Religion and the Rise of Atheism
Recently my friend, Lloyd Agte, forwarded an article to me asking if I wanted to weigh in on it.  The article posed the question: “Will religion ever disappear?” The author is Rachel Nuwer. It was a fairly long article so I printed it out in order to be able to mark areas I wanted to respond to specifically. As I read the piece I thought of several of my friends who identify themselves as atheists. I also realized my comments might end up too long for a simple email response. So, here is my attempt to “weigh in” on the discussion.
First, here is my disclaimer. I am a retired Unity minister whom one might expect to be biased to begin with. That said I have over the years modified my belief systems in many respects. I do believe in God, though my perspective is certainly different from traditionalists or fundamentalists. I hope you will see what I mean as I proceed.
I used to argue that there are no “real” atheists. They were simply folks who did not believe in God by that name or characteristics. Surely they believed in the Cosmos, the “greater than I” aspect of self, or some other concept of life that most persons would include in the broad definition of God. Generally speaking, most atheists do not believe in some form of life after death, no divine plan that is responsible for the unseen order of all that is. For those persons there is one shot at life and this is it. Oblivion follows.
While the article points out that atheism is growing, both in sheer numbers as well as a percentage of the world population, it is still a relatively small population. Should such growth continue, one could postulate that religion, as we know it would eventually disappear. Of course, the reverse could be true as well, given the proclivity of “believers” to hold on to their faith.
In the course of my education I was introduced to a definition of religion in its simplest of form. Religion is a system of beliefs. Interpreted most broadly this could cover almost every conceivable set of beliefs one might subscribe to, including atheists. Their “system of beliefs” would include such things as one life to live, nature as a system of adaptations supported by scientific principles. Indeed, science would be the cause celebre for explaining the physical world and all of its forces.
The article also pointed out that religion’s appeal is that it offers security in an uncertain world. So, the more secure and satisfying the world appears to be, the less need for the support offered by religion and the greater tendency to see scientific thought/principles as the reason for the way things are. I was reminded at this point of early humankind who placed great emphasis on “gods” of nature; the movement of stars in the skies, the rotation of the seasons, and eventually the understanding of development through evolution. Icons were developed representing these unseen forces that appeared to bring order and security (or the lack of it when necessary to correct the faulty behavior of humankind).
The author indicates that in countries “where the majority of citizens have European roots are all places where religion was important just a century ago, but that now report some of the lowest belief rates in the world . . . People are less scared about what might befall them.” She goes on to say, “As climate change wreaks havoc on the world in coming years and natural resources potentially grow scarce, then suffering and hardship could fuel religiosity.”
One of the principles the author shares has to do neuropsychology of the species. This principle states that we have two basic forms of thought: System 1 and System 2. System 2 evolved relatively recently and enables us to plan and think logically. System 1 is intuitive, instinctual and automatic. What this suggests to me is that we are born with System 1 operating for all of us no matter the circumstances or location of our birth. “It makes us prone to looking for patterns to better understand our world, and to seek meaning for seemingly random events like natural disasters and the death of loved ones.” There is more in the development of this concept in the article, which I will leave for you to read on your own.
It seems to me that we might conclude, at least for now, that religion developed in the pre-science period where explanations for the world came mostly from the natural, intuitive nature. A system of beliefs developed and modified over time based on a faith in things unseen, but taken as true for lack of any other explanation. As scientific knowledge grew a new set of explanations came about that for some seemed in opposition to religious beliefs. This is the crux of the matter. Is religion/atheism a simple case of either/or?
For me the conflict exists due to the distortions of religious systems based on controlling the masses and bending their independent will to the “higher authority” represented by the church. If you are going to believe the world (our earth and everything that ever existed on it) came about in all its glory in seven days, you are unlikely to ever accept any other explanation regardless of the demonstrated reality of modern scientific methods. Most religions long ago resolved, at least in part, what appeared to be a contradiction between religion and science. Again, for me, the problem of religion comes about through the absolutism of Fundamentalism, which today seems to be growing, especially among the religious right. Is this the result of the uncertainty existent in our world today—economically, environmentally, and physically? I would argue that it is.
Finally, I distinguish between religion and spirituality. Religion, as a system of beliefs, may exist independently of one’s spirituality. Religion requires persons to subscribe to a set of principles and codes, often at odds with the way the world works today. It excludes those who do not subscribe to the “rules.” Spirituality, on the other hand subscribes to few, if any, codes of conduct or religious practices. Spirituality is a view that is inclusive rather than exclusive. It is intuitive in nature. Rather than seeking hard and fast rules, it operates as a blending force that sees all things as part of something greater. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
In a world that appears often to be out of control, hurtling toward oblivion, persons may tend to defer to the concept of a “god” ultimately taking care of us when we realize we cannot take care of ourselves. I would like to go on here about children and their natural tendency to believe they are taken care of. This goes beyond the care of parents. I believe they intuitively know they have come from and are heading toward something greater than themselves, but which INCLUDES them.
The author’s conclusion is that “even if we lose sight of the Christian, Muslim and Hindu gods and all the rest, superstitions and spiritualism will almost certainly still prevail. Humans need comfort in the face of pain and suffering, and many need to think that there’s something more after this life, that they’re loved by an invisible being.” I do not subscribe to the “invisible being” concept. I subscribe to the principle of All That Is as an interconnected, omnipresent essence in all and through all that embraces us and responds to us according to our beliefs and actions.
I hope you will take the time to read the article by Rachel Nuwer footnoted at the end of this article.