"Religion Depends on Social Consent to Survive"

It’s been nearly a year since I clipped this snippet from Greta Christina’s “Live-Blogging the Rapture.”

Religion depends on social consent to survive and perpetuate itself. We have to deny that consent. We have to keep pointing out, at every available opportunity, that the Emperor has no clothes.

That, coming at the end of a super-snarky session waiting for the Rapture (which, much like Godot, never showed up), struck me hard. “Religion depends on social consent to survive…” The phrase resonated. I clipped it into a post draft, and I’d see it on the list occasionally, where it waited for me to do something about it, this fact that on the face of it seems so obvious and yet seems so often overlooked.

“Religion depends on social consent to survive and perpetuate itself.”

Isn’t this why people get so upset when their religion is questioned or mocked? Why the idea that religion, any religion, is unnecessary or harmful and no more than imagination is not even allowed to cross people’s minds? Isn’t this why so much effort is expended on propping up the invisible and unknowable? Why the thinnest evidence will do for a believer? Why even the simple statement “You can be good without God,” why the very word “Atheists,” throws so many believers into a frenzy, and causes so much controversy?

Religion is a social construct. Nothing more. And if social consent is denied, if society refuses to shore up the edifice, down it comes. It can’t stand on its own. It will crumble and fall.

Knowing that is power.

“Religion depends on social consent to survive and perpetuate itself. We have to deny that consent.

If someone asked me to sum up the whole of New Atheism in two sentences, I’d filch Greta’s. That’s what we’re doing: denying religion the social consent it depends on to survive. As to why we’re doing that, the reasons are nicely summed up in Why Are You Atheists So Angry? I haven’t finished Greta’s book yet, but I’d determined by Chapter Three that this is the book I’ll suggest to anyone who asks me about atheism and why I’m the kind of atheist I am. Everything’s there, even an echo of those two sentences that made me sit up and go, “That’s it!” last year. See Chapter Two, under the heading “I’m angry, too. What can I do about it?”

Coming out is the single most effective political action a godless person can take. Coming out is how we counter the myths and misinformation people have about us. It’s how we become a political force to be reckoned with. It’s how we become a voting bloc. And it’s how we deny the social consent that religion relies on to perpetuate itself.

We’re still, even in the more enlightened areas of this country, at a point where people are startled by the very idea of atheists, much less being confronted with them. I live in one of the most liberal cities in the Pacific Northwest, where religion isn’t a constant presence, but people still do a double-take when religion comes up for various reasons and I announce I’m an atheist. There’s a little stumble in the conversational flow. Some of them incorporate that information effortlessly after a second: they may not have realized I’m an outspoken atheist, but the fact I’m an atheist fits very well with what they know of me and it’s just another of those factoids about Dana, to be filed away with her rock obsession and homicidal felid. Others seem to take a bit longer wrapping their heads around it. The fact of an atheist running around acting like a perfectly ordinary person, not raping and pillaging and burning down churches, doesn’t seem to have occurred to them.

The fact that religion can be dispensed with, that no religion is necessary for a good and fulfilling life, that one can get on quite well without gods of any sort, is a fact too many people haven’t even been allowed to consider.

And that’s why atheists who aren’t apologetic about their atheism, who aren’t standing outside with their noses pressed against the stained glass, wishing they could believe, need to make the fact of their existence known, wherever and whenever possible. The more people who see us getting along just fine without religion, the more people there are who will be able to imagine their own life without it. Not everyone’s going to become an atheist. It’s a bridge too far for some, and I’d never force them across that bridge. But at least they’re aware it’s an alternative. At least they can begin to imagine no religion as a valid option. At least they can see that dissent doesn’t lead to an empty life of pain and pathos and isolation. Which it certainly doesn’t – it’s fervent believers who want to make it so.

Unfortunately, there are still places in this world where being an atheist is a death sentence. Unfortunately, that’s sometimes right here in America. There’s always a danger in denying consent. Not all of us can risk coming out. But those of us who can, who can do so at minimal risk or who are willing to risk it all, loosen the stranglehold religion has on humanity. They make it safer for those who will come out later.

Religion will survive, at least for our lifetimes, without our consent. But we reduce its power every time we deny it the power it demands. And by denying our consent, we can lessen its danger. In a world where so many people are harmed and killed because of religion, denying consent is a critically important thing to do.

"Religion Depends on Social Consent to Survive"

6 thoughts on “"Religion Depends on Social Consent to Survive"

  1. 1

    Of course religion is a social construct. So is atheism. Your identity as someone who strictly does not believe in God (by whatever name or form) is noteworthy only in that it is contrary to the beliefs of a large and outspoken group who disagrees.

    We don’t consider animals to be “atheist” because they have more important things to worry about like not getting eaten. If we were in a social setting in which religion was wholly absent, then you wouldn’t even have a concept of being atheist. You wouldn’t believe in any supernatural presence in the universe but you would have no reason to point this out. The idea of believing in something like “god” just wouldn’t make sense. Much like not believing in one doesn’t make sense to stubborn believers.

    I’m not disagreeing with any particular point. Just making observations.

  2. 2

    This is one of those incredibly obvious things that you need someone else to point out. Of course religion relies on social consent. Of course we work against religion by denying them this social consent. It’s so obvious that I need to slap myself on the head for not seeing it before.

  3. rq

    The whole idea of social consent reminds me of something I read somewhere (can’t remember where, though): “Jesus needs me. If I don’t believe, he doesn’t exist.”
    And that’s all it takes for religion to go away – lack of consent for its existence.

  4. 5

    Funny thing is, that’s exactly how it works in Dungeons & Dragons. A deity must have followers in order to attain and keep power. Without, they lose their godhood.

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