Is Atheism Doomed?

Russell Blackford

In his 2007 book, What’s So Great About Christianity, Dinesh D’Souza claims that “God is the future, and atheism is on its way out.” D’Souza is hardly a trustworthy authority, but he is not alone in predicting the doom of atheism. On the contrary, it’s a popular theme for religious apologists. High-profile Northern Irish theologian Alister McGrath, for example, has developed a profitable sideline in celebrating what he sees as the downfall of atheistic thought. McGrath’s prolific writings include The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World (2004) and Why God Won’t Go Away: Engaging with the New Atheism (2011). A different edition of the latter carries the more lurid title Is the New Atheism Running on Empty?

Such claims are easy enough to support if we make McGrath’s error of equating atheism with Marxist-Leninist communism, the sort of totalizing ideology that McGrath himself embraced for a time when he was young. This particular form of comprehensive, authoritarian ideology may well have had its day, but McGrath and many others continue to work with an impoverished and distorted understanding of the freethought tradition. While the growth of outright atheism is a relatively modern phenomenon, scarcely apparent in the historical record until the eighteenth century, it is older than any form of Marxism.

Furthermore, modern atheistic thought has an impressive philosophical pedigree dating back to ancient Eastern and Western philosophies, perhaps most notably to the near-atheistic system of Epicureanism. This arose in Hellenistic Greece, was demonized by Christian thinkers throughout the Middle Ages, but then exercised profound influence on the scientific and philosophical revolutions of the seventeenth century.

Our rich freethought legacy does not entail any form of totalitarian political ideology, and of course the “New Atheists” whom McGrath continually denounces have not grounded their thinking in any such ideological system. Still, might there be deeper reasons to fear that atheistic thought is doomed—if not to extinction, at least to marginalization? Most recently the Science 2.0 website published a long post by Nury Vittachi, dated July 6, 2014, under the heading “Scientists discover that atheists may not exist, and that’s not a joke.”

Despite the title of his post, Vittachi does not actually deny “that it is possible to stop believing in God” (although this seems like tendentious phrasing, as if we naturally begin life with a God-belief that we would have to “stop” in order to be atheists). His main point, apparently, is that “Cognitive scientists are becoming increasingly aware that a metaphysical outlook may be so deeply ingrained in human thought processes that it cannot be expunged” and further that “[y]our fundamental beliefs are decided by much deeper levels of consciousness, and some may well be more or less set in stone.”

I’m not sure what a deeper level of consciousness would be—presumably Vittachi actually means unconscious levels of cognition—but he has a point here. Some of our deepest belief-forming tendencies are not transparent to us, and some of them may, indeed, incline us toward supernatural beliefs. For Vittachi, these beliefs and associated practices ameliorate the sense of “deep existential dread” that is inevitable for emotionally complex beings like us when faced by harsh realities such as the deaths of loved ones or the awareness of our own inevitable deaths.

Though Vittachi has less to say about this, we may also come equipped with certain unconscious tendencies in our perception and understanding of the world, and perhaps some of these incline us toward metaphysical beliefs that cannot be justified using our ordinary standards of logic and evidence. In particular, it has often been argued that the process of evolution equipped us with a broad tendency to over-attribute agency to inanimate things. Perhaps erring on the side of over-attribution had a survival benefit for our evolutionary ancestors. If so, we may have inherited their hardwired cognitive bias, and this may have contributed to human beliefs in spirits, demons, and gods.

Vittachi also argues that religious communities do better and grow faster over long periods of time because they provide incentives to pro-social behavior. First, they have an institutional mechanism for imparting useful moral teachings. Second, the sense of an unseen witness to our behavior provides an incentive to conform to pro-social standards of conduct even when acting secretly. Furthermore, Vittachi tells us, in current circumstances the less-religious societies of Europe and Japan tend to experience shrinking populations as they adopt new moral and political standards that allow a separation of sex, love, and marriage from procreation. These nations, and others that are joining them, will be demographically out-competed by traditional cultures that still promote multi-child families.

However, Vittachi’s main interest seems to be in research that suggests—to him—the existence of a widespread belief in some form of cosmic, supernatural justice. His research at Hong Kong Polytechnic University confirms what might seem fairly obvious: that there is a widespread and cross-cultural tendency for fictional narratives to show the triumph of good over evil. Villains tend to fail, while heroes tend to prevail (and tend, at least in contemporary cinema, to pay some kind of price for their own moral transgressions). According to Vittachi, typical narratives show God as a source of supernatural justice, whether or not he appears explicitly onstage and whether or not their various authors have any conscious theistic beliefs. With rare exceptions that tend to be rejected by popular audiences, fictional narratives both convey and help to reproduce widespread human assumptions about the operation of supernatural justice in the world—or so Vittachi suggests.

Some of Vittachi’s evidence that we are natural-born God-believers seems obviously doubtful. For instance, he relies in part on a British survey that showed “only” 13 percent of adults agreeing that “humans are purely material beings with no spiritual element.” This, however, seems to me a surprisingly high proportion of respondents agreeing with a strong and potentially ambiguous statement. Let’s think about this. What would I be committing myself to if I claimed that we “have no spiritual element”? While we appear to have no supernatural element to our consciousness, we are at least psychological and cultural creatures. We have an emotional nature, and we can be moved by deep feelings as we respond to nature, art, and each other. Given the vagueness of a word such as spiritual, to deny that we have a “spiritual element” sounds too close to denying these things.

Whatever the word spiritual might literally denote, the connotations of a claim that we have “no spiritual element” may seem quite startling. It might take a very austere thinker to insist that the word means something such as “supernatural”—and that there is nothing supernatural about us. More generally, survey results are frequently open to multiple interpretations. The thought processes of people answering surveys are often somewhat opaque.

Still, Vittachi has put forward arguments that are somewhat persuasive as to why we might be naturally biased in favor of theism, or at least to ideas of supernatural intelligences and the operation of supernatural justice. That being so, how does he explain the existence of professed atheists? In fact, he offers an extraordinarily simplist
ic account of the roots of atheism, which seems to boil down to an endorsement of the view—attributed to Einstein— that atheists are people who have formed “a mistaken belief that harmful superstition and a general belief in religious or mystical experience were the same thing, missing the fact that evolution would discard unhelpful beliefs and foster the growth of helpful ones.”

This massively distorts Einstein’s subtle, if perhaps wrongheaded, ideas about religion. Einstein did not believe in the existence of a personal deity, especially not one who intervenes to reward and punish. In his lack of any recognizable god-belief, he was an atheist—although it’s true that he disliked the word atheist—and he had an idiosyncratic definition of religion that related to his sense of mystery and order in the universe. Strictly speaking, however, it may not matter what Einstein believed. If we leave the great scientist out of it, might it still be plausible that the roots of atheism lie in a simple confusion between more and less harmful kinds of supernaturalism?

Surely not. This evades the entire history of rational doubt about the authority of religion, grounded in part on the anomalous and poorly evidenced nature of many religious claims, even from the viewpoint of everyday, prescientific experience. In the last three or four centuries, religious teachings have come under enormous intellectual pressure from science (which has revealed them as premature to the extent that they offer explanations of the universe and our situation within it), from historical-textual scholarship (which has cast doubt, to say the least, on the provenance and accuracy of traditions and holy books), and philosophy (which has shaped the discoveries of scientists and scholars into skeptical arguments, while raising further doubts about the logical coherence of key doctrines).

It may be, for all I can say, that false beliefs about gods, ancestor spirits, and other unseen observers of human actions once had a degree of social utility. If that were the case in current societies, perhaps there would be at least a need for caution in disabusing people of their beliefs. However, it is far from clear that all or any contemporary societies are better off when these sorts of beliefs are widely held. Indeed, the direction of modern history toward gentler societies in the West, well described in the work of Steven Pinker, gives little support to the idea that god-belief ever had much to contribute to peace and cooperation. Under current conditions, insufficient surveillance of our conduct should be about the least of our worries—along with fears of underpopulation. Moreover, the new political and moral principles that Vittachi associates with population decline have much to commend them as steps toward freedom and away from moralistic oppression.

I am not much impressed by Vittachi’s argument that fictional narratives portray the triumph of good over evil. As a generalization, that may be true, but it is hardly surprising if we tend to prefer stories in which goodness is rewarded and wrongdoers are punished. Still, there may be psychological mechanisms that encourage supernatural beliefs. If so, they will tend to do so whether the beliefs are true or not. Though Vittachi does not appear to notice this, the existence of any such mechanisms would actually strengthen the intellectual case against theism and supernaturalism in general. The operation of these psychological mechanisms would explain how some kinds of false belief might come about and persist in the absence of what, in other fields of inquiry, would count as good evidence. In that case, we have all the more reason not to trust supernaturalist intuitions.

I don’t dispute that religion offers comfort and perhaps other psychological attractions, not least the closely related illusions of participating in a cosmic drama and possessing deep understanding of the universe. These attractions may continue to prop up religious belief, particularly if harsh environmental and economic conditions in the near future undermine trust in rational inquiry and secular institutions. As Udo Schüklenk and I have written: “For atheism to become more widely attractive it may be that much social and economic progress will need to be made, altering the conditions in which people actually live and work. However, this has already happened to a great extent in northern and western European countries, with their high levels of economic security, education, and personal freedom. The prospect of any reversal of Europe’s secularization currently appears remote.”

The future is not ours to see, and I have no wish to engage in a sort of counter-triumphalism in opposition to D’Souza’s, McGrath’s, or Vittachi’s celebrations. Nonetheless, the intellectual case against religion is constantly growing stronger, and many people find the renunciation of supernaturalist dogma liberating, rather than a source of alienation or despair. There is every prospect that secular styles of thinking will spread even more widely, and atheism is far from dead or doomed.

Russell Blackford is a conjoint lecturer in the School of Humanities and Social Science, University of Newcastle, Australia. His latest books include 50 Great Myths About Atheism, coauthored with Udo Schüklenk (2013), and Intelligence Unbound: The Future of Uploaded and Machine Minds, coedited with Damien Broderick (2014), both from Wiley-Blackwell.

Russell Blackford

Russell Blackford is a conjoint senior lecturer in philosophy at the University of Newcastle (Australia) and a regular columnist for Free Inquiry. His latest book, The Tyranny of Opinion: Conformity and the Future of Liberalism (2019), is published by Bloomsbury Academic.

Predictions of the imminent decline of atheism keep on coming . . . and they keep failing to come true.

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