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January 28th, 2007

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01:28 pm - Thoughts on atheism, religion and spirituality
A few days ago, maxomai made an interesting post about atheism, that spawned much discussion. After make a few responses there, I began thinking more about this issues, and here are some of my thoughts on this, as someone who is definitely not an atheist, but who largely supports the spread of atheism as long as it is not accompanied by stridency or hostility to other points of view.

In the US, religion remains an important factor in public life. I am far from a materialist and I know various religious people who I consider wise, sensible, and good. However, I also worry about the influence that religion (and not just fundamentalist religion) has upon most people's lives, because it is very clear that the vast majority of people do not question or carefully consider their faith, and instead accept the tenants of their faith as given or (and this seems even more common) are far more interested in the social and political (using this terms in the broadest possible sense) aspects of their faith and thus being responsible for creating and maintaining power differentials, prejudice, and similar ills. Therefore, I find the changes in religion elsewhere in the first world to be fairly promising.

I am also fascinated by the impact that the new technologies of the mind are going to have on all forms of spirituality. Brain-scans have begun to reveal what is going on when people speak in tongues or what happens in the brains of Buddhist monks while they are meditating. Similarly, we are learning more about the physiological basis of empathy. In short, we are at the first stage of learning to understand the origins of various mental and spiritual states and also the origin of those portions of morality that are at least somewhat innate.

I'm guessing we're no more than 15 years from having religious visions being a consumer product, via a pill or some form of magnetic hat of the sort used in Australia to temporarily induce idiot-savant talents. When anyone can have a reliable religious experience at will (which is already to some degree true with the correct hallucinogens, but is likely to be refined even further), the question of the meaning of faith and spirituality come into fairly sharp focus. I don't know how most people will answer such questions, but I'm guessing the dialog will be fascinating, if also likely quite problematic as some of the more rigidly-minded believers in various faiths vigorously oppose and dispute the results of these investigations.

In any case, my own vision of religion and spirituality is that we create our own gods. As someone who is most definitely not a materialist, I mean this in both a psychological and a mystical sense. I also firmly believe that we create our own ethics and moralities and that the universe as a whole has no concern for the actions, intentions or behaviors of any individual. From my PoV, it's well past time for human ethics and morals to cease having any relationship to any divine commandments and to instead become something we choose for ourself be cause we truly believe it is the best and less generally stressful and problematic way to live.

I definitely see a place for mysticism and magic in the world. I think people who seek various personal paths to spiritual understanding will always exist, because some people seem inherently drawn to such things – magicians are inherently freaks and eccentrics, and it's pretty likely we will always have such people. I also believe that many others will continue to be drawn to more group-oriented forms of spiritual practice because they have a need to explore the spiritual parts of their lives and share this with others who feel similarly. I think both are perfectly valid and often highly positive ways of life. However, I also firmly believe that the majority of people honestly do not care about and have little interest in spirituality, mysticism, or finding the divine within themselves, and that this has been true for most people throughout history. Instead, I think that the majority of people end up belonging to a religion out of habit or convenience and not out of any deep sense of spiritual connection. From this PoV, what we are seeing now in much of the first world is that these people are largely ceasing to be religious. As long as they avoid extremism (the intolerance of fundamentalist atheists is no more sensible or just than any other form of intolerant fundamentalism), for everyone lacking in deep spiritual feelings, I consider atheism to be is a superior alternative. This is especially true for people who belong to a religion for purely social reasons – doing that seems almost guaranteed to foreground the sorts of large and small-scale interpersonal politics that seem to be universally destructive. I'm seeing the beginnings of this in Wicca as it gains wider acceptance, and am quite dismayed.

It definitely seems that in civilized portions of the first world (unlike this vile and decaying wreck of a nation) atheism (or at minimum a lack of religiosity) is becoming far more common. Religiosity is in massive decline in the UK, as the first lines of this article states, "82% say faith causes tension in country where two thirds are not religious.". As this other poll reveals the importance of religion is in eclipse throughout most of the first world

Country % of adults for whom religion is important
U.S. 59
Great Britain 33
Canada 30
Slovakia 29
Italy 27
Germany 21
Russia 14
Japan 12
France 11
Czech Republic 11

Naturally, the big exception is the US, where almost twice as many people consider religion to be important than in Japan, Canada, or most of Europe.

In short, from my PoV, people in the EU seem to be in the process of outgrowing the urge to join a religion either because they are raised to do so, or because of purely social concerns. I'm guessing that in the longer term we shall see a mixture of defacto atheism, small scale organized faith, and personal spirituality, and that concept pleases me no end, because I fully agree that (on the whole) large-scale organized religion does more harm than good.

I think one of the key reasons for this change is the fact that in addition to joining or (more commonly) staying with a religion because of either habit or for purely social reasons, one thing religion does for people is to serve as a buffer against misfortune. While it can provide the comfort of believing that the universe is not a hostile or uncaring place, in many cases the way in which it buffers misfortune is far from good – in many cases, people use religion to focus blame (sinners brought the wrath of the gods down on us), abrogate responsibility (I'm not to blame, it's all part of some deity's plan), and for many similar ills. Given the social safety nets and the generally humane government provided by euro-style democratic socialism, the inhabitants of the EU have substantially less risk and violence in their lives than the inhabitants of most of the world. Also, in general they seem to be happier. Unsurprisingly, according to a recent survey, a nation's level of happiness was most closely associated with health levels. Prosperity and education were the next strongest determinants of national happiness.

As a result, there is simply less need to retreat from troubles or to find someone to blame for them, because far fewer people are desperately poor, violent crime is relatively low, and while illness and death are still unavoidable, (in vivid contrast to most of the world) almost all inhabitants have easy access to good medical care. It seems clear that if you reduce risk and violence in a society, encourage happiness, comfort, and contentment, some of the factors that drive people to religion cease doing so.

(6 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:January 29th, 2007 04:29 am (UTC)
From my PoV, it's well past time for human ethics and morals to cease having any relationship to any divine commandments and to instead become something we choose for ourself be cause we truly believe it is the best and less generally stressful and problematic way to live.

I absolutely agree. The devil, of course, is in the details.
[User Picture]
Date:January 29th, 2007 05:50 pm (UTC)
One conclusion I'm drawing, then, is that clergy, once established, have a vested interest in keeping the masses poor, downtrodden, and dependent, no matter what the religion.


I'm really glad my religion is less than 150 years old and not likely to be widely accepted by the masses anytime soon!
[User Picture]
Date:January 29th, 2007 07:47 pm (UTC)
*nods*, while Wicca is starting to go mainstream in a large-scale way, I don't see Thelema doing the same thing because it's not even remotely set up to be a mainstream faith.
[User Picture]
Date:January 29th, 2007 05:52 pm (UTC)
Of course, there will be many missionaries from the US going to Europe to try to stanch the "breakdown in society" caused by "the decline of faith." I witnessed this in the early nineties as a fundy teen.

Maybe it's time for Europe to keep a close eye on missionaries, especially American ones.
[User Picture]
Date:January 30th, 2007 07:47 pm (UTC)
It seems clear that if you reduce risk and violence in a society, encourage happiness, comfort, and contentment, some of the factors that drive people to religion cease doing so.

Not only do I believe this is a major factor in religiosity, but I also think it specifically skews toward religions that are exceedingly black and white and authoritarian. Stressed people aren't generally looking for complex study, they're looking for simple clear answers and rules.
[User Picture]
Date:January 31st, 2007 06:25 am (UTC)
*nods* When not stressed and afraid many people don't need spirituality and those who do are interested in more complex and humane versions. In contrast, most stressed people want to be told that they are good, their enemies are both utterly evil and responsible for all of their ills, and that someone will take care of their problems, which is hardly the sort of mindset you want in any sort of democracy.

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