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.
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?
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.
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.)
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.
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.