Will Atheism Defeat Theism: A Rebuttal

Posted: February 14, 2013 in Philosophy

Mark Twain

Cover of Mark Twain

This morning’s article on Huffington Post entitled Atheism to Defeat Religion By 2038  requires consideration and a response.

The article presumes to assert that the majority of our population will turn away from a belief in a supreme being (God) by the year 2038. “The view that religious belief will give way to atheism is known as the secularization thesis.  The most obvious approach to estimating when the world will switch over to being majority atheist is based on economic growth [sic]. This is logical because economic development is the key factor responsible for secularization.”

The article is as short in length as it is in reasonableness.  The author relies on a “mountain of evidence”, but he only cites three affirming references.  He writes, “If fewer than 50 percent of the population agreed that religion was important to them, then the country has effectively crossed over to a secular majority.”

There are many ways to argue the hypothetical.  A good start would be to define our terms. Atheism is a denial of the existence of a supreme and supernatural being. Theism is an assertion of the opposite case. Both assertions are based in belief.  There is no evidence that a supreme being does not exist, nor is there evidence to the contrary. Seen in this light, atheism (based in belief) will not “defeat” religion (also based in belief.)

Religion  is an organizational unit which permits members to socialize and provide the necessary administrative functions to preserve the organization.   As the linked definition indicates, religion is social whereas personal belief is the product of a single individual. So we might agree that defeating religion does not necessarily mean defeating personal beliefs.  We might also agree that a simple majority vote might only indicate a population’s preference for one belief or the other. It seems better to say that one general social disposition might replace, or “out-pace” the other. But defeat? Let’s examine that.

Atheism lacks an organizational structure. It is an individual belief. The questionnaire recommended by the article’s author relies on opinions from individuals. He writes, “One way of assessing the depth of religious commitment is to ask survey participants whether they think that religion is important in their daily lives as the Gallup Organization has done in worldwide nationally representative surveys.”

Wait! We have a problem now. Religion is a social organization. Atheism makes no direct assertion about religion.  It is the antithesis of theism, not religion.  A person could certainly indicate a lack of preference or reliance for socialization with other adherents, but that would not mean that the person’s own personal beliefs had changed.  Embracing a belief and being committed to it also offers a variable in the assessment.

Religion relies on socialization. Will atheism “defeat” socialization? That seems unlikely. Religion relies on other factors too. A belief in theism, or in atheism for that matter, has at its foundation a level of ignorance of something. Ignorance is a naturally occurring human condition. So is superstition, story-telling, faith, hope, and the entire expression of being human. Religion serves the interests of those who seek to express themselves as humans. Will atheism defeat this organizational effort? Will it alter the persistent nature of humankind?

No, and it is easy to see the error of the author when we view atheism as just another expression of theism.  Atheism and theism are merely human dispositions; mirror images perhaps, but fundamentally they are equal since they make assertions about unknown qualities. If I require an answer for a question I have not yet revealed, you could make a guess and believe whether or not it was true. All answers would be equally wrong until the question was revealed. It is the unknown questions of the universe and our existence which gives rise to answers put forth by both theists and atheists. The answers are different, but they are equally incorrect.

While the article’s author seeks to be prophetic about a change in the answers provided by a majority of humans, he ignores that nothing about the answers does anything to change the nature of humankind.  Here is another prophetic statement – “space, time and thought are not separate things.” [Season 1: Episode 5 Star Trek: The Next Generation] The theological implications of that statement are too difficult to grasp, but it is at least thought-provoking.  It is a possible answer to many questions. Unfortunately, we have not yet framed the correct questions that would lead us to embrace that answer. (So often we judge our brilliance based on our answers. I find that true brilliance is found in asking the right questions.)

Atheism is largely misunderstood. It is simply the negation of an answer.  It makes no assertion of belief (and in most cases, adherents deny that they are relying on faith to form their assertion.) The hypothetical could then be written as “Belief will defeat belief”. That is nonsensical.

Atheism is a transitional belief that seeks to deny mainstream cultural values. Atheism leads to something else – a new expression of being human. It is the act of erasing the chalk from the board. Once the mainstream answers are erased, the board is ready to receive a new answer. Atheists have not come up with that answer yet. They are in transition. Seen in this light, atheism is the vanguard of a new form of religious expression. Religion therefore will not be defeated, although it may undergo a major transformation. We will just have to wait and see what atheists decide to believe in after they succeed in denouncing mainstream religious expressions as primitive relics of our aging and (economically) maturing cultures.

Transition is an element of human maturity. If the world’s population is tending to abandon mainstream answers, the nature of being human will not change. Religion – our preference for socialization based on common beliefs, ideas and attitudes will survive and rally around new understandings. A similar transition occurred when we abandoned polytheism and replaced it with monotheism. The next generation of answers won’t be much better than the ones we use now, but that is the nature of belief and faith. We can define truth anyway we want until we gain an accurate understanding of the questions that elude us.

“Thought is the basis for all understanding.”  Star Trek is far more interesting than discussions about religion’s decline, and just as likely to be a closer approximation of universal truth.  Religion can find sanctuary in the words of Mark Twain, “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”

If atheism becomes the mainstream thought, atheists won’t believe in it. I will leave them to figure out that riddle.

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