Friday, November 16, 2007

Atheism and the Destruction of Religion

I recently listened to the latest podcast of the Institute for Humanist Studies' Network News. Noteworthy were several brief interviews with the notable "New Atheists," such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris ( The broadcast focused on comments made by Sam Harris at the Atheist Alliance International annual conference in September, where he told the crowd that they should not identify with the atheist label.

The rationale was perfectly logical (and frankly not a new argument), and reflected my own thoughts about the term for many years. "Atheist" as a word carries an immensely negative connotation, and is really not a particularly valuable label. As Harris pointed out, atheism is not a world view, as is a belief in rationality. Atheism is simply a rejection of an unsubstantiated notion.

What troubled me, however, was not the comments made in response to this argument, but rather a question asked of all three figures and their answers. The interviewer asked whether atheists should pursue the reform of religion or its destruction. Now, obviously, as someone pursuing the life of a minister, the question is at best problematic. My more visceral reaction, though, is one of offense at its simple mindedness and nastiness. My reasons for such a reaction are these:

  1. Contemplating the destruction of organized religion is a waste of time, given that billions of people on this planet support the concept and many of them are willing to kill themselves and others to defend it. As a long-term evolutionary goal of human society, perhaps I would be willing to consider the idea, but it's priority would lag far behind a multitude of more pressing human needs.
  2. Simply discussing the desire to eliminate religion as a "yes/no" question ignores the many positive contributions of religion. One might just as logically argue for the elimination of all government because some politicians are corrupt, all families because of instances of abuse or divorce, and all other forms of human interaction and organization because they produce some negative as well as positive outcomes.
  3. The question assumes that atheism and organized religion are mutually exclusive (an assumption which all three of the speakers appeared to share). This assumption is unwarranted even under the current dominant paradigm of our modern view of the cosmos. There are at least hundreds of thousands of American atheists (many Unitarian Universalists, for instance) who belong to and participate regularly in churches, fellowships, societies, etc.
  4. The assumption is particularly erroneous if one is open to new quantum views of the universe, in which one acknowledges that many fields and forces exist that we do not yet understand, cannot yet quantify, and may well have wide ranging effects on our lives in biological and perhaps spiritual ways (however one chooses to define the term).

Obviously, I have no desire to take on these giants of the movement, who are far more adept at verbal repartee and public debate. I do, however, think it matters when public figures present their views in a cavalier manner that divides potential members of a movement. Atheism has faced this problem for decades, as have humanists. I find this paradox fascinating, given that two billion people are comfortable labeling themselves Christian and another 1.5 billion are comfortable with the term Muslim. Until atheists and humanists even come close to 1% of any nation's populations, how can they ever hope to become the dominant paradigm of thought?


Steve Caldwell said...

Jeff Liebmann wrote:
"Until atheists and humanists even come close to 1% of any nation's populations, how can they ever hope to become the dominant paradigm of thought?"


It's already happened. Check out the religious demographics in Europe (quoted from Wikipedia):

"According to the most recent relevant Eurostat Eurobarometer poll, in 2005, 52% of European Union citizens responded that 'they believe there is a God,' whereas 27% answered that 'they believe there is some sort of spirit or life force' and 18% that 'they do not believe there is a spirit, God, nor life force.' Results were widely varied between different countries, with 95% of Maltese respondents stating that they believe in God, on the one end, and only 16% of Estonians stating the same on the other.[10] Several studies have found Sweden to be one of the most secular countries in the world. According to Davie (1999), 85% of Swedes do not believe in God.[11] In the Eurostat survey, 23% of Swedish citizens responded that 'they believe there is a God,' whereas 53% answered that 'they believe there is some sort of spirit or life force' and 23% that 'they do not believe there is any sort of spirit, God, or life force.'"

North American demographics are following the same trend but lagging behind Europe (and the USA lagging behind Canada):

"A 2004 BBC poll showed the number of people in the US who don't believe in a god to be about 10%.[5] A 2005 Gallup poll showed that a smaller 5% of the US population believed that a god didn't exist.[15] The 2001 ARIS report found that while 29.5 million U.S. Americans (14.1%) describe themselves as "without religion", only 902,000 (0.4%) positively claim to be atheist, with another 991,000 (0.5%) professing agnosticism.[16]"

"Atheism is more prevalent in Canada than in the United States, with 19-30% of the population holding an atheistic or agnostic viewpoint.[20] The 2001 Canadian Census states that 16.2% of the population holds no religious affiliation, though exact statistics on atheism are not recorded.[21] In urban centres this figure can be substantially higher; the 2001 census[22] indicated that 42.2% of residents in Vancouver hold "no religious affiliation.'"

I would suggest that the combined US "Atheist - Agnostic - Unchurched" demographic is: (1) around 15% of the population according to the most recent ARIS survey and (2) is growing faster than the overall rate of population growth.

This "Atheist - Agnostic - Unchurched" demographic is bigger than Unitarian Universalism. Unlike Christianity in the US, it's growing and not shrinking.

Take care,

Jeff Liebmann said...

It's good to hear from a comrade youth advisor. You definitely caught me in a moment of taking some statistical license (although I might argue that atheists should be careful about making any claims on the very large proportions of people who classify themselves as "unchurched" and "nonreligious" which tend to dwarf the number of people who self identify as atheist. That said, however, my main point remains that the number of nontheists in the world is still vastly outnumbered by adherents of organized religion. Therefore, any serious consideration of the question posed to the speakers on the desirability of the destruction of religion seems, to me, to be moot.

But, thanks for keeping me honest! I'm usually the one who quotes statistics.


Tyler Liebmann said...

Regardless of statistics; the point is still very valid. In order to put any true emphasis behind a movement there need to be at least two components working together: a moderately unified demographic working for the same ideas, and a realistic attempt to achieve those goals. Calling for the destruction of organized religion is a lofty goal to say the least. I also feel that most atheists aren't calling for that. However, that isn't necessarily what concerns me the most about this interview. It should not be the goal of atheists to destroy the foundations of organized religion. Rather, we must focus on fueling the fire of tolerance and acceptance. Atheists for too long have been the focus of discrimination and bias. To strive for the destruction of any religion seems largely insurmountable and will only create more of a divide between the "believers" and "nonbelievers." Focus on intelligent, passive growth and change, not an outright destruction of someone else's ideas and beliefs. We have been the assaulted for so long, why would it help now to become that intolerance we have fought for so long. I wish I could talk longer but, I have class. Great post though.