Although it’s much too early to look forward to a world without religion, one thing we can be confident of is that the numbers and influence of atheists will continue to grow in the near future. Census figures over the last few decades have consistently shown the rise of the nonbelievers in the educated and industrialized nations of the First World – even in America, despite its high religiosity as compared to its cultural neighbors. We can expect this trend to continue, to the point where it’s reasonable to predict that within twenty to fifty years, atheists will be a significant political lobby in their own right.
This is a hopeful vision, but there’s a potential dark side to it that concerns me. My concern stems from this thought: At whose expense will the rise of atheism occur?
It’s not likely to be from sheer population growth, considering that atheists most often come from the educated and relatively prosperous sectors of society that are correlated with smaller families. Nor do we subscribe to ideologies like Roman Catholicism or its Protestant equivalent, Quiverfull, that encourage us to raise as many children as possible. Instead, the growth of atheism will probably be through rhetoric and persuasion, winning believers over by the power of our ideas and convincing them to deconvert.
The question, then, is who will be deconverting. What types of believers will we have the most success at persuading? Who is most likely to pay heed to our arguments?
Ideally, what we want is a soft landing. We want the extravagantly supernatural faiths, those whose members believe in a world drenched with miracles and demon possessions and faith healings, to transition to a gentler, less extreme form of belief. Those more moderate churches, in turn, will fade to a more rationalist outlook that holds miracle stories to be only symbolic, similar to many Unitarian Universalists, Buddhists or secular Jews. Finally, these cultural institutions will become outright atheist. This is the blueprint for a peaceful and smooth transition to a more rational world.
But I fear it may not happen this way. What I worry about is that, instead, the moderate, mainstream religions will be the first to go. After all, their members inhabit a world similar to ours, with few outright miracles and little explicit supernaturalism. Our arguments will make the most sense to them. If that happens, what will be left behind is a world polarized between atheism and religious fundamentalism; those theists who remain will be the members of the most extremist, hardcore faiths, the ones that are separated from us by such a wide gulf in worldviews that we scarcely even agree on any basic principles with which to start talking. A world like that would likely see more outbreaks of violence, theocracy and destructive fundamentalism.
How can we avoid this outcome? Withdrawing from the field is not an option, for that would just give the extremist believers free rein to grow their own ranks. (For reasons I’ve set out elsewhere, I doubt that moderate religionists have the ability to effectively counter their fundamentalist brethren.) This could lead to an even worse outcome. We do need atheists to lobby and to speak out – but if we can’t sap the power of militant and power-hungry religion, we’re going to have a much tougher field to fight on.
For this reason, I think that atheists should team up with moderate believers – whenever and wherever they’re willing to work with us – to oppose destructive fundamentalism. We each bring our own strengths to the fight: we have the passion and uncompromising rationalism that effectively strikes at the heart of fundamentalism; they supply a welcoming but still theistic alternative, for people who need that, and the credibility to counter apologetic assertions that atheists are anarchist radicals who only want to destroy.