Is Religion the Primary Front in the War Over Reality?

woman breaking chains
Image by Schäferle from Pixabay

When I started Atheist Revolution in 2005, I had little doubt that religion was the primary problem I wanted to address. I was more concerned about organized religion due to its influence on the political process. I also viewed religious belief as deserving attention. I viewed it as both irrational and harmful. It seemed that we'd be better off without it. By 2009, I found myself entertaining some questions:

Religion is a problem, but is it the main problem? Is it even the primary front in the war on reality?

I wasn't so sure. Had I made a mistake by prioritizing it over most alternatives?

It was in 2009 that Spanish Inquisitor wrote a post, "The War Over Reality," that caught my attention. On one side, he described worldviews based on religion, faith, and the supernatural. On the other side, were atheistic worldviews rooted in materialism, nature, and science. He suggested that this conflict ended hundreds of years ago. The losing side has refused to concede, but the war is over. Despite my agreement, I had to acknowledge that I was uncertain that religion is the primary front in the war over reality.

Spanish Inquisitor saw modern theists as refusing to discard their flawed view of reality.

What they don’t realize is that the battle over which view of reality is correct was over hundreds of years ago, and they are simply clinging onto their religious view out of pure fear. They delude themselves cannot accept the indisputable fact that they will die, and their religious beliefs give them comfort and hope that they will linger on after they’ve completed their enlistment in the human race.

I agreed with this at the time, and I still do.

But today's war over reality seems much broader than religion. It seems so broad that I'm no longer sure religion is even the primary point of contention. Here in the United States, we seem conflicted over more basic things like the nature of knowledge and importance of expertise.

If you saw Religulous, you may remember the scene where a member of Congress allowed himself to be captured on film by Bill Maher defending his own ignorance by pointing out that there is no intelligence test required for members of Congress. Many politicians and other decision-makers refuse to listen to scientific experts on a wide range of issues. Some go out of their way to denigrate expertise itself. That they are able to do so without consequences is illuminating. That doing so may earn them the admiration of their constituencies is startling.

I understand Spanish Inquisitor's desire to focus on religion. It is a dramatic example of the lengths to which people will go to ignore reality. But I wonder if religion is a part of something larger. If so, might we risk missing a more important target by aiming at religion?

We envy Bill Gates' money, but adolescents who excel in school are still referred to as "nerds" and pressured to minimize their intellect. As Japanese technology demonstrated it's superiority, many continued to buy American products and berate those who did not. What may have initially been misguided patriotism became an increasing hostility to reality itself. We are still hearing people crowing about how the United States has the best healthcare system in the world even though the data show otherwise.

And consider those who today rely on Fox "News" as their primary source of information. They will not be swayed by research showing the biased nature of their chosen media. For them, "ivy league" and "intellectual" are insults. They have little patience for facts, no respect for those able to utilize them, and are quick to anger when questioned.

Religion is relevant in all of this. I wouldn't be writing this blog if I didn't think it was. But I am starting to suspect that religion may be a symptom of a deeper problem rather than a root cause. This matters because we could be focusing our efforts on the wrong thing. At least, we could not be broad enough in our focus.

What if we did manage to eradicate religion? How much better would our world be? Would all our problems disappear? Is it possible that we'd find ourselves dealing with the same problems in a different skin?

If religion isn't the primary front in the war on reality, then what is? I don't know. I don't have an answer to that question yet. It could be our tendency to believe whatever we want to believe and our willingness to set aside reality to do so. It could be our collective unwillingness to tolerate ambiguity. It could be our tribalism and lack of basic empathy for others. It could be all sorts of other things which map on to religion but also seem to transcend religion.

Update: Spanish Inquisitor is no longer blogging about atheism.

This post from 2009 was revised and expanded in 2022.