What to do with the Redundant Churches After the Demise of Religion?

Some weeks ago I attended a lecture by Daniel Dennett at the Oxford Union on religion. As expected, it was a lively presentation that predicted the demise of religion. However, one matter that started me thinking was how Dennett concluded his lecture: he ended by pondering what we might do with all the redundant places of worship once his prophecy was fulfilled. His suggestion was that they might satisfy a secular purpose, as places where the community might come together to address the novel challenges of the modern world. I started me thinking as I wondered whether a belief in religion might be better than atheism for attaining this, or any other, goal. Some, such as Jonathan Haidt (The Righteous Mind (2012)) have suggested that religion is a particularly effective force for bringing people together.

I would like to ask a broader question, which is whether religion is better than atheism for attaining any particular normative goal. The reason for this is that confining the question to which is best for promoting cohesion begs the question as to why cohesion is important. To attempt to avoid this problem, one could pose the question more broadly: given any chosen normative goal, is religion or atheism more condusive to attaining it?

I should probably add that I am an atheist myself, a great fan of Dennett, and very sceptical of religion. As such, I would suggest that I do not have an axe to grind, or at least the type of axe that Dennett worries about (Breaking the Spell (2006) p 32). Nonetheless, I struggle with the reasons behind the proposition that atheism is better than religion for attaining normative goals.

One consideration could be that religion causes people to believe things that are not true. Richard Dawkins, another of the ‘Four Atheists of the Apocalypse’, points out that the ‘beneficial effects in no way boost the truth value of religion’s claims.’ (The God Delusion (2007) p 194). Dawkins then quotes George Bernard Shaw: ‘The fact that a believer is happier than a sceptic is not more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one.’ But I’m not convinced: it seems possible that a believer could be more likely to attain [insert your chosen normative goal here] than a sceptic, even if he believed things that were not true.

Believing things that are true rather than things that are not true could have some value. But the topics on which beliefs diverge seem quite peripheral: how much difference does it actually make to a person’s behaviour whether they believe that the life was created by a god rather than by a process of evolution by natural selection? Equally a belief in tenets of religion that cannot be true (talking snakes, virgin births, resurrection, etc) may have little actual impact on how people live their lives.

By contrast, it is difficult to exclude the possibility that untrue beliefs have a function that is not linked to their truth. Perhaps what is important is not whether religious beliefs are true, but that they are specific to that religion. That is, religious beliefs act as a ‘badge of identity’ for that religion that is difficult to fake. It would be easy for adherants to that religion to learn the weird and wonderful tenets of that religion, but difficult for outsiders. Thus beliefs could be the means of working out whether a person is safe to trust. If this was their function, they would necessarily have to be arbitrary so that they could not be worked out through logic.

This uncertainty highlights the fact that we simply do not know enough about religion or atheism to weigh up their effects.

Dennett’s solution to this, propounded particularly in Breaking the Spell (2006), is to recommend investigation. In so recommending, he notes the concern (echoed in the title of the book) that so doing would undermine the advantages that religion provides. He concedes that no one knows the answer to this (p 15) but insists that such questions can only be answered in the light of all the evidence:

‘Eventually, we must arrive at questions about ultimate values, and no factual investigation could answer them. Instead, we can do no better than to sit down and reason together, a political process of mutual persuasion and education that we can try to conduct in good faith. But in order to do that we have to know what we are choosing between, and we need to have a clear account of the reasons that can be offered for and against the different visions of the participants.’ (Dennett (2006) p 14.)

The difficulty with this approach is that I don’t think it answers to the concern. If we don’t know what religion does, it’s hard to be certain that investigating it will not undermine its effects. The well recognised defensiveness of believers, combined with the fact that few scientists are religious (Dawkins (2007) pp 125 – 128) suggest that this is not a fanciful worry.

Though I am sympathetic to Dennett’s proposal, it doesn’t seem to follow as a matter of logic. To me it seems like a leap of faith.

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38 Responses to What to do with the Redundant Churches After the Demise of Religion?

  • Nikolas Schaffer says:

    “how much difference does it actually make to a person’s behaviour whether they believe that the life was created by a god rather than by a process of evolution by natural selection?”

    It’s pretty well attested by surveys etc that the former tend to be generally more conservative in their views, less educated and less likely to hold high-paid jobs amongst other differences. There are also disproportionately more of them in prison. So a belief in religious untruths is at least statistically correlated with a range of negative traits.

    “If we don’t know what religion does”

    Religion encourages people to believe stupid, untrue things and barricade themselves behind a wall of childish wishful thinking, as well as abrogate their ethical responsibilities in favour of reliance on the prejudices of ancient primitives. In my view religion has no redeeming qualities at all. It is a betrayal of the intellect and a betrayal of the imagination.

    As for churches: convert them into housing or public amenities such as museums, community centres, performance spaces etc.

  • Right-Wing Hippy says:

    After the demise of religion, people will be no more rational than they were with it. In my experience atheists and religionists are broadly equal at irrationality, the main difference being that atheists pray to the government to solve their problems believing that it alone can provide loaves and fishes without having had to produce them first.

    FYI: In the God Delusion Dawkins claims Einstein for atheism, but in order to do this he first has to pretend that pantheism isn’t a religion. Moderns don’t like to admit that science and religion go together quite comfortably in some people.

    • Cie Cheesemeister says:

      Most of the atheists I know aren’t particularly keen on government, but they do think that Science H. Logic will solve all their problems or explain everything.
      Personally, I don’t believe in the supernatural, but I’m willing to keep an open mind to the possibility that the things that are considered supernatural (i.e. ghosts, demons, angels, deities) actually do exist in some form on some level. Thus, they would be part of the natural order rather than anything supernatural.
      My problem with many people, both Fundamentalist religious types and hardline atheists is their closed-mindedness and unwillingness to either discuss possibilities or accept that someone may have a different outlook on things than they do.

      • Annie Morgan says:

        You seem to have the most sensible approach to this article – I am not an atheist, nor a religious type – my feelings are much like Hamlet’s comment to Horatio.

        • David Pendleton says:

          Yes, There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
          Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

    • William MC Cann says:

      What on earth makes you believe that atheists pray to governments. By the time they have realised that religion is based largely on lies, why would they be likely to believe the nonsense spouted by politicians in order to gain or retain office? Cynisism may well be the religion of the future,or the demise of politicians!

  • Michael Glass says:

    What to do with redundant churches?

    The answer is simple: put them to other uses. In Sydney, Australia, there are a number of former church buildings that are now used for other purposes. One not far where I live is used as a community and childcare centre. Another one, which was founded as a Methodist Church was sold and became a Greek Orthodox church. Yet another one became an up-market restaurant. It’s not that religion has died out in Sydney. There are plenty of churches left. It’s just that these buildings were surplus to requirements and were put to other uses. It’s the same with surplus monasteries. The nunnery near our local Catholic church was pulled down and the land was used to build cottages for retired nuns.

    People commonly fear change, but many changes come without causing much trouble at all. Australia switched smoothly to decimal currency and metric conversion happened without much drama. From 1966 – 1970 11 per cent of Australians had civil marriages but in 2011, the figure was 70.1 per cent. This social change has hardly been noticed. A Eurobarometer poll in France found that 40 per cent of respondents said there was no god, but as far as I can see, France is not obviously worse than Italy where only 6 per cent gave this response to the poll.

    We live in a religiously diverse world, and people are getting used to the idea that some are not religious. I think that in the next ten years this trend is likely to continue, and unbelief will become so ordinary and boring that it simply won’t be an issue for most people.

  • Dennis J, Tuchler says:

    Religion often provides an anchor for discussion of things not necessarily decided by religion (e.g. ethics) but are, in general, supported by it (again, the importance of doing the right thing). It tells the believer that the norms with which most of us are brought up are right. The discussion can then proceed without one mention of religious doctrine except, perhaps references to various religious writers and perhaps some mention of “natural law”.

    • Nikolas Schaffer says:

      “It tells the believer that the norms with which most of us are brought up are right.”

      On the contrary, in the West, Christianity is mainly concerned with telling the believer that the mainstream ethics of Western societies (i.e., the ethics of broadly liberal, humanist, secular democracies) are “sinful” and wrong and need to be changed via “culture wars” etc.

      In genuinely religious societies, such as the Islamic theocracies, religion does indeed tell the people that the “norms” of their societies are “right”, but since many of these norms consist of appalling human rights abuses sanctioned (and demanded) by religion, that’s clearly not actually a good thing.

  • Kristi says:

    Hello, its good paragraph about media print, we all be aware of media is a enormous source of facts.

  • Anthony Sinclair says:

    I think you’re right that the function of “wacky” religious beliefs is a kind of signalling – but this means that atheism proselytizers (Dawkins et al.) are not just skeptical about the existence of god, but also about the signalling aspect of religion. They are in effect saying that they care about the truth more than about the in-group loyalty that are signaled by religious beliefs.

    • Anthony Sinclair says:

      The real threat of atheism is not that it questions the tenets of a given religion (other religions do the same, after all) but that it questions the link between religious beliefs and “trustworthiness” that religious people take for granted.

  • David Gerard says:

    To answer the question in your title: Turn the redundant churches into apartment conversions. These are popular, and keep the pretty building preserved.

  • Khalid Jan says:

    “Europe is a spectacular example of a sophisticated, cultured, sensitive, advanced, compassionate continent that is dying because it has repudiated its “primitive” roots. It will soon be a Muslim continent—necessarily so, because it is uprooted while Islam is rooted, and only rooted plants grow.”

    Prof. Peter Kreeft, Ph.D.,
    Professor of philosophy at Boston College and at the King’s College (Empire State Building), in New York City.
    Source: http://www.peterkreeft.com/commentary-islam.htm, February 2010

    “The divine is an important factor in History. Unless there is a Christian revival, something I, as a Christian myself, strongly desire, the islamization of the West is inevitable and Western civilization will become Islamic. In the fourth century the Roman Empire was of Greek religion but faith had evaporated. So, quite naturally, it was replaced by a Hellenized Jewish religion, Christianity. In the 21st century, in the West faith has evaporated. So, quite naturally, Westernized Muslim religion will replace Christianity. God always rewards its faithful.”

    Dimitri Kitsikis
    Emeritus Professor, Department of History,
    University of Ottawa
    Source: Decline of Muslim States and Societies
    by Misbah Islam, Xlibris Co., 2008, p. 26

    • Michael Glass says:

      The idea that Europe is dying because of its lack of faith sounds to me like a self-serving American Christian fantasy about Europe. Of course it might be true that Islam will replace Christianity as the dominant religion in Western Europe. However, the evidence suggests that the world of Islam is being profoundly reshaped by Western values.

      * Slavery and the slave trade has been largely abolished world-wide. In fact, this movement was in defiance of Christian, Jewish and also Islamic texts that authorised this practice.

      * Female genital mutilation has been massively assaulted by the attacks of feminists such as Hanny Lightfoot-Klein. As a result, Islamic scholars have now changed their position about female genital cutting and now this ancient practice is now in retreat.

      * The concept of freedom of religion is a direct challenge to the Islamic belief that people who leave Islam should be killed.

      * The idea of ritual slaughter of animals is being challenged by an increasing rejection of cruelty to animals.

      * The belief that infant or child circumcision is ethically questionable appears to be gaining traction. This may pose another challenge to Muslim (and also Jewish) belief.

      Over time these challenges might result in something like ‘Islam-lite’ or ‘Westernised Islam’, if you prefer. But it is more likely that Islam whether ‘lite’ or moderate or more extreme, would have to contend with an increasingly confident secular culture, and be subject to the same pressures that have massively impacted Christianity and Judaism.

      • David Gerard says:

        “Over time these challenges might result in something like ‘Islam-lite’ or ‘Westernised Islam’, if you prefer.”

        Based on how it went for Christianity, the pressure that will make a difference will be economic: religiousness correlates with poverty and economic insecurity, both on the scale of nations (www.gallup.com/poll/142727/religiosity-highest-world-poorest-nations.aspx) and within nations (fthink.org/correlating-education-poverty-health-and-even-death-by-firearm-with-the-religiosity-of-states/).

        When the living is good, people tend to let go of supernatural supports; when it’s bad, they tend to look to them for hope (even if a philosophically-minded atheist might say it was false hope).

        • Michael Glass says:

          I’m sure that economic security has something to do with the fading of religious beliefs, but it’s not the whole story. The abolition of slavery and the slave trade cut across important vested interests. Similarly, there is little economic interest in banning female genital cutting or foot binding. There are clear economic interests in women’s rights and the right to use contraceptives, but I don’t think that the major impetus for empowering women and popularising birth control was economic.

          I think the power of Western civilisation is in the power of the ideas. Even in the middle of the Eighteenth Century, enlightened Frenchmen could see that the religious toleration of England was better than the religious monopoly given to Catholicism in France at that time. Similarly, the appeal of human rights for all helped spell the end of slavery in Europe and then throughout the world. Similar ideas of human rights have made an immense difference to our attitudes towards sexual minorities.

          Yes, it is possible to make a good economic case for respecting the rights of women and gays, but the motivation for change came from notions of human rights rather than economic gain. Indeed, economic motives can prompt people to oppose public health and human rights initiatives, as when slave-owners opposed the abolition of slavery.

          When Europe was giving up burning witches, John Wesley opposed it. He said, “Most of the men of learning in Europe have given up all account of witches and apparitions as old wives’ fables…. The giving up of witchcraft is the giving up of the Bible. With my last breath I will bear testimony against giving up to infidels one great proof of the invisible world, witchcraft … confirmed by the testimony of the ages,” Yet we can now see that the opinion of “most of the men of learning in Europe” has prevailed.

          Despite the power of the hip pocket nerve, financial gain is not the only motivator.

  • Jeremy Rodell says:

    1. Church buildings: yes, plenty here in the UK have been converted into flats or used for other secular purposes. But some are historically and architecturally important as religious buildings – and that includes the tiny Norman chapel in a village somewhere as well as the great cathedrals. Sooner or later those of us who are Humanists/Atheists will need to accept that they are a key part of our national heritage that we will need to pay to conserve. As many are wonderful buildings, I’d be more than willing to pay up (and always do so when I visit them).

    2. Belief: where’s the evidence that “…religious beliefs act as a ‘badge of identity’ for that religion that is difficult to fake”? There are huge numbers of people who adhere to religions without really holding to their beliefs. That’s especially true of Judaism (see the British Social Attitudes survey data for 2009) and Anglicanism.

    3. “… it seems possible that a believer could be more likely to attain [insert your chosen normative goal here] than a sceptic, even if he believed things that were not true”: while I’m not sure it’s useful to try to generalise this, the evidence suggests that it is true for specific goals. The sense of belonging to a community and the support it provides in hard times, for example, seem undeniable. Recent data indicate that, in the UK, Muslims are the most generous belief group in terms of giving to charity, and atheists (and Hindus) among the least. If religion didn’t provide believers with real benefits, then surely it would have died out as soon as people were free to think for themselves. That hasn’t happened. And, on a global level, there’s not a lot of evidence that it’s happening even now. Western Europe is not the norm.

    4. The “problem” for those of us who are Atheists is that, once you’ve seen that Father Christmas doesn’t exist, whatever the benefits of believing in him are, they are no longer available. That means to me that we should be careful to distinguish between religious beliefs, the people who hold those beliefs (or at least practise as if they do), and the associated institutions and political movements.
    I would never try to talk someone out of deeply held (but to me daft) beliefs that are important to them, unless they were trying to do the same to me. I’d rather understand what they think and how it influences them. But I would (and do) actively challenge religious institutions seeking or defending privilege for them or their adherents, or encouraging behaviour among their adherents that leads to the suffering of other people. Sadly, that remains rather a large target.

  • Jon Jermey says:

    The primary problem with religious beliefs is that they have no foundation in fact: so people who want to believe them must, to be consistent, permit other people to also believe things that have no foundation in fact. Which essentially means that everyone ends up believing what they want to. And as we know, there are plenty of people who want to believe that killing innocent civilians is a good thing; that blocking abortions and euthanasia is a good thing; that discriminating against homosexuals is a good thing; and so on and so on through a multiplicity of dangerous and destructive beliefs.

    People who respect and tolerate religion are enablers for murderous fanaticism. Richard Dawkins can tell Osama Bin Laden why it’s wrong to destroy buildings and kill innocent people; but the Pope can’t, because the Pope holds his beliefs for exactly the same reasons as Bin Laden. The beliefs may be different, but the motivations are the same.

    • K Jan says:

      Who teaches the sciences to those who end up in labs, wearing white coats and design, test and build some of the deadliest weapons that the humanity knows today? I believe we call such people as “professors” – majority of whom are “hard-core” atheists – that teach in some of the prestigious universities in the Western world.

    • Jeremy Rodell says:

      “People who respect and tolerate religion are enablers for murderous fanaticism.” Really? There are two major flaws with this “slippery slope” argument:
      1. As a humanist, who knows that most of the underlying beliefs of religions are false, I don’t respect the beliefs themselves (they’re false). But that doesn’t stop me respecting good people who adhere to those beliefs or the importance their beliefs hold in their lives. It also doesn’t stop me from arguing against religious privilege or bad things done in the name of religion, such as the examples you cite. But the implication of the argument here is that, if there were no religious beliefs (a hypothetical idea if ever there was one) then bad things wouldn’t happen. I’m afraid the evidence is that humanity has a propensity for good and a propensity for evil, for which it’s very successful at finding excuses, whether religious, political, tribal….. Civilisation has helped to constrain one and support the other.

      2. Fundamentalist Islamism is currently a particular threat to the world. Which group of people is more likely to be able to defeat it: a) a small number of angry atheists whose demand is not only that the Islamists drop their fanatisicm but that they drop their faith altogether, which they attack as evil and stupid, or b) the far larger group of moderate Muslims who disagree with the Islamisrs and in many cases suffer directly from the Islamists’ attempts to make their lives more difficult?

      • Michael Glass says:

        Perhaps we need both the angry atheists and the moderate Muslims to put pressure on the Islamists to moderate their demands. It worked with Christianity and I would guess that it would be equally effective with Islam. It’s certainly had an effect on the custom of female genital mutilation. Other evidence of social change can be seen in the propaganda produced by conservative Muslims.

        Here is one Youtube video trying to induce women to wear the hijab: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uCEsw1dOmI4

        If you look at it you will see that the young women portrayed in the video are doing all sorts of things that would once have been unthinkable for conservative Muslim women to do, such as playing soccer, wearing high fashion or using make-up. The result gives a fascinating insight into conservative Muslim thinking, and the compromises that they make to take a full part in the modern world.

  • K Jan says:

    Fundamentalism, of any type, shape or form, is essentially a propaganda tool to create fear and confusion. How else the system is going to control the masses? Six Million Jews were killed in Europe by the Europeans just yesterday. Anti-Semetic and anti-human labels were invented for the Jews by the Europeans, and those very labels were used for two purposes: racism and killing. Today, the same European mind is using the same vocabulary to orchestrate another mass-crucifixion, which appears to be around the corner.

  • K Jan says:

    The fair-minded Europeans, and in particular, the militant atheists, must look back at the history of their own people, and examine what they say in that light.
    —————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————-
    1923-1939
    The Night Hope Shattered

    By Jacob G. WienerMonday, Mar. 31, 2003

    A Jewish shop in Berlin rampaged by Nazis during the attacks of Kristallnacht.

    Nov. 9, 1938

    “In 1938 I was 21, living in Würzburg in southern Germany and studying at the Jewish Teachers’ Seminary. I was supposed to have an exam on Nov. 10, the final one before I would have got my diploma that would have made me a Hebrew teacher.

    So on the ninth, I headed home early in the evening and went to bed at 9 so I would be refreshed the next morning. We had already heard a few days before about the assassination of Ernst vom Rath, an official at the German embassy in Paris, killed by a Polish Jew, and it was a very bad omen. Everything went fine until about 2:30 in the morning, when we were awakened by a big crash. I got up and didn’t know what might have happened. I lived in a large dormitory room with two friends. I thought that it was something terrible and that we should be ready to meet the emergency. We packed our valises in case we needed to leave. We heard people coming closer, and we tried to lock our door. I don’t know if we opened it or if they broke it, but they were Nazis dressed as civilians. They said, “Throw your bags against the windows.” And they went down the hall and threw three typewriters against the windows, and then they came back and went to the big dormitory room and broke several more things, like the faucets in the sink and the hanging lamps.

    About 6 the next morning, a whole group of people came, as if they were looking at a museum, to enjoy themselves and see what the Nazis had done in our building. One man, another Nazi in civilian clothes, told us to go outside and form a line five abreast in the cobblestone street. As we walked along, the civilians at the side spat at us and called us names. We passed by the burning synagogue as they led us to the prison, and all these onlookers, they were laughing, they were shouting, and they were spitting.

    Kristallnacht was a turning point because up to that time, the Nazis did not openly incite the whole population to kill publicly. Before, people were killed secretly and individually, but this happened openly. After that night, the whole world knew it would not get better at all, and Jews knew only a dark future. It was called the “Night of Broken Glass,” but it was more than that. You can clean up glass, but you cannot do that with people.

    Rabbi Wiener, 86, gives tours and speeches at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and lives in Silver Spring, Md.”

    Read more: http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1977881_1977883_1978110,00.html #ixzz2aRhsfsxH

  • K Jan says:

    “To avenge the brutal abduction of his Polish Jewish parents in Germany, 17-year-old Herschel Grynszpan, who was living in Paris, on November 7, 1938, walked into the German Embassy in Paris and shot Third Secretary, Ernst vom Rath.

    For Adolf Hitler, the shooting in Paris provided an opportunity to incite Germans to ‘rise in bloody vengeance against the Jews’. It supplied the pretext for massive Nazi pogroms launched against Jews in Germany, Austria and the Sudetenland – the orgy of Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass. The tide of anti-Semitism under Nazi rule was given impetus: in the next 24 hours Nazi storm troopers along with members of the SS and Hitler Youth beat and murdered Jews, broke into and wrecked Jewish homes, brutalized Jewish women and children, destroyed 265 synagogues, looted 7,500 Jewish businesses, smashed Jewish cemeteries, hospitals and schools. 30,000 Jews were sent to concentration camps.

    The Kristallnacht pogrom was the symbolic beginning of the Holocaust, the systematic murder of 6 million Jews, over a million Roma and Sinti, gay people as well as communists, trade unionists and many, many others.

    The day the Holocaust began ..”

    http://www.auschwitz.dk/Grynszpan.htm

  • idea21 says:

    If religion exists that is because along the whole history of mankind it has been emotionally rewarding for the people. Religion could be defined as a private philosophy acting emotionally in individuals’minds and being shared by others, allowing then cognitive cultural changes. That has nothing to do with theism. Buddhism and confucionism are atheist religions, and marxist beliefs acted so sometimes too.

    As long as cultural changes (new patterns of behavior) are still needed, some kind of religion would be still required, but a religion according with the times being, that is, a rational one, but satisfying our emotional needs

    • Nikolas Schaffer says:

      There’s no such thing as a rational religion. Unless you’re going to entirely redefine religion (which is unhelpful and pointless), religion is characterised by a supernatural cosmology that is claimed to be not only real but of more importance than the actual real world. It’s on that basis that Buddhism counts as a religion along with all of the other deluded brands.

      Fascism, Nazism and communism (in its actual historical manifestations) certainly borrowed from religion in their emphasis on irrational emotionalism, and were often explicitly religious (especially in the case of fascism and nazism), but these were ad hoc ideologies doomed to a short (but highly destructive) shelf life, lacking the “classic cartoon” appeal of the long-lived religions, with their orderly set-piece fantasies and timeworn, comfortably fallacious apologetics.

  • idea21 says:

    It is not necessary to redefine religion to reject the too short consideration of religion as something limited to “a supernatural cosmology”. You can just look up the wikipedia definition of “religion”, quoting Clifford Geertz and Emile Durkheim definitions to realize that what charactirize religion is the emotional effect of some shared beliefs (Geertz: “system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic”; Durkheim:”unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things”. By sacred things he meant things “set apart and forbidden—beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them”). The fact that most religions (Buddhism not included, by the way) are related to supernatural beliefs should be no surprise, as atheism and rationality are something fairly new for human cultures; also astronomy and biology were linked to supernatural beliefs until just short time ago.

    Disparition of religions is something extremely desirable, but only as long as they would not be needed anymore. The real issue should be to realize that our current society is still irrational (capitalism, social unequality, social violence, competitiveness, nationalism…) and that all cultural changes have happened in the past only after new patterns of behavior were accepted; that only happened after long and gradual exposure to new cognitive social realities appeared, and all of them were transmitted by new religious symbolic inventions; this kind of “memes” related to ethics mostly are passing from one religion to another, by centuries and generations. I think that Karen Armstrong is right by dating the origin of “compassionate religions” from Buddhism in India, then transmitted to estoicism, then to christianity. Current humanism is just the refining of protestant humanism, but the process should not be ended yet, as we are not still living in a completely cooperative society, which should be the target (the idea of a social target, “Paradise”, “Kingdom of God on earth”, it is also a religious one).

    That religions tend to be destructive should not be a surprise either: all technology tend to be destructive in hands of an irrational society, but progress depends on short steps; and cognitive inventions coming from religion are technology of the mind.

    Thank you very much for your comment and excuse for my defective english.

  • Meghan says:

    As much as some atheists may like the idea (and I know many atheists who are FAR more tolerant of religious people than that which is evidenced by today’s “New Atheism” movement), I do not think that religion and/or faith will ever be completely eliminated. While it is possible that religious beliefs will change over time (by becoming more accepting of LGBT persons, for instance), religion is not the same thing as *faith.* Faith represents a relationship with God; one that is mediated through divine influence upon the believer. God will always call people to Himself and people will keep responding to that call, because faith is a relationship-you can no more eliminate this relationship than you can that between spouses. Even if we legalize polygamy, for instance, the bonds of marriage will still exist. People will still procreate and there will be a bond between parents and their children-you cannot “reason” those things away.

    Moreover, I do not feel that atheism necessarily predisposes people to rational thought. Peter Singer, for instance, embraces ableist ideas that are socially constructed. Society has embraced the ableist idea that disability is an inherently negative state, and Peter Singer has gotten a lot of mileage out of that assumption, but it doesn’t make that belief inherently true. Singer’s atheism doesn’t give him an edge in understanding the nature of disability; his prejudices are just as irrational as the religious belief that disability is caused by Divine wrath. Assuming that atheists know “the truth” and those with faith are “deluded” is built on hubris.

    • Jeremy Rodell says:

      As a humanist/atheist who indeed doesn’t go along with the anti-theism of the New Atheists, I agree that religion/faith/belief in some sort of magic or superstition probably will never be eliminated. They are human creations that will continue to meet, for some people, human needs. I think it’s important to respect the people who adhere to them as fellow human beings (good, bad or indifferent), and the importance they have in people’s lives – and where it makes sense, seek to understand the beliefs – even if we can’t respect the beliefs themselves because we think they’re untrue.

      But I don’t accept that it is “hubris” to assume that atheists know “the truth” and those with faith are “deluded”. Everyone thinks that their beliefs are correct ones, and others are incorrect. In fact almost all people of faith believe their particular religious beliefs are the right tones and others are wrong – Christians think they know “the truth”, and think Muslims, Hindus or Scientologists are to a greater or lesser extent, “deluded”. But that’s a relativistic position.

      As an atheist confronted with Meghan’s argument, I would say that the claim that there is a supernatural realm and some sort of deity or deities (or rather a specific sort of deity) is so extraordinary that it’s up to the believer to demonstrate that these things exist. It’s not “hubris” to think that extraordinary things don’t exist. Bertram Russell’s “celestial teapot” was a good way of illustrating that: if someone claimed that there’s a china teapot orbiting the Sun somewhere between Earth and Mars, but too small to be detected by any telescope, would it be “hubris” to think that it doesn’t exist and the believer was “deluded”?

  • idea21 says:

    “religion is not the same thing as *faith.* Faith represents a relationship with God”
    among the several meanings of “Faith”, some of them are acceptable for atheists, as Sam Harris wrote in “The End of Faith” (Faith meaning the willingness to act as action being necessary even if reason has not reached to be completely enlightening yet – action cannot be always delayed)

    “religion/faith/belief in some sort of magic or superstition probably will never be eliminated. They are human creations that will continue to meet, for some people, human needs.”

    So thinking sounds to me a little like someone at the time of Aristotle claiming that slaveship could never be eliminated or social equality for women being a joke.

    Magic and superstition will be eliminated in the future, as many other human instincts like aggressiveness, male dominance, groupalism (nationalism) and blood links, but that cannot be done by ignoring the reason why religion appeared, the need of using some kind of psychological strategies precisely to appease those human instincts not useful anymore beyond the our ancestors´ hunter-gatherer´s way of life.

    Religion is not against rationality. Just on the contrary, in history, Religion shows the evolution of social thinking. From magic to a plurality of indetermined spirits, from many gods to only one, from one anthropomorfic God to a deistic approach. From deism to atheism. Religion is always evolving in order to reach the goal of appeasing human instincts. The final result should be a rational and fully cooperative human civilization. And only then religion (whatever kind of religion) would become dispensable.

    excuse for my defective english

  • Jeremy Rodell says:

    While not accepting the (in my view false) analogy with slavery or gender inequality, I would really like to believe that we will attain the “rational and fully cooperative human civilization” in which “religion…would become dispensable”. That would be wonderful. But there isn’t a lot of evidence to suggest we will get therein the foreseeable future. There are, in my view, some major elements missing:
    – Education for everyone which, directly or indirectly, enables critical thinking.
    – A universal willingness to engage in critical thinking and both to give up comforting ideas of an “otherness” (which, when needed, provides a source of hope)
    – Universal freedom of thought and belief, and a willingness to fight against those whose source of personal identity, power and influence lies in mass religious belief and institutions.
    – Some other source of community, and genuine willingness to help each other, that are common features of religious bodies and groupings, probably under-pinned by shared narratives.

    I think a more realistic ideal is a plural society in which there is genuine freedom of thought and speech, and freedom to change belief; in which those who decide to adhere to religious beliefs are respected as fellow human beings; in which religious institutions continue to exist as far as they are needed to meet the requirements of their adherents, and therefore are free to speak in the same way that any other institution is free to do so; but in which they have no special power or privilege.

    Even here in the UK – in practice one of the most secular countries – we are quite a way away from that.

  • Meghan says:

    JR-you say that not believing in God does not constitute hubris. You’re right; but it *is* hubris to assume that those who do believe are “deluded.”
    For instance, using that terminology exploits a longstanding cultural association between psychiatric disability and harmful people/events/beliefs, Saying “you’re delusional” furthers a cultural climate of ableism.

  • Jeremy Rodell says:

    I think I’ve made clear in my last comment that I believe strongly that those who have religious belief should be respected as fellow human beings. And I’d go further and say that the important of their beliefs in their lives should be respected. I am actively involved in “inter-faith” work and think it’s essential in a plural society. Of course, once someone goes out of their way to evangelise or accuses me of “hubris” then I’ll argue back!

    I quoted the word “deluded” from your earlier post, which was accusing even those humanists like me who don’t agree with the New Atheist position, of “hubris”. I guess here we’re into the quirks of the English language. If you’re taking it to imply that anyone with religious belief has a psychiatric disability, then that is certainly not what I intended or believe and we need to find another word for “socially accepted irrational belief”.

    But it is not “hubris” to say that someone who believes there’s a china teapot orbiting the Sun (ref my example from Bertram Russell) has an irrational belief. The fact that there are lots of other people who share that belief, that it has been around for a long period and they have great institutions behind them, doesn’t make any difference. The onus is on them to demonstrate that their belief has some foundation. It is not hubristic to believe that, until they have done so, that “the truth” is that the teapot exists only in their imaginations.

    My guess is that you think the Scientology beliefs about thetans from outer space is similarly irrational, and you don’t consider that opinion to be hubristic.

  • idea21 says:

    “I think a more realistic ideal is a plural society in which there is genuine freedom of thought and speech, and freedom to change belief; in which those who decide to adhere to religious beliefs are respected as fellow human beings; in which religious institutions continue to exist as far as they are needed to meet the requirements of their adherents, and therefore are free to speak in the same way that any other institution is free to do so; but in which they have no special power or privilege.”

    If we see cultural evolution in history, we should accept the fact that many basic features of societies of the past (rules, habits, patterns of behavior) are not existing today even at the level of minority beliefs. Ignoring changes of cultural patterns in the past means also ignoring the coming changes in the feature.

    So, although today we can see that political and religious freedom is still an actual goal to reach, we cannot prepare the future (needed also of coming beliefs) by ignoring the human capacity to develope new ways of thinking, feeling and behaving toward our fellowmen.

    Current religions are based on old traditions, imitating the old rites, temples, sacraments, mythical stories, systems of dogma. It is easily forgotten that creating that kind of religious elements took long time and the final result was very different from the first religious acting. We can learn that by reading books of anthropology.

    So, as a consequence of rational thinking we should realize that if people today still need religion mostly for the same reasons that people of the past (social insufficiencies: violence, poverty, selfishness, loneliness) nonetheless we cannot give them the same kind of religion anymore. What XXI century needs is not more religions patterned after the traditional ones (with rites, supernatural entities, temples and ceremonies) but a rational formula using the same core elements of religion but now with modern elements of control for the always problematic antisocial instincts.

    XX century was of marxism. An attempt of creating a political religion, supposedly rational (scientific), with the same goals that most of supernaturalist religions: reaching Paradise on earth. That experience failed, but it should have taught us something. Now we are in XXI century.

    As long as I know, no one is working on that. For example, people think that “rites” are basic for any religion. But what are rites?, why are they useful for? Basically, rites are conventional acts that by imitation pretend to give a sensation of unity and appeasement. I think that, for example, rites could be replaced by mutual self-control of outer behavior, more or less like in a school of acting.

    People today go to psychotherapy or counselling just to stop smoking or hard drinking. That is an example of a rational approach to control our problems of behavior by using particular psychological strategies. But no one has realized that the whole current human civilization (mainstream society) also needs therapy. That is what religions are for. Even today therapists working supposedly rationally are still powerless to control extreme cases of antisocial behavior, for example, with violent criminals in the prissons… but the old traditional religions are still able to change them much easier than psychologists. If irrational thinking is still working better in many cases than mainstream rationality, I understand this “rationality” requires to be improved.

  • Meghan says:

    “I quoted the word “deluded” from your earlier post, which was accusing even those humanists like me who don’t agree with the New Atheist position, of “hubris”. I guess here we’re into the quirks of the English language. If you’re taking it to imply that anyone with religious belief has a psychiatric disability, then that is certainly not what I intended or believe and we need to find another word for “socially accepted irrational belief”.

    Jeremy: I apologize if my comment gave the impression that I was accusing all atheists of hubris. The term “hubris” wasn’t meant to be a personal insult or accusation. Like the use of the term “deluded,” to criticize religious belief, it was meant to be a general critique of New Atheism/atheism that makes the demise of religion a goal. I was deliberately attempting to exclude people who respect people of faith and who just happen to be atheists.

    That being said; yes, the term “deluded” has the inextricable connotation of psychiatric disability. I believe that people like Dawkins and Bill Mahr know this and are using this association to try and discredit people. This carries the implication that those with psychiatric disabilities are incapable of rational thought. What Dawkins/Mahr/the New Atheists *mean* to say doesn’t matter: such language reifies ableism.

    Speaking of abeism, I would still like someone to engage my point regarding Peter Singer’s use of abeism in his work. He is a New Atheist, yet he has embraced ableist ideas that Disability Studies attributes to social conditioning. Ie, the Social Model is premised on the idea that these ideas are irrational. If so, then doesn’t that indicate that atheists are just as predisposed to irrational thought as believers are?

  • Aaron Schroeder says:

    “Thus beliefs could be the means of working out whether a person is safe to trust. If this was their function, they would necessarily have to be arbitrary so that they could not be worked out through logic.”

    or “Then they said unto him, ‘Say now “Shibboleth”‘, and he said ‘Sibboleth’.”

  • idea21 says:

    cultural evolution, supposedly, tends to show trends of better or worse ways to trust other people. Basic principle should be full trust leading to full cooperation. And that would not be arbitrary

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