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Mar 17 2011

Why atheism is winning-11: Some concluding thoughts

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

The last hope of religion is the fear of death. Fear of death is what religion thinks of as its trump card. In any discussion with believers, they will invariably get around to talking about how you (as an atheist) are risking your immortal soul and ask whether you are not fearful of what will happen in the afterlife. I know that this is coming and tell people who raise this that when I die, nothing spectacular will happen and that I will simply cease to be, with my body returning to the basic elements. I am quite comfortable with the idea. This clearly disconcerts the people who raise it since they are so obviously scared of death and see god as some kind of ‘get out of death’ card. It is important that we develop an acceptance of death as an inevitable fact of life and I am preparing a series of posts on atheist views of death that will appear some time in the future, unless I die first, of course!

Why atheism is winning is because when a belief structure has no empirical basis, it only survives by everyone agreeing to maintain the illusion that it makes sense. It is the emperor’s new clothes syndrome. But such beliefs are highly prone to sudden collapse as soon as it begins to be pointed out that there is nothing there. Once a tipping point is reached, changes in unsupported beliefs (whether it be god or racism and homophobia) can occur very rapidly.

Religion is more tenacious but even there I think that the switch to largely disbelief will occur within a couple of generations (maybe an extra generation in the Islamic world) as people realize that religion is little more than superstition and lies at the heart of many problems. The communication revolution, in addition to spreading the ideas of modernity to an ever-widening audience, will create a greater awareness, especially among young people, that one’s religious beliefs are largely a product of where one is born and brought up, and not because they are self-evidently true.. Once you give up the idea that your own religion is obviously true, it is a short step to not viewing religion as a source of truth at all.

On the level of simply ideas, religion is losing because fewer are converting into religion than are converting out, especially amongst the young. That is the demographic time bomb that is going to doom religion. It is what is also working against racism and anti-gay bigotry. Attitudes that have no empirical basis persist mainly because people ‘inherit’ it from their parents, in that children learn these things at an early age from their families. It is unlikely that someone who grows up in a family that is accepting of people of other races and gays will turn against those views, while the reverse happens more frequently as modernity expands.

It is likely that the level of religiosity even now is overstated because the data usually comes from self-reports in surveys or from the religious institutions themselves and the numbers disagree with objective measures of actual practices. Take for example three key events in a person’s life: birth, marriage, and death. According to the March/April 2011 issue of the New Humanist, in England in the 2001 census, 71.8% checked the box for Christian and this was taken as the number of actual Christians in the population. But in 2008 only 11% of children were baptized, only 20% of weddings took place in a church, and only 33% of dead bodies passed through a church on their way to burial or cremation. It would be interesting to see corresponding data for the US.

Religion is clearly on the defensive partly because the new atheists have taken the arguments against god out of the academic and philosophical and theological arenas and put them out in the public sphere and into the hands of ordinary people, and they are able to confront believers much more confidently. A recent article in the New York Times points out that believers are now having a hard time defending their faith against skeptics because the taboos that used to protect them from questioning have now been lifted.

“I don’t know that there’s more atheists in the country, but there are definitely more people who are openly atheist, especially on college campuses,” said the Rev. R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., and author of “Atheism Remix: A Christian Confronts the New Atheists.” He said students have asked him how to deal with nonbelievers.

“There is not one student on this campus who doesn’t have at least one person in his circle of family and friends voicing these ideas,” he said.

Note that the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary is one that adheres to the strict literal truth of the Bible, all the way down to a historical Adam and Eve and a 6,000 year old Earth. If its own students, drawn from the most doctrinaire fundamentalist communities, are hearing these criticisms from members of their immediate circle, you know that atheist ideas are spreading into regions hitherto unexplored.

Marcus Brigstocke has a hilarious rant on the absurdity of the three Abrahamic faiths and it is a good way to end this series because what is ultimately going to doom religion is the realization of the ridiculousness of religious beliefs. They are increasingly the targets for humor because they are so rich in absurdity. It is well worth listening to the full audio clip.

Brigstocke’s last point is worth reiterating:

I know that most religious folk are moderate and nice and reasonable and wear tidy jumpers and eat cheese like real people. And on hearing this, they’ll mainly feel pity for me rather than issue a death sentence. But they have to accept that they are the power base for the nutters. Without their passive support the loonies in charge of these faiths would just be loonies safely locked away and medicated, somewhere nice, you know with a view of some trees, where they can claim they have a direct channel to god between sessions making tapestry drinks coasters, watching Teletubbies, and talking about their days in the Hitler youth. The ordinary faithful make these vicious tyrannical thugs what they are… Without the audience to prop it up… fundamentalist religious fanaticism goes away.” (My italics)

This is why the new atheists are pursuing the correct strategy of challenging all religious beliefs, not only the extremist/fundamentalist variants. They all spring from the same source, which is a belief in god and their holy books.

Atheism is winning and ‘moderate’ religious people will have to learn how to deal with it.

11 comments

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  1. 1
    Steve LaBonne

    If unvarnished descriptions of the enabling role of “moderates” are really infiltrating common discourse as suggested by your quote from Brigstocke, then I may actually start to share your optimism. That realization is what could finally push the (very large) religious-in-name-only contingent off the fence. And indeed, we do have the “new atheism” to thank for no longer allowing that point to be discreetly ignored.

  2. 2
    Bronson Jiminez

    excellent points. i agree that religion is environment based. you won’t too many christians in the Rain Forest while you find too many jews in Kabul.

  3. 3
    Derek

    I attended SBTS for six semesters.

    And I think your analysis is pretty much spot-on. There’s this odd bubble of insulation that you have, that pretty much develops by itself, when you grow up in a conservative Christian home and later attend a Bible college. I can’t recall a single friend or acquaintance I had growing up that was an agnostic or atheist. I can’t even be sure I ever even met one as an adult, until I became one myself.

    My only experience “dialoging” with atheists was on internet messageboards concerned with Christian music, and the majority’s response to the small minority who expressed disbelief was typically very negative, and often downright angry. It felt very strange that somebody would actually challenge our faith, so the existence of the taboo that folks like Sam Harris have been working to do away with resonates with me.

    The church I attended at the time published the written testimonies of anybody who applied to join the church. I can’t be exacting, but I can tell you that the number of new members whose life-story explained that they had become Christians before the age of 10 was easily in excess of 90%. I don’t recall a single new member who ever told of “getting saved” as an adult. This matches up pretty well with what you’re saying about more people leaving religion than joining.

    In any case, SBTS does indeed maintain a literal reading of Genesis. Discussion of this was the focus of the last entry I ever wrote on my old SBTS news criticism blog:

    (which I evidently can’t link without getting a “denied for questionable content” warning)

  4. 4
    Mano Singham

    Derek,

    Thanks for that insider’s view. Since I am not part of that world and am not able to go there and do first hand research, I have to draw inferences and it is reassuring that I am not way off.

    I am curious though as to what made you leave, if you don’t mind sharing that information.

  5. 5
    Derek

    Mostly evidence, or a lack thereof.

    I’d grown up a creationist, and had for two decades believed the lie that there is no evidence to support many of the knowledge claims of science (most notably, biology). I then discovered, to my dismay, that there was indeed an insurmountable mountain of evidence in favor of science, and against creationism. Unable to quench my interest, I soon thereafter discovered the same paucity of evidence for such myths as Noah’s Flood and the Tower of Babel.

    At that point, I went through the troubling process of deciding that, if evidence mattered, it should matter all the time. Claims should be backed by sufficient evidence, or they were not worth accepting. It seemed unethical and unreasonable and unfair to have a standard of evidence that I only applied to Mormonism or Islam or television commercials, while giving the religion of my childhood a free pass.

    Long story short, after I spent a year asking rather important questions about my religion, and after finding repeatedly that my questions were simply deemed inadmissible by my peers, I decided that ideas and beliefs and concepts that were irrational and without evidential basis were not worth holding on to. And I enrolled in college to become a science teacher.

  6. 6
    James D

    Fascinating posts, professor. I congratulate you on your claim to be comfortable with the idea of death, but its a fact that many people are not and never will be.

    That is not to say one set of people is better than the other, its just the way it is.

    But either way, these are just psychological observations…in other words, your comfortable feeling is no more an argument “for” atheism than a theists “fear” of death is an argument for theism.

    And even if atheism were to “win” here, I don’t think it would sustain itself. After all, atheism has “won” in other areas of the world before, but has tended to self destruction.

    I think your predictions of an “atheist end times” are as reliable as the same from theists.

  7. 7
    JamesD

    I would add that relying too much on the argument that a person’s beliefs depend on where they come from borders on the “Genetic Fallacy”.

  8. 8
    Mano Singham

    JamesD,

    I am not arguing that belief in god and the afterlife is wrong because it arises from people’s fear of death. That would be the genetic fallacy.

    The simple fact is that no convincing empirical evidence has been provided for god or the afterlife. Hence it makes sense not to believe in either.

    In the absence of such evidence, the question is why people still seem to feel the need to believe becomes a relevant one, and the fear of what happens after death is one that jumps out in any conversation with believers.

  9. 9
    Russ

    Hi Mano,

    Thanks for the great series of posts. John Loftus who you met recently has referenced it on his blog, DebunkingChristianity. Provide the URL for other readers if you deem it appropriate. I’m an occasional commenter on John’s blog posts. I have shared excerpts from some of your “Why atheism is winning” posts at John’s blog and I’ve linked to your site. If you have the time and inclination, please poke your head in over there.

    I share with you a lack of fear of death and I too see death as simply the end. That I have but one shot at life enriches everything all the more.

    I myself abandoned belief as a child when I realized the discrepancy between how prayers were, to me, rather obviously “answered” and how religious adults around me told me they were answered. Nothing about it has changed in the ensuing 40 years.

    I think that much of the increase in the number of atheists over the last couple of decades has resulted directly from increased availability of information to the religious. Information allows them to see that the clergy’s claims of benefit are not real, as well as being able to see that atheists are not the repulsive beings clergy have made them out to be. Then, too, I think being able to see that religion too often doesn’t induce laudable behavior even among those claiming to be religiously-motivated to be servants to mankind – Pentecostals killing their children as witches; Roman Catholics perpetuating AIDS in Africa; Roman Catholic rape and pedophilia, for example – helps to ease the transition away from religious belief. I think control of information by the religiously self-interested allowed religions to flourish and I think having a more unrestrained access to information to the world at large will cause many to usher religion out of their lives.

  10. 10
    Mano Singham

    Hi Russ,

    Thanks for the comment. Yes, I visited John’s site and it is a good one.

    I agree completely that as the arguments against god become mainstreamed, religion will decline.

  11. 11
    nazani14

    I do hope that many religious customs and festivals will morph into charming traditions, as is the case with Morris dancers and jack-o-lanterns.I would particularly like to visit that Hindu temple where rats are fed milk and other treats. It does not seem wrong to me to appreciate, even celebrate, rats for exactly what they are, without reference to divinity.

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