So what do I want, anyway?
What do I expect to get out of all this atheist blogging? (Apart from stress reduction
, I mean.) What's my ultimate goal? When it comes to religion and/or the lack thereof, what kind of world do I want to see?
I think it's important for atheists to think about this. Atheist writers and activists especially. Otherwise, we're just arguing for the sake of arguing, a form of mental exercise done at the expense of annoying people. And the kind of world we decide we're trying to make is going to affect the kind of action we take about it.
I have a couple of different answers to this question. One is my ideal, perfect-world scenario, the Religious World According To Greta. The other is the world that, while not perfect, I would be pretty much entirely happy with. The world where, if it somehow magically came into being, I would probably quit blogging about atheism almost entirely and turn my focus back to sex and politics and food.
So let's take the Greta's Perfect World scenario first.
In my perfect world, I would like to see religion gradually disappear from the human mindset. "Gradually" meaning over the next, say, one or two hundred years.
I do think religion is a mistaken idea, and I do think it's an idea that does more harm than good — if for no other reason than because it is a mistaken idea
. I think it does harm, not just to atheists, but to believers themselves. And I think it does harm even in the absence of overt religious intolerance. I think it encourages gullibility
, vulnerability to bad ideas and charlatans; I think it discourages critical thinking
and the valuing of evidence; I think it supports people in prioritizing their personal beliefs and feelings
over the reality of the world around them. I think it does more harm than good, and I think the world would, on the whole, be a better place without it. Not a perfect place, by any means — I'm not deluded enough to think that the disappearance of religion would somehow eradicate all social ills — but better.
But even in my most utopian fantasies, I can't imagine religion disappearing overnight, or even within my lifetime, without massive social upheaval creating tremendous suffering around the world. It's too central to too many people's lives. Hence the "one or two hundred years."
So yes, I would like to see religion eventually disappear. I would not,
however, like to see this disappearance happen in any sort of coerced or enforced way. I would not, for instance, like to see laws passed against religious beliefs or practices. I don't even want to see social pressure exerted against religion or religious believers, except insofar as "arguments against the ideas" constitutes social pressure. I would like to see religious believers be completely free to practice their beliefs however they choose, as long as that practice doesn't unreasonably impinge on my life and the lives of everyone else around them.
That should all go without saying. But there are plenty of idiots in the world who think that any atheist who wants to see an end to religion must want that end to come at the barrel of a gun. So it seems like a good idea to spell it out. I don't want to see religion ended by force. I want to see it ended by — insert barely-suppressed, self-deprecating guffaw here — persuasion.
I told you this was idealistic.
So let's move on to the more scaled-back, more pragmatic vision.
I would be perfectly happy to live in a world in which:
(a) religious believers respected other believers and their beliefs — including atheists and our beliefs;
(b) religious believers understood that their beliefs were, in fact, beliefs and not facts, and didn't try to make laws and public policy based on them;
(c) people — especially kids growing up — understood that there were lots of different options when it came to religion… including the atheism option;
(d) religion didn't get the privileged, free-ride status it enjoys now, but instead was treated as simply another hypothesis about the world, one which had to defend itself in the marketplace of ideas just like any other idea.
If all that were true, I still wouldn't agree with religion. I'd still think it was mistaken. And I'd still probably debate it with people now and then. But I wouldn't be spending more than half of my precious writing time trying to argue against it. There are lots of mistaken ideas in the world. The urban legend debunking sites
are full of them. I don't devote my blog to their eventual disappearance.
You wanna know the weird thing, though?
I actually think my first vision may be more plausible than the second.
I think it's actually a lot more likely that we'll someday see a world without religion, than a world in which religion is widespread but entirely tolerant and ecumenical.
Because, in my experience and observation, tolerant and ecumenical religion is the exception, not the rule.
Daniel Dennett talks about this a little bit in his book "Breaking the Spell." He argues that the essential baselessness of religion — the fact that it's unsupported by solid evidence or logic, the fact that it's essentially a shared opinion rather than a body of knowledge — actually makes people cling to it more tightly, defend it more vehemently, get more upset and angry when the ideas are questioned. And it makes people more likely to build elaborate cultural defense mechanisms around it: from the tacit understanding that questioning religion is ill-mannered, to the codification of religious beliefs and practices into harshly- enforced law.
You don't need to build an entire mental and emotional and cultural suit of armor around an obvious fact, after all. If strange people come from over the hill and insist that the sky is orange and that it rains Jell-O, you probably won't go to war with them. But people do go to war when the strange people from over the hill insist that God is named Allah instead of Jesus, or vice versa. The idea that the sky is orange is easy to dismiss. You can clearly see that it isn't. The idea that your whole concept of God might be mistaken… it's less easy to dismiss. And it's therefore, psychologically, much more important to defend.
When I look at the history of religion in the world — and at religion in the world today — it seems clear that the groovy, accepting, "we're all looking at the same God in our own way" form of progressive ecumenicalism is very much in the minority. Hostility to other beliefs — and super- duper- hostility to no belief at all — is much more common… so common that it seems to be, not a foundation of religion exactly, but one of its defining characteristics.
So while, on a practical, day-to-day political level I'm going to fight for tolerance and ecumenicalism — creationism out of the public schools, evangelizing out of the military, public health policy not being written by fundamentalists, that sort of thing — I'm also going to keep fighting against religion in general. I'm going to keep doing what I can to keep atheism in the public eye, to make sure that more and more people every day know about it and see it as a valid option… so that in a few generations, my ultimate Utopian ideal of a world without religion might someday, long after I'm dead, be realized.
Because I think that it's actually a less Utopian goal than my other one.