Friday, February 22, 2013

Arguments, reasoning, morals, and achieving the end of faith

For regular readers, I'm not quite done with the infinity exploration, but this particular topic has been weighing on my mind enough for a few days and has me wanting to explore it.

Of course, having become vocal in the antitheistic effort (to be distinguished from the inaptly named "atheism movement"), I think often about the theme of addressing religious faith and other damaging superstitions, particularly in their role in the public space. I make arguments, some reasoned and some appeals to moral thinking, attempting to help reach believers, particularly who have started to have doubts (as they are the only kinds who can really be reached, in most cases). Recent discussions, live and virtual, have led a particular aspect of this question back to the front of my thinking. Essentially, the question is "why bother when we know that reasoned arguments won't work?"

I've run into this line of thinking on a few blogs, particularly. John Loftus recently wrote an essay on his blog Debunking Christianity titled "What Best Debunks Christianity and Religion?" which is worth some examination. Perhaps he was also motivated by comments and discussions on several of his recent posts along this particular aspect of the same challenge, or perhaps it is his ongoing discussion with another atheist, Jeffrey Jay Lowder, who seems to have taken some issue with some of John's arguments lately. It's not isolated there. Another blog, maintained by Rosa Rubicondior, recently talked about the OTF, and the same "why bother?" theme emerged in the comments (I participated, for anyone interested).

Preface aside, I'll cut directly to the chase: what will bring about the end of faith is the only thing that can do it--sustained social pressure.

The discussion on Rubicondior's blog essentially highlighted a difference in cultures possibly being the underlying issue that created that debate in the first place. Rubicondior and the commenter are not Americans. John Loftus and I are (indeed, we're both Bible Belters). Our perspective is quite different, then, because the social environment we face is utterly different. Outside of the US, the social pressure in favor of religion is muted considerably compared with the bizarrely religious US. In the US, the presences of different religions and of antireligion/antitheism--even of secularism--are vastly less influential than in other parts of the developed world.

This isn't to suggest, of course, that Europe isn't still blighted by religion--even without the Islamic cultural invasion going on there. It is in many ways. It still isn't anything like in the United States, where it is all too common to be greeted literally with a higher priority on "what [sic] church do you go to?" than on "what is your name?" In the US, what is desperately needed to bring about the "end of faith," or really just an obvious ascendance of secularism, is a change in this underlying social fabric. Nothing else will do it.

How do we create social pressure?

Societies and cultures are like enormous ships. They cannot simply be steered into quick turns excepting in very dramatic events. Indeed, look at the events of 9/11. As I wrote in God Doesn't; We Do:
Then something very important happened. I woke up at about nine in the morning, central time, on September 11, 2001, and was told that someone had flown airplanes into the World Trade Center. I did not believe it and claimed that it must be a movie on television or something. Soon thereafter, I came and saw for myself it was real and that a certain faction of the Muslim community had declared an unequivocal message to the world: the time for religion to be a major influence in this world, a world of jets and skyscrapers, is long passed. An hour later, I was completely done with religion. In fact, I had become openly anti­-religion, and I still am a decade later. There is an undeniable fact here: religion did that, and it did it in the modern world using modern tools.
Here we are more than eleven years later, and while the ship seems to be turning according to how I saw things on that day, despite the incredible drama and import of that event, the ship has not turned from its course yet. The United States is still nearly as religious as it was on September 1, 2001, even if the rate is now dropping precipitously. Why is it dropping? Social pressure has a lot to do with it.

My point there was that we don't just get to create social pressure, and we certainly don't want to ask for "dramatic events" that cause it. What we need to do is take the changing tide and make sure that the ship keeps turning with it. The way we do it is by continuing to engage in "the pointless": the rational arguments, the moral appeals, the whole laundry list of things that "don't work."

They work and don't work at the same time.

There are a few features at work here making these kinds of reasoned arguments and moral appeals simultaneously effective and ineffective. It is incredibly important to realize, I think, that psyches are themselves like ships--they don't turn on a dime. Indeed, it is very rare to see anyone change their minds in real time. Perhaps only a few people, who have purposefully cultivated the skill and who are mindful enough and academically detached enough, are able to do it consistently. That said, the reasoned arguments don't work now, but they do plant seeds that might be enormously influential later.

If the workings of my own mind are any indication, I know that I am far more influenced by most disagreements than I want to admit. I am, on the whole, more open-minded than many staunch religionists and quite reflective about varying viewpoints, but I often find myself repeating modified versions of the other sides of arguments I've been in a few hours or days after being in them. This used to surprise me, but since thinking of the mind more as a brain phenomenon arising from prior states in the brain, which could be influenced by those inputs, it no longer does. It strengthens my resolve that reasoned and moral arguments against religion, although they sometimes cause theists to dig in their heels and rationalize their beliefs more fully, do plant seeds that can slowly change thinking.

My analogy for this phenomenon is that these arguments are like throwing seeds on pavement. The vast majority of them have no chance there and will never amount to anything. Some, however, land sufficiently nestled in the cracks to take root. Most of those don't grow into much, something small (and perhaps pretty) that eventually suffocates and withers. Others, though, flourish, and their roots tear apart sections of the pavement, or to shift the analogy slightly, tear the entire wall down. Seeds planted in small cracks can make them into big cracks, given the right conditions. These conditions are largely composed of the prevailing social pressures--and the more people throwing seeds, the more it looks like we want trees to grow where there were once only parking lots.

Not all influence lands where it is aimed

Another huge factor here is that people often like to look on without saying much, and not all conversations are private (especially on the Internet). Many people with extant doubts will lurk, silently reading and evaluating these arguments. These people have lots and lots of cracks where the seeds are already taking root, maybe even breaking up the pavement. Thinking that all antitheist versus theist arguments are meant only to influence the theist (or antitheist, I guess)--and meant to be judged by the degree of success of that effort--is folly, at least anytime a conversation can be overheard or is made public, as on the Internet.

Throwing seeds repeatedly, tearing down the fallacious arguments of the theist and consistently "making sense," as one friend recently put it to me, is enormously influential to onlookers, whose doubts often grow enough to allow them to critically examine the roots of their own faiths and then do as we hope they will: make up their own minds, beyond their conditioned biases, and decide to free themselves of the shackles that religion puts on their minds and psychology.

For me, I keep always in mind that while I may or may not succeed with any particular theist, when these debates are held in public, people are listening. The theist is more of my canvas, in that case, with the art mostly intended to be viewed by others. This may explain why I have so few of these discussions in person and in private.

Of note, when people on the fence read the arguments of antitheists and see that they make sense, they're more likely to start repeating them. That may cause them to accept them or consider them more deeply, but that's less consequential than that it creates more of the social pressure that creates the proper cultural environmental conditions for seeds to take root in more places. Again, then, these arguments, however effective or ineffective with any particular theist (or even every theist), shouldn't be judged by whether or not they change the mind of the theist nearly so much as by their prevailing effect. This isn't a call to intentionally propagandize--I think the most effective arguments are made by simply consistently "making sense" honestly. It's just a reminder that the minds we might be trying hardest to change aren't the ones we'll change, at least not directly.

Filling the gap.

Now that I've made the case that the reasoned and moral arguments are very important to helping free people from the chains of superstitious religious thought (and action!), I want to suggest that it's not enough. Indeed, this is why centuries have passed since the Enlightenment and giants like David Hume did their work, and yet religion is nearly as tenacious as ever. There is a missing component if we really want to "change the world." I don't know if that component is a temporary tool or a necessary permanent fixture, but it's not trivial however much antitheists tend to trivialize it. It's related to my arguments in favor of "spirituality" for atheists, but it goes deeper into our moral cores as well.

To put it bluntly, religion is still meeting psychosocial needs in a way that the non-religious community has not been able to match. Some atheists have tried to fill this gap, perhaps most famously Alain de Botton with his Atheism 2.0. Others, notably the Atheism+ crowd, seem to illustrate what the lack of this kind of unifying psychosocial force within atheism can lead to--attempts to force it. Both make the error that "atheism" is not itself a thing. I really cannot hammer that point enough, but it's beside my point here. My point here is that both illustrate that "atheism" is lacking in its ability to meet people in a critical way--a way I see as being psychosocial. [Of related interest: two posts in which I discuss the "outcome of atheism" and "what atheism has to offer."]

I don't fault atheists throughout history for failing to develop ways to meet these needs as successfully as the religions have. The religions have specifically been in this business for thousands of years--this perhaps being their primary evolution-derived purpose in the ultrasocial species known as human beings--and they haven't given outsiders much of a chance to attempt to meet the needs in other ways. This is part of the psychosocial structure, and it seems to be pretty deeply rooted in human psychology. That doesn't change the fact that I think the entire affair could be accomplished much more effectively without the superstitions, distortions, outright lies, emotional baggage, mythology, special pleading, and exclusionism that necessarily come with religion. That is, I think the non-religious can do it all better than the religious once we get the proper chance to do it. Atheism 2.0 is an early (and failed) attempt at this effort. Of course, by attempting to make "atheism" into a thing, I think it misses the core point and is therefore doomed. Without theism to define it, "atheism" is a meaningless and useless word except as a historical footnote.

To connect this back to the main theme of this post, and to close it, I should say that by the very definition of social pressure, when the non-religious start finding effective ways to meet these deeper psychosocial needs for people, the bricks that hold together the religions are likely to come tumbling down rather quickly. Some cannot be met--a proper non-religious network will not be able to paper over the reality of death with fluff about an eternal afterlife, for instance. Those sorts of needs will have to be met in other ways, perhaps finding a lot of inspiration in Robert Ingersoll's work and building from there.

Social pressure is the way.

In very brief, that which will change ours to a post-religious world will necessarily be social pressure, though, and that pressure is created and maintained by open, unashamed nonbelievers repeatedly and unapologetically "making sense" with reasoned and moral arguments, whether or not they are locally effective. Meanwhile, it is important in the evolution of the atheistic mindset to become less reactionary against religion and to start attempting to understand how to meet the real psychosocial needs that religion appears very good at meeting for people.


If you enjoy my writing, you can read more of it in my first book, God Doesn't; We Do: Only Humans Can Solve Human Challenges. If you choose to pick it up, I thank you for your support of myself, my family, and indie authors in general.


  1. If the main reason why you became a strident atheist is 9/11 and the concern that religion can cause people to commit acts of violence then why aren’t you focusing on trying to destroy the of faith people with violent tendencies such as Islamic jihadists? Not that they would listen to you because you’re just an infidel living in the corrupt West, but my point stands. If you’re really concerned about violence then why are focusing on destroying Christianity, a faith that clearly teaches that violence and even name calling is a sin (see Matthew 21-22)? To say that because some Islamic terrorists behaved abominably on 9/11 then all religions and religious people are dangerous and evil is to commit the fallacy of composition. Just because a small group of Islamic people are violent doesn’t mean that religious people are violent in general. Do you attack all religious faith because you don’t want to appear as being a racist for attacking a Muslim religion?

    Let’s say that your nightmare scenario happens and Islamic jihadists obtain nuclear weapons and let’s say that the incredibly improbable happens, that their use of these weapons causes worldwide nuclear warfare that destroys all life on the planet. If your view, that naturalism is true and that nothing can stop entropy from slowly destroying the earth, universe and all life, is true then how is this scenario really any different than if the earth as we know and all life on it perished naturally in x number of years from now? Both scenarios end the same; the earth and life on it are destroyed. It’s not like any of those people can take the happy memories they would have had when they die. If life is as Arthur Schopenhauer says, “a uselessly disturbing episode in the blissful repose of nothingness,” then there really is no difference between life never existing or if it last 100 years or 10 billion years. If naturalism is true then extinction is inevitable and there is nothing we can do to stop it. Destroying religion is not going to save us from our doom.

    If your feelings have more to do with politics then wouldn’t your time be better spent working the political system instead of trying to destroy all faith particularly in light of the fact that you don’t have any arguments that conclusively prove that God doesn’t exist (believe me I know as I have spent numerous hours poring over atheist and theist argument and have spent several years in both camps)? Warning, I’m about to blow your mind! Are you prepared to have your mind blown? You should be seated for what I’m about to type. Here it goes: not all Christians are Christian conservatives. Since your mind is currently in a blown state I’m going to repeat what I just said; not all Christians are Christian conservatives. How do I know? I know because I’m a liberal Christian, and I know other liberal Christians. I know the stereotype about Christians exists for a reason, but really there are moderate and liberal Christians out there. Why don’t you work with us? I don’t want to force a religious state down anyone’s throat any more than you do. Just as long as you don’t push legislation that constricts my religious freedom then I’d probably be on board with your political agenda. If you spent your time working with secular people and moderate/liberal people of faith then I think you’d see much better results than trying to push arguments that can be defeated or at least explained away by any philosophically minded Christian.

    1. I replied in a new post. You can read it here

      Thanks for your comment and interest.