that baseless beliefs are the fundamental component of religion. The communities and religious experiences are a big part of it too.

  10. says

    The assertion that people don’t go to war over Facts is, of course, silly.
    Consider a long, world changing war we had with Russia about how best to distribute goods and services. They wanted a command economy. We wanted a distributed economy. And many many, many people got killed because of it in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and all over the world. The World spent half a century under the threat of nuclear annihilation because these two groups wanted different economic systems.
    Religion is indeed a tool used by the powerful to manipulate people. But it would be foolish to think powerful people can’t find other conduits of power.

  11. Edward says

    Quote from sexposfemme: “Do you feel the same way about atheist religions like Buddhism or mine, Satanism?”
    Buddhism, yes. I don’t know much about Satanism, so I can’t say.
    Kagehi: I would consider any “cherry-picking” to be abuse. More generally, abuse is using religion and tenets of faith to control other people, or to close minds.
    As for the Hebrew God renaming Himself, you need to do a bit of research. His name never changed, but has always only been written as YHWH, without vowels, leading to both Yahweh and Jehovah being the same name. Elohim means Lord, as does El.

  12. says

    “Take the religion away, and would they still fight? Some days, I think they would, just as much. And some days, I think the world would be a far more peaceful place.”
    Of course, we don’t really know the answer to this, and won’t until/ unless the world becomes a lot more secular. But IMO, the end of religion wouldn’t be the end of war, I’m not nearly utopian enough to convince myself of that. As others have pointed out, there are plenty of other reasons to go to war.
    But it might well mean fewer wars. And it might mean more easily endable wars. A conflict over land or resources can be negotiated. A conflict based on the idea that “God wants us to have this land” or “Your beliefs and practices are a profound insult to everything we hold dear” is almost impossible to negotiate.
    And I would point out that, in the last fifty years, since Western Europe has become so much more secular, it’s also become much more peaceful. Correlation doesn’t prove causation of course, and I think there are lots of possible reasons for this… but I don’t think it’s entirely coincidental.

  13. says

    sexposfemme: “Do you feel the same way about atheist religions like Buddhism or mine, Satanism?”
    It seems to me that different people practice these religions very differently. Some people treat them as a belief in some sort of metaphysical entity or entities, even if there’s no belief in anything called God. Others treat them less as religions and more as philosophies.
    The latter I don’t really have any problem with (although I may disagree with specific aspects of the philosophies). The former I think is just as problematic as any other religion. Or almost as problematic. Look again at my “What’s The Harm In A Little Woo?” piece for an explanation of why (lots of woo religion and spirituality isn’t theistic).
    http://gretachristina.typepad.com/greta_christinas_weblog/2008/01/when-i-write-ab.html

  14. says

    I’d argue that having a quick succession of land-hungry, common enemies at their doorstep (Nazis, then USSR) had more to do with galvanizing Europe’s nations than secularization.

  15. says

    Don’t give up. I was saved from the “dark side” by a website. Who’s to say someone isn’t reading your blog right now and experiencing the same conversion?

  16. Kagehi says

    “Elohim means Lord, as does El.”
    The first one does, yes, but El **was** once the name of a god. For a time, before things started to shift from polytheism to monotheism (and the Jews never 100% entirely gave up the former), if you where talking about El, you where talking about the supposed “father and creator of all things”, while, when talking about other gods, you used other names. Over time, *everyone* started attributing *everything* to El. Its the ancient version of “goddidit!”
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/El_(god)
    Oh, and just for a laugh, here is a page that argues that the *differences* in the methods of worship and the religious underpinnings of both mean that El and Yehweh are *not* the same god at all:
    http://www.biblicalheritage.org/God/el-goi.htm
    They are commonly considered the same solely due to the long tradition of religions *borrowing* things they can’t get rid of, changing their names, then insisting they are talking about the same thing all along, like the Catholics like to do with everything from Pagan gods to people that hated them, but seemed to perform real miracles (as far as the church was concerned), and renaming them “saints”.

  17. Kagehi says

    Hmm. Specifically (see *****ed section):
    “What we find is a religion in which El presides over his sons, assigning each of them a people to govern. *****What is surprising is that here we also find Yahweh portrayed as one of El Elyon’s divine sons.***** Even if Yahweh were missing from the text, it would still be important in that it reveals an important aspect regarding El’s pantheon. The metaphor is one of a royal executive family ruling over its domain that is divided among each of the sons, each given their specific assignment. This type of bureaucratic pantheon bears the strongest resemblence to Mesopotamian mythology. From this comparitive perspective, Aramean Elism seems to be a sister version of Canaanite mythology, both descended from a Mesopotamian ancestor.”

  18. says

    Muchos Tacks, Greta.
    I was just reading a history of agnosticism. I’m beginning to understand that liberal religion simply doesn’t hold up. Unless you reduce your favorite god to just one more creature in the world, then the only way you can know anything about that god is through revelation, and since revelation isn’t susceptible to reason, revelation is either wholly true or wholly false.
    If you can show me a god that is susceptible to being known about in the ordinary way, I’ll be pleased to reconsider. But for now, put me down for “wholly false.” The disconnect between dealing with things in the real world and dealing with revealed things is just too jarring, so maybe trying to reconcile the two into one way of looking at the world is too hard.
    So, just as you said, perhaps for different reasons, the halfway house of liberal religion is too hard to build. And as people read their “inerrant” bibles and conclude “this is *stupid*, the easiest place to go is all the way out.

  19. says

    Wow, I’m really late to this post! Catching up, doncha know.
    To Edward, who says ‘absence of proof is not proof of absence, so belief in God isn’t unscientific, anymore (sic) than the belief that there is no god':
    Actually, absence of proof does make the belief in God unscientific. By definition. A person who believes in God is doing so outside of science. Science has nothing to do with that belief, or with ‘faith’ in general. Science is anti-faith. Which is not to say faith isn’t a good thing. It’s just to say that in school, a god has no place in scientific study. And we can’t say we hold our faith in cooperation with science or without argument with science. Those who hold faiths in gods do so in the complete absence of and in direct disregard for current scientific knowledge about the origins of life. However, scientists acknowledge that if such evidence does come to light, they can then allow for the existence of God. And at that point, it won’t be faith or belief. It will be knowledge.

  20. Eclectic says

    Just in case there’s anyone on the planet who’s missed it, I draw your attention to Barack Obama speaking at a church saying something very simple: theological arguments are not a sufficient basis for civil laws.
    You can get your ideas from wherever (indeed, I agree that theologians have spent a long time thinking about morality and have a few good ideas on the subject), but you have to argue them in universally accessible terms.
    My main objection to religion is based on the harm done to others by the bellicose adherents of particular religions.
    I do have some objection to the harm done to the adherents themselves, on the general principle of “thous shalt not lie”, but that’s far weaker, and opposed by my strong advocacy of self-determinism, which includes the right to do something stupid.
    And even then, I’m quite open to evidence of a net benefit to religious adherents. It’s not obviously true, but it’s not obviously false, either: populations carrying religious memes have clearly done well in the world. But I’m still not sure if it’s a mutually beneficial symbiosis. Or, indeed, if it might have once been beneficial, but is no longer.

  21. says

    It’s true that a lot of kids have highly underdeveloped powers of focus these days because of Twitter and social media, but I have to choose their side about Frankenstein… I’ve tried twice to read through this damn thing the many way through and failed both times-it ends up on every school reading list like clockwork because it’s “literature”, and although the old black and white movies they spun off it in the 30s and 40s are excellent fun, it just doesn’t hold up. A pair of ages back again I heard a possibly apocryphal story about a teacher who gave his students the choice of reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula rather; a highly popular choice until the schoolboard was quietly leaned on by a group of parents to remove it…It was as well Catholic to the fundamentalists, way too Satanic to the Catholics, and much too Godly for that small group of atheists who joined in. So now the kids have to slog by way of Frankenstein and student suicides are up 50%…

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