Should Atheists Lament the Decline of Christianity?

Should Atheists Lament the Decline of Christianity? December 11, 2019

I’ve written about the decline of Christianity in the Western world and how Christian apologists are in deep denial about it. It was inevitable that, eventually, they’d switch to the next step: accepting that it’s happening but claiming we’ll be sorry when they’re gone:

But as Christianity fades further and further into our civilization’s rear-view mirror, many intelligent atheists are beginning to realize that the Enlightenment may have only achieved success because it wielded influence on a Christian culture. In a truly secular society, in which men and women live their lives beneath empty heavens and expect to be recycled rather than resurrected, there is no solid moral foundation for good and evil.

You can’t write a piece like this without the obligatory line that “even atheists now say” we need Christianity to be moral, and this article dutifully points to two: Douglas Murray, a right-wing neoconservative and xenophobe who calls himself “a Christian atheist” and Jordan Peterson (whose beliefs are vague and confusing, probably deliberately, but who’s espoused something like the noble-lie idea that the commoners need to be taught religion to keep them in line).

However, while citing the occasional “respectable infidels” is a time-worn apologist tactic, neither Murray nor Peterson have any real record of atheist advocacy, so their views haven’t exactly changed. Do they have an example of an atheist who used to attack religion and now seemingly regrets it?

Unfortunately, they do. And believe it or not, it’s Richard Dawkins:

By 2018, however, Dawkins was warning that the “benign Christian religion” might be replaced by something decidedly less benign, and that perhaps we should take a step back to discuss what might happen if the evangelical secularists are successful in destroying or banishing Christianity.

I was expecting this to be an out-of-context quote. But I looked up the tweet they’re referencing, and nope, it’s not:

The article also points to this interview (paywall; see also) in which Dawkins appears to state that some people might need the carrot-and-stick incentive of religion to behave:

Richard Dawkins said he feared that if religion were abolished it would “give people a licence to do really bad things”. He said that security camera surveillance of customers in shops did appear to deter shoplifting, adding that people might feel free to do wrong without a “divine spy camera in the sky reading their every thought”.

Assuming these quotes are accurate, this is a sad sign of a once-admirable man descending further into crankhood. Dawkins has no excuse for saying something like this, which flies in the face of everything he’s spent his activist career arguing. Not only that, these remarks contradict each other. If it were true that religion made people good, why would he be concerned about “something worse” than Christianity (Islam, presumably)?

What these examples really show is the prejudice and xenophobia common to both right-wing atheists and right-wing Christians. In spite of the philosophical chasm between them, they’re willing to make common cause to spread fear about alleged hordes of barbarians at the gates. It seems this is something they both care more about than their disagreements with each other.

The obvious rejoinder is, if the decline of Christianity is causing moral decay, what’s the evidence of that? The fading of religion is already well underway in many Western countries, so we should be seeing it by now. In what ways, specifically, is the world getting worse because Christianity is slipping away?

Most apologists take it for granted that the world is getting worse, but I don’t agree. If the evidence we have points toward any conclusion, it points to the opposite.

For example, there’s the rapid expansion of LGBTQ rights that swept over the Western world in the last decade. In a remarkably short time, we went from the idea that sexual choice can and should be mandated by the state, to the recognition that sexuality is a human right deserving of protection. Religion can’t claim credit for this moral revolution, and most established churches fought fanatically against it.

Young people are less Christian than ever, and far from losing their moral anchor, they’re more ethically aware and more righteously angry about the injustices of the world. Just witness the blazing passion of children and teenagers striking against climate change and marching against gun massacres.

Witness, as well, the upsurge of feminist and anti-racist activism centering around the banners of #MeToo and Black Lives Matter. Do you think this forebodes a future where people have lost the ability to tell right from wrong? (Of course, many churches oppose these movements, and implicitly treat departure from their morals to be the same thing as abandoning morality altogether.)

Meanwhile, as I covered in my review of the book Factfulness, the world is improving in concrete ways. Despite all the discouraging headlines, the scandals and the outrages, there’s a quiet trend of upward progress in the background. Good things like literacy, vaccination, electrification and childhood education continue to expand, while bad things like deaths from war and disaster, hunger, child mortality and child labor are dropping.

And since Islam in particular is the locus of so much hand-wringing, have you heard about the massive anti-corruption demonstrations happening right now in Lebanon and Iraq? These uprisings, described by some as a second Arab Spring, are evidence that people in the Arab and Islamic world aren’t an alien species. They’re human beings who want democracy, peace, freedom and stability just like we all do.

The apologists predicting we’re doomed without them have it exactly backwards. As I’ve said many times, religion – religion itself, not just Islam or Christianity – is an enemy of moral progress, because it’s not based on rational evaluation of what leads to human happiness, but on superstitions and dogmas that can’t be changed. Even the supposedly “benign” Christian church in Europe is still pushing harmful and destructive ideas like the subjugation of women, the oppression of gay and lesbian people, and opposition to contraception. The only reason those teachings don’t seem harmful is because almost everyone ignores them!

And in America, the connection is even more obvious. Evangelical Christians support war, torture and imperialism. They’ve gleefully embraced the white supremacist and xenophobic ideologies of their predecessors, and are threatening to drag America back to an era of racism and anti-immigrant paranoia that we should have left behind long ago.

Against this backdrop, it’s viciously absurd when apologists claim that the ideals of human rights and the Enlightenment will wither and die without Christianity (or worse, like that fellow who angrily predicted the resumption of slavery). Nearly every advance in human rights that’s ever been made was made in spite of religious condemnation and censorship – and after the victory was complete, the churches turned around and sought to take credit for the outcome they fought to prevent.

We’ll be better off without this force of moral inertia and dogmatism. The answer to both Christians’ doomsaying and atheists’ unwarranted pessimism is that yes, the decline of religion is a good thing, and I won’t miss it when it’s gone.

Image credit: Pasquale Paolo Cardo, released under CC BY 2.0 license


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