What would happen if all the agnostics, skeptics, and atheists out there were open and vocal about their secular lives? Would would happen if the vast majority of people admitted that their sense of morality came from internal and communal reasoning rather than from a religious text?
My best guess is that we’d recognize the United States as not very different from parts of the Middle East. A religious war would break out.
We saw what people did to America’s #1 sport just because players wouldn’t kneel to a flag and song. Imagine people no longer pretending to kneel to others’ made-up god.
I think most of our politicians pretend to have religious beliefs because of this fear. It means that many of us participate in a great ruse because we are scared of a minority of heavily armed theists who have a history of promoting and celebrating violence against minorities and women. We’re scared of what they might do if we stopped giving fealty to their deities.
Imagine if we taxed their houses of worship. Or if we demanded that they follow the Constitution by getting religion out of politics (no more mention of gods by elected officials, and no more national religious holidays). Imagine if we started treating all religions as equals in this country. Again, I think we’d see massive outbreaks of violence. These are people who lose their minds over Starbucks cup designs and the harmless words “Happy Holidays.”
If it’s true that violence would erupt if we pushed Christianity to the side, then it means we are living among an ISIS-like group of crazy people who only remain calm because we go along with their fantasies. We are in thrall to this minority of hardcore true believers. We are their intellectual captors.
It’s something to think about as demographic trends point toward a more secular future. Kids aren’t as religiously affiliated as their parents, who weren’t as religiously motivated as their parents. We lag behind Europe in our secularization, but it’s still happening.
Monotheistic religions are necessarily violent. They begin with a claim that there is only one god, which leaves little room for other beliefs. Look at the first four Christian commandments:
- You shall have no other gods before Me.
- You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything.
- You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God.
- Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.
These are rules from an insecure God, not rules about being kind to one another. You have to get to number 5 on this list before you touch upon morality. That’s crazy. And it’s even more crazy that this doesn’t seem crazy to everyone all at once.
While polytheistic religions have historically been more welcoming by simply adding new gods and beliefs to their pantheon, true moral progress has come from outside religion altogether. Religious beliefs tend to lag behind cultural movements, only catching up when membership numbers are threatened. Gay marriage is just one recent example. Religious leaders fight moral progress until they are too far on the wrong side of history, and then they slowly, begrudgingly relent.
When you look back at the course of human history, it is one of moral progress. Our spheres of empathy keep expanding, wrapping around larger segments of the population, and more recently to non-human members of the population. Animal rights and environmental protections were fringe concerns in my lifetime; now they are mainstream. Looking back, we can see how many white populations of immigrants were considered terrible minorities to other established whites (the Irish, for instance). Our hate keeps narrowing while our love expands, however haltingly this progress seems.
The same subset of people seem to be on the wrong side of history on many issues, all having to do with an inability to expand spheres of empathy. Often, these people point to religious texts as justification for their backwards beliefs, which makes sense; those beliefs were written a long time ago. When a child molestor was running for Senate, they pointed to Mary’s similarly young age when she was forcibly impregnated by their god. The same group use the Bible to justify persecution of homosexuals. Before the two American political parties flipped sides (due to race relations), these same people pointed to the Bible to justify slavery.
The same people who get their morality from a dusty book, which was a poor translation from a poor translation, also get their political ideas from an old parchment. There may be a reason that the twin loves of god and gun go hand-in-hand. A recent study into the difference between conservatives and liberals found that there is a high correlation between conservative views and fear. If you reduce a person’s fear, their opinions become more liberal. Makes sense. Conservatives want walls, guns, prisons, the death penalty, Gitmo, and they fear Muslims and immigrants (who combined kill fewer Americans than lightning). These people are afraid. Their religion spreads through fear, starting when they are in the crib.
I contend that our religiosity is more to blame for our outlying violence among modern societies than our guns. Our guns are just a symptom of our religiosity. People need them because they are in constant fear. A small portion of people own most of our guns. They are terrified. It makes me sad to think about what’s going on in their brains. I have family members who used to send me emails about Muslims taking over the world. The thought kept them up at night. Or the idea that white people will be a minority in the United States one day. This thought fills them with anger.
These people don’t know that their guiding superstition will also be in the minority one day, that it is becoming smaller and smaller with every new birth of an open mind and every funeral for a closed one. Despite how news media coverage works, their fear isn’t spreading faster than hope. Their hate can’t win over love. They might have a book full of fear and hate, but we have millions of books and stories that inspire us with hope and love. Our ideas of how to treat each other are objectively better. And they are improving over time because we dare to have a discourse about how to treat each other, rather than looking in an old text for justification for our darkest thoughts.
I am an atheist. A proud one. I think every good action should exist for its own benefit, not out of fear of punishment, or hope for reward. I don’t fear death. I think life is full of meaning, and it’s meaning that we place there, that we build from scratch, not meaning we hope to stumble upon like some El Dorado in the jungle. Rather, the meaning of life is something that we have to build over the course of our lives. It starts on the rubble of an older meaning, just as cities are built upon each other over time. We piece it together terribly at first. Painful as it might be, we have to disassemble large swaths and start over again throughout our lives. But this meaning is more reliably assembled than discovered. It happens quicker the more we discuss our plans and copy from our neighbors. Our designs are far more accurate through discourse.
What we build will be different for each of us. Service to community, the aim to simply do no harm, the herculean task of having and raising members of humanity who are better than their parents in every way, simply paying taxes and living in a just society, voting our conscious, running for office, showing compassion for strangers, loving far-flug tribes more powerfully than our close circles of friends, inventing something of use, solving problems, providing entertainment or laughs or hope. The meaning of life is what we make of it, but it has to make sense; it has to be built where all can see and any can critique.
Most of all, the meaning of life has to be built on level ground and on solid foundations. The tall sharp spires of religion get in the way of that for many. I think one of the upcoming cultural revolutions that will make the world a better place will be a secularization of the two most violent pockets of religious thinking in the world: the United States and the Middle East. Both will gradually lose their gods as we put them in coffins and feed them to worms.
In their place will come heroic non-believers who are courageous enough to be open about their doubts, who approach the accumulation of knowledge with joy rather than see any gap in understanding as an admission of weakness. For these people, blind faith will not be something to celebrate. Nor will blind obedience, or unconditional love, or unwavering fealty to elders. Ideas will have to win people over, just as trust and love are earned.
It will be difficult to do, to admit that we don’t believe what our parents believe. It will be difficult to build meaning from scratch rather than cast about, hoping to find it already built and waiting for us in the jungle. But the reward for our honesty and hard work will be something to be proud of. And it will bring an end to the pervasive and unfounded fears that power backwards, conservative thoughts. It’s only a matter of time. The arrow of history has always pointed this way. Every day is a great day to choose which side of that arrow to be on.