Thursday, March 15, 2007

Trickle-Up Atheism

Atheism is only going to grow from here on out. Don't get the idea from my last post that I don't think we are on the move. We are. One day in the next hundred years, the average American will look around at the few, small religious groups left, and see nothing but cults. I don't think there will be a big fight to the finish, I just think that people are getting smarter, and getting smart leads to stronger reasoning skills and fewer irrational beliefs. The Institute for Humanist Studies reports that the number of nonreligious 18-25 year olds has risen from 11% to 20% in the last 20 years. Look at these other, encouraging findings:
Late last year, a Harris Poll, for the Financial Times, conducted a large survey on religious beliefs in France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Spain and the U.S. The U.S. was the most religious country, with 73 percent of respondents describing themselves as believers in "any form of God or any type of supreme being." (This figure is lower than many other surveys, but the totals include 6 percent who prefer not to say and 3 percent who don't know -- categories that other surveys often drop from their results.)

Italy wasn't far behind the U.S., with 62 percent believing in a god. In the other countries, believers in God are the minority: 48 percent of Spaniards, 41 percent of Germans, 35 percent of Britons and just 27 percent of the French believe in any form of a supreme being.

I don't think we need to make this a heated exchange. We should be the parent that calms the child down from an irrational temper tantrum with calm, reasonable words -- not by losing our own temper and bullying the fight out of them. The more rational thought we inspire into those that are already on the slippery slope, the more we are greasing up the slope.

Sam Harris has a new article in the LA Times today, in which he describes the spectrum of the religious as concentric circles of diminishing reasonableness. The moderate and liberal believers are the outer rings, and are standing between us and the maniacal fundamentalists and suicide bombers in the middle. Their existance protects and excuses the fundamentalists.

If we start with the moderates and liberals, even by ignoring the fundamentalists altogether, we are still eroding their support. The more religious liberals we get sliding down the slope, the more will deconvert into free thinkers. The stronger our numbers, the weaker theirs. Without the support of these liberals, and then the moderates, fundamentalists will eventually just go POOF in a cloud of logic.

I think this is a much more reasonable approach than going straight for the big fish. If we started with the fundamentalists, they would have a good chance of aligning all the fence-sitters against us. With a trickle-up approach, we can reduce their numbers first, and then tackle their strongest members with stronger numbers ourselves.

13 comments:

Michael said...

Hi David

Thanks for the comment on my blog.

I'm not sure how to do a trackback on Blogger so here's a link to a quick post I made on your article.
http://www.atheistperspective.com/trickle-up-atheism/

I'll include my response here too so we can have a little debate :)

“One day in the next hundred years, the average American will look around at the few, small religious groups left, and see nothing but cults. I don’t think there will be a big fight to the finish, I just think that people are getting smarter, and getting smart leads to stronger reasoning skills and fewer irrational beliefs.”

I have to strongly disagree and I think it’s dangerous to assume that as people get smarter, they will think more rationally and move away from religion. Some of the smartest people on the planet are theists and have a belief in God. Granted some, as Dawkins often says, when pressed, don’t really hold the beliefs that you or I feel are dangerous, but nonetheless, I don’t think higher intelligence results in an automatic move away from religion, those people are just able to make better excuses than the rest.

You can’t fight faith with teaching or with reasoning, it’s there and that’s where the conversation stops. As Sam Harris has said on numerous occasions, the people that carried out 9/11 were not downtrodden, uneducated or poor, they were highly intelligent, some with degrees and some in highly competitive professions such as architecture. These people were intelligent and had the ability to question what they see. But faith was the deciding factor.

However that’s not to say that education can’t play an important role in changing people’s attitudes and their willingness to accept faith as the ultimate argument, it can. People like Tyson and Druyan are doing their bit to popularize science and many countries are fighting hard to keep religion out of the classroom. If we can keep young kids from indoctrination at an early age and involve them in science then we’re onto a winner. But what chance is there when the parents drill religion into them from such an early age?

That leads onto David’s next point:

“If we start with the moderates and liberals, even by ignoring the fundamentalists altogether, we are still eroding their support. The more religious liberals we get sliding down the slope, the more will deconvert into free thinkers. The stronger our numbers, the weaker theirs.”

I completely agree that focussing on the moderates is important but it’s a catch 22 really. We need to continue campaigning against the fundamentalists as they offer us the best argument against the moderate’s religious beliefs. As I’ve said before, the best ‘converting feature’ of most of our atheist blogs are not the arguments we put forward, but the contributions by the religious hard-liners who comment on the articles posted. They are our best argument because the moderate sees these comments and wonders ‘can I really belong to the same religion as these people?’ It’s far more effective at times than us going on and on and on about how terrible religion is. It’s a bit like drugs education.

I was once in a seminar on drugs where the visitor was preaching about the evils of drugs and how one ecstasy tablet can kill. Well that was news to the hundreds of kids that were taking them every week and saw no immediate ill effects. The moderate does not believe that the arguments we put forward are relevant to them. When have we ever seen a moderate accept that their religion is the cause for much of the evil that takes place? One visitor to this blog continues to deny that the teachings of Islam have anything to do with the Muslim extremists we see parading around with banners threatening the west with death.

(As much as sometimes I feel I’m a little too beligerent, anything that brings the hardliners out into the open to display the beliefs they have can only be a good thing.)

In my opinion, continual exposure of religious extremists is the only way we are going to move forward. I think it’s really a two pronged attack.

But the point remains, as David says, we can’t assume that the moderates don’t cause harm, they do, maybe not directly but they prop up those with more extreme beliefs.

Naomi said...

Okay, when you put it that way, I agree.

But I wish the fundies would all become "Mimes for X", as I saw on Pharygula today! At least, by turning away from a mime, you no longer have to endure them and their stale-breath rhetoric and irrational rationales.

The only good fundie is a silent fundie. And the best fundie is one on your slippery slope!

Naomi said...

Michael: I also agree with you on so many of your points. I know that I get "rowdy and raucous" with the trolls but, then, they are impervious to persuasion, aren't they? And to follow your logic, doesn't my behavior show me in a bad light to moderate xians? So, my bullying them may not be the right way to handle trolls. But, really, there is no right or good way to handle trolls--who are bullies, to begin with...

As the RaptureRight's fortunes have increased since the election of President Godsend, they have arrogantly overreached and almost unbalanced themselves. This is why 2006's elections went to more moderate and liberal candidates! But we can't count on this happening in 2008. We must explore every avenue, try other tactics and enlist as many moderate&liberal xians in this fight. I don't think it's unfair to say that Jerry Dobertson (conflation of Falwell/Dobson/Robertson's names) will settle for anything less than a Theocratic America.

And that scares me out of my mind!

David W. said...

Hi Michael! Thanks for putting so much thought into this. I'm not sure how Blogger does trackbacks either (if at all), that's something to investigate. Thank for linking either way!

Growth of Atheism
Yes, there are many very intelligent theists, but I think this is a sign of the power of indoctrination, not of the coexistance of rational thought and theism. If these intelligent people had grown up in an atheist household, then what? The indoctrination of children is the biggest problem that true rational thought has, because it occurs before the children really gain the skills to separate fact from fiction. I would like to see numbers supporting this, as right now this is just an observation, but it seems like the number of people that have switched from theist to nontheist vastly outnumber those that have found religion after having none. Intelligence and rationality are the catalysts, and it's a virtually one-way reaction. The statistics showing the nearly doubling of non-religious 18-24 year olds makes me very optimistic that we are finally starting to see the toppling point, where the chain reaction is only two or three generations away.

The Moderate Achilles Heel
"We need to continue campaigning against the fundamentalists as they offer us the best argument against the moderate’s religious beliefs."

I really love this point. But why can't we target the moderates, as we campaign against the fundamentalists? Let us separate the goal (deconversion) from the ammo (religious views, and actions based on those views). You say that the fundamentalists are the best argument against moderate belief -- so why even attempt to try to convert them yet? Let's use them as an example to as many moderates as we can. The crazier they get, the better we can use them, and yet at the same time we will be eroding their support, which will ultimately make them accessible targets as well.

David W. said...

@Naomi: "So, my bullying them may not be the right way to handle trolls."

Let's try their own tactics. Hmm, let's see, which tactic would that be?

[in a creepy, musical voice] "Charles looooves you.... Let Darwin into your brain...."

no....

[in a blind fury, spitting froth, with pendulous underarms swinging like the San Francisco earthquake] "CATHOLIIIIIIC! GET OUT OF MY HOUUUUUUUSE!"

no....

[knock them over by slapping them on the forehead] "You are HEALED! Feel the rationality and common sense FLOOD you from the inside OUT!"

no....

[door to door] "We have come to bring you a special message from your brain. May we come in?"

no....

Darn, there's just no good way to talk to trolls!

Michael said...

David, I guess the problem we have is that parents believe that what they are doing is education. But the indoctrination of children in their parents' belief systems is not education, it's baseless dogma. Teaching should be based on empirically supported fact.

I do hope that you're right, that as people become more intelligent religious belief will subside. I'm just not sure this is the case. We may see fewer religious groups but I think they'll incorporate all the moderates and become even more fanatical. Only time will tell!

Naomi said...

Actually, I gave it some thought and sent an email to the rest of the mods, which has been approved. We now delete the body of the offending post and replace the text with this:

This post has broken a GifS Commandment: Thou shall not proselytize. Read
Comment Policy Guidelines, for reference. Mods
And then mark it "approved" (and we also alter their email address, for some reason--perhaps to keep others from following them back to their blog IF they told the truth about their blog URL...)

My rationale is that improves our "image" to the squishy xians who may join the discussion knowing that, if they get carried away in their mental masturbation, they won't be flamed--they'll only be sternly altered...

It feels better already.

Thanks for making me argue both sides and think about what we were doing.

David W. said...

Naomi: that sounds like a great way to deal with the problem. I'm still waiting for my first troll over here :-) so it hasn't even come up yet for me. You've made a good rule to model, when the time comes.

Michael: I think it's partly educational and partly traditional. Things like going to church every Sunday are a little of both. Children attending Sunday School and church camps is mostly educational. Reciting the blessing before meals is mostly traditional.

You're absolutely right, only time will tell. I can't help but be optimistic, though.

alex said...

Hi guys. Great blog and great discussion. Here’s what I think:
“I think it’s dangerous to assume that as people get smarter, they will think more rationally and move away from religion. Some of the smartest people on the planet are theists and have a belief in God.”
Many studies have shown that the more educated a person is, the less likely he/she is to believe in supernatural. One of the greatest statistics I’ve seen lately is that only 7% of the members of National Academy of Sciences (almost 2000 scientists) believe in god. That’s priceless evidence for the benefits of better education right there.
I agree - we should use all available avenues to target/educate moderates and fundies, but the reason I’m a big R. Dawkins supporter is because I strongly agree that science education for the next generations is our best weapon.
And like David, I think the momentum is on our side and I too am encouraged and optimistic.

PS: the Famous Atheists video was awesome by the way. Thanks a lot!

vjack said...

I hope you are right. The thing that gives me pause is how many times American atheists have previously thought we were close to the end of religion, only to see it come back with a vengeance. I am confident that the pendulum will swing further toward atheism, however, I am less confident about it swinging back.

C. L. Hanson said...

Why would people be getting smarter? Human DNA changes very little from one generation to the next, so one can reasonably assume that our species' potential intelligence is not measurably increasing.

It's possible that people are becoming more rational as they become better educated, but the overall quality of pre-college public education in the US is poor, and not showing much sign of improvement. The light of hope in the storm may be the Internet teaching ordinary people to think critically, as I discussed here: think for yourself.

It may also be true that people raised athiest very rarely become religious later in life (as opposed to the other direction which is fairly common) -- and I have plenty of anecdotes and theory to back that up -- but I'd like to see some actual data before I'll be convinced. ;^)

My one caveat for you in your idea of trying to erode the ranks of the moderate believers: Just because they're not violent/dangerous/insane, that doesn't necessarily mean they're less attached to their faith. If they get the impression that the atheists are trying to eliminate religious belief (and that that is the goal of science education), many will rally with the fanatics. It may be better to form moderate and liberal political alliances without insisting on deconverting people.

David W. said...

Why would people be getting smarter? Human DNA changes very little from one generation to the next, so one can reasonably assume that our species' potential intelligence is not measurably increasing.

Hi C.L.! Isaac Newton, when speaking of his own accomplishments to Robert Hooke, said, "If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants." That is what I mean when I say that people are getting smarter and smarter. By being taught better information and better ways to interpret and analyze that information, we are slowly but surely letting go of alternative explainations for the natural world.

Our DNA hasn't changed much since the times of Newton, Galileo, or Darwin either -- but we're smarter now for understanding gravity, solar/planetary relations, and evolution.

Naomi said...

Congratulations on being included in the Humanist Symposium! Very good thing to do as a young blog, David.

You make me proud!