Why I Am an Atheist

“What is the purpose of religion?” This is a question asked by Professor Daniel Dennett , author of a new book on that topic, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. If you’re a member of the faithful, then I imagine the answer to that question is (in one form or another) “To bring you closer to The Creator.” But what Dr. Dennett is advocating is that we study religion just as we would study any other topic of scientific interest, and I find that (from my perspective as an atheist) a pretty fascinating idea. I caught a lecture by the professor a couple of weeks ago on C-SPAN. Considering a recent brouhaha over the topic of religion, it seemed unusually pertinent.

Professor Dennett defines “religion” in one, pellucid statement:

Religion is a social system that postulates supernatural agents whose approval is to be sought.

Note the two essential characteristics that separate religion from science: supernatural agents, and the need to seek approval from same.

All religions, from a scientific standpoint, are memes; ideas that spread from person to person within or between cultures. The word “meme” was coined by Richard Dawkins, Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, a book “which argues that life is simply a means of propagating DNA, with every creature ruthlessly determined to continue its own line.”

Memes, Professor Dennett pointed out in his lecture, are very much like parasites, from a scientific point of view. They require a host – in this case, the human mind. They cannot survive on their own. They come in three types: symbiotic, commensal, and malignant. When it comes to biological parasites, symbionts are beneficial, often even crucial to our survival (B. thetaiotaomicron for example). Commensals are neutral, neither harmful nor beneficial (e.g. most strains of e. coli). The malignant ones can be a nuisance (athlete’s foot) or deadly (the Ebola virus.)

In all cases, the only measure of success is how well they spread. (Since there are about ten times as many bacteria living in the human gut as there are human cells in the entire body – and that doesn’t include the ones living in our skin or other organs – I’d say that parasites are particularly successful.) Malignant species are less successful than the commensals and symbiotes. The Ebola virus is virulent, but it kills so quickly that this limits its ability to spread. Commensals and even symbiotes can sometimes become malignant, though. One strain of e. coli is pretty deadly to humans, for example.

Memes are much the same. “I like the song, ‘The Macarena,’ “ is an example of a commensal meme – it’s pretty much value-neutral (really, the pain is only mental), and thankfully short-lived. Communism is a good example of a malignant meme. During its short existence it has been responsible for the death of millions, and the misery of millions more. While still extant, it has lost most of its carriers.

Most religions are, by all apperances, symbiotic memes.

But what’s religion for?

Professor Dawkins believes that the only purpose of life is to propagate DNA. That is, the purpose of viruses is to make more viruses, the purpose of people is to make more people. Period. As Robert Heinlein put it,

A zygote is a gamete’s way of producing more gametes. This may be the purpose of the universe.

Dr. Dennett wonders if the purpose of religion is simply to spread the meme of religion. It’s an interesting idea. Dennett believes that religion is a result of evolution. Dennett thinks that perhaps the proto-meme of religion has evolved into the various modern faiths through its symbiotic relationship with the human species – the only species on the planet that can carry it.

An interview with evolutionary sociobiologist and entymologist Edward O. Wilson played on Sunday’s edition of NPR’s To the Best of Our Knowledge. He said something that echoed Professor Dennett:

Religious belief itself is an adaptation that has evolved, that we’re hard-wired to form tribalistic religions. And that’s what religion is – it’s intensely tribalistic… It binds people together into cooperative groups. It gives them faith in the particular group to which they belong, and that set of beliefs and moral values.

Heinlein was much harsher, a while back:

History does not record anywhere at any time a religion that has any rational basis. Religion is a crutch for people not strong enough to stand up to the unknown without help. But, like dandruff, most people do have a religion and spend time and money on it and seem to derive considerable pleasure from fiddling with it.

Heinlein may be technically correct, but I think Wilson and Dennett have the right of it: Humans are religious because we’re wired for it. Religious memes survive because they have been beneficial to the survival of our species, albeit not for large swaths of particular individuals or groups carrying less successful memes.

Religion, defined as

a social system that postulates supernatural agents whose approval is to be sought

is a very successful meme – one that’s mutated into literally millions of memes of varying elaborateness (and, truth be told, virulence.) The Christian meme has had something on the order of two thousand years to evolve. The primary vector of that meme is the Bible – a document that has undergone considerable mutation itself. Dr. Hugh S. Pyper, Associate Director & Senior Lecturer in Biblical Studies for the University of Leeds in Scotland, lends a bit of ecclesiastical support:

If “survival of the fittest” has any validity as a slogan, then the Bible seems a fair candidate for the accolade of the fittest of texts.

Professor Dennett asks a very interesting question: Why is religion so successful? He points out that, from a purely gene-based standpoint, religious faith is often not all that good for spreading ones genes. For example, it certainly isn’t advantageous for spreading the genes of (no offense intended) members of the Catholic clergy, yet human beings seem to be capable of latching on to memes that are counter to what Dr. Dawkins claims is the ultimate purpose of life – the spreading of our molecules of DNA. The Catholic religion meme is more successful than the biological imperative to reproduce, at least in the Catholic clergy. They can spread the meme, but the meme means they can’t spread their genes.

Dr. Susan Blackmore wrote a book entitled The Meme Machine having to do with this topic. I haven’t read it, but the Publisher’s Weekly revew had this comment:

From a gene’s point of view, celibacy, birth control and adoption are horrible mistakes. From a meme’s point of view, they are a gold mine. Few or no children free up the meme-carrier to devote more energy to horizontal transmission to non-relatives (monks and nuns the world over figured that out long ago), something the gene is incapable of. With adoption, memes can even co-opt vertical transmission between generations. Blackmore posits that, in modern culture, meme replication has almost completely overwhelmed the glacially slow gene replication.

An interesting observation, especially given declining birth-rates in the “modern” Western world. It gives me pause to wonder if the “secular humanist” meme that is apparently replacing religion, at least in Western Europe, is a malignant one for the species.

However, religion is successful Dennett argues, because it serves to provide answers to age-old questions; Heinlein’s “unknown.” Religions remove uncertainty, and bind groups of people together with common beliefs. Group unity is definitely a survival-positive trait, so this has been evolutionarily useful, but now we’ve reached a quandary. We’ve recently developed science, and science often conflicts with religion. Wilson said in his interview:

I think it’s fair to say that modern biology is instructed by two powerful principles, so powerful and generally well-tested that they amount to virtual laws of nature. The first one is that all living process is ultimately obedient to the laws of physics and chemistry, and that is the foundation of molecular and cell biology. And that is so thoroughly established that no one questions it seriously any more. The second law is that all living processes evolved by natural selection. And those two are so well substantiated and now interlocking that it is very hard to see that out of this will come traditionalist religious views to explain the meaning of life on this planet.

There is no reconciliation between the theory of evolution by natural selection and traditional religious view of the origin of the human mind. You have to choose between the scientific materialist view of the origin of the mind and therefore the mortality, I should think, of the human mind on the one side, and the traditional religious view that the spirit and the mind are independent of the process of evolution and thereby, eventually, non-corporeal – that is capable of leaving the body and going elsewhere.

He also said:

That’s possibly the greatest philosophical question of the 21st century, the resolution of religious faith with the growing realization of the very different nature of the material world. You could say that we evolved to accept one truth – you know the religious instinct – but then discovered another. And having discovered another, what are we to do? You could say that well, it’s just best to go ahead and accept two world views and let them live side by side. I see no other solution. In fact, I believe they can put their different world views into position to solve some of the great problems, for example, of the environment. But generally speaking the difficulty in saying they can live side by side is the sectarianism of the world today, and the use of traditional religions to be exclusionary and to justify violence and war, and you just can’t deny that this is a major problem.

While human beings are the only creatures on the face of the planet capable of believing three or more mutually-exclusive ideas simultaneously before breakfast, I’m not as sanguine about the coexistence option, and a recent minor conflict illustrates this well.

A couple of weeks ago Fran Porretto wrote one of his Sunday Ruminations on things religious – in this case “God’s Divine Plan.” He made a statement concerning atheists, and I – being atheist (please, however, note the small “a”) – commented. Things didn’t go well from that point forward. (I did later apologize for any unintended insult or misunderstanding.)

A few days later I found an Eric S. Raymond piece on why he believes “The End of Faith” would be a good thing. In fact, a necessary thing. I took one sentence out of that piece that I believed was accurate and insightful and posted it as “Quote of the Week,” and Fran assumed I was in complete agreement with Raymond based on that one sentence (and, I’ll admit in the interest of full disclosure, some things I’ve written here previously).

Things continued downhill. Fran seems to hold to the idea that I am a “militant anti-Christian,” and that I attribute guilt to him and those like him for things others have done in the name of the religion he embraces.

Pardon my language, but just one fucking minute. For the record, I was attempting explanation, and he took it as accusation. The fault for the misunderstanding may well be mine, but the intent was never there. Apparently I’ve poked a pretty raw nerve, because Fran has taken what I’ve written and blown it way the hell (no pun intended) out of proportion. Yes, I’m an atheist (again, note the small ‘a’). Yes, I have professed that I think we need to develop a rational system of morals independent of a religious framework, and yes, I’ve said that I believe we need to do that in large part because of the friction between different belief systems.

Pardon the hell(?) out of me, but I don’t think that defines me as “militant anti-Christian.” I’m pretty much on the record as saying that I think Protestant Christianity has overall (but not always) been a force for good. But Fran’s not a Protestant, he’s a Catholic. Or at least he professes to be a Catholic. (Again, this is not intended as insult. More on this a bit later.)

Remember Dennett’s definition of religion:

Religion is a social system that postulates supernatural agents whose approval is to be sought.

That’s a simple, and I think accurate definition. It pretty much covers the bases, and differentiates religion from science, where science rejects the concept of “supernatural” for “we don’t understand yet. Possibly ever.” No approval is to be sought because there’s no agent to get approval from. Robert Heinlein (again) put it a bit more insultingly:

The most preposterous notion that H. sapiens has ever dreamed up is that the Lord God of Creation, Shaper and Ruler of all the Universes, wants the saccharine adoration of His creatures, can be swayed by their prayers, and becomes petulant if He does not receive this flattery. Yet this absurd fantasy, without a shred of evidence to bolster it, pays all the expenses of the oldest, largest, and least productive industry in all history.

Them’s fightin’ words to people who believe in supernatural agents. But a lot (a significant majority in fact) of people on this planet do believe in supernatural agents. We’re all (minus some psychopaths) prewired for it. There is significant circumstantial evidence that our prehistoric ancestors believed in such, and all documentary evidence shows the existence of religion as far back as recorded history goes.

A significant portion of today’s population believes in the existence of the God of the Abrahamic faiths, in one form or another. Well, more accurately a significant portion, as Professor Dennett recently pointed out in his book, at least believes in belief. That is, they want to believe in God; they know others do. They go to church and (more or less) follow the precepts of the faith they adhere to, but they may not actually believe. They may doubt, but act as though they don’t. Fran himself makes note of this in last Sunday’s “Rumination”. How many people are like this? There’s no way to tell, but my personal guess is “most.” After all, Fran proclaims such doubt “inexorable.”

Why do I mention this, and why is it significant? In our society in which a large majority professes faith, expressing disbelief can have certain social costs. Politicians, for example, can’t declare themselves atheist and expect to get elected to higher office. (Wait! I was trying to illustrate a downside…) Militant Atheist (note the captial ‘A’) Steven Weinberg notes a change, however:

As you learn more and more about the universe, you find you can understand more and more without any reference to supernatural intervention, so you lose interest in that possibility. Most scientists I know don’t care enough about religion even to call themselves atheists. And that, I think, is one of the great things about science — that it has made it possible for people not to be religious.

That is, not to be religious without significant social cost. This is a relatively new phenomenon. Still, things haven’t gotten very far. According to a recent report, atheists are identified as America’s most distrusted minority.

Wilson, again:

I think it was Camille Paglia who talked about Foucault and the almost religious awe that the French post-structuralist philosophers once had in France. She compared it to the power of the Judeo-Christian tradition and said 3,000 years of Yahweh beats one generation of Foucault.

Yes, indeed. In my many arguments discussions on the topic of religion with Sarah of Carnaby Fudge, she often points out the fact that no “secular humanist” society has ever been formed that was anything less than a disaster. And yet, we’ve only been able to form such societies in the last hundred or so years. Three thousand years of Yaweh…

So, humans are wired with an instinctive need to believe… in something. If you think about it, the belief in Piltdown Man, UFOs, Raelianism, et al., up to and including the religions of the God of Abraham all fill the same basic need: answers to unanswerable questions. Comfort in the face of uncertainty. A crutch to help one stand in the face of the unknown. Through millenia of meme evolution, we’ve reached a point today where very robust memes are at war with a very new, but suprisingly strong one. The new one is strong not because it can answer those unanswerable questions, but because it can point out weaknesses in the other memes and sow doubt. Its strength comes from the fact that it acknowledges its own weaknesses, and seeks to systematically address them. Its entire purpose is seeking answers, not bestowing them.

Fran wrote:

One of the stumbling blocks to faith is exactly that inability to accept a Divine Plan that’s inherently beyond our ability to comprehend.

I will admit that my response to this easily could be interpreted as accusatory. It was not intended as such, but I’ll accept the blame for it. However, in his lecture Professor Dennett made a couple of comments that explain my position much better:

We lay-people do the believing and leave the understanding to the experts.

There is a large amount of truth there, especially when it comes to the Abrahamic faiths as I understand them, and the higher sciences. He also said:

With religious formulas, even the experts claim not to understand.

If a divine plan is inherently beyond human ability to comprehend, then the second quotation is perfectly accurate. From my way of thinking, an incomprehensible divine plan presents questions even faith cannot answer. That’s what faith is for – believing even though there is no (or contrary) evidence of fact. Science acknowledges ignorance, but at least offers the possibility of eventual understanding. What it doesn’t offer, is comfort. Faith offers that.

But sectarianism offers conflict. As Dennett said,

…generally speaking the difficulty in saying (religious and scientific truth) can live side by side is the sectarianism of the world today, and the use of traditional religions to be exclusionary and to justify violence and war, and you just can’t deny that this is a major problem.

I raised just that point with Fran. His response:

He who claims that that religion excuses violence against non-Christians is contradicting the explicit words of Christ, and therefore is no Christian himself.

No true Christian did those things. Period. The nature of Christianity is at odds with that behavior.

Because evil people act in evil ways and “claim” to be Christian, or do so “in the name of Christ”, does not imply that Christ approves of that behavior.

Og the Neanderpundit commented:

We’re not talking about the things so called christians have done in the past, and I will brook no discussion on that subject.

I find that a fascinating position to take. Let me recount two jokes here (damn you, DJ!) to illustrate my perspective:

How many Christians does it take to change a light bulb?

Charismatic: Only 1 – Hands are already in the air.

Pentecostal: 10 – One to change the bulb, and nine to pray against the spirit of darkness.

Presbyterians: None – Lights will go on and off at predestined times.

Roman Catholic: None – Candles only. (Of guaranteed origin of course.)

Baptists: At least 15 – One to change the light bulb, and three committees to approve the change and decide who brings the potato salad and fried chicken.

Episcopalians: 3 – One to call the electrician, one to mix the drinks, and one to talk about how much better the old one was.

Mormons: 5 – One man to change the bulb, and four wives to tell him how to do it.

Unitarians: We choose not to make a statement either in favor of or against the need for a light bulb. However, if in your own journey you have found that light bulbs work for you, you are invited to write a poem or compose a modern dance about your light bulb for the next Sunday service, in which we will explore a number of light bulb traditions, including incandescent, fluorescent, 3-way, long-life and tinted, all of which are equally valid paths to luminescence.

Methodists: Undetermined – Whether your light is bright, dull, or completely out, you are loved. You can be a light bulb, turnip bulb, or tulip bulb. Bring a bulb of your choice to the Sunday lighting service and a covered dish to pass.

Nazarene: 6 – One woman to replace the bulb while five men review church lighting policy.

Lutherans: None – Lutherans don’t believe in change.

Amish: What’s a light bulb?

I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump off.

I said, “Don’t do it!” “Why shouldn’t I?” he said.

I said, “Well, there’s so much to live for!” He said, “Like what?”

I said, “Well…are you religious or atheist?” He said “Religious.”

I said, “Me too! Are you a Christian or a Jew?” He said, “A Christian.”

I said, “Me too! Protestant or Catholic?” He said, “Protestant.”

I said, “Me too! What franchise?” He says, “Baptist.”

I said, “Me too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?” He says, “Northern Baptist.”

I said, “Me too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?” He says, “Northern Conservative Baptist.”

I said, “Me too! Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist or Northern Conservative Reformed Baptist?” He says, “Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist.”

I said, “Me too! Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist, Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist, Eastern Region?” He says, “Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist, Great Lakes Region.”

I said, “Me too! Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist, Great Lakes Region, Council of 1879 or Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist, Great Lakes Region, Council of 1912?” He says, Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist, Great Lakes Region, Council of 1912.”

I said, “Die, heretic scum!” and I pushed him over.

(The first joke is unattributed. The second is by comedian Emo Phillips.) The first joke illustrates the way religious memes can mutate. The second, the historically demonstrated result of many such mutations. Replace “Council of 1879” and “Council of 1912” with “Catholic” and “Protestant,” or “Jew” and “Gentile,” or “Sufi” and “Shia,” or simply “Muslim” and “everybody else,” and history can point to violence attributable to the alleged apostasy.

It is the history of repression and bloodshed that “militant anti-Christians” like Eric Raymond object to. However, as Fran noted (and Sarah before him), atheists only hold a better track record because they’ve been in the race for much, much less time.

So let me speak now on why I’m an atheist.

Fran said of such acts of bloodshed, “No true Christian did those things. Period. The nature of Christianity is at odds with that behavior.” I believe wholeheartedly that Fran believes this to be so. When I attempted to clarify by noting that such actions were often done with the blessing of the Catholic Church, Fran rebuked me:

Your interpretation of my statement merely reveals that you think the Church to be something it isn’t. The Church is the teachings of Christ; its adherents, number they one or billions, cannot affect that. If every living soul who called himself a Christian were an agent of evil, it would not affect the nature of the Church.

Since to Fran “The Church” is limited to Christ’s teachings, then such behavior is, by definition, unChristian. But the “lightbulb” joke illustrates that “The Church” is, for most people, defined as the specific system of beliefs and behaviors of a group who use the Bible as the basis of that system. More expansively, it encompasses the “experts” who explain to the lay people Christ’s teachings, and those ‘experts’ vary widely in how they interpret those teachings.

From my perspective, the Catholic Church represents a specific belief system with an attendant pattern of behaviors expected of its adherents, one of which is the requirement to follow the edicts of the church’s heirarchy – those who the lay people depend on for understanding – without question. When one of Catholicism’s adherents concluded he could no longer do that, he broke from authority and created Protestantism. Fran’s position is that if the Catholic heirarchy veers from his understanding of the teachings of Christ, then the fault is theirs and not his, and he is not bound to abide by their dictates. If Fran holds the belief that he can – with safety to his soul – refuse a Papal edict commanding him (for an extreme example) to slay Protestants for being Protestants, then he is not, in fact, a Catholic. He’s a Protestant who follows most of the pattern of behaviors of the Catholic church. He is, in fact, a member of his own specific Protestant Christian sect.

And that means that the people he attends Mass with may refuse to go along with him, rather than refuse to go along with the church.

Like all faithful members of any sect, Fran is confident that his beliefs are right and true, and that the beliefs of other sects are possibly (if not definitely) lacking in some way, even unto the possibility that – however much they believe themselves to be – members of those other sects might very well not be Christians at all.

People of faith often take offense to ideas like this.

Violence can ensue. And has.

But this is not why I’m an atheist.

The definition of religion is “a social system that postulates supernatural agents whose approval is to be sought.” Sought why? When it comes to the Abrahamic faiths, the approval is to be sought so that the appellant can go to Heaven. The religion, of whichever sect, has a set of rules that must be obeyed in order to win this reward. Fran, and millions of others, are Catholic. They believe that only Catholics, true believers, will achieve this goal. Protestants, of whatever sect, believe similarly.

Fran relates:

My wife is a secularist, born Jewish but non-practicing. When we married, I was a non-practicing Catholic. She hasn’t changed; I have. But it’s made no difference to our relations or our attitudes toward one another…because we were both decent, tolerant persons before the change, and we’ve remained decent, tolerant persons since.
My stepdaughters are much like my wife. Both have said that they don’t quite comprehend what’s come over me since I returned to the Church. But both treat me exactly as they did before…because my behavior toward them has not changed. They understand that my “re-Christening” has nothing to do with them.

Yet Fran’s religion says that his wife and his daughters, and everyone Fran knows who is not a “true Christian” will burn for eternity in Hell, at worst, or simply cease to exist at best.

But because he’s decent and tolerant, his relations and attitudes towards his loved ones have not changed with his return to his faith.

What was the quote I selected from Eric Raymond’s piece?

The trouble with ‘tolerance’ is that it only works as a cultural compact when all parties are civilized and have in practice largely agreed to abandon the more inconvenient claims of the religions they theoretically profess.

Fran is not alone. I use his words only as an example.

Charles Darwin, Professor Wilson relates, lost his faith not because of his formulation of the theory of evolution, but because he realized what his faith meant:

He gradually dropped his Christian beliefs because becoming a man of the world, much more aware of other cultures and other religious beliefs and so on, he said that he realized that the stories of the Bible were basically no different than the stories of these other religions, and it seemed to him that they were not in of themselves convincing. But what really turned him against religion was the doctrine of damnation. He said “If the Bible is true, and you must be redeemed in Christ and be a believer in order to go to Heaven and not go to hell, you must be this and others will be condemned,” and he said “That includes my brothers and all my best friends,” and he said “That is a damnable doctrine.” Those are his words.

I’m often told that it’s a better choice to behave as though I believe, as though my actions will garner me the approval of the supernatural agents. However, at least as far as the Abrahamic faiths go, this is a non-starter:

Yes, I generated that sign on a web page, but it’s an accurate representation of real ones I have seen, and it’s an accurate interpretation, as far as I can tell, of all the Abrahamic faiths.

No faith, no salvation.

If it exists, Heaven must be a very lightly populated place.

I am an atheist because I have been exposed to science, and science has pointed out weaknesses in religion. I cannot believe that there are supernatural agents, much less ones I must seek approval from. I am not a “militant anti-Christian” because I know that Christianity is, in the main, a symbiotic meme. Read the story of Medal of Honor winner Desmond T. Doss, (Mr. Doss died on March 23) or the words of a young official election witness for the recent presidential election in Belarus who was interviewed on NPR. When asked if he was worried about speaking to the media about what he saw, he replied:

“I don’t think I’m brave, but I count on God to help me.”

I don’t think religion is evil – at least not the overwhelming majority of them. I just don’t think that there is a reconciliation between the “truth” we’re hardwired for and the “truth” we’ve discovered. The one we’re hardwired for has flaws, some of them so severe that we must be decent, tolerant, civilized people to ignore those flaws and still believe we believe. The one we’ve discovered doesn’t offer us comforting answers. Both require that we depend on experts for understanding. In both cases, even the experts admit that they don’t understand everything. But one claims that by faith some will reap an eternal reward, while others will suffer for eternity. The other claims that by hard work, we’ll eventually understand. Perhaps not everything, but more and more, continuously.

That’s a meme I can accept.

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