The structure of social revolutions, part 1

As I see it, atheism as a movement is about two things.  First, it’s about skepticism and the advancement of knowledge free of dogma.  Second, it’s about achieving social change.  We want to remove the stigma of atheism, allowing atheists to be open and honest about their non-belief while minimizing fear of prejudice and hostility against them.

Speaking as someone actively involved with atheist visibility, I know that it can be really frustrating when it seems like progress is not happening.  In fact, people commonly write us to ask, “Why do you bother?  It’s not like you’re going to turn Christians into atheists.”

Social progress always happens slowly, but there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the possibility of long term change, and even reasons to believe that you might have a small part to play as an instrument of that change.  In this post and the planned follow-up, I want to talk a bit about taking a big picture perspective on social change.


You say you want a revolution

In the 1950’s and 60’s, a philosopher of science named Thomas Kuhn wrote a couple of books that gained widespread attention.  The first was called The Copernican Revolution; the second, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

In The Copernican Revolution, Kuhn outlined the history of public acceptance of the notion of a heliocentric solar system.  Prior to the publication of Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus, the western world commonly believed that the earth was the center of the universe. Changing this opinion over the course of the next century and a half (give or take) was a slow and arduous process.  It was made slower and more arduous by the strong resistance of both Catholic and Protestant churches, with many religious leaders asserting that Earth must occupy a special place in the universe or the Bible could not be true.  In the scientific community as well, there was an uphill battle to change mainstream thinking.

What happened in order to get us to where we are now, when even the most hardcore fundamentalists do not dispute heliocentrism? Did the priests receive divine revelation telling them that Copernicus was right?  Was a new book of the Bible discovered, or an old one reinterpreted, to convince everyone that this was what God “really” meant to say?  Did the old school followers of Ptolemy’s epicycles come around and publish corrections?

No.  What happened, Kuhn argues, is that the opponents of Copernicus died.  I mean, not all at once.  Those who accepted the heliocentric model were at first iconoclasts; but when the model held up to scrutiny, it began catching on with younger scientists, bolstered by contributions from Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler.  Over time, people who stuck to the old ways aged and died, and they were not replaced by new Ptolemaists.

Nearly a hundred years later, when Galileo was jailed for defending the heliocentric system, you could consider it to be the last gasp of an institution losing their control over the terms of discussion. They had mostly lost scientific support, popular opinion was lagging behind but still beginning to catch up, and the only way the Catholics could assert the relevance of their position was by a show of brute force.

As you’ll notice, it didn’t work.  Before much longer, geocentrism was a dead issue for scholars. And in 1992, Pope John Paul II issued a formal apology to Galileo on behalf of the church.

No, seriously!  That totally happened, a mere two decades ago. And you might say that three hundred years is a ridiculous amount of time for the church to openly acknowledge that they were wrong, but hey — better late than never, right?

Not only do theists fully embrace heliocentrism today, but in many cases they deny that the “true” church ever opposed it.  Protestants often try to lay all the blame on Catholics, while Catholics deny that the church was ever justified in opposing Galileo at all.  It’s a testament to how thoroughly opinions have shifted in three hundred years that only a few crazy fringe sites would dream of defending the idea that the church was right and Galileo was wrong.

We all want to change the world

In his next book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn generalized this concept.  Somewhere around this time, Kuhn coined the phrase paradigm shift, which remains popular today.  We all have beliefs which are based on evidence, but ultimately those beliefs will trace back to a core model of beliefs and values, which are so firmly entrenched at the root of everything else we think that they are all but immune to questioning.  These are our paradigms.

Not everyone shares the same paradigm — a fact that should be obvious if you’ve ever spent any amount of time speaking to a fundamentalist.  You can waste a lot of breath asking “Why should I believe the Bible?” or “What evidence do you have that God exists?” before you realize that as often as not, they don’t really understand the questions.  In their minds, the Bible is just true.  Ask how they know God exists, and you’re liable to get the same kind of quizzical look that you would give somebody else asking how you know your mom exists.  In fact, they’ll sometimes ask you that very question in response.

The point is that the assumptions that God exists and the Bible is infallible are baggage that’s built directly into their paradigm, and you can’t get it out of there without unpacking a whole lot of their basic mental model of the way the world is supposed to work.

Well, science is susceptible to paradigms too.  In the pre-Copernican world, part of the prevailing paradigm was that the Earth is the center of the universe.  To effectively challenge this basic assumption, both in the scientific and religious spheres, Copernicus and Galileo had to do a lot more than simply present their evidence and let the facts speak for themselves.  Lots of people in the old guard could never be convinced, because they had lived too long with the geocentric paradigm.

But, as Kuhn goes on to explain, large scale paradigm shifts do happen in science pretty regularly.  Just as with the Copernican Revolution, you don’t have to change everyone’s mind to be successful.  Over time, people holding the outdated paradigms have less and less popular support, and when they die, they don’t get replaced.

Consider a more recent paradigm shift, the eventual triumph of quantum mechanics over classical mechanics.  Quantum mechanics was so deeply weird that one of its most influential proponents, Albert Einstein, actually refused to believe the conclusions that his data pointed to.  When he repeatedly said that “God doesn’t play dice with the world,” he was indicating that there must be some as-yet undiscovered flaw with the interpretations of quantum mechanics.  Decades later, after still more testing against Einstein’s objections, we’re pretty sure that there wasn’t.

You ain’t going to make it with anyone anyhow

At this point I need to take a time-out and warn that you have to be careful to understand how legitimate scientific revolutions take place.  Because in fact, many creationists — and their craftier cousins, cdesign proponentsists — are also familiar with Kuhn’s work, and cast themselves as the misunderstood heroes of the next great future paradigm shift.

By way of response, I’m just going to quote physicist Robert L. Park:

“It is not enough to wear the mantle of Galileo: that you be persecuted by an unkind establishment. You must also be right.”

One more from Carl Sagan:

“But the fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.”

Everybody understands that the state of human knowledge is constantly in flux, and just as Kuhn says, what’s commonly understood by science today might undergo a major upheaval by the next century.  But everyone who conflicts with mainstream ideas thinks that theirs is going to be the dominant belief in the future, because they all think they’re right.  Most are not.  Paradigms become accepted in the first place because they are overwhelmingly recognized as fitting the available evidence better than the old model.  Any competing paradigm requires explaining all that the old model did and more.  In many cases, as with Einstein’s relativity replacing classical Newtonian mechanics, it’s still understood that Newton’s equations are correct within reasonable limits.

Bringing about major change to the prevailing opinions requires that you bring evidence and solid reasoning to the table.  It’s not a sufficient condition, but it’s a necessary one.  And when your “new” idea is just warmed over superstition rehashed from ideas that were already discredited by the paradigm shift from 150 years ago, you’ve got your work cut out for you.

That’s right, Discovery Institute, I’m talking to you.

Don’t you know it’s gonna be all right

So what has this got to do with social change, as opposed to scientific change?  In my next post, I’ll be talking about social movements that have followed similar upheavals, and speculating on where atheism fits in.


Update: Here’s part 2.


  1. says

    This post particularly resonated with me as I struggle to reason with teachers who are so ingrained in their victimization that they cannot see any other response to the true issue at hand. They’re paradigmatically “stuck”. :p

  2. jacobfromlost says

    Great post.

    I actually wrote an extensive paper along these lines in college for a Great Books class. (It was on the basic ideas of space, time, and motion in Aristotle, Galileo, Newton, and Einstein, as the purpose of the paper was to synthesize how a particular idea changed over time.)

    What I found fascinating, and hardly ever mentioned anywhere, was that Galileo had a flair for VERY entertaining writing. In his “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems”, he is clearly writing to a lay audience, and it was great fun for this English major to read…especially from Galileo’s future, where it was obvious that he was writing for an audience still clinging to, or heavily influenced by, a Ptolemaic cosmology (and the bad thinking associated with it). The professor I had helping me with my thesis actually told me not to bother reading the whole thing because it was too long. Well, I read it anyway–I actually had difficulty putting it down.

    Here’s an online version. The man was really a genius at communicating.

  3. KG says

    They laughed at Columbus – Carl Sagan

    And they were right: Columbus had convinced himself, contrary to the evidence, that the eastern edge of Asia lay only 3,000 miles west across the Atlantic. If the Americas had not been there (and he had not an inking that they were), he and all his crew would have died of thirst. Having robbed and murdered considerable numbers of Caribs, and completely fucked up in the position of governor (he and his brother were returned to Spain in chains for this, but pardoned) he died still convinced that he’d found the eastern edge of Asia.

    There are many cases where Kuhn is plain wrong, and the scientific consensus (I refuse to use the vastly over-used and multiply ambiguous word “paradigm”) shifts within a decade or two, with the great majority of living experts going with it. Relatively recent examples include relativity, quantum mechanics, plate tectonics, and the endosymbiotic theory of eukaryote origins.

  4. jacobfromlost says

    “and the scientific consensus … shifts within a decade or two, with the great majority of living experts going with it.”

    I think Russell was talking about shifts in PUBLIC understanding. Certainly that is still relevant today where nearly half of the American public (give or take) still doesn’t accept evolution 150 years later.

    And I know it is anecdotal, but I also wrote a short paper on relativity in my Great Books class about 18 years ago, and one girl in the class–of about 8 students–became very hostile to the entire notion of relativity. She said it was irrelevant to everyday life, and refused to back off that position even when it was explained HOW it is relevant to everyday life.

    I was too naive to understand why at the time, but it was because she was a Christian and saw relativity as a threat to certain beliefs. There are nonexperts in the public who not only don’t know what certain scientific concepts are, but actively fight them. I think it is a valid point that some ingrained biases are so entrenched that the only way progress is made is that those people eventually die off, and aren’t replaced.

  5. miikaheino says

    Yep. Kuhn himself reportedly swore never to use the term “paradigm” again, when people started parroting it in an uncritical manner.

    In general, I wish we would get past “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” already. Sociology of science is an empirical field, and as such it is supposed to make progress. Yet whenever anyone says anything about scientific progress, Kuhn and his 1962 book are what almost always gets mentioned. Someone ought to write a book that would update our public understanding of that stuff.

  6. Kazim says

    As I hope was clear when I used the creationism example, even though I think paradigm shifts have some validity, I agree that it gets overused and abused regularly, at least as much as quantum mechanics is co-opted by woo peddlers. It’s not so much that I think this always happens, as that it’s a useful frame to think about things.

    I kind of feel the same way about Dawkins’ invention of “meme.” Now that the notion of an internet meme is in itself a pervasive meme, an awful lot of gibberish gets attached to the label. You can’t really pin down what a meme is, or chart the development of a meme in any rigorous scientific sense. But being aware of the concept can still be useful in framing your thinking in many ways.

  7. julial says

    I’ve used this phrasing for decades:
    You can not teach an old dog new tricks.
    But fortunately, we get new dogs all the time.

  8. John Kruger says

    I can’t come up with the statistics at the moment, but I seem to remember that atheism was highest in younger age groups. This goes right along with the general consensus changing as people die off. It is kind of depressing that there are some people who can never be convinced to change their minds about certain things and have to die off for things to change, but it does seem to be the case.

    I often wonder if the wildly religious political actions of late are an entrenchment response to being threatened by changing public opinion. I think public opinions are definitely changing about religion, but the religious are doing plenty of kicking and screaming on the way out.

  9. Kazim says

    I sent this post to my dad, a physicist who studied under Kuhn for a period of time. His reply is interesting and worth posting here.

    “Your account of Galileo vs. the Catholic Chuch isn’t quiet right, although it may be good enough for your purposes. His opponent, Pope Urban VIII, was a bit subtler and more interesting about his objections than is widely appreciated. It wasn’t the Copernican system per se that he objected to, it was Galileo’s argument that human observation, measurement, and reason contrain what God could have done, the core principle of the empirical method, which Galileo pretty much invented. Urban’s position was that God, being omnipotent and omniscient, could do anything he damn well pleases, the core principle of the Catholic Church. Urban was quite astute to see Galileo as a mortal threat to the Church.”

  10. otrame says

    Kazim’s father:

    Urban was quite astute to see Galileo as a mortal threat to the Church

    That is true. And he was right, though it has taken a very long time for that threat to really show its teeth. It’s been a slow fight, and I think we are living in the time when religion has its back against the wall.

    I don’t know this for sure and would love to know if there is any data available, but as an older person (in my 60s) I don’t remember anyone but the very fringes of religious believers were evolution deniers when I was a kid. I still remember being shocked down to my toes by the idea when I met someone who actually believed the earth was only 6 thousand years old. The upsurge of anti-evolutionism is part of a general upsurge of hyper-religiousity that has taken place during my lifetime. In other words, the evolution-denialism today is not part of a long uphill and largely unsuccessful battle to teach it to the general public. It seems to me that its actually gotten much worse in recent decades than it was when I was a kid.

    I am not a sociologist, but I do think that one of the reasons it all seems so intense in the last three decades or so, especially here in the US, is the pressure that vast changes in the technology that we use in our daily lives over the last 100 years has placed on our culture. My grandmother was a bit of a country girl and she could clearly remember the first time she ever saw a car (she was about 8 or 9). I was a young adult when Pong was invented. Things are changing fast. Cultural institutions that worked reasonably well for the late 19th and early 20th century no longer function as well. The culture is changing to adapt to the new technologies, of course, but the pressure on individuals in the middle of all this is intense. I haven’t read Alvin Tofler’s “Future Shock” since about the time Pong was invented, but my memory is that he claimed that for many people the pressure of rapid social and technological change will cause them to retreat, to go back to an image of the “good old days” in a number of different ways. I am not sure, but I believe he predicted that the increased religiosity that he was already seeing would be part of the pattern. (Again, it has been a LONG time since I read the book, and if I am wrong about what he said, or adding my own interpretations, I apologize to you and to him).

    We may be at a bit of a crisis. I judge this not on the fact that atheists are starting to come out of the closet in droves, and getting organized. I judge this on the nearly hysterical shrieking of many religious speakers. They see the kids leaving; they feel the pressure to reinterpret the Bible to be more “inclusive” from within their own churches–while others within their churches insist on clinging even more rigidly to the old ideas. When you have someone like William Lane Craig saying that the Canaanite babies that the Israelites slaughtered were lucky, that God saved them from Hell by ordering their deaths, and have so many supposedly decent people nod their heads solemnly in agreement, you are seeing an ideology on its deathbed.

    I hope.

  11. L.Long says

    The problem with the past science getting accepted was relatively simple as it only involved general dogma and not the core tenets.

    Today we are facing a large number of terrified people, they are terrified of death!! Atheists do not give a spectacular comfort to the death problem where the comforting lies of religion do. And recognizing atheism punches their beliefs in the face. A Xtian can tolerate islam because they are essentially the same thing, where atheism and secularism are totally different and pushes the falseness of the beliefs back at them. That cannot be tolerated!! Their fear will not allow it. The only people that can accept atheism are those willing to wake up and grow up and be adults.
    And strangely this is not that hard as it says nothing about what is after death! The problem is the main religions all seem intent on being controlled by psychotic immoral g0ds.

    So we battle on and hope te young will be able to grow up for real.

  12. Zengaze says

    Good response. Things may be different in the US than here in Europe, but the UK in particular is being pulled back into the dark ages, and a lot of it is to do with the smugness of European atheists. For too long we have accepted the myth that religion is benign, and irrelevant to most people’s lives bar a few crazy fundies.

    A battle is coming in the UK In particular. Over the last 15 years there has been a huge spurt in American style fundie churches their growth is phenomenal, they do faith healing, talking in tongues, the fully wacky biscuit!

    Now they’re on the march attempting to influence public policy regarding gay marriage, abortion etc, the usual Christian fascism. But when secular UK woke up and said “hold on, don’t be stupid” weve found out that what we thought were the old benign churches have fallen in behind them, why? Because when you actually examine them they still believe the same crazy shit, they’d just been to afraid to show their fangs, like vampires they’d been hiding from the daylight waiting for night to return.

    It’s like the perfect storm for the UK, because we don’t have constitutional protection from religidiots. In fact religion is by law at the heart of our government. Bishops get to sit in legislature by right! The head of state is also the head of the official church! It’s fucking nuts!

    The fundies are out and shouting about Christian persecution, about their world view being of equal worth to secularism (what they actually mean is worth more than), creationism is being taught in state funded schools, who get to set their own curriculum,though very recently we managed to get a piece of legislation passed to try and prevent this.

    We need more than a paradigm shift. It scares the hell out of me, my wife is one, and yes she threw the “how do you know your dad is your dad” line at me. I really really thought in twenty first century Europe we’d left the babbling idiots a couple of centuries behind us, so when I hear a smug euro talk about the stupid Americans it drives me nuts are their wilfull delusion.

  13. Mary2 says

    I agree with both you and Otrame.

    I’m in Australia and we are seeing a huge increase in religious nutjobbery. I’d never heard of an Australian evolution denier until the last couple of years and the power and intensity of fundamentalist wackos in politics is scaring the bejesus out of me. We are changing from a country where religion was something that only existed on census forms and at funerals to a country where an atheist prime minister propounds the importance of the bible and is opposed to gay marriage on grounds of tradition!

    Kazim, I hope you are right and this is the death knell of an ideology with its back to the wall but they are a long way from beaten.

  14. Roberto Aguirre Maturana says

    for many people the pressure of rapid social and technological change will cause them to retreat, to go back to an image of the “good old days” in a number of different ways.

    Compare that quote with this one: “Everything that’s happening, the things that are about to come to light, people might just need a little old fashioned.”. I won’t tell you the source.

  15. Zengaze says

    The hillsong churches are perfect examples of the new breed of nutters that are invading the UK, and they are based in Austraila. They are like storm troopers in disguise as Hippies, with their gushing music and god the pursuing lover message. It sucks kids into the cult, and then drip feeds them the who god doesn’t love, but actually does love bs. The Irony is that on the surface they look like progressives but in reality are the kind of fundamental nut jobs that were burning witches. And yes these asshats believe in witches.

    I personally wirnessed a pastor from one of these churches attempting to cast out demons from a boy who was obviously suffering from a disorder. I’m no MD but he would stand in the one spot doing twirls for hours on end. The pastor’s diagnosis was possession, and he wasn’t some ignoramus pulled out of the dark ages, he was a guy who grew up In our modern western society with a degree in business management from a damn good university.

  16. jacobfromlost says

    This discussion made me look up these gallup poll numbers:

    I think it is safe to say the “humans evolved, but god had no part in the process” is roughly all atheists and agnostics (and maybe a few deists?).

    In any case, what Tracie and others have said before seems born out in the numbers. The numbers slowly increased as use of the internet became more and more common.

    Is this because younger people were on the net more and older believers died off? Is this because the information was more widely available to everyone? Something else? I’m not sure.

    The 2007 responses seem to be contradictory, unless I’m missing something. The responses to evolution being definitely true were 18%, and probably true were 35% (53% total). The responses to creationism being definitely true were 39% and probably true were 27% (66%).

    Granted I’m not very good with math, but don’t those numbers indicate SOME people had to say that BOTH evolution and creationism are “probably” true? (Both evolution and creationism were defined in the poll so it was clear the were mutually exclusive.)

    Yet another reason why we can’t vote on what is true–some people vote true/false and false/true simultaneously…or at least “probably true/false” and “probably false/true” simultaneously.

  17. tosspotovich says

    Like Mary2, I hail from Australia but I have not witnessed the same trend. Religious disbelief is the norm with most people I meet. Those who identify with a religion often do so out of a sense of community or family commitments. Our most recent federal election saw the approval of the first prime minister who was unmarried, a woman or an atheist.

    On 21 June the results of last year’s census will be released. I will be surprised and disappointed if there is a decline in the numbers of non belief (which fall under self-described categories of agnosticism, atheism, non-religious, no religion, undefined and rationalism).

    From here it also appears that there is a growing dissent of belief and believers in the US. Another term from Obama may enhance this, but being led by Romney and his minority sect’s direction might also illustrate the absurdities of other Christian groups too.

  18. Mary2 says

    God I hope you are right! Maybe I just spend too much time on the weh wheere these nutters hang out.

  19. Marella says

    It’s not easy to pin down the meaning of the word “life” either but it is still a useful word. When I first read Dawkins’ book and he coined “meme” I hated it, but it has proved itself in usage.

  20. Marella says

    I live in Australia and I’m not sure what’s going on. I think the religious are definitely making inroads, eg the school chaplains program, but the majority of my friends are atheists or at least vague deists. I think our biggest problem is that many people believe in belief, they still think that religion is ‘a good thing’and that religious people are admirable.

    Fortunately Islam and Catholicism are helping to disabuse many people of these ideas, but it still means that many people are uneasy about criticizing religion which plays into the hands of the religious who take advantage of it. But 4,000 people at the GAC was a great achievement and hugely encouraging.

  21. says

    I am certainly encouraged by the number of Australians viewing and commenting on this blog! 😉

  22. Mary2 says

    Listening to the Atheist Experience and related pod-casts is a serious eye-opener for most Australians.

    I used to think that the USA was similar to Aus except more power, more money and weird ideas about guns. These pod-casts have shown me that you folks live in a complete bizarro-world of religious nut-jobs and theocratic legislators – even with the famed separation of church and state. It also shows us what we have to fear may be in our future. We tend to follow trends set by the USA ten or twenty years down the track.

    Apart from that, damn good discussions about all philosophical issues and debating techniques.

    Keep up the good work, and thanks for letting us listen!

  23. says

    Galileo is really the end of the story. The full story goes well beyond any one religion. Even the greek philosophers were averse to experimentation, it was too close to manual work. Centuries later, the new empires still saw the greek and other ancient works as sacred, or at least above their abilities. It is hard for us, who know that civilizations have risen and fallen many times, and we think we have some idea of why. Plus we have built on the ancient works, while Middle age cultures saw them as evidence of past civilizations that had superior knowledge.

    All that combined to keep Ptolemy’s work entrenched. The beginning of change, as far as I have found was when Al-Battani wrote his “Doubt of Ptolemy” It is the spirit of doubt and the encouragement of study that was flourishing in his time that we are missing today.


  1. […] A bit more than a month ago, I spoke about Thomas Kuhn’s notion of scientific revolutions.  In the case of Copernicus’ heliocentric model, and in many other cases throughout history, a major scientific discovery was not accepted by the scientific community, or in the public at large, within the generation of the person who discovered it.  This time, I’d like to talk some more about examples of social movements that have followed similar trends, and how this relates to atheist activism. […]