This is a speculation about the future of atheism in North American society. To put it figuratively, if “New Atheism” represented a self-declared resurgence of rationalism for the twenty-first century, what will Atheism 2.0 look like? If, hypothetically, we were to move beyond the virtual stalemate we find ourselves in — with the faithful and the skeptical glaring at each other in haughty contempt — would kind of discussions would we find ourselves in?
There are some thinkers who have been quietly blazing another trail in parallel to the New-York-Times-Bestseller-Atheism of the masses. These are systematically, thoroughgoing rationalists, yet they speak about religion in a way that is far different than Dawkins, Harris, Dennett, et. al. Take, for instance, anthropologist Scott Atran (author of In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion):
Religion is just a manifestation of one of the deepest things about human beings, that is: how do we form groups of genetic strangers into larger and larger societies beyond the family? Religions created that possibility and they led to the rise of civilizations. Now since the Enlightenment we have secular manifestations of this, but they are still basically religious in sentiment (without having particular anthropomorphic supernatural beings). The [concept of] nation itself is a heavily religious notion (its emblems, its parades, its rituals, its costly displays, its demands for sacrifice). And all of the ‘isms’ (colonialism, fascism, communism, democratic liberalism, socialism) are all secular manifestations of the monotheistic notion that there is one group called ‘humanity’…and that its object is to ‘save’ people, as to make them all one. (Of course there are always recalcitrants and that’s why you have wars.) But the religious sensibility — that is, the idea of transcendental principles which drive human society and people into larger and larger conglomerations — cannot possibly go away.1
Instead of bemoaning the irrationality of religion, Atran engages in religious dialogue with the understanding that religious conviction provides an essential underpinning of societal organization itself, the linchpin of our veryability to organize ourselves as nations, cities, and communities. Simply, “any time we need efforts (for the good or the bad) that go beyond our own family power it will be grounded in transcendental principles.”2
By acknowledging the unavoidable requirement of transcendental assumptions within any belief system (whether that belief system is Christianity, secular human rights, or empirical rationalism), Atran’s thesis opens up the door to atheistic/religious dialogue since it accepts that everyone is bringing some kind of ideological bias to the conversation.3
Cognitive scientist Robert McCauley (author of Why Religion Is Natural and Science Is Not) also presents an underlying premise that could potentially change the context of religious/science discourse. He connects religious knowledge and the development of the human capacity to project agency on to others and objects:
I’m not really saying that human minds are hardwired for religion, I’m saying that they naturally develop in ways that leads us to solve all kinds of problems. It turns out that religions have evolved in a way that ends up engaging those systems. Far and away the most prominent is what in the technical literature is called ‘theory of mind’ — we have evidence that four-month-olds can detect intentional behaviour from other sorts of events in the world. This is just the first step in the development of an understanding that out there in the world there are some things that have minds and some that don’t, and we learn very early on how to distinguish those. Religion engages this… and that is the linchpin of the paradigm cases of religions and the way they operate: there are other agents posited, and as soon as we know they are agents we know a whole bunch of things about them… if they are agents, they carry out actions, they have mental states, they have desires, beliefs, intentions, likes and dislikes, preferences, and so on. On the basis of that we can draw all sorts of inferences about their states of mind and their probable actions as well as we can draw them about the folks we see each day on the street.4
To put it tritely, McCauley considers religious experience as a naturally occurring phenomenon. As Atran sees religion playing a nonnegotiable and vital role in the formation of society, McCauley sees religion as playing a necessary role in the coping psyche of human beings.
What will Atheism 2.0 look like? Of course, I have no idea. I do, however, have a hope: I hope that Atheism 2.0 embeds this kind of respect for religion within itself. Not just a patronizing sympathy for the supposedly disillusioned, but a genuine acknowledgement that at the end of the day we, humanity, are all in this thing together, and — love them or hate them — religious convictions are inseparable from the story of our species thus far. We must continue to rigorously debate religion and atheism, but unless the debated is grounded upon some common, mutual respect than the banter will surely (again) disintegrate into useless, personal attacks and accusations of closed-minded stupidity. The atheism community might be able to nurture this respect by adopting a more nuanced appreciation for the religious predisposition of humanity, instead of systematically (and generally) declaring that religion is the root of society’s problems.
After all, if Scott Atran is right, we might not even have society without religion. Perhaps a little respect is due.
Another angle to consider here would be Spinoza’s idea of “fictions” as central to the organization of society. See An atheist’s God: the paradox of Spinoza, recently aired on the Philosopher’s Zone, ABC ↩