View from

Rescuing Religion from Atheism

(The Old Country Church, Búðir, Snæfellsnes, Iceland by O Palsson)

It seems, then, that religious practice is beneficial but unpalatable to many highly analytical people because they deem religious doctrines unpersuasive. The question therefore arises how one can make it palatable to them.”

Religion is socially beneficial in a number of ways. However, its empirical claims are often off-putting to the analytically-minded. In what follows, I propose a way to reconcile theistic religion with atheism.

First, a little background. According to the Pew Research Center, Christians will likely constitute less than half of the American population by 2070. Indeed, there is a plausible scenario wherein this happens by 2045, just over two decades from now. This downward trend in religiosity is troubling for a number of reasons. As Samuel P. Huntington shows in his 2004 book Who Are We?, Christianity, especially Protestantism, has historically been a central aspect of American identity. Even the AmericanRevolution was partly motivated by it. “Their anti-Catholicism,” notes Huntington, “also helped to turn the colonists against the mother country” when the United Kingdom at the time decided on “toleration for the Catholic Church in Quebec.”

Although Catholicism and Judaism later gained numerical strength, even their respective adherents adopted many Protestant traits on American soil. In Huntington’s account, recent decades have seen an unprecedented erosion of the traditional markers of American identity. Huntington is concerned that major elements of the United States’ unifying culture are being lost, including Christianity. Judging by the rising polarization since the book was released, such concerns are justified.

The common caveat that many who leave traditional religion remain “spiritual” provides little consolation. Just 2% of “spiritual but not religious” Americans “attend religious services at least once a week.” That may be cause for worry, as the social-scientific literature appears to suggest that collective worship does more to boost charitable giving than does private prayer.

Overall, traditional religion confers a wealth of social benefits. Some studies even show that religiosity, and especially Mormonism, flips the usually negative correlation between intelligence and fertility in the United States. That it is desirable for intelligence to be positively correlated with fertility seems self-evident.

Yet on the whole, intelligence is inversely associated with religiosity. This remains a harsh reality, even if one accepts one recent study’s argument that the correlation is due to an association between intelligence and “autism spectrum traits” rather than to the religious having lower general intelligence. Besides, that same study still reckons that smart people’s relative irreligiosity may be caused by the link between autism spectrum disorder and “analytic thinking.” This sounds to me as though said irreligiosity may stem from an apparent dearth of logical justification for religious belief after all, even if it is not higher general intelligence which gets people to notice this logical deficiency.

The recent drop in religiosity throughout much of the world does not appear to be due to an increase in intelligence. Norwegian data indicate that the Flynn effect (a gradual rise in average scores on intelligence tests) halted in that country during the mid-1990s. Meanwhile, as science writer Ross Pomeroy observes, it was not until the early 2000s that religious involvement began to drop in the United States. In fact, intelligence quotient (IQ) scores in the United States have been “falling for over a decade,” yet the downward trend in multiple measures of religiosity continues.

If an increase in intelligence is not behind the current secularization, what is? Various causes have been proposed, from the perceived obsolescence of religious norms designed to promote fertility to the spread of novel family structures (such as “interfaith families”) which reduce childhood involvement in religion. Pomeroy even names “exposure to automation” as a potential culprit. In any event, intelligence—more specifically, analytic thinking—certainly seems to make parts of the population more “vulnerable” to unbelief.

It seems, then, that religious practice is beneficial but unpalatable to many highly analytical people because they deem religious doctrines unpersuasive. The question therefore arises how one can make it palatable to them. Back in 1948, writing for what was surely a highly analytical audience, Irving Kristol had this to say:

“It all comes down to the fact that Judaism has faith in God, and it accepts a belief in God for the good and sufficient reason that it believes he exists. Is this arguing in a circle? Well then—it is arguing in a circle.”

Obviously, the unspoken conviction that religion is socially (and perhaps individually) beneficial seems to be doing most of the work here. Intellectually, however, Kristol’s reasoning is not terribly satisfying. It would be helpful to have a more intellectually acceptable alternative, a more reasonable model for how one can be religious when conventional religious claims are unconvincing.

Perhaps a solution from fantasy fiction is worth considering. In his 1992 book Small Gods, Terry Pratchett depicts a world in which “billions of gods” exist, but most of them never attract any worshippers and, thus, remain obscure and powerless. It is the fact of having adherents which makes a deity mighty: “The god grows in strength, the belief of its worshippers raising it upwards like a thousand tons of rocket fuel. For a very few, the sky’s the limit.” Neil Gaiman uses a similar motif in his 2001 novel American Gods.

The idea is deeply compelling, which the books’ success demonstrates. And since the authors’ style of worldbuilding relies, overall, on dramatizing and mythologizing elements of real life, their portrayal of how gods operate is almost certainly intended to reflect something about the real world. Indeed, Gaiman attributes the overlap between his book and Pratchett’s to similarity between their “worldviews.” What the books are allegorically stating about real-world religion has, to judge again by their commercial acclaim, struck a chord with plenty of readers.

What Small Gods and American Gods seem to say can be distilled to this: In the real world, gods exist, by themselves, only as concepts. They are given power by people’s belief in them. We can call this the “conceptual vision,” and it will no doubt ring true to many people. This is an idea which may make religion more acceptable to some percentage of atheists. The idea is that any given god does, obviously, exist—at least, as a concept, a character. He takes on a more expansive existence the more followers he attracts. He even has a mind and will of his own, the same way any character does. Unlike most characters, he can also act on them by virtue of having adherents who think as he does and implement his will. Thus, what some might call a “fictional” god can not only be “real”; he can even act in the world.

And just like that, the problem of disbelief in God is solved, at least in some sense. The conceptual vision of how deities work would be somewhat aided by René Descartes’s notion that ideas possess “formal” reality, the same kind that physical objects like the sun possess. However, this is not required in order to accept the vision itself.

Under the conceptual vision, the emulation of religious characters takes on added significance. To explain why, we can refer to the hypothetical procedure called “mind uploading” in philosophy. If one uploaded his entire mind to a computer and the electronic copy were made to think as he did, would the copy be “his”? Of course it would, on some level. But, as I once pointed out recently to an acquaintance, something like this already exists in the form of books. If one writes a book and someone else reads it, the reader may get a sense of some of the author’s ways of thinking and apply them in his own reasoning. In a way, the author’s mind will have been uploaded to the reader’s brain. A part of the author will effectively exist, and think, within the reader. Thus, the difference between mind uploading and writing books is arguably more one of degree than one of kind.

Now, a process of this kind can, of course, work with a fictional character, as well as with a physically extant person. If someone sincerely emulates a deity, the deity gains a measure of reality by living through the person. Its mind thinks and guides action somewhat as a normal human’s would, though it is running on someone else’s brain.

The imitation of God, imitatio Dei, has had some significance in both Christianity and Judaism. Furthermore, under Nietzschean influence, certain Jewish writers around the beginning of the 20th century appear to have propounded a vision roughly similar to the one proposed here, in that theirs was also meant to wed religion to a secular mindset. As Michal Fram Cohen describes, “they castigated the excessive spirituality of Judaism and extolled the bravery of the Biblical Jewish heroes, whom they called upon their readers to emulate.” In the end, though, emulation of the divine remains a stronger element in the Christian tradition. Witness the concept “imitatio Christi,” popularized in modern times through the slogan “What Would Jesus Do?”

A caveat is in order. The notion that religion in general is worth conserving in some form does not imply that any particular religion should persist. Some are better than others, and some religious characters are better candidates for emulation than others. This is what Robert Redeker, a French teacher of philosophy, was getting at when he wrote that Jesus represented “love,” whereas Muhammad stood for “hate.”

(But, of course, that statement was ignorant and Islamophobic. Islam is really a peaceful and tolerant religion, which is why Redeker has since gone into hiding.)

To summarize, the social benefits of religion are numerous. However, the inverse relationship between IQ and religiosity suggests that a major factor driving people away from religion is that core religious beliefs are perceived to be rationally untenable. The “conceptual vision” addresses this problem by offering an easily acceptable concept of a god’s (or other religious character’s) existence as a concept given life by its believers. This has the potential benefit of bestowing a greater sense of agency on the religious person than has traditionally been the case. Stephen McNallen, granddaddy of today’s reconstructionist paganism, has touted this element as an advantage which his brand of heathenry has over conventional monotheism. “Each one of us can add our own efforts to those of the mighty gods,” he enthuses. I bring that up not to say that McNallen is correct about anything specific but to note that this is a selling point for some people.

So there you have it. It may seem implausible that the decline of religion could be moderated using an idea taken from fantasy literature. But hey, stranger things have happened.

Simon Maass is a writer living in Germany. His work has previously appeared in publications such as Providence, VoegelinView, and Cultural Revue. He holds a degree in International Relations from the University of St Andrews and writes on various topics in politics, religion, and literature. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.