Recently a friend asked if I thought religion would ever disappear in the face of scientific progress.
I answered with the riddle about the cockroach crossing the room. You have probably heard it:
The room is six meters across. In the first hour, the roach gets halfway across the room, three meters, but he tires, and in the second hour he travels only one and one-half meters, half the previous distance. This continues; in each hour he covers half the distance of the previous hour. How long will it take him to cross the room?
The traditional answer to the riddle is never, as one-half cannot be a whole. Of course, our hypothetical cockroach was not given any dimensions, but real cockroaches have length, which enables them to eventually cross the room, however slowly they go, so the real-world answer is that we can’t solve the riddle without more information, but if the cockroach keeps moving, he will cross the room, and the bigger he is, the sooner he will get there.
However, I’m not sure this is the real-world answer, either. I live in a country where we freethinkers are often looked upon as vermin, and I am painfully aware that cockroaches usually travel at night because if they don’t get where they are going before daybreak, they will likely be stepped on. Looking around the world today, it’s time to scamper.
Of course, in the United States, we are accustomed to fundamentalist theocrats attacking our rights, but it appears that Europe can no longer be smug. Our friends in England are fighting “voluntary” Sharia law, which is based on the premise that a woman who has not been allowed to learn the language of the country she lives in can make an informed choice. In the state of Hesse, Germany, teachers at a number of schools were teaching the Biblical account of creation in biology class; the Ministry of Education for the state saw no infringement of the curriculum. These are
isolated examples, but learn from us in the U.S.—if we don’t counter them effectively, they will not stay isolated.
When I was growing up in a religious family in Oklahoma, the whipping strop of the American Bible Belt, people who took the Genesis stories of creation literally were seen as backward or fanatic. Today, this belief is mainstream.
Of course, the developed world has it relatively easy.
Africa is particularly infested with destructive religion, mostly Christianity that European nations foisted upon them. The few brave freethinkers are in a horrendous battle with those who condemn children as witches, and label homosexuality a capital crime. Barely 3% of Southern Africans are atheists or agnostics, and no other region on the continent has more than 1%
(I should say here that all these demographics are from the Association of Religious Data Archives, and they carry the inconsistencies and other problems one expects in the subject of belief. There are no doubt many instances of significant under reporting and over reporting, but under reporting is almost certainly more common. Nevertheless, I have found nothing on an international scale that is more accurate and comprehensive.)
South America and Central America fare little better than Africa, hovering around 3%, although the Caribbean is a bit brighter at 8%. (There is an encouraging exception in Uruguay, where fully onethird
of the populace identifies as atheist or agnostic. The country is demographically very similar to its neighbor Argentina, except in the area of belief. The only explanation I find is that Uruguay, unlike its neighbors, is known to have some of the most progressive political and labor laws in the world. )
In Asia, outside of East Asia, all regions of the continent show fewer than 5% freethinkers. East Asia, dominated by China, reports 36%, and China, the world’s most atheistic state, records only 39% atheist in this poll.
Eastern Europe, where atheism was encouraged until the past 20 years, counts only 9% atheist and agnostic, but Western Europe shows 20%.
All this probably paints a picture gloomier than reality. As noted, many of these statistics under report atheists, and there are other important facts to keep in mind about the numbers. These are surveys of labels, not of beliefs, and in most of the world, the terms atheist and agnostic have negative connotations. Typically, surveys of belief reveal more nonbelievers than polls of identity do, and if we include deists, people who say they believe in a god that does not interact with this world, our ranks balloon.
If our goal is a secular state, and for most of us that is the main concern, perhaps the most significant indicator is how people rank the importance of religion. Japan, for example, has a relatively low rate of atheists and agnostics at 10%, but it is considered an extremely secular state.
This is most likely due in part to the dominant religion of Zen Buddhism, which is technically atheist, i.e. without a god, but it is a religion with magical thinking. Likely the more relevant statistic is the fact that the Japanese find religion extremely unimportant, with 41% saying it is not very important in their lives and another 38% saying it is not at all important.
I am here today to talk about world atheism, not about a secular state, for two reasons: First, that is the subject I was assigned, and second when people feel less secure, more people turn to religion and religion turns to the right. I have little doubt that your problems in Europe today have as much to do with cutbacks in social programs as they do with Islamic immigration, and I have little doubt that they will be with you for a while.
An effective freethought community, mobilized to counter this reaction is of vital importance, so I champion atheism by any intelligible name: whether you prefer to use the term agnostic, bright, humanist, rationalist, skeptic, or Pastafarian. The subtle philosophical differences are important only to us within the community. But I will call you a hypocrite if you use those terms to obfuscate the fact that you do not believe in gods.
My assignment was not simply world atheism, but world atheism in the 21st Century, and I am here to charge you to do much more than simply keep your organization ready to react to the first sign of trouble. Atheists are known for our protests, and they are necessary when religion interferes with the common good and with common sense. Protests have value: They call attention to a problem that others may not be aware of; they bring more people who agree with us into the movement; and there is now evidence that they give participants, our members, a feeling of wellbeing. This is especially true, of course, if they are highly social, such as marches or sit-ins.
(Perhaps this is the reason that in the early 1970s we had protest marches one week and love-ins the next. Live and learn. At the time, I thought it was the marijuana.)
Protests come at a cost, however. They harden the position of your opposition. When deciding what, when, and how to protest, this cost should always be factored in.
Today, we have many new tools to combat religious superstition and bigotry. The 21st Century has opened with an intellectual bang in our community. Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Ayaan Hirsi Ali (and the list could go on) have shown us that many people hunger for information about the real world and how it works. We have many less widely known scientists giving us insights into the human mind that we have never seen before.
Evolution isn’t just about fossils anymore. Evolutionary psychologists have taught us, if we were paying attention, that religion is a natural, almost inevitable, product of our brains, as they have evolved. This deflates the hot air balloon that floated the smug superiority that some of our colleagues have had when discussing the “stupidity” of religion.
These new scientists do not characterize religion as beneficial or even harmless—one author, J. Anderson Thomson, compared our taste for religion to our craving for fast food—nor do they yet offer much in the way of strategy, but they give do us a very good beginning. In the words of Pascal Boyer, phenomena that used to be mysteries have become problems, not yet solved, but solvable.
Daniel Dennett has helped us focus our concern, and it is not the gods. They don’t exist. The issue is belief. However many people believe in the gods, more people believe in belief. You likely know atheists who think faith is an admirable trait. Boyer would argue that many religions no more have faith that the gods exist than we have faith that the fjords exist. He contends that spirits are, to the Fang in Cameroon, for example, a matter of simple observation. There is certainly a more direct process of belief in many pagan religions, but whether it does or does not involve faith is a question we have the rest of the century to answer.
I’m going to spend a little more time with two other thinkers, whose works do have broad implications for our charge, giving us tools that we can use now. The fact that these works exist does not excuse us from continuing to study the more difficult lessons of evolutionary psychology, which I am convinced will, in this century, give us the key to rendering religion impotent, but today we have a wealth of practical information we aren’t using.
Linguist George Lakoff’s book Moral Politics first came out before this century, in 1996, but his work did not get general attention until the publication of his shorter, easier book, Don’t Think of an Elephant in 2004. Both are about American politics, but he has several observations of direct relevance to our cause. (If you want to read him, it’s better to struggle through the larger book, which is redundant and pedantic, but worth the effort.)
Lakoff’s work on the linguistic concept of framing is perhaps the most challenging to apply. A word’s frame is similar to, but more elaborate than, its connotation. In this model words exist in mental frames, which include the things we think the word implies beyond the strict definition. To most people in the United States, and I daresay many other places, the word atheist sits in a frame of arrogance, intellectuality, selfishness, immorality, and anger. Lakoff establishes that when a person gets information that conflicts with the frame, she is likely to discard the information and keep the frame, even though the information may be highly reliable.
Many people see this as an argument to avoid the word atheist. It is a legitimate argument, but my opinion, admittedly based solely on anecdotal evidence—but on lots and lots of anecdotes—is that the frame is not the result of the word atheist, but of the concept of open nonbelief, and changing the word will only put a new word in the old frame. I think we have no choice but to change the frame by being out and proud atheists while showing ourselves to be humble, generous, ethical, kind, and we can keep intellectual. Frames can change. I remember when England put Rupert
Murdoch in a frame that included the adjective “powerful.”
Two other Lakoff concepts have implications for us that are less ambiguous, although not necessarily easy to apply. One is an elaboration of the well-recognized fact that the more people hear a statement, the better they remember it and the more likely they are to believe it. The practice of endless repetition in advertising is evidence of this. Lakoff’s work demonstrated that negating the statement has essentially the same effect as repeating it. As we often see ourselves as in the business of negating, we should heed. We can, and must, develop more positive
For example, when the Pope equates Nazism with atheism, rather than deny the outrageous charge, we would do well to tell the stories of the many freethinkers that Hitler and his minions murdered or imprisoned. Indeed, this is an important chapter of history that will soon be lost, drowned out by Catholic propaganda, if the stories are not put to paper, airwaves, and cyberspace soon. We need not dignify Benedict’s lie with a denial; we simply need to tell the tales of our martyrs. Of course, in so doing, it is perfectly acceptable to mention the huge role of the Catholic Church in the persecution, so long as we don’t let this overshadow our own heroic history. This is a job European atheists, who have access to that history, must take up soon.
Another Lakoff observation that is useful, perhaps not directly in strategy but in discussion with religionists, is the two bases of human moral thinking.—compassion and obedience. All normal human beings derive their concepts of right and wrong from a mix of two principles—obedience, which Lakoff calls the Strict Father Model, and compassion, which Lakoff names the Nurturant Parent. Obviously, conservatives, including conservative religionists, are much more prone to follow the former, while liberals, including liberal religionists, tend to follow the latter. There are, of
course, conservative, authoritarian atheists, but most of us are Nurturant Parents. For those atheists who were raised in a religion, this choosing of compassion over obedience may be the reason we left the church.
When conservative religionists say that atheists cannot be moral, they are referring to the fact that we have no ultimate authority to obey. Talking to them about compassion without recognizing their concern with authority is like wailing at a wall.
My final recommendation today is the 2001 book Influence, Science and Practice by Robert Cialdini, which every freethought leader should read.
Cialdini writes extensively about the consistency principle, the fact that those who have made a commitment have great difficulty changing it. This explains a lot about religion. Churches ask for formal membership, the function of the ritual of “being saved,” often called the commitment to Christ, in order to reinforce a need to keep the faith in the face of a world which contradicts the belief. This has a strong implication for us in dealing with the believers. They must defend their commitment. Challenging them only forces them to shield their faith, however untenable their
argument may be. The true believer will almost always leave such a discussion with greater resolve that when he entered it. This is the reason that, in the U.S —and I suspect in other countries where religious identity is expected to include belief—it is the churches that are always setting up debates. Atheists love these debates because we think we win them. But the debate is not about points scored, the debate is a contest for the hearts and minds of the audience, and in that arena we win the battle and lose the war.
We can help believers reevaluate their commitment by asking questions that aren’t pointedly challenging and by listening to and accepting the answers. Most modern people are able to maintain their religious beliefs by not thinking about them. If they are going to change, they must do it for themselves.
By and large, however, our goal is not to change individual believers, but to create attractive institutions that offer the human social animal an alternative to religion, and that establish the freethinkers’ place in society firmly enough that we are not likely to have our rights trampled on. To do this, we would be wise to leverage the power of consistency and commitment.
Today we have on-line freethought groups that grow to hundreds of “members” within weeks, thousands within months. Some are connected to bloggers who are worthwhile and informative, while others are just chat groups. I am sad every time I hear an atheist boasting about them, “Oh, we just have about a thousand members, I think, and we just go on line—I post something almost every day— and we just talk about religion and how awful it is, and…”
People typically stay with this for a few months and then go on to some other cause they believe in but do not work for. Not every atheist is going to be a tireless volunteer or a generous donor, but it is our job to get them to solidify their identity and put themselves in a place where they can be counted. The bloggers can help, and many do, by advocating meaningful activism, but we have to figure out a way to get out the message that an opinion, however correct, is not in itself a virtue.
Even when people come into our organizations, we frequently do little to formalize their commitment. In a first contact, asking a person to join might be premature, but asking if they would like to sign up to stay informed brings them into a commitment they can handle.
Cialdini relates one study where researchers went door-to-door asking residents to post large, unattractive “Drive Carefully” signs in their front yards. Only 17% agreed. However, in one part of the neighborhood, a different volunteer had come by two weeks earlier, asking residents to display a little sign, less than eight centimeters wide, reading “Be a safe driver.” It was such a small request that most people had gone along. Of those who had posted the small sign, a full 76% accepted the larger, uglier sign.
With our smaller population, we couldn’t be so blatant, but regular direct requests for small commitments could well increase our level of participation.
None of these is a magic bullet. Evolutionary psychology and other modern science have made religion more explicable and therefore less intractable, and for that we can say this century has started off well.
We don’t know as much as we need to, but we know enough to make a difference, and armed with this knowledge, in the face of a world where children are exiled from their villages because they are labeled “witch,” where women are subject to stoning based on allegations of adultery, where newborn babies are left to die in trash cans because their mothers had no access to abortion, where workers in a democratic country are forced to be quiet about their beliefs for fear of their jobs, it is unconscionable of us to ignore the information we have, to go on as we have been, arguing logic and science while massive human tragedy continues.
By the end of this century, religion can be a relic, still practiced by a few eccentrics, but having no power to influence society. This will be, if we evolve, and learn to use the tools of this century.