Do you think it's possible to achieve a world where everyone is an atheist?

What would be the necessary ingredients to accomplish that? (taken from burnvictim77’s youtube video ).

Posted: June 6th 2007

Russell Blackford www

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.

A solution?
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

jonecc www

I produced this answer for the question “If religious beliefs are wrong, why are they so prevalent and rooted in history?”, but it seems to do just as well here.

In Britain, where I live, religious belief is not dominant. In a survey carried out in December 2006 for the Guardian newspaper, when asked if they were religious, 64% said no. This turning away from religion is happening across northern Europe, and various explanations have been offered.

Firstly, northern European countries offer their citizens unprecedented levels of economic security, with a Welfare State and free health care, paid for by taxation. This is the greatest difference between us and societies such as the US, where religion remains strong. Incomes are also high, and we are comparatively safe from catastrophic events like flood, famine or social collapse.

Secondly, we have much more political freedom than most societies. In Britain, for instance, people have been at liberty to choose their own religion for hundreds of years. Being an atheist carried the death penalty until the nineteenth century, but has been legal for over a century.

Thirdly, all children are schooled, and a high proportion of adults go on to some form of post-16 education.

Fourthly, northern European societies have high levels of social and geographical mobility. This means that its citizens have broader horizons, and meet ideas from a wider range of sources, which is bound to undermine any set of fixed dogmas.

Religions flourish in societies with low incomes, no Welfare State, poor education, an absence of freedom and limited mobility. Because that describes most of human history, religion has persisted. If the world is moving away from those times, then there is reason to hope that it will move away from religion too.

There are other factors in the success of religion. Evolutionary theorists have suggested that humans may have an innate bias towards seeing meaning and purpose in the world, and one should not forget emotional blackmail within the family, fear of death, fear of hell, epilepsy and psychedelic plants. These factors are not proving sufficient in northern Europe, however, and if other societies follow a similar economic and social path there is no reason to believe they will prove sufficient there.

Incidentally, this question came from burnvictim77’s YouTube video, linked to at the top. I hope you and the other 76 are feeling better, and to cheer you all up in the burns unit here’s a bonus answer to your second question.

“How many of you go out and look for videos or lists on the Internet compiled by theists and actually consider the points they’re making rather than just trying to refute them?”, he asks, rather plaintively.

I do think it’s important to emphasise the answer to this. Trying to refute a point is how I consider it. Whenever I meet an argument, whether I am personally sympathetic to it or not, I immediately start trying to pick holes in it. What are the underlying assumptions of the argument? Have I come across similar arguments before? Does it make objective claims about the world, and if so where is the evidence? Does it depend on emotionally biased language to give it weight, and if so what might the argument look like rephrased?

I don’t just do atheism. I do enjoy a good argument, and I have argued the case for many propositions online. For instance, I have argued that global warming is a real threat, that Wikipedia is a good thing, that homeopathy doesn’t work, that astrology is simply wrong and that Bristol City are the best soccer team in the world. Very often, I come across compelling arguments on (some of) these and other topics which cause me to adjust my views. With religious commentators this never happens. I suspect this is because they consider that their faith somehow excuses them from making proper arguments.

Posted: June 8th 2007

See all questions answered by jonecc

Robert Maynard

Yes, I do.

But please, don’t take this to imply an insidious plot to subjugate or exterminate religious traditions by force.
A passive, generational transition towards secularism is a predictable consequence of increased scientific literacy.

It is my understanding that the public of the present comes to surpass the learned men of antiquity.
You – yes, you – could very likely instruct Democritus, the philosopher and father of the atom, in concepts of chemistry and subatomic particles; things you learned in high school. You could capably enlighten a transfixed Galileo or Copernicus, on what we currently know about the members of our solar system and the star they orbit, and of solar systems beyond.
Bearing closer to the present, many of you could teach Charles Darwin a thing or two about the basics of genetics and how it relates to evolution. The public invariably lags behind the scientific community, but our curricula are cumulative, and we are accelerating.

Scientific findings have essentially usurped supernatural accounts in our understanding of the natural world, but spheres of social interaction and human cognition are still seen as mysterious and intangible by the public. Mysticism persists not because of failures of modern psychology and sociology to adequately explain these fields, but rather because the findings of these disciplines are infrequently received by the public at large. The higher the rate of uptake of scientific knowledge into the public understanding, the fewer shelters remain for religious explanations to retreat to.

It is instructive then, that only 7% of members of the National Academy of Sciences believe in a personal God, rising to 40% amongst the general American scientific community. If we survive into the next century, I think that it is imaginable that our descendants could teach scientists working today a thing or two on several topics – perhaps what living on Mars is like, or even how abiogenesis took (or takes) place.
Couldn’t we also imagine then, that the demographics of atheism would match or exceed those among scientists today? I think this trend has a certain predictability to it.

I think that the world could become entirely atheist, and I take this, possibly naively, as an intuitive certainty.

Posted: June 7th 2007

See all questions answered by Robert Maynard


Firstly, everyone is born an atheist, so converting people to theism is a learned human endeavor. Therefore, it’s not inconceivable to revert back to the default position.

Secondly, there seems to be a definite correlation between atheism and scientific education, standard of living, and economic security. In other words, the more you understand of the world and the better your living conditions, the less you resort to superstitions to get you through the day.

The countries with the highest standard of living in the world are also the least religious. This wasn’t done by any social engineering or concerted campaign by Scandinavian Atheists; people simply gave up their own beliefs. The transition seems to run from Literalist theist to moderate theist to deist to agnostic and then to atheist.

There won’t ever be 100% atheism, but once it reaches a crucial statistical threshold, i.e., over 50%, and once most of the role models, political leaders, celebrities, etc. are atheist then the rest of the population will more easily follow, if for no better reason than just to do what is fashionable.

What little religiosity that remains will be fairly harmless, fringe cults such as pagans today or Druids, etc. There should never be a top-down decree outlawing them if they don’t harm anybody, and there’s no undue influence on public policy.

Posted: June 7th 2007

See all questions answered by RTambree


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