(This is the text of the talk that I gave to the Sunday Assembly yesterday. These Assemblies are monthly gatherings of generally secular people who meet for fellowship and to engage in activities to further social good.)
When Mark passed on the invitation to me to be the speaker at this second anniversary of the Sunday Assembly, I was honored, just as I was to be asked to speak at the inaugural event. But I was also surprised that two years had passed by so fast! The Sunday Assembly has reached the toddler stage in just the blink of an eye and has reached the stage of throwing things around.
That sense of the growth and evolution of the Sunday Assembly is what made me think about what I would talk about and why I chose ‘the coming of age of the atheist movement’ as my theme for today’s (dare I say it?) sermon. As a former ordained lay minister in the Methodist church I am used to giving long sermons but don’t worry, I will not subject you to the half-hour or more diatribes that are common in that church.
The title captures my sense of how secularism is maturing with time, morphing into new and I think improved forms and that in some sense we may be quietly entering a post-religion age where religion does not disappear but becomes seen as irrelevant in the public sphere. At least that is my hope. Of course, atheism and secular ideas in general have been around for over two millennia so it may be a little puzzling to say that it is coming of age now, so let me explain.
Several of the early Greeks philosophers were freethinkers, highly skeptical of the idea of gods. It is interesting that in those very early days, these philosophers had a much more sophisticated view of religion than we have even now, and there are many wonderful quotes as evidence of this.
For example, Epicurus (341-271 BCE) in the third century BCE posed the essential and, to my mind, the ultimate contradiction that believers in god face: How to explain the existence of evil.
“Is god willing to prevent evil but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is god both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him god?”
But Epicurus was not alone. Two centuries later Lucretius (circa 99-55 BCE) proposed a theory of the origins of religion, and articulated an early formulation of naturalist thinking, saying:
“Fear is the mother of all gods. Nature does all things spontaneously by herself without their meddling.”
A century before the birth of Jesus, Cicero (106-43 BCE) pointed out that it is obvious that there is no god and that much public piety is hypocritical and based on fear.
“In this subject of the nature of the gods, the first question is: do the gods exist or do they not? It is difficult, you will say, to deny that they exist. I would agree, if we were arguing the matter in a public assembly. But in a private discussion of this kind, it is perfectly easy to do so.”
A little later Seneca, who lived around the same time as Jesus, (circa 4 BCE-65 CE) argued that belief in god is a fraud perpetrated on the public in order to sustain a ruling class, saying
“Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful.”
We can then jump to the current time and the modern philosopher Bart Simpson who echoed this view when he said, “The little stupid differences [between religions] are nothing next to the big stupid similarities.”
It is interesting that even though the climate for freethinking was better for at least the philosophers in the time of the early Greeks, Cicero’s quote illustrates that people who were skeptical about the existence of god still had to be discreet for fear of repercussions.
But that period of free thinking was replaced by the appropriately termed Dark Ages, where rationality and reason took a back seat to fear and superstition. The conversion to Christianity by the Roman Emperor Constantine in the third century led to the rise of Christianity being the favored religion of the Roman Empire and the beneficiary of state patronage. It also resulted in forcing freethinkers to lay low in society. Heretics were persecuted and this practice became institutionalized with the various forms of the Inquisition by the church beginning around the 12th century.
Remember that most ‘heretics’ were not atheists, but religious people who had views different from that of church orthodoxy. This effectively led to the forcing of specific religious beliefs on people, requiring public affirmations of religious orthodoxy, a practice that has remained in force to this day as we see with politicians routinely spouting pieties. Forced orthodoxy has been extended to symbolic acts of patriotism as we see with the recent fuss over not standing for the national anthem or placing hands over hearts when reciting the Pledge of Allegiance
The arrival of the Renaissance allowed for a revival of skeptical thinking but only within limits, and the initial steps were cautious with people wary of being openly skeptical. As the 19th century philosopher John Stuart Mill himself said, echoing Cicero,
“The world would be astonished if it knew how great a proportion of its brightest ornaments, of those most distinguished even in popular estimation for wisdom and virtue, are complete skeptics in religion.”
He may have got his heretical views from his father who once told him, “There is no God, but it’s a family secret.”
In the 18th century, the French Baron D’Olbach (1723-1789) is credited with regularly holding a salon at his home in Paris where luminaries including Benjamin Franklin would gather and discuss atheistic ideas but these were not widely disseminated. D’Olbach himself is credited with publishing the first explicitly atheist work but he did so anonymously, the authorship being revealed only after his death. In his work, he explained why he had arrived at his conclusions and I think his words reflect the modern sensibility.
“Many men without morals have attacked religion because it was contrary to their inclinations. Many wise men have despised it because it seemed to them ridiculous. Many persons have regarded it with indifference, because they have never felt its true disadvantages. But it is as a citizen that I attack [religion], because it seems to me harmful to the happiness of the state, hostile to the march of the mind of man, and contrary to sound morality, from which the interests of state policy can never be separated.”
D’Olbach’s view of religion is what I think is now becoming more prevalent. Many people are now not actively opposed to religion nor do they expend much energy in fighting it. Instead it is becoming seen as irrelevant to their lives and is viewed with concern only when it does things that are, in D’Olbach’s words, “harmful to the happiness of the state, hostile to the march of the mind of man, and contrary to sound morality, from which the interests of state policy can never be separated.”
Former Arizona senator and 1964 Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater expressed a similar view when he said,
“I’m frankly sick and tired of the political preachers across this country telling me as a citizen that if I want to be a moral person, I must believe in “A,” “B,” “C,” and “D.” Just who do they think they are? And from where do they presume to claim the right to dictate their moral beliefs to me? And I am even more angry as a legislator who must endure threats of every religious group who thinks it has some god given right to control my every roll call in the Senate. I am warning them today: I will fight them every step of the way if they try to dictate their moral convictions to all Americans in the name of “conservatism.””
Few politicians of any party today would dare say such a thing, and people point to that as a sign of American religiosity. But that is actually something peculiar to politicians. It is much easier now for ordinary people to be unbelievers. Take for example, this cartoon that appeared in a recent Sunday edition of the Plain Dealer.
The fact that such a cartoon can be published in the Sunday funny pages of all places (the most widely read section of the paper) in a pretty conservative newspaper in a fairly conservative state like Ohio without howls of outrage from the readers shows how far we have come. The fact that the words ‘atheist’ can appear but not ‘ass’ is, in a weird kind of way, progress.
But this new freedom is wildly uneven. In some parts of the US being nonreligious can lead to being looked at askance, being ostracized and shunned by family and friends, and even to the loss of one’s job. I am not aware of nonbelievers being attacked or killed in the US the way that transgender and other members of the LGBT community sometimes are. But the situation in some other countries, especially in Muslim majority countries like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Bangladesh and in Hindu majority India, the lives of skeptics are in danger and many skeptics are still fearful about proclaiming their disbelief publicly.
What are other signs of this shift in the US from opposition to religion to disinterest? One is that the atheist movement no longer is identified with a few people. Gone are the days when Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and the late Christopher Hitchens were taken as symbolizing the movement in the US. Now not only is there are a much broader and more diverse number of people identified with the movement, the skeptical community feels comfortable enough criticizing those four for many stances that they have taken on many issues.
But more importantly is that more and more people are calling themselves unaffiliated from any religion. They are not all atheists. What is interesting is that a recent survey done by the PRRI found that 73% of those who are unaffiliated are not hostile to religion but say that religion is just not important to them.
The interests of the skeptical community have also expanded beyond religion. The main focus of actions has shifted from opposing and debunking religion to it being just one of many issues, like advocating for equal rights for women and the LGBT community and opposing bigotry in all its forms.
We seem to be moving away from active opposition to religion to simply disinterest, except when religion tries to muscle its way into the public sphere and impose its beliefs on everyone, such as happens with Buddhist intolerance in Burma and Thailand and Sri Lanka, Hindu intolerance in India, and Christian intolerance in France. This has resulted in the secular community, even though we may think that the idea of having one’s clothes and food and behavior determined by ancient texts and male clerics is absurd on its face, coming to the defense of religious groups being persecuted, such as the right of Muslim women in France to wear the burkini on the beaches in some cities, though no such prohibitions against women covering up are enforced for Roman Catholic nuns or Orthodox Jewish women.
As a long-time blogger and I find that I write less and less about religion nowadays except when it intrudes into secular life and tries to make everyone else follow their doctrines. I think that many nonreligious people are like me, willing to enter religious institutions to celebrate some event with our family and friends or even bowing our heads when at some friend’s place people say grace, as happened to me recently when I was at someone’s home and the grace was a fairly long and detailed prayer. We are like the philosopher A. J. Ayer, a well-known atheist, who was chided for taking part in the tradition where, as the most senior academic present, he would say the customary grace before dinner at his Oxford university college dinners. When asked how he could say a prayer while being an atheist, he replied, “I will not utter falsehoods but I have no objection to making meaningless statements.”
Is there a name that we can give this new attitude of disinterest in religion? To me the label that comes closest to describing the current attitude is ‘irreligion’ that means having no interest in religion. It is an attitude that says that religion is not important and that we don’t care what religious people believe as long as they don’t bother the rest of us with their beliefs or try to impose them on society as a whole.
So let’s say goodbye to religion and even anti-religion and welcome the new era of irreligion.