Weaning People off Religious Belief

Michael Shermer

(One day, people will look back on humanity’s religious past and laugh, says skeptic and science writer Michael Shermer. That’s not merely evidenced by the fact that atheists are among the most rapidly growing minority groups in American society, but also because Islam will sooner or later experience the same kind of secular reform we’ve seen in Christianity and Judaism.)

I don’t think the day is coming soon when we’ll look back that people who believe in God, you know, that was a silly age, although some of us look at this that way now. But clearly the numbers are, you know — we’re not in the majority yet but the fastest growing group, the fastest growing religious group so called is the nones. The N – O – N – E – S people. Check the bock for no religious affiliation. Now they’re not necessarily atheist or agnostics or skeptics, but they are not affiliated with a religion. And so on one level, I don’t care what somebody believes as long as they leave me alone and they don’t interfere with my rights. They don’t try to kill me and bother me. I mean the JWs, the Jehovah Witnesses, they come to my door once in a while. The Mormons come to my door once in a while. It’s kind of amusing. I invite them in and give them a copy of Skeptic magazine and they’re like uh, we better call the head guy to come down here. That’s relatively harmless, but clearly we see with Islam and the problem of Islamic terrorism, religion has to be reformed. It absolutely does.

I don’t worry about the Jains or Jews or most Christians causing societal problems anymore because they’ve gone through the reformation enlightenment, age of reason, the scientific revolution. They came out the other side mostly nonviolent. And Islam hasn’t – so I think if we reform Islam and then start to wean people off belief in the supernatural altogether. You can’t do it by fiat, but we can inculcate it into people’s thinking critical thinking about everything including God. Throw God into the mix. That’s just another supernatural belief. And that’s what those of us who work in this area are trying to do. You know there are different strategies. You can be aggressive about it like Richard Dawkins and Hitch [Christopher Hitchens]. You know they’re pretty anti – theist.

That works in some cases, but not other cases. Other areas people need to be reeled in slowly, gently. But that’s just a sales and marketing problem, you know. How should we sell our product best? Should we call it this or we use the red logo or the blue logo? You sort of product test those things and see what works. But we all share this overall goal. In a century or two, I think it’s possible no one will believe in God anymore or almost no one. And that will be good for society. The greatest evil in the world is not so much religion (which fundamentally stands for the illusion of cosmic importance), but rather progress, which stands for the illusion of earthly importance (together with other civilized systems like money and nations). The most religious societies were hunter – gatherer ones, where pretty much every aspect of life was deeply imbued with religious significance (spirits, ancestors, all the stuff of animism) and so the ratio of cosmic to earthly

importance was one that kept humans exactly in the state they belong: in small numbers, static, not destroying nature too much, and using their mind for the survival tasks for which their brain supposedly evolved.

These 100,000 years plus of sustainable living (which every other species can do btw) are the greatest achievement of humanity, dwarfing any later artistic or scientific accomplishments. With the invention of agriculture and surplus, you had population growth and the creation of class societies, and so the ratio began to shift in favor of earthly, rather than cosmic importance. Nation states, money, goods, massive earthly status began to become more important. Since earthly importance/legacy is less satisfying than cosmic importance/literal immortality  – it does less to quell our fear of animal insignificance/death –  (which is the very reason for pursuing such importance at all), the drive for change and progress was set in motion. And thus the greatest evil, the destruction of countless species was set in motion as well.

Whereas even the bloodiest human wars and genocides, including religious ones, have only killed a small percentage of the 1 species we call Homo Sapiens, you now had the destruction of whole  species by human civilization: The Holocene extinction, beginning with agriculture and civilization itself. What more befitting transcendence of our animal finitude and insignificance than the denial of nature itself  –  if not by religious myth, by material destruction and domination. As the illusion of earthly importance continued its crawl, it reached a juncture in human history in which it overcame various important aspects of religious and cultural tradition.

The age of enlightenment and the industrial revolution had begun. We began, more than ever, to seek in the idea of progress what theists had found in the idea of providence: an assurance that history need not be meaningless. With this loss of religious faith, we became more averse at the notion of regression in earthly affairs, wanting to believe that history is not cyclic but, indeed, progressive, and that our personal role and legacy are thus positive here on earth (symbolic, as opposed to literal immortality).

Various technological and medical advances led to a decrease in infant mortality and a lengthening of lifespan, which in turn led to the “hockey stick” population explosion, with ever more billions of people desiring to also taste the fruits of increased material progress. This led to what is now termed “The Sixth Extinction”. This catastrophic event once and for all provided proof that the illusion of progress had produced the greatest of regresses for humanity: a decrease in long term survival prospects and moral status  –  as whatever improvements in human life and relations had taken place (reduction of disease, infant mortality, poverty, slavery, violence, gender and race relations etc) were rendered insignificant as compared to the ecocide of thousands upon thousands of species, whose collective value far surpasses that of humanity itself. And whatever artistic or scientific feats humans had accomplished in this short period, were thoroughly trounced by the 100,000 years of sustainable living (and prospects for 100s of 1000s more) that were afforded by the most primitive and non – progressive of lifestyles.

Courtesy: The Skeptic