I actually doubt it, so I’ll be a dissenting voice to some extent. However, there is some prospect of a mainly atheistic planet if we can bring about a better, more secure, way of life for all.
Camus, he knew a thing or two:
I suspect that the great French thinker, Albert Camus, was probably correct, even if he engaged in a degree of hyperbole, that human beings have an unmet expectation that the world be intelligible in a particular way. We want to understand it in terms of human concerns, as if it could “love and suffer” like us. What often seems bleak about atheistic viewpoints is that they entail that the universe, taken as a whole, is simply impersonal and uncaring. If we have the expectation that Camus speaks of, atheism will disappoint it.
For Camus, this was a starting point for reflection. When we understand the true nature of the universe, it seems, so he thought, absurd and alien.
Desperately seeking agency:
Camus did not offer any scientific explanation as to why we should have this expectation, but the history of science and philosophy tends to suggest a willingness on the part of human beings to reach for explanations of phenomena in terms that involve some kind of intelligent agency. Likewise, some psychological studies suggest that we find such explanations more immediately commonsensical than the explanations discovered by science.
However, that does not take away the fact that supernatural explanations of natural phenomena have a very poor track record. We’ve seen this again and again: we now know that emotions are not caused by gods like Ares and Venus; that the lightning does not come from Thor or Zeus; that the multiplicity of human languages has perfectly naturalistic origins, and is not explained by the wrath of Yahweh when human beings tried to build a tower to the heavens; and on and on and on.
These explanations have their psychological attractions, and we can speculate about why. (Perhaps explanations involving the actions of intelligent agents were especially useful to our ancestors, evolving as social animals in Africa, many thousands of years ago.) The problem is, once we move outside of a narrow range of phenomena that actually do involve the agency of other human beings, or at least the precursors of it in other animals, explanations in terms of agency are a failure. The further twist is that they tend to attract people (or many of them) anyway.
For Camus, once we understand this picture of the human situation, we can triumph over it. We can gain a kind of inner freedom when we realise that the universe does not guide us, and that it is up to us to sort out, and live by, our own values.
Camus may have exaggerated somewhat here. Many of our values are widely shared, since human psychology is something that evolved, along with human physiology. Still he had a point. Even if our values are encoded into us genetically, to some extent, we can take ownership of them as ours. We can live the life that strikes us as good, taking responsibility, perhaps succeeding in living with commitment and zest.
Preconditions for atheism:
Unfortunately, the solution for Camus may not be for everyone. Many people do not have the freedom, or resources, for projects that express their personal values to more than a minimal extent. People whose lives are seriously constrained by personal circumstances may find Camus’ vision psychologically unattractive, and continue to seek meaning in some external purpose, perhaps provided by God, rather than in their “inner freedom”.
This is one reason for atheists to mute their scorn for people who see a certain bleakness in Camus’ view of the world, without finding anything liberating in it (as he did, and as I do).
It appears to me that if we hope that people will gradually turn to finding meaning in their own values and their sense of inner freedom, rather than in a worldview that tries to make the universe intelligible by positing intelligence behind it, we need to do more than put forward the intellectual arguments against religious belief. Much has to be done to change the conditions in which people actually live and work.
I agree with the thought that this has already happened to a great extent in northern European countries, with their high levels of economic security, education, and personal freedom. Social changes in that direction are probably needed before any society can become mainly atheistic in outlook.
Even then, however, we need to be aware that we do have this tendency to seek intelligent agency in the universe, despite our repeated failures to discover it. I suspect that even in the conditions most favourable for atheism, some people will continue to reach for supernatural explanations. The temptation will always be there for us.
However, what about you, if you already have a good life and understand what’s going on? Even if many other people continue to believe in God, or whatever other supernatural agency is fabricated in the future, what’s your excuse?
Posted: June 13th 2007
See all questions answered by Russell Blackford