The Evolution of Ideas, part 2: God is Dead: Religion and Secularism Today and Tomorrow



“Is man merely a mistake of God’s? Or God merely a mistake of man?” (Friedrich Nietzsche ‘Twilight of the Idols, Maxims and Arrows’)


Religion in the developed world is in decline (See ‘Beliefs about God across Time and Countries’ Tom W Smith, University of Chicago, 2012). If that seems difficult to believe, look back just 500 years, to a time when the divine right of Kings still applied across much of Europe and the Spanish Inquisition was in operation. Today, religious leaders in the developed world answer to secular governments, rather than the other way around.


This shift of power away from religion and towards secular governance is indicative of a loss of faith. Once, society believed religious leaders were the people best suited to lead us forward – today, it does not.


The New Atheist movement (‘New Atheism is the name given to the ideas promoted by a collection of modern atheist writers who have advocated the view that “religion should not simply be tolerated but should be countered, criticized, and exposed by rational argument wherever its influence arises.’ Simon Hooper ‘The Rise of New Atheists’ 2010, taken from Wikipedia), spearheaded by public intellectuals such as Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, lays the cause of this decline in religious belief at the feet of reason and scientific discovery. Hitchens sums up the movements’ intellectual core:


“That which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”


Critics of New Atheism have occasionally responded that this charge must apply to the dismissal of spiritual agency just as clearly as the suggestion of its existence. They claim that human morality, art and the aesthetic, the humbling scope of the universe and the physical mechanisms that govern it, are evidence of an intelligent design.


The response from New Atheism is that these things are explainable by science, and do not require the notion of a god. Religious believers answer by distinguishing between the ‘how’ that physical science provides and the ‘why’ that religion seeks to address. But to Dawkins, this is a red herring – there is no why. The universe is a ‘brute fact’ (In answer to the Cosmological argument for the existence of God, Russell stated that the universe was “just there, and that’s all” intimating that it required no explanation, and was simply a ‘brute fact’).

The conflict between New Atheism and religion in the west is one of misunderstanding, and of fundamental differences in how people look at the world.


To illustrate, let us suppose you and I have lived our entire life in one room. There are, and always have been, rumours that there is something outside of the room, but neither of us have experienced it. From time to time, somebody claims that they woke in the night and the frosting on the windows had cleared. Outside, they claim, is another world, though they couldn’t wake any of the rest of us up to see it. No one has been able to prove this, because the windows are always frosted when we look, and there’s no door to get out.


In that instance, would it be more reasonable to assume that there was something or nothing outside the room?  


Before you complain that this analogy is misleading because the story above only deals with one substance – matter – and we are discussing the existence or non-existence of something fundamentally different (some form of spiritual reality), I will reply that the room in the thought experiment above is a metaphor not for the physical world, but for consciousness.


When we examine the religious claims of a specific denomination, it’s easy to throw them into doubt – Christianity’s claim that Jesus turned water into wine, for example. This is the approach that Dawkins has mostly taken – examine individual religious beliefs (such as theism) and deconstruct them. But it suffers from 2 primary flaws:


First, there is a big difference between tackling the subject of an individual belief (such as the existence of a creator god) and refuting the premise that life has a spiritual component (which is what New Atheism drives at). Dawkins makes little attempt to deal with atheistic spirituality, such as some forms of Buddhism.

Second, New Atheism often argues against a literal reading of the bible – if instead Jesus’ turning water into wine is an analogy for the spiritual transformation he elicits from his followers, what does New Atheism have to say about it? This may seem like evasive reasoning and one could retort that if the bible claims Jesus turned water into wine, it should be dealt with on face value. But that response shows a fundamental ignorance about the Judeo-Christian religious tradition, as the widespread interpretation of religious texts in a literal sense is a modern phenomena (Biblical literalism (also known as the historical-grammatical method) was popularized in conservative Protestantism by Martin Luther. Prior to the reformation, allegorical readings of Christian scripture were the dominant method of interpretation).


I mention all this not in defence of religion but rather to play the role of devils advocate. My issue with New Atheism is not that it attempts to dispose of religion, but that it vastly oversimplifies the nature of religious belief and the history of religious thought to do so.


I doubt that the developed world is experiencing the death of religion. A cursory glance to our past seems to suggest that humanity has a spiritual element to its make up, and that that element will require some form of expression in our future. However, it also seems obvious that the established organised religions are failing to engage with the congregations of tomorrow.


Whether the religions of today find purchase in the world of tomorrow or not will depend, ultimately, on their ability to capture public attention. If they fail, I doubt religion will disappear – I think it more likely that it will be replaced by newer spiritual paradigms.


We can speculate on the cause of religion’s inability to halt the decline in belief currently taking place in the developed world.


We might consider what religion offers to people that they can’t get elsewhere. Intellectually, religion is unable to compete with other ways in which we understand the world. Science can explain a good deal of how the world came into being. History has established a more verifiable timeline of modern events. One way in which religion is still able to be relevant is morally, but the general public lack faith in religious virtue due to religiously inspired violence and torture (such as the case in London where an off-duty member of the armed forces was decapitated by two British Muslims), and sexual scandals (particularly, instances of child abuse that have become synonymous with Roman Catholicism in the eyes of the secular public).

In addition to moral guidance, there is the function of religion as a tool for consciousness expansion. Christianity has a long tradition of mysticism, as do Islam and Judaism, but organised religion tends to veer away from it. Ordaining personal relationships with the divine opens the door to conmen and dangerously unbalanced people (Jim Jones and David Icke, for example). Additionally, there are plenty of other ways to alter ones consciousness: drugs, eastern spiritual disciplines (tantra, yoga and meditation), sensory deprivation and fasting for example.


I contend that there is a belief commonly held (perhaps sometimes unconsciously) in the west: that religion is outmoded and will become extinct in the near middle future. For the reasons given above, I doubt that.


The game of futurism is dangerous – life has a way of being unpredictable. But we can hazard a tentative guess at some of the fundamental characteristics of tomorrow’s religious institutions.


First, I think it likely that a dominant strain of spiritual thought must embrace modern social and intellectual life – that means thinking progressively, and redefining the scope of religious authority. It is a false dichotomy to pit religion against scientific discovery.


Second, I would not be surprised to see more freedom in regards to the manner and frequency of religious worship. Life becomes busier and technology rolls forward at breakneck speed. How long before Sunday services are a curio of yesteryear, and believers log into a virtual church in what used-to-be their cigarette break to engage with other devotees? Religious internet forums already abound; as future generations of humanity mature, who are raised wholly in an information age, how long before religion moves more whole-heartedly into cyber-space?

Next up: part 3, Reductive Materialism and the Scientific Worldview 


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s