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America Is Becoming Less Christian, Less Religious

ABC News:
American Religious Identification Survey Finds Major Denominations Losing Members

In one of the most dramatic shifts, 15 percent of Americans now say they have no religion — a figure that’s almost doubled in 18 years. Americans with no religious preference are now larger than all other major religious groups except Catholics and Baptists.

More from CNN in the video below. However, unfortunately this is a very one-sided report. They really needed an atheist in this discussion. We are not “Hippie Dippie”, “Heathens”; we are average Americans who have evolved enough to realize that religion is superstitious nonsense that causes more harm than good in the world.

Addendum 3.10.09: Here’s another article from The Huffington Post, The Silent Minority

“I’ve always been amused at the idea that a religious person can say that an atheist will burn in hell as a result of their beliefs, and that is not considered offensive; but if an atheist says that believing in God makes no sense, that is considered deeply offensive. One person is charging the other with faulty logic; the other is charging them with a base immorality that warrants eternal torture. How is the former even vaguely more insulting than the latter?”

Addendum 04.06.09: Related article from Newsweek: “The End of Christian America”


22 thoughts on “America Is Becoming Less Christian, Less Religious

  1. Nicholas says:

    Surprise, surprise, Nick has something to add! (You know how it is: “If you post it, they will come…”)

    I agree with you that it would have been interesting to hear an atheist’s perspective on the Lou Dobbs show, but as I see it, the segment was not intended to debate religious truth, it was simply intended to discuss the numbers. I have very little doubt that the only spin most atheists would have put on this story, given only five minutes, would have been “this just shows that religion is bunk.” That’s my guess as to why the producers of the segment invited people who would have something probably more interesting to say.

    I do also agree with you that “hippie-dippie” was not the best word choice. hehe. But come on, he was clearly being tongue-in-cheek, all the same.

    As for my most substantive comment…it has to do with the thing you posted from the Huffington Post:

    “One person is charging the other with faulty logic; the other is charging them with a base immorality that warrants eternal torture. How is the former even vaguely more insulting than the latter?”

    I will answer that question. First of all, it is a false dichotomy. The number of religious people (Catholics, anyway) who go around threatening atheists with Hell is simply as not large as you enlightened ones would like to believe; and of those who DO talk about Hell, most admit that they themselves are candidates (because we are all sinners) and talk about it out of a concern for people’s souls. (I am not disputing that there are some angry, cruel religious people out there…of course there are, and they give religion a bad name. But they are no more numerous than the atheists who, if only they BELIEVED in Hell, would absolutely DELIGHT in consigning people there. …Or do you really think that they only wish the very best happiness for anyone who’s Republican, for example, or pro-life?)

    Meanwhile, I would say that the number of atheists who are content to stop at accusations of Christians’ “faulty logic” is pretty small. To quote, ummm, you: your very own nephew is apparently “a [sub-]average American who [has not] evolved enough to realize that [all I believe in is a bunch of] superstitious nonsense that causes more harm than good in the world.”

    Look, I don’t even know who this hypothetical observer is that the Huffington author is talking about, the one thinks that calling atheists baseless immoral friends of the Devil isn’t offensive and that reasonable disagreement on religious matters is appalling. So the Huffington author can set up as many straw men as he likes, in order to appease his own persecution complex. But just for the sake of argument, I’ll take the bait and say that if there’s a reason that atheist condescension is slimier than religious proselytizing, it’s because most atheist loudmouths are motivated by pride and contempt, while most religious loudmouths are only motivated by neurosis and fear.


  2. Cindy says:

    I honestly think that as we evolve, we (Homo sapiens) will become less religious. We will no longer have a need to believe in mystical gods once we have a better understanding of our world and beyond – assuming we don’t destroy ourselves first. Really, the biggest reason that we are still so religious is because our children are taught from day one that their is a god, a heaven and a hell, and of course they will go to hell if they don’t beleive in God and behave like good Christians. This early indoctrination is very difficult to overcome and it’s passed on from one generation to the next.

    Personally, I could care less if a religious person says I’m going to hell. In fact, Rich tells me that quite often. But since there is no hell, I find it rather amusing. But then Rich is not President and he is not basing his foreign policy on his religious beliefs. I do not find Bush and his right-wing cronies at all amusing. I was content to keep quiet about religion until the religious right started getting involved in politics and pushing their agenda on everyone else.

    The problem with the Dobbs report is that they didn’t even mention the possibility that they could be wrong and that all this fuss and all the problems that religion causes in the world is over a god that does not even exist. To an atheist, it’s just ridiculous. Instead they just made up excuses as to why Americans are becoming less religious.

    It’s time for atheists and agnostics (who are now 15% of Americans) to come out of the closet. We are a large minority, who’s voices have not been heard. It’s time to speak up and at the very least protect the separation of church and state.

  3. Nicholas says:

    I am no scientist, nor am I any historian, but I do know a little about each, and to be completely frank I think that talking about the results of this poll as proof of “evolution” is ridiculous, and non-scientific. This is not how humanity “evolves.” Evolution describes broad changes in biological traits, not little blips in the history of ideas. Religious sentiment has waxed and waned innumerable times over our short lifetime as a species. Remember that people were convinced that the Church would fall apart in the twelfth century, the thirteenth century, the fourteenth, the fifteenth….basically, the Church has *always* seemed in danger of evaporating. But it never did.

    No reputable scientist would take a 7-point change between two generations’ responses to an unscientific survey as real evidence of anything. And even if anyone were tempted to do so, they should just look outside of America and Europe: Catholicism is growing, and Africa, South America, and Asia are becoming more religious with each passing year. What do you say about that? Or do you want to add a eugenic tinge to your scientism and say that that’s simply because third world peoples are evolutionarily primitive, stunted, or deformed?

    Second point. I don’t know what you’re trying to get at by talking about how religion is passed on. What does that have to do with whether it’s true or not? All sorts of knowledge is passed on…secular knowledge is, too, but converts abound in every religion and every ideology, which is why there is flux in the popularity of all ideologies. As someone who was barely taught a thing about religion growing up but now considers himself religious, I think that much is painfully obvious. And as someone who has seen secularism grow in Europe at the same time as I’ve seen religion grow in Africa, I have a hard time seeing how you can call religion a hereditary superstition because it spreads from generation to generation, while you can call secularism a sign of evolutionary progress because it grows from generation to generation…? That doesn’t make any sense at all.

    As for the separation of church and state, I am absolutely in favor of it. And I can only speak for my own religion, but the Pope has talked about the need for that separation, too. The problem is that when most liberal politicians hear that, they don’t understand it to mean respect of church and state — they take it to mean abolition of the church. Look at the narrowly defeated proposal in Connecticut to take control of all the Catholic parishes in the state and put them in the hands of secular governance. It is absolutely mind-boggling to me that any politician could support such a thing. Where do they get the nerve? And yet that is the direction we will be heading if people not only separate church and state but exalt their political / secular identities over their religious / moral identities. That is why I think that Catholic voices need to be robust in our society. (And this business about atheists’ voices not being heard is pure malarkey, by the way. In Saudi Arabia you might have a point, but to pretend that that’s the case here or in Europe is ignorant and quite frankly sort of prima donna-ish. You have no idea how good you have it!)

    Of course, I do not like the idea of the Church becoming involved with Republican politics, either. I am with you on that. But there is plenty of room to speak out against church-state interference without calling religion the source of all evil in the world. Auntie Cindy!! I have posted this a million times on your blogs and never gotten a response from you….!!!:

    “Look at the “religious wars” of today. Are you saying that family, nation, ethnicity, and politics are not as deeply imbricated in Ireland, Israel, and the Middle East as religion is? In these cases religion has indeed been used to justify warfare and murder. But religion is just one possible mouthpiece for a tyrant. Without religion the tyrant’s ultimate concern with territory and sovereignty would remain…because his human nature would remain. Or do you think that Nazism, Stalinism, Maoism, the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide, the Rape of Nanking, the Killing Fields of Pol Pot, the atomic arms race, the Vietnam war, the scourges of Idi Amin, the massacres in Rwanda, the ethnic cleansing in Darfur, and all the other ugly blots on today’s world that have so absolutely little to do with “religion” in the conventional sense could have been avoided if people had long ago stopped believing in God?”

    When people are asked what they view to be the greatest threats to the survival of the planet, they rightly mention global warming and nuclear war — both of which were made possible by untrammeled scientism, NOT by religion. As Terry Eagleton says, swap you the Inquisition for chemical warfare.

    Religion is NOT the enemy!! I promise!! You can have honest disagreements with it, of course, but I think your rhetoric is wildly over-the-top.


  4. Cindy says:

    I didn’t say that the poll is proof of evolution. There is more than enough proof of evolution, unlike God. And evolution moves much too slowly for us to see any change in our life time. But I do think that their is a genetic / evolutionary component to religion because religion brings people together in communities, so it had several survival benefits. I think some people have a stronger predisposition to faith and religion. But none of this has anything to do with this poll. I’m just glad to see that some people are escaping the shackles of faith. Again, I don’t have a problem with your faith or anyone elses, as long as they do not interfere with the civil rights of others.

    There are places in the world were religious fanatics are oppressive to certain groups of people – and to a lesser degree – I think that the religious right here in the US is pushing their beliefs and agendas onto others. For example, prayer in schools and intelligent design in science class rooms, gay marriage, stem cell research, and the dreaded abortion issue. I have no doubt that without the religious right, Bush and friends would not have gotten elected and I think this country would be in a much better place right now.

    As for third world countries becoming more religious, I would guess this is due to the same brainwashing and social pressures that go on here in the states. That and also less education. Again, the reason religion perpetuates is because children are indoctrinated at a very early age. Why do you think you are a Catholic and not a Muslim? I’m sure if you were born in Iraq, you would be a Muslim.

    Atheist voices are definitely not being heard. For one thing, most of them are still in the closet because they don’t want the majority (Christians here in the US) to know they are an atheist, because atheists are considered immoral, which of course is not true. But to give you an example of the prejudice. Do you think an atheist could ever get elected to congress? I’m sure there are at least a few atheist and/or agnostics in congress now, but they sure would not dare to admit it. This would be political suicide.

    Again, I don’t have anything against religion and I can certainly tolerate religious people, as long as they don’t interfere with the human rights of others. I certainly don’t blame religion on all the bad in the world, but I do honestly think we would all be better off without religion. It’s too bad we can’t just all go by the golden rule instead of making up all kinds of religious stuff and invisible gods. But whatever works for you.

    Hey, have you seem Bill Mahar’s movie yet?

    Got to go get the kids to bed.

    Good night my favorite Catholic! 🙂

  5. Nicholas says:

    Ok, I see what you mean…just to clarify, I didn’t mean that you were using this study to prove evolution itself. Of course I believe evolution exists, and I agree with you that there is more than enough proof of it. I just meant that I don’t think a decline in religious belief is the kind of permanent, irrevocable trend that evolution describes. I mean, name a single human activity that has been “phased out” since the beginning of homo sapiens. Nomadism? Hunting? Agriculture? Family? Naturally these things go through changes, but it’s not the linear mechanism of evolution, and neither is what has been happening to religion for the last thousands of years.

    I think it’s hypocritical to say, “I have no problem with an individual’s private religion,” but then to talk about emerging from the “shackles of faith.” That just doesn’t make sense. I also would be curious to know why religion was for so long some sort of great “survival mechanism” that built communities, whereas all of a sudden now that Darwin has lived, it’s this evil menace to world peace that keeps people prisoners of an angry God. Why the change?

    I’ve always felt that the best thing to do with religion is argue first principles. Is it true, or not? Whether it’s true or not, there are always going to be some people who abuse it and some people who benefit from it, so talking about societal effects is in some sense beside the point. You, for instance, go back to this imaginary God thesis, which is really the most important one of your arguments. If God is imaginary, then fine, but if He is not, then that makes all the difference.

    Still, it’s important to admit that as long as you are looking for scientific evidence of God, you will never find it. Saying that belief in evolution is better than belief in God because there’s more proof of evolution is silly on two counts — first of all, because the two are not AT ALL mutually exclusive, and secondly, because God transcends the natural world. But this shouldn’t turn us off, because whenever we talk about ethics, morals, whatever, we are talking about things that cannot be measured by science. Why do you dismiss God because there is no proof of His existence, without dismissing the golden rule, or the concept of goodness, of which there isn’t any proof, either? When talking about God, we need to use philosophy and the human sciences, not biological science (unless religion makes biological claims, which by and large it doesn’t.) As a wise man once said, there is not a single chart in the world that can explain the role of charts in the world. As long as you run around saying, “I don’t see God on this chart,” you’re always going to be lost.

    Sure, if I had been born in Iraq I would probably have been born a Muslim. But the same is true of you, too. Or do you think that the fact that you had no real religious upbringing has nothing to do with the fact that you’re not religious? Besides, like I said, there are converts to every religion and to atheism, as well. Birth tells you how you’ll grow up, but we are not completely determined by it for the rest of our lives. I am proud to be a Catholic despite having barely been raised as one, because I do think that the convert’s reasons for believing are usually more interesting than the cradle Catholic’s.

    But again, there is no substitute for talking about Truth. Can the world be explained without God? Does reason tell us that abortion is right, or wrong? Etc…these are the important questions…I am not saying that there will ever be consensus on any of them, but I think it’s better to ask these questions than to chase red herrings down the stream. I haven’t seen Bill Maher’s movie, and I am open to anything, but from what I hear he only interviews insane people…exactly the kind of people who feed the stupid, untrue stereotypes that religious people only care about Hell, that they are ignorant and don’t listen to other people, that they don’t believe in science, etc.

    Well, my dear aunt, there is always so much more to say, but I will stop testing your patience… Good-day, my favorite Democrat-who-always-tows-the-party-line-and-brainwashes-her-kids-into-towing-the-party-line-and-thinks-that-all-Republicans-are-immoral-and-should-never-be-elected-to-office-and-yet-who-claims-to-be-open-minded-and-anti-ideology. 😉


  6. Cindy says:

    I’m not looking for evidence of God, I think we will eventually find a scientific explanation for everything (if we survive long enough). We just haven’t discovered all the answers. Some answers might never be found. But to me, it makes more sense to look for real answers rather than just saying, there is no way to know, so there must be some sort of super being/creator. Scientists have already learned that the world is round, that the sun is at the center of our solar system, that our sun is just one of billions of stars, that the universe was created by the big bang and is currently expanding. They are also working on a theory of the origins of the big bang and how what appears to be “something out of nothing” could actually be explained scientifically. Since the beginning of time, there have been lots of gods that people used to explain our world and you dispute all of them except one. Atheists just go one god further.

    Regarding morality, luckily humans are more good than bad. Again, I think goodness comes from evolution and survival of the fittest. Those who were cooperative with others had a higher chance of survival. So, that trait was passed on one generation to the next. I think there would be mostly good in the world even without religion. But on the other hand, how do you explain an all powerful god who allows so much bad in the world?

    Personally, I had plenty of religious upbringing. I went to church every Sunday and had perfect attendance in Sunday school for six years in a row. I still have the pins to prove it. I went to both Catholic and protestant churches and also belonged to the senior fellowship and went to the “freedom farm” in Bolton right up until I was 16 years old. I just started thinking for myself and decided that a god made about as much sense as Santa Claus. I think I was around 14 or 15 at the time, although I didn’t stop going to church until I was 16. So, I am a convert, and converts are actually quite rare statistically. For many years, I just considered myself an agnostic, but the older I got and the more I read, the more ridiculous religion seemed to me.

    Regarding Aaron. He is a perfect example of how children can be taught to follow just about any religion (or political party). He started out believing in God, because his father told him there was a god, but then he had both Bear and I telling him a different story. So now he has decided he is an atheist. Poor confused kid, LOL!

    Nick, you make your poor old aunts brain tired with these debates. Rest assured I’ve given my religious views lots of thought over the past 50 years. And until W., I kept them to myself. Now that the democrats are back in control, maybe I’ll go back into the closet…;-)

  7. Nicholas says:

    hehe…ok, ok, I will ease up. (Until the next time you post something, of course! haha.)

    I know you’ve thought a lot about your views, it’s just that you so often portray religious people as not having thought about theirs. That’s why I respond — that, and because to hear someone talking about my “imaginary God” is like hearing someone talking about my “deadbeat father” (it’s a question of honor) — that, and because I think discussion is always interesting. I’m not even trying to prove you wrong, or anything like that, I’m just trying to have a conversation and see where it goes. And hopefully we both learn new things.

    So in other words, I hope you don’t go back into the closet! And if you see the Democrats doing something you don’t like (since after all, they’re not infallible…..unlike the Pope…..kidding, kidding!), I hope you will add your voice to the fray.


    PS – Aaron may be impressionable, but I don’t mean to imply that what you’ve taught him is bad. (“Brainwashing” was used tongue-in-cheek, since that’s what you call religious education.) My guess is that Aaron has had to think more about politics than most kids his age, and having that kind of exposure to mature conversation is wonderful! IMHO.

  8. Cindy says:

    I’m 99% sure there is no God. That said, I would love to be wrong. The burden of proof is with the believers. I can’t prove that there is no God, just as you can not prove there is no flying spaghetti monster. You say you are sure their is no flying spaghetti monster? I say there is, I’m sure of it. I can feel His presents, I pray to Him, etc. How can you say there is no flying spaghetti monster without insulting my beliefs?

    If there is a God or a flying spaghetti monster, where’s the proof? Where’s the beef? It is extremely difficult for an atheist to talk to a religious person about god without being insulting, because to an atheist all religions in the world are just myths. How do you tell someone nicely that you think their god is a myth? I suppose I could say that it’s fine for you to believe whatever you want, but it’s tough when we are constantly defending our selves against those who what to push their agenda on everyone else.

    I sure don’t mean to insult you or anyone else, but try to imagine what you would say to me if the majority of the country followed the flying spaghetti monster along with me. We want government funding for schools in order to teach our children the ways of the flying spaghetti monster. He wants us to fight against Muslims in a holy war. The president bases his foreign policy on his belief in the noodley one. He does not want certain minorities to have the same rights as the majority for whatever reason. You get my drift.

    I have nothing against Christians or any other faith, as long as they don’t interfere in political matters and/or the civil rights of others.

    Regarding the Dems doing something I don’t like. I honestly don’t know enough about economics to make a judgment on the stimulus bill. But I do agree with McCain on the pork issue. I understand why these projects were included in the bill, but I don’t think they should have been allowed. How’s that;-)

    You have time to work on Aaron next month, LOL!

  9. Nicholas says:

    Ok, here I was, perfectly willing to bury the hatchet and move on, and now you bring up the Flying Spaghetti Monster!!!

    In brief, I would have the same opinion of the Flying Spaghetti Monster that I have of other religions that are equally far-out — like Scientology. I do understand that from your point of view, all religions are as ridiculous as the FSM, but I really don’t think there are any grounds for comparison. Christianity believes in a God whose qualities are not at all like the FSM. Our God is a logical one; from asking where the universe came from, it makes perfect sense (even if you disagree) to say “an all-powerful, all-loving being,” but it doesn’t make any sense at all to say “a flying plate of spaghetti.” Where could that possibly come from?

    As for Jesus, I will grant that it requires a leap of faith — a belief in miracles, whatever — to accept Him as the Son of God, and if that’s not a leap that you can take, then I absolutely respect that. But to say that belief in the divinity of an historical person who actually did live, whose body actually did disappear from a tomb, and whose resurrection was actually attested to by dozens of witnesses (whom you can believe or not, as you like, but you have to admit that considering how many of them were martyred for their beliefs, there must have been quite a lot of people according to you who were stubborn enough to give up their lives for a big lie), is not at all close to a belief in the divinity of the aforementioned flying plate of spaghetti.

    There are many more differences, but do you get my basic drift? If you want to ask about any of the “supernatural” elements of Christianity, I would be more than happy to give you my best, most honest attempt to explain why I personally believe in them. Even if you didn’t find those explanations compelling, I hope that you’d at least accept that a reasonable person could believe in them. But I promise you that you will never, ever find a reasonable person who actually believes in the flying spaghetti monster.

    Finally, as for how atheists can be expected to talk to religious people without being insulting…I don’t think it’s that hard. Personally, I think I am perfectly capable (at least, in my better moments) of talking to Hindus, Muslims, Mormans, Sikhs, Jews, and Baha’is without being insulting — as well, I should hope, as atheists and agnostics. If you are looking for actual advice: you could start by refraining from calling God a “myth.” Even if for you there’s little difference between a “myth” and an “honest mistake,” it makes a huge difference to whomever the comment’s directed at. Or you could just say “I think religion is wrong” rather than “I think religion is superstitious nonsense”; just as you would hope that Christians would say “we think atheists are wrong” rather than “we know for sure that atheists are soulless infidels.” It’s just a question of respect, that’s all.


  10. Cindy says:

    >”Our God is a logical one; from asking where the universe came from, it makes perfect sense (even if you disagree) to say “an all-powerful, all-loving being,” but it doesn’t make any sense at all to say “a flying plate of spaghetti.” Where could that possibly come from?”

    LOL, He is not on a plate! 😉

    Also, talking to people of other faiths is not the same as talking to an atheist. All faiths beleive in a supernatural being. That is very different from the atheist point of view.

    I have yet to see any evidence that Jesus actually existed. But I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt on that. But the leap is saying that he is the son of God.

    OK, I admit, I don’t have a whole lot of respect for religions and this is based on first: because historically so much pain has been caused in the name of one god or another. And second all of this pain was in the name of gods who I sincerely think never existed. The pain is bad enough for a good cause, but for nothing!?

    Keep in mind that I am insulting God, not you… But I’ll try to be more sensitive and avoid words like myth, invisible, imaginary and spaghetti.

    Seriously, don’t take my rants on religion personally.

  11. Cindy says:

    WOW George, just reading the Product Description IN ALL UPPER CASE gave me a headache. Why doesn’t God just talk to all of us rather than through a chosen few?

  12. Nicholas says:

    “So much pain has been caused in the name of God.” I just don’t think that’s a historically sophisticated thesis. Like I’ve said a million times before, if a tyrant wants to wage war, he will find a reason to do so. Sure, by invoking God he can often rally more people to his cause. But Adolph Hitler got people to condone the Holocaust by talking about the greatness of the Arian Nation. So should we abolish all countries, then? The fact that religion is powerful (and do you expect the Truth not to be powerful?) doesn’t say anything about whether it’s true, and the fact that it can be manipulated says nothing about its essence.

    In the end, I can’t speak for any religion but my own. That article on the student and her essay and that ridiculous book by some wacko evangelist are awful, but I will leave it to Muslims and evangelists to address their own. As for Catholicism, then, here is what I will say: one of the reasons I believe its claims to be true is that it doesn’t claim to be perfect. It is based on the reality of human sin. And so many of its critics like to say, “Oh, the Church is obsessed with sin, it’s so negative and icky.” And yet then they turn around and accuse it of every sin in the book. Hypocrisy.

    By contrast, the Church’s position is remarkably consistent. It admits that people have misused it and abused it. It admits that the Church has sinned. But this is no surprise. Jesus picked ordinary men — uneducated fishermen, tax collectors (basically the equivalent of IRS auditors), and Mark, a retarded manchild who lived with his mother — to be His disciples in order to say that salvation can come even from broken people. (Even the first Pope, Peter, was also the one who denied Jesus three times.) If the Church said that you automatically become perfect when you become Catholic (like being “born again”), then I’d be skeptical of such alchemical claims. But the Church is open about its faults, it apologizes constantly for them. In my view it is to be respected all the more because it describes the broken state of man accurately rather than trying to live up to an impossible ideal that would just prove how unrealistic they were about their own place on earth. As the saying goes, the Church is a hospital for sinners, not a hotel for saints.

    Here is an anecdote from Pope John Paul I that I like very much:

    “The more frequent objections you will hear will go straight against the Church. Perhaps an anecdote told by Pitigrilli will be able to help you. In London, at Hyde Park, a preacher is speaking outdoors. He is interrupted by a ruffled and dirty individual. ‘The Church has existed for two thousand years,’ says this individual. ‘And the world is full of thieves, adulterers, killers.’ ‘You are right,’ the preacher replies. ‘But water has existed for two million centuries, and look how filthy your neck is.’

    In other words: there have been bad Popes, bad Priests, bad Catholics. But what does that mean? That the Gospel has been applied? No, just the opposite. In those cases, the Gospel has not been applied.”

    That said, as for myself, I will try to get my facts straight the next time I write a post…I did not know that His Most Holy Noodliness was not restricted by the spacio-temporal constraints of a plate, and I will surely say three Our Pastas and four Hail Zitis in atonement…


  13. Cindy says:

    >”So much pain has been caused in the name of God.” I just don’t think that’s a historically sophisticated thesis.

    There is absolutely no historical doubt that religion often plays a key role in wars and death. We can agree that religion is only one thing that people fight about, and that it is not the cause of all of the problems in the world. True, Hitler did not use religion as a tool for genocide. Hooray, one atrocity that I can’t blame on religion. I guess that’s a good thing? And I also agree that religion is not always the reason for pain and suffering, but it is often used as a motivator and an excuse for violence.

    For starters, just look at all the cultures who used killings and human sacrifices in religious rituals. Of course the Holy Crusades and the “soldiers of Christ” is a good example of religious violence, but there are plenty more. The Israelis and Arabs, 6 bloody wars and religion is the main issue that blocks peace. The problems between Protestants and Catholics in Ireland. Yes, this is also a political issue, but do you deny that it is religion that really inflames people? Just look at the anger toward Muslims here in the US after 911. And why did they attack us in the first place?

    I don’t think it’s too far fetched to imagine that religion could cause the extinction of humans. Armageddon could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I hear what you are saying Nick. But just imagine for a minute that their is no God. If you can imagine no God, can you see all the unnecessary pain and suffering?

  14. Nicholas says:

    Me again. 🙂

    Yes, I can imagine for a minute that there is no God. Not that that is an argument per se that what you are saying is correct, but yes, I can do that to at least try and understand where you are coming from. If there were no God, then I would say that undoubtedly some people had inflicted needless, even great, pain and violence on other people for nothing. Yes. But I still wouldn’t feel that religion had been as much of an issue as you think it has been.

    Of course, one of my main questions is whether we can imagine any truth that people wouldn’t fight over? The fact that something has brought about violence doesn’t prove that the thing is evil or untruthful….it just shows that man is broken and often doesn’t know how to deal with that truth, doesn’t know how to live up to his own best intentions. But also, sometimes wars are necessary, to be completely frank. Putting religion aside for a minute, I think that we can talk about “necessary” wars like WWII (which ended the Nazi occupation of Europe) or the American Civil War (which ended an extremist vision of states’ rights that allowed slavery to exist).

    So even imagining for a second that God doesn’t exist and religion is an intellectual mistake, I think we still need to ask ourselves about the nature of certain instances of “religious violence.” I’ll take your examples. As for the Crusades, I honestly see painfully little difference between them and WWII. Let’s not forget that the Muslims conducted the most astonishing military conquest in the history of the world, violently putting Eastern Asia, the Fertile Crescent, Northern Africa, and much of Europe (right through to Spain) under their control in less than 300 years, brutally pillaging villages and forcing conversions to Islam. It’s staggering — it was just like the Nazi blitzkrieg, as unprovoked and as malicious. It just took a little longer. So the Crusades were first launched to defend Europe and the Holy Land against this conquest, to keep the Muslims essentially from fulfilling their plans for world domination. Sure, religion was involved, but that’s because religion was not just an ideology but a political force back then. It’s just silly to claim that Europe had no right to defend itself — silly, unless you also believe that the Allied forces should have let Hitler occupy all of Europe with the reasoning that all the pain and violence of warfare would just have been so unnecessary.

    Interesting sidenote: the Catholic Church actually invented the first modern peace movement, the first nonviolent resistance, doing its utmost to end the culture of war which ran rampant among secular warlords across the continent by encouraging trans-European prayer practices and rewriting feudal constitutions. But when the Muslims were knocking on Europe’s back door (i.e., Spain, which they had completely taken over), people had no choice but to retaliate.

    It is true that near the end of the Crusades, several wars of pure political persecution were launched by the Church. Those were shameful. But we have to be frank; at that time, the Church had weakened and had begun to be used by the kings of Europe (especially France) as a political tool. A good argument for the separation of church and state, and a disgraceful period for the Church, but the heart of these late Crusades was NOT religious sentiment, and beneath every one of these “religious Crusades” was a whole number of well-documented political calculations.

    As far as religions go, Islam is probably the worst. That is a very un-PC thing to say, but frankly, I think they have a far bloodier history than any other religion in the world. Maybe — maybe — your thesis can be rooted in an analysis of the Muslim world. But still, it’s very complex. I think that the Arab-Israeli conflict is like a modern-day Crusade: you have one religion which is based on violent imperialism, whose secular goals are completely intertwined with its religious ones, menacing another one which is almost entirely non-violent. But the reason there’s kickback is because the Jews, who are for all intents and purposes an ETHNIC group in Israel, just want one little square of land to themselves. They offered to give half of it to the Palestinians, but the Palestinians wanted all of it….hence the mess they’re in now. Religion has a role to play, but it is far inferior to that of other regional interests.

    And to quote Terry Eagleton again, funny how everyone pounces on religion for causing problems in the Muslim world, whereas no one talks at all about the role of POVERTY in the whole thing. “Dawkins quite rightly detests fundamentalists; but as far as I know his anti-religious diatribes have never been matched in his work by a critique of the global capitalism that generates the hatred, anxiety, insecurity and sense of humiliation that breed fundamentalism. Instead, as the obtuse media chatter has it, it’s all down to religion.” In other words, we would have far more success making the Muslim world friendlier if we stopped attacking their religion and actually poured some money into these regions. I am thinking about a study done by the NYT on suicide bombers in Iraq two years ago. Nearly everyone that the embedded journalists interviewed, all of the kamikaze recruits, didn’t even attend religious services; they were bribed into the movement by Al-Qaida chiefs who promised to give their families money if they died in the anti-American jihad. To blame the whole thing on “religion” is too simple.

    Your other examples: I think post-911 USA is a bad example, since actually, the Americans were ASTONISHINGLY restrained after that event…apart from maybe a generally mistrusting sentiment, there were no deaths, attacks, riots, or protests launched against the Muslim-American community at all. And actually, I do deny that religion is at the heart of the Irish thing, and so do all the historians who comment on it. Just read them: Ireland is all about British imperial rule vs Irish nationalists. Look at the IRA, for instance. They are the Irish REPUBLICAN Army, not the Irish Catholic Army. The fact that the two sides divide down religious lines is expressive of, but not the cause of, the division between Irish culture and British culture. It would be like saying the American Civil War was started over accents, since all the people in the Northern states had Northern accents and all the people in the Southern states had southern accents.

    Finally, you mention societies that used human sacrifice. Well, we Catholics call them “pagans” for a reason. 😉 And so sure, I agree that that was terrible, but look, the Democratic party platform proudly advocates killing babies and the Republican party doesn’t care if you waterboard people and electrocute their penises as long as they have “Al-” at the front of their last names….so have we really come so far in secular society?

    Again, I am not arguing that violence has never been perpetuated in the name of religion or by religious bodies. To give one example you didn’t even mention, I think the Inquisition is a particularly awful moment in the Church’s past (although even that is often mis-interpreted). But here is the thing. I think that a lot of the evil done in its name would have happened anyway if religion hadn’t existed — just look at my list of genocides from a few posts back. On the other hand, I think that religion inspires a lot of people to good. And I am not just talking about Catholic charities and stuff like that, because of course, people would do those kinds of good deeds if religion didn’t exist, just like they’d do bad deeds if it didn’t exist. No, I am talking more about specific individuals whom religion helps to find hope and meaning in the world and in their own lives. How many mass murderers — really, really sick people — have ever managed to find peace (if they find peace at all) without religion? There’s not much in this world that can descend into their dark depths — certainly not membership in the Democratic party or a solid understanding of the principles of Darwinian evolution — and yet miraculously, Christ seems to do just that. How many Jews were able to keep their faith in humanity alive during the Holocaust simply because they could pray, and how many people suffer their own, less publicized ordeals — or loneliness — or whatever, and can only get by because their church or religious community gives them hope? I myself know several, several. And I am one of their number.

    Yes, there are people who do not choose God, at least not explicitly, and seem to live moral, hopeful lives. There is much to be said about that, but I have already written too much. And yes, why God would allow evil in the world is a good question to ask, but I’m sure you recognize that philosophers have literally written whole libraries on the subject…? The existence of evil may be a good personal reason for you not to be able to accept the existence of God — I can respect that. But it is not such a philosophical slam dunk that you have any reason to think the non-existence of God should be completely, totally obvious to everyone.

    In the end, I think that God is not a conclusion, but a choice. I think all of us have several good reasons to believe, and several good reasons not to. Which side we go towards is the result of an act of faith. So I do welcome your invitation to me to try to imagine that God doesn’t exist. That is something I need to do often, to keep myself open-minded and to make sure that I am making an authentic choice. I just hope that you do the same exercise — imagine, from time to time, that there is a God, and see if my arguments or other Christians’ arguments make sense under those conditions — rather than considering the question solved forever just because you’ve been thinking about it your entire life….

    And finally, if you have trouble believing in miracles, here’s one: I’m done writing! 🙂


  15. Cindy says:

    I certainly don’t blame religion on all of the world’s conflicts. This is an argument that Rich gives all the time. He says that people will always find something to fight about. If not religion, than something else. Sadly, I think he is right about that, but my issue is that most things people fight over are real. Atheists understand that gods are not real and this is why fighting over religion is so ridiculous to us. Even if religion is not the main reason for the fighting, it certainly can inflame any conflict. Also governments use religion to manipulate people and to keep them in line. Religion is an easy way to herd people toward a cause, even if it’s not a good cause. People take their gods very seriously and nothing gets people worked up more than religion.

    For the US, I think the last justified War was WWII. One could actually debate the civil war. Of course I agree that slavery had to be abolished, but there are many other differences between the north and south and perhaps we would all be happier if the US had ended up being two different countries. So, not sure that the war was as justified as WWII. I certainly think that Korea, Vietnam and Iraq were all mistakes. But this is really off the topic.

    As for religion, you see that whenever we debate religion our discussions boil down to one key word and that is FAITH. You said, “I think all of us have several good reasons to believe, and several good reasons not to. Which side we go towards is the result of an act of faith.” I agree and I also agree that their are several good reasons to believe. I’ve tried to believe, really I have. It would make life so much easier if I honestly believed that their is a reason for the not-so-nice things that have happened to me. If I believed that I would be rewarded in Heaven and that God had a plan for me, my life would be a whole lot easier. For example, I look at my mother-in-law who is stress free and doesn’t have a worry in the world, because whatever happens is God’s will and so it’s all good. But – and this is a big but – my brain is too reasonable and logical to take that leap of faith. I think faith is like wearing blinders that shelter you from reality. I could even say that wearing blinders can be a good thing, if not for all of the religious hatred in the world.

  16. Nicholas says:

    I see your points. The only question I have is what you mean by saying that your brain is too reasonable and logical to take that leap of faith. I don’t think faith is opposed to reason and logic; I think they are complementary. But then again, perhaps you are not saying they are opposed….perhaps you are just saying that you stop at the limits of reason and logic and don’t feel comfortable going further. That is certainly understandable.

    One thing I know for sure is that back when I didn’t consider myself religious, I got by on “reason and logic” alone. But I was left with a deep spiritual longing. God, for me, is not just an answer to difficult questions, like, “Where does the world come from?” That seems to be a common misunderstanding of non-religious people: they think that because science is so dear to them, our approach to religion is purely scientific, and we go there just to find the answers to scientific questions. No, I believe that God is love; He is not a solution that will get everything to make sense, but a personal Spirit that will help me to find the only thing that’s important: Love.

    So my questions are not “where did the world come from,” but “why do I feel expanded, why do I feel more loved, why do I feel more alive to the beauty of existence, when I think about God?” That’s why so many people turn to God. It’s not that He seems so reasonable, it’s that they recognize that living a reasonable life is not the single goal of existence; it leaves them wanting more. They want to believe in something “transcendent,” only you make it sound silly by calling it “supernatural.”

    But aren’t you alive to that longing, too? Where does love come from, and sadness, and peace, and why are these feelings so intense? You say that you think science will figure out the answers some day, but do you really believe that your life cannot be complete unless some really smart guys in labs figure out the answers now, within your lifetime? Don’t you think it’s possible that the truth is accessible to all of us, and we don’t have to wait for science to reach a certain level in order to live in its splendor?


  17. Cindy says:

    Evolution can also answer your questions. I do think that religion is something that evolved over time. It’s like a defense mechanism to help us cope with the things we don’t understand. Humans, as far as we know are the only living things that have the brain power to contemplate our own existence. This is both amazing and scary. Death is especially scary for most people. So, at the dawn of man, we made up gods to help answer the things we didn’t understand. The first god was probably the sun god, since the sun would likely be the most amazing thing to early man. Of course, now that we understand what the sun is we no longer need a sun god. Our gods got more and more complicated as we evolved and this believe system has actually become ingrained in our DNA. To say that there is a specific “god gene” is probably over-simplified, but I think religion along with feelings like love, peace and other intense emotions became part of being human.

    I think that you have a stronger predisposition toward religion than I do. This is not meant as an insult, it’s just the way you were born. I believe this explains way so many very intelligent people can still believe in God and particularly the bible, which has been largely disproved by science. Of course you can say the bible is some sort of metaphor for life, whatever. I think that the more we understand our world and beyond, the less we will have to rely on religion and I think that eventually the gene responsible for believing in a god will fade away. But true, evolution moves very slowly. I fear that we will destroy ourselves before that ever happens.

    I also think things that fall outside of the natural world are actually inside the brains of the believer and so not necessarily true for all of us. Things like the supernatural, transcendent things, ESP, miracles, spells, curses, whatever. These things are simply not true for all people. I don’t deny that religious people believe there is definitely a god. But that doesn’t make it true. Some people actually hear god talking to them (this is called your conscience; or at it’s worst, schizophrenia or some other mental illness). There is so much about the brain that we still don’t understand. Sometimes religion can actually be used to fill another needs. For example, I know a lot of people who have replaced other addictions with God. In this way I’d say religion is a good thing for them, certainly better than drugs, alcohol, child abuse, etc. They just need to keep this belief to themselves and particularly keep them out of politics and government.

    Those of us who do not have the strong need for religion, call it a gene or a defense mechanism, whatever; we do not feel like we a missing anything, since we don’t have the need to begin with. So, for me, I feel complete. More so than a lot of believers, I’d guess. Love is love, not a god. Our world and beyond IS spectacular and amazing just as it is and learning about them is fantastic. 🙂

  18. Nicholas says:

    Your evolution theory makes sense, but you have no more proof for it than I do for my notion that we are called to something transcendent. Your philosophical outlook disposes you not to believe in God, and so you seek the answers to these questions in evolution; mine disposes me to believe in God, and so I seek the questions in religion. Saying that that is because I have a “god gene” makes sense, but you have no proof for that — it’s just yet another result of your philosophical disposition.

    I will admit that it is entirely possible that evolution primed us to be religious. But we might differ on the details, on the “why and the wherefore.” You think it is purely a defense mechanism, whereas I think that it is the flowering of spirituality in organic life. The Jesuit evolutionary biologist / paleontologist / geologist / philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin suggests that the evolution of our higher consciousness — our awareness of death, but also our awareness that it is not the end of us — is the historical unfolding of the story of God’s drawing the universe closer to Him. Of course neither of us will convince each other that our idea of the possible role or effects of evolution is the right one, but they are all interesting and important ideas to consider.


  19. Cindy says:

    True, the god gene is currently a theory, but scientists do think they have actually located the gene that makes spirituality at least partly genetic.

    I don’t think religion is purely a defense mechanism. In fact I think the reason there was a genetic component to begin with was because religion helped people to form communities. And those who belonged to a group had a higher chance of survival. From there, religion just got more and more complicated.

    One of my favorite Dawkins quotes: “We are all atheists about most of the gods that societies have ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.”

    When I took philosophy in college, I found it extremely frustrating; just a bunch of questions without answers. I sure was happy to get back to my science classes. So, yes, I’m probably much less “spiritual” than most people. And I bet you really enjoy philosophy and I know you are very spiritual.


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