Atheists for Peace

By David Swanson

With the exception of Jews and African-Americans, no demographic group in the United States voted more heavily against Bush and for Gore and Kerry than did atheists, who make up 10 percent of the electorate. Atheists tend to be disproportionately progressive. So do atheistic countries.

The Atheist Manifesto that Sam Harris has posted at Truth Dig points out that “Norway, Iceland, Australia, Canada, Sweden, Switzerland, Belgium, Japan, the Netherlands, Denmark and the United Kingdom are among the least religious societies on Earth….The United States is unique among wealthy democracies in its level of religious literalism and opposition to evolutionary theory; it is also uniquely beleaguered by high rates of homicide, abortion, teen pregnancy, STD infection and infant mortality. The same comparison holds true within the United States itself: Southern and Midwestern states, characterized by the highest levels of religious superstition and hostility to evolutionary theory, are especially plagued by the above indicators of societal dysfunction, while the comparatively secular states of the Northeast conform to European norms….Countries with high levels of atheism also are the most charitable in terms of giving foreign aid to the developing world….Consider the ratio in salaries between top-tier CEOs and their average employee: in Britain it is 24 to 1; France 15 to 1; Sweden 13 to 1; in the United States, where 83% of the population believes that Jesus literally rose from the dead, it is 475 to 1.”

While a number of those atheistic countries, particularly the United Kingdom, joined the U.S. in a dishonest, illegal, and aggressive war that has murdered hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, their populations opposed that war from the start, while it took years for a majority in the U.S. to do so.

The correlation between atheism and progressive politics doesn’t prove causation, but the fact that atheism can be chosen should cause us to look into the matter. While it would be at least problematic if not impossible for most of us to become African-American or Jewish, anyone can become an atheist today by simply admitting that death is death and myths are myths. In fact, a significant number of people who identify their religion as “Jewish” rather than “none” in exit polls probably do not believe in God and Heaven. Thirteen percent of Americans in April told CBS News that religion was “not at all” important in their lives, rather than “extremely,” “very,” or “somewhat” important.

What if becoming an atheist could help make you a progressive too? Would it then be advantageous to encourage atheism?

Most atheists, like myself, encourage atheism because we’re embarrassed to see our fellow humans engaging in wishful and magical thinking. It offends us. But does it really matter politically?

Clearly religion is used to move people to vote against their own interests. Religious leaders tell people that banning abortions or discriminating against gays is more important than preventing wars or stopping global warming or slowing the transfer of wealth to the wealthy. But most of the people voting and campaigning and lobbying against this agenda in the United States are religious too. Some of them would argue that religion moved them to work for peace, environmental protection, and a fair distribution of wealth. Yet atheists manage these feats without religion, whereas very few atheists place bashing gays and banning abortions above all other political projects. It seems possible, therefore, that eliminating religion would leave progressives still progressive but gay-hating embryo saviors without a basis for their priorities.

Eliminating religion would also eliminate the primary source for the notion that it is acceptable to hold important beliefs for no good reason or to obey an authority figure without good cause. “The president wouldn’t lie.” “Of course, Colin Powell believed there were weapons of mass destruction.” “The market will handle it.” Sound familiar? These are comments we would almost certainly hear less of if we heard less about religion.

Religion also tends to encourage the notion that things are generally right in the world and that radical change is uncalled for. This is not true for every religious person. But every religious teaching promotes it by suggesting the existence of a God or a Higher something or other.

Then there is the question of the damage done to the world by dividing its population up into various religions, into groups of people who place significance on beliefs that others do not share and cannot be brought to share by any coherent arguments. While the war on Iraq was motivated at least in part by interests in power and wealth, it is unlikely that so many Christian Americans would support it, were Iraqis not primarily Muslims. Polls of Americans’ opinions of religions find that the percentage of Americans who think favorably of a particular religion generally varies in proportion to the percentage of Americans who subscribe to that religion. But unfavorable opinions of Islam are on the rise, according to CBS, up from 33 percent four years ago to 36 in February, to 45 percent in April. Also on the rise is the percentage of Americans who believe Islam encourages violence more than other religions (46 percent) and who believe Islam has more violent extremists than other religions (58 percent). These beliefs are demonstrably false, and polling a Muslim country would produce drastically different results.

Oil and global domination may not be the only reasons for the war on Iraq, and would certainly not be the only reasons for a war on Iran, with its potential to ignite a global nuclear catastrophe. Allies of, and possibly members of, the Bush administration believe that a global conflict focused on Jerusalem will bring back Jesus. The President of Iran, meanwhile, is expecting the return of Mohammed. And two differing opinions about Mohammed’s successors have helped to create a civil war in Iraq.

Harris states the issue well in his Atheist Manifesto:

“One of the greatest challenges facing civilization in the 21st century is for human beings to learn to speak about their deepest personal concerns–about ethics, spiritual experience and the inevitability of human suffering–in ways that are not flagrantly irrational. Nothing stands in the way of this project more than the respect we accord religious faith. Incompatible religious doctrines have balkanized our world into separate moral communities–Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, etc.–and these divisions have become a continuous source of human conflict. Indeed, religion is as much a living spring of violence today as it was at any time in the past. The recent conflicts in Palestine (Jews versus Muslims), the Balkans (Orthodox Serbians versus Catholic Croatians; Orthodox Serbians versus Bosnian and Albanian Muslims), Northern Ireland (Protestants versus Catholics), Kashmir (Muslims versus Hindus), Sudan (Muslims versus Christians and animists), Nigeria (Muslims versus Christians), Ethiopia and Eritrea (Muslims versus Christians), Sri Lanka (Sinhalese Buddhists versus Tamil Hindus), Indonesia (Muslims versus Timorese Christians), Iran and Iraq (Shiite versus Sunni Muslims), and the Caucasus (Orthodox Russians versus Chechen Muslims; Muslim Azerbaijanis versus Catholic and Orthodox Armenians) are merely a few cases in point. In these places religion has been the explicit cause of literally millions of deaths in the last 10 years.

“Religious faith promotes human violence to an astonishing degree. Religion inspires violence in at least two senses: (1) People often kill other human beings because they believe that the creator of the universe wants them to do it (the inevitable psychopathic corollary being that the act will ensure them an eternity of happiness after death). Examples of this sort of behavior are practically innumerable, jihadist suicide bombing being the most prominent. (2) Larger numbers of people are inclined toward religious conflict simply because their religion constitutes the core of their moral identities. One of the enduring pathologies of human culture is the tendency to raise children to fear and demonize other human beings on the basis of religion. Many religious conflicts that seem driven by terrestrial concerns, therefore, are religious in origin. (Just ask the Irish.)

“These facts notwithstanding, religious moderates tend to imagine that human conflict is always reducible to a lack of education, to poverty or to political grievances. This is one of the many delusions of liberal piety. To dispel it, we need only reflect on the fact that the Sept. 11 hijackers were college educated and middle class and had no discernable history of political oppression. They did, however, spend an inordinate amount of time at their local mosque talking about the depravity of infidels and about the pleasures that await martyrs in Paradise. How many more architects and mechanical engineers must hit the wall at 400 miles an hour before we admit to ourselves that jihadist violence is not a matter of education, poverty or politics? The truth, astonishingly enough, is this: A person can be so well educated that he can build a nuclear bomb while still believing that he will get 72 virgins in Paradise. Such is the ease with which the human mind can be partitioned by faith, and such is the degree to which our intellectual discourse still patiently accommodates religious delusion. Only the atheist has observed what should now be obvious to every thinking human being: If we want to uproot the causes of religious violence we must uproot the false certainties of religion.

“Why is religion such a potent source of human violence?

“Our religions are intrinsically incompatible with one another. Either Jesus rose from the dead and will be returning to Earth like a superhero or not; either the Koran is the infallible word of God or it isn’t. Every religion makes explicit claims about the way the world is, and the sheer profusion of these incompatible claims creates an enduring basis for conflict.

“There is no other sphere of discourse in which human beings so fully articulate their differences from one another, or cast these differences in terms of everlasting rewards and punishments. Religion is the one endeavor in which us-them thinking achieves a transcendent significance. If a person really believes that calling God by the right name can spell the difference between eternal happiness and eternal suffering, then it becomes quite reasonable to treat heretics and unbelievers rather badly. It may even be reasonable to kill them. If a person thinks there is something that another person can say to his children that could put their souls in jeopardy for all eternity, then the heretic next door is actually far more dangerous than the child molester. The stakes of our religious differences are immeasurably higher than those born of mere tribalism, racism or politics.

“Religious faith is a conversation-stopper. Religion is only area of our discourse in which people are systematically protected from the demand to give evidence in defense of their strongly held beliefs. And yet these beliefs often determine what they live for, what they will die for, and–all too often–what they will kill for. This is a problem, because when the stakes are high, human beings have a simple choice between conversation and violence. Only a fundamental willingness to be reasonable–to have our beliefs about the world revised by new evidence and new arguments–can guarantee that we will keep talking to one another. Certainty without evidence is necessarily divisive and dehumanizing. While there is no guarantee that rational people will always agree, the irrational are certain to be divided by their dogmas.

“It seems profoundly unlikely that we will heal the divisions in our world simply by multiplying the opportunities for interfaith dialogue. The endgame for civilization cannot be mutual tolerance of patent irrationality. While all parties to liberal religious discourse have agreed to tread lightly over those points where their worldviews would otherwise collide, these very points remain perpetual sources of conflict for their coreligionists. Political correctness, therefore, does not offer an enduring basis for human cooperation. If religious war is ever to become unthinkable for us, in the way that slavery and cannibalism seem poised to, it will be a matter of our having dispensed with the dogma of faith.

“When we have reasons for what we believe, we have no need of faith; when we have no reasons, or bad ones, we have lost our connection to the world and to one another. Atheism is nothing more than a commitment to the most basic standard of intellectual honesty: One’s convictions should be proportional to one’s evidence. Pretending to be certain when one isn’t–indeed, pretending to be certain about propositions for which no evidence is even conceivable–is both an intellectual and a moral failing. Only the atheist has realized this. The atheist is simply a person who has perceived the lies of religion and refused to make them his own.”

I’m inclined to think Harris is right in all of the above. But I think he glosses too quickly over the matter of interfaith dialogue. There are those who believe that their own religion is best but that all the others should be respected or that, at least, violence is never acceptable. There are even those who believe that all religions are “really” the same. None of this makes any sense, but many human beliefs, including any individual religion, make no sense. That doesn’t mean people cannot to a great extent hold such contradictory beliefs in their heads and, in some way, act on them.

In the 2000 presidential election, Jews shone, voting 81 percent for Gore. Those stating that they had no religion went 61 percent for Gore. But those stating that they held some “other faith” (other than all the main ones listed) were close behind at 54 percent. In 2004, 74 percent of Jews went for Kerry, as did 67 percent of “no religioners,” while those belonging to some “other faith” matched the Jews, voting 74 percent for Kerry.

Those who claim to believe in all religions probably place themselves in the “other” category. Of course, at some point it has to become hard to believe in all religions, since they conflict with each other even more than each individual one conflicts with itself. While I have no data to prove it, I suspect that “religions are all the same” is often a temporary stopping point along a path from a particular religion to atheism. The same is certainly true of the position that holds that “my religion is best but all the other ones are equally good and I should learn more about them.” Because the more you learn about them, the more you see that you cannot respect them all. You can respect the people who believe them, but not the beliefs. And the more you look at other religions, the more you see your own from the viewpoint of others – that is, as a myth created by your culture, and a fairly embarrassing one at that, full of nonsense that requires an intensive course of training to get children to accept it.

So, while Harris seems most strongly opposed to “moderate” religions, because they lack the internal consistency of the fundamentalist versions, I see moderate religion and interfaith dialogues and universal newage-ism as movements in the direction of where we need to go: atheism. We have a long way to go to get there, and most good in the world will be done, in the meantime, like most evil, by religious people.