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December 18, 2005

Wintertime for Atheists?

Let us count, during this holiday season, the outrages: School officials here and there - Kansas, Pennsylvania -- attempting to force teachers to pretend that "intelligent design" is science or that evolution isn't. A United States president who appears to have based decisions involving war and peace upon his belief that he is the instrument of his god's purposes. The Ten Commandments ("Thou shall make no graven image," has always been my favorite) attempting to sneak into government buildings in the United States. God as a character on prime-time TV. Incessant efforts to reinsert Christ into holidays celebrated by many who do not worship Christ. And overseas? Fatwas, jihads, bombings, wars - in the name of religion.

The United States seems lost in yet another of its Great Awakenings (though to partisans of reason and enlightenment it looks more like a Great Swoon). Religious belief, now that the heathen Communists have been routed, is on the rise in Poland, Russia and other former Soviet countries. Such belief seems, with heathen left-leaning intellectuals also having taken some blows, even to be crawling back in Western Europe, even in France.

This is a blog about the writing of a book. And that book is to be a history of disbelief - from ancient India to contemporary California. One conclusion is clear: Disbelief has been on the rise in the world in the past five hundred or so years. The days when most literate Europeans seemed convinced that the universe was created by God in six days, on or about the year 4004 B.C., seem long gone. The days when it was possible to argue that there is no such thing as a true atheist also seem rather distant. However, what is not clear is whether this great march toward secularism has, somehow, right now, stalled.

Is the age of disbelief ending, as Alister McGrath recently argued in his book The Twilight of Atheism? Is religion - with an inevitability that could pass for God ordained - making a comeback? Or is all this orthodox sturm and drang merely an understandable reaction to the globe's ongoing secularization? Is freethinking in retreat or is this merely a pause in our continuing march toward a world based more on reason, less on faith or superstition?

By writing a blog while writing the book, I hope to improve my understandings not only of historical matters but of such contemporary issues - by testing my own surmises, by benefiting from the comments of some interested and thoughtful residents of Internet-land. I hope, thereby, to write a better book.

Your thoughts?

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at December 18, 2005 10:39 PM


"Is religion - with an inevitability that could pass for God ordained - making a comeback?"
-- the world's getting much, much wealthier pretty fast. and i'm pretty sure there's a strong negative correlation between wealth and believing in god ... less need for belief in an afterlife to go on in life; more valuable time and thus further incentive to not go to church; easier to pay for certain vices and thus more difficult to give up. our educations and iq's are also going up. and i imagine there's also strong negative correlations between these and belief ... it seems highly unlikely that either the world is, or will become, more religious. the opposite conclusion seems quite likely.

Posted by: seth at December 21, 2005 5:30 PM

hard to believe today, but there was a time -- in the nineteenth century, particularly in England -- when atheism was a working class movement. if you accept the notion, not big in Kansas at the moment, that religion supports the status quo, keeps the poor contentedly waiting for heavenly reward, then the rich would have more to gain from it.

Posted by: mitch at December 22, 2005 1:30 AM

that's just saying the richer (at a particular time) would be more religious. but if all society gets richer, i would imagine society as a whole would become less religious.

Posted by: seth at December 22, 2005 10:38 AM

i agree with this seth fellow.

Posted by: aster davis at December 22, 2005 10:52 AM

Speaking of Kansas, have you read "What's the matter with Kansas"? I highly recommend it. I would argue that religion is very much a tool to support the status quo, or even undo the social progress of recent decades. Get the useful idiots riled up about god, guns and gays, and they will cheerfully commit economic suicide at the ballot box, and sign away their most basic rights. How else can the GOP - which exists to enrich the already richest 1% at everyone else's expense - seize and retain power?

"Religion is the opium of the masses" was a good analogy in Marx's time, because the poor had a wretched existence and needed something to anesthetize them. Today, religion is used to keep the masses in a constant state of turmoil over wedge issues - creationism, "war on christmas" etc. etc. - and distract them from the fact that their jobs are in China, their pensions are in Ken Lay's Cayman Islands numbered account and their children's future is down the toilet. Religion isn't the opium of the masses any more - it's the crystal meth.

Posted by: No More Mr. Nice Guy! at December 22, 2005 9:27 PM

yes, I have read and learned from Tom Frank's book on the use of religion to disguise rich-favoring politics. My book will emphasize times when the working class had a clearer notion of its interests. And even elected a crusading atheist to Parliament.

Posted by: mitch at December 22, 2005 11:34 PM

You could easily describe atheism as a belief, it seems to me, instead of disbelief, which is how you've referred to it here. Describing it in the affirmative has certain rhetorical advantages. More importantly, it's true, isn't it? To say I am an atheist means that I believe I am--or far better, we humans collectively--are responsible for our selves, our community, our environment, our globe...and therefore, we have to take on that responsibility, instead of counting on (or blaming) one or another deity.

Posted by: elsie at December 23, 2005 10:39 PM

Yeah. Greece gave birth to two kinds of skeptics: those who thought nothing was true and those who didn't know whether anything was true, including the "belief" that nothing was true. The view you describe would, I think, put you in the first camp.

Posted by: mitch at December 24, 2005 12:06 AM

I don't think I put it clearly. There is equally a huge difference between saying nothing is true (not my belief at all) and saying that [my belief is, or what I regard as truth is:[ humans are responsible for their own world. The two camps to which you refer sound parallel to the difference between atheists and agnostics. I was trying to make altogether another point: the difference between defining atheists negatively, in terms of what they don't believe in [god(s)], and affirmatively, in terms of what they DO believe in. Ironically, because agnostics don't/can't commit, they can't say what they believe. But, at least hypothetically, atheists can discuss it. And are you saying that none of the cast of characters you mention, whom you quote only in terms of their disbelief in god, articulated a concept--art? love? gardening?--that they could believe in?

Posted by: elsie at December 24, 2005 1:58 PM

I think I understand better now. I am very interested in the question of what a positive idea of atheism might be. And a major purpose of the book will be to explore that notion. But I'm not sure that is the same as what you're getting at -- other belief systems: art, love, a kind of political/social responsibility, etc. It seems, at this early stage in my thinking, a rather subtle philosophical notion -- a kind of cleared ground upon which science and philosophy itself, and, yes, art, love, political commitment, or humanism can grow.

Posted by: mitch at December 24, 2005 10:25 PM

We must be careful not to confuse agnosticism with atheism.

Simplifying things a good bit, there are two ways to be an atheist: one can simply lack a belief in any gods, or one can actively believe that there are no gods. Neither of these viewpoints describes agnosticism.

Agnosticism as uncertainty towards theism is a relatively new concept, and one which (in my experience) confuses the discussion of atheism greatly. A newborn child is an atheist, inasmuch as a their intellect can even be said to relate to such concepts at that point. I don't think anyone would refer to a preverbal infant as being agnostic.

Posted by: Dayv at December 26, 2005 3:04 AM

"a theism" -- without theism, which seems pretty much Dayv's first way of being an atheist. Here's my current favorite character, the 19th century British atheist Charles Bradlaugh, on God: "I cannot war with a nonentity" -- which would seem to lean him toward the first way, also. The Marquis de Sade may have tilted in the other direction (and beyond): "I wish that for a moment you could exist to have the pleasure to better insult you." Which is by way of saying that I find your two atheisms scheme interesting and useful. The distinction between the two types of Greek/Roman skepticism alluded to in a comment above is the best way I have come upon, to date, to view the distinction between atheism and Huxley's nineteenth-century concoction: agnosticism.

Posted by: mitch at December 26, 2005 11:41 AM

Elsie's point was what I was wondering about, as well. The idea of (at least!) two strains of atheism is interesting. "I do not believe in God" is much different than "I have a set of beliefs that sustain me." Though the two beliefs could co-exist.

Posted by: K.G. Schneider at December 26, 2005 3:32 PM

God as a character on TV? I dunno what you're referencing, but that sounds like just about the ideal role for a god.

This is the second time I've heard you call out that the sky is falling in a very small amount of time. Given the consistently vast majority of people who believe in some sort of religion, it's too easy to point out signs of religion and argue that atheism is dead. The fact of the matter is that it was never particularly alive (I don't think you can really count Soviet-forced atheism), and it may be that it's struggling a little less than in the past.

Posted by: NoahSD at December 26, 2005 11:02 PM

I think the "Great Awakening" is just fascist propaganda. Religion's greatest enemy is knowledge. Information (and, admittedly, disinformation) now flies across the globe with unprecedented speed. Certainly, the christo-islamo-judeo-fascists are doing all they can to control that information, but they cannot succeed. Ultimately, ignorant superstition must give way to informed reason.

Posted by: Chris at December 28, 2005 2:08 PM

In the United States, a carefully-cultivated cultural schism includes not only the evangelical religious revival you speak of and a wider ideology with its own "reality" and agenda. This viewpoint, which with typical dishonesty calls itself "conservatism", is hard to delineate because of its frequent shifts and dishonesty: perhaps prototypical is an account in Time during the first Clinton administration, describing a daily talking-points fax series from the Republican National Committee to talk-radio hosts, which one day would describe Hillary Clinton as a nymphomaniac, the next day as frigid, and the next as a lesbian.
Incoherent intellectually but well-organized politically, this movement relies on repetition and emotion. Its components include a massive metanetwork of media outlets, numerous churches, think tanks and political organizations, and a followership with numerous legitimate grievances and no comprehension of how its anxieties are being manipulated for an elitist seizure of power. Essentially fascistic, this crusade is possibly unique among its kind for the absence of a central "strongman" leader: though GW Bush may seem to fill that role at present, even if he truly made White House policy decisions he would still be a figurehead, as this movement was quite powerful before anyone outside of Texas had heard of him and will be powerful after he's gone.
The resurgence of religiosity in the US these days is only part of a surge of commitment to belief in the counterfactual: consider the high percentages of citizens who firmly believe that Saddam Hussein was involved in the 9/11 attacks and was preparing to hit America with "weapons of mass destruction"; that "just say no" programs could end drug abuse, teen pregnancy, etc; that foreign aid and welfare are the major causes of the federal deficit; that blacks commit most of the crimes around the country; that all gays prey on children; that abortion causes breast cancer; that the people of Haiti, Nicaragua, Vietnam, the former Yugoslavia, etc, etc, even Iraq, are grateful to the US for having been liberated by our troops; that universities are monolithic citadels of anti-American indoctrination; and so on endlessly (I didn't even mention myths regarding the "liberal media", feminists, environmentalists, most racial minorities, lawyers, teachers, unions, global warming, and countless other targets of disinformation and scapegoating).
This isn't a Great Swoon, it's a Great Delirium - and it's not the result of blind impersonal historical cycles.

Posted by: Pierce R. Butler at December 29, 2005 2:50 PM

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