The Very Obvious Decline of Religion

Question from Adam:
Hi again,

What is up man? I am writing today to bring up something that I am very interested in. I know you are not in the U.S….but I am so I will be talking from that perspective.

I have this theory that with the global phenomena of the internet, religion will start to fade away. I think that kids growing up with access to whatever knowledge they want will have major perspective compared to people in the past who only knew what their family/church/or community told them. I understand that indoctrination to children will not stop, but I think at some point soon, the kids of today will become the adults of tomorrow, and even if they still hold onto some beliefs from their indoctrination, they will be less likely to force those beliefs onto their kids (because of their gained perspective).

I think kids these days are gathering random knowledge from the internet more than ever before. This gives them more tools to form their own informed belief, rather than just taking what they are told.

I think the first thing we will see is a large increase in the number of “spiritual” people who believe in some magics, but think major organized religion is ritualistic bull for the most part. I think once these spiritual folk have kids, we will have a real coming of atheists (or at least non-spiritual agnostics).

Since monotheism largely destroyed polytheism, it has held a strong grasp onto the people of the world. Nothing has been able to touch monotheism since! I think the internet might be the first real threat to it. I really believe that being able to see different religions, different cultures, and more openly know what your friends are can break a child from the cycle. I think people are slowly breaking away from “I’m Christian because I was raised Christian”. And I think it is exciting!

In the U.S. there have been polls or whatnot of atheism growing. The whole “nones” thing. I even saw a prediction that in 40 or 50 years most of the U.S. might be in this group. I am going to try to be optimistic about this!

I hope this mind trap will largely die out with the 40+ population in 40 or 50 years. I want to see progress. I would love to know the majority of this world isn’t latching onto hopes of magic, and beliefs of incredible stories from poorly written books.

What do you think about the future of the U.S.? Or of the world? Will we make it out? Gosh I’d love to make a series or movie about this. “The end of religion”.

Answer by SmartLX:
Well, you’re “predicting” some things that have already happened. The “nones” directly represent an increase in the number of “spiritual” people as opposed to “religious” people as much as they represent a rise in the number of atheists. The United States are an outlier when it comes to adherence to religion in developed countries; there are some countries in Europe where they’re already asking whether religion is effectively dead. The internet stops any religion from completely suppressing information contrary to its dogma, even savvy religions like Scientology which installs a filter on its members’ computers. In places where particular religions are increasing, for instance Africa and China, they are doing so by cannibalising the followers of either archaic tribal religions or pseudo-religions such as the communist worldview. Proselytisers can’t make a statistically significant dent in the free atheist demographic, and many of them know it.

I wouldn’t hazard a guess when or even whether religion will die out completely, but I see no reason why the trend of deconversion and secularisation won’t continue for the time being. It’s not just atheists who have this outlook, as an unknown youth pastor’s Facebook status recently revealed:

“Information and time are on the side of nonbelievers. Every single day that the idea of a god persists, more will disbelieve in His existence. There is simply nothing we can do about it but accept the inevitable and hope they do not treat Christians the way Christians have treated them.”

In Search of Young People to Help

Question from Adrian:
Hi there, I just found this site by googling “understanding atheism”, and it is almost exactly what I’m looking for. I am an atheist, and have always identified myself as such. I’ve never believed in a deity, or any sort of supernatural event, even as a child.

What I have been looking for is a place where atheists and theists can cordially talk about beliefs. More so the beliefs of theists, as atheists don’t have a “belief system”. I wanted to find a place where I could answer questions that theists proposed out of curiousity, not out of anger or out of trying to prove me wrong (not that I mind those questions, I just want people who will actually listen to what I say). I would really like to offer my perspective to others who are willing to listen.

With that said, I would love, like really love, to get a chance to talk to kids between 13 and 25 (I am 25) about atheism and answer any questions they have. The ideal site for me would let me talk to kids who are questioning their beliefs, and do not know how to live without those beliefs, and have questions on how I do it.

Well, I know you know nothing about me, but my question to you is: do you know of a place (website) that I can do this? I’m willing to give a few hours a week to reading and answering questions. Basically I want to do what you are currently doing on this site. Except I would prefer to do it with teens, preteens, and young adults. Please let me know your thoughts.

Some background on myself, whether it is important or not. I have a bachelor’s in computer science, and I currently work as a software engineer in a liberal state in the U.S.. I have no kids, no criminal record, and have never smoked or done any drugs. I’ve had alcohol once in my life. My main passions are fantasy, health, and somewhat secretly, theism/atheism.

Thank you.

Answer by SmartLX:
I was looking for just such a place, and I found it in Ask the Atheist. I commented on some answers, started contributing officially, and eventually took over. It’s cordial (if not exactly neutral), and mostly reactive, driven as it is by visitors’ questions.

This kind of site isn’t quite what you’re after, though. You want to answer a specific type of question from a specific type of questioner, and the material we get here is a real “box of choc’lits”. And we don’t get anything like enough traffic to occupy you for several hours a week, not with me already here. (Feel free to keep commenting though.)

An organisation does exist to advise and help people who have started their journey out of religion and religious faith: Recovering from Religion. It’s a broader offshoot of the Clergy Project, which was set up to help preachers who no longer believe. They have everything from a blog to a forum to local support groups. If you present yourself and state your wish to help young people, I’m sure they can find a use for you.

If you want to try targeting youths on your own, there’s nothing like Facebook. A well-publicised free-for-all discussion there will draw them in from all around. I’m not aware of any existing groups with this particular aim, but it’s easy to search and almost as easy to start a new one.

Wherever you end up, we’ll be happy to link to you. Good luck.

An Atheist’s Duty

Question from Ktaboo:
I am an atheist, but first and foremost I’m an anthropologist. I am going to school to be one and have worked in the field (ie Archaeology, cultural studies, biomedical research etc. in other countries). However, recently I have been feeling more deist because of the actions other atheists I happen to know.

In the field of anthropology, I was always taught to respect cultural differences, including religion, because we are there to study them not judge them. Recently I became the president of my school’s anthropology club and as a way to make my club bigger I invited students from the international club, many of which are very religious but are open minded (most of them are in the fields of science and pre-med). This is where my issue and question comes from. I have a handful of members, who happen to be atheists (though most members are), who took it upon themselves to ridicule and tell the the religious students that they and their beliefs have no place in society or science. When I tried reminding the those members what we were all taught about cultural differenecs many of them disregarded me, stating that as an atheist it is our duty to tell people when they are “wrong” and being “anti-intellectuals.” Needless to say I was mortified as I happen to do research with many of them (many of them happen to be researchers in the chemistry, biology, and geology departments).

So here is my question, is it an atheist’s “duty” to tell people what they believe is “wrong” and they are being “anti-intellectuals” because they believe in something different?

Answer by SmartLX:
No duty comes from being an atheist. There isn’t a god telling you to do things, there is no sacred text containing commandments and advice for living, and what atheist organisations do exist generally make no demands of their members with regard to lifestyle. (Even if they do, the demands apply only to members, not to all atheists.) You are under no obligation to behave as your colleagues do, and the next time they demand it of you, you might ask them what they’re basing that on.

Your colleagues are not just atheists, they’re anti-theists who want to attack religion at any opportunity. I’m an anti-theist too in that I think the world would be better off without religion, but I don’t think less of people just because they believe, and I don’t think constantly attacking faith at every moment is a good way to get rid of it. It only makes believers defensive. To be clear, I think public criticism of faith is warranted and essential, but it doesn’t need to be in people’s faces all day, not all of it has to be aggressive and none of it has to be personal. One simple exposure to general criticism can be enough to sow doubt, as indeed it was with me.

I want to make one other point. Although I understand your feelings it’s not really warranted that you should lean more towards “deist” after being around some particularly uncivil atheists. The fact that some atheists attack the religious too much has absolutely nothing to do with the actual likelihood of a god existing. You haven’t stated your reasons for being an atheist in the first place; they should not be affected by these encounters or else they’re odd reasons indeed.

Darn those other people and their gods…

Question from Tyler:
Do you get upset over other people arguing about God or their gods? Do you get mad and tell them to shut up about God, or do you just walk away?

Answer by SmartLX:
If it happens to me in person, I try to do exactly what I do on this site: consider what they say to try and determine their actual position, evaluate it, then carefully respond. It helps avoid anger, even if it reaches the level of a confrontation.

To be honest it hardly ever happens to me in everyday life. I live in Australia, where religion isn’t nearly as prevalent or prominent as it is in America for instance. While many people are still religious they’re more likely to keep it to themselves, and nobody listens to the few street preachers we do have. I’d happily engage with evangelists if there were more of them out chasing converts, because I like to talk about this stuff with people who are already interested. That’s what’s nice about this site: anyone who writes in with a question genuinely wants to discuss, learn or proclaim something. I’m not bothering anyone who’d rather ignore it at the time.

Incidentally, I find that a lot of the aggression in arguments over religion isn’t directly linked to religion itself, but to socio-political issues on which certain religions have taken a conservative stance: abortion, homosexuality, euthanasia, birth control, stem cell research, sex education, evolution and so forth. It’s a lot easier to get emotional when an issue is somehow “brought home” and can directly affect you, your friends or especially your children.

Religion, Evolved

Question from Doug:
I was wondering. If evolution is responsible for everything that is, then what was (or is) the evolutionary advantage of belief in a deity?

Answer by SmartLX:
Belief in gods need not have had an evolutionary advantage in order to have resulted from our evolution. It could instead be a by-product of other psychological traits which do have direct advantages.

Two such traits are obvious candidates:
– Human beings see deliberate action (“agency”) everywhere, even sometimes when there is none. It’s a “better safe than sorry” reflex that encouraged our ancestors to avoid tall grass moving oddly rather than take the chance that a carnivorous beast was moving through it. By the same token, people see what Christians call “the hand of God” in all sorts of occurrences, most of which have perfectly good natural explanations (the rest are merely unexplained). Imagining powerful beings controlling all such things was a short leap to make.
– Children can learn from their parents and other guardians, long before they develop the capacity for critical thinking. The benefits of this are obvious; if kids didn’t accept instructions before they were seven or so they’d have a tough time surviving even that long (either in the ancient world of predators and bandits, or in the modern world of hot stoves and busy roads). When supernatural doctrine is taught to children, most of them accept it without question and retain the beliefs all their lives. Thus a religion can sustain itself even if it never recruits a single non-believing adult.

That’s my opinion of the evolutionary reasons for widespread religion. I don’t think it has a significant direct evolutionary benefit, especially since archaeological evidence suggests that we had already evolved to Homo sapiens before the first signs of religion emerged. As long as religion hasn’t literally endangered the human species (and as much death and destruction as it’s caused, it hasn’t been quite that catastrophic so far) its existence wouldn’t have been seriously threatened by natural selection alone.

“Come back here and think, dammit!”

Question from Devilush:
Why is i when I try to discuss Atheism with a theist,they always seem to run away in one way or another?Whenever their faith is challenged with science and logic they run from the conversation…do they know they are full of **** and can’t handle it so they would rather not even hear it,do they really have no will of their own and have to cling to the idea that they are watched over by a invisible incompetent father figure who does not give a ****?

Answer by SmartLX:
It’s because you’re not talking to the right theists.

Sure, there are those who want to stay clear of anything which might make them question their faith, possibly because their faith demonises doubt itself, because they have a rule about arguing over religion and politics, because they don’t want to argue with you in general or simply because they don’t like having to defend their deepest convictions at short notice. That’s their choice.

Take it from me, though, there are plenty of believers out there who will happily engage you. Many of these amateur apologists write to Ask the Atheist treating it as a game of Stump the Atheist. (That’s fine by us, it makes for some of the most interesting exchanges.)

If you want to meet these people outside of the internet, they’re not too hard to find because they’re supposed to make it their business to reach out to non-believers. They’re at markets and festivals handing out pamphlets with meeting times and places. Your local Alpha course is run by one, and will probably have several more along for support. (Check out the journal of an atheist who stuck out the whole eleven weeks.)

Generally, though, keep in mind that not everyone wants to talk about this stuff at any given time. If someone proselytises around you and then won’t listen to your response, you’re justified in calling them out for being unwilling to take what they dish out. Just as non-believers are entitled to deny preachers their attention, some people just won’t want to hear about religion from you either. Don’t take it personally, and don’t judge them too quickly.

Atheism is a…what?

Question from Kristen:
What is Atheism?

Answer by SmartLX:
Years ago, site founder Jake did a great job answering the question, “What is an atheist?” He defined the word very simply, and dispelled some myths about atheism which even now are depressingly prevalent. In an effort to be complementary instead of redundant, I will instead discuss what atheism actually is, in other words, how it can be categorised.

Is atheism a religion? No. The basic definitions of the word “religion” have in common the existence of a set of beliefs, usually in something unknown and supernatural, and atheism as defined by most atheists is a lack of belief in any such thing. (Since I’ve just referenced, I should address the definitions of “atheism” there: the first one, an actual belief that there is no god, is known as strong atheism, and is not a very common position. The second definition is better.)

Some theists nevertheless accuse atheists of being religious, for example about evolution or an as-yet-undetermined natural cause for the universe. Evolution is easy to accept with confidence, rather than belief, because it supplies plentiful evidence. A natural universe-starter cannot inspire positive belief unless you take a guess at what it actually was, and stick to that guess to the exclusion of all other possibilities. Few people do this for anything but a god.

Is atheism a worldview? Hardly, because it only takes a position on one thing. If there are no gods in the world, that doesn’t tell us much at all about the world, especially given that theology regularly defends gods by explaining why the world usually looks as if there are none.

Is atheism a philosophy? No, for much the same reason it isn’t a worldview. The absence of gods is not very informative with respect to logic, morals and so on. Atheists look to other sources for these, not to some god-shaped hole in the world.

If it’s none of these, then what is atheism, finally? It’s a position one can take, at least. I had a go at nailing down the specific position here. More directly, though, it’s a rejection of a position, namely the theist position that there is good reason to believe in a Creator or other deity. Atheists think there’s no good reason.

So if that’s all atheism is, why is it so important to proclaim and to encourage? Because the alternative position locks people into rigid religions, worldviews and philosophies with little or no evidential support behind them, which may or may not even apply to modern people’s lives. Once one is free of theism, one may draw upon the sum recorded total of human wisdom (the only kind we know there is) to formulate one’s own approach to life, and accept the world more as it really is. I am confident that we’d all be happier this way. True persuasion, not coercion, is the only way to get people there.


“So when you criticise religion these days, you encounter people who 1. are on some level shocked that you would do so, 2. may not think they can argue effectively with you and 3. have passed judgement on you because of your criticism and may not think you’re worth arguing with.”

Question from Brian:
Hi, it’s me again. Why is religion given such an untouchable status in the minds of so many? They think they can say whatever they want, but if we respond it’s a “personal attack”.

The following is a gross over-generalisation, but that doesn’t stop it from being essentially true.

2 or 3 generations ago, Christianity in Western countries was happily assumed to be the religion of everyone you were likely to meet. Arguments over religion either happened between Christian denominations, very occasionally between Christians and Jews or in universities where nobody was listening. In this situation, not only was there no reason for anyone to criticise religion as a whole, anyone who did was attacking beliefs apparently held by society as a whole, beliefs which were there for the good of all. Atheism had little or no public presence and those who knew its position on such things didn’t sympathise with it.

There are a great many people who think we still live in that world, and judge recent public criticism of relligion in that light. Religion is Good, and attacking something Good is Bad. Also, religion hasn’t had to seriously defend itself in public for some time, which means many believers haven’t learned how. There are a lot of crash courses going on now, after the advent of “new atheism” (which is really just ordinary atheism after a few authors made everyone take notice), but it’s still not a universal skill.

So when you criticise religion these days, you encounter people who 1. are on some level shocked that you would do so, 2. may not think they can argue effectively with you and 3. have passed judgement on you because of your criticism and may not think you’re worth arguing with.

On top of all this, there’s another line of reasoning which shows no empathy with anti-religionists at all. Basically, some people don’t understand why anyone would criticise or attack something given to us by God, who is all-powerful and loves us. This doesn’t take into account the fact that other people don’t think there is one, or think there’s a different one. It’s roughly the same logic that causes people to threaten atheists with Hell. This thinking does exist despite the obvious flaw.

As for criticising the non-religious, whether it’s honest or not there’s a catch-all rationale for it: it’s good for us, we need it, they’re doing us a favour.


Atheism: The inverse religion?

“Every reporter who’s done a piece on atheism in the last four years has thought it’s terribly clever and original to couch it in religious terms…”

Question from Virginia:
I’m a first year college student, and right now I’m up at 3am working on a paper on atheism for a class about Religion, Ethnocentrism, and Terrorism. My question is this: what do you have to say in response to those who would point out that certain branches of atheism resemble a sort of inverse/dark matter religion? Allow me to explain.

History has given us several examples of this phenomenon, most notably the Cult of Reason forcibly instituted during the French Revolution and the secular ‘religion’ that was spread during the early years of the USSR (and I use the word religion quite literally– they had hymnals singing the praises of the state and the proletariat). Recently, I’ve noticed a trend that I’ve labeled evangelical atheism whereby very strong atheists gather together to celebrate their mutual ‘enlightenment’ and seek to convert all the poor slobs still following the delusion of religion. They base their group identity on intellectual and moral superiority, citing their adherence to the scientific method and their tolerance of others.

And while you may be nodding and going, “Yeah, so?”, allow me to further point out the similarities between these actions and American Christianity. Historically, Christians have staged mass (and sometimes bloody) takeovers (think inquisition) in the same way large groups of atheists have staged takeovers. Christians define themselves by their belief in the bible and think that their way of looking at the universe is the BEST, SMARTEST way of looking at the universe; atheists are defined by their fervent belief that there ISN’T a god and think that their way of looking at the universe is the BEST, SMARTEST way of looking at the universe. Christian fundamentalists are intolerant of people who aren’t christian; evangelical atheists are intolerant of people who aren’t tolerant (though they claim to be open to all ideas). Christians seek converts; atheists seek converts. You see where I’m going with this?

Now I realize that not all atheists are like this, but I’ve had personal interactions with enough who are to know that they are not a minority. Do you agree with this interpretation of events, or do you think it’s just complete non-sense? Any input I could get from a genuine atheist on this matter would be great. Thanks for listening.

Well, it’s not complete nonsense, since at least some of what you say is true. No offence but it’s also somewhat cliched in places; “evangelical atheism” isn’t just your word for it. Every reporter who’s done a piece on atheism in the last four years has thought it’s terribly clever and original to couch it in religious terms: “evangelical”, “zealous”, Dawkins as the “high priest” and so on. What amuses me is that so many religious folks choose to deride us by saying we’re just like them. What does that say about them?

I’ve used the Cult of Reason before to demonstrate the difference between what atheism might look like if it were a religion, and what it is now. It actually personified Reason as a goddess, so whether it was strictly atheistic is debatable. It was physically violently anti-religious, something which wasn’t seen again until Communism. And of course Robespierre shut it down within a year, and no one seems to have even tried to revive it. Call it a failed experiment.

From what you say about the USSR, it’s clear that you don’t see religion as necessarily based on belief in the supernatural. Generally that is one criterion, and a major reason why atheism doesn’t qualify.

What the Cult and Communism had in common was the main problem with both, really: they were pseudo-religious all-encompassing ideologies, which happened to not only be superficially atheistic but see themselves as incompatible with even the existence of nearby religion. Atheism itself isn’t an ideology, a philosophy or even a worldview. It’s a position on one specific issue, which allows for the existence of contrary positions in the same room. It just doesn’t have the same drive behind it.

You start getting a bit broad when you compare atheism to American Christianity. How do you define a religion, as a group of people with a common opinion who wants to convince others that it’s correct? If so, then every political party or action group is a religion. So is every labour union, and the fan following of every football team (and some of those can get very violent). So are Amway and Avon. If you define it that broadly, then atheism probably is a religion too, but it doesn’t mean much.

One other specific issue with your descriptions of atheism: it isn’t a belief that there isn’t a god, though some atheists might believe that (they’re called strong atheists). It’s just a lack of belief in gods, usually accompanied by the acceptance that they are at least possible, though unlikely. Even Richard Dawkins, who invented a scale of total belief to total belief-in-absence from 1 to 7, only rates himself a 6.

I’d have to say that the most likely reason why you think the majority of atheists you’ve met are the aggressive, convert-hungry type is that those are just the ones who’ve bothered to identify themselves as atheists in public. Most atheists in religious countries don’t speak out about it at all, except to criticise the “evangelical” “New Atheists” for being so loud.

I hope this helps you out, Virginia, and reaches you before you fall asleep at your desk.