The fatal flaw of atheism? Actually, it’s a challenge atheism shares with religion. The difference between the two is that religion has found a solution.
So let’s talk about religion:
The weedy form of religion, superstition, arises automatically in each mind all on its own, simply by virtue of our need to create private theories – often wildly personified due to our ability to detect “person-ness” in everything from smiley faces to wind in the trees – about how the world around us works. But the fully-developed form of religion, that complex mess represented by, for instance, the Catholic Church …
(Hey, is superstition the weedy form of religion, or is religion the domesticated form of superstition? Hmm.)
… has to be nurtured and cultivated. It has to be formalized. It has to be spread, and fertilized, and defended.
By some sort of social body.
Just as atheism is, religion is a living meme – its own sort of creature – within society. All surviving religions are fiercely endowed with their own survival strategy – to shape and reshape the society in which they live in ways that guarantee the dissemination and perpetuation of that religion.
It’s simple selection pressure: For a religion to survive, it must latch onto the society in which it exists. It must convince at least some of those within that society that it is vital to them, that they cannot survive without it. It must find an interest group within that society to which it gives power. It must grow organs to defend itself, organs to spread itself. It must come to possess its own stories, its own persuasive arguments, its own defensive lies and myths.
And, much as I hate to say it, it seems it must convey a roster of apparent benefits. Rather than being a pure parasite, which is how I generally think of it, religion appears to offer certain general advantages to individuals within the host culture – as useful, in terms of survival, as enhanced confidence and social support, or as useless but still personally satisfying as a smug sense of superiority – and probably also to the host culture itself. (This is not to say it doesn’t also do immense damage, both to the individual and the host society. But if craziness helps you get ahead of others in the zero-sum game of a limited environment, you’re still – at least for the moment – ahead.)
The need on both sides is asymmetric. Society has no true need for religion (this is obvious, unfortunately, only to someone who has already given it up), but religion can’t exist without a society. This simple fact gives rise to what, to me, appears to be the most basic drive of any healthy religion: To give maximum assurance of its survival, religion must attempt to take over the society in which it exists. Completely.
This is why it’s almost impossible to get religion out of government – why the battle to keep creationism out of the classroom, or the Ten Commandments out of the courthouse, or prayer out of public meetings, is never-ending. (It’s also why Christianity continues to be dangerous and why Islam, rapidly growing, is especially hazardous.) Religion itself seems to need spreading.
To foster the takeover, cue a huge package of commanding social rules – to believe and obey and attend and give – the whole of it honeyed by promises of sweet reward, nailed down in each mind by terrifying threats of horrendous eternal torment – plus periodic public campaigns of burnings, hangings, stonings and torture to illustrate the point – spread by missionaries and crusades, backed up by intrigue and murder and protected by secrecy, the lot of it financed by coffers the depth of which, even today(!), nobody outside the inner circle is allowed to know.
Atheism has died out, time after time, because – like any meme – it can’t make it on its own. Unlike religion, atheism has a tough time perpetuating itself in the society in which it exists. Being by its basic nature little more than the rejection of religion, and that only in individual minds who come to privately see the value of mental freedom, atheism possesses no propagative myths and stories, no societal organs of defense or growth. Atheism has no … self.
Atheism is not a thing, it is a personal, individual reaction.
We’ve wanted it to be more. PZ Myers has spoken of “positive atheism,” as have I, a something-more we’ve sensed atheism could or should be. Atheists have talked about how morals can be derived independent of religion, implying they can spring from atheism. (And in the last few days, the exciting development of Atheism-plus! More on that later.)
But in the end, such attempts to redefine or expand atheism are defeated by members of our own community, those whom Myers has referred to as “dictionary atheists.” These are the ones who will perpetually insist “Atheism is lack of belief in God. Period.”
Whereas any new religion is like a seed, waiting for the proper social soil and cultural cultivation to grow into something big, atheism is more like a message in a bottle – a little body of understanding which can exist in individual minds, but which has a damned rough time growing in a society.
The atheist movement contains within it its own defeat in one more way: Even staunch atheists, if they really think about it, will tell you their fondest dream is for there someday to be no need for atheism … because the thing it opposes – religion – will cease to have its crushing hold on us.
We’ve had a good run, we atheists, but I’m starting to suspect that atheism as a ‘growing social phenomenon’ is already, in some ways, waning. Amped up and accelerated by the connectivity of the Web, rather than the 50-plus years of that 19th-Century surge, we may have a mere fraction of that.
Despite the heady feeling of progress, of change and belonging this community has granted me, I worry that New Atheism might become just one more footnote in western social history.
The recent injection of feminism into the atheist field is an example of a factor related to its demise.
During Elevatorgate, when Richard Dawkins insisted we atheists had bigger fish to fry, Dawkins himself – one of the pillars of modern atheism – was branded an enemy by a significant fraction of the atheist community. Even PZ Myers raked him over the coals for it, and today it’s not uncommon for bloggers and commenters both to literally sneer at Dawkins for his supposedly hateful response to the subject.
Regardless of the personalities involved, the incident fractured the atheist community. Though both sides remain atheists, staunch opponents of religion, there now exists a gender-issue-related wedge within atheism, a gulf of sometimes-white-hot anger that includes heroes and villains, hitlerian rhetoric, and literal boycotts of atheist events.
The thing about it is, in their concerns and interests, the feminists are right.
But the other thing about it is, atheism is too limited to contain feminism.
What’s needed is something else. Something bigger and broader. Something that, without knowing it, atheists, feminists, the Occupy movement, and so many of the rest of us have all been working toward.
There are some good signs that this something-new is coming into being.
[ Continued ]