“Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.” — Edward Gibbon
I don’t intend to make religion a regular topic on this blog (I do intend to keep some of my friends, you know), but seeing as how Christmas has just recently come and gone, I figured that it was appropriate to voice my musings on the subject. Y’all ready for this?
So, religion or atheism?–strewth, that is the question! But what does that question even mean? After all, we can take that question more than one way. Are we asking whether or not religion is true? Or are we asking whether or not belief in the supernatural is good for society as a whole?
I’ll tell you right now that the first question is way, way beyond my pay grade to answer. I doubt it’ll ever be answered in any sort of comprehensive way either “yes” or “no”. What I can say, however, is that as of right now I do not believe in any sort of supernatural being or deity (or any form of supernaturalism at all), nor have I for quite some time. In fact, it’s been so long that I don’t think I can even put myself back into the mindset I used to have back when I was a Catholic. I also seriously doubt that I could, through sheer willpower, make myself believe in any type of supernatural god. This is for fairly uninteresting reasons, which have all been described in exhaustive detail on blogs that specialize in atheism: I simply have no compelling reason to believe that any religions have met their burden of proof. Furthermore, some of them (*cough* the Abrahamic faiths *cough*) are so transparently made-up that they continually baffle me. I happen to believe that I should have a rational justification for any beliefs that I might hold, whether through logical proof or physical evidence. And no, I do not “have faith in the rules of Logic”, ha ha. I simply see no possible way in which the fundamental rules of logic could possibly be false.
So, I suppose in that sense, I am an atheist. I don’t believe in any gods or religions at all. But in some ways that label doesn’t quite jive well with me. It used to, but after some deeper reflection I find myself finding a new label for myself. I’m leaning towards “postatheist”.
Why? Well, hopefully I can explain below.
You see, despite my skeptical, rationalistic mindset, I would be lying if I said that I didn’t have certain ultimately irrational and inexplicable desires down in some deep abyss in my brain, some bottom layer of instinctual yearnings for which the easiest shorthand term would have to be “soul”. I also cannot claim that I don’t sense, on that same instinctive level, a sense of crucial truth within certain meta-narratives (reciprocity, redemption, humankind’s imperfection). These are ideas that I try and hold onto in my day-to-day life because I feel that they are important.
Now, does this mean that I believe these instincts came from a god of some kind? No. That certainly might be true, but based on the evidence that I have seen, that answer is so hilariously unlikely that I don’t really even bother to think about it. I think it’s more likely that these instincts are simply cognitive leftovers from our primate ancestors, buried so deep that we barely even notice them, but that still pilot most of our thought processes. Biases, paranoias, and other snares that mislead our higher logical functions and ensure that Homo sapiens sapiens is not a fully logical creature.
Atheism may be the most logical (and pretty definitively correct) conclusion, but humans are not fully logical beings to start with. The old instinctive biases and sacred modes of thinking are humanity’s default position, not logical inquiry. That doesn’t mean that atheism is false, just that getting there means you’re swimming against the current in your own head, as it were.
Let’s face it, becoming an atheist is hard work. Is that a reasonable expectation to have for everyone in society? Is it even possible?
But the question of belief isn’t the one I’m really interested here. It’s the second question: is religion good for a society? Is a truly irreligious society even possible? Or will any society’s founding principle be treated as a dogmatic, unquestioned narrative–be treated as a religion–unto itself? After all, a simple look around your average Wal-Mart or McDonald’s does not give a very optimistic portrayal of the average person’s logical faculties. Give the average man atheism, and he won’t become a rational skeptic. He’ll just swap out dogmatic belief in Jesus or Vishnu for dogmatic belief in something else, like the mall, or Social Darwinism, or the inherent goodness of voting Democrat.
I think skepticism (which is the real goal here) is too much to ask of most people as a belief system. Skeptics will forever be a minority.
As it should be. Socratic gadflies never do their best work in swarms.
So, I suppose my main misgiving is that in a certain way, religion is cognitively inevitable for most people. If you believe in anything strongly enough, and ask hard questions sparingly enough, it will become a religion in your own mind. A few people higher up on the cognitive bell-curve may be able to become skeptics and break free of dogmatic modes of thought altogether, but most people, even most atheists, have gods. They might just be secular ones.
If you want to know what I’m talking about, go to a nearby political rally, look around, and ask ten random people if they would vote for the opposite party if God himself came down from the heavens and told them to.
Would you not be correct in saying that such people have elevated their political opinions to the level of a religion?
According to a recent meta-analysis of studies on the subject of religion and IQ there is a clear, statistically significant correlation between higher intelligence and lack of religious belief. The psychologists that performed the analysis have defined intelligence in this context as the “ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly, and learn from experience.” Considering that this is precisely the kind of intelligence that the builders of society would need to have, it seems we have a clear cut case for the idea that an atheistic society is possible, and even desirable. Right?
Hold on there, buckaroo.
What’s significant about this study isn’t what it says, but what it doesn’t say.
What sort of core beliefs do these smarter people hold that a study wouldn’t necessarily recognize as a religion? Are those beliefs grounded in reason and evidence? We’d like to think so, but wish into one hand and spit into the other, and see which one fills up faster. Do these smarter people not have a fundamental, unquestioned narrative that they cling to because it gives their lives meaning in a chaotic and apathetic world? Could we not call that a religion? It’s easy for a smart person to not believe in a supernatural religion. After all, becoming an atheist is a lot of cognitive hard work (lots of childhood indoctrination to break through), so we would expect atheists to trend smarter than the rest of the population. So the question instead becomes what do these smarter people replace supernatural religion with, and is that good or bad for a society? And what about the stupider people, the people who will never have a firm grasp on complex scientific ideas like evolution or cosmology? What will they make of the new secular catechisms the ruling class sets up in place of the Old Faith ™?
If we look at the narratives we see those in the “commanding heights” of American society promoting, then I have to say that I find the fruits of our 230-year experiment in pseudo-secularism…unimpressive, to say the least. We don’t have a society of many religions equal and respectful of one another. We have a society dominated by a secular religion of envy-driven, egalitarian government worship, with a heaping dollop of culturally sterile offense-mongering to boot. Belief in the moral equality, if not outright moral superiority, of those who hold such ideas is a key article of faith. Wherever you look in the media (outside those networks set up purely to provide conservative “info-tainment”), you see the predictable revenge fantasies against the sinners and heretics: multinational corporations, evil capitalists, the 1% (whatever that means), Republicans, lobbyists, big oil, talk radio hosts, etc. We are told that we must accept this supposedly non-religious narrative on faith simply because it is the consensus of the smarter people. Granted, I have problems with most, if not all, of the above groups too. But at least I can express my dislike for people like Rick Santorum and Alex Jones without raising it to the level of a crusade.
We don’t have separation of church and state. Our church is the State.
“L’église, c’est moi“, said the man in the big white house.
So, why am I a postatheist? Because even though I don’t believe in supernatural gods, I recognize that superstitious modes of thinking can never be stamped out in any more than a select minority of truly open-minded and skeptical people. You can’t build a society off of that. Most people will always be religious. You may redirect their focus away from the supernatural, but then they’ll simply go and raise some other element of their lives onto the level of an unthinking dogma. There’s no guarantee that whatever they make into their new religion will be any better. Also, while atheism doesn’t necessarily lead to the mess of uncritical government worship and tepid, sterile egalitarianism we see in our culture today, it does seem to follow in atheism and secularism’s wake.
Most people will never overcome their instinctive search for secular dogma. We should at least direct those impulses in a way that isn’t quite as harmful to our society.