UPDATE: Over at No Cross No Crescent (a website on the new Skeptic Ink network), the author further takes apart the claim that atheists must offer a substitute for religion. One of the interesting statistics on offer is that 88% of those who identify with no religion in particular are NOT looking for a religion that would be right for them. In other words, they’re satisfied with being a “none.” Only 10% are looking for a “right” religion.
The other evening I was having dinner with a friend, who is an atheist but bears some sympathy for religion. (He admitted, though, that thanks in part to this website, his sympathy was waning, especially with respect to religion’s compatibility with science.)
But he had one complaint about New Atheism, a complaint that we hear often. It goes something like this:
“Yes, yes, New Atheists attack the evidence supporting religious belief, but of course atheists have been doing that for centuries. The real problem with New Atheism is that while it attacks religion, it fails to provide a substitute. Religion fulfills fundamental needs in people, and unless New Atheists can suggest other, non-theistic ways to meet those needs, it will not be successful.”
I’m putting this up to gather reader response to this common criticism, but I have four responses of my own.
1. Who says New Atheism isn’t successful? The category of “nones” (people who profess no religious belief) is increasing faster, proportionately, than any established religion, and it is indisputable that people like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, through their speeches and writings, have diverted many people from their paths of faith. The claim that “Old Atheism” was successful but “New Atheism” is not is simply unsubstantiated.
2. Dispelling false beliefs is in itself a good regardless of whether one suggests other ways to meet the needs buttressed by those beliefs. I recall that Steve Gould once said—perhaps with about what he saw as pervasive gradualism in the paleontology community—that getting rid of false but widely-accepted views represents progress in itself, for such views impede progress toward truth.
3. Some atheists do indeed concern themselves with the problem of replacing the needs of faith with secular alternatives. Alain de Botton has famously done this, though his solutions (secular cathedrals and the like) seem fatuous. A more successful approach has been suggested by philosopher Philip Kitcher, who sees the sense of community engendered by faith as something essential. He argues that secular “alternative” communities are more common in Europe than in America, and suggests that this is why America remains far more religious than Europe.
4. While Kitcher is on the right path, I think that there’s a more important reason why religion remains strong in many places, and this involves more than the need for a sense of community. It involves personal insecurity fostered by the nature of one’s society. As I’ve written in many places, including a paper published in Evolution (free online here), sociological studies increasingly show that religion is stronger in societies that are more dysfunctional—that is, societies in which people are subject to poor medical care, high crime rates, high drug use, high infant morality, corruption in the government, and substantial income inequality.
And the evidence is that this correlation is causal: social dysfunction makes people more religious simply because they turn to sky fathers when they can’t get security in their lives from their governments or societies.
For a reference to the newest studies supporting this thesis, see Nigel Barber’s essay in PuffHo: “Why atheism will replace religion.” In it he refers to two recent papers (references below, one study unpublished) supporting the “social insecurity” hypothesis for religion. I’ll be writing about the first in the near future.
So the substitute for religion may not be “atheist cathedrals” or places where we can meet and discuss Hume every Sunday, but simply societies that make people more secure. Granted, that solution is much harder to implement.
At any rate, how many of you have heard this criticism of New Atheism? And, if so, how do you meet the complaint that “we’re ineffective because we don’t provide substitutes for religion.”
Apropos, my attention was just called to a new BBC program by Richard Dawkins that addresses this very complaint. I’ll post about it in a few hours.
Barber, N. (2011). A cross-national test of the uncertainty hypothesis of religious belief. Cross-Cultural Research, 45, 318-333.
Barber, N. (under review). Country religiosity declines as material security increases. International Perspectives in Psychology.