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Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

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How Atheists View Religion

Mike Treder

Ethical Technology

September 14, 2009

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.


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IEET, 35 Harbor Point Blvd, #404, Boston, MA 02125-3242 USA
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