The Amorphous Enemy

In a previous post, “The Soft Landing“, I wrote about the future and about one potential scenario that I find disturbing: that militant, fundamentalist churches will grow at the expense of moderate and liberal ones, leaving behind a world split between atheism and angry, intolerant religion. In this post, I’ll again look to the future, this time to outline another possibility that I find worrisome in a different way.

In this scenario, both moderate and fundamentalist religion will decline together. But instead of secular humanism and rationalism growing in their place, a different belief system will fill the gap: not any kind of formal or organized religion, but a vague, amorphous, anything-goes kind of credulity. We already see devotees of such a belief system in the modern New Age and pagan movements, in the alternative-medicine and anti-vaccination camps, in the fans of TV psychics, alien abductees, ghost-believers, channelers, and preachers of the “law of attraction”. The members of all these groups may not have any specific beliefs in common, but what unites them is the conviction that personal intuition is a reliable guide to truth, as well as a willingness to form their own beliefs by picking and choosing whatever sounds good to them.

A world such as this, instead of violence, would be more likely to suffer stagnation. Scientific discoveries would not be opposed by a rigid ideology, but diluted and drowned out by a society that cheerfully embraces every superstitious fad that sweeps by. For skeptics and rationalists, facing down such an amorphous enemy would be like cutting the heads off a hydra: for every one defeated, two more sprout in its place. And as more of society’s resources are diverted from genuinely valuable and productive endeavors to serve the cause of credulity, the pace of progress slows, knowledge fades, and people value science and critical thinking less and less. Ultimately, we could squander the legacy of the Enlightenment and end up in a new dark age like the one we so recently struggled up out of.

What can we do to avert this outcome? The most important principle, I feel, is that we need to keep in mind that our mission should be broader than just attacking whichever supernatural beliefs are causing the most harm. Even if we were successful at that, human beings can dream up an unlimited number of new beliefs to replace whichever ones we vanquish. To win the battle against superstition, we need to work towards a broader goal: a renewed allegiance to reason and the principles of critical thinking in society. We need not just to point out the bad ideas, but to give people the tools to tell the difference between good and bad ideas for themselves.

What this means for us is that, to promote a brighter future of reason, and not just more diversity of superstition, atheists should be guardians of good education. We should see it as our role to ensure that public schools are universal, secular, well-supplied, and staffed by qualified teachers with a curriculum based in science and reason. As well, we must support the effort to make higher education accessible and affordable to everyone. Doing anything else – abandoning the poor to underfunded and inadequate schools, trusting that the market will solve the problem, calling for the privatization of education – is to invite every kind of superstition to take root and grow in the fertile soil of uneducated minds. Surveys consistently show that more highly educated adults are more likely to be skeptics and atheists; the converse is true as well. In the long run, investing in an educated public is an effort that will pay genuine dividends to all of us.

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