May 10, 2012

Why humanists need to make the shift to post-atheism

I'm getting increasingly annoyed by all the anti-religious propaganda that litters my Facebook newsfeed.

Look, as a fellow humanist and atheist, I get it. Organized religion is a problem on so many levels that I don't even know where to begin. I'd be the first person to say that something needs to be done about it and I'm delighted to see atheism become normalized in our society and culture.

But seriously, folks, what are you hoping to achieve by posting such facile and inflammatory material? Who are you speaking to? Are you doing it to make yourself feel better? Or do you really feel that through this kind of mindless slacktivism that you're making a difference and actually impacting on real lives?

It's time to put these toys away and consider the bigger picture. Humanists need to start helping people make the transition away from religion, while at the same time working to create a relevant and vital humanist movement for the 21st century.

The intellectual battle against religion has already been won — and a strong case can be made that the victory came at the time of the Enlightenment. The struggle now is to find out why religion continues to persist in our society and what we can do about it. I have a strong suspicion that posting pictures of silly church signs isn't helping.

For those of you who have been part of organized religion, you know how hard it is to break free. I'm one of them. Compounding the inner turmoil and cognitive dissonance is the problem of breaking free from the in-group. It is not easy for people to just pack up and leave their communities, nor is it easy for them to face the inevitable backlash from their families. The thought of leaving religion can be completely debilitating on so many levels. Posting a rabid comment or image on your Facebook wall isn't going to help anyone get through this. In fact, all you're doing is re-enforcing a tribalistic urge and alienating those most in need of help. These actions can only serve to stratify and polarize the lines even further.

Instead, what I'd rather see are more focused efforts on understanding how and why religion continues to spread, and what kinds of interventions and approaches are most effective at helping individuals move past it. There's been amazing work done in this area by such thinkers as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, both of whom subscribe to the meme theory of religious propagation. I myself have argued that religious fundamentalism is a kind of disease and that religion works best by dictating the reproductive processes of its hosts. I'd like to see more work done in this area as we work to improve our cultural health.

In addition, we need to figure out the best way to pull religious people out of their situation. This is probably the most difficult challenge, and there are no easy answers. I'm a staunch believer in education and the idea that we need to equip children at a young age with the powers of free thought, critical thinking, and skepticism. We can't make decisions for others, but we can give them the tools to help them make the right decisions for themselves. More radically, for those deeply entrenched in fundamentalist religions and cults, there's always the possibility of deprogramming. The trick is to start the intervention.

Lastly, I'm hoping to see atheists move past the religion bashing and start thinking about more substantive issues. This is what I mean when I say post-atheism. It's time to set aside the angst and work more productively to help those who need it, while working to develop a world view and set of guidelines for living without God. It's unfortunate and tragic that so many humanists have equated the movement with atheism, while completely forgetting their progressive roots.

Humanism is about the betterment of all humanity and the contemplation of what it is we wish to become. It's about taking control of our own lives in the absence of divine intervention. And it's about taking responsibility for ourselves and doing the right thing.

This is where our energies and attention needs to be focused. Not in ridiculous Facebook timeline posts that serve no one.


Unknown said...

"The intellectual battle against religion has already been won — and a strong case can be made that the victory came at the time of the Enlightenment."

That's a common argument, but it's actually not true. Most Enlightenment intellectuals were not Atheists or irreligious, they were Deists. The power of the church was broken, but not of religion.

Meme theory is for some reason popular, but I think it's another of those cases where a metaphor is mistaken for reality. The idea that ideas are like genes may be alluring, but while genes are identifiable as acid structures, ideas can't be reduced to things called memes, and the idea that ideas want to reproduce lacks any empirical evidence, I think.

Your proposal to "help" those poor unfortunate religious souls is very objectifying and condescending, you don't take them as independent thinkers seriously. "Deprogramming" is one of the creepiest things on Earth, and it's a kind of torture imho.

I am kind of baffled why seem to equate Humanism with Atheism, even though you urge Humanists to expand beyond atheism; there are plenty religious Humanists, and plenty Non-Humanist Atheists - remember Ayn Rand? What you mean is called Secular Humanism. Correct terminology is important here. This is also the main reason why many Atheists concentrate on anti-religious stuff - because they don't agree on anything else.

George said...

Let's not get carried away and understate the importance of the Enlightenment as an epochal era as far as the delegitimization of religion is concerned. While I agree that transformation didn't happen overnight, it's fair to suggest that any serious branch of intellectual inquiry that emerged after the Enlightenment did so without reference to traditional metaphysical baggage.

Ideas don't "want" to reproduce. Memetics is, at its very core, a study of human psychology—why people feel the desire to share certain ideas, and why others are responsive to them. Seems pretty tangible to me.

How can you say that about deprogramming? Persons brainwashed by cults or religious fundamentalism can really be helped with this approach. I suggest you watch this TED talk.

And yes, I could have made a better effort distinguishing Secular Humanism from other variants of humanism; your point is well taken.

igmagogon said...

I think you nailed it George. Hating religious people won't change or improve very much. Tantrums and name-calling certainly won't help.

Building constructively on a world view that looks at what's in front of our faces and avoids the magical thinking of religion will do more to change minds.

Non-religious people can look rationally at things like abortion, stem cell research, same-sex unions and a whole raft of other issues.

Athiesm, humanism, post-atheism, whatever you want to call it, can validate many people and their concerns, and can win supporters by targeting realistic, down-to-earth solutions for many problems currently mired in theological hand-wringing.

Show this side of yourselves to other people and leave their religion alone. That part will take care of itself.

As long as they're not blowing themselves up, killing doctors, or murdering daughters, people can believe what they want.

nazgulnarsil said...

The people posting crap want to signal their affiliations. It's just normal teenager-esque rebellion.

Jörg Reinhardt said...

the enduring of religion has nothing to do with meme's other meme's vanish without hesitation when there time is come.
It's about the role religion plays for religious people: Life is hard, unfair and we have to make up the sense of it for ourselfs. As social beeings the wish for fairness and happyness lives in all of us. Religion promises fairness, consolation and the power to stand throug bad times (as someone who works with sick and dying people, I can assure you it almost never delivers), it also promises that live has a sense, so you can't "fail" it (common angst of soooo many people).
If we as humanists want a society where ratio decides, we have to find solutions for the wish of people for fairness, sense and consolidation.
When you're ill, cripled, or your child is dying, the philosophical knowledge that such things happen, doesn't help you to go on with your live.
Psychologie and Sociology have to find ites, based on ratio, that we as a society can use to comfort one another, give sense to our lives and find common grounds for all the questions that can't be answered by ratio alone.

Tessa Schlesinger said...

Great piece. I agree. I don't even want to belong to atheist and humanist groups because I've moved on...

That said, I do find it difficult when I'm in the company of religious people and they want to convert me. I don't want to have to spend time reiterating what I've long worked through.

Recently, I did come to a point where I decided that I wanted to start presenting some solutions...

Um. The question is how. :)

Yog Sothoth said...

Yes and No.

Didn't Nietzsche write something in Zarathustra about people mocking and blaspheming God as a way of accepting the Death of God?

The hardcore Atheist mode doesn't do anything for me now, but it is an understandable temporary transitional period.

At the same time, religion is still powerful in American society. I am actually grateful for the presence of abrasive atheists because I no longer have the emotional commitment to the atheist cause I once did. (To me, it is just obvious, and it is hard to get passionate when you are arguing about something on the level of "the Sun is bright") Just as I appreciate loud activists for the legalization of marijuana, scientific openness, or for leftist economic policies. The people who oppose atheism will not ever stop until they are dead because they are driven by insanely powerful emotional commitments, and they rightly perceive that they are losing. We NEED counter-fundamentalists to prevent reaction.

Sean the Mystic said...

Isn’t a humanist essentially an atheist with no balls? I.e., don’t you want the values of Judeo-Christian civilization without the theistic foundations? Transhumanism I can respect, but secular humanism has little future in an atheistic, technological world. There is no reason, in a atheistic, Darwinian world, why I should care about “the betterment of all humanity” or “doing the right thing” – this is pure religious thinking! An atheism-dominated world is about power, period – you need to look to Nietzsche and the Sith, not Jesus or the Jedi, for your models! As we’ve seen in places like the Soviet Union and China, if atheism prevails you are likely to see a return to the kind of harshness and brutality that was normal in the pre-Christian world. You really need to think a little more deeply about these issues, and look into your own heart of darkness, before you so righteously call for dispensing with an institution that has done far more to tame the beast called man and make civilization possible than any secular humanist philosophy!

ZarPaulus said...

@The Lurker at the Threshold: The percentage of non-religious in the U.S. is growing, the Evangelicals are reacting and losing.

Those atheists who go out of their way to insult religion aren't "counter-fundamentalists", they are fundamentalists.

Fundamentalism is the demand for a strict adherence to specific theological doctrines, combined with a vigorous attack on outside threats to their religious culture.

ZarPaulus said...

@Sean: Compare the accomplishments of post-enlightenment Western society to those who have merely stolen from them.

The Soviets and China forced atheism, or rather the religion of Communism with its prophet the Dear Leader, on their people. That is just one of the many poor judgement calls they made that resulted in the deaths of millions.

And remember, even Charles Darwin believed that his theory would be detrimental to any society that tried to implement it.

Unknown said...

George, I think you have very succinctly presented an excellent position on how atheists and/or secular humanists should/could proceed! While education will do a lot in terms of presenting rational options to understand reality, emotionally it is NOT that easy to depart form worldviews entrenched in our minds perhaps as survival strategies when one does not or cannot conceptualize better!

Laura said...

Yeah, I think post atheism is more likely to involve a lot of argument over the proper foundations for the values we hold as a society than it is unified effort towards any of those. On the other hand, I almost see humanism, secular or otherwise as a backlash against the dogmatism of traditional religion, rather than the logical progression of values from religion or some sort of natural value system that is revealed when you take religion away. I think as atheism becomes more commonplace, humanism will also decline somewhat, at least in the sense that it is considered the natural alternative value system from atheism. But humanism I think does have its advantages and rationales. It is a part of human nature to have empathy for people like us. Globalisation is bringing us to the point where it is tough to justify us vs. them arguments for institutional oppression. And in a world where people have a decent chance, it means security for you and yours despite the vagaries of politics.

Abraxas Z said...

I think your idea is well-intentioned, George, but I actually think inflammatory posts are one of the main reasons atheism is becoming normalized.

You asked "who are you talking to?" The answer, in most cases, is: no one in particular. And that's why it's an effective tool.

As someone who was raised Catholic and had a hard time fully emancipating himself (and knowing many others just like me) I can say that a big part of why people stick to their guns is that they're embarrassed not to. They've gone so long spouting utter nonsense that to back down would be too devastating. The only way out for those people is to gradually adjust their positions until they can quietly pass into a life of non-belief, and they do that by taking in impersonal criticism of their beliefs. The internet IS education and, most importantly, it's indirect. You're not going to win anyone over face-to-face when their pride is at stake.