Is atheism culturally weak?

[Talk to Atheist Society 14 Aug 2012, by Rosslyn Ives, president of Council of Australian Humanist Societies and editor of the quarterly Australian Humanist.]

When I gave David the topic "is atheism cultural weak?", late last year I had in mind looking at two things. One was to investigate my gut feeling that atheism was a culturally weak position. The other was to look at why religion persists, even though science has shown many religious claims to be untrue. As it turns out I've got more to say about the latter than the former, though the two are connected.

So you know where I'm coming from:

I became an atheist when I was about 14. Since then I've investigated many worldviews, before settling for being a Humanist.

I have a science degree and taught biology and general science in secondary schools for many years. I also have a master of science in the history and philosophy of science.

I want to start with religion, a human construction that is culturally strong. It is culturally strong because it is present in many things we encounter on a daily basis. And that is the case for most societies - right around the world, both present and past. If we take Christianity as an example of a religion, we find its cultural fingerprints all over the place. In our language, in literature, music, jokes, works of art, official holidays, buildings, hospitals, aged care facilities, schools, law courts, parliament, and so on. And because we have grown up in a society impregnated with Christian symbols and language, most of us absorb at least some Christian culture. We recognise the cross and the fish as Christian symbols. We know many of the bible stories like Adam and Eve, the Good Samaritan, feeding the five thousand with loaves and fish, the prodigal son. We are aware of that to refer to someone as a Judas, is to accuse of betraying someone's trust. When song writers, like Tom Waits sings of losing his St Christopher most of us have some idea of what he is referring to.

We live among millions of people who call themselves Christians and who act to reinforce cultural expressions. And even though adherence has weakened, particularly compared to the pre-1960s, Christianity is still strongly present in today's Australian society.

By contrast - where are the cultural expressions or representations of atheism, outside of people calling themselves atheists? There are a few bits here and there such as characters in fiction novels, films and plays. But there are no atheist holidays, no identifiable atheist buildings, schools, not a lot of specifically atheist music or art, nor are there atheist ceremonies and rituals. Atheism seems to me to consist primarily of attacking belief in god and religion.

If a Martian arrived on Earth to investigate human culture she would find Christianity had a strong presence, while atheism would be weakly represented. It is unlikely she would view atheism as a stand-alone non-religious worldview. Instead she would see atheism as a position constructed to oppose the culturally stronger presence of Christianity and other god-centred religions.

For atheism to develop into a worldview, atheists need to articulate a range of attitudes for living and put in place some cultural practices, maybe even a few rituals and ceremonies that would give atheism more cultural depth.

As a broad generalisation, it seems to be a characteristic of being human that we need a worldview and typically these are what we call religions. So those who reject god and associated religious practises, often seek out and adopt an alternative worldview. For example a growing number of Australians, usually atheists seeking something more meaningful even spiritual, have adopted Buddhism as their worldview. And in recent years many of the less spiritually inclined yet thoughtful atheists have adopted Humanism as their worldview. In both cases they are atheists, but have not found atheism offers enough depth of meaning and purpose.

In the rest of my talk areas that I will say something about the following three areas.

  1. The importance of language and culture in the making up of religions.
  2. Worldviews, religions as an example
  3. Why religion is deeply embedded in human societies and why is it so enduring?
  4. Concluding - why I think atheism is culturally weak.
1. The importance of language and culture in making up religions

It is in our nature as humans to want to explain why we are both similar, yet different, from other animals. Pre-scientific explanations would mostly be made-up stories about creative acts or processes that had happened way back in their ancestor's past. Examples are The Dreaming of Aboriginal people, and the creation stories found in many societies around the world. In each society, over time, these origin stories would form core elements in their worldview, i.e. their religion.

Nowadays many people look to science to explain the similarities and differences between humans and animals. By using the theory of evolution by natural selection, we can talk about our shared ancestry with other living things to explain similarities. While differences are explained by pointing out that we have some more evolved features plus some extra features. Our more evolved features include a larger and more complex brain, and upright posture, which leaves our hands with their opposable thumbs, free for manipulating things. Two of our extra features not found in other species to any extend are language and culture.

Language gives us the facility to communicate in fairly precise ways. We can name things and talk about them. We can have ideas and share them. We can have feelings which can be expressed and conveyed to others. We can use language to coordinate group activities, tell stories, gossip and joke and so on.

Some of the early linguists began their research by supposing there would be primitive and more developed languages, but this turned out not to be so. All known languages are equally developed and useful for a wide range of communication purposes.

Culture is all the things we do that monkeys and our other close relatives don't. It includes all the multitudinous ways we get by each day the tools we make & use, how we get our food and its preparation methods of cooking preserving eating, kinship systems, music, the arts, system of settling disputes, legal and education systems, games, sports, technology and science, our beliefs and having a worldview typically a religion.

While humans come equipped with the capacity for both language and culture, they must be learnt socially. Mostly we just grow up learning the language and the cultural forms readily learnt within our society. Once we learn enough we might start modify language and bits of culture. If we are creative we might invent something new or come up with new interpretations.

So meeting our needs through language and culture is central to who we are as a species.

2. Worldviews as examples of complex cultural patterns like religions

Worldviews are a set of beliefs - cultural patterns, that people have put together i.e. made up, that give answers to life's big questions, Who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going? How shall we live? The answers to these important questions give shape and meaning to people's lives. They help them get through the days, weeks, months and years. Importantly they help people deal with the triumphs and tragedies of life and the significant passage of life situations, birth, adolescence, marriage and death.

I've already alluded to the role of story-telling in explaining how we are both like and different from other animals. But story telling is also used to explain the origin of the land forms, weather, and the shape and nature of animal and plants, and so on. Stories can also be recollections of past events. These might be stories about natural happenings - an earthquake, volcanic eruption, extreme weather conditions, a close shave with a wild animal - or they could be outstanding feats of heroism, as well as stories of imaged other worldly beings, - spirits, ghosts, gods - that have extra powers. All these different sorts of stories would be endlessly retold down the generations, inevitably gaining further embroidery to the earlier versions. These stories, along with rites and ceremonies, perhaps related to passage of life events, like body disposal, childbirth, and attaining adulthood would together form the worldview of that group of people.

Pre-dominantly worldviews posit gods and supernatural entities that have a direct influence over how we humans fare and called religions. e.g. Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism. I'll say a bit more about various aspects of human psychology that facilitate the emergence religious belief under my third heading.

I'm using the term "worldview" to enable discussion of non-religious guides to living alongside the culturally dominant term "religion". Around about 2,500 years ago in both East and West thinkers put in place several philosophical guides to living, like Confucianism in China, Epicureanism and Stoicism of the Ancient Greeks and Romans. And included here is modern day Humanism.

However, with spread of Christianity, when Constantine converted 330 CE and made it the official religion in the dying days of the Roman Empire - human orientated philosophical thinking was discouraged and eventually supressed completely when the last Hellenic philosophy school in Athens was closed by order of Justinian I Byzantium Emperor of what was left of the Eastern half of the Roman empire in 529CE. Europe went into the Dark Ages to await Christ's second coming. Social changes from 1200s onwards led to a period of renewal or rebirth - The Renaissance. During the following few centuries the early human-focused Greek and Roman writings were rediscovered. By the 1600s we had to the beginnings of modern science followed in the 1700s by then the Enlightenment, the age of reason a period that introduced concepts like rights of man and universal suffrage and education.

Humanism as a life affirming, life philosophy has been around under the name of humanism since about 1830. It is a pragmatic, worldview that draws on science for factual information then looks to philosophers for ethical framework. Humanists celebrate all the best things humans are creatively capable of, especially in the arts, music and seeks inspiration and emotional satisfaction from these as well as nature. Humanists are mostly atheists looking for a more filled out life view, than atheism can supply. Because humanism emphasises moderation in all things it doesn't attract as much media attention as atheism/atheists.

Historical roots in Ancient Greece 1952 - IHEU - Amsterdam declaration

Alom Shaha The Young Atheist's Handbook in an interview March this year calls himself a humanist.

Worldviews, then, are multi-layered, cultural patterns that have established themselves over hundreds, more usually thousands of years. Their cultural expressions are embedded in the fabric of society. Mostly worldviews don't appear suddenly and fully formed. They get constructed over many years using a mix of existing cultural patterns plus a few new ideas.

Aside: Anyone who has studied Christianity will know that as it established itself, the early adherents adopted and modified many existing religious ideas and practices. e.g. Easter coming of spring festival, Christmas - mid winter celebrations. As well as humans becoming gods and gods becoming humans. The expectation that each person will have a religion is almost a given in most in our societies including Australia. This leads to official forms include a space for religion e.g. school enrolment, hospital admission and the census. If you don't have a religion as more 4 million Australians say on the 5-yearly census, what do you do? You can ignore the question so you are classed as unknown or non-religious. Or you could write in atheist or humanist, etc. But they are not really correct answers for a question that asks for your religion. The 2011 census result show the "no religion" category is the largest percentage in 5 out of the 8 states and territories, second on Vic and Qld and third in NSW.

So worldviews are found as cultural patterns in all societies. Many take the form of a religion, others are best described a spiritual practices, while a few are philosophical/ethical ways of life

If I can refer again to my visiting Martian, she won't rely on just one source or one person for a version of a society's worldview, but rather many sources - what people say, written or visual material, structures, rituals and ceremonies people perform. My point here is that worldviews are attached to societies rather than individuals, so it is highly unlikely that individual Christians, Buddhists will be able to give a very comprehensive account of what is their worldview. In fact they mightn't even understand that they have a worldview.

Aside, In case you're wondering about science, by definition it would not be considered a worldview; but rather a very effective method of gaining knowledge. We look to science to provide reliable information on our origins and nature, but it can't offer guidance on how to live a good life. Ethical and moral considerations need to come from tapping into human wisdom and philosophy. So Humanism as a worldview looks to science for factual information about the world, but to art, music and nature for inspiration and emotional uplift and for practical ethics to philosophers or ethical thinkers as written in Roman times by Stoic Marcus Aurelius and now times by ethical philosophers Peter Singer, A. C. Grayling on how to lead a good life. 3. Why are religions so deeply embedded in human societies and why are they so enduring?

To examine religion as a cultural pattern we need to put aside whether it is true and treat it - like art and music. Just like we don't usually ask of these are they true but rather do they move you? Do you like it? Does it satisfy deep yearnings? Clearly in the way a religion offers answers to life's big questions and a code for living, opportunities for emotionally highs, it satisfies many people's wants and needs. Like the need for community. Like comfort when things go wrong. Like a framework that offers a sense of worth or more important the promise salvation via of life after death. Religion, as an embracing cultural pattern, works for many people. The reasons religion appeals to people have to do with what psychological needs it satisfies. In what follows I'll pick up on four of these.

1.Mark Pagel in his recent book Wired for Culture: The natural history of human cooperation, discusses the central importance and persistence of religion as a cultural pattern. In a chapter entitled "Religion and other cultural enhancers", he points out that "art, music and religion - what most people call "high culture" evolved to enhance the expression of our social behaviours, because they all move, uplift and console. He writes:

"But what really seems to distinguish these cultural forms is that they can lodge in our brains and exert a grip on us that is sometimes beyond our control. They can wrench our emotions, make us believe things that are false, cause us to steal, fight, or even die for them, bring us to rapture, get us to construct monuments and halls to them, beguile and intrigue us, and get us to lay down large sums of money." Pagel goes on to point out that unlike others aspects of culture, these three - art, music and religion can affect us without feeding, clothing us providing shelter in others words doing anything practical to aid survival. It is for this reason Pagel refers to them as "cultural enhancers" or "brain candy" - something our brains needs and want - they satisfy yearnings we have for something more than mere creature comforts. They give us emotional highs, like taking drugs. You might recall it was Karl Marx, that great analyser of human societies, who around 150 years ago, called religion the opium of the people. By this he meant religion was like an addictive drug that offered some sort of emotion lift for people leading miserable lives. When such down trodden people enter a church, with its vaulting ceilings, stained glass window, incense, and experience singing and prayers said in unison, and the overall effect would be and an emotional high peace of mind.

Also for most of human history the three culturally enhancers - religion, art and music - were practised together in a reinforcing manner. Most artists and musician served religion with the sort of works they produced, though not exclusively. That well-loved musician J. S Bach wrote mostly church music. Then there are the many great painters and sculptors Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Giotto. When we go tripping off to the main cultural attractions of European, it is to see the art and architecture of past centuries. Works executed for religious purposes. And to this day religious musical works are still performed and greatly enjoyed. Bach's Mass in B minor, Handel's Messiah

2.It is well known that religion plays on human hopes and fears. It feeds into the human biases towards certain forms of magical powers that humans dream of having. Nowadays with the rise of science and a strong streak through the society of scepticism towards dodgy claims, we can be dismissive of these yearnings, but to many more credulous people now and in the past such imagined happenings have genuine appeal. These include:

Deep in our human psyche is a yearning for such fantasies. And while many of us can shake such yearnings aside many people can't or don't want to.

3.Further, because of our psychology we are disposed to see purpose in things and intent in their actions. For example recent research with children has shown that quite naturally they suppose that somebody or something made everything around them. This makes the natural or default position readily adopted as a person grows is that of being a creationist. Daniel Dennett refers this as our tendency to attribute "agency" to things. Our naturally inclination goes - we have minds, we can do things, therefore other things have minds, they can do things. A common expression of attributing purpose and agency to other animals and even inanimate objects, are mythical stories, certain religious stories - wine into water, raising of the dead, and children's fairy stories. Hence popularity of Harry Potter stories.

4.Then there is reinforcing behavioural patterns. Pagel cites some experiments on reinforcing behavioural patterns that American psychologist, B. F. Skinner did years ago with pigeons. One experiment involved the birds being provided with food pellets on an irregular basis linked to pecking a lever. The delivery of pellets was random, but the birds - trying to make sense of the situation - usually started to link what they had done just prior to successfully getting a food pellet. This led them to twirling and head bobbing etc. The point drawn from these types of reinforcement experiments is that living things "know" that the need to behave in pro-active ways to get things or make things happen. So it seems a basic animal instinct that doing something to achieve your goal - say food - is better than doing nothing.

Pagel goes on to suggest that this "doing something" behaviour is probably stronger in humans than in other animals. Religions have all sorts of behavioural patterns or reinforcement or "doing things" schedules - prayers, candle lighting, making offerings, lighting incense, ringing bells, drums, chanting etc. - that appeal to humans. So, engaging in religious rituals i.e. "doing things" helps people psychologically and sometimes they are doubly rewarded by their hopes being answered or their fears being alleviated.

We shouldn't be surprised that religions persist. They have been culturally shaped to satisfy psychological yearnings, to help individuals fit into their community and survive. So criticising religion is not going to make it go away. Indeed it may well cause its reinvigoration. Even though to atheist/humanists religious beliefs lack evidence - are untrue - and its rituals and practices seem pointless, to millions of others it helps give community and meaning. And if we put aside whether it is true or not and instead focus on how it helps people to get through each day, then you can get a sense of why it persists. It is a cluster of cultural patterns that humans have constructed to meet deeply felt needs. And it doesn't look like it is going to wither away as many might have supposed especially since the age of Enlightenment and the growth of science.

As Alain de Botton wrote in his recent book Religion for Atheists

"humans invented religions to serve two central needs which continue to this day and which secular society has not been able to solve with any particular skill: first, the need to live together in communities in harmony, despite our deeply rooted selfish and violent impulses. And second, the need to cope with terrifying pain which arises from our vulnerability to professional failure, to troubled relationships, to the death of loved ones and to our decay and demise." (Page 12) Conclusion

I set out to find some reasons as to why I had this gut perception that atheism was culturally weak and why religion was so persistent.

My main reason for suggesting atheism was culturally weak was that it depends on religion which is culturally much stronger. If religion withers away, which doesn't seem likely in the foreseeable future, then atheism withers too. A further argument is that humans seem to need a worldview to give shape and meaning to their lives, so if they decide they can no longer believe in god; they either stay connected to a familiar religion for its cultural practices or find another more agreeable world view. On this I suggested Buddhism or Humanism, both are atheistic, but have more cultural substance than persisting with atheism alone.

With most outspoken atheists focussing on attacking belief in god and religion in general, while this garners lots of media attention it doesn't encourage atheists to reflect on building up an alternative, ethical worldview, which is what people deep down seek.

On why religion is so persistent I suggested that the human need for a worldview giving us community and connection and methods of satisfying our psychological of yearnings has generated religions with all their complex cultural patterns that offer deep satisfaction. Religion acts as a brain enhancer, like art, music. It satisfies psychological human yearnings for, heighten emotional even ecstatic experiences. Religions as worldviews offer people complex cultural packages that bind communities, give meaning offer hope salvation etc. hence persistence of religion. And I suggested that as with art and music it is not appropriate to ask are they true.

So a lot of atheists go on engaging with the cultural patterns of their family's religion, but what of the atheists who want to go it alone with little or no connecting to any former religion? Some like myself become Humanists by embracing a Humanism as a world view. While a more strident minority hold that atheism on its own it's enough. I think they are in a culturally weak position and I hope I've demonstrated that neither atheism nor science is a worldview. As we humans seem to need a worldview Humanism is to be preferred, as it has more cultural layers and representations than to atheism.