Richard Dawkins is a well known biologist who published a best selling book called The God Delusion and is now essentially the face of atheism. In his book, he attacks the idea that the universe and everything in it has a creator who is involved in all the details of its workings. He says in his book and his interviews, that he is interested in promoting ideas for which there is evidence and exposing those for which there is none. From what I remember of “A Letter to a Christian Nation”, this is Sam Harris’ fight too. Dawkins is interviewed on The Hour George Stroumboulopoulos on CBC where he clearly states at 8 minutes 30 seconds that he is uninterested in whether or not atheism “gets you through the night” and that he is concerned only with the truth. If Dawkins wants to convert people to atheism, then he dodged the most important point of the interview and if atheism is to gain precious ground against religion and superstition, this point must be resolved. As it stands atheism is not a replacement for religion. I would like to convince you that this question deserves the attention of atheist scholars and reveal the battle front we are facing.
At the time of this writing, I am an atheist and have been for most of my life, except for three years where I was, to the best of my ability, a zealot in a radical Christian church. I recognize that most of the world depends highly on religion and faith and has no other way of understanding life. We are far, far away from eradicating irrational and harmful beliefs in the supernatural in even the most developed of nations. However, the pursuit of an evidence-based belief system is an important and highly neglected (at least, by the masses) exercise in philosophy. If you believe that human nature is self-interested, then you will agree that we stand to gain something from our ignorance. It is clear to me that if we do not understand what this gain is, or how else it might be obtained, the fight for atheism will be stopped in its tracks, no matter how rational and believable our argument is. Advocates like Dawkins should not ignore this fact if they want to convince people of their position.
I make five observations about religious people and groups; each of them is a phenomenon accompanied by what appears to be a benefit. I chose these examples because they do not appear elsewhere with the same magnitude and regularity and they are easy to accept. A deeper analysis would explore these and other phenomena in greater detail. I use Christian terminology because this is the group I am most familiar with.
- Pride. Members are proud of their congregation and crave and enjoy the success of the things that they or the congregation organizes. There is a sense of ownership of these things, similar I suppose, to the way a high school feels when a student or alumni goes to the Olympic Games.
- Solidarity. Members seem compelled to defend each other, especially in disputes with non-members or general troubles with life, the way that people defend their family. Members may go so far as to deny their own families in favour of their church families. Any half-dedicated church goer is guaranteed a minimum level of care and attention as long as they continue to attend the meetings without rocking the boat too much.
- Generosity. Church goers give a LOT of money to their churches and to other organizations (just ask Billy Graham, Oral Roberts or the Pope). Needless to say, the typical philanthropist is not giving out of resentment or anger.
- Peace of mind. It is at the forefront of what religions have to offer and one of the most difficult things to emulate. By feeding themselves a certain doctrine, they are relieved of the responsibility of creating or discovering their own. Instead, their mental energy is spent placing the feed in the context of their lives (they call this “wrestling with your faith”) and each time they rationalize away one of their doubts they enjoy a feeling of triumph. Members help each other with this, and since some of these triumphs can feel like significant milestones, close friendships are built.
- Emotional security. People have a strong emotional attachment to their beliefs. To use a metaphor, the childhood home of a friend of mine was recently sold out of their family. It felt like they were losing a part of themselves, even though the house contained only memories. I believe that denying one’s religion and superstitions presents a similar challenge and causes people to make irrational decisions.
The atheist reader might say “I would not benefit from wasting my time on church events, denying my family, giving money to idiot evangelists nor wrapping my brain around the garbage preached from the pulpit!”. I say to them that it is not the atheist we are trying to convert, but rather, the believer who sees the positive in these points. From the perspective of social and psychological benefits, going from religion to the atheism of Richard Dawkins is like jumping naked from a bridge (with no cord of course).
You are still not convinced. “It doesn’t matter what the benefits are, they will come when they see the evidence”, you say. I am no psychologist, but I am inclined to say that there are factors far more motivating than evidence. This fact is made obvious by the sheer volume of educated religious people who constantly fight with the ideas of atheists. Julia Sweeney gives an entertaining account of the story told to her by Mormon canvassers in which they explain how their rules were written on tablets that were placed in the back yard of an American, but only he could read them, and then he lost them or couldn’t show them to anyone etc. Julia had compared this to her own, Catholic story about a woman who was very importantly a virgin, and her son who was crucified and rose from the dead to free the world of all the evil it has committed (or something…). Both parties were exposed to each others’ stories and neither party gained an inch of ground, not for lack of evidence, but because they were not motivated to believe each other. Doing so would also have involved turning their backs on the benefits of their own religion without knowing what to expect from the new one. We think atheism has more to offer, but had it been on the table that day, it would have been offering, frankly, less.
We tell these Mormons that it is important to believe the Earth is 4.5 Billion years old and that all the life we have observed is a result of millions of years of evolution simply because it appears to be true. Let me tell you, we are in the wrong here, because from a practical perspective, they are far better off believing we came from outer space (Or whatever. I might be mixed up with Scientology, but as Dawkins would put it, what is the difference between one non-existent god and another?).
Atheism needs a killer app and, frankly, the satisfaction of being a free and rational thinker is not it (one could argue that we do not even have that). It is time for atheists to take an honest look at religious communities and understand the nature of the things that are winning over evidence in the battle of ideologies. What we have is a rational belief system called atheism. What we need is a rational religion.