What is the Future of Atheism?

Paul Spinrad, a guestblogger at Boing Boing, writes about the future of atheism. To begin with, he thinks the militancy of some atheists backfires and is counter-productive to their own goals.

With religion, I think atheists have the same dissonance going on. If they really think the world would be better off without religion, they shouldn’t hate religion and call believers fools. Any successful new belief system must appreciate the beauty of what it’s replacing and strive for backwards-compatibility…

I’m with him through this point. We won’t achieve success (in convincing others that there’s no reason to believe in a God) unless we can offer them alternatives to what they want from religion. If they want explanations, we must give them logical, honest answers (including “I don’t know”). If they want community, we must be prepared to provide it. If they want ritual, we must have options available to them.

Then, Spinrad loses me…

So I put it to declared atheists — the ones who fly the flag about it, not the ones who are quiet or closeted: Do you think that most of humanity is A) hopeless and doomed to kill each other because of their stupid religious beliefs, or B) capable of coming to and benefiting from your views?

False dichotomy, no? You can believe both those things or neither of them. I think religious faith puts us all in danger because we’ve seen how far some people will go to please their God. I also don’t think most of humanity is capable of living without a God in their lives. Not yet.

I think closeted atheists who participate in other religious activities are the future of atheism. They know that prayer feels good without a needing brain scientist to tell them, and they know you don’t need God to want to feed the hungry, heal the sick, and provide homes for the orphaned. What if they simply stopped reciting the words that they didn’t agree with during religious services, without calling attention to it? In many places I don’t think they would be kicked out or turned upon and beaten just for that.

They may not be kicked out, but for many atheists, the goal isn’t to simply feel good or get along with everyone. The goal is to instill rational thinking in other people, showing them how ridiculous it is to rely on superstition to guide their lives. That can’t happen if you silently idly by while others engage in their religious rituals. In fact, the notion that many atheists would do that makes me mad.

The gay rights supporters did not get to where they are today because they kept quiet.

I don’t buy the argument that the future of atheism lies with the closeted ones. The future of atheism lies with the vocal atheists who aren’t afraid to say so. They vote, they protest, and they stand in unity when they hear of discrimination against other non-believers. They don’t have to be mean about it; they just have to be willing to say they don’t believe in God without fear of retribution. There will always be a fringe group that will ridicule and despise religion. I don’t see that group being in the majority — even within atheist ranks — anytime soon.

I am optimistic that in a decade or so, it’ll be normal for everyone to know an atheist personally. It won’t be rare to hear of someone coming out. That doesn’t mean we’ll get elected as easily, or that we’ll be seen as trust-worthy, but it’ll be a start.

(via Boing Boing)

  • lynn

    Atheists have been closeted for most of history. How’s that been working out? Seems to me, not so great.

  • http://zeroanaphora.wordpress.com/ Abbie

    I love Boing Boing, but I’ve been wary of this kook since his first guest post. His other posts are similar drivel. Glad to see he’s got a shitstorm of comments for this one.

  • http://minerscanary.blogspot.com Zarathustra

    Hmmm… our future depends on our being consistent with regard to our objectives. As much as we criticize the Christian right, what are we doing to stop the abuses of Scientology? What are we doing to save people from wasting money on new age pyramid schemes? If anyone in our movement needs to be consistent, it’s the skeptics. For example, a naturalistic conspiracy theory deserves the same interrogative investigation as a supernatural claim. Broaden our focus and stop all this internal bickering about “militants.” The term doesn’t fit anyone I know short of career mercenaries. The thing we have to remember is that anything like the “New Atheists” can and often does become a sort of uncritical idol worship. As long as we are consistent and do not delude ourselves or think ourselves immune from delusion, we can all be reasonably sure that millions will fly this flag for years to come.

  • http://martykay.blogspot.com marty

    I commented on that post, pretty quick update over here, Hemant :D

    And that post comes a few days after Greta posted the “Shut up that’s why” post.

    And atheists.org post a web survey asking if “Blasphemy is a crime”, stating the yes case to mean it isn’t okay to say things if they might offend!

    Strange day.

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com/ miller

    It looks like Paul Spinrad is not even familiar with the back-and-forth discussion about different approaches to atheist activism. I may not agree completely with the approaches of Dawkins, PZ Myers, et al but at least I’ve bothered to listen to their arguments. Paul Spinrad cannot even compete.

    One is to influence the majority to agree, to make changes that you believe in, and the other is to distinguish your opinions as superior to most other peoples’.

    False dichotomy.

    the elitist motivation is self-defeating

    Please demonstrate this. Show, don’t tell.

    [The elitist's] aim is better served when more people vote the other way, and then you can be disgusted with most peoples’ stupidity and wash your hands of responsibility.

    Right, so new atheists are secretly happy that religion is successful. Support this claim.

    Do you think that most of humanity is A) hopeless and doomed to kill each other because of their stupid religious beliefs, or B) capable of coming to and benefiting from your views?

    False dichotomy again. Also, few atheists claim that A) is true, so he’s arguing against a straw man.

    I think closeted atheists who participate in other religious activities are the future of atheism.

    Then I guess the future of atheism has been here for a while!

    [Closeted atheists] know that prayer feels good without a needing brain scientist to tell them, and they know you don’t need God to want to feed the hungry, heal the sick, and provide homes for the orphaned.

    A sneaky false dichotomy. An atheist can do all this without being closeted.

    An atheism that’s well-designed for broad appeal wouldn’t need miracles. What miracles do for a belief system is ensure greater investment on the part of the adherent.

    I don’t know what he’s talking about here, and I’m not convinced he does either.

  • Miko

    If they want ritual, we must have options available to them.

    And if they want (literal) human sacrifices? There are some values that we can’t accommodate. Not too many, luckily, but we should be prepared to face the fact that part of the challenge is convincing people that they shouldn’t want some of the things they want, or at least that they can’t have them. A direct connection to a wish-granting genie via prayer being one of those things.

    I don’t buy the argument that the future of atheism lies with the closeted ones.

    It does, though. Sure, we need the vocal leaders too, but eventually the great mass of people will be religious apathetics. The future of any philosophy lies in winning over the large majority that don’t really care enough to think deeply about the issue. As much as I hate the idea of sound bites, they’re precisely what we need: five or six word capsules that the average person can use as a way of quickly indicating their view and further indicating that they don’t really care to consider it more deeply.

    On the other hand, if your goal is promoting rationality (which, honestly, is an even better goal), the struggle is going to be much longer, much harder fought, and almost certainly eventually unsuccessful. None of which are reasons not to try.

  • GullWatcher

    This is starting to remind me of the abortion debate, with the same solution: if you don’t want to have an abortion, don’t have one. If you don’t want to be a militant atheist, don’t be one. But by all that is or isn’t holy, STOP telling me how to live my life and what is and isn’t appropriate for me to do.

    If someone has an goal in view, he (or she) can work toward it however he sees fit, or he can spend his time trying to police how everyone else works toward that goal. Guess which one of those people actually helps gets the goal accomplished?

    (Hint: it’s not the concern troll.)

  • Siamang

    It’s a really strange post. Halfway down that enormous thread, Spinrad pops in to say that his plan involves atheists entering churches and attending in a group every week, then forcing a conflict within the church to make them kick you out…. or something. He’s not exactly clear. But he thinks that this should be a movement.

    Then, 100 comments later he retracts that with two sentences.

    Yeah. Well thought-out.

    I don’t know what he actually was asserting, or what he still asserts. It’s pretty bubble-headed, and not to Boing-Boing’s usual standard.

    Here’s one of my responses from that thread:

    I find this to be one of the most confusing posts I’ve ever encountered here on Boing-Boing.

    ” If they really think the world would be better off without religion, they shouldn’t hate religion and call believers fools.”

    Ummm… I don’t know that the world WOULD be better off without religion. Why do you think I would think such a thing? Wouldn’t it depend on how that change occurred (enlightenment, vs an anti-inquisition, etc)? It might be better, it might be worse. Who knows?

    I do think the world WOULD be better off with more tolerance for dissenting views on religion, AND a higher dedication to rationality. Do you disagree? I think that religion far too often is an enemy of rationality, open inquiry and tolerance for dissenting views. Do you disagree?

    “Any successful new belief system must appreciate the beauty of what it’s replacing and strive for backwards-compatibility.”

    1. Sez who?
    2. Who says atheism is replacing theism?
    3. Define beauty. What’s beautiful about hell? Or original sin? Or indoctrinating children to proselytize on the schoolyard and bully the little neighbor Jew “for his own good”, to save him from Hell?
    4. Who says atheism needs to be successful?
    5. What is the definition of “successful” when we’re talking belief systems? Is it popularity?

    I don’t want to be popular. I just want to live an authentic existence, and I’ll stand up for that when pushed, just as I’d stand up for Christians and Jews and any other believers against Government oppression. My firmness with the establishment clause is in support of minority religious beliefs. I don’t want prayer in school because of my daughter, but also because of her jewish classmates. I stand up for their liberty to believe what they believe and also live authentic existences without government interference.

    “Do you think that most of humanity is A) hopeless and doomed to kill each other because of their stupid religious beliefs, or B) capable of coming to and benefiting from your views?”

    My that’s a shiny false dichotomy you’ve got there.

    I haven’t the foggiest idea what “most of humanity” will do or can do. I’d like them to kill less and think more. Got any solutions for that, because what’s been going on ain’t working so well so far.

    What am I supposed to do? I’m supposed to go to church now, to be a good little atheist?

    What if I don’t like church?

    You say prayer feels good… but not to me. I don’t enjoy it. Should I pray anyway? Would that make me a good atheist, or the future of atheism? Should I try to make a modern atheism that looks like a religion so that we strive for “backwards compatibility”?

    I don’t WANT to start a religion, even an atheist one, whatever that means. I don’t want to start a movement, or a revolution or an enlightenment. I just want to live an authentic life. You want to start an atheism for the 21st century, Be My Guest. But don’t look behind you for followers.

    I really don’t understand the post. Is it that atheists should go to church and pray? I don’t get it. What’s the point of posting this?

    Really? If I go to church and pray, that will make more people want to become atheists? What if I don’t care about people becoming atheists?

    Is it to win some kind of PR victory? What’s the point of that? Why should I live an inauthentic life to win some political victory?

    Isn’t that exactly what you’re railing against in the first few paragraphs of your post?

    Anyway. It’s a strange post for Boing-Boing: “Christian Says Atheists Should Attend Church and Pray, So That They Can Win Grand Political Movement For Atheism.”

    Very strange. I mean, it’s typical ass-backwards religious writing… it never makes much sense and it’s full of “I can tell you what to do and think, but don’t you DARE tell me” self-superior condescention.

    Dude, I should buy you a beer.

    It’s actually a pretty good model of what I don’t enjoy about modern western religious writing. It’s self-contradictory, smug, superior, concern-trolling good fun. And yet so shallow!

    It’s also not very well-written. Poor boing-boing. You know, there’s much better cutting-edge religious thinking going on in the blogoplex. Seek it out.

  • http://thishumanist.wordpress.com Clare

    I am almost offended by his stupid suggestion. What happened in the UK is people stopped going to churches and they stopped valuing the opinions of some self-appointed moral leader above those of any other individual. Yes, I’m not going to boycott the funeral of a family member because it’s religious but when/if my turn comes I will have a humanist wedding, a humanist naming ceremony and a humanist funeral. My life, my choice.

  • http://artificialhabitat.wordpress.com artificialhabitat

    I searched the article for a point.

    I failed to find one.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    When everybody was religious, people argued on how to run society. If everybody becomes atheistic, people will argue on how to run society. The arguing won’t every go away. Just perhaps the supernatural justifications. I don’t see a single atheistic replacement for religious frameworks. I see multiple possible secular frameworks (and I wouldn’t have it any other way).

  • the Shaggy

    The future of atheism lies with “Don’t Believe in God? You Are Not Alone.” It doesn’t lie with “There’s Probably No God, So Stop Worrying And Enjoy Your Life.”

    Subtle difference.

  • http://economicsforaroundearth.com charles pierce

    I was interested to find this blog and the discussion. 20 years ago I had a book published on different economic concepts to point the way to a sustainable world economy. Someone who liked the book contacted me to suggest that I update and re-publish it as a blog. She set up the blog, and the book is now complete on the blog in a series of posts. There are now also additional pieces on global warming and other subjects, and a piece on the origin and the anti-life nature of religion, and how we need to move away from it if we want to live sustainably on this planet. Here is the link:

    http://www.economicsforaroundearth.com

    With all good wishes,

    Charles Pierce

  • http://zackfordblogs.wordpress.com ZackFord

    I think one of the main challenges is helping people conceptualize an atheist worldview. Paul lost me right away by referring to atheism as a “belief system.”

    I don’t know about the rest of you, but I define my worldview by NOT believing. I do not define any truths in my life with faith. I literally do not believe. So, I take offense at the notion we’re another belief system… by conforming to such a language we are just maintaining privilege. Faith-based belief does not HAVE to be a part of the human experience, and I think that’s the point we really need to help others understand.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    With religion, I think atheists have the same dissonance going on. If they really think the world would be better off without religion, they shouldn’t hate religion and call believers fools. Any successful new belief system must appreciate the beauty of what it’s replacing and strive for backwards-compatibility…

    With vaccination, I think proponents of modern medicine have the same dissonance going on. If they really think the world would be better off without the healing power of magic hexes, they shouldn’t hate the hexes and call the people who believe in hexes fools. Any successful new belief system must appreciate the beauty of what it’s replacing and strive for backwards-compatibility…

    Nope, it doesn’t work. Need for backwards-compatibility not established.

  • llewelly

    … he thinks the militancy of some atheists backfires and is counter-productive to their own goals …

    What word I wonder, would these people use if some group of folks started marching, and using non-violent protests to shut down businesses that were discriminating against them, as opposed to just publishing books and writing on blogs?

    Until Dawkins starts handing out AK-47s to fellow atheists, people who use ‘militancy’ and similar words to describe ‘some atheists’ are thoroughgoing strawman-fetishizing idiots.

  • Stephen P

    The gay rights supporters did not get to where they are today because they kept quiet.

    And the religious right didn’t get where they are by being quiet either. It seems to me that it’s their turn to shut up.

    Any successful new belief system must appreciate the beauty of what it’s replacing …

    And the beauty of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson et al is what exactly …?

  • http://www.examiner.com/x-4275-DC-Secularism-Examiner Paul

    Hemant, a heads up: I covered you and Spinard on this subject in my column at Examiner. I forcefully agree with almost all your points on this, and only quibble with your pronoun use in one instance: Along the lines of what Miko wrote, I’m not sure it’s our responsibility to replace the spiritual institutions in the case we make for reason and atheist equality. It’s awfully nice of us to supply it, but I wonder if it’s even something we as advocates for rationality would effectively deliver.

    Anyway, check out my column (everyone!), I’d love it if you had a response.

  • Pingback: Flamboyant gays and ‘militant’ atheists « Irresistible (Dis)Grace

  • postsimian

    I couldn’t disagree with the guys post more.

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  • http://jewmanist.com/ Rose

    The future of atheists – in my book – should be closer to being friendly and understanding, but also open and honest.

    Staying closeted (for the sake of it) is dishonest. That surely is not something to aim for globally.

  • teammarty

    Sit down. Shut up. Pray when we tell you to. Pretend to profess. Then we night accept you as one of us.

    Same old same old.

  • http://www.jodiemiller.net jodiemiller

    I realise you have a bible belt and creationist teaching in schools to contend with in the US, but surely the future of atheism is as simple as lead by example? Atheists can be gentle, loving, responsible and political without having to take the hard line. Go Rose!

  • Trevor

    God is just another way for people to think they will live on after they die. There is no evidence that a god has ever existed. Christians were breeded from the catholics who they hate? Interesting. The reason christanity got so big was because people would tell people that if they do not belive in god they will go to hell. It was a scam! The only reason it lives on is because people are scared. Come on people. Lets listen to the facts.

  • http://www.facebook.com/MarkusVampyre Markus Negative

    I consider myself a quite Atheist, and don’t push my point of view unless something motivates me to speak, like for instance, someone saying “show me proof that God does not exist”, which to me is like saying “prove to me that the being I believe in, that CANNOT be seen, but I trust in the BIBLE and FAITH that says it’s real, that it’s NOT real.” My experiences have shown me that humans try to find any excuse to why they believe, and see things and automatically claim it as religious signs to back their beliefs, without understanding why atheist do NOT believe. Atheist DO NOT stand against a ‘God’, because we don’t believe in ANY Gods, and I see (through human history) the very ancient relics that represented other religious myths, myths that were consider real Gods, their followers KNOWING that they were real, but are now considered (by even Christians) as myths. ODIN is NOT real, ZEUS is NOT real, RA is NOT real, and nether is the Christian ‘God’. I share this point of view NOT to have people say “okay, you convinced me”, but for anyone to take this and do your own research, and come to your OWN conclusions. If there is ANY atheist out there that call a Christian “stupid”, then all you do is give Christians a reason to think that we are actually lost, mislead sinners. You make their beliefs real to them, and they are willing to marauder themselves to prove that what they believe in is right. In time, maybe in the next three to four centuries from now (sorry, I hate this too), humans will come to the conclusion- ON THEIR OWN- that there is absolutely NO GODS of any kind…just us humans…still waiting for flying cars and robots (the ones to work for us, while we get the ‘robot’s pay’) to be built…anytime now guys….


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