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How Atheists View Religion
Mike Treder   Sep 14, 2009   Ethical Technology  

The struggle between religion and reason for the hearts and minds of the people goes back at least as far as ancient Greece and has been played out time and again through the ages.

Throughout the 21st century, modern civilization will confront a wide range of intellectual, moral, and social challenges. One of the most difficult issues to settle will be the proper role of religion in the public sphere.

As we’ve seen during the last several decades, fundamentalist believers of all stripes are adamant about preserving their culture and often passionately committed to expanding its influence. Resistance from secular society is at first usually mild, attempting to be conciliatory and accommodating. But finally, ‘when push comes to shove’, defenders of separation between church and state usually take a firm, albeit reluctant, stand in favor of their cause.

We haven’t witnessed the last of these titanic contests yet. Indeed, it may turn out to be a nearly endless struggle between the forces of nativist belief and the insurgent subversiveness of non-theistic thinkers, at least among unenhanced humans.

I’m depicting this as a battle, which is mostly intended as a metaphor. When armed warfare in the cause of religion does break out, it is almost always between two sets of believers—with secularists trying to intervene as peacemakers. That doesn’t mean, however, that the ongoing confrontation between belief and non-belief is any less momentous.

It is all too easy for atheists, like me, to dismiss religious belief as outmoded superstition and to deride its damaging impacts on modern culture. Centuries of oppression and exploitation perpetrated by the institutions of organized religion horrify and anger secular liberals, but when that anger gets directed against the (mostly) innocent believers instead of toward the cynical leaders, the outcome is predictably negative. People of faith dig in their heels to defend their long-held and deeply-felt beliefs while secularists become increasingly frustrated and will sometimes lash out at what they perceive as “stupidity.”

Calling others stupid doesn’t accomplish much, obviously. So, today I’d like to try to outline the perspective that at least some atheists have on this situation. It’s an attempt to present a cool-headed analysis of why religion began and why its continued pervasive influence matters so much.


The propensity for religious belief is an evolutionary adaptation found (presumably) only in humans. A great majority of people will accept whatever religious teachings they are brought up with, often without question. Only in established secular societies, such as Japan, China, or Scandinavia, do we find large numbers of non-believers, and nearly all of them were raised that way. It is quite unusual for someone to consciously choose a different belief system as an adult. You may be able to name a case or two, but the rareness of that exception is what proves the rule.

We all come equipped with what you might call a yearning to believe in God. It’s possible, in fact, that this desire is hardwired:

The God gene hypothesis proposes that human beings inherit a set of genes that predisposes them to believe in a higher power. The idea has been postulated by geneticist Dean Hamer, the director of the Gene Structure and Regulation Unit at the U.S. National Cancer Institute, who has written a book on the subject titled, The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired into our Genes.



If there is a genetic basis for religious belief, that implies there once was a valuable evolutionary purpose for it. It’s been speculated that religious faith and supporting institutions provide coherence within a community that makes the group more likely to persist, and its individual members, therefore, more likely to survive and propagate. Tribes with greater religious conformity were more successful, the theory says, and so they produced more offspring with a genetic disposition toward strong belief.

Another interpretation, however, is that the “God gene” is there by accident. It’s not been proven yet that genetic religious inheritance contributes to tribal or community success.

From an atheist perspective, though, whether or not religious belief once served a useful purpose, its time is now past. Our contention is that continued slavish devotion to the superstitions of our ancestors is actively harmful to human civilization:

Lord May of Oxford, the president of the British Science Festival, said that although religion may have once helped to stabilise human societies, the rise in fundamentalism could make it more difficult to bring about the sort of high-level co-operation needed to tackle the global problems of climate change and a growing human population.

The former chief scientific adviser to the government warned that the rise of fundamentalist religions in both the east and west will have a detrimental impact on the ability of the world to cope with the problems of the 21st Century. . .

The rise of fundamentalism, not just in the Muslim world but in the United States, and within the Catholic church, could actually make global co-operation more difficult at a time when an unprecedented level of teamwork was needed, Lord May said.

“If you take the view that in times of stress, authoritarian hierarchies tend to resist change, what the history of religion has been has been towards a softening, less dogmatic values, but under stress you simplify complex problems to simple mantras,” he said.

Atheists worry that the increasing complexity of modern life and the overwhelming nature of many of the problems we face tend to drive fundamentalist believers into retrenchment, and from there, into militant activity. And because a large number of citizens in the developed world—especially in the United States—are either “moderate” believers themselves or are at least sympathetic to the supposed virtues of religious practice, this makes it difficult for secular society to resist the deleterious incursions of faith-based laws and practices into spheres of education and governance.

The struggle between religion and reason for the hearts and minds of the people goes back at least as far as ancient Greece and has been played out time and time again throughout the centuries. It is a vital contest, one that frequently spells the difference between life and death. How it develops over the next several decades will have significant impact on the potential for technoprogressive policies and solutions to be implemented, or perhaps thwarted.

Mike Treder is a former Managing Director of the IEET.



COMMENTS

Another aspect of religion can be found in the book “The Golden Bough”.  Sorry I don’t have time to write more but it’s in the public domain and you can readily find it on-line.

Take a look.

The spontaneous and unplanned implosion of religious belief in most developed democratic countries throws into doubt the claim that humans have “god genes” and the like. Even in the U.S., much of the country outside of the South or its cultural enclaves displays levels of religiosity closer to Western Europe’s. (I’ve lived in both Oklahoma and Arizona, two states with rural “redneck” populations, and I can tell that religion has less influence here than in Oklahoma.)

Gregory S. Paul discusses the apparent cause of the trend away from religion at the following resources:

http://www.equaltimeforfreethought.org/2009/01/18/show-291-the-big-religion-problemssolved/

The Chronic Dependence of Popular Religiosity upon Dysfunctional Psychosociological Conditions

http://www.epjournal.net/filestore/EP07398441_c.pdf

Also you can find an interesting graph of the relationship between religiosity and per capita GDF here:

http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200803/secularism

I cannot comment on this so called “God” gene, yet it makes more sense that it would be a “social” gene that would be responsible for success in evolutionary survival, in the same way that other animals and mammals of all types gather into social orders. For example, whales, dolphins, Elephants, antelopes, big cats, and wild dogs. Especially Merecats! and even birds and fish etc, all these animals gather into social orders to aid survival and for protection. Although there are also some big cat species that do not adhere to social groups, (Tigers, Leopards in particular).

The human intellect also suffers from various identity crises, which may have a singular fundamental root cause? An inherent elementary problem of identity arising from the intellect which is borne into separation and duality, and the inability for this to reconcile Self-awareness or “I-Consciousness” and ego, and it’s own apparent separation? This results in a fundamental need to define oneself continually, and to question one’s very existence and being. And thus in support of this we gather into intellectual social orders which include religious beliefs and explanations for our own creation, or moreover, in beliefs that negate these notions of God. All is merely an extension of the “social” gene that we may have?

Religions, national identity, cultural traditions, clothing, the food we eat, the sports teams we support, are all divisions and choices we make as individuals to “define” our own existence and being, in a fundamental “need” to belong to a social order?

Thus the underlying questions of creation and of God are natural questions that arise from this genetic and fundamental intellectual question, “who am I?”.

Are we sure it is religious fundamentalism and religious fears, (of being wrong about creation), that causes militancy? Or is this merely an excuse propagated for personal aims and manipulation by political groups?
Terrorism may exalt the names of God for a so-called divine purpose, yet all these acts are always politically motivated and religious beliefs usually used to manipulate the sanction of the masses?

Its true, (and obvious), that fundamental views stand steadfast in the way of change, yet I fail to understand why only few seem to promote the “middle way” of agnosticism. Is it really that difficult for an atheist to err on the side of caution, or moreover, extend rationality to include open-mindedness regarding the existence of a divine being, or an elemental special origin of species, (alien, extraterrestrial, supernature or otherwise)?

For myself, there is only a narrow margin between the belief in “creation” and the belief in a “creator”, neither of these are currently understood fully or can be definitely confirmed or negated by science at this time.


<<Fundamentalism Agnosticism (the middle way)Atheism>>

If there is a genetic basis for religious belief, that implies there once was a valuable evolutionary purpose for it.

No, not a valuable purpose, just a persistent and successful one.

I’d go with the ‘social gene’ theory - I think memes are markers of ‘social identity’ (social signaling) and religion just ‘piggybacks’ on this - but I think any particularly strong meme which played the same social role could substitute for religion.

There’s three ‘cultural levels’:

Level 1: Memes (Identity)
Level 2: Goods/Services (Economic Exchanges)
Level 3: Art (Narratives)

Take me give an analogy between physics and sociology:

Memes are analogous to atoms, goods/serves are analogous to forces, and art is analogous to information.

Religion/Politics is on level 1.  Economics is on level 2.  But the third level (art) is the deepest.  Each of these social levels has a direct one-to-one match with a particular type of decision-making.

“From an atheist perspective, though, whether or not religious belief once served a useful purpose, its time is now past. “

I would posit that if a group of modern-day atheists would time travel back 200 years, 500 years, 1000 years, and 3000 years—at each stop they would say among the people:“religious belief once served a useful purpose, but its time is now past.”

“The struggle between religion and reason for the hearts and minds of the people goes back at least as far as ancient Greece “

Let’s not forget that those Greeks who stood for reason included the key pillar, Aristotle, who was /not/ an atheist.

“I fail to understand why only few seem to promote the “middle way” of agnosticism. Is it really that difficult for an atheist to err on the side of caution, or moreover, extend rationality to include open-mindedness regarding the existence of a divine being, or an elemental special origin of species, (alien, extraterrestrial, supernature or otherwise)?”

CygnusX1, you are right about one thing…that you do not understand. Your logic is sound but your premise, that atheists are not open-minded, is not. Gnosticism and Agnosticism pertain to knowledge claims. Theism and Atheism pertain to belief. If you lack the positive belief in Gods (Theism) then you are by default Atheistic. This can, and does, include those who claim not to know whether Gods exist or not. You can be an agnostic atheist or an agnostic theist.

“Calling others stupid doesn’t accomplish much”

Actually it does. I was brought up in a society where religious people received unquestioning respect. It would have made it a lot easier for me to resist religious indoctrination if I had been aware that many people thought these beliefs and believers were stupid. That requires atheists to be honest and vocal.

This post has been linked for the HOT5 Daily 9/15/2009, at The Unreligious Right

I really like this article Mike. It is an excellent overview of the modern struggle between maintaining the traditions of our ancestors and abandoning those positions in the light of increasing knowledge. I believe you could easily apply the same logic to many of the other issues we face ... healthcare, retirement, cloning, abortion, etc. Are we going to continue to maintain positions that are becoming increasingly irrelevant in the face of advancing technology, or will we abandon those ideals and activities that most would consider the very foundations of what makes us all human and accept that the human race is evolving right before our eyes?

I expect that just as there have been numerous religious, economic, ethnic, and political divisions among humans since the dawn of history, people will once again divide themselves into camps ... only this time, the camps will be the cyborgs, the virtual people, the genetically engineered, the traditional humans, etc. Whether or not these new divisions result in open war, as has so often been the case historically, depends, in my view, on just how much power the evolved humans will have gained with their advancements and how willing they are to use it to defend themselves and/or suppress their opposition.

///i’m afraid i’ve ceased to be conciliatory to the hard core religionists (is that a word?) that from time to time regale me w/such utter nonsence! do they know nothing about the “miracles” of science?

@wiscnok: “It is an excellent overview of the modern struggle between maintaining the *traditions* of our ancestors and abandoning those positions in the light of increasing knowledge. ... Are we going to continue to maintain *positions* that are becoming increasingly irrelevant in the face of advancing technology, “

Would you kindly list a few of these traditions and positions that conflict with advanced technology?
Example: Many people have a tradition of lighting candles once a week or year for special occasions. According to your words, they should abandon this tradition because, hey, after all, we have lightbulbs now.

“We all come equipped with what you might call a yearning to believe in God”

More like a desire to fit in, mayby. People want to get along.

But if youre going peddle religion with that nonsense then you deserve to be called stupid.

@saed:“More like a desire to fit in, mayby. People want to get along.”

I agree and disagree. True, people want to fit in, but that in (almost) no way explains this yearning that so many people have.

“But if youre going peddle religion with that nonsense then you deserve to be called stupid.”

Which nonsense are you talking about?

Commented at this article from ‘09 because Giulio’s “Yes, I’m A Believer” piece has over 200 comments, while Mike’s has 15; and this article of Mike’s is quite good.
Epistemology and ontology are of course interesting; however ‘practical’ matters are what interest me most in reflecting on religion, because despite what Alex might think, I don’t dislike religion; religion never hurt anyone, its practicioners have.. sometimes the religious have a strange way of showing their affection.
Mainly, until the genesis of the Cosmos is revealed, the speculations concerning its mysteries are something I do not want to think much about for now, would rather wait a few decades for the ‘photo’ to be more developed. Plus there is excessive smarm and gullibility involved in religion, and though smarm is unavoidable, gullibility is not- not everyone allows the wool to be pulled over their eyes.
One practical value of religion is in channeling behavior:
better a child to be in a house of worship—praying for instance—than pulling girls’ hair or shooting animals with a BB gun. Same with sports:
preferable a child is breaking an opponent’s leg in a football game than breaking another child’s leg in a fight. The effect is the same, but naturally intent counts as well.
And so forth. In a still-primitive world, primitive behavior needs to be channeled into less-primitive behavior: praying, singing hyms, etc. in a house of worship is far preferable to the worse behavior on the outside in the secular ‘realm’. If the religious would accept/tolerate that some of us tolerate religion for secular reasons then it might go smoother. But no, many, very many of the religious (and not merely religionists, but moderates) insist wee have to accept more, for example accept Heaven when no evidence whatsoever exists for Heaven.
I ‘accept’ evil more than Heaven, because evil exists, cannot be avoided albeit if the evil is ‘merely’ of a small ‘amount’, as a fly in your soup.
Even Ivory Soap is only 99.9 percent pure smile

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