11 April 2013

Who can we count amongst us?

I think that people like myself are the exception to the rule. I was raised in the church, deconverted, eventually made my way to atheism, and have embraced a good deal of anti-theism. I'm interested in religion and its effects on society; I want to advance humanism and do what I can to reduce the influence of religion on our culture, and I'm involved in the public forum.

But I also realize that the vast majority of people, regardless of whether they are inclined to believe in some sort of God or not, simply don't care that much about religion. I remember hearing somewhere, in reference to the large percentage of non-believers in Sweden, the term apatheism. Sure, some people might be more inclined to say God doesn't exist, while others might be more inclined to say that some sort of God does. But in people's day to day lives, it's completely irrelevant. They live accordingly to what are essentially humanist values, and the question of God's existence never really enters their concern aside from perhaps the occasional philosophical chat with friends.

I was thinking about this in light of a panel I caught on CNN not too long ago that included William Lane Craig and TJ Kirk, a.k.a. "The Amazing Atheist" (video below). It was agreed upon by all that the rise in non-belief wasn't necessarily a rise in atheism and that while atheism has been on the rise over, say, the last decade or so, Craig claims that it's plateaued. I'm not sure what survey he's referring to. He might mean this one, but that doesn't say anything about atheism, and Hemant Mehta rightly shows that it's far too soon to say that non-belief is plateauing.

In any case, the conversation got me to wondering what I would really count as a victory, and I think I'm more than happy to lump the vast majority of the "nones" in with atheists like myself. I've often said on this blog that the only thing worse for religion than a God who probably doesn't exist is a God who might as well not exist. So sure, there are those who consider themselves deists, patheists, or simply agnostics who are inclined to one side or another on the existence of God but don't hold a strong conviction either way. In all cases, such people don't live their lives as though God is watching. They don't pray, they don't go to church, they don't follow some religious doctrine or creed, nor do they have any sort of holy book.

Isn't that the more likely and, frankly, equally desirable scenario – that there won't be some uprising of atheism that overtakes culture, but that belief in God will just slip further and further into irrelevance?

It's interesting that in his debates on the grounding of moral values, Craig begins by conceding that the debate isn't about whether a non-believer can be a good person. He says, "The question is not: Must we believe in God in order to live moral lives? There is no reason to think that atheists and theists alike may not live what we normally characterize as good and decent lives." I think that's a pretty powerful concession; it's essentially conceding that God's place in the moral conversation is academic and philosophical rather than pragmatic. And if you don't need to believe in God to live a "good and decent" life, then who cares whether God exists?


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