Atheism: Endgame

Question from Brian:
Although I am an atheist, I believe that religion serves a very important purpose in our capitalist society. Most of us live, almost like slaves, being controlled by our employers. It gives meaning to those who otherwise cannot find meaning in their lives. For example the idea that a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven, allows someone who is poor, which most Americans are, to believe that while this life may suck, the next life they will find some sort of better life. So Christianity serves an important role in appeasing the masses. Now, what is the endgame for atheism? How will a capitalist society continue to sustain itself, when the masses have no hope, and fail to develop some sort of coping mechanism? Let’s face it, the vast majority of the people are biologically and intellectually incapable of surviving in the harsh capitalist system, which is why they turn to religion and the supernatural. Knowing science or understanding the physical world doesn’t help them in a practical sense. It will only make them more miserable. What’s wrong with a little delusion? Isn’t the most rational thing for people to do is try to live a life as happy as they can?

Answer by SmartLX:
I don’t think that modern religion is very good at serving the purpose you ascribe to it, or that the absence of religion would leave the kind of hole in the collective psyche that you and Karl Marx think it would. (That’s not a general insinuation; he wrote something similar in his “opiate of the masses” piece. He wanted to remove the drug so that people would feel their pain and do something about it.)

Yes, Christianity and other religions have traditionally reassured the poor and warned the rich, and if you’re cynical you might think this was to channel money from both groups to the religions themselves. This message has by now been utterly corrupted by “prosperity gospel” and other such doctrines, and religions are brazenly taking congregants for everything they have. This isn’t universal, of course, but religion as a whole appears to be actively making people poorer on average through the way it’s preached. Throw right-wing politics into the mix and religion becomes a way to make the poor vote against their own interests and further enrich the super-rich at their own expense. Religion can make people happy, but so can alcohol, and the cost can be too great – and I’ve only gone into the financial aspect here. The real problem with a delusion is usually what’s happening in the real world at the same time.

I’m sure many people do find meaning in their lives solely through religion, but this is not because there is nothing else. Religion encourages believers to focus their lives on it, and to draw meaning from it alone, so they seldom even look for alternatives. When one is first divested of belief in a god, the threat often looms that one’s whole world will collapse (try searching the site for my term “faithdrawal”) before the realisation comes that the accompanying beliefs that everything depends on the god are also wrong. I honestly think your opinion that the majority can’t survive without religion is terribly patronising toward the majority. If you’re doing it, why can’t they? What makes you biologically and intellectually superior to so many?

You ask about the endgame for atheism, but atheism need not be the first move. There is an inverse correlation between average happiness and the religiosity of a country, as this infographic explains. The happiest countries by a number of standards are those where relatively few people consider religion important at all. This not only flies in the face of your implication that capitalist society would collapse without religion, but it also suggests a way forward for atheists: simply work to improve your society and make people happier, and religion will fade.

To answer your question directly, the endgame or the ideal for atheism from my perspective is universal voluntary abandonment of religion and religious faith as harmful and ultimately useless. Ideally all benefits of religion are replaced by other sources which don’t come with the same drawbacks. People congregate but are not told what to think, they donate to charities which do good work without an agenda, they find personal meaning in the world around them and work to improve it without arguing to a standstill over the meanings. It’ll be hard to achieve, and as you suggest it will require the world to be a nicer place to live in, but that right there is something we can work towards.

19 thoughts on “Atheism: Endgame”

  1. You have no clue what Christianity is because you accept what you see from the 90% of “professing” Christians who are all just as damned to hell as you are. We don’t see Jesus for a happy life or fulfillment. We seek Jesus because he paid the penalty for our crimes against God and is the only one who can save us from our sin and death. Jesus is not a religion. The church is not a building. The only delusion is the one accepted by those who reject God and supplant their own godless ideas.

    “For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.”
    Romans 1:25

    “For this reason God will send upon them a deluding influence so that they will believe what is false, in order that they all may be judged who did not believe the truth, but took pleasure in wickedness.”
    2 Thessalonians 2:11-12

    1. It’s funny how you think appealing to vicarious redemption somehow makes your argument more reasonable. (hint: it doesn’t)

    2. To me the interesting thing about the last quote is that God is apparently keeping devil worshippers from believing the truth by actively deluding them. If you think this applies to us, Tommy, why are you trying to convince us of the truth against God’s wishes? Merely to gloat?

  2. People turn to the religious and supernatural not just because of the “harshness of capitalism” as you put it. They turn to it for various other reasons as well. They could have been indoctrinated as children about the tenets of a religion. They could have turned to religion as they faced the “natural harshness” of the world (early death of a loved one or some other difficult to bear personal event) and needed an anchor. Sometimes they find comfort in socializing with the droves of other people who follow their faith and “speak their language”. Plus loads of other reasons.
    Maybe one could say that people turn to faith/ religion/ sky-dad/mom for comfort and certainty in a world that can be very unsettling and uncertain at times.

    Now it is natural to be fearful of uncertainty – that is nothing but the survival instinct in us. But thankfully, the pre-frontal area of the cerebral cortex of the brain has evolved reasonably in humans which helps us reason things out and solve problems in situations of uncertainty.
    In situations of uncertainty or discomfort, if we do not start looking for solutions, we do not grow and we do not develop new ideas or make the effort required to make things better (for ourselves or for others).
    Existence is more or less a perpetual struggle to convert uncertainty into some certainty and discomfort into some comfort … and that’s where the fun is, actually. Religion does not reduce uncertainty and discomfort … at best one might say that it masks them or distracts us from them. And when we get distracted from uncertainty and discomfort we don’t take real steps to reduce either (for ourselves or others). Plus the opiate of religion has a lot of other jarring side effects … symptoms of overuse include a narrow world view, irrational thinking couched in intellectual sounding verbiage, general phobia of new ideas, a repeated pointing to and quoting of verse in this or that “holy” book etc. Less jarring symptoms (of the more “spiritually evolved”) are a beatific and somewhat mildly condescending attitude towards those who do not believe.

    Now, we can’t obviously have all possible comfort and absolute certainty on everything ever … its impossible to predict the state of chaotic (in the mathematical sense of the word) dynamical systems like the world at large. But what’s wrong in that? And what makes you think that people cannot bear this?

    If you look at our ancestry and think of all the physical harshness we have braved to survive and flourish, it is a bit silly to think that most people cannot “handle the truth”.
    Mental anguish over situations like being trapped in a low paying job, not being able to “question your employer”, not making enough to eat in a fancy restaurant every once in a while etc. are just part of an individual’s psychological makeup.
    A lot of people (it might surprise you) shrug off such things as irrelevant, as long as one’s physical needs are met (which they are in most developed countries) and as long as the laws that we make for living together in civil society are equal for all. And a lot of people who cannot just shrug it off actually put in the effort that the “system” requires (a system that we ourselves have built) to reduce their mental anguish – some even end up changing the system for the better.

    Discomfort and Uncertainty cannot be the excuses of running into the arms of sky-dad. That’s for kids. Not for rational (ok, boundedly rational), thinking adults …

  3. After reading Brians “question” it is difficult for me to believe that he is an atheist. He comes across more like theist proposing weak reasons
    for keeping religion alive and in the mainstream. Since when it best to live a lie? Gods and the religion they spawn is a lie, and both have caused untold misery and suffering to mankind since they were invented. I say get rid of both, and lets see how we do without them, after all, in all recorded history we have been under their influence and I for one can not see how they have been of any benefit at all.
    How about we try going down the other road for awhile and find out if it is not a better path?

    1. Whether or not Brian represented himself honestly, I would like to say to any believers thinking about writing in that you REALLY don’t have to pose as an atheist for your question to be taken seriously. Some atheists do have concerns about the atheist movement so you can certainly pass as one if you want to be a concern troll, but such concerns should be addressed no matter which ‘side’ they’re coming from. Just be yourselves, folks.

    2. I agree with Larry. I too doubt that Brian is an atheist and suspect he’s an American of the fundamentalist persuasion. The clue for me lies in this sentence:

      “How will a capitalist society continue to sustain itself, when the masses have no hope, and fail to develop some sort of coping mechanism?”

      Then obviously capitalism will have to morph into something rather more humanistic. Something that works for the benefit of the majority of people. I take offence at the notion that I have some obligation to continue to sustain a capitalist society, whether as a believer or not. I observe a profound difference between the USA and Europe in this regard. In Europe, if someone announces that they’re Christian most people would take it for granted that their political views would be somewhere to left of centre; i.e., that a primary role of government is an obligation to look after its citizens not treat them as consumers. In any case:

      “Capitalism is religion. Banks are churches. Bankers are priests. Wealth is heaven. Poverty is hell. Rich people are saints. Poor people are sinners. Commodities are blessings. Money is God.” (Miguel D Lewis)

      1. I am not really sure that Brian is a Christian pretending to be an atheist.
        Sounds more like a normal, disgruntled wage earner to me who has been thinking about the demerits of capitalism …
        Or may be even a student about to join the job market and anticipating harshness.

        I profess that I did go through similar bouts of thinking about the “benefits” of religions a few years back, when I was a relatively new atheist. But as one gets used to the “godless viewpoint” (which I think should be the normal and natural way of looking at things) one sees the obvious inefficiency and insufficiency of religious thought in handling any real world problem.
        Maybe Brian’s just a relatively new atheist going through a bit of faith-drawal.

        1. I guess it’s in the eye of the beholder. I took his comments to have a socialist feel to them. It was much more a comment on economics instead of religion. I’ve never had a problem with the dog-eat-dog core of capitalism, so it wasn’t something that affected me when I became an atheist.

          If I can comment on the economic side of his point for a moment, I think that capitalism is a much more realistic economic system than other ones. Humans are animals, and are subject to the same greedy urges that all animals have. Granted we have the ability to mitigate them and can put the collective good before ourselves, but ultimately we don’t move ahead as a species unless we do have some greed and drive to be the best and have the best for ourselves. Tempered greed is ultimately a good thing…

  4. > What’s wrong with a little delusion? Isn’t the most rational thing for people to do is try to live a life as happy as they can?

    I just really had to comment on this, what IS wrong with a little delusion. for example, my aunt is delusional and thinks she’s a mega-millionare, she isn’t – of course, but what’s wrong with a little delusion – it makes her happy to think this, it makes her happy to tell people she’s very wealthy, and it makes her happy to get all kinds of attention because people think she has money to spend.

    it doesn’t matter that she can’t back up her claim to wealth, but reality doesn’t matter, only that she’s happy with her little delusion, after all “isn’t the most rational thing for people to do is try to live a life as happy as they can?”

    😉

    1. Gesster, your aunt’s delusion could get her in serious trouble very easily the moment she attempts to spend money she doesn’t have. For the same reasons that she’s delusional she might also be in a position where she has little autonomy and is therefore protected, but out in the world she could literally write cheques she can’t cash. Imagine if she passed one of those people on the street signing people up for monthly donations to a charity, and let herself be signed up for $2000 a month. The charity could probably sue her when the first payment failed; her unsound mind might get her off but only after a lot of legal fees and red tape. (In case I haven’t mentioned this, I hate the fact that so many people now accost passers-by with a sob story and a binding contract, even for good causes.)

      Yes, delusions can make you happy, but it can all come crashing down when the delusion clashes with reality. Thinking you can fly is empowering until you jump off a building. Thinking prayer will heal you is reassuring but could flat out kill you if you pray instead of seeking medical help. Thinking there’s a wonderful afterlife can ease the fear of death, but fear of death could be what keeps you alive in some circumstances. Far safer and more honest (though perhaps more difficult) to base one’s happiness in our best estimation of reality, to reduce the chances of a rude and destructive awakening.

      1. Gesster writes: [I just really had to comment on this, what IS wrong with a little delusion.]

        I don’t know that delusion is EVER a good thing. There are real costs – economic, social, time – because of every decision a person makes. It might see harmless for a Cubs fan to think every year is going to be the year their club wins the World Series, but the stress and angst that goes along with it may be damaging their health. Someone might think they are great at their job, but in reality they are only average, and so never do anything to improve themselves, and so they never rise through the ranks and meet their full potential. Not all delusions carry the same amount of costs, but all delusions DO have costs.

        As it relates to acceptance of supernatural beliefs, there are many different types of cost associated with it. The one that irks me the most I think is the children that die because their parents would rather pray for them than take them to a doctor and seek medical help when they are sick.

        Part of the problem with delusion is that a lot of people don’t even realize that there are costs associated with the things they think or do, and therefore they never think about things as objectively as they could or should. But for some people there isn’t a need for objectivity, because they don’t want to put the effort in (which it can be argued is just another delusion with another cost associated with it).

        Knowledge is power, and the more things you know the better you’re going to be able to live your life and do the things that you want to do. Delusion is the opposite of knowledge, and therefore it isn’t a very useful way of maximizing your potential and getting the most out of your life…

  5. The trouble with Brian’s patronising question and SmartLX’s answer is that they both assume that atheism is true, and that ‘religion’ (whatever that is, presumably ‘non-atheism’) is a delusion. No evidence is presented to support this bald assertion. If atheism really is ‘true’ and we are all just products of blind and ultimately mindless nature, then nature is to blame for all our beliefs and ideas, so really there is no epistemic or ontological difference between a ‘truth’ and a ‘delusion’. Both are simply ideas that nature has somehow put into our brains. This is the self-refutation of naturalism (and proof that this philosophy is in fact the real delusion): all ideas are simply “whatever nature has done in the human brain”, and therefore possess equal validity. I am well aware many atheists don’t understand the logic of this argument, because understandably we all take our rational faculty for granted and many seem unwilling to try to explain its existence and validity. It seems astonishing to me that philosophical naturalists (i.e. atheists) seem concerned to ‘convert’ people to their view of reality, while at the same time crediting deterministic nature with the creation of all our faculties, ratiocination included. If free will is really a delusion, as this view of reality implies, then how can people be persuaded to change their viewpoint, and furthermore, why declare that certain viewpoints are ‘wrong’? What does ‘wrong’ mean, naturalistically speaking? If nature is so incompetent as to produce supposedly ‘wrong’ ideas, then how can we trust it to produce ‘right’ ideas? It just shows how irrational and delusional naturalism / materialism really is.

    I am a Christian, not because I have been brainwashed by my parents into accepting it, or because I have some desperate need for a comfort blanket, but because I am utterly unconvinced by the spurious claims of atheism and convinced (both intellectually and experientially) by the claims of theism, and more particularly, as revealed in Jesus Christ. Having said that, I do not wish to be bracketed with the kind of sentiment Tommy has shared on this comments board. I am not in the business of damning anyone to hell.

    1. What you’ve done is simply shift the burden of proof unfairly to the non believer. Theism makes the claim that a god or gods exist. It’s therefore the theists burden to prove that position. If they can’t then atheism is the default position. It’s as simple as that.

  6. Allistair writes: [The trouble with Brian’s patronising question and SmartLX’s answer is that they both assume that atheism is true, and that ‘religion’ (whatever that is, presumably ‘non-atheism’) is a delusion. No evidence is presented to support this bald assertion.]

    Actually it is the “no evidence” that logically leads to the atheist conclusion, Allistair. In lieu of any evidence that supports supernatural claims, the only rational conclusion to reach is the atheistic one – There is nothing to believe. Why shouldn’t we accept that as the correct result based on an examination of the information available? There is exactly zero data or empirical evidence that supports any supernatural claim. None. Zilch. Zero. This is not the first time I have stated this to you either on this website. I have also asked you to provide even one single scrap of proof for goddesses or other supernatural things. None has been forthcoming.

    Any inspection of the topic will invariably lead to the conclusion that there is nothing that exists which needs to be believed in. Hence atheism…

    [ If atheism really is ‘true’ and we are all just products of blind and ultimately mindless nature, then nature is to blame for all our beliefs and ideas, so really there is no epistemic or ontological difference between a ‘truth’ and a ‘delusion’. Both are simply ideas that nature has somehow put into our brains]

    Incorrect assumption. There is no correlation between how life began, which was accidentally, and what our minds can and will do, which is not accidentally. In other words, just because life started accidentally does not mean that our minds can only work accidentally (or without direction). It’s obvious that our minds can and do work in specific directions. The machine you are typing on and the ability of all of us to read it is an obvious example. You think that something undirected and unplanned cannot produce something that can act in a directed and planned manner, yet you have no data that says that is the case. Your premise is faulty.

    [This is the self-refutation of naturalism (and proof that this philosophy is in fact the real delusion): all ideas are simply “whatever nature has done in the human brain”, and therefore possess equal validity. I am well aware many atheists don’t understand the logic of this argument, because understandably we all take our rational faculty for granted and many seem unwilling to try to explain its existence and validity.]

    Your error here is that it is not a philosophy. If I may be blunt, philosophy is utterly useless when debating this topic. We all know that you can get a “true” statement in philosophy that is totally false in reality. Philosophy doesn’t require data or empirical evidence as a starting point, and therefore the premise can be an unsubstantiated claim. A lot of believers try to frame these discussions in that arena, because they can’t prove anything via the scientific method. As I said above, there isn’t even one scrap of proof for the supernatural, and we all know it.

    From a scientific point of view, we can explain quite a lot about our “rational faculty”. It’s existence is a product of evolution (and it should be pointed out that we are hardly alone on the tree of life of possessing a degree of rational faculty either by the way). It’s validity is trail by natural selection – If it wasn’t useful, it most likely wouldn’t be here.

    [If free will is really a delusion, as this view of reality implies, then how can people be persuaded to change their viewpoint, and furthermore, why declare that certain viewpoints are ‘wrong’?]

    I fail to see why the atheistic viewpoint makes free will a delusion. What’s even funnier is how believers fail to see the absurdity of thinking they have free will with the existence of an all knowing, all powerful goddess.

    [What does ‘wrong’ mean, naturalistically speaking? If nature is so incompetent as to produce supposedly ‘wrong’ ideas, then how can we trust it to produce ‘right’ ideas?]

    “Wrong”, “right”, “pretty”, “ugly” and so forth are nothing but human concepts. Ideas we created so that we could lump certain things together under one title. Nothing is inherently right or wrong or pretty or ugly. They only become so when a culture or society deems it so. What’s “right” in England isn’t necessarily “right” in Afghanistan or the Brazilian rain forest. There is no evidence for the existence of absolute morality…

    [I am a Christian, not because I have been brainwashed by my parents into accepting it, or because I have some desperate need for a comfort blanket, but because I am utterly unconvinced by the spurious claims of atheism and convinced (both intellectually and experientially) by the claims of theism, and more particularly, as revealed in Jesus Christ.]

    Then you are convinced despite a complete lack of evidence. Your conviction is baseless, borne of conjecture and speculation…

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