Mixing Memory

Religion and Social Critique

While I think it’s obvious to anyone with eyes (a category that seems to grow smaller by the day) that within the anti-religious bigotry today there is an underlying feeling of superiority, an unliberal belittling of the little guy, a feeling that “Joe Schmoe” is stupid and to some extent worth less than the intellectually righteous secularist, there is another element to rabid atheist criticisms of religion that I find both disturbing and puzzling. As many of the comments to my recent post and Pharyngula’s post on the same topic illustrate, these criticisms of religion are largely based on its perceived social and political effects. That is, the critique of religion by these atheists (let’s call them Churchillians) is a social critique.

What I find disturbing and puzzling about it is its naïveté. As I believe fellow ScienceBlogger and Chaimberlainian atheist Razib has pointed out before (I don’t have a link right now, but if he gives me one, I’ll add it later), religion is such an effective user of our cognitive and social composition that it falls naturally out of them. So naturally, in fact, that there is no reason to believe that religion is going away, much less that it is possible, through accusation and invective, to facilitate religion’s demise. In other words, as social critiques go, the Churchillians’ is about as ineffective as you’ll find. Would it not be better to recognize that the content of specific religions has, historically, varied according to the spirit of the times, and therefore the most effective avenue for social critique is to focus on changing that spirit, thereby necessarily effecting change in the content of religion? If you want to make the religious less intolerant, and less hostile towards members of outgroups, wouldn’t it be better to work towards a society that is itself less intolerant and hostile towards members of outgrups? In other words, it seems to me that the problem with the Churchillian critique is that it mistakes a symptom for the cause; it fails to recognize that religions are, as they have always beens (and as any social institutions are and will alway be), tools of power and domination, and that the object of critique should be the powerful and the dominant.

I think, for example, of the ways in which religion and society changed together in 18th century Europe, or the differences between the focus and attitudes of the religious in many European countries as opposed to the United States today. Religions that have survived for millennia have done so because they are incredibly adaptive, and it is the responsibility of anyone with a progressive world-view, recognizing that religion will not go away, to force religion to change by changing its environment and thereby forcing it to adapt. Calling religious people stupid, and treating religion as inherently evil, simply won’t accomplish that.

Comments

  1. #1 coturnix
    March 1, 2007

    Heh? Even Dawkins does not advocate eliminating religion but replacing it with something that fulfils the people’s need to believe BUT is also a socially positive force.

  2. #2 Chris
    March 1, 2007

    Bora, but in doing so, Dawkins misses the point. What makes religion so adaptive is not a “need to believe,” but the basic content of religion, which includes supernatural agents and solidarity-promoting rituals. I can’t recall Dawkins ever suggesting that we need minimally-counterintuitive supernatural agents to replace existing religions.

    Once again, Dawkins shows his ignorance of the actual science of religion, in the very process of touting science over religion. Ugh.

  3. #3 Decline and Fall
    March 1, 2007

    Dawkins’ approach is a perfect example of the pitfalls of that “underlying feeling of superiority” you mentioned above. You’re absolutely right: religion (and other irrational beliefs) will not go away, because on some level people seem to have a need to believe in, and belong to, something bigger than themselves.

    Marx’s point still holds: religion is the opiate of the masses, and the masses need an opiate. Marx’s substitution, the State, is unsuited to the task.

  4. #4 Matt Norwood
    March 1, 2007

    “Joe Schmoe”? “The little guy”? In the United States, almost every position of wealth, power and privilege is occupied by a religious conservative.

    I’ll admit that Dawkins and many of his adherents harbor some elitist attitudes, but criticism of religious magical thinking is not a critique of the underclass; it is a critique of the rulers of a worldwide empire.

    I’ve been disturbed by the implications on this blog that religious fundamentalists are some kind of underdog minority. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

    As for your main point, about religion being so pernicious because it’s deeply rooted in cognitive processes: the same could be said for the human tendency to be racist, or the human tendency to be bad at thinking probabilistically. But if religious thinking, just like racism or Bayesian ineptitude, creates social costs, then we should be focused on eliminating it. Your argument refuses to engage with the core of the issue.

    You seem to be saying that religion’s deep-rootedness makes it difficult to eradicate, and that it might therefore be more _effective_ to work within, rather than against, it. You may be right. But I’m skeptical of your motives given your past posts, just as I would be skeptical about comparable critiques of anti-racism coming from someone who had espoused racist beliefs in the past. It’s true that racial tolerance and multiculturalism may have practical limits and that we might be better served by incorporating people’s tendencies to stereotype into our social solutions; however, I’d be more receptive to this argument coming from a social liberal than, say, someone who adorned his website with Confederate flags.

  5. #5 razib
    March 1, 2007

    because on some level people seem to have a need to believe in, and belong to, something bigger than themselves.

    …i would offer we need to move away from single-factor models. the reason for why religion ‘naturally’ emerges is multi-factorial and contextual. the implication here is clear: if religion is the sum of multiple upstream parameters, you need to dampen those parameters. not just replace a ‘need to believe’ with facts.

    my own thoughts are pretty well regurgitated this post. this paper is an academic treatment of the naturalness of religion. many on the secular Left can acknowledge that those who use manichaean language in the context of the “War on Terror” are counterproductive in their lack of subtly and short-sighted in their simplistic models. proper comprehension is a necessary precondition to victory at a given task, unless you wish to put your hands in the will of the gods. so we need to move beyond out gestalt intuitions about religion, especially if we ourselves are constitutionally areligious, because they are likely to lead us astray.

  6. #6 Chris
    March 1, 2007

    First, I don’t think I’ve ever defended fundamentalism. If you look back at my past posts on religion, you’ll see that my objections to religion are ethical, and fundamentalism embodies the worst of religion on that dimension.

    However, the fact that people in power are religious is largely irrelevant (or, at least, is relevant only for the reasons I mention in this post). However, most religious people have little or no social or political power, and when Dawkins et al. criticize the religious, they rarely aim their critiques at those in power (think of Dawkins saying of a flight attendant that she has a stupid face). Saying that religious people are stupid, irrational, etc., is a direct assault on the little guy.

    As for the embededness of racism, that’s an empirical point that is certainly up for debate. In-group/out-group dynamics definitely play off ordinary social and cognitive mechanisms, and racism may be a direct offshoot of that, but as with religion, the way around the violence towards out-groups is not by trying to work against, or fundamentally alter human psychology. Instead, the way around it is to work within its framework, and attempt social changes that are possible and productive. That’s largely how the civil rights movement has worked — by arguing, over and over again, that minorities are people too, and deserving of the same rights and liberties that the majority enjoys. It didn’t get there by trying to get people to not notice race, or by trying to do away with the concept of race altogether (I know people do that now and then, these days, but the futility of such an approach is evident in its results).

    I wonder what it is about my previous posts that makes you skeptical, though. I’d be interested in seeing you spell that out more.

  7. #7 Jason
    March 1, 2007

    There is abundant empirical evidence that religion is in the process of “going away” throughout the developed world. The decline has been particularly rapid in Europe, but it’s happening in the U.S. also. There is also evidence that this decline is accelerating. See, for example, God is Dead: Secularization in the West by Steve Bruce for an overview. This fact suggests that there is something very seriously wrong with the hypothesis that religion serves important or necessary social or cognitive purposes that render it immune to attacks from science and reason. I don’t expect religion to disappear entirely, but if the trends of the last century continue (and there is no indication that they will not), it will have declined to the point at which it is largely irrelevant to human affairs, at least in the developed world, long before the turn of the next century.

  8. #8 Chris
    March 1, 2007

    No one is suggesting, by the way, that religion is immune from critique. I would argue that there are better avenues for such a critique, but I would never claim that it is ammune.

    I would, however, argue that such critiques should actually be aware of the relevant science, as this post suggests (and as Dawkins, for example, is not).

  9. #9 razib
    March 1, 2007

    There is abundant empirical evidence that religion is in the process of “going away” throughout the developed world.

    in europe there is the decline of organized religion, yes, but far less a decline theism. the though organized religion as decreased, more of those who have dropped out have become ‘spiritual’ or ‘theists without affiliation’ than atheists. new age or pagan sentiments are not (to my mind) as dangerous to unbelievers as abrahamic fundamentalism, but they aren’t areligious either.

  10. #10 Jason
    March 1, 2007

    Religion is declining not just in Europe, but throughout the developed world, including the U.S. And the decline is not just of “organized” religion, but of religion period, including theism in any of its religious forms. The rise of non-traditional religions and of New Age beliefs hasn’t been remotely as large as the decline in traditional religions (meaning, almost entirely, Christianity). Where formerly religious people abandon religion but retain a philosophical belief in some kind of supernatural “spirit” or “life force,” that belief is likely to have much less influence on their behavior than their prior religious beliefs did, because it lacks the doctrinal baggage of rules and rituals that is characteristic of religion. Bruce goes into this in some detail in his book.

  11. #11 razib
    March 1, 2007

    because it lacks the doctrinal baggage of rules and rituals that is characteristic of religion

    1) rules and rituals are characteristic of some religions, and to varying extents. e.g., ‘orthodox’ judaism is more orthopraxic than protestant christianity (which is more orthodoxic, about belief).

    2) The rise of non-traditional religions and of New Age beliefs hasn’t been remotely as large as the decline in traditional religions

    well, as the graph shows, i think this is false. but it depends on how you frame it, the link i posted above shows the graph. the rise of non-theism is slower than the rise of non-christian theism, so the implication is that the decline of christianity is leading to a proportional increase in non-christian theism. also, though the category of no religon has increased in the USA over the last generations, the majority of these are still theists.

    (i’m providing links here so you can dispute the numbers, instead of just asserting contradictory opinions)

  12. #12 razib
    March 1, 2007

    also, the word decline is a rather vacuous term. from atheists to go from 1% to 5% of a population is an enormous increase, but that doesn’t change the fact than 95% would be atheists. sam harris asserts that sweden is a majority atheist society, but the reality is that surveys suggest that a majority of swedes believe in a god or spirit. he’s playing shell games by conflating the minority status of christian belief (as opposed to affiliation) with atheism.

  13. #13 razib
    March 1, 2007

    95% would be atheists.

    …theists obviously.

  14. #14 Decline and Fall
    March 1, 2007

    Religion is declining not just in Europe, but throughout the developed world…

    True enough, but Christianity and Islam in particular are on the rise in the rest of the world, where populations are also, not coincidentally IMHO, on the rise. I don’t want to draw too broad an implication from this, but could it be that industrialization is indeed, as many in the 19th-Century argued, the natural enemy of religion? I don’t want to delve too deeply into Post Hoc thinking, but supposing there is a causal relationship between economic prosperity, health, education and the other benefits of living in the first world and declining religiosity, doesn’t that imply that the best way to reduce the pernicious influence of religion is to materially improve quality of life?

  15. #15 Decline and Fall
    March 1, 2007

    Let me amend my above comment to encompass only the more structured forms of religion.

    (I started my comment, was called away from my desk for a while, and hit submit, not knowing the discussion had proceeded.)

  16. #16 Chris
    March 1, 2007

    Decline, exactly! If you want people to rely less on doctrines that are inconsistent with the progressive ideals that came with the social and political changes that were both the causes and effects of changes in the nature of the economy (it’s a dynamic relationship, of course), you have to change the environment within which those doctrines operate. Religion is a part of a larger body of social processes, and a religion that is fundamentally at odds with the rest of the social processes at work cannot survive. So either the religion changes, or the people leave it. Either way, you’ve done away with its destructive tendencies.

  17. #17 Jason
    March 1, 2007

    1) rules and rituals are characteristic of some religions, and to varying extents. e.g., ‘orthodox’ judaism is more orthopraxic than protestant christianity (which is more orthodoxic, about belief).

    Rules and rituals are characteristic of religion, period. That includes the world’s three largest religions, Christianity, Islam and Hinduism, which together comprise the vast majority of religious adherents.

    well, as the graph shows, i think this is false. but it depends on how you frame it, the link i posted above shows the graph.

    As far as I can tell, the graph in your link above contains no time-series data at all, and no data on traditional religion vs. non-traditional religion vs. New Age beliefs, so I don’t know why you think it contradicts the statement of mine you quoted.

    Your new link is to the key findings of the American Religious Identification Survey, which found:

    the greatest increase in absolute as well as in percentage terms has been among those adults who do not subscribe to any religious identification; their number has more than doubled from 14.3 million in 1990 to 29.4 million in 2001; their proportion has grown from just eight percent of the total in 1990 to over fourteen percent in 2001

    This is a staggering rate of decline of religious identification.

    Also, you seem to be equating religion with theism, or possibly just belief in “some sort of spirit or life force.” That’s not what religion is. But in fact there is evidence too that theism itself is in decline. For example, a study released by Pew Research in January found that 20% of 18-25 year olds report having no religion or being atheist or agnostic. This is almost double the 11% figure found in 1988. (The figure also increased for those over 25, although more modestly from 8% to 11%). In the book I referenced earlier, Steve Bruce reports that atheism is rising throughout the developed world.

  18. #18 Jason
    March 1, 2007

    also, the word decline is a rather vacuous term.

    I don’t think so, but in case it isn’t clear, by “decline” here, I mean a reduction in the power, popularity and prestige of religion. Basically, a loss of influence on people’s lives, on politics and social institutions, on ethics, and so on. This reduction is attested to by numerous indicators, from rates of attendance at religious services to rates of observance of religious doctrines.

  19. #19 Colugo
    March 1, 2007

    In contrast to Mel Konner, Ed Brayton, and Scott Atran, some are announcing a war that we atheists cannot win. (I’ve cited these quotes before.)

    PZ Myers: “(T)he only way we can strip evolution from the science curriculum is by destroying science in this country altogether. If that’s the promise of these creationists, let’s hope we have the courage to destroy faith even more quickly.”

    Larry Moran: “Science and religion are at war and only one of them is going to emerge victorious.”

    Sam Harris: ‘Science Must Destroy Religion': “The conflict between religion and science is inherent and (very nearly) zero-sum.”

    Geoffrey Miller, University of New Mexico: “A great ideological war is raging between the Godless–people like me, who trust life–and the Gutless–the talking heads of the extreme, religious right, who fear death…”

  20. #20 T
    March 1, 2007

    Religions that have survived for millennia have done so because they are incredibly adaptive, and it is the responsibility of anyone with a progressive world-view, recognizing that religion will not go away, to force religion to change by changing its environment and thereby forcing it to adapt. Calling religious people stupid, and treating religion as inherently evil, simply won’t accomplish that. I received this from a friend of my wife’s showing how to adapt christianity

  21. #21 daenku32
    March 1, 2007

    If I could give my left nut to totally eliminate the “believe or be sent to hell” dogma from all religions, from all believers, I would do it in a heartbeat. And in fact, since I’m not planning on having any more kids, I would also give my right nut to totally eliminate dogma that causes people to raise against science and rationality.

    As long as both of these two are happening in grand scale in religion, I don’t see why I should back down and ignore the problem. But, I’m not going to fight the fight by quoting the Bible. If someone quotes a religious text of which concept I disagree with, I will tell them to toss the text. I’m not going to start playing games over interpretation.

  22. #22 razib
    March 1, 2007

    Rules and rituals are characteristic of religion, period.

    vox dei indeed! preach more oh pious one!

    For example, a study released by Pew Research in January found that 20% of 18-25 year olds report having no religion or being atheist or agnostic.

    your use of the “or” means you just add the “no religion” folks. you’re mixing and matching definitions opportunistically in a shell game, social science research has showed for decades that the majority of those with “no religion” are not atheists or agnostics.

    but i speak in vain, your kingdom comes at the end of days when all will bend no knee to any god!

    Basically, a loss of influence on people’s lives, on politics and social institutions, on ethics, and so on

    i won’t dispute this, but your seem to assume that this loss of the power of organized religion is going to be monotonic. i doubt it, institutional religion comes and goes in its power (look at china)….

  23. #23 Jason
    March 1, 2007

    your use of the “or” means you just add the “no religion” folks. you’re mixing and matching definitions opportunistically in a shell game, social science research has showed for decades that the majority of those with “no religion” are not atheists or agnostics.

    It’s not “my” use, it’s the study’s use. But your objection is irrelevant anyway. The increase in the “no religion/atheist” category represents a decline in religion whether it’s through more atheists or more people with no religion. Either way, it’s a decline in religion. The finding is consistent with ARIS and with the other large national surveys of religiosity in the United States. They all show a major decline in religiosity, a decline that has been underway for at least half a century and that has accelerated in recent decades. There is no reason to believe that this decline will not continue. This evidence clearly contradicts Chris’s claim that “there is no reason to believe that religion is going away.” On the contrary, there is abundant evidence that religion is going away. And it’s going away even faster in Europe.

  24. #24 razib
    March 1, 2007

    There is no reason to believe that this decline will not continue.

    except all of human history???

  25. #25 Jason
    March 1, 2007

    No, not except that. Do you have an actual argument to offer?

  26. #26 Decline and Fall
    March 1, 2007

    No, not except that. Do you have an actual argument to offer?

    Might I suggest that the argument, all of human history attests to the staying power of religion, is itself a pretty convincing argument that fighting for the end of religion (or for that matter, all irrational thought) is tilting at the largest of windmills? Religion may be in decline in the developed world, but I see no reason to believe that it will ever go away. The religions with staying power have, indeed, maintained that power because of their ability to change. Even Islam is doing this, in its own lumbering way.

    One should never let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Reforming religion may not be the ideal state, but it’s a battle that reason can win.

  27. #27 Chris
    March 1, 2007

    Decline, can I just say that, at this moment, I seriously dig you? And not just because you’re agreeing with me. OK, well just because you’re agreeing with me, but still…

  28. #28 Decline and Fall
    March 1, 2007

    The feeling is mutual, and for the same reason. I posted some love for you on my blog. Because I care.

  29. #29 Jason
    March 1, 2007

    Decline,

    History also attests to the staying power of slavery and the subjugation of women, which are universal or near-universal features of historical human cultures. Yet in the developed world, at least, we have completely eliminated the first and are well on the way to getting rid of the second. Modern science itself only became possible because we managed to suppress the urge to explain the unknown in terms of supernatural agency (gods, spirits, etc.) and replace it with explanations based on “blind” natural processes inferred from observation. The essentialist argument for the permanence of religion that you’re making isn’t terribly persuasive in light of the enormous and unprecedented changes that have already occurred in western societies over the past couple of centuries.

    Furthermore, razib implied not merely that “all of human history” suggests that religion cannot be eliminated entirely, but that it suggests the current decline of religion will not continue. One wonders exactly when he thinks this all-of-human-history effect will kick in and stop the decline. This year? A decade from now? Longer? How did the decline start in the first place, if all-of-human-history suggests that further decline will not happen? This isn’t any kind of serious argument at all.

    In fact, an obvious illustration of its absurdity is the simple fact that there already are highly successful societies that are much less religious than the United States. Sweden, for example. Unless you believe that there is some kind of genetic or other innate difference between Americans and Swedes that precludes Americans from becoming as irreligious as Swedes, there’s no basis for concluding that religion cannot continue to decline in America to Sweden’s low level, or even lower than that, perhaps to the point at which it is entirely irrelevant to American society.

  30. #30 Decline and Fall
    March 1, 2007

    Jason,

    Slavery and the subjection of women are indeed examples of things that have gone away. But these are relatively minor in comparison to the fundamental change in the way people think that the end of all religious belief implies. Over the time that religious belief has declined, humans have shown no correspondent tendency to stop wondering about the unknown. A certain percentage of people will always be happier finding an answer than perpetually saking questions, and religion provides a very handy set of answers. Science provides many, but not all of these answers, for instance: what happened before the big bang? Reason tells us that the perpetual questioning of the unknowable is solipsistic, but that will, I submit, never stop people from asking those questions, or finding solace in simple answers. Whether they’re in Sweden or Saudi Arabia.

    To answer one of your charges: I do think Americans can become as irreligious as Swedes. But I would hesitate to put too much stock in the staying power of the Swedes’ irreligiosity. It’s a VERY recent phenomenon, and history tells us that there is an ebb and flow to the popularity of ideas.

  31. #31 CA
    March 1, 2007

    A couple of cautions:
    1. All generalizations are false. Well, at least ones about religion are at risk. Lumping all religions, and all variations on those religions, puts one at risk for overgeneralization. Generally speaking, that is.
    2. Look at history and you will see cyclical rise and fall in the importance of religion. Don’t generalize from the myopic view of only recent history.
    3. People of power and wealth are a minority of any group except their own), because they are a small minority of the total. They are a minority of the religious – most religious have no more power or wealth than you or me.
    4. If one country is more “successful” than the US, it proves that all countries with similar characterisitics are more “successful.” Another generalization that shows the risk.
    5. 5 is more than a couple, I guess. (generally)

  32. #32 Jason
    March 1, 2007

    Decline,

    First, I am not predicting “the end of all religious belief,” although I do not consider that outcome impossible either. I suspect there will always be some degree of religiosity in human societies, if only a very small one.

    My basic point is this: There is abundant evidence that religion is declining in the U.S. and other developed nations, and that this decline has been in progress for some time (many decades, at least). There is no evidence that this decline will stop in the forseeable future. There is no evidence of any “threshold of minimum religiosity” that a society cannot go below. In short, we don’t know what the endpoint of the decline will be, but given the fact that there are already many highly successful societies that exhibit very low levels of religiosity (Sweden is just one example), there is reason to think that religion will continue to decline to the point of irrelevance.

    And yes, in historical terms, it’s a recent phenomenon. But so is the abolition of slavery. So is the emancipation of women. So is the elimination of racial or ethnic apartheid. So are all sorts of sexual rights and freedoms. Modern wealthy democratic societies are already radically different from all historical cultures. So if this is a reason to doubt the staying power of a decline or end to religion, it’s a reason to doubt the staying power of all those other changes too. I don’t think it’s a reason.

  33. #33 JimV
    March 1, 2007

    I’m assuming (correct me if I’m wrong) that we agree that the major religions practiced in the U.S. are irrational in their specific tenents? (That is, there is no compelling evidence or logic supporting those tenents.)

    Group A says that if the practicioners are presented with evidence and logical arguments through education and public debate, eventually reason will prevail and religions will decline.

    Group B says that no evidence or arguments will ever convince most people to give up irrational religious beliefs.

    Group B then accuses group A of having a lack of respect for the intellect of religious practicioners.

    I sense a contradiction somewhere.

  34. #34 Chris
    March 1, 2007

    Jim, that’s not quite what I’m doing. My view, which I’ve expressed before, is that there’s reason to the specific tenets of religion (at least some of them; certain theological views are irrational, even to most theologians), the acceptance of which depends, largely, on the acceptance of certain premises, just as there is reason to scientism and naturalism, the acceptance of which depends on certain premises. The grounds for choosing one over the other isn’t a logical one, then, but an ethical one. For me, it is, which best serves the affirmation of life? The answer is, of course, that religion doesn’t, and that science can, if it is complimented with a value system that uses its value-neutral knowledge to accomplish that.

  35. #35 Decline and Fall
    March 2, 2007

    Jason,

    I wish I could share your optimism, but if there’s one thing that history has shown, it’s that current trends never hold. Right now, Sweden’s largest population growth is from self-identified Muslims. If you think that won’t change the fundamental character of Swedish society, you are truly, wilfully blind to the effects of population change. One typical reaction to a threat to normal ways of life is a return to older, more established forms of cultural unity; namely, that old time religion. My prediction is that Sweden will become more, not less, religious in the next few decades as a result of the changes occurring in their society.

    As for the staying power of the decline in racial/ethnic apartheid, do I really need to give you a laundry list of recent offenders? The Balkans certainly come to mind, as does the decade-long Russian assault on Chechnya. Iraq was, in fact, remarkably (for the region) open to women’s suffrage as recently as five years ago, but today we see religious death squads roaming the country. The Kurds were particularly open to western liberalism until they seized the opportunity to kill as many Arabs as they could get their hands on. Islam and Christianity are both on the rise in the Philippines, and Christianity is, in fact, the fastest-growing group in East Asia. El Salvador currently prosecutes women who have had back-alley abortions for murder. Why you are so confident this trend won’t bleed over into Europe and America is beyond me. In America (especially here in Arizona), outright hostility toward Hispanics is on the rise, which I suspect will make people more, not less, likely to resort to familiar traditions.

    Which is all to say that it is both historically obtuse and morally indefensible to urge atheism when it should be clear that modernizing and humanizing religion is both a more realizable goal and a goal that will, in the short term at least, do the most to alleviate human suffering. We atheists aren’t very good at suffering fools gladly (which was the pont of Chris’s original post). Being dogmatic about that, or setting our sights too high, only adds to the misery inflicted upon people by the more stringent forms of religion.

  36. #36 Magnus W
    March 2, 2007

    Interesting

    Hi, Im a Swedish atheist and a member of the Christian democrats (actually a part of the board in my city and region).

    First of all I think you give Dawkins to much critic we need people like him and Harris to inspire new young talents to go out there and speak of the harms of extremes in religion. Then others could use other techniques that (and I agree) is more effective.

    I see you mention Sweden in the discussion and I would say that we are quite non religious. However there still are about 38 % that say that they are a religious person and about 39 % that believes that a lucky charm some how could effect their lives. But still when the religious leaders for Catholics and evangelicals (?) newly had an article in the biggest Swedish newspaper criticising a new law that makes it possible for people in EU to make abortion in Sweden up till week 18 they got hard critic from lots of angles including my party the Christian democrats.

    Just to comment on the other religions they are pretty harmless and not nearly as strong as de big once. It is quite easy to reach out when you say that spiritual healing isnt working.

    Its not an easy question but I guess there is no one way to address it.

  37. #37 Jason
    March 2, 2007

    Decline,

    Immigration is irrelevant to my point. It doesn’t increase or decrease the total level of religiosity in the world, it just shuffles people around between different countries. Obviously, it’s possible in principle for the overall level of religiosity in a particular country to increase as a result of the arrival of religious immigrants even if the native-born population is secularizing. But I very strongly doubt this will happen in Sweden, or any other western nation as a result of the immigration of Muslims. The rate of immigration is far too low to offset the decline of Christianity, and second-generation immigrants (that is, the children of immigrants) are more likely to adopt the secular values of the western country into which they are born and raised than the religious values of their parents and ancestral country. The idea that secular, post-Christian Europe will be transformed into religious, Muslim Europe through the mass immigration of Muslims is a popular notion in certain conservative circles, but it’s simply not supported by evidence.

    You also seem to have misunderstood my point about racial/ethnic apartheid. I’m not suggesting that it has been eliminated in the world as a whole, or that it’s likely to be eliminated in the near future. I’m saying that it has been eliminated in the U.S. and other western nations and is unlikely to reappear. Just as the decline of religion in the west is unlikely to stop, at least in the foreseeable future.

  38. #38 dNeb
    March 2, 2007

    Chris and ‘Decline and Fall’,

    I find you to be two of the very few people here at Scienceblogs that convey open-mindedness and a well-balanced perspective regarding (the interrelationship of) science, religion and culture.

    You guys are a breath of fresh air amidst such stifling pretentiousness and elitism shown by others.

    The road to a more peaceful and tolerant society does not lie in the hands of religious fundamentalists nor militant atheists (because, ultimately, they share the same degree of self-righteousness and sense of superiority — that, “Hey, I’ve got life figured out! Follow my way or else.” attitude) but in individuals that fall somewhere in between, individuals who can be atheists yet see religion or deism from a fair and balanced standpoint, and others who can be religious/spiritual and be completely compatible with science.

    Keep doing what your doing!

  39. #39 Jason
    March 2, 2007

    Decline,

    Which is all to say that it is both historically obtuse and morally indefensible to urge atheism when it should be clear that modernizing and humanizing religion is both a more realizable goal and a goal that will, in the short term at least, do the most to alleviate human suffering.

    First of all, like razib, you seem to be equating religion with theism and the absence of religion with atheism. That’s a false equivalence. They’re not the same thing. Criticizing religion is not the same thing as promoting atheism, and the idea that the only alternatives are religion and atheism is false.

    Having said that, I would like to see your evidence that it’s “clear” that “modernizing and humanizing religion” is either more realizable or will do more to reduce human suffering than either simply attacking religion or promoting atheism. Do you have any serious empirical support for this claim, or is it just another faith-based belief?

    The fact is, the “modern,” “humanized” versions of Christianity that you seem to approve of, as represented by denominations and groups like the mainline Protestant denominations and the liberal wing of the Southern Baptist Convention, are declining even faster than the traditionalist versions. To the extent that there is any vitality and growth left in Christianity, it exists among the conservative and evangelical varieties of the religion, not the liberalized ones.

  40. #40 daenku32
    March 2, 2007

    My wife is certainly a ‘left-leaning’ Christian (and a Methodist), and I’m proud of how she handled a peddler of Chick Tracts. I, while being there and listening to the conversation, stayed silent because the peddler had obvious mental problems already (I won’t mention how I ‘knew’ this due to disclosing too much about myself) and I figured it was the (nice) Chaimberlainian thing to do.

    I still kick myself for being silent and not ripping the guy a new one (and I DON’T mean that literally, as in causing physical harm, merely as an allegory since it’s a popular saying). Now I feel like going to the church on the back of the Chick Track and laying it down (again I’m using allegory).

  41. #41 Decline and Fall
    March 2, 2007

    dNeb: Thank you.

    Jason,

    Immigration may be irrelevant to your point, but you seem to have missed how it is relevant to mine. I don’t believe that Sweden will ever be an Islamic country, nor do I believe that Muslim immigrants are out to “destroy” the West, as the right wingers you refer to have argued. I am simply arguing that the pressure exerted by Muslim immigrants on Western countries to accommodate them (for instance, the recent demand that a centuries-old statue of a boar be removed from an English village) will cause a closing of ranks and a retreat to familiar beliefs. I am reminded of a comment made by a Lebanese translator I knew in Iraq whose response to the militant Muslim extremists he encountered there was to declare that he would henceforth be more vigilant in his Christianity. Threats, perceived or real, have a tendency to cause relatively extreme responses.

    This, incidentally, is how I account for the rise in fundamentalism around the world. The threat of secularism strengthens the conviction of Christians and Muslims alike because it gives them something to fear. For historical evidence, see the Thirty Year’s War, or any piece of propaganda by fundamentalists of any given faith. They ALWAYS decry the pernicious influence of godlessness (or the godliness of the wrong god) as their call to action. Why this somehow can’t happen in Sweden is unclear to me.

    My ‘evidence that it’s “clear” that “modernizing and humanizing religion” is either more realizable or will do more to reduce human suffering than either simply attacking religion or promoting atheism’ is the end of the practice of selling indulgences in Catholicism after the Reformation. I could also cite the Catholic Church’s embrace of the geocentric solar system, the abolitionist movement, the end of child labor, non-violent resistance, the Civil Rights Movement, and modern Islam’s repudiation of slavery, genital mutilation, and the killing of women who have been raped. These are just the ones that occur to me off the top of my head. All of these things that have reduced human suffering were embraced by large, liberal factions of one or another mainstream religion, and they all fall outside the acceptable bounds of religious discourse today, except within small, extreme pockets of zealots. Yet despite the successes of these liberal factions, fundamentalism has experienced a resurgence.

    Of course the only alternatives aren’t religion and atheism. But that is exactly how the Dawkinses and Harrises frame the debate, which was the original point of Chris’s post. I submit that even if it is possible that religious belief be eventually eliminated, we would do more to improve the condition of people by pushing the major religions to view morality through a human lens, rather than a supernatural lens. (I understand that the Catholic Church is currently examining its prohibition agaiinst contraception, which, if they overturn it, will save millions of lives in Africa alone.)

  42. #42 Jason
    March 2, 2007

    Decline,

    I am simply arguing that the pressure exerted by Muslim immigrants on Western countries to accommodate them (for instance, the recent demand that a centuries-old statue of a boar be removed from an English village) will cause a closing of ranks and a retreat to familiar beliefs.

    I assume “a retreat to familiar beliefs” means an increase in religiosity. A rather serious problem with your hypothesis is that there’s no evidence to support it. Muslim immigrants have been arriving in Europe for decades, but the decline of religion has continued throughout that time. In fact, it has accelerated. See, for example, this report about the crash of religiosity in Britain in the ’90s. You seem to be massively overestimating the impact of Islamic immigrants on European culture and values. I’m not saying that immigration isn’t creating serious challenges and problems for European nations. It is. But a return to religion isn’t one of them.

  43. #43 Jason
    March 2, 2007

    Decline,

    My ‘evidence that it’s “clear” that “modernizing and humanizing religion” is either more realizable or will do more to reduce human suffering than either simply attacking religion or promoting atheism’ is the end of the practice of selling indulgences in Catholicism after the Reformation. I could also cite the Catholic Church’s embrace of the geocentric solar system, the abolitionist movement, the end of child labor, non-violent resistance, the Civil Rights Movement, and modern Islam’s repudiation of slavery, genital mutilation, and the killing of women who have been raped. These are just the ones that occur to me off the top of my head.

    I don’t understand why you think any of things you list above are evidence that reforming religion is better or more effective than attacking it or promoting alternatives, rather than merely being evidence that reformed religion is less harmful than orthodox religion. I agree with the latter assertion and disagree with the former one.

    I’ve already mentioned that modernized, humanized religion is declining the fastest. This includes all the large mainline Protestant denominations (Methodists, Anglicans, Presbyterians, UCC, etc.). It’s not hard to see why this is. A religion that embraces the values of pluralism, tolerance and diversity is inherently self-destructive. If you don’t really think it’s important for other people to follow your own religion rather than a different religion, or no religion at all, you’re not likely to put a lot of effort into recruiting new members to replace the ones you lose from death and abandonment. You’re not likely to put a lot of effort into trying to ensure that your own children grow up to follow your own religion rather than something else. And the results of this indifference are clear in the declining and aging memberships of the mainline Protestant sects. They have almost no missionary activity, no aggressive evangelizing, no cable TV channels, no homeschooling, no “Jesus Camps” for their kids, none of that. Those things are all associated with conservative churches that realize they have to keep aggressively proselytizing to even have a chance of maintaining their numbers.

  44. #44 Magnus W
    March 3, 2007

    Dont forget that Sweden is a small country it is really hard to build up something like FOX-news. And it is pretty easy to reach out through mainstream media…

    Just to give one interesting fact (I think) it would be impossible even for the leader of the Christian Democrats to involve religion some how in the politics, it would be disastrous.

  45. #45 Decline and Fall
    March 4, 2007

    Jason,

    I take your point about the basic self-destructiveness of modernized, humanized religion. What I fail to understand is how you think that the very recent trend toward atheism in Western Europe is permanent, rather than a temporary blip in the rising and falling of religious belief in the long history of mankind’s religious belief. You are suggesting that the rising irreligiosity of the last, what, 30-50 years? is permanent. Please explain how the single most enduring ideology in human history is supposed to become irrelevant when no examination of human history provides a shred of evidence that this is possible.

    In the 20’s and 30’s many people strongly believed that Communism was inevitable. They certainly had ample reason to believe this, given the speed with which belief in communism spread during that period. But of course it wasn’t inevitable, and never was. As quickly as belief in Communism spread, it dissipated, for reasons that adherents could not have predicted when the fever pitch was highest. Incidentally, Communism was also a total belief system, which even required atheism of its adherents.

    As for my assertion that reforming religion is more effective, the improved standards of life of every slave who was freed, every woman who was allowed to vote, every woman whose mother was forcibly circumcized but who didn’t have to undergo that torture herself, etc., etc. attest to its efffectiveness. Every reform I cited was the result of modernized religion, and none would have occurred when they occurred had religion not been a primary driving force. I owuld argue that many if not all would still be common practice if the conservatives of the day could have painted the reformers as “godless heathens.”

    You are letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. I don’t know why people believe in the supernatural, but they do. They believe in aliens, faith healers, mind readers, grand conspiracies, ghosts, and hosts of other irrational things. Even supposing, despite millennia of evidence, that organized religion can be made to disappear, something, perhaps one of the above, will take its place. I see nothing in human history besides a trend that has occurred in a few countries within the lifespan of baby boomers that suggests otherwise.

  46. #46 Jason
    March 4, 2007

    Decline,

    I take your point about the basic self-destructiveness of modernized, humanized religion. What I fail to understand is how you think that the very recent trend toward atheism in Western Europe is permanent, rather than a temporary blip in the rising and falling of religious belief in the long history of mankind’s religious belief.

    First of all, as I have already said, the trend exists not just in western Europe but in the developed world as a whole, including the U.S. The trend is faster in some countries than others, but it’s not just a European phenomenon.

    I see no evidence of a “rising and falling of religious belief” in human history. Individual religions certainly have risen and fallen, but the trend of declining religiosity and increasing secularization that I am describing is unprecedented in recorded history. It’s never happened before.

    And the reason the decline in religiosity is not likely to stop, let alone reverse, is because the things that seem to be causing it are not likely to stop or reverse. Those causes include, as you youself suggested, industrialization. And the social and intellectual changes that accompany industrialization: the loss of traditional lifestyles, urbanization, mass education, rising living standards, a marketplace of ideas, and an increased importance of science and technology in people’s lives. All of these things are associated with a decline in religion. I would agree that if we experience some huge catastrophe like a full-scale nuclear war or a massive asteroid impact that destroys our advanced civilization and returns us to the social and technological conditions of, say, the middle ages, then the return of religion would be likely. But barring that kind of event, no end to the decline is in sight.

  47. #47 Jason
    March 4, 2007

    Decline,

    I don’t know why people believe in the supernatural, but they do. They believe in aliens, faith healers, mind readers, grand conspiracies, ghosts, and hosts of other irrational things. Even supposing, despite millennia of evidence, that organized religion can be made to disappear, something, perhaps one of the above, will take its place. I see nothing in human history besides a trend that has occurred in a few countries within the lifespan of baby boomers that suggests otherwise.

    We’ve been over this. Do you also believe that “millenia of evidence” suggest that slavery and racial discrimination and the subjugation of women cannot be made to disappear? Do you also believe that the decline or elimination of those aspects of human culture are mere temporary blips, and that they will soon return? All three of them seem to be as pervasive as religion in historical human cultures. Entire economies depended on slavery, and the subjugation of women was built into every aspect of society from the nuclear family to the highest levels of political power. And yet you’re not predicting a return of slavery or the loss of female emancipation. I think you need to have a little more faith(!) in the power of education and liberty and prosperity to free people from the intellectual and moral bondage that has allowed slavery and sexism and religion to survive for so long.

  48. #48 Decline and Fall
    March 4, 2007

    Jason,

    One would think by your logic that the growth of theism and, indeed, atheism in the 18th and 19th centuries (particularly in the US, France, England and Germany) would have resulted in a continued trend toward atheism. This did not happen. The trend reversed. I am not as sure as you are that this trend is different.

    The trends you cite, industrialization, urbanization, etc., may be caused by the decline in religiosity, may cause the decline in religiosity, or may have little relation to it. I’d be careful about assigning causation to events that occur together.

    As for the catastrophic event scenario, I have said earlier that I believe it would take far less to cause people en masse to abandon rationality: a frontal attack on the homeland ought to do it. Consider the jump in the occurrences of the phrase “God Bless America” after September 11, 2001. Our advanced civilzation was not destroyed after 9/11, but the number of people praying went up.

    This was my point about Muslim immigration to Europe: all it requires is a perceived threat from “people who aren’t like us” to cause people to seek solace in something familiar that makeds sense of the world around them. This has been an unprecedented period of peace in Europe. Might the growth of atheism be the absence of major conflicts in Europe since WWII? History tells us that this period of peace will not last.

    But my larger point, which you did not address, is that the world is more likely to be a better place if religion can be accommodated to humanistic versions of morality. This has worked in the past, and requires no speculation about some utopian future society that follows science and eschews the supernatural. The large-scale betterment of the world is possible, and has proven to be so, but not by drawing lines iun the sand and treating believers like they are idiots.

  49. #49 Jason
    March 5, 2007

    Decline,

    The trends you cite, industrialization, urbanization, etc., may be caused by the decline in religiosity, may cause the decline in religiosity, or may have little relation to it. I’d be careful about assigning causation to events that occur together.

    Industrialization, urbanization, mass public education, rising living standards, etc. (I’ll refer to these changes collectively as modernization) preceded the large-scale decline of religion, so the latter cannot be the cause of the former. The causal mechanisms by which modernization leads to the decline of religion are not hard to understand. Religion is supported by traditional social structures and norms, by a lack of exposure to alternative ideas and explanations, by poverty and insecurity, and so on. Modernization tends to reduce all of those things, so it’s hardly surprising that it’s been followed by a reduction in religion. Even if there is no such causal link between modernization and religion, the fact remains that religion is declining in the west and has been declining for some time. Unless you can provide some plausible theory that both accounts for this trend and predicts that it will soon end (and even be reversed, if that is indeed what you’re predicting), then there’s no reason to take your prediction seriously at all.

    As for the catastrophic event scenario, I have said earlier that I believe it would take far less to cause people en masse to abandon rationality: a frontal attack on the homeland ought to do it. Consider the jump in the occurrences of the phrase “God Bless America” after September 11, 2001. Our advanced civilzation was not destroyed after 9/11, but the number of people praying went up.

    A “full frontal attack on the homeland” seems rather unlikely (no such attack has occurred in the entire history of the United States, and seems less likely now than ever), as does the prediction that such an attack would cause Americans en masse to “abandon rationality.” (There was no sign of such an effect from World War II). The small and temporary upward blip in some measures of religiosity that followed the 9/11 attacks is perfectly understandable (people tend to turn to traditional sources of comfort when they’re spooked) and does not in any way contradict the long-term trend of religious decline.

    This was my point about Muslim immigration to Europe: all it requires is a perceived threat from “people who aren’t like us” to cause people to seek solace in something familiar that makeds sense of the world around them.

    So you said before. And as I said in response, the evidence contradicts this claim. Non-western immigrants have been arriving in Europe for decades, and religion has been declining throughout that period. In fact, the decline seems to have accelerated.

    This has been an unprecedented period of peace in Europe. Might the growth of atheism be the absence of major conflicts in Europe since WWII?

    In part, yes. Social and economic insecurity seems to be a big cause of religiosity, so it’s not surprising that Europe has become less religious as it has become more peaceful and prosperous.

    History tells us that this period of peace will not last.

    So you’re predicting major warfare or violent conflict in Europe now, are you? Again, there seems to be no basis for this prediction. Vague appeals to “history” are not credible, since “history,” in the simplistic way you are reading it, would also predict the return of slavery, the subjugation of women, puritanical sexual and moral codes, and all sorts of other regressions that you do not seem to think are likely.

  50. #50 Decline and Fall
    March 5, 2007

    I’ll refer to your points by their numerical order:

    1. If these events were not preceded by a decline in religion, then my point has been made. Life was not made better by the reduction of religious belief. The onus is upon you to explain why (other than repeating the mantra “there is no reason to conclude…”) this trend, unlike almost all other trends in human history, will somehow continue. And yes, I do believe that slavery, et al. can return, because I don’t think for a second that humans are incapable of coming up with new reasons to justify brutality. You seem to believe the opposite. More on this later.

    2. Perhaps “full frontal attack” was a poor choice of terms. I should have rather said, “serious attack,” (or something like that–forgive me, it’s late) by which I mean any attack that makes the prospect of untimely death due to said attack a real or perceived possibility. Terrorism does just that, and there is every reason to believe terrorist attacks will occur again in the future. They’ve gone up markedly around the world since 2001, particularly in Europe. As for your laughable assertion that there was no “abandoning of rationality” in World War II, you’re referring to the same conflict I am, right? The one where the nations of Darwin and Voltaire made the nation of Kant out to be the source of all evil? I fail to see how that is rational, and any conversation with Brits or Frenchmen of a certain age will bear out the lasting effects of such hatred.

    3. Yes, but the immigrants are doing more now to make their difference known. I brought up the case of the English village before, but that is a small example. There were riots in the largely Muslim suburbs of Paris last Summer. Theo Van Gogh was murdered on the streets of Amsterdam for making a movie. Danish consulates were forced to close in several Muslim countries. The list goes on and on. Will this trend continue indefinitely? Of course not. But the last thing that’s going to cause them to stop sooner rather than later is patronizing talk about how stupid they are for believing in God. You and I both agree that “social and economic security seems to be a big cause of religiosity,” so what should we predict when that security is threatened?

    4. No need to respond here.

    5. No, I’m predicting violent conflict in Europe at some point. If you honestly believe that the values of the present day are so enduring that Europe will never again be the home of war, your idealism is beyond anything I can adequately engage.

    You have such an enormous amount of faith, yes faith, in the most recent of events that you cannot imagine how things could ever be other than they are today. Progress is not something that can be relied upon to continue unabated–just ask the Jews who lived in Germany in the period 1890-1930. In a 40 year period Jews went from an accepted minority to the enemy of the state in the country that produced some of the richest, most rational minds in human history. Some of those minds even found ways to support Hitler. Heidegger wasn’t above it, so why should I believe that this burgeoning majority of rational atheists aren’t also capable of turning in a completely unpredictable direction? If the Germans were capable of genocide, then why should I believe for a moment that the West in general isn’t capable of sujugating women again?

    A final thought: some of the worst atrocities of the 20th century were committed by atheists and in the name of, among other things, atheism (Stalin and Mao spring to mind), so atheism is not a panacea for the world’s ills. I’m not really concerned with what people believe. I recognize that evil things spring from a variety of places. I’m concerned with mitigating the harmful effects of religion, which spring mostly from fundamentalism. Because I do not think that combating fundamentalism with snooty dismissals is likely to be the best strategy, I propose combating it with appeals to the most charitable impulses of religion. Because it is those impulses, whether religious or not, which I believe are the key to making the world a better place.

  51. #51 Jason
    March 5, 2007

    Decline,

    If these events were not preceded by a decline in religion, then my point has been made. Life was not made better by the reduction of religious belief.

    If that is now your “point” (it seems to keep changing), your point is wrong. It obviously does not follow from the fact that life started to get better before the large-scale reduction in religion of recent decades that a large-scale reduction in religion does not cause life to get better. There are many kinds of change that can lead to an improvement in people’s lives. The decline of religion is one of them, but not the only one.

    The onus is upon you to explain why (other than repeating the mantra “there is no reason to conclude…”) this trend, unlike almost all other trends in human history, will somehow continue.

    I already have explained that at length. The social changes that seem to be the primary cause of the decline of religion show no sign of stopping, let alone reversing. There’s no sign that we are likely to turn back the clock of modernization and return to traditional communities and ways of life.

    And yes, I do believe that slavery, et al. can return, because I don’t think for a second that humans are incapable of coming up with new reasons to justify brutality. You seem to believe the opposite.

    I haven’t denied that a return in the west of slavery, the subjugation of women, and religion are possibilities. As I said, if we were to suffer some huge catastrophe that destroyed our advanced civilization and returned us to pre-modern conditions, then a return of those things is plausible, even likely. But there is no indication that such a catastrophe is likely, and hence no reason to believe that any of them will actually occur.

  52. #52 Jason
    March 5, 2007

    Decline,

    But my larger point, which you did not address, is that the world is more likely to be a better place if religion can be accommodated to humanistic versions of morality.

    Since you’ve already agreed that modernized, humanized versions of religion are self-destructive (why join a religion that teaches that other religions, or no religion at all, are equally valid choices?), then by encouraging religions to modernize and humanize you are by your own admission encouraging them to destroy themselves. You’re doing the same basic thing that I am. I’m just being more honest about it.

  53. #53 Decline and Fall
    March 5, 2007

    Jason,
    Even if you’re “being more honest about” your project than I am, I still submit that for the purpose of causing practical, real change in the lives of actual people, working with rather than against religion is the way that gives every indication that it will work sooner. You seem to disagree. Suppose I’m right, however. (You haven’t disagreed with my point about the vital role that humanized religion played in driving important social change, so I’ll assume you at least will grant me that if Martin Luther King, Jr. had railed against all religious belief, he would have reveived far less support and African-Americans would be today substantially worse off as a result.)

    If that’s the case, suppose the length of time until x amount of positive social change via promotion of atheism is y and the amount of time via humanized religion is z, with y being greater than z. Are you comfortable with being the person whose program resulted in really bad things happening to people during the period y – z? I’m not. I don’t ultimately care what people believe as long as it’s not antisocial. If we can get to x quicker via religion, I’m all for it. I don’t need the rest of the world to agree with me.

    Perhaps you do.

    It seems we have reached an impasse. You keep declaring that the current trend is somehow different from any previous trends, I keep declaring that it isn’t that special. I keep declaring that modernized, humanized religion is the best way to make the world a better place, you keep declaring that it’s not necessarily so. You keep declaring that it would take an enormous blow to society (one that returns it to “premodern conditions”) for the trend to reverse, I keep declaring that it wouldn’t take nearly that much. Given that we’re talking about the future, only time will show one of us to be right. I wish I could agree with you, but when I look at history with a long lens, I find no reason to believe that it is so.

  54. #54 Jason
    March 5, 2007

    Decline,

    You have provided no evidence whatsoever to support your claim that the decline of religion I have described will stop in the forseeable future, let alone reverse. You even suggested yourself that “economic prosperity, health, education and the other benefits of living in the first world” seem to lead to a decline of religion. But now you keep insisting, on the basis of a vague appeal to “history,” that religion will somehow make a comeback in Europe and America (but not, apparently, slavery or the subjugation of women or racial segregation.) You haven’t made any kind of serious argument at all.

    As for your questions about MLK and such, here’s my view: I do not deny that religion is sometimes beneficial, but I believe that its overall effect is far more harmful than beneficial. The role of religion in the American Civil Rights movement is complicated. Its primary benefit was not to inspire opposition to segregation and other racist policies but to provide an institution for black Americans to organize politically. I believe the role of religion in the abolition of slavery was, at best, a wash. For every Quaker Abolitionist, there was a southern preacher telling his flock in church on Sunday that slavery was God’s will. Religion has been unequivocally on the wrong side of the women’s rights and gay rights movements. Virtually all organized opposition to social and legal equality for gay people is now religious in nature, and virtually the only American institutions in which discrimination against women is still openly practised and defended are religious ones.

  55. #55 Jason
    March 5, 2007

    You keep declaring that the current trend is somehow different from any previous trends

    This silliness again. WHAT previous trends? Show me evidence of these alleged previous trends of secularization. Where have they occurred? I’m not talking here about events in which one religion displaced another religion. That has certainly happened. I’m talking about the large-scale decline of religion in a major human culture for a period of decades or more.

    The fact is, it’s never happened before. What’s happening now is not a turn of the wheel in some historical cycle of the ebb and flow of religion. There is no such cycle. This is something new, something unprecedented, something resulting from the social and technological and economic revolution in life in the west that began, more or less, in the 19th century, that expanded dramatically in the 20th century and that shows no sign of stopping in the 21st century.

  56. #56 Decline and Fall
    March 5, 2007

    Jason,

    There you go again, asserting things you can’t back up (“there is no such cycle,” “no sign of stopping, and no “large-scale decline of religion in a major human culture for a period of decades or more.”) while asserting that nothing I’ve stated can be backed up.

    That last assertion is simply false. Consider:

    In the year 1700, in the thirteen colonies, there was one church for every 598 colonists. Forty years later there was one church for every 642 colonists. And by 1780, in the middle of the War for Independence, there was one church for every 807 Americans. To put the matter simply, over the course of the eighteenth century the number of churches was declining in proportion to the number of Americans. 1780 was the lowpoint.

    Here are some more numbers. In 1730 just under half (48%) of all the titles published in the colonies were religious. Religious titles dropped to 38 percent in 1760. The slide continued until it bottomed out in 1775, where a mere 16 % of all the titles published in the colonies were religious.

    The above constitutes a longer trend away from religion than the present “unprecedented” one.

    The Soviet Union was, by definition, an atheist nation, and Russians are now much more religious than they were. (Sorry for the lack of polling data, but any Soviet who didn’t toe the party line to an anonymous pollster deserved to be thrown in the gulag for the crime of lacking a survival instinct.) In Hinduism, atheists have always managed to exist, with very few problems with their theist counterparts. In China, the confucian and taoist traditions have, indeed, ebbed and flowed between the purely secular (there’s no need for gods in those systems) and the theistic. The very fact that more people in America believe in God today than did at its founding should convince you that you can’t trust trends.

    As for your interpretation of MLK and abolition, all I can say is that it’s unique. Please find me any serious analysis that states that without the active involvement of white Christians those movements would have gone anywhere. Yes, the opposition to gay rights is almost entirely religious, but it’s the shifting opinions of liberal believers that is providing the majority of the shifting opinion toward gay equality in America (even Mitt Romney once campaigned on it). Unless you believe that gays will be better off waiting for the small minority of atheists to save the day, you owe it to at least them to extend an olive branch to liberal believers. This seems to me to be the only moral stance to take.

    You, however, clearly won’t be convinced of anything. It’s ironic that in your unwillingness to find common cause with those who disagree with you, you exhibit the very same intolerance that fundamentalists do.

    Since you insist on continuing to characterize any argument I make as “silliness” without actually engaging my central points that: a) ALL trends in human behavior, whether toward secularization or any other major shift in opinion, cannot be counted upon to continue; b) it is FAR too early to ascribe anything like permanence to opinion polling data that encompasses a grand total of 5% of recorded human history; and c) strategically it will cause more harm in the short term to tell people they are stupid than to nudge them toward genuine compassion, I don’t think I’ll continue this conversation.

  57. #57 Jason
    March 6, 2007

    Decline,

    I don’t need to provide evidence for the absence of the cycle; you need to provide evidence for it, since you are the one claiming it exists. Your quote about religion in the American colonies is irrelevant. It’s not evidence of a long-term decline in the religiosity of a large human culture. Early American immigrants were highly religious (they were escaping religious persecution in Europe) and later immigrants much less religious. That’s not a decline in the religiosity of a culture, it’s a change in the religious composition of a population due to the effects of immigration. You offer no evidence whatsoever in support of your historical claims of secularization in China, or with regard to Hinduism, so those claims are also worthless.

    Your final paragraph repeats the same irrelevant statement about future possibilities that you made before and that I already addressed. For about the third time, I do not deny the possibility that religion could make a comeback in the future. So could slavery. So could segregation. So could the burning of heretics at the stake. These are all possibilities. But you’re not suggesting merely that a comeback of religion is possible; you’re suggesting that it will actually happen. You haven’t produced a shred of serious evidence in support of that claim, just vague allusions to “history” and wildly implausible assumptions about the future effects of terrorism and immigration.

    In fact, you also advocate humanizing and modernizing religion, even though you also agree that modernized religion is self-destructive. So your prediction of a religious revival is completely inconsistent with your advocacy of religious reform. You also suggested previously that cultural modernization (industrialization, education, prosperity, etc.) leads to religious decline. So your prediction of religious revival is also inconsistent with that argument. It’s hard to conclude from these inconsistencies that you really have any kind of serious, considered, informed position on the causes and future of religion at all. You’re just making it up as you go along.

  58. #58 Jason
    March 6, 2007

    Decline,

    Please find me any serious analysis that states that without the active involvement of white Christians those movements would have gone anywhere.

    The issue here is whether, and to what degree, the religion of Christianity was a motive or cause of the abolition of slavery. Not whether Christians were involved in abolition. Since almost every free resident of the United States at that time was a Christian, even if only nominally, abolition obviously involved many Christians.

    The claim that Christianity itself played any strong role in abolishing slavery is extremely dubious. Christianity was perfectly comfortable with slavery for the first 1,800 years of its 2,000-year history. Slavery is referred to approvingly in many Bible verses, including ones written by the Apostle Paul, a central figure in the New Testament. And slavery was explicitly promoted and defended by Christian leaders and authorities, including the Catholic Pope. So the idea that slavery is fundamentally inconsistent with Christian morality or Christian principles is hard to take seriously. Why did it take them 1,800 years to discover this anti-slavery principle? Why do the sacred writings of Christianity approve of the practise of slavery? Why did Christian Popes and preachers teach that slavery was God’s will?

    The historical event that seems to have triggered the rise of serious opposition to slavery had nothing to do with religion. Or, rather, it was a repudiation of religion. That event was the Enlightenment. Christians came to believe that slavery was wrong only under the influence of Enlightenment philosophy, after they had absorbed and incorporated into their religion the humanist principles of fundamental equality and rights for all human beings.

  59. #59 L'el
    March 6, 2007

    Just wanted to thank Chris for this post, and I think the comparison to strategies for battling racism is a good way of looking at it!

  60. #60 Decline and Fall
    March 6, 2007

    Jason,

    You can’t even distinguish between the statements I have made regarding my personal opinions of religion (“modernized religion is self-destructive” and “cultural modernization MAY lead to religious decline”) and my prediction that despite trends that have occurred in the long period since the Beatles were on the Ed Sullivan Show, they will not prove permanent, because no other trend seems to have ever done so. I’ve shown you evidence that in the 18th Century the importance of religion declined substantially in America, and you have countered that it was because a bunch of freethinkers all of a sudden swarmed the place, while completely ignoring the fact that during that period, the Age of Reason got into full swing. Please provide evidence for your statement, because based on your (unique, to put it kindly) arguments and your continual references to my “vague allusions” to “history,” I suspect that your grasp of history is narrow at best.

    As for the Chinese and Hindu references, I’ve actually read and studied those books. You clearly have not. Read Confucius, Mencius, Lao-Tse, and the Upanishads and get back to me. Barring that, even a cursory web search (I did maybe ten minutes’ worth just to check my facts) would reveal worlds of knowledge to which you have clearly never been exposed. Try “Hindu Atheism” for starters.

    Epicureanism was ascendant for a time in Rome. It died. Secular philosophies enjoyed a great deal of success and patronage among the upper classes in the Seljuk Dynasty. They died. The French Revolution was home to many freethinkers who had an unusual amount of sway among the populace. Nothing lasted more than a couple of years in that time period.

    As for American history, since you obviously don’t know it, here’s a quick sketch: America began from a quite religious base (1620-1700), religion then declined sharply (1700-1790), followed by a resurgence known as the 2nd and 3rd “Great Awakenings” (1790-1840, 1850-1900), followed by a tempering due to increases in scientific knowledge, the rise of secular humanism and the widespread embrace of socialism in labor movements (but not, as far as I can tell, to the degree seen in the 18th Century), which led to what is called by some the “Fourth Great Awakening,” which began in the 1960s and is arguably still happening. You might notice that there’s a rise and fall there. (And no, I’m not going to provide you with chapter-and-verse on each of these things. They are easily found on the internet.)

    So no, I was not “making it up.” I erroneously assumed that this was common knowledge. The degree of importance of religion in people’s lives has waxed and waned all throughout history. This is a fact. One cannot reasonably assume that just because more people are rejecting religion now that we have color televisions that trend will continue indefinitely barring a nuclear holocaust. (Another real possibility for bringing people back to the old time religion, incidentally, is the “super virus,” which we are ill-equipped to handle.)

    But all of this isn’t even my main point, or the main point of the original post (remember that?):

    …religion is such an effective user of our cognitive and social composition that it falls naturally out of them. So naturally, in fact, that there is no reason to believe that religion is going away, much less that it is possible, through accusation and invective, to facilitate religion’s demise.

    and

    Religions that have survived for millennia have done so because they are incredibly adaptive, and it is the responsibility of anyone with a progressive world-view, recognizing that religion will not go away, to force religion to change by changing its environment and thereby forcing it to adapt. Calling religious people stupid, and treating religion as inherently evil, simply won’t accomplish that.

    I have repeatedly made the claim that telling people they are stupid is a bad strategy for making the world a better place. You have never denied this claim. You have, instead, insisted that you can tell that the future will in no way resemble the past because of extraordinarily young trends in an area of the world that has also had no major threats against it. This is unserious speculation. I’ve got the last 4,000 years to attest to my version–you’ve got what I suspect is about twice your lifespan.

  61. #61 windy
    March 6, 2007

    As for my assertion that reforming religion is more effective, the improved standards of life of every slave who was freed, every woman who was allowed to vote, every woman whose mother was forcibly circumcized but who didn’t have to undergo that torture herself, etc., etc. attest to its efffectiveness.

    Religious reform was responsible for women’s suffrage? Everywhere? Really?

  62. #62 windy
    March 6, 2007

    The degree of importance of religion in people’s lives has waxed and waned all throughout history. This is a fact.

    Which is nice but completely contradicts the premise of the original post: that religion has always been and always will be very important in people’s lives, and there is no use trying to change that.

  63. #63 J. J. Ramsey
    March 6, 2007

    “Which is nice but completely contradicts the premise of the original post: that religion has always been and always will be very important in people’s lives, and there is no use trying to change that.”

    No, the point of the original post was that religion will not go away altogether. I can’t say that I entirely agree with this, since I am leery of sweeping generalizations, especially if they involve long-term predictions. Also, deciding that it is futile to try to make religion go away can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. However, since religion has both waxed and waned and nonetheless persisted, we should certainly be leery of presuming that the current waning of religion is really a harbinger of religion’s end, rather than just a prelude to another waxing of religion.

  64. #64 Decline and Fall
    March 6, 2007

    Religious reform was responsible for women’s suffrage? Everywhere? Really?

    My point here was to argue that suffrage would not have happened (at least when it did) had the mainline religions not been on board, and religious justifications not been found. Arguing for suffrage on exclusively secular grounds likely would not have worked.

    Which is nice but completely contradicts the premise of the original post: that religion has always been and always will be very important in people’s lives, and there is no use trying to change that.

    Actually, that’s what I’ve been trying to say all along: religion won’t go away, so it’s better to work with religion to affect social change. But the degree to which it is important in people’s lives does change. It’s a small point that turned into a drawn-out argument in the comments section, which is as you note, largely unrelated to the original post. I don’t believe it contradicts the original post, though.

  65. #65 Shmuel
    March 6, 2007

    Here are some related empirical questions and hypotheses:

    Do the majority of “Evangelical Atheists” (Dawkins-type Atheists) have Christian (ancestral) origins? I.e. come from a “culture” of Christianity.

    If Evangelical Atheists are so “smart” wouldn’t one expect a disproportionate number of Jewish Evangelical Atheists (like one sees a disproportionate number of Jewish Nobel prize winners, academics etc.)?

    If there are a disproportionate number of Evangelical Atheists with Christian origins, wouldn’t that suggest that it’s a similar “impulse” driving the Christian prosletyzer and the Evangelical Atheist?

    Wouldn’t that be, how do you say, ironic?

  66. #66 Jason
    March 6, 2007

    Decline,

    You can’t even distinguish between the statements I have made regarding my personal opinions of religion (“modernized religion is self-destructive” and “cultural modernization MAY lead to religious decline”) and my prediction that despite trends that have occurred in the long period since the Beatles were on the Ed Sullivan Show, they will not prove permanent, because no other trend seems to have ever done so.

    I can distinguish between them perfectly well. I’m pointing out that your prediction that religion will somehow stop declining is inconsistent with your suggestion that cultural modernization causes religious decline, and inconsistent with your proposal to modernize religion itself, which you agreed is destructive to religion.

    I’m also pointing out that you have made no serious argument in support of your prediction. You haven’t come up with a single example of a significant decline of religion in any historical human culture, let alone of a cycle of rising and falling religiosity over time. Your argument consists entirely of the observation that the decline of religion in the west is very recent in historical terms and that this somehow suggests that it is temporary. Strangely, though, you make no similar prediction of the return of slavery, the return of the subjugation of women, the return of racial segregation, the return of repressive sexual morality, or the return of countless other universal or near-universal aspects of historical human culture that have only recently disappeared in the west.

  67. #67 Jason
    March 6, 2007

    Decline,

    I have repeatedly made the claim that telling people they are stupid is a bad strategy for making the world a better place. You have never denied this claim.

    I’ve never said anything about that claim at all, because it’s irrelevant to my argument. I haven’t advocated “telling people they are stupid,” and I don’t think that would be a very effective strategy for reducing or eliminating religion, except in isolated instances. A much better strategy is to point out the stupidity of religion, to point to its record of failure and harm, to explain why its claims of truth are not justified and are likely to be false, and to promote science, reason and secularism as superior alternatives. That is essentially the strategy that opponents of religion have been following, and judging by the precipitous decline in religion that has occurred, it seems to be quite effective.

  68. #68 Decline and Fall
    March 6, 2007

    Pointing out the stupidity of religion to a believer is tantamount to calling the believer stupid. These are people who are heavily invested in their belief system. As for its record of failure and harm, you’ve already responded to the following post here, so I won’t bother directing you to the Hansen & Norenzayan study, except to note that it’s more complicated than that.

    Regarding your continued blindness regarding my examples of declining nd falling religiosity, I am disappointed that you haven’t actually engaged the examples I have cited, except with your own unsubstantiated and not widely-shared theories. You didn’t bother with my shorthand history of religion in America at all.

    All of this would be more surprising if I hadn’t already come to the conclusion that you, like all dogmatists, aren’t really interested in seeking truth; your interest lies in being right, whether the evidence actually supports you or not.

    But enough of this. Chris, who has graciously allowed this conversation to continue on his site despite its wide veering from the points he originally made, has requested that the discussion take place within the context of actual data. I intend to respect that.

  69. #69 Jason
    March 7, 2007

    Decline,

    Pointing out the stupidity of religion to a believer is tantamount to calling the believer stupid. These are people who are heavily invested in their belief system.

    Well, if they choose to take it that way, too bad. Our first loyalty is to tell the truth as we see it. I’m not going to hide the fact that I think the claim that the Earth is only 6,000 years old is stupid, or that consulting ancient manuscripts is a stupid way of determining the age of the Earth, merely because someone who holds those beliefs doesn’t want to hear them attacked.

    Regarding your continued blindness regarding my examples of declining nd falling religiosity, I am disappointed that you haven’t actually engaged the examples I have cited,

    You haven’t cited any examples. You’ve just made a number of vague and unsubstantiated assertions, most of which don’t seem to be relevant even if they are true. For example, even if “the French Revolution was home to many freethinkers who had an unusual amount of sway among the populace” that fact would not constitute any kind of serious evidence of a decline in religiosity in revolutionary-era France. This kind of sloppy thinking is pervasive in your posts.

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