(Essay 2 in Evolution&Morality Series)

The atheistic blowback to the overbearing religiosity of the Bush era has been something of a boon for the publishing industry. In an uncertain and weakening economy, they discovered a new profitable genre almost overnight. Clearly, all that oppressive God talk from the Bush administration had antagonized a sizeable group of readers. A few savvy editors were quick to recognize the appetite for books like God Delusion, End of Faith and God is not Great. Books, that took a more or less unapologetically contemptuous view of all things religious and God.

All that hostility, certainly rolled in the profits and finally gave voice to legions of once sidelined non-believers, but it has also created a new atheistic reputation. Thanks in part to these books and the endless debates the authors are encouraged to participate in, atheists are now seen as angry “haters.” Atheists are being defined in popular culture, not as enlightened intellectuals who have formed an informed opinion through careful reasoning, but more akin to religious fundamentalists, as people who simply hate - all things religious.

This is troubling, especially since we are at a unique time in history in terms of trends in religious affiliation. According to the Pew Foundation’s report on Religious affiliation in the United States, the group that saw the most significant growth was the unaffiliated.  Add to that the growing number of the loosely affiliated and the lapsers -people who were raised in a particular religion, but as adults do not actively participate -, and we have a large disaffected group. These are people who are disillusioned by religion. They don’t find comfort in it’s the ritual observations. They find it tedious, oppressive and a chore.

The problem is, though they may be disenchanted with religion itself, they are not necessarily drawn to the no-God message either.

What, after all is the goal of the atheistic movement, if there is one, anyway? Is it simply to give voice to non-believers? That has certainly been accomplished. But if the goal is to win the hearts and minds of the lapsers, it’s falling short.

As of now, a large part of the energy in the atheistic movement is being spent on systematically proving the non-existence of God. 

Yet, saying that God does not exist is an inadequate message for most people. God and religion are not incidental to the lives of people who have been raised in a particular religion. God and religion are an integral part of the minutia of daily moral choices. In the struggle to disprove the existence of God, we forget morality. It is not the almighty’s role as creator that gives him true power over our mortal beings. It is his role as the arbiter of our sense of self-worth based on the moral choices we make that makes him truly invincible.

Disproving the existence of God is like chopping off the trunk of a tree and thinking you have removed everything, when the largest part of the tree, the roots, still remain. These invisible roots are the real foundation that held up the visible trunk all along, much the same way that a faith in a particular God is really a religion’s justification for its unique brand of morality.

Think about it for a minute. Sure, you have long given up all affiliation to any religious community, but more likely than not, your ethos still belongs to the religion you were raised in. Perhaps it is Catholicism, Islam or Hinduism. Even if you are an avowed atheist, your reflex judgment of other people’s behavior, very likely contains strong undertones of your religious upbringing.

In nearly every society, religion continues to inform our private sense of right and wrong. And therefore the kind of human being you believe yourself to be. Are you virtuous or are you vile? So long as the deities the world over retain influence over this question, they are going nowhere.

To disengage religion from our everyday lives, we have to reconsider the very foundation of moral reasoning. We have to question our understanding of what good and bad behavior is. We need a different kind of moral reasoning for the 21st century. I am not suggesting some incense laced newagey ala carte religion of convenience. What I am suggesting is we take a more grounded approach. I say it is time to reconsider moral choices in scientific terms.  If we looked at morality from a scientific perspective, what would we find?

References and Further Reading

Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life: US Religious Landscape Survey