Religion as a symptom

I was thinking about why the atheism thing seems important to me at the moment.

I don’t think I’ve ever articulated it to myself explicitly before, but I think it amounts to a sense that if, in a hundred years time, the world is less religious — fewer believers and less fervent belief — that’s a sign that it’s moving in a good direction. And alternatively, if humankind is more religious, that’s a sign that something has gone wrong.

I’m not suggesting that it’s the only possible measure of ‘progress’, or even the best one — much better to use direct measures like life-expectancy, school leaving age, literacy rates, human rights violations or whatever. But still, I think of it as a kind of weather-vane; increased religiosity seems like a symptom of some kind of underlying problem.

I have no evidence to back it up, and not much of an argument beyond a sense that a culture is healthiest when it values reason and independent thought over inherited ideas. But that’s how I feel.

Of course, if the religiosity is just a symptom of some different underlying problem, then religious belief is the wrong target. But still, the sense that, for the first time in my life, religion might be becoming more influential rather than less makes me deeply uneasy.

11 Comments

  1. 18 October 2006 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

    “Of course, if the religiosity is just a symptom of some different underlying problem, then religious belief is the wrong target.”

    Some different underlying *problem*, or some different underlying *need*? My feeling (and you’re right, we can all only have feelings in this regard) is that if religion didn’t exist, humankind would invent it. Oh wait, we already did. The God-shaped vacuum thing. I think the best we can hope for in the years ahead is a realization that the fact that deities do fulfil a human need does not necessarily mean that they are some objectively existing reality. Cheers, Nic

  2. Harry
    18 October 2006 at 9:06 pm | Permalink

    Obviously religion has an appeal for a lot of people, or it wouldn’t be as successful as it is. But I think you can overstate the significance of the God-shaped hole; there have always been a lot of people who, though nominally religious, actually don’t show much sign of it.

    I don’t think we know whether or not a genuinely irreligious society woul dbe stable and functional, because it’s never been tried.

  3. 19 October 2006 at 3:30 am | Permalink

    I agree that reason should be prized above most other things (it, like all things, can be over-valued; we are still emotional animals) but I envy those with faith. I was born without it and therefore faith seems wonderful. To have something else that is culpable for your failings–fab! All atheists have is themselves and their precious logic, which is less comforting.

    Religion, however, is the root of all the ‘evil’ (I use the term cautiously) in the world. I cannot think of a war or genocide that has been caused without a god somewhere in the middle.

    Humans are religious creatures, there has never been a culture discovered which had no belief system. Fundamentalism is wrong but faith seems to be part of our make-up. It’s the rules we make up to justify it which go so badly wrong.

    Just my (drunken) two cents.

    Eloise

  4. 19 October 2006 at 5:45 am | Permalink

    “I cannot think of a war or genocide that has been caused without a god somewhere in the middle.”

    Uh … Rwanda?

    On the other hand, Harry, from my perspective, it is the concept of “progress” itself that is responsible for much of the suffering that continues to afflict much of the world. I believe that many global inequalities have less to do with a sort of ladder of development than with the notion that Europe’s development (and, spinning off that, North America’s) was fundamentally rooted in the conquest of the so-called New World. Whole economies were destroyed and replaced with systems whose sole purpose was to provide Europe (Spain, France, Britain in particular) with raw materials of various kinds, many of which helped to generate the very capital that sparked the industrial revolution. That this has barely changed with whatever fluctuations of philosophy that have prevailed in Europe suggests to me that religion is far less relevant here than human self-centredness. Catholicism, the survival of the fittest, fundamentalism, social Darwinism — these are equally culpable in my view.

  5. Harry
    19 October 2006 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    “I cannot think of a war or genocide that has been caused without a god somewhere in the middle.”

    World War One?

    More generally, I tend to believe that the single biggest source of human misery in the C20th century, more so even than war, was the behaviour of dictators towards their own subjects: Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Kim Il-Sung, the Shah of Iran, Saddam Hussein, Pinochet, Idi Amin, Haile Selassie, Ceauşescu, Khomeini… and the list goes on. Some claimed religious justification; rather more claimed to be motivated by political ideology. Judging by their actions, most were actually motivated by power. So no, I don’t believe that religion is the root of all evil. If I did, I’d be expressing myself more forcefully on the issue.

    And I’m also wary of the concept of progress and of people who do things in its name. Which is why I put it in scare-quotes. But one way or another, the world will be a better place or a worse one in a 100 years time. The most important factors in that will no doubt be politics and trade, but if religion does play a major part, I suspect it’ll be for the worse.

  6. 19 October 2006 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

    “But one way or another, the world will be a better place or a worse one in a 100 years time. The most important factors in that will no doubt be politics and trade, but if religion does play a major part, I suspect it’ll be for the worse.”

    Fair enough, if such global statements make sense; I’m not sure they do, but that’s another story. I think what I react to in your first post was this bit:

    “if, in a hundred years time, the world is less religious — fewer believers and less fervent belief — that’s a sign that it’s moving in a good direction. And alternatively, if humankind is more religious, that’s a sign that something has gone wrong.”

    Well, I don’t know about that. I started to answer you here, but took up so much space on your blog that I decided to do something serious for once on Scavella.

    I think religion is a scapegoat here as much as a symptom. It prevents us from discussing what may be the real issue — the fundamental inequalities that govern the world, most of which are glaringly obvious to all now through the ubiquity of information, despite hegemonies that claim that the world is “progressing”. When two thirds of the world sees that progress only on its beaches, its expatriates’ enclaves, or its leaders’ homes, almost anything can happen.

  7. 19 October 2006 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    “If, in a hundred years time, the world is less religious — fewer believers and less fervent belief — that’s a sign that it’s moving in a good direction. And alternatively, if humankind is more religious, that’s a sign that something has gone wrong.”

    What would be worse: a world where the majority of people were less tolerant of religious beliefs – many identifying religious believers to be delusional and possibly dangerous; or a world dominated by one religious sect intent on imposing their religious beliefs on the rest of the population? I see no difference between the two scenarios – both involve one set of people trying to impose their views on religion on other sets of people.

    Myself, I prefer a diverse approach – a host of religious and non-religious beliefs and believers managing to live alongside each other (sometimes harmoniously, sometimes fractiously) but no group or individual afraid to speak out about their own personal beliefs, nobody fearful of saying the wrong thing that could lead to their public humiliation, injury or death.

    Something a bit like my bit of London, where people can choose to advertise their religious affiliations through veils, turbans, skullcaps, crosses on necklaces, outragously colourful outfits on Sundays, etc, etc, or can equally choose to keep their religious or non-religious beliefs to themselves by dressing gangsta, chav, business, hippy, mod, greaser, punk, lady, etc, etc, etc.

    What atheists really need is a good symbol to represent their non-belief – helix earrings or something. Then everybody’s on the same playing field.

    Have an excellent holiday and don’t let the longhaul journey depress you!

  8. Harry
    19 October 2006 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Rik, I’m sure I will.

    Scavella – I started to reply to your post over at your place, but it was taking too much thinking and I decided it was more important to do my packing. If I fly past the Bahamas tomorrow I’ll give you a wave.

  9. 19 October 2006 at 7:37 pm | Permalink

    Hee. You should fly over The Bahamas, I imagine — hard to get to Cuba from your direction without doing so!

    Waving back.

  10. Gene
    20 October 2006 at 5:40 am | Permalink

    I cannot think of single war fought over belief in the existence of a god. Fanatics ( true-believers) are not whipped into fighting frenzy by belief in a prime-mover or a benevolent caretaker. It takes belief in a devil to instill fear and activate the primal urge to repel an aggressor– real or imagined. What is truly unfortunate is that demonization is not solely the province of organized religion.
    Let me illustrate( hypothetically): As Harry stated- there seems to be correlation between the rise religious adherence and the predominance of some of our nastier social problems. At this point for Harry( our representative non-believer) that correlation is expressed as being merely symptomatic. Time goes by and the social socio-political situation doesn’t improve in fact it appears to worsening. Meeting at the local campus pub, with couple of his more erudite buddies( both non-believers), the discussion turns to the present state of world affairs. During the course of that discussion it its deemed that in almost every conflict or incidence of broad social injustice one more the offending participants are flaunting a religious affiliation. At the end of the night the most reasonable conclusion drawn, regarding the sad state of affairs, is that religious fervor is in fact causal. Later that year Harry’s company is bought-out by a Christian based conglomerate from the U.S.; his job is one of the first lost to downsizing. Due to financial constraints he is forced to temporarily move in with his sister and her family, the one married to a Iraqi processor, teaching at Oxford. His stay there is short since he can’t bear to see his sister treated like a second citizen in her own home. He takes a room at the local flop house. First night there he checks the lobby bulletin-board– there is flyer advertising a meeting of AATW ( Atheist against the war). Harry is intrigued and attends his first meeting. He is delighted to find such a large group liked minded people. Much of the rhetoric being espoused that night is outlining strategy for defeating the religious right’s candidates in the next election, since they are the primary supporters of the war. There is also much discussion about the right’s push to teach creationism in the schools. This is seen as first step in a move to ban the teaching of evolution. Most of AATW members see this as a serious threat to their freedom of belief. Harry agrees and adds his name to growing list of supporters. After all somebody needs to take a stand against what is fast becoming an epidemic of wrong thinking promoted by religious zealots( aka- evil incarnate).

    Notice that at no time, during this transformation of symptom-to cause- to threat- to demonized entity, did Harry’s non-belief in god play an active roll. It was simply a self-defining term. The entity was born out of the perception of an eminent threat to his right to that non-belief.

    Gene

  11. 20 October 2006 at 7:42 pm | Permalink

    I think maybe we’re still in our millenium madness—at least over here in the states all the nuts think the end is near.

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