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.