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Atheism and History: A Grandiose Thought

Scarlet letter

I was thinking about the atheist movement the other day, and I had what I freely admit is a very grandiose thought. I’m actually a little embarrassed to say it in public: but I’ve been finding it inspiring and sustaining as well as grandiose, and it seemed like a thought my readers might be interested in, so I decided to get over my embarrassment and just say it out loud. (Some of you may already have reached this conclusion, btw, in which case I’ll be even more embarrassed for being late to the party… but oh, well. Part of writing fearlessly means saying what I have to say without fear of making an ass of myself.)

The thought is this.

If the atheist movement succeeds?

If those of us who are trying to persuade people out of religion, those of us who are offering atheism as an alternative, eventually succeed?

If current trends continue, and the number of people who don’t believe in God continues to grow larger and larger, until eventually everybody (or almost everybody) abandons the idea entirely?

It will be one of the most important developments in human history.

Zeus_Louvre_G204

Think about it. For the entirety of human history, our thinking about the world has included religion, as a crucial, even central, part of our world view. As far as we can tell, human beings have believed in gods, spirits, and supernatural entities for as long as we’ve been human beings. And these beliefs have been a powerful force in shaping how we think and act. They’ve shaped the broadest sweeps of political history, and they’ve shaped the most intimate and important personal choices of individuals. For thousands upon thousands of years.

If atheists — or those atheists (like me) who are working to persuade people out of religion and welcome them into atheism — are eventually successful?

Historians History of the World

It will be one of the most important developments in human history. It will be like the Enlightenment, or the Industrial Revolution. It will be the sort of thing historians write about. People will see human history as divided into two eras: When We Believed In Gods, and When We Stopped Believing In Gods.

I told you this was a grandiose thought.

I’m not sure why I feel compelled to bring this thought up. But ever since it occurred to me, I’ve been finding it comforting, and sustaining. Inspiring, even. When I’m up against one of the 37 Terrible Arguments for Religion for the five hundredth time? When I’m butting my head against one of the many pieces of armor that religion has built to protect itself from any sort of questioning or criticism? When I’m debating people who think I’m a bad person just for trying to make my case? I’ve been finding it comforting, and sustaining, and inspiring, to remember what a huge struggle we’re involved in, and what a massive impact it could have an human history.

It’s a sustaining thought for a couple of reasons. For one thing, it helps me have empathy with the believers I’m debating and trying to persuade. It reminds me that when we ask people to consider giving up their religion, we’re actually asking a lot. I don’t think what we’re asking is unreasonable, or unfair, or wrong… but it’s a lot. We’re not simply asking people to give up a major foundation of their life, a major component of their sense of meaning and their place in the world. We’re asking them to participate in a massive, serious shift in human thought. It’s kind of a big deal.

Patience

It’s also helping to give me patience. Realizing what a tremendous societal shift we’re trying to create… it reminds me that this is going to be a long struggle, one that I almost certainly won’t see achieved in my lifetime. It helps me be patient in my one- on- one debates and engagements; and it helps me be patient with the molasses- like change that’s happening in the broader political and legal and social arenas. When I feel like I’m banging my head against a rock, it helps to remember that major social change is slow in coming, and the effect is rarely sudden. It’s more like water on stone.

And maybe most importantly:

It helps me feel like this fight is worth fighting.

When I get frustrated and discouraged, when I start to wonder whether this particular rock is one that’s worth banging my head against… I remember how big and important the thing is that we’re trying to do. Even the remote possibility that I might be part of one of the major sweeping changes in human history? Even the remote possibility that I might be a small footnote in one of the more obscure histories written about this movement 200 years from now? Even the remote possibility that, out of the billions of minds we hope to eventually change, I’ll have been partially responsible for changing one thousandth of one percent? That’s enough to sustain me through a whole lot of dark nights of the soul. (Or, more accurately, the soulless.)

Utopia

Now, before I go totally off into the grandiose deep end, I do feel compelled to add some caveats. First, and very importantly: I don’t think this change will bring about a utopia, or anything resembling a utopia. I do think it will be an improvement: I think religion is a mistaken idea about the world, I think on the whole it does more harm than good, and I think humanity would be better off without it. But I’m not naive enough to think letting go of religion will bring an end to all wars, all bigotries, all hatreds, all frauds, all shoddy excuses for bad behavior, all manipulations of the weak by the powerful. I’m a dreamer, but I’m not totally high.

We also might not be successful. It may be that the impulse towards religion, and the human psychological wiring that leads to it, are so strong that humanity as a whole will simply never let go of it. It may be that the most atheists will ever achieve is an increase in our numbers, and an increase in tolerance and acceptance by non-atheists, and a better separation of church and state. Worthwhile goals, to be sure, and significant in their own right… but not quite as grand as bringing about the Post- God Era of Humanity.

Plus, we have to last long enough as a species for this change to make any difference. If we don’t get global warming and clean water supplies and nuclear disarmament and whatnot handled, we may not stick around long enough to see this change take place… or for it to matter.

Galaxies

And, of course, we’re still only one big rock circling one of billions of stars in one of billions of galaxies. And in a couple billion years that one star will have become so hot that all life on Earth will be obliterated… thus rendering the whole question moot. (Whenever I start to get grandiose about my importance in the scheme of things, these brute facts usually drag me back into perspective.)

I get all that.

I’m just saying:

What we’re doing has potential to be, within the limited perspective of humanity, huge. What we’re doing has potential to be one of the most important developments in human history.

And if it helps us be patient; if it helps us be empathetic; if it helps us stay strong and resilient in the face of frustrations and setbacks… then let’s remember that.

Comments

  1. marisa says

    Yay. :)
    People gravitate towards stupidity and selfishness in general, but lacking religion provides one less excuse for being stupid and selfish.
    Hopefully in the future there will be no bloodthirsty sea otters. (Once again, thank you, South Park.)

  2. says

    Hmm, I never thought that being an atheist meant persuading others to join the non-religious side. I understand being supportive to those who do, and I’m happy enough to talk about my non-belief if asked, but the “big picture” of a godless world never really struck me as important. Tolerance and understanding and respect of non-believers all around should be fought for, surely, but I never considered that it would be necessary or desirable to push it any further.
    Maybe this has been hashed over already but is it necessary in the long-run?

  3. jemand says

    interestingly, Jupiter really has a rock core about the size of the earth… as the sun expands during it’s death it’d probably blow most of the hydrogen away and we could move there for several million years. Give us a real kick in the butt and we might manage to get out of the system during those several million years before the sun burns out completely… lol.

  4. Maria says

    I know that I start to get too tired when I read a really interesting blog post and my first thought is: ‘WOW, big space dick!!’ (you alway chose interesting pictures to illustrate your posts). :-))
    Seriously. I have been thinking about exactly this several times, but I haven’t been able to find as much strength in this thought as you do. I always gets stuck on the reasons you mention for why this desirable outcome is not very likely, and just feel… tired.
    But I admit I am a bit pessimistic by nature :-)
    In any case – no matter if this is our ultimate goal or not, no matter if it is actually likely to happen or not – I think it’s definitely worth to work with these questions for the best of us all.

  5. mcbender says

    You certainly have a way with words. I’ve had these sort of thoughts from time to time, but never really brought them all the way to their conclusion…
    I can’t be optimistic enough to think that this could happen in any of our lifetimes, though. The psychological predisposition to religion seems to be very difficult to combat, and every time I start to feel like we might be making some progress I come across another deluded person whose conversation reminds me of a brick wall (and whatever optimism I may have been feeling just instantly goes kaput).
    Patience, patience… I need to learn this.

  6. says

    Nicole, I don’t disagree. I don’t think being an atheist necessarily means trying to persuade others. But the atheist movement is largely trying to do that. Even when it’s just offering a safe haven to non-believers, letting people know it’s okay to be an atheist, encouraging atheists to come out of the closet, advocating for separation of church and state, etc … I would argue that that’s part of the movement towards the increasing secularization of society. Even when it’s not actively trying to persuade people out of religion.
    (Of course, nobody has to be part of the atheist movement to be an atheist. No membership cards required.)
    But you might be interested in a piece I wrote a while back, called What Do You Want, Anyway? An Atheist’s Mission Statement. In it, I argue that I would be perfectly happy if all the atheist movement succeeded in doing was fostering respect and tolerance for people of different religious beliefs (including people with none), and getting government separated from religion, and so on. But I also argue that this may be a difficult goal to reach without humanity letting go of religion… since the tolerant, ecumenical forms of religion are so much more rare than the hostile and rigid ones.

  7. says

    I think the persuading others part comes from having to have the groundwork in place to get a real separation of church and state. As just a “simple” issue, how much prime real estate is currently off the tax rolls because of religion? Realizing the “little” implications of a fuzzy feel-good-ism is going to take same hard work. When numbers switch to a more even representation of the religious and non-religious, it will be possible to have real discussion and compromise (the magic of politics) over issues that affect the real lives of those of us in Potterville who do most of the living and working and dying.
    I see the job of persuasion as a way of building a human consensus. Religion and neat fairy tales make it too easy to excuse and side-step the hard work of living in the society of human critters.

  8. says

    People will see human history as divided into two eras: When We Believed In Gods, and When We Stopped Believing In Gods.

    The bronze age, the iron age, the atomic age, the space age, the preindustrial age, the information age, the post-theistic age… yeah, I can see it.
    I suspect, though, that while it may be possible to get rid of religion, or at least belief in gods, it’ll be much harder to get rid of woo altogether.
    Thinking rationally is not something that comes naturally to people, because that’s how our minds evolved. A lot of the thought processes that power woo like belief in conspiracy theories, alien abductions, and homeopathy may have played useful roles in our ancestors’ time, e.g. as quick and dirty rules of thumb that allowed them to make snap decisions in a hurry, and worked more often than not.
    But carefully distinguishing correlation from causation, or keeping track of which of our beliefs came from unreliable sources, are skills that need to be learned, because they’re as unnatural as trigonometry or driving a car.
    I don’t want to downplay your vision too much, because even getting to a point where belief in gods is a fringe delusion like belief in unicorns would be a huge achievement. I’m just saying that the post-theistic age will still have plenty of woo; we just have to make sure that none of the various flavors of woo have enough clout to make life hard for the rest of us.

  9. Zipi says

    If, back when I was a child, somebody had told me what the social and legal acceptance of gays and lesbians in my country would be today, I would not have believed them. And yet here we are.
    Your dream world sounds impossible now, but maybe it isn’t.
    Thanks for your inspiring words.

  10. says

    On Utopia:
    “I don’t think this change will bring about a utopia, or anything resembling a utopia. I do think it will be an improvement… ”
    You’ve got that right.
    My impression is that aiming for Utopia is humankind’s highest and most honorable communal act.

  11. Todd says

    Sorry, but as a life long cynical misanthrope (or what you would call a crank), I think that if we do manage to escape the mental enslavement of religious belief, we’ll just replace it with something just as shitty. Never underestimate the power of human stupidity. For me, I’ll just be happy if we manage to avoid extinction in the next five years.
    And I agree with Maria. Nice space dick.

  12. llewelly says

    I’m very skeptical of your thesis. Atheism attacks only one sort of woo. It doesn’t affect So-Called Alternative Medicine (Bill Maher), conspiracy theories, racism, harmful political ideologies (Ayn Rand) , or any other bad ideas. It’s just about helping people understand that there is no evidence for god, or similar supernatural powers. That’s an important step forward, but it’s not like the development of the scientific method, or the enlightenment.

  13. Maria says

    Thanks Todd! I was beginning to suspect that I was the only one seeing it, thus revealing the shameful locality of my mind as being in the gutter :-)

  14. Maria says

    Atheism attacks only one sort of woo.
    That might be true. But many atheists do fight all sorts of woo as well, not only religion. It’s not like you can only attack one thing as an atheist, and I’ve met very few atheists that did not also had rather strong negative opinions about things like homeopathy, psychics and other con artists and woo peddlers, pseudoscience and superstition, and so on. Atheism in itself do not address these things, no, but in practicality it often seems to go hand in hand with a skeptical movement on the whole.
    But I agree fully. There are much more kinds of woo to address than just religion and that does make this fight seem quite hopeless. I’ve mentioned before in another thread that in my country figures of up to 80% atheists are sometimes mentioned – but that that doesn’t mean that all other sorts of woo aren’t extremely common here. Here, on a small scale, the ideal seems to have been fulfilled, there are much less believers than non-believers. But there is sure no shortage of bad ideas and weird woo thinking here.

  15. Edwardson says

    Rather than just atheism, I think we should be promoting skepticism and clear thinking in general (in short a scientific mindset). Indeed there is so much woo out there. And theistic belief is just one.

  16. says

    What would happen? Babies would be sold in supermarkets, der. Which is a good thing, since the ones I’ve been eating off the blackmarket tend to be a bit gammy, not to mention pricey.

  17. Valhar2000 says

    A couple of weeks ago I checked out http://www.asexuality.org, after Dan Savage mentioned it (though he still refuses to believe asexuality is real, apparently), and among other things I found stories people told of the reactions they got from friends and family members upon revealing that they are asexual.
    What struck me about them was that, even though most of these reactions seemed to come from people who were okay with homosexuality, their reaction to asexuality was eerily similar to the reactions people had years ago to homosexuality: “it’s just a phase”, “you just haven’t found the right man”, “so… you’re gay?”, etc.
    It just goes to show: people will never, ever learn.
    On the other hand, if we look back a few hundred years, it seems things are getting better in various ways…

  18. Rieux says

    If you’re worried about being too grandiose or utopian or sci-fi-ish futuristic or something, just think about what Western Europe, and especially its more northern areas (Scandinavia and nearby nations) look like, today. They’ve gone overwhelmingly secular; religion–at least anything supernatural enough to be taken seriously as “religion”–is dying fast there, and in several areas it’s all but extinct. And nations like Japan, Australia, and New Zealand have similar levels of secularism.
    Seems to me this ties in with your “grandiose” vision in a big way–because the development of a secular Western Europe, which has taken place only over the last century (or perhaps few centuries, if you want to dig deep into root causes), is entirely unprecedented in human history. There are significant portions of humanity that are in fact emerging into the Post- God Era.
    Now, your caveats are fully justified: secularization is a slow process that takes many generations, and it appears to require favorable background conditions, such as by-and-large stable economic, political, and (eek) ecological settings. If global warming, say, decimates the world food supply, a whole lot is going to go to shit–and the human rights and freedoms that secularization depends upon might be among the casualties. So there’s no inevitability here.
    But the demographic data are fairly clear: when human populations are provided with high quality education and a substantial social safety net (e.g., universal health care…), religion suffers a generation-over-generation decline. Deprived of its two wellsprings, ignorance and fear, religion dies.
    Given this broad trend, actually, I’d argue that the atheist movement actually shouldn’t spend all that much of our energies with the specific intention of convincing our neighbors to dump religion. God Delusion-esque works do actually deconvert people (notwithstanding the common “no believer will ever be convinced to abandon her beliefs by Dawkins’ absurdity” canard), but I seriously doubt the number of deconversions is high enough to make a significant difference societally.
    Better, I think, to focus our energies on carving out a place in public discourse for atheists and our ideas to be recognized as legitimate and worthwhile. And we should fight to preserve the political, social, and ecological conditions in which free thought can thrive. Then there will continue to be deconversion aplenty, whether we intentionally seek it or not.
    I hasten to add that this blog and many other prominent atheist outlets (including, for that matter, The God Delusion) are very valuable means toward those ends!

  19. Maria says

    Valhar2000, I think you are on to something. I think (and it’s not a terribly well thought out idea yet, I admit) that people in general might have a problem with the “a-stuff” in itself.
    Believers in different things may hate each other to the point where they start to kill each other, but they understand the other in as much as that they have a belief as well. They can relate to that even if it’s the “wrong” belief. Lacking belief altogether is a whole nother concept to them though.
    Same with the sex-stuff. Some people can not understand why a man is turned on by another man because they can not experience that themselves, but they do understand the turned-on part in itself, unrelated to the object of the desire, because that they can always relate to. But asexuality, the lack of it… that’s, again, another concept to relate to.
    One of my friends is not religious in the least and could be said to be an atheist as far as gods are concerned, but she believes in a lot of woo, especially ghosts and physics speaking to the dead and all that Sylvia Browne-shit. When I say that I am an atheist this is not a problem for her, that means not believing in the Christian long bearded old man in the sky – and she doesn’t either. But she can not take that I say that I don’t believe in any supernatural things, and other such unsubstantial concepts, at all. She insists I must believe in something, because all people do. The concept of having no belief (in this meaning of the word, I am not talking about believing in love, or in ones own abilities and such things here) she doesn’t accept, I have been unsucessful in explaining it.

  20. says

    A little grandiose? Maybe. But that’s not the same thing as being not important or not true. :)
    To follow up on what some other commenters have said: On the days when I think a secular future is impossibly far away, I find inspiration by looking to the past. There are people alive today who remember when segregation was the law of the land in many states… and today we have a black president. The same is true of feminism: Women gained the right to vote scarcely a generation ago, and in the age when they didn’t have it, the belief that women were unqualified to vote or to hold office was so widespread and so unquestioned, it’s incredible that it was ever overthrown. And being gay or bisexual was considered a psychological defect just a few decades ago, and today, marriage equality for same-sex couples is a reality in many places and continues to advance.
    Prejudices like racism and sexism haven’t gone away by any means. But in less than a hundred years, they’ve lost the vast majority of their power, and they are no longer acceptable to openly advocate in public or to use as the basis for law. In another generation, the same will almost certainly be true of homophobia.
    This gives me reason to hope for the future of the atheist movement. Human beings can be fiercely irrational and dogmatic, yet we’re also capable of changing our minds with remarkable speed, when the cultural stars have aligned. I know religion isn’t going to go away completely in my lifetime; maybe not ever. But I’d be willing to bet we can make a lot of progress, and do it a lot faster than most people would ever imagine. Check back in fifty or a hundred years. You may well be surprised how far we’ve come!

  21. says

    There’s a very interesting book called Empty Pulpits: Ireland’s retreat from religion. The author argues that campaigning atheists should look at what happened in this country and attempt to emulate it.
    In the meantime, Ben Goldacre keeps up the fight against woo. His book Bad Science cannot be recommended enough. (Make sure you get the second edition, with the extra chapter.)
    TRiG.

  22. chupa says

    This line of thought is something I considered for a long time. Then, I moved to the Middle East where I have lived since 2005. Now I realize, that it is easy to imagine a Western country without religion. But, it is impossible to imagine a Middle Eastern one losing their faith any time soon. Out here, civilization is a good 1000-2000 years behind the West in that regard and it will be interesting to see how quickly, if at all, they ever catch up (in anti-religious thought).
    I think you are right though, that far enough into the future, if we dont’ end up in the dark ages again, humanity will look back and marvel at how long people held on to religion in the face of reality.

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