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.