Monday, September 22, 2008

Religion as a Delusion

Today, I would like to address the accusation made against atheists that, "You believe that 95% of the population is suffering from some sort of delusion."

This assertion typically takes the form of an accusation. It is delivered in a tone that says, "How dare you insist that you are better than 95% of the population? Do you even realize how arrogant you are being?"

This moral criticism has some merit. There is a bit of arrogance in believing that 95% of the people in the world are mistaken. However, there are some facts about the way in which 95% of the people can be in error that avoids this accusation of arrogance.

I want to suggest that, if 5% of the population were atheist, that the bulk of the people will be atheists in the same sense that the bulk of the people are Christians, or Hindu, or Muslims today. Children born into such a culture will simply absorb the beliefs that surround them (in this case, atheist beliefs) with the same unquestioned acceptance with which they currently adopt religious beliefs. Once adopted, they will use these cultural beliefs as filter through which they will filter everything else they see, hear, and read as adults.

This is the way the human brain works. The same psychological features that are currently causing people to acquire a belief in God are not going to go away. They will continue to exist, and they will continue to function. The difference is that the system by which a person currently acquires beliefs that one or more god exists will, in that alternate universe, will result in the belief that8 no god exists.

The atheist, in this sense, is not "putting down" 95% of the population. He is admitting that we are talking about human dispositions that govern what all people believe, including a large number of atheists.

Now, this does not imply that atheist and theist beliefs are equal. There is an objective fact of the matter (or, actually, a set of objective facts). Some of those beliefs are true, and others are false. Knowing that people begin their lives unquestionably absorbing the beliefs of those around them, there is a merit to making sure that those beliefs are true.

This is difficult, given that we, as adults, are working on filtered epistemology ourselves. However, acknowledging this difficulty is still consistent with holding that there is an objective truth of the matter and those beliefs are the beliefs that children should unquestionably absorb, given the fact that they must unquestionably absorb some set of beliefs.

It does argue against a certain form of arrogance. I believe that the proposition, "at least one god exists" is almost certainly false. I admit that I may be suffering from some filtered data. As a result, I hold to the cautious modesty that goes with refusing to force that belief on others. I will argue and debate the issue - I will use words and private actions to promote my beliefs. But, given the high possibility of error, I will not use force (even government force).

I wish for those with other beliefs to adopt the same standards.

Even Christians and Muslims have to recognize that there are social forces at work that somehow cause whole populations to adopt widespread beliefs that happen to be false. Christians need only to look at the Muslim culture as an example - and Muslims only need to look at Christian culture for their example. In both sides, the other religion represents the widespread adoption of some form of delusion. Obviously, mechanisms that result in the widespread acceptance of some form of delusion exist.

We certainly must admit that they exist. And we must admit that those mechanisms are not necessarily bypassed when somebody adopts the belief that the proposition, "at least one god exists", is almost certainly false. It will be as much a cause of atheism in some cases as it has been a cause of Christianity or Buddhism (for example).

Would it make the world a better place if people absorbed through their culture the belief that no god (probably) exists?

That depends on what other beliefs that they adopt along with this belief. This belief is consistent with an infinite set of other possible propositions. Some of those sets of propositions would lead to a far worse world than we get from religion.

The mechanisms through which people adopt theistic philosophies also are at work bringing people to adopt non-theistic philosophies. Ayn Rand objectivists, communists, and (I would include) some liberal progressives have adopted non-religious ideologies with as much unquestioned devotion (and selective consideration of evidence) that we find in any religion.

Even the Nazi philosophy is a-theistic in the sense that a person does not need to believe in God to be a Nazi. The belief in a superior race and a right to destroy (and to take from) inferior races is not a belief that one can only acquire from a religious text. Though it is a mistake to blame atheism for the Holocaust, it is not a mistake to think that atheists can commit a Holocaust.

To the degree that we focus too tightly on religion, then to that degree we are at risk of allowing some destructive non-theistic philosophy slip in under the radar. In fact, we are at risk of promoting such a philosophy by allying with it in virtue of our shared opposition to religion and shared belief that no god (probably) exists. It is not always the case that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." Sometimes, the enemy of your enemy should make you reconsider your alliances.


The Social Reformer said...

I want to hear your thoughts on Friedrich Nietzsche's quote "God is dead"...

Alonzo Fyfe said...


My thoughts are that Nietzche was wrong. There is not and has never been a god; either dead or alive.

The phrase may be taken as metaphore, but I am not a Nietzche scholar and an ill equipped to determine what hidden meaning (if not the surface meaning) Nietzche may have had. So I could not offer an informed opinion on that matter.

Anonymous said...

The body of this article assumes that 5% of the world's population is atheist, whereas it seems the more accurate number is about 15%. Regional differences are important as well; in Canada, 24% describe themselves as atheist.

Grace said...

I completely agree with you that people's ideologies (i.e. religion) are mostly formed by their upbringing and what they have been brought to believe. But as human beings, we are constantly changing and evolving and everyone experience shapes us.Are the first mentalities that we are influenced by during our upbringing and young years the most prominent? When we get older, and our experiences are being seen by our 'filter', our belief system, when is our belief system most vulnerable to accepting a different filter, or atleast altering our filter?

I think the best way to promote an individualistic future is diversity. I'm 16, my mother is Buddhist and my father is Christian. I've gone to a Christian school most of my life. But the fact that I've had some diversity in regards to religion growing up, has allowed me to make my own decisions. (Apart from the fact my mother pushes Buddhism in my face far too often and my school is oh God forbid, brainwashingly Catholic). I think the most effective thing a parent can do, (although they will be reluctant to do so as each have faith in their own ideas), is not to bestow their children with any ideologies.

Going back to talking about ideologies and how they are mostly developed by upbringing. On a broader level, it's interesting to see how society's ideals have been accustomed. It has always bewildered me, for example, the issue of scientology and those of other faiths.I go to a catholic school, and criticism of the nonsensicality of scientology has been again and again repeated. The irony is, they both share the same faith and the same substantiation and logic (or lack of) as the other. The only difference is habit and acceptance and what society has been lead to believe and understand. Christianity is more widespread and more accepted, so scientology is ridiculed.