Dumb Atheists

I’ve encountered a couple of interesting stats about the British people lately. The most recent was that, according to some humanist survey, the majority of Brits are now non-religious. I greet this as good news, but I’m far less excited about it than I might have been a few years ago. The second stat, heard on a radio science programme, was that science literacy (however that was defined) has long remained around the 10% mark in the UK (as well as in the US).

Those two numbers seem to be a mismatch. I’ve long assumed, till recently, that atheists and the scientifically literate comprise roughly the same group of people. But it seems not. Certainly, most science-educated people are atheists; but that apparently doesn’t work in reverse.

I like to define science as the art of separating fact from fiction. A grounding in science allows you to quickly take a fact, assess its likelihood of being true, and then find the evidence to confirm or overturn your original assumption. Today, a scientific/reasoned approach (I use the terms interchangeably), allows one to plough through the piles of crap friends post on Facebook and decide how ludicrous each post is.

Judging from my own Facebook feed, the rise in atheism has not been accompanied by a rise in reason. A handful of my friends do post religious messages, but in terms of their dumbness, these are benign next to the other things I regularly see. What’s annoying and even frightening is that a high proportion of my friends subscribe to mythology in some way, and mostly it has nothing to do with a belief in God. Many of the new myths revolve around some badly defined, shadowy force, which secretly runs the world. For some, it’s the Illuminati or the New World Order. For others, it’s Big Pharma, genetic modication, the Davos summit. For feminists, its Patriarchy. Other are worried about the Zionist media, or the white supremacist hierarchy… the list is endless. Then choose from a series of conspiracies: apparently someone is using planes to put (undefined) poisonous chemicals into the air – you thought those contrails were just condensed water? No, they’re actually chemtrails! Sodium fluoride isn’t put into water to improve dental health: No! it’s a neurotoxin! Vaccines are being used to poison our kids! Fruit and veg can cure cancer, which means that actual cancer medicine (you know, the kind that works) is part of some kind of plot to poison us. Evolution messed up and so we need to consciously detox our bodies. The white man is hiding the Truth that Jesus was black! 9/11 didn’t happen! Muslims are [insert your favourite Islamic threat here]. Someone invented an engine that runs on urine but Big Oil is suppressing it! Patriarchy is simultaneously promoting nude imagery to degrade women, and banning nude imagery to prevent female empowerment (depending which type of feminist you are).

In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins points out that 95% of people simply adopt the religion of their parents. He doesn’t point out though that it works the other way too. Once most people disbelieve in any god, so will their children. Humans are herd animals, and once atheist beliefs become dominant, the majority will quickly decide to be atheists. We appear to have reached that tipping point in the UK. There are additional incentives to adopt an atheist viewpoint: many on the far-right now use atheism as a stick with which to beat Muslims. I suspect atheist Nazis once used a similar tactic to attack Jews. Hence, it’s premature to celebrate the ascent of atheism as a sign that reason is also on the rise; on the contrary, it appears that reason is going through a particularly bad patch right now.

So Dawkins and his militant atheists have declared war on the wrong target. Religion has been in long-term decline for centuries, without their help. The decline has accelerated in recent decades as ideas have spread more quickly. But religious ideas have just morphed into new forms, the most dangerous of which are widespread within parts of academia, and on the liberal left, and are thus fashionable. Science denial has updated itself, and is alive and well. It’s fun – and easy – to attack creationism, but this misses the point. Creationism is a hangover of ancient, dying belief systems. It’s far harder, and much braver to take on the new dogmas.

Just like religion of old, the new dogmas are highly intolerant of heresy. Ask a fundamentalist why evil exists, and the (non-)explanation is: the Devil. People who would laugh at the invocation of Satan will happily invoke modern satans. I’ve seen “skeptics” invoke a modern devil, the Patriarchy (“the” is optional) to explain away differences between male and female behaviours that already have perfectly strong explanations in evolutionary biology and genetics. Today, it is heresy to suggest that “outdated gender stereotypes” are the result of evolution. “Biological determinism” (a term created by feminists to attack biological science that contradicts feminist dogma) is sneered at by postmodern fundamentalists, just as evolution is dismissed as nonsense by religious fundamentalists.

This now means that any attempt to explain human behaviour via evolution is attacked by many “liberals”. Just as creationists once claimed that humans are fundamentally different from the other animals, so now do many on the secular left. The academic “gender expert” who denies “biological determinism” is taking a creationist position that’s been updated for the 21st century. Both belief sets assume that we have some kind of essence (or perhaps soul) that can be separated from our physical self. That we can deny our underlying nature by some form of magical intervention. This new religious ideology underlies modern attempts to suppress human sexuality. Just as Christians claim that monogamy is a natural state of affairs (because God created humans, and he wouldn’t have made us promiscuous, would he?) so the conservative left attacks expressions of human promiscuity from pornography to sex work. Many skeptics laugh at the religious preacher who says that the female form is dangerous and must be covered up. And then applaud the feminist campaigner who uses very different words to say exactly the same thing, with an equal lack of supporting evidence.

How bizarre, and depressing, that science today comes under its strongest attacks from the secular left, not the (comical) religious right. Those who thought that eradicating religion would lead to a rise in reason (me included) have been proven wrong. So this is a call to skeptics and militant atheists: leave the old religions alone – they’re dying, albeit slowly. If you’re feeling brave, take on the dangerous new dogmas instead. You could start by questioning a friend’s belief in the Patriarchy. But be prepared to be burned at the stake.

21 thoughts on “Dumb Atheists”

  1. A very interesting blog however I do not agree with your conclusions about the lack of science. From listening and interacting with my own three children and five grandchildren, they have a very sound understanding of the science of the environment, food and cosmos. Professionals from the EU/Aus/India/China also have a good science understanding.
    My interactions with professionals (engineers, technicians) from America is something quite different. I am continually amazed and shocked at the lack of understanding of basic science. Climate change is something completely new, a bolt out of the blue and the science driving it is a complete mystery and many are in complete denial. They only seem to know just enough to get their own individual task done and no more.

    1. I was also surprised to hear US and UK have similar levels of science literacy. I suspect the measure was a pretty harsh one

  2. Does it really matter??? Whatever set of rules you employ to live your life happily and as a good person surely makes no difference to anybody else? I think most of the time people just need something to believe in (Science/Religion?Conspiracy theory etc) to stop themselves falling asleep and becoming bland sheep…

  3. I agree with your observations about ‘new dogmas’ … but I think you are also the victim of one. The old religions (eg Islam) are still very much alive and kicking. Girls still get lashed and stoned to death for being raped. People like Dawkins highlight these issues, but I see you and others have played the ‘racism’ new dogma to shut doen critisism and they (literally) get away with murder.

    1. You’ve kind-of proved my point. You mix up religion, culture and politics with each other. You cherry-pick a handful of unusual events that “prove” your point. This isn’t reasoned thought – it’s just you trying to justify your hate with “reason” – that’s no different from those who justify their hate using religion.

      1. Thank you for the response. However, I do need to correct you. I don’t hate anyone. What I DO hate are any religions & ideologies that result in repression and cruelty to human beings, and I am happy to do do my (admittedly very small) part to help expose it, break it down and support those who live under it. (And by the way, it’s not just Islam I see as a problem.). If there were no victims it wouldn’t bother me. If you think the majority of women in Muslim countries are not second class citizens, I think you really must not be looking! I don’t call that cherry picking. The truth is that Islam is a medieval religion that probably worked fine in the desert 11th Century, but in its true form is Barbaric. I have Muslim friends & colleagues, but I feel they have compromised the religion to adapt it to Western values & I guess that works for them, and there are probably not too many victims.. But for me, why cling to a religion that says the Koran is the word of God, and then ignore the bits you don’t like? Ultimately, if you base your actions on the demands of a supernatural being rather than the human impact, there will be a problem sooner or later.
        You can’t easily separate religion, culture and politics in an Islamic state, however you can call out barbaric acts that are based on the documented religion.
        I think you are perpetuating a ‘dogma’ that you can’t criticise a religion because it is part of someone’s culture.

        1. The point is, if Islam was the reason for oppression – for example of women in Afghanistan – then women across the Islamic world would be experiencing similar treatment. But they’re not. The treatment of women in African Muslim countries (e.g. Senegal) is a world apart from the treatment of women in Afghanistan. Thus Islam is removed from the equation. So the question is: what are the differences between Afghanistan and Senegal? Both are Muslim; but culturally they are worlds apart. That’s how reason works – not trying to justify your own prejudices by picking examples that fit.

          1. No. It’s the opposite. This is the point. The KORAN makes women second class citizens, orders killing of people who reject the faith etc etc. Whether different cultures choose (thankfully) to ignore some of these things doesn’t change the fact. But you will find the same Koran in every home. Your reasoning is flawed because you assume that all cultures interpret the Koran and other documents with equal rigour. They don’t. Christianity has been reinvented many times since its inception. The typical Western middle class church is a long way from the early church in the Middle east. Fortunately in the UK we generally don’t get too much of this inhumane behaviour, but if you ignore the root problem you should not be too surprised if sometimes people latch on to these things and you get the so-called ‘radicalisation’.

  4. Atheism has nothing to do with science. People are atheists because other people are atheists. In other words people don’t reason themselves into a position, they just go along with the crowd.

    Another factor in atheism’s growth has to do with science,however. As medicine has assured that most in our society live long and mostly healthy lives people haven’t needed the solace that religion provides to those who have suffered bereavement, not once but many times. Burying children was a regular occurrence before immunisation, antibiotics, effective surgery and all the other interventions that have saved so many lives.

    1. The second paragraph is a good point, Catherine, but I completely disagree with the first. Atheism has everything to do with science. I was brought up Christian but reasoned myself to atheism. The starting point is the (to me) self evident point that it is undesirable to “believe a proposition when there is no ground whatsoever for supposing it to be true” (ref Bertrand Russell). Science – the scientific method – is the best proven method to establish any evidence for something to be true. But there is to date no such evidence forthcoming, in fact quite the contrary. All we see is ‘the god of the gaps’ in areas as yet fully understood by science. The day we see some solid evidence from reputable independent scientists in peer reviewed documentation for the existence of God, after life etc I will change my view at least to Agnostic. (I would still have to decide WHICH god to believe in).
      On the contrary, I do believe most people do ‘go along with the crowd’ in their choice of religion. Most people have the same religion as their parents.

    2. Atheism couldn’t have come into mass existence without science. Until we understood how the universe worked (at least, the basics) the religious narrative couldn’t be discredited. But as atheism has become more popular, the “barrier to entry” has been lowered, and now it’s become a fashion statement and a label for people to adopt. Anyone can be an atheist, but not every atheist can explain why religion is wrong.

  5. Interesting post, and can perhaps be summed up as “increase in atheism does not bring reduction in number of morons” shock! Couple of points:

    My recollection (unverified) is that many Nazis had a strange belief system rooted in German and Norse philosophy (a bit like a Mittel-Europa version of Oral Roberts University), which could be used to attack Jews (among others).
    It would be odd indeed if differences between male and female behaviour could be explained by evolution in all species except one.
    Personally I find the idea that we are stardust/nuclear waste (delete according to preference; it’s the same thing) far more remarkable than any bloke with a big white beard, but maybe that’s just me.
    The definition of science I heard was that any scientific hypothesis could be disproved. It works as a definition.

    1. It is probably true that most people find it easier to believe the story about the bloke with the big white beard. This is how religion came about in the first place. It helps to deal with the cognitive dissonance in our brains when things happen. However, I think that in the 21st Century we really don’t need to believe in magic any more…

      BTW Your definition of Science is dodgy … but I assume (hope) it was tongue-in-cheek!

        1. Science is a system of acquiring and organising knowledge, using the Scientific Method, with the object of providing reliable models of the Universe.

          We define the Scientific Method as the process of Observation, Hypothesis, Prediction, Experimentation & Conclusion.

          So a hypothesis is used to generate a prediction that is then tested by experiment. If the prediction is not demonstrated you are back to square one. if it IS demonstrated the hypothesis holds until someone comes along with a better idea. That way, by increments, human knowledge develops and the model improves.

  6. There is a strong anti-science current in the UK, at least at universities. I studied a stem subject, but I was flatmates with humanities students. Now I didn’t expect them to be able to balance chemistry equations, or derive the Lorentz transformations. I did expect them to know something about the sciences.

    Alas their lack of knownlege didn’t stop them discussing vacinations, homeopathy, and other medical issues. I tried to keep quiet, I tried my hardest, but in the end I had to say something. So rather meekly I tried to bring a bit of actual science into the conversation.

    Now it wasn’t the hostility that surprised me, though I wasn’t particularly aggressive with my agruments. It was, the best word I can use, was the pride they took in their lack of knownlege. As if knowing sod all about the sciences was not a sign of ignorance, but some sort of achievement.

    You just didn’t see the reverse, students on science courses had interests outside sciences. They read philosophy, had an interest in books, in cinema, studied languages, painted, or were part of drama groups. No-one thought that knowing nothing about a subject was something to be proud of, or gave them the authority to talk about it.

    1. It seems the Humanities have become a refuge for people who despise science, or simply don’t have the faculties to understand it. Gail Dines is a good example: a “Professor of Women’s Studies” who uses her position to campaign against pornography, and is regularly caught lying. No science professor would last 5 minutes but she’s been doing this for 20 years. http://www.ministryoftruth.me.uk/2014/04/10/gail-dines-short-on-facts-crap-figures/

  7. I’m confused as to why you needed to bring up Patriarchy in an article about atheism? Surely your point could’ve been made without it?

    And also your understanding of Patriarchy is very strange. Any feminist will tell you that Patriarchy is a social system set up to benefit men over women. I know some feminists argue against “biology determinism” because of the way it has been used in the past to explain why it is OK to discriminate against women. I personally don’t see anything wrong with that because even though both men and women are biologically different and this is something no one can deny, it is important that we don’t focus on that but rather on the fact that both women and men are capable of the same levels of intelligence and emotional expression. I suppose it’s simply a feminist attempt to stop looking at the past and start looking towards building a better future.

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