August 8, 2006

What If Atheists Ruled the World?

Alonzo at Atheist Ethicist, one of the atheist blogs I read regularly, recently posed the question, "What if atheists ruled the world?" This is an interesting question and one I'd like to address in this post. By the way, I'm a firm believer in the value of using trackback to facilitate cross-blog discussion.

Since I continue to stand by my restricted definition of atheism as meaning a lack of belief in god, I have to reframe this question as follows: What if there was no religious belief? This is important because it recognizes that atheism does not imply anything other than lack of belief. Atheists are not necessarily going to be more rational (except in their views on religion), more intelligent, more liberal, or more anything else. Again, I stress this because I recognize great diversity among atheists. While I am both an atheist and a secular humanist, I do not make the common mistake of confusing the two.

So, what if there was no religious belief? I agree with Alonzo that the elimination of religion would not result in the end of conflict. Religion is a primary source of conflict, but it is certainly not the only one. Scarce resources, cultural differences, power struggles, international misunderstandings, etc., would continue without religion. Alonzo is right to raise the question of whether atheist factions would emerge - of this we could be quite certain. Humans are wired to detect differences, and intergroup conflict is an inevitable part of the human condition. This is another reason why I believe that the restricted definition of atheism is so important. To assume too much similarity among atheists (e.g., we are all liberal, rational, free of biases, etc.) is dangerously misleading.

At the same time, I am not sure that Alonzo is being hard enough on religion. Religious doctrine is inherently divisive. All the major religions teach that believers are better than non-believers or believers in the "wrong" gods. If you add the imagery of violence and cruelty contained in scripture, you are on the road to glorification of the self and dehumanization of the other. Faith pushes one down this road by making belief without evidence not just acceptable but mandatory. Faith is the enemy of reason and the primary tool of authoritarian systems.

Besides potentially reducing conflict, would there be any benefit to the elimination of religious belief? Since religious belief continues to be an obstacle to scientific/medical progress (e.g., stem cell research, evolution, etc.), tolerance of human diversity (e.g., homophobia, sexism, etc.), and efforts to improve this life (e.g., global warming, animal welfare, etc.), a world without religion would facilitate growth in these and other important domains. In addition, there is something very appealing about my fellow humans learning to live with one less delusion. Just think how much of a difference it could make if people were willing to live in this life rather than the next.

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