The leading cause of atheism

The other day I watched an Orthodox Jew engage in a little ritual that struck me as being strikingly pointless. No doubt it had some point in the ancient past, or was at least thought to have a point. But it was pointless—a trivial, superstitious obsession institutionalized into the whole Orthodox lifestyle. And that got me thinking. Here’s somebody’s silly little superstition, that somehow got attached to the religion, and now the religion can’t get rid of it. For thousands of years, they’ve been stuck with it, even when it ceased to make any sense. And there’s nothing they can do about it, because the core of the religious worldview is the supreme authority of tradition. Whatever was believed and practiced in the past is, by definition, the truth. Any attempt to amend it or remove part of it must be apostasy. Hence, religion is not only lacking a way to correct its errors and deficiencies, the very nature of religion is antithetical to the possibility of improvement. To be improvable, religion must first admit that it does not possess the infallibility upon which its authority and existence depend.

This puts religion in something of a bind, because religions do contain mistakes, omissions, obsolete concepts and practices, and so on. I’m not just talking about Judaism here, I’m talking about all dogmatic religions. The whole basis of religious authority limits religion to a “my way or highway” approach to truth. And that means that once you’ve spotted a problem in your religion, there’s nothing you can do about it. Your options are (a) continue to believe and practice your religion even though you know it’s wrong, or (b) leave your religion. There’s no third alternative that would allow you to change your religion to eliminate the error, because once you admit the possibility that your religion might need improvement, there’s no end to the changes you and your fellow believers are likely to come up with. (Look what happened with the Reformation.)

As for those who continue to cling to religion after discovering its errors, they may be saving their faith (or something similar to faith), but they’re also creating an environment of hypocrisy and denial. They may be preserving their own church membership, but along the way they’re going to impart to their children a sense of religion’s hollowness and insincerity. The resulting atheism may take a generation or two, but give it time.

Thus, the leading cause of atheism is religion itself. No religion is perfect. People change religions all the time. But the nature of religion leaves no room for improving the god itself, so merely changing religions only lets you hop from one frying pan into another. You’ve got no shortage of frying pans, and you can conceivably hop from pan to pan your whole life. But every hop makes it easier to see the common flaw in all religions, and suggests the obvious alternative: embrace a worldview that’s not founded on dogmatic authority, so you can respond to new information by improving your beliefs.

That’s a recipe for atheism, and it’s the story of countless deconversions. The incidental details tell us which errors the church was incapable of correcting, but the common thread is religion’s inability to improve, and indeed, its inability to admit even the possibility of any improvement. Religion itself, by its very nature, sows the seeds that blossom into atheism.

At least, in a free society.


  1. wholething says

    There is a third option: starting a new religion. Isn’t that why we have so many religions?
    It’s like the castaway that was rescued from him island after 20 years. The rescuers asked how many were there.

    “It’s just me. I’ve been alone from the beginning.” replied the castaway.

    “What about those three huts up there?” inquired the captain.

    “Well, my home is the one in the middle. The one on the left is where I go to church,” said the castaway, before his voice took a derisive tone to finish with, “and the other one is where I USED to go to church.”

    • Anat says

      The Jewish version of that is: A Jew finds himself alone on a desert island. He immediately founds 2 synagogues: One in which to pray and one in which to never set his foot.

      • M Groesbeck says

        Shadows of “Three rabbis, four opinions”, maybe? At least in certain Jewish circles there’s a well-established tradition of self-criticism and (among the quasi-heretics) a certain level of skepticism. (AFAICT, that’s the origin of Reconstructionist Judaism; “Yeah, the theology might be complete bunk, but we’ll hang onto the rituals as pure cultural practice. Unless you like the theology — then just don’t insist on it.”)

  2. christophburschka says

    Exactly. The third option is to start a schism, but even that doesn’t involve admitting the traditional authority got it wrong, in favor of claiming the traditional authority was misinterpreted or corrupted.

  3. mikespeir says

    I was going to object that there are often “corrective” movements within religions. But then I realized that these reactionary pushes are usually just attempts to steer believers back toward the “old-time” religion, toward purported idyllic days of times past, before people’s thinking got mucked up with what are deemed modern perversions.

    Of course, they never really go back to “the good ol’ days.” These reformers wouldn’t recognize the good ol’ days; would likely see old-time believers as heretics. The current conception of what the good ol’ days were always contains a tincture of more modern thought which is projected backward so as to make the progenitors of the religion seem more enlightened than they were. So, true enough, occasionally some current common sense slips unnoticed into the mix in the midst of the upheaval. But at least the thrust of revivalist movements is to stick the religion back into the mud whence it arose.

    So, yes, I think anyone who recognizes this retrogressive impulse for what it is, understands that standing still isn’t a practical option, and wishes to truly move forward must at least head in the direction of atheism, even if he never quite arrives at that destination.

  4. dcortesi says

    This could be a bit more nuanced. Religions do change, as the societies in which they are embedded change. I remember well the way that the Catholic church did a serious, conscious, public remodeling of itself in the 1960s, going to the mass in the vernacular and making a number of other changes, albeit primarily cosmetic, not doctrinal. This was in order to make the church attractive again to a generation that was repelled by arcane latinisms and opaque ritual and actively distrusted authority of all types.

    The Catholics are unusual in that they have, rather cleverly, kept the final word on what their dogma actually consists of in the hands of the pope and various key committees in the vatican. Thus it can be and has been reinterpreted and modified as time went by, without having to contradict a particular document. The current pope and his appointees seem to be particularly conservative, even reactionary. Nothing like the openings of the 1960s can be expected from them, and this appears to be hastening their downfall. Imagine how the church might have responded to the sex-abuse scandals, had its leaders had the vision and flexibility of those of the 1950s-60s. Fortunately for anti-clericalists, they are quite the opposite.

    The reformation, in wresting doctrinal control from the vatican, had nowhere to vest it except in the individual, and nothing for the individual to work from other than the newly-available printed bible. This created a doctrinal chaos as various charismatic people reinterpreted scripture in a multitude of ways, producing the wide array of protestant churches we have today. But as you say, once a particular interpretation is adopted, its devotees are stuck with it. Nothing in the founding text is going to change, and there’s no provision for amendments, as with a constitution.

    Buddhism, for another example, has happily remade itself to suit each culture it entered. Although there are founding documents (the Tipitaka) and one branch, Therevada, treasures them, other major branches don’t. There are wider differences in practice and belief between various sects of buddhism than between protestant denominations, but that doesn’t seem to bother buddhists. Protestants of different denominations regard each other as anything from seriously deluded to damned to hell for their heretical interpretations of scripture. Buddhists just figure the other group will be a little slower at reaching samsara.

    • O'Hurlihee says

      At the end there, I think you mean “satori,” not “samsara.” Samsara is always close at hand; it’s the trap and Maya is the bait.

      Have you, and our host the Deacon, been following the unfortunate goings-on over at Unequally Yoked? There’s quite a lot of this fundamental struggle (or stumble, depending on how you look at it) going on in the comments, particularly the ones on the post about “the queer thing.”

      On a tangential note, if a bisexual atheist converts to Catholicism and puts her homoerotic urges on potentially indefinite hold while she irons out the wrinkles in her new, avowedly homophobic faith, does she still get to use the term “queer” or does it start to rankle?

  5. a miasma of incandescent plasma says

    Just because I’m nosey… what was the superstitious act you saw that inspired this blog post?

  6. beth says

    Statements like:

    the core of the religious worldview is the supreme authority of tradition


    the very nature of religion is antithetical to the possibility of improvement

    are not true.

    If these statements were accurate, there wouldn’t be such a diversity of religions populating earthly societies.

    • Monimonika says

      beth, I think comment #2 by christophburschka most clearly points out how dogmatic religions are able to change their belief foundations while still claiming to be following the same “truth” passed down from antiquity without change.

      Exactly. The third option is to start a schism, but even that doesn’t involve admitting the traditional authority got it wrong, in favor of claiming the traditional authority was misinterpreted or corrupted.

      To me, it’s a bit like Catholics having their marriages “annulled” rather than calling it a “divorce” in order to remarry within the Church and not have it considered adultery.

  7. Nemo says

    That’s a recipe for atheism, and it’s the story of countless deconversions. The incidental details tell us which errors the church was incapable of correcting

    I think you just meta’d PZ’s whole “Why I am an atheist” series.

  8. Didaktylos says

    Sorry beth, but you’ve refuted yourself. It is precisely because religion in general is incapable of change that there are so many individual ones. When one religion is found unsupportably erroneous, a new one is founded, only for the new one also to develop errors.

  9. F. Bacon says

    What happens when the mother church has so few adherents that it goes defunct? I have watched while so many have joined more liberal congregations, but the more strict group can no longer sustain itself. One denomination I saw used to have 7 churches in its geographical area, but now has only 1 to sustain its regional campground. Occasionally a new one joins or the mother church has a temporary mission-house in a remote location which has recently invariably dissolved once again.

    All the other congregations associated with the formerly large mother church have become less strict and move on to affiliate with one another or other denominations to fulfil a desire to interpret scripture in their own way.

  10. Zedeeyen says

    The third option is to reinterpret scripture and then claim that your new truth is what you’ve always believed.

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