Herding Cats
Why Atheism Will Lose
by Francois Tremblay (e-mail: FTremblay@liberator.net) [March 9th, 2000]

     Verily, I say to thee... I bring not a message of hope, but of despair. And the message is that atheism is doomed to failure.
     I can already hear you saying, "what the hell is he talking about?" What I mean is the following: atheism in and of itself will never be dominant in our culture. It is condemned to be a minority viewpoint, forever disconnected from societal and moral trends.
     The last century has seen the percentage of non-religious people increase and the percentage of atheists in the population is now estimated to be between 10 and 13% right now. So my claim seems rather spurious. But shrewd readers may have noticed I said "in and of itself." Let me explain what I mean.
     Atheism, as commonly defined by atheists, expresses a lack of belief, or disbelief, in deities. It is not a positive belief in anything, but a negative concept. That is why atheists, inasmuch as they are atheists, are nothing like a coherent or concerted group. Organizations like American Atheists serve a role of broadcasting information more than anything else, because there cannot be concerted action when nobody agrees on what to do (except of course on direct concerns like the rights of atheists or separation of church and state). Most atheists disagree strongly on whenever atheism should be propagated, or promoted, and on the matter of doing so.
     There are good reasons for this. An important premise is that we have to examine the problem in the light of the non-acceptance of atheism in our modern society. Surveys show that atheism is the least liked "religious belief," even below Scientology. When people prefer pseudo-robots who use electric circuits to find their past lives and exorcise small aliens from their body to atheists, you know there's at least an image problem.
     From this fact, we must conclude that being an atheist requires a lot of intellectual independence. As I like to say, "To be open-minded is to be misanthropic; to most people, reasonable disagreement is hatred." At any rate, the independence of reason entails a strong possibility of non-cohesion. And when there are no strong, popularized positive systems of belief that appeal to this peculiar population, it is perfectly normal to find a total lack of cohesion.
     In contrast, the role of faith has mostly been to give cohesion and focus to a group. Religion in particular steals the place of valid worldviews because its memetic complex of positive beliefs gives this sense of belonging to a group that supports one's views. Strong-atheism, being a positive belief, can fulfill part of this role. However, it is only a positive belief about one, inconsequential point, the existence of gods.
     Another problem of atheism qua atheism is that it does not contain its own basis. What I mean by this is that atheism is a punctual, ontological belief, which is itself the implicit or explicit result of metaphysical and epistemological deductions. Any reply to an attack on this basis cannot come directly from atheism. Concentrating oneself only on being an atheist is like trying to build a house from the second floor up. It may look less costly on paper, and for people who only build houses in their imagination this may be a good way of seeing it, but it's not good enough for a serious endeavour. And most importantly, it's too fragile. I see too many religionists attacking atheism from the bottom and atheists being unable to adequately reply to the arguments. If the atheist cannot answer to his most fundamental beliefs on the nature of reality and cognition, then his atheism is worthless in terms of validation. It is nothing more than a big paper tiger, made from the finest cardboard.
     One last problem that undermines any propagation of atheism is inspiration. Let's be honest here, "there is no god!" is not a very motivating call for most people. It's not that there are no reasons to fight the influence of religion in our daily lives. It's just that it's not a very inspiring call to arms. Besides, atheists, as a general rule, tend to be more intelligent, independent and productive people, and therefore have other things to do. The problem is that by doing so, they let society undermine their efforts through wasteful laws, customs and regulations.
     Atheism and freethinking in general have nothing to go for them, apart from being reason-able and good. But reason and truth doesn't sell.
     These problems are reflected in reality. Awareness of atheism has not really changed since the beginning of the Enlightenment. Indeed, it could be said with much evidence that the Golden Age of atheism is behind us.
     The turn of the last century saw incredible atheist luminaries like Joseph McCabe, who wrote a whole library of atheist books and was a popular lecturer in his day, Robert Ingersoll, of whom opposing attorneys, when he testified in various causes, said that his eloquence "is famed over two continents and in the islands of the seas (...) and transcending the oratory of Greece and Rome", and who was foreseen as possible President of the United States (a thing that would be unthinkable today!), when atheist writers had columns in the newspapers of the day, and the orators of the field were more popular than the pop singers of today, even without considering the subsequent increase in population. Surely such men of valour do not have the opportunity, nor the popular demand, to express themselves today as they used to. Nowadays the only people who can muster that kind of frenzy are religious leaders and preachers.
     Atheism is eternal in terms of human existence, but the conscious widespread notion of explicit atheism, as a choice of disbelief, is, in terms of meme complexes, very recent. There were people who put forward arguments for atheist of all times, but the term "a-theism" itself originates approximately from the end of the 16th century, and atheism itself did not start in earnest until the 19th century. This makes atheism one of the youngest established "religious beliefs." Not that atheism is religious, mind you, but it is the best designation we have for this type of position.
     Because of this recent emergence, we have good reasons to suppose that the growth of atheism is due to simple propagation of the idea, and is not any kind of permanent trend. As religion's grip on culture has weakened, people can more easily assess this kind of positions. As the mediums of communication transcend distance and time, we can expect that most meme complexes will be quickly available to anyone, and that we will then attain the upper limit of possible belief, constrained by people's psycho-epistemological choices.
     This is why I think atheism qua atheism will, and must, lose.

Non-Spiritual Spirituality

     So what's the point of working on atheist apologetics like I do? Nobody likes to work for the losing side.
     People want to believe in something, that is pretty obvious. But why do people believe? There are three influences on people's beliefs, in order of importance: genetic instincts, education and society, and individual thought. Genetic instincts, in turn, can be divided in three general categories: the level of survival, the level of other problems, and personal impulses.
     There is no need to go in detail here. What is of import is that religious thought in general fulfills the two strongest categories of belief-catalysts. People believe in religions because of the doctrine of the immortal soul, because of the strong desire to survive to one's corporeal death. People also believe in religions because they purport to solve one's problems in life: get one out of a miserable lifestyle by belief in God, as well as solving other problems by the use of prayers (which are nothing more than glorified magical spells) to God. Religion, through churches and communities, also give people a sense of belonging and comfort.
     Atheism alone, being the absence of a belief, only opens the mind to possibilities: it does not meet these expectations. To be able to fulfill them, we must present a set of positive beliefs which are atheistic in nature, an atheistic religion.
     Yes, there are already atheistic religions out there. Some are dubious in nature. Some are much more reasonable. My personal favourite, LaVeyan Satanism, comes to mind.
     What should such a movement incorporate? First, you need hope - hope of a better future and a better world. Science and technology can offer such a hope. Unfortunately there is a lot of aggressiveness and fear towards these things today, and this seems to be another universal constant, for some reason. Perhaps this is because we fear far-reaching novelty and the disturbance they entail.
     You need to have ways to make your daily life better, as well as the lives of the people around you. Reason and philosophy in general, are great ways to do that. Being unconstrained by doctrines makes a freethinking way of living much more likely to be truthful and good than any other. And we have made great strides in terms of ethical technology in order to make this possible.
     You also need periodical rituals. Human beings crave rituals, to mark the passage of time and important events, not to mention well-deserved holidays. Of course, the most obvious is one's birthday. Personally I've always thought we should do like the hobbits and give out gifts at our birthday instead of receiving them: you only have to shop once. But that's not really the custom around here.
     Rand talked about "repossessing the language." She believed strongly in that and drew much controversy around her use of the word "egoism." In the same vein, the noble religious language, which is used to designate chimeras and gross evils, could be repossessed for our own use. Here I can't help but think about pantheists, who look to reality as a great wonder. It is, in fact, a great wonder: and reality is what, objectively, we look into to find truth. In that sense, it is very much like gods. Reality is also the most potent, scient entity that we know of, because after all we are part of it. I think it is the series Babylon 5 which had a character say "we are the universe made manifest of itself," but I digress.
     My point is that atheism cannot stand alone. It needs to be integrated in a coherent, robust whole, and become a mere consequence, an indirect truth. Indeed, from a general philosophical point of view, atheism is a consequence, not a premise.
     Ironically, by reducing atheism to nothingness, we elevate it to the greatest heights. If we can get rid of our near-sightedness, atheists and scientists alike, we can change this world in a more profound way than Robert Ingersoll could have ever thought of.

[Visit Francois Tremblay's personal pages at http://www.objectivethought.com.]

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