Is Atheism Unnatural?

“This persistence is what any scientific attack on religion must explain — and this one doesn’t. Dawkins mentions lots of modern atheist scientists who have tried to explain the puzzle: Robert Hinde, Scott Atran, Pascal Boyer, DS Wilson, Daniel Dennett, all of them worth reading. But he cannot accept the obvious conclusion to draw from their works, which is that thoroughgoing atheism is unnatural and will never be popular.”

—Andrew Brown, “Dawkins the dogmatist” (emphasis added)

In a recent review of The God Delusion, Andrew Brown posed the question cited above. The snide and condescending tone is unnecessary (and puzzling, considering Brown states in the review that he agrees with most of Dawkins’ conclusions). But it does raise a valid question for any atheist to answer, which is this: Why are there so few of us? If our arguments against religion are so potent and our superstition-free worldview so appealing, why are people not rushing to join us in droves? Even if the widely quoted 15% figure is correct (and bear in mind that many of those people probably consider themselves deists or “spiritual”, not atheists), that still leaves 85% of American society for the ranks of the religiously orthodox, a very large majority indeed. Is this numeric disadvantage something we can ever hope to overcome? Or are people, in some sense, designed to be religious?

Many religious apologists answer that question in the affirmative, asserting that God created human beings with an inherent desire to worship and believe in him. But even a non-religious person could plausibly answer yes: even if there is no god, our evolutionary history has undoubtedly given humans a propensity to believe in supernatural beings (as explored by Daniel Dennett in Breaking the Spell), and perhaps this innate tendency is too strong, too deeply bred into us, to be overcome by mere education and reason. Or perhaps human beings are not intrinsically religious, but the religious memes woven into our society have grown so strong and so well-entrenched that no competing idea could ever realistically hope to dislodge them. Or perhaps the comforting ideas promised by religion, such as a life after death and godly help to miraculously solve life’s difficulties, are too appealing for the comparatively comfortless claims of atheism to lure people away. In all of these cases, atheism might persist but would forever remain a fringe idea, unable to capture the assent of more than a small minority.

However, I think such gloomy predictions are overblown. Atheists are a minority now, there can be no doubt of that, but it is premature in the extreme to declare that we will always be so. I do not deny the mere possibility. It may be the case, when all is said and done, that atheism will never appeal to the majority. But so far we do not possess anywhere near the amount of knowledge that would enable anyone to make such a claim with any confidence.

After all, one might argue that atheism has only just gotten started. I do not mean that atheism is a new idea; on the contrary, in every culture that has a written history, we find that there have been atheists for at least as long as there have been believers. Rather, the innovation is atheism’s ability to compete freely with religion in the marketplace of ideas. That is something new, and something that did not exist in human society until very recently indeed.

It was only a historical instant ago that blasphemy was outlawed and atheists were barred from holding public office. Until recently in human history, merely speaking out as an atheist was a crime that could get a person harshly punished or even executed, and that is still the case in many countries around the world. Even the separation of church and state itself is a relative newcomer to the playing field, and it is easy for people who have grown up with it to overlook how remarkable it is. For the vast majority of people throughout the vast majority of human history, the accepted and unquestioned default was that the church and the state were fused into one and that the religious beliefs of a leader determined the religious beliefs of his people. In such a hostile atmosphere, it was all but impossible for atheist ideas to take root. They did spring up many times, occurring repeatedly to independent minds – a few sparks here, a brief bright flicker there – but the brutal oppression and persecution waged by society prevented them from joining together to kindle a lasting light.

Though enlightened societies have annulled these unjust laws, their shadow still lingers, continuing de facto what is no longer permitted de jure. To a large extent even today, a person who publicly identifies as an atheist faces an inevitable torrent of hatred, ridicule and malice, often including exclusion and ostracism by family and former friends and even harassment and violence. This stealth campaign of discrimination, I have no doubt, discourages a significant number of people from becoming atheists, or at least discourages many people who do become atheists from speaking out about it and instead frightens them into remaining silent, in the closet, and uncounted.

But in spite of this, the tide is turning. More and more people are identifying as atheists – helped, no doubt, by the Internet, which as I have said before is a wonderful invention for helping people of like mind find each other – and are uniting to speak out. As a result, nonbelievers have already made substantial social progress, largely beneath the radar of religious society, and there is much more to come.

In light of these facts, I have a rejoinder to people who claim that atheism will always be unpopular: just wait and see. Religion has had literally thousands of years to acquire its monopoly on the minds of humanity, while organized atheism has been around for less than a few hundred. Considering the vast head start that theism has had, I would say that even our current numbers are fairly impressive, but I believe there is more to come. We nonbelievers are just getting started – wait around a few hundred years more, and who knows how much more we may have accomplished by then?

After all, in the last few hundred years, humanity has undergone several other major revolutions of opinion. Racism was a very popular position until recently, but in just a few decades, there seems to have been a massive societal paradigm shift. While racist sentiments have by no means been obliterated, they have lost the vast majority of their power and are nowhere near as widely held or as widely accepted as they once were. Similarly, until almost as recently, the idea that only members of the male gender were qualified to vote or hold office was the conventional wisdom, widely believed and unquestioned. An apologist for sexism alive in the late 1800s or early 1900s might have claimed that people were designed to believe that men were the superior sex, and that this belief would always persist. But this belief, too, as widespread as it was, has now been overthrown and cast down, and ideas of female equality, once a shockingly radical position, have blossomed throughout the world.

Social revolutions like this show the paradoxical nature of the human mind: although human beings can be fiercely irrational and dogmatic, we are also capable as a species of changing old opinions with amazing suddenness and thoroughness when the social forces impelling such a change grow sufficiently strong. In our time, ideas that were once near-universally held and seemed graven in stone have crumbled in the space of a single lifetime. Evidence such as this should give the brash apologists and the gloomy nonbelievers who proclaim theism’s eternal superiority reason to pause before making their judgment. The verdict of history may yet surprise them.


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