Religion Relies on Social Consent


Religion relies on social consent to perpetuate itself. So we have to refuse that social consent.

This is an idea I’ve been kicking around and alluding to in passing for some time, and I wanted to give it its own post.

Religion — the hypothesis that the world is the way it is because of supernatural beings or forces acting on the natural world — is a bad idea. At best, it’s almost certainly wrong; at worst, it’s totally incoherent. Religious beliefs are either unfalsifiable — in which case we should reject them on that basis alone — or they’ve been falsified. It has never, ever, ever turned out to be the right answer to anything. It may have made sense thousands of years ago, when we didn’t understand the world as well as we do now. But it makes no sense at all now. I’m not saying we know everything there is to know about the universe — of course we don’t — but given the fact that natural explanations of phenomena have replaced supernatural ones thousands upon thousands of times, and supernatural explanations have replaced natural ones exactly never, assuming that one particular supernatural explanation will turn out to be right is clearly a sucker’s bet.

Religion is a bad idea. It can’t stand up on its own. But it can — and does — perpetuate itself through social consent. It perpetuates itself through people not asking hard questions, or indeed any. It perpetuates itself through dogma saying that asking questions about religion is sinful and will result in punishment, and that trusting religion without evidence is virtuous. It perpetuates itself through dogma saying that joy and meaning and morality can only be found in religion, and that leaving religion will automatically result in a desperate, amoral, pointless life. It perpetuates itself through parents and other authority figures teaching it to children, whose brains are extra-vulnerable to believing whatever they’re taught. It perpetuates itself through social and even legal protections that keep religious leaders and organizations from suffering consequences when they behave despicably. It perpetuates itself through religious communities and support systems that make believing in religion — or pretending to believe in religion — a necessity to function and indeed survive. Etc. Etc. Etc. (More examples are welcomed in the comments.)

Religion perpetuates itself through social consent.

So those of us who think religion is a bad idea — mistaken at best, flat-out harmful at worst — have to deny our consent.

This, in my opinion, is one of the biggest reasons for atheists to come out of the closet. You don’t even have to argue with people about their beliefs (although if you want to, that would be awesome). If all you do is tell people, “I’m an atheist” — that is huge. You’re denying your social consent to the religion hypothesis, just by doing that.

But there are a zillion other things we can do as well. We can support atheist billboard and bus ad campaigns. We can support groups that are doing atheist organization and visibility work — especially among young people. We can work to form and strengthen atheist communities, and make those communities more visible — to make the atheism option harder to ignore, and to give people who are questioning their religion a safe place to land. We can treat religion as just another hypothesis about the world, and stop treating it with special deference. We can speak out against religious absurdities and religious atrocities — and point out how religion itself, and its uniquely untestable nature, contributes to and perpetuates them. We can point out that even progressive and moderate religion perpetuates the idea of faith — the idea that it’s acceptable and even virtuous to believe things you have no good reason to think are true. We can live good, happy, meaningful atheist lives, and give the lie to the idea that that’s impossible. We can go to the atheist march on Washington in March 2012. We can put atheist bumper stickers on our car; link to stories about atheism on Facebook and Twitter; organize an atheist bowling team. Etc. Etc. Etc. (Again — more examples are welcomed in the comments.)

There are a zillion different ways for us to deny this social consent. Coming out is just one of them.

And I think that, as the years and decades roll on, doing all this will have a snowball effect. The more of us there are who deny our social consent to religion, the harder it will be to ignore difficult questions about religion, or to ignore the option of atheism. And as it becomes harder to ignore hard questions about religion and the atheism option, more people will become atheists… and as more people come out as atheists, it’ll become even harder to ignore difficult questions about religion or ignore the option of atheism. We see this already happening in many European countries, where half or more of the population are non-believers, and religion is disintegrating by the day. It’s like the Emperor’s new clothes. The more of us who speak up — the more of us who say out loud that the Emperor is stark naked — the easier it gets for other people who want to say something but are afraid. And the harder it gets for people to keep convincing themselves that they’re seeing something that isn’t really there.

Refusing our social consent to religion will have a snowball effect. It is having a snowball effect.

So let’s keep the snowball rolling.

Comments

  1. SAWells says

    …keep those snowballs rolling,
    RAWHIDE!

    (sorry, but it got into my brain and I thought I should inflict it on everybody)

  2. says

    Not just social consent – social pressure. But yes, one of the most important things for atheists would be to challenge the idea that being religious is the default. Just being visible as atheists will do that.

  3. San Ban says

    Thank you SO much for this post and your previous about regigion as an idea, not identity. I’ll be thinking of both the next time someone berates me for writing or saying something that attacks the idea, but offends the IDENTITY of religion.

  4. speedwell says

    Greta, this is an amazing article and I’ll be sharing it with my atheist chatters. Thanks so much for putting something into words that’s been simmering out of reach at the back of my brain for some time. :)

  5. says

    Well said, Greta, even if I look at “Giving social consent” a little differently. “Conferring unearned privileges” is what I prefer to call it.

    I tried to explore that at the National Atheist Party and was encouraged to leave since they want to do nothing against religion.

    In other words, we have a national party for atheists that gives social consent to religion. Actively.

    It stands to reason that we need a real atheist party in politics.

  6. astrosmash says

    The loudness of the religious is inversely proportional to the direction of decreasing religiosity in this country. They are on their way out, but have also become potentially more dangerous in their last ditch efforts to save their ideology.

  7. Randomfactor says

    The biggest social consent given to religion has been its unquestionability. You’re allowed to argue against any public statement of opinion, ask for evidence or logical arguments in support–except the notion that an invisible sky buddy pulls all the unseen strings.

    Screw dat nonsense. If “Question Authority” is a good slogan, then “Question Ultimate Authority” should be the ultimate one.

  8. says

    There’s something in here that may have developed through creeping “normalization” through generations of oppression around the early pre-renaissance era where the masses were under the iron fist of the Holy Roman Empire and its inquisitors.

    I imagine that it’s easy to consent or defer to distorted “Charismatics” as we do so many things today “just because it’s the way it was always done.” Our culture is filled with messages that reinforce misogynistic patriarchies and examples of unquestioning loyalty pawned off as acceptable and honorable.

    Say out loud “Respect is earned, not entitled” and see who gets red in the face about it.

  9. Rieux says

    Rather than saying “this is awesome, Greta,” which is getting tiring to do so repeatedly….

    Greta’s posts on FTB have been no better and no worse than her (fantastic) substantial posts on her old Typepad blog were—but they’ve been shorter and more frequent over here. On balance, I think this is a definite gain, and a win for us out-and-proud atheists.

  10. says

    [Religion] has never, ever, ever turned out to be the right answer to anything. It may have made sense thousands of years ago, when we didn’t understand the world as well as we do now. But it makes no sense at all now. I’m not saying we know everything there is to know about the universe — of course we don’t — but given the fact that natural explanations of phenomena have replaced supernatural ones thousands upon thousands of times, and supernatural explanations have replaced natural ones exactly never, assuming that one particular supernatural explanation will turn out to be right is clearly a sucker’s bet.

    Greta, FTW! I have to come up with multiple, creative ways to disseminate this paragraph. If ever there was a singel, succinct summary of why religion is not a “way of knowing,” this is it.

  11. Deepak Shetty says

    I think “consent” is being very charitable.
    In a lot of situations there is a serious price to be paid (usually family related) to admitting that you are not religious.

  12. says

    For my money, the best ways of denying consent are:

    – Make it known that you’re an atheist. I would’ve given up on religion a lot earlier if I had known that atheism was even an option.

    – Treat religious claims like any other. If someone says Jesus talks to them, ask how they know it was Jesus. If someone says they believe such-and-such on faith, ask whether faith is a reliable way of distinguishing truth from non-truth.

    – Humor. By definition, one does not joke about sacred topics (you’re not even supposed to think about things like whether Mary lied about her virgin impregnation). But irreverent or blasphemous humor can erode this taboo and indirectly make it possible to have a straightforward discussion on sacred topics.

    YMMV.

  13. says

    “…assuming that one particular supernatural explanation will turn out to be right is clearly a sucker’s bet.” — Greta Christina

    Some version of this could be distilled into a handy argument. We could call it Greta’s Wager.

    – emc

  14. paul says

    End the Military’s Discrimination against Non-Religious Service Members

    One of the Military Relligious Freedom Foundation’s clients, a sergeant in the Army, has started a petition on WhiteHouse.gov to “End the Military’s Discrimination against Non-Religious Service Members.” According to WhiteHouse.gov, 5,000 signatures within 30 days is supposed to get you a response from the White House. The petition, started on October 1 by SGT Dustin Chalker, currently has 3,046 signatures, so it needs 1,954 more by October 31.

    https://wwws.whitehouse.gov/petitions/%21/petition/end-military%E2%80%99s-discrimination-against-non-religious-service-members/jcfr6fWt

  15. Kent Perry says

    The entire article seems to be Greta’s dire need for attention, and her scapegoat religion, ALL religion (except hers of course) and the resulting increase of substance P and Oxytocin levels coursing through her brain from all the greta groupies and otherwise sniveling bitchy little emotional tampons who blame everything from their restless leg syndrome to their acid reflux on religion.

    Actually the article is quite typical of the atheist websites I have been to in the past where they talk about how many wars have been done in the name of religion and how that is the reason you can’t pin the same thing on atheist for people like Stalin etc,. You know, atheists working so hard to establish themselves as the Philosopher Kings of Science but are referred to as the Pricks and Assholes of the universe.

    While the majority of Christian websites don’t make atheists the center of their world always comparing themselves to how much more logical they are, reasonable they are, rational and OMG their awesomeness is just too overwhelming for me to stay in composure!

    yeah I’d say most of the stuff we do is useless because we pray and although two hands building a hospital to help cure people from sickness is better than two hands praying, as the atheists say, it is the two praying that get that hospital part to fruition.

    Yeah Christians can’t always be out their slaying Muslims with big red crosses on our Chest and Banners. We can’t all be using a bronze age book on some poor reprobate strapped on a plank in a decline bibleboarding him to confess and convert. Maybe the Catholics to the Holy Waterboarding but I get this straight from the atheists who never find a shortage of excuses to shove their over exaggerated opinion of themselves down our throats.

    Don’t worry I won’t call you a bigot for disagreeing and continue praying for those our generous charity out paces atheist’s generous un-warranted criticism no one gives a rats ass about anyway. Oh and don’t bother posting up Bill and Melinda Gates as the coup ferie leading the atheist’s in charitable donations last year.

    Bill didn’t do it in atheism’s name,

    so it doesn’t count

    – Kent Perry, AZ

  16. mephistopheles says

    I am not out as an atheist; my personal circumstances are, well. . . complicated. The journey away from near cult-like fundamentalism has left me traumatized and damaged. I do attend an atheist social group. One of the members of that group invited me to attend another group, a book club comprised of professional women, doctors, computer programmers, a social worker, lawyer, a pharmacist. The subject book was about the “science of evil” and the author was postulating reframing the issue as “lack of empathy” instead of “evil” as a more workable hypothesis.

    Here’s my point. One of the women announced early on that she was a Christian and that her personal faith was very important to her and how she viewed good and evil, etc. etc. My private reaction was visceral. My atheist friend and I exchanged the briefest of glances. No way am I going to announce my atheism in this situation, especially in a brand new situation.

    It was obviously very easy for this person to announce her Christianity in a very off-hand way precisely because of the social consent it’s given. One does not state atheism in the same off-hand comment. At least not yet. Perhaps I was wrong to keep silent. I just know I was VERY uncomfortable after that. But maybe it was because of my very visceral reaction to religious people, given the peculiarities of my personal background experiences. I certainly don’t care to make other people feel as uncomfortable as this person made me feel. I felt I had to be especially vigilant of every comment I made, knowing I was in the presence of a person who felt the need to announce that she was a believer.

  17. Azkyroth says

    We can support groups that are doing atheist organization and visibility work — especially among young people. … We can go to the atheist march on Washington in March 2012.

    We can, in the future, at least perfunctorily consider not scheduling major atheist-community events that are, for many community members, on the other side of the country, for almost the exact middle of one of the typical college semesters, since we’re trying to involve young people and all.

  18. Azkyroth says

    Tangential to Kent Perry’s comment…

    …you know, I’ve been thinking for a while that someone should make a website that collects user-submitted responses to the smug misconceptions and trite canards that come up frequently enough, when people who care whether they things they believe are true are arguing with those who only care whether they things they believe are deferred to, to be put on a bingo card. And that way we could just respond with “Not This Shit Again” and link to the relevant article on the website. There’d be a fair amount of pushback at first, but it would save a lot of time and frustration and would convey both to the people who make the same tired bullshit arguments out of naivete, rather than at least a semi-conscious assent to intellectual dishonesty, and to fence-sitters watching that these arguments, if they were ever topical and well-supported enough to even be worth discussing, have been discussed to death and should be buried already before the maggots erupt out of them or gas builds up in them to the point where they explode and fling rotting bits of argument all over everyone.

    On the other hand, I’ve noticed a pronounced but disquieting tendency among some commenters in various parts of the blogosphere to ignore what people who have expressed disagreement are actually saying and argue with some stock cardboard stereotype of what “THEM” believe. This is intellectually dishonest and generally douchy, and I’m concerned that what I describe above could exacerbate it.

    Thoughts?

  19. Greta Christina says

    Kent Perry @ #20: Please refer to my comment policy. Specifically, please refer to item #1: Be respectful of other commenters in this blog. No personal insults; no namecalling; no flame wars. In comment threads in this blog, I encourage lively dissension and debate. I do not, however, accept personal insults aimed at other commenters. I am fine with vigorous and even snarky critiques of ideas and behavior — but when that crosses the line into personal insults, I stop being fine.

    Referring to other commenters as “sniveling bitchy little emotional tampons” is a clear violation of this policy. Please do not do this again. Any further violations of this policy will result in you being banned from this blog. Thank you.

  20. Kent Perry says

    Well, here’s the thing,, before I post and just for you and because I actually sense a hint of sincerity in your response between the sardonic grin and innuendo’s etc,. I think deep down you would like a drop dead honest and objective answer, so Ill shift into computermode and try my best to keep my confirmation bias and my 14 years debating some of the most rabid atheists on the Internet.

    Ill ignore my desire to bring science into the stone age and the pathetic pile of piltdown paleontology and its faux fossil fraud philosophy forcibly languaged into the fact of evolution. A science they say has more evidence proving its existence or that it happened than even gravity.

    In-spite of the fact I don’t see scores of “xtians” VS “Gravityists” arguing the science is wrong on that one. To my mind, gravity doesn’t need a helluva lot of proof nor does many other areas of science. I can even agree to some of the criticism you make in your general description of the “genus creationist” and the need to profile them using ancient atrocity’s or the daily aggravation of “xtians” always trying to legislate morality as if that isn’t what everyone does and what all our laws are currently are morality we all agree can get so amoral the value of human life can be taken by another where most people agree that kind of immoral should have stiff penalties. I think the website database you talk about is a great idea especially for people like myself who have seen the words “Goddidit” as a tactic to diminish the personal feelings of another and invariably, the quotes can not be traced to any Christian in history to explain any scientific hypothesis.

    Yet it is one of the most over used, cookie cutter copy pasted quotes coming from the so called free thinkers I’ve seen. They say I am so disrespectful for spelling the name of the author “xtopher hitchens” when xtians always seemed deliberately demeaning and petty.

    Or that “faith” has turned into such a dirty word regardless their has never been a Scientist who has never had faith in something and many things. Christians piss me off for many of the same reasons they do atheists.

    But I don’t embellish the experience as if I’m some quasi cast member of the rocky horror picture show and a candidate for a protracted health cure acting openly gay like a drama queen living in 17th century Europe. You sound like you are weary from the monotony of this same old ancient rivalry and its same central issue.

    You say creating something like that database of trolls might exacerbate things and I can only go on what has become of places like Obama’s attackwatch.com

    Now if an atheist wants to know how Christians think or if Greta xtina really cared about imposing religion on them or discuss science without the snide talking points you and I have both heard and that your side is just as guilty of. I would love it. I really got no issues with atheists but I find their preoccupation with Christians very curious

  21. mephistopheles says

    @25:
    I thought about suggesting you take your medication and consider re-writing your comment, perhaps with punctuation. But I’m very new to the whole blogging thing and want to be sure I abide by the policies.. . . So I think instead I’ll take my meds and consider re-reading it.

    Sorry. Didn’t help.

  22. Ariel says

    arensb

    By definition, one does not joke about sacred topics

    Just a quick side comment (this could make for another interesting thread, I’m sure of it. I’m not planning to prolong it here). It’s probably not as simple as that. It seems to me that various religious groups can be very different in this respect. Yiddish shmonzes immediately come to mind. I haven’t read any comparative studies on this; I would be curious about reactions to religious jokes in various parts of the world.

  23. Elevyn says

    Kent’s rambling incoherent diatribe can only help.
    It could push those who have yet to shake off the shackles of faith, away from wanting to be associated with him. It could help them to question their convictions, enter the real world of uncertainty, doubt, and discover the wonder and beauty of reality.
    Maybe more crazy fundie stuff should be posted.

    On a side note:
    It seems the religions are getting more extreme but perhaps that is a natural consequence of the departure of those who are capable of the leap from faith.

  24. ivorybill says

    Kent, I don’t really want to get involved in a pissin’ contest with you, but wanted to respond to a couple things. I actually haven’t written a comment on this blog before, but your distortions provoke me.

    One of your assumptions is that we atheists blame religion for our station in life, instead of sloth or some other sin. I’m a straight white man who was pretty much raised without religion, bear no scars from it and am married to a believing (although liberal) Catholic. I don’t blame my problems on religion. But I do know quite a few people for whom the cruelty and bigotry of religion really has damaged them in fundamental ways. Not all of them are Christian. A co-worker is a gay man from Iraq, and you had better believe he suffered due to religious stupidity and cruelty. He’s questioning his faith now, and I can easily see why. Unlike your cartoon vision of atheists expressing superiority over the religious, myself and the other non-believers where I work are NOT trying to talk him out of his religion. We’re telling him that it’s OK to question, and to think for himself, and that we get along fine without religion. I think that’s what Greta is getting at – for us atheists not to hide our lack of belief.

    In terms of endless discussion of how many wars have been carried out in the name of religion… I think this might be an oversimplification, but it raises an important question: why is religion is different from other causes and motivators for wars, and why it is more dangerous?

    Most wars result from competition over resources, and many include factors of identity like nationality or ethnicity beyond religion alone. My problem with religion and organized violence is that religion so very often makes the violence worse, not that it operates in isolation or separately from the other engines that drive war. The Obama Administration has decided to send 100 military advisers to Uganda to help track down Joseph Kony, the head of the Lords Resistance Army. Now no thinking Christian besides Rush Limbaugh (who doesn’t actually think) would claim that the LRA is a mainstream Christian movement. But the key point is that those conducting wars use belief in the supernatural to amplify their own temporal authority with spiritual authority, and appeal to religion to contravene societal norms that might otherwise have moderated some of the violence. That’s where religion gets particularly dangerous, and that’s how it differs in terms of a motivating factor from economic competition, or national identity, or whatever. And that’s how things go really wrong. Witness the LRA’s decision to cut the lips off of hundreds of Congolese to honor the birth of Christ.

    Now I can already hear you saying that this is an egregious example of atheists picking the worst and using that to tar all religion. Perhaps. You do the same with Stalin, but more on that later.

    I’ve witnessed firsthand the conflict between Sunni and Shia’ in Iraq, and the way the barbarity and manipulation of group identity was ramped up to an insane degree as a result of religion. Executing people by pounding nails into their heads. Blowing up car bombs in crowded markets. All of it justified by God, and frankly none of it in keeping with Iraqi social norms and culture which is not near as violent as we in the West think. To claim that this sort of barbarity is uniquely Islamic is not only wrong, but misses the point. At its heart, this was an economic conflict, with one previously empowered minority thinking the newly empowered majority would impoverish them, and the new majority freaking out that the old guard would somehow get back in power. The soil was fertile – thirty years of insane rule under a dictator, three wars, a decade of crushing sanctions. Religion made it worse, much worse.

    You mention Stalin. Glad you did. In 1921, 5 million people died from famine in the Soviet Union. Did you know that prior to being President, Herbert Hoover mounted the first major US famine relief campaign abroad? He fed 10 million. Pretty impressive for a Republican, but in those days even Republicans realized that private charity has its limits. During and after enormously traumatic experiences, populations are more vulnerable to manipulation and appeals based on belief systems. Stalin came to power after the famine and immediately purged and executed huge numbers of land holding farmers. I would argue that he substituted a civic religion of Soviet-style Marxism for Russian Orthodoxy, creating a belief system that substituted received wisdom from a book from independently verifiable reality. Sound like religion? Stalin may be the exception that proves the point. Kent, why don’t you Google Komar and Melamid, to see what I mean. Marxism in the Soviet Union was a belief system, coloring even the practice of science. It was inflicted on a horribly traumatized population, meant to replace Orthodox Christianity, and used for very much the same purposes of mobilizing group solidarity.

    I deliberately avoided Christianity as commonly practiced in modern America in this, but don’t hold it blameless either. Unlike the Iraqis, we haven’t lived through 30 years of bat-shit insane rule (well, if you include Reagan and the Bushes, we’ve had moderately insane rule for the last three decades.) Unlike the Ugandans, we didn’t live through Idi Amin and Milton Obote and colonialism. Unlike the Russians, we didn’t lose millions in famine. But still, we have people like Allen West, the admitted torturer who was elected to Congress, who conducted at least one mock execution and justified that breach of the Universal Code of Military Justice, the Geneva Conventions and common decency on religious grounds. You scratch the surface of the modern Republican Party, and you find a social movement that is strongly motivated by religious (specifically Christian) faith, and which justifies the use of torture and other human rights violations on an almost mystic sense of divine providence. It’s the same justification, the derivation and expansion of authority from the supernatural.

    You complain that atheists are obsessed about Christianity in the US, but Christianity is the dominant religion and right-wing Christian politics represent what most of us consider to be a real risk to religious freedom as well as the Enlightenment principles upon which this country actually was founded. Christian fundamentalist websites have the luxury of ignoring atheists, because we’re not a major demographic.

    It may surprise you the most, but I don’t revel in my awesomeness compared to religious people. My own dear wife is religious, and it would be as much a violation of her as marital rape if I made fun of her or abused her for what she believes. I’ll never do it. That doesn’t make me a believer, and it doesn’t mean that I can’t point out religious stupidity when it occurs.

    I know you conservative Christians have a big problem with Charles Darwin. It might be good if you reflected on his humility a little, which seems more Christian, if you don’t mind me saying so, than most of what I hear publicly from Christians in America today. Darwin’s wife was very religious, and became even more so when they lost their daughter Alice, which was as crushing a blow in the Victorian era as it is today. Darwin lost his religion in part due to his realization that you don’t need supernatural explanations for the astounding wonder of life on earth. But he also lost his religion because he could not fathom a loving God that would permit an innocent child to die such a painful death. Darwin never claimed to be superior, or to belittle his wife. The couple had enough love for each other to support each other in grief, even though their explanations differed.

    Some atheists come to blogs like this one to vent steam, and they have every right to do so given the sort of hatred directed at them by people like you. But most of us have religious people in our lives, and we aren’t the arrogant, one dimensional egotists you think we are.

    In terms of the canard that religious people somehow have a corner on charity, well it’s hardly worth responding. I will say that atheists and secularists contribute greatly to their communities, and many of the most effective non-profits are secular in nature. Further… and of relevance in America’s current political culture… religious charity is not and has never been an adequate substitute for government action. I already needled you with the example of Herbert Hoover. I hardly need to point out the insanity of depending upon faith-based charities to assure meaningful healthcare for 40 million uninsured in this country. But that’s getting off religion and on to politics, so I think I’ll stop here.

  25. Tony says

    mephistopheles says:

    “Here’s my point. One of the women announced early on that she was a Christian and that her personal faith was very important to her and how she viewed good and evil, etc. etc. My private reaction was visceral. My atheist friend and I exchanged the briefest of glances. No way am I going to announce my atheism in this situation, especially in a brand new situation. ”

    Lately, I’ve been feeling more and more that perhaps “atheist” is too incendiary a word (now, don’t get me wrong. I AM an atheist. I *very* much dislike the vast majority of biblical teaching {I wonder how many lines in a standard double spaced high school notebook would be taken up documenting the few reasonable moral and ethical teachings within the bible…} I feel that the bible has, throughout its existence, been used to justify horrible atrocities. Even IF one could wipe away all but a handful of these atrocities, and show that the rest of the bible was largely composed of positive, joyful messages, wishful thinking is an impediment to human growth and causes far too much harm. We need to cultivate critical thinking.)

    Your experience is the perfect example. The venom spewed towards anyone who states they’re atheist makes even conversation with them difficult, as the discussion begins negatively (what with all the assumptions believers have about us that immediately rush into their heads upon hearing “I am an atheist).
    While I’ not sure what word would work, I’d like whatever it is to be more inclusive of *all* supernatural phenomena. While I can only speak for myself, given much of what I’ve read, many atheists lack belief in god or *any* supernatural creatures. By adding Odin, Shiva, Aphrodite, Osiris as well as dragons, elves, demons and fey, anyone with an awareness of what our word means will see that we are equating their god (no matter what religion they belong to) with all other supernatural entities. The idea is to come up with a word that doesn’t immediately alarm believers but also shows that god is no different than fairies or elves in our minds. Keeping god tethered in such a way would provide a constant reminder that we think all myths are, well, myths. I personally can’t wait to hear all the rationalizations for why god or noah’s ark are real yet Odin or Mjolnir aren’t.

  26. LadyBlack says

    Personally, Kent, I visit a great many sites about Christians (and any religion which happens to come along while I am there, but I am most familiar with Christians) and am ‘preoocupied’ with them because I would like to see proof of god. I would immediately retract my atheism and start believing (whether that means worshipping or not is another issue). But, Kent, I have not. I see a great deal of strange theories put about, and I have seem them torn apart by some scientific people and by some people who just seem to think a great deal more than I do. I have come into contact with people who have let me see a bit of the wonder they see in the universe, and I find more to wonder at in science than I do in the Bible or anything in religion.

    I do, however, continue to give religion an opportunity to prove me wrong, as I have three very intelligent friends who believe wholly. But I don’t, and can’t and they know this. I will debate religion with them, but I won’t destroy my friendships over it. It does not deserve such a sacrifice. So searching the internet for proof is less invasive, even if it is still just as fruitless.

  27. Tony says

    Greta says:
    ” Refusing our social consent to religion will have a snowball effect. It is having a snowball effect.

    So let’s keep the snowball rolling. ”

    I agree, though I’m not yet ready to *fully* come out of the closet (it seems like not too long ago I came out of the other major one).
    I’ve let some people know, such as my parents and some of my friends. It’s actually not terribly different from the way I came out as a gay man. For me, both have involved gauging others to determine when and how I would come out to them.

    One thing I am trying to remind myself is to stop utilizing “god” in everyday phrases. I continue to catch myself saying “goddammit”, “oh my god”, “god/lord/heaven only knows”, or even “bless you” after a sneeze.

  28. Maria says

    “They say I am so disrespectful for spelling the name of the author “xtopher hitchens” when xtians always seemed deliberately demeaning and petty.”

    Well, as long as you don’t actually believe ‘xtian’ is a (modern) word atheists invented to act as a demeaning word for Christians…

  29. says

    Wonderful post, Greta. For some time now, I’ve had an ad on Craig’s list, trying to contact other free thinkers here in the Sedona, Cottonwood and Verde Valley area of Arizona. So far, not a single response. I’m wondering why.

    Is this such a “wooo wooo” area that basically no other free thinkers exist here? I don’t think so. In my carpet services contacts, I found one pure atheist and another lady this week indicated she ignores religion.

    Why are people so reluctant? Or, are they just not looking or checking Craig’s List? I know this is a largely retirement area and many retirees aren’t that into computers and the internet.

    I’ll keep trying. I don’t flaunt my aatheism, but I will not hide it. If I’m shunned for my stance, then I don’t need that association or relationship.

  30. Dan M. says

    I think it’s worth breaking religion up into more parts than just its ideas and its personal identity. I’m speaking from the ex-catholic perspective; I assume similar things apply to other religions in varying degree. Being “catholic” means at least four different things.

    (1) Belonging to a particular community that does things together; when I was in a parochial grade-school, I was part of that parish’s community, regardless of whether I thought the priests were talking nonsense.

    (2) Formal doctrine, as officially stated by the church leaders. I’m talking about what they claim, not what’s actually going on, so for this, the catholic church is against child rape, not for it. Now, this is the stuff that includes the complete bullshit ideas like magic fathers and cosmic whipping boys and person-blastocysts. But it also includes a lot of fiddly details, which are just trying to handle the particulars of reality. For instance, there’s a catholic doctrine that beavers are a kind of fish. This was created so that the Quebequois colonists could follow the no-meat-on-friday rule and not starve to death. There’s some real ethical and judicial thinking involved there, but it’s very hard to disentangle from the crazy shit like it being immoral to eat meat on friday.

    (3) Then there’s the cultural baggage that is carried along with official doctrine, as an additional payload of the indoctrination system. For instance, even though the official doctrine makes some mealy-mouthed endorsement of sex as a positive human experience (sometimes), the reality is that catholic culture instills a deep and traumatizing prudery. Officially, that’s in conflict with doctrine, but it’s a very real effect.

    (4) There’s the actual institutions, with employees, and executives, and legal processes. The part of catholicism meant by “The Vatican”. While it has a role in publishing doctrine, that can be completely separate from what they actually do. For instance, the actual institution just *loves* child rapists, though they do every now and then say that they’re against them.

    There are several ways that these parts interact to form both forms of personal identity and also ideas. (2) has a huge amount that’s just nonsense, and it’s well worth fighting that, but it also contains some fairly interesting ethical teachings that could be extracted from the toxic background and use reasonably. For instance, there’s a doctrine of double effect, which can be made useful and secular by noting that sometimes the benefit of action are sufficient to override its more harms. (Euthanasia comes to mind, not that the catholics got that right either.)

    And on the hand, personal identity can be bound up not just in (1), which I think is pretty non-contentious, but also in (3). (3) is really hard to argue about because it’s often non-rational, and not formalized enough to “debate”, but often has real tangible harms (shame about perfectly normal human sex drives), but often those harms are almost impossible to extract from the other parts of the enculturation.

    But I think what does make it so valuable to distinguish religious identity (1 and 3) from religious effects (2 and 4) is that (4) is very concrete and *really evil* in some cases. Not only can we argue that magic authority figures are non-sense, we can also point out that authority without reality checks (to use Greta’s term), lead to directly observable results, like child rape. That makes for a pretty obvious tool in fighting religion.

  31. Jeremy S says

    Can I just take a moment to applaud both Greta and Ivorybill for their poignant and well-written pieces? Thank you both for sharing.

  32. Kent Perry says

    Elevyn says:
    October 19, 2011 at 7:01 am
    Kent’s rambling incoherent diatribe can only help.
    It could push those who have yet to shake off the shackles of faith, away from wanting to be associated with him.

    Shackles of Faith is it,, Mmmmm damn some of you people have a twisted sense of faith. I never placed such a negative meaning to such an otherwise benign word but I suspect you have all kinds of examples and analogies of how others have applied it and most likely it is prefaced with the word “blind”. Sorry my “diatribe” is only useful in the interest you desire for others to exalt me as the excuse they would need to abandon religion. All my life, I have never been “Christian” enough for someone it seems and hoping my admittedly poor example of what I think I SHOULD be, is a work in progress. So how many do you know having no uncertainty no doubts? I can’t say I have ever met ANYONE like that and Iv’e been around the world three times. In my travels, I have seen on occasion the “wonder” and Beauty of reality and the reality of individuals having an axe to grind but that’s none of my business and I’m not interested in the mundane platitudes of someones alleged “supereior” worldview. I get it, you have no interest in anything more than making your unfavorable opinion of me, known.

    That what ever it is I had done to suggest all Christendom and Religions in general, are getting more extreme, allow me to clarify, that I do not speak for other religious people, nor should you assume I am the spokesperson for living examples of someones idea of how a religious person shouold act. I know you have already made that clear but why the association is used as a dichotomy, confuses me. My own experience, Christians as a rule, don’t bring it up.

    If they do, once I tell them I am not interested in hearing about their religious conclusions they have arrived at in life, they invariably back off.

    You stated: ” It could help them to question their convictions, enter the real world of uncertainty, doubt, and discover the wonder and beauty of reality”

    You seem to be confused about the extreme religious saying in the same context is what causes the departure but preface the departure as a “consequence” of being extreme in their faith.

    Mmmm It seems you have a reality alright, one making sense to you but that was neither wondrous or Beautiful. You’ve established your opinion of me, so I know mentioning what I DID think it was, would only add to the trauma religious people have caused you to speak so cynical and,, well, like I said,

    no need to belabor the point, I get it, I’m not wanted here and anyone else, is only interested in, well, lets just say,

    I know where it goes from here and having a board full of Atheist’s say ll the things I already see coming in some others posts, and it’s never productive once the fundies are introduced as the butt of an inside joke.

    I have been reading Greta for about 15 years, this was the first time I posted and perhaps I should resign myself to the idea, this will always be a complete waste of time.

    I realize I came on sarcastic and after reading the first responder and a Greta reprisal,. I softened up and was looking forward to perhaps what I would call, the exception to the rule in dialogues I have ever seen between atheist’s and “fundies”.

    I was right the first time for what ever the reason

    never matter anyway

    you got me all

    figured out

  33. DSimon says

    Allen, have you tried meetup.com? Craigslist is awesome, but it can also be kind of sketchy, particularly outside the buy/sell stuff classifieds. That’s likely to be filtering out a lot of potential people.

  34. says

    Yes, I tried meetup. Currently registered with them. Same story. No results. There just is no free thought organization I can find to date in this area. Lots of churches and so-called “spiritual” stuff. Like I said, lots of wooo wooo.

  35. Anri says

    Now if an atheist wants to know how Christians think or if Greta xtina really cared about imposing religion on them or discuss science without the snide talking points you and I have both heard and that your side is just as guilty of. I would love it. I really got no issues with atheists but I find their preoccupation with Christians very curious

    I’d be interested to know what part of the world you hail from, Kent Perry, as I presume it’s not the U.S. I say this because it is all but impossible to live in the U.S. nowadays and avoid ‘what Christians think’, and the attempted impositions on the rest of us. (If, somehow, you have managed this, let me say you appear to get excellent internet connectivity under your rock.)

    Should you in fact be unclear as to the reasons U.S. atheists are more concerned with Christianity than any other faith, I suggest you look up a website called freethoughtblogs.com . There are any number of blogs there in which you can find your answers.
    Good luck!

    Oh, as a passing question, what faith do you suggest U.S. atheists concentrate on, since Christianity is off of the table?

  36. Aquaria says

    Mmmm It seems you have a reality alright, one making sense to you but that was neither wondrous or Beautiful.

    Your reality is small, ugly and false. I wouldn’t want your reality–it demeans women, it hates everyone–your Jesus was hoping for the deaths of millions. It makes people phenomenally hateful, arrogant and stupid.

    It’s a bloody, toxic delusion that the world will be better for if it disappeared in an instant.

  37. ivorybill says

    Dan M. at #36 – very interesting comment, well worth reading. I think I too often think of “identity” as monolithic and your comment gives me food for thought. Thks

  38. says

    Very early in this article you define religion in such a way that excludes a very broad array of religions. The definition presented is:

    “Religion is the hypothesis that the world is the way it is because of supernatural beings or forces acting on the natural world.”

    Then the article makes a lot of generalizations about religion that I find to be untrue: “…saying that joy and meaning and morality can only be found in religion…”

    I consider myself to be a very religious person, but I trust the scientific method, and I do not seek “supernatural” explanations. I would never make a claim that joy, meaning, or morality can only be found in religion.

    And I especially want to point out that, for me, as well as for a wide variety of other religious groups (Quakers for instance, but I also attended a Baptist church for which this was the case), religion is more anti-authority than authoritarian. Yes, there are authoritarian religions and religious communities out there, but there are also authoritarian-structured corporations, and authoritarian secular governments. This quality is not something that characterizes religion.

    I also think that, for me, religion is not at all a hypothesis. It’s a personal belief system, set of practices, and organized social institution. When it comes to spiritual beliefs (belief in God, interpretation of any sort of holy text), these sorts of beliefs are not something I view as absolute truth, they are beliefs that I view as my own subjective belief system. I personally believe in God, but I also believe that this belief cannot be proven or disproven. It’s also particularly unscientific because if you ask people to explain their ideas of God, you’ll get about as many different ideas as people–or sometimes even more. I personally think that I have many different ideas of God and I don’t know which one is more truthful for me.

    Because I admit the subjectivity of these beliefs, it’s not one I ever want to force on anyone else. But I find it also oversteps a boundary when people characterize my beliefs falsely, just because it is labelled religion or because I openly profess a belief in God.

    It’s a lot like creationists dismissing evolution without really understanding it. I see a lot of arguments that evolution is “wrong” that show a lack of understanding of science in general, especially of the theory of evolution.

    Unlike science, religion does not have a clear consensus on definitions. Even in one specific religion, like Christianity, there are widely disparate ideas of what God is. This is true even in their holy text. So, I tend to agree with many of the criticisms of religion I see levied by you in this poist, I think these are criticisms of specific religious organizations.

    I’d like to call on you to get specific. Stop making false generalizations. Start naming specific groups, specific practices. And speak from your experience. This will ultimately make the dialogue more truthful.

  39. says

    Alex —

    It’s difficult to know exactly what to make of some of your comments to Greta, but let me go over what you say and how it seems to relate to the article.

    You object to Greta’s definition because she refers to religion as a hypothesis, and because you object to her invoking “supernatural” in her definition. You also object to her generalizations.

    I consider myself to be a very religious person, but I trust the scientific method, and I do not seek “supernatural” explanations. I would never make a claim that joy, meaning, or morality can only be found in religion.

    I also think that, for me, religion is not at all a hypothesis. It’s a personal belief system, set of practices, and organized social institution. When it comes to spiritual beliefs (belief in God, interpretation of any sort of holy text), these sorts of beliefs are not something I view as absolute truth, they are beliefs that I view as my own subjective belief system. I personally believe in God, but I also believe that this belief cannot be proven or disproven. It’s also particularly unscientific because if you ask people to explain their ideas of God, you’ll get about as many different ideas as people–or sometimes even more. I personally think that I have many different ideas of God and I don’t know which one is more truthful for me.

    A few points to make here. It’s great that you would not be one to make a claim that joy, meaning, and morality are limited to religion. However, it’s an unfortunate truth that, in general, that attitude appears a common one among the religious. It should be noted that Greta was not speaking about individual religious people, but religion in general. And religion, in general, does do exactly what she said it does.

    But then you get into claiming that your religious beliefs are not a hypothesis, that you do believe in God (even though you’ve claimed not to seek supernatural explanations), and that you cannot prove or disprove your ideas about God, including the most important: existence. Do you see how you have just contradicted yourself? If you are making a claim about something existing -and if you believe something exists, then that IS a claim about that something- then you are making a hypothesis about that something existing. “I believe in fairies” is a equivalent to saying “I have a hypothesis that fairies exist.” The difference between this use of hypothesis and a stricter use of hypothesis in science would be the ability to falsify it.

    You say you believe in God. In other words, you do accept the hypothesis that God exists. You do not think that you can prove it, or disprove it, however, which Greta addressed when she said:

    Religious beliefs are either unfalsifiable — in which case we should reject them on that basis alone — or they’ve been falsified.

    Read that again. Examine it closely. Go read The Ethics of Belief by W. K. Clifford. And then, if you can, reject beliefs that you cannot provide evidence for.

    Because I admit the subjectivity of these beliefs, it’s not one I ever want to force on anyone else.

    This statement is to your credit; one should never attempt to force one’s beliefs on another. But the existence of God is not subjective. God exists, or does not exist. The truth of this is an objective fact, whether we can provide evidence or not. But if we cannot provide evidence to believe in God (or fairies, or Russel’s teapot, or Men in Black), then we have no business believing it. Greta herself has addressed the harm brought about by belief without evidence, in her article “The Armor of God, or, The Top One Reason Religion Is Harmful” (linked on the right, under “IF YOU’RE JUST GOING TO READ FIVE THINGS…”), as I have in my own blog (click my name), as have various other bloggers and authors and YouTubers.

    The other thing that I think you missed is the main point of this post by Greta. “Religion Relies On Social Consent” That’s the nutshell takeaway from the entire thing. How does this relate to someone, such as yourself, who thinks the criticisms only apply to “specific religious organizations”? Well, notice when Greta said this:

    We can point out that even progressive and moderate religion perpetuates the idea of faith — the idea that it’s acceptable and even virtuous to believe things you have no good reason to think are true.

    Maybe you don’t think it’s a “virtue” to believe when you lack good reason, but you clearly do not consider it vice, and you clearly find it acceptable. In other words, you contribute to the harms caused by “specific religious organizations” by supporting the primary bit of armor they have against reality, and against moral considerations that don’t rely on “God said so”, because you cannot argue against faith without being hypocritical. Their faith is just as legitimate as yours.

    I’d like to call on you to get specific. Stop making false generalizations. Start naming specific groups, specific practices. And speak from your experience. This will ultimately make the dialogue more truthful.

    All of which she has done in the past, and will likely do so again in the future. It would not have been useful to speak from her personal experience for this post, or to address specific groups/practices. And by the way, in what way are you using the word “truthful” such that speaking from personal experience could make something “more truthful”? I do not have a personal experience of the earth orbiting the sun; from my personal experience, it appears to be the sun going around the earth.

  40. says

    Hmm, I definitely agree with you that the attitude you expressed, that you cannot have morality without religion, is common within certain religious circles. However, I think that attitude is the problem, and not religion itself. There are a lot of religions (Buddhism, Unitarian Universalism, even some forms of Sufism which is a type of Islam) which would not make that claim. I have participated in religious groups which do not make these sorts of claims. I think that the fundamental problem that exists in the narrow-minded religious circles is the black-and-white characterization as being “religious” (however they define it) being good and not being so being bad. But if we just flip it the other way around, the problem is still there. The problem is not religion, the problem is the black-and-white characterization of a whole social institution or belief structure which is complex and has good and bad elements.

    Re: science and falsifiability.

    I don’t agree with that statement about beliefs that are “unfalsifiable” being good to discard. Take a relationship for example. Can you really “falsify” that a person loves you? No. Because someone can love you and still do harmful things. But can you really know for sure that a person loves you? You need to just trust these things. At least for me, I feel like love isn’t something that you can test scientifically.

    I also think that on a very practical level, most of the things that we need to know in our daily lives cannot be understood in a scientific way…we simply don’t have enough time or information to test them. So, while, in theory they may be able to be studied scientifically, in practice, they aren’t. Examples include most business or career decisions…many life decisions (where to move, where to choose to live). The relative merit of these choices are “unfalsifiable” because these are one-time, unique events that cannot be replicated by the scientific method.

    For this reason, I think that a large portion of our life consists of things that cannot be studied scientifically. And I like to evaluate these things by another means: “Do they work for me in my life?” I like to see the effect I produce by believing certain things.

    When I was talking about being truthful, I was meaning exactly that…strict generalizations are not truthful, not even in the scientific sense, unless they really are true. If you say “Religion is X” and there is even one counterexample, then that statement is not truthful in a scientific sense. This post purports to talk about a scientific perspective so I’d like to call the author to be more scientific. If there are counterexamples to a certain claim, then I think it is more truthful to word statements in ways like:

    “Within many religions, there is an implicit belief that…” or “Some religions explicitly teach that…” or better yet: “Such-and-such religion teach that…” or, what I think would be even better: “I was involved with such-and-such group, and I had such-and-such experience, which was the first time I encountered the view that…”

    These sorts of things not only are more powerful, they are more truthful. A broad generalization like “Religion is X” or “Religion does X.” is unscientific and wrong. It would be like a scientist making a statement: “Birds are monogamous.” — which can be falsified because there are many bird species that are not monogamous, that form pair bonds but “cheat” on each other, ones that have communal mating systems, even some ones that form male-male pair bonds. That’s what I meant by saying that it would be more truthful to get more specific!

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  1. […] própria existência de ateus e do ateísmo é um desafio à crença religiosa. A religião depende de consentimento social para se perpetuar. A religião é a roupa nova do Imperador … e se muita gente começar a dizer em voz alta que […]

  2. […] Religion relies on social consent to perpetuate itself. It’s a bad idea, and can’t stand up on its own. But it can, and does, perpetuate itself through social consent. It perpetuates itself through dogma saying that asking questions about religion is sinful, and that trusting religion without evidence is virtuous. It perpetuates itself through dogma saying that joy and meaning and morality can only be found in religion, and that leaving religion will automatically result in a desperate, amoral, pointless life. It perpetuates itself through religious communities and support systems that make believing in religion — or pretending to believe in religion — a necessity to function and indeed survive. It perpetuates itself through parents and other authority figures teaching it to children, whose brains are hard-wired to believe what they’re told. […]

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