In my teens, I was a passive member of the atheist and sceptic movements. But as I have become older, I have grown out of these movements. This is not because I found God or realized the benefits of homeopathy. I remain a non-believer in supernatural Gods and sceptical of paranormal phenomena. But I have become sceptical of the sceptic and atheist movements. This essay is my attempt at explaining why.
The basic problem I have with the sceptic and atheist movements is that they are so limited in their scepticism. For them, the height of
critical thinking is disbelieving in God or debunking trivial, marginal beliefs like Bigfoot. It doesn't extend to
being sceptical of the society in which they live in. Indeed, such
thoughts are anathema for many "sceptics"
This is because most members in the atheist and sceptic community are middle-class liberals or libertarians. Organized scepticism and atheist tends to have unexamined liberal assumptions. Liberal democratic capitalism is basically accepted as being a good thing.
In fact, many movement atheists are so fanatical about liberalism that they are willing to spread it by force
and thus supported the wars in
Afganistan and Iraq, often using their antipathy to religion to justify
this. Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens are prominent and popular
examples of this tendency in the atheist movement. Harris in particular
is fanatical about this
and has argued that the use of torture and nuclear warfare is
justifiable in "the war on terror".
This liberalism shows itself in the optimism of the sceptic and atheist movements. Optimism in this case means believing not only that the
world can get better, but that the world is already a good place. The central message is that reality in the liberal capitalist system is a wonderful place to be and therefore you don't need false beliefs. In fact, they argue, it's those false beliefs which are the cause of of most problems in the world and if we got rid of them we would basically reach utopia. As the British Humanist Association puts it: "There is probably no God. Now stop
worrying and enjoy your life."
This optimism often takes the form of a kind of "whig" history, in history consists of steady, if not teleological, progress towards liberty and enlightenment, towards liberalism, away from superstition and religion. A.C Grayling's book Towards the Light is a self-admitted example of this.
The problem with this optimism is obvious: Our planet is not a
good place to live on, precisely because of the liberal capitalism most sceptics defend. As for "progress", it has also led to the development of technology which causes massive environmental destruction, a threat to civilisation itself. If you don't realize this, you are either
seriously deluded or seriously privileged. The vast majority of human
beings are oppressed, exploited and alienated in every country on Earth.
Indeed, this fact is probably the main reason why people are religious or believe in other kinds of paranormal beliefs. It's a way for those who are poor and disadvantaged to cope with the horrors and alienation of their existence. It's no coincidence that poverty and religion is often correlated. It's a form of comfort for a awful reality. This is what Marx meant when he said that "religion is the opium of the people" (opium was a common medical painkiller at the time). When life before death is
unbearable, a "vale of tears", often the only hope is for a good life after death. Religion and paranormal beliefs also have a major social function. They offer the individual a form of community in an increasingly atomized society,
This is why there is not much point for sceptics and atheists to preach the wonders of objective reality and try to convince people through argument to abandon their false beliefs. For most believers, reality is a horrible place to be in and their beliefs are often the only comfort they have. They won't abandon them because of mere arguments and ideas, no matter how rational.
And while believers may be rejecting reality, I honestly can't blame them. Everybody rejects reality in some way, whether through delusions or escapism. Something that I will write more about later in another essay.
This will not change until reality changes, until the
world is a good place for practically everybody who is born into it. When all people, not only a select few, are able to feed themselves, sleep under roofs and educate themselves. First then will
people be able to live without delusions. I hope that day will come,
but that may very well be a delusion itself. Hopefully it isn't.
Not that the atheist and sceptic movements will help create such a world. As said, most of their members are liberals, wholly accepting of the western status quo that is liberal democratic capitalism.
This is because most movement atheist and sceptics are economically comfortable people who went to university. Such people are usually able to do without the comforts of religion or other traditional superstitions.
This points to the problem with the often smug, contemptuous, even bullying tone towards believers in religion or other paranormal beliefs that is common in the atheist and sceptic movements. Besides being unpleasant in itself, it often amounts to university graduates looking down on people who lack such education, contempt for people of a lower social class.
Such contempt is also often hypocritical. For most members of the atheist and sceptic movement are fervent believers of the most prevalent and
dangerous religion in the Western world today. It is the worship of the
market. The central article of faith in this religion is that some all-powerful entity called the invisible hand of the market should determine practically all economic decisions, for it's decisions are always the best ones. Other articles of faith include the absurd belief that infinite economic growth is possible on an finite planet. The belief in progress already mentioned is another example.
For many atheists, the only reason they are able to do without the old-fashioned comfort of gods is because they replaced them with a modern and secular object of worship, like the market. They have no reason to feel superior to the religious or superstitious masses. The certainties of marxism-leninism is another example of such a modern secular irrational belief system.
Indeed, one suspects that opposition to traditional religion is often rooted in a belief in these secular religions. It's resentment of the competition for believers more than anything else.
Granted, much of traditional religion deserves to be opposed. While I have nothing against people's personal beliefs, criticism of
religion is something that is often needed. No one can deny that religion has justified and been complicit in all kinds of oppression and atrocities.
But this doesn't excuse the atheist movement's tendency to simplify the subject of religion, towards black and white thinking. Many in the atheist movement lump moderate religious believers together with fanatics and paint religion's influence on the world as wholly evil, when the reality is more complex. Most religious people are basically
decent people. They are in general not better or worse than atheists.
And while religion in general has often justified oppression, there have been many religious movements and figures that has opposed that very oppression and worked for justice and equality. To name a few examples: John Ball,
Gerrad Winstanley and the Diggers, Thomas Müntzer, William Blake, Dorothy Day and the Catholic workers
movement, Martin Luther King, The Social Gospel movement, Oscar Romero
and Liberation theology. (The fact that the examples are all Christian
is probably the fault of my Northern European bias).
Otherwise, this essay has already touched on the main problem with the atheist movement's approach to religion. The problem is that their approach treats religion merely as false ideas and beliefs, that believers can be compelled to abandon with rational argument. But as said, this ignores the socio-economic context of religion, it's origin as a form of consolation for the horrors of our material reality, a consolation few would abandon because of mere arguments.
This approach to religion is a symptom of the tendency of the sceptic and atheist movements to dismiss false beliefs as mere nonsense, instead of trying to understand why people believe the things they do. This shows itself in how ignorant the atheist movement is of the scholarly research on religion done in the fields of sociology and history.
In fact, the atheist and sceptic movements are in general ignorant of the social sciences and humanities, if not directly rejecting them as no better than psuedoscience. Needless to say, such rejection is just an expression of that ignorance.
Often such rejection is based in a kind of positivism (though not known as such), the view that only the natural sciences create valuable knowledge. Positivism was rejected decades ago by all serious philosophers, for the simple reason that it is self-refuting. The notion that only the findings of natural science are valid is itself not a scientific statement and therefore contradicts itself.
After rejecting the humanities and social sciences, the sceptic and atheist movements often accept poor substitutes for them. Often it's rubbish that serious scholars rejected decades ago. Positivism itself is a good example, as is the whig history already mentioned. Or they develop new rubbish to replace good scholarship. Memetics, developed by Richard Dawkins is an example of this, a poor man's semiotics.
I think one of the main reasons the atheist and sceptic movements reject the humanities and social sciences is the fact that such disciplines often involve thinking critically about the society in which we live in. And as mentioned, this is unacceptable for many self-declared sceptics.
It is this limitation to their scepticism that remains the basic problem of these movements and lies behind their inability to put the beliefs they deride in a socio-political context. It was when I realized these limitations, their implicit liberalism, that I abandoned the sceptic and atheist movements. In the end, the reason I abandoned the sceptic movement is not because I became less sceptical, it's because I became more sceptical.