So apparently church attendance is bad – really bad.  If fact the majority of Americans are not members of any church at all.  We’ve heard the buzz-phrase “spiritual but not religious” and the term “religion” has been maligned so much that even the obviously religious use it as a slur.  Remember this guy?

With the “spiritual but not religious” crowd gaining steam, it seems that one day the church may go the way of the dodo and the secularists will be cheering in the streets.  However, is this a good thing?

Now, some religious people who engage atheists like to bring up some pretty horrible historic leaders/madmen who happen to also be atheist (or at least are probably atheist) and some atheists love to constantly bring up pretty horrible things done in the name of religion (or using religion as an excuse).  The secularists will point at Norway as a secular state and Afghanistan as a theocracy.  The religious will point out North Korea as an atheist state and the United States as a free but ultimately Christian nation.  It’s sort of a pointless exercise.

So, with so many examples and counter-examples of horrible things in light of spiritual belief or the lack of spiritual belief – isn’t it natural to conclude that spirituality, a belief in god or gods or ghosts and fairies, is NOT a predictor of whether or not a large group of people will become bat-shit and start mowing down other human beings for fun and profit?

Another popular criticism of atheism is that atheism is like a religion.  The common answer to this is – if atheism is a religion, bald is a hair-color.  However, I think the best response might be, “Wait, don’t you think being like a religion is a good thing?  I mean, I was under the assumption that you thought religion was awesome – is that not the case?  In what way do you think atheism is like religion?”

I suspect you may get a response such as, “Since there is no evidence for atheism, an atheist needs more faith than someone who believes in [one of many possible theistic belief systems]”  However, you might get the answer, “Because you follow your leaders.”

Now, think back on all those horrible people that are always mentioned – Stalin, Pol Pot, Kim Jong-Il – as well as those who acted in the name of religion and did some God-awful things – Pope Urban II, Omar Al-Bashir, Hitler – whoever.  Those were powerful people, that stood nearly unopposed.  These people did not do the things “they did”.  They somehow got other people to do it for them.  We might be fearful of a lone gunman like Anders (a Christian) or Timothy McVeigh (an agnostic) – but there is nothing like the power of someone with an army willing to fight and die.

When people use the term “religion” as a slur – I don’t think they are talking about organizing family events or praying/meditating or singing songs or listening to a lecture/sermon or participating in ritual or even articulating the social contract/promoting a moral code.  They are talking about the power inherent in convincing a whole lot of people that an ultimate authority has veto power over their hearts and minds.  Those are the conditions necessary for an ideology or a fear or a sense of identity or a seething anger turned to hatred to be fashioned into a weapon wielded by a man with an agenda.

However much I would love to vehemently deny that atheism (New Atheism or whatever) is not like a religion, occasionally (however infrequent) I meet someone who’s eyes glow just a little too much when they say, “[So-and-so]’s book changed my life,” or I actually step into the goo of a gaggle of groupies.  Atheists by virtue of being atheists are not immune to that sort of behavior.  Perhaps no-one is.  A great piece by Natalie confronts how arrogant it is to assume that one is immune to such things.

We sometimes like to blame ONE entity – the government, the church, industry, the media, organized labor – on brainwashing us all.  If we only break free of ONE of those influences – such as shunning the media and finding out that the truth is much different than what it seems on TV, such as shunning the church and finding out that one or more tenants of that religion are simply untrue, such as shunning the government and becoming disillusioned with their leadership and calling for revolution – any of these things will cause us necessarily to see ourselves as freethinkers, as smarter, as wiser, as independent agents – and perhaps see those around us as less so.

…but that’s a delusion…

We will always be influenced – even if we try our darnedest to research every tiny thing and attempt to solve problems devoid of bias – we will always need to belong, we will need to benefit from collective action, we will require comfort and we will act within our own myopic perceptions.

How does a society manage that?

I think one way is not to destroy institutions of influence, but to avoid allowing those institutions to become more and more monolithic and centralized.

I know, I know – I just jabbed into the side of the liberal sacred text and obviously I must be a raving Bandwagon Tea Party member lunatic with a “Don’t Tread on Me!” sign with the caveat of “unless I’m gay.”  Just hear me out.

The seats of power within a free society need to be independent and many.  When the church and the state unite – we’re in trouble.  When the state and industry unite – we’re in trouble.  When industry and the media unite – we’re in trouble.

I think it is very important for us, right now, to attempt to determine what the role of the church is and how the decline of the church might effect that balance of social power.  It might be tempting to point at Europe and assume Europe is crazy-awesome because of a bunch of statistics we found on the internet – and that point is well-taken to an extent, but Europe has it’s challenges, serious challenges.  More importantly, we aren’t Europe.

The government has begun performing much of the work that was once reserved only for the church – such as family law, education, welfare, etc.  I would say – completely and rightly so.  A person should NOT have to beg from a church and be subject to dogma in order to become educated or have access to the social safety net.  That’s unreasonable.  Likewise, churches should not have the power to ignore labor law or impose their own set of laws counter to the laws of the state.  The church should not be able to use the state to force it’s own laws on everyone else.  The state should not be funding the church.  This is not a take-over, but simply a separation.  The unelected church should not be doing the work of governing.

Church and state separation are there for a reason, but what if the church simply disappears?

When things get desperate, when the shit hits the fan, when people are no longer basking in virtual post-scarcity but starving, dying and looking for someone to blame – where will they turn to for structure, meaning, and comforting certainty?  If there is only ONE answer to that question, we’re in big trouble, regardless of what that answer is.