Hardly a day goes by without some pundit bemoaning the decline in religious faith. We are told that great evils will inevitably befall mankind unless we all believe in imaginary super-beings. Of course, these pundits always assume a priori that the particular flavor of religion they happen to favor is true. Absent that assumption, their hand wringing boils down to the argument that we must all somehow force ourselves to believe in God whether that belief seems rational to us or not. Otherwise, we won’t be happy, and humanity won’t flourish.
An example penned by Dennis Prager entitled Secular Conservatives Think America Can Survive the Death of God that appeared recently at National Review Online is typical of the genre. Noting that even conservative intellectuals are becoming increasingly secular, he writes that,
They don’t seem to understand that the only solution to many, perhaps most, of the social problems ailing America and the West is some expression of Judeo-Christian religion.
When, after the fall of the Roman Empire, the West embraced Christianity as a faith superior to all others, as its founder was the Son of God, the West went on to create modern civilization, and then went out and conquered most of the known world.
The truths America has taught the world, of an inherent human dignity and worth, and inviolable human rights, are traceable to a Christianity that teaches that every person is a child of God.
Today, however, with Christianity virtually dead in Europe and slowly dying in America, Western culture grows debased and decadent, and Western civilization is in visible decline.
Both pundits draw attention to a consequence of the decline of traditional religions that is less a figment of their imaginations; the rise of secular religions to fill the ensuing vacuum. The examples typically cited include Nazism and Communism. There does seem to be some innate feature of human behavior that predisposes us to adopt such myths, whether of the spiritual or secular type. It is most unlikely that it comes in the form of a “belief in God” or “religion” gene. It would be very difficult to explain how anything of the sort could pop into existence via natural selection. It seems reasonable, however, that less specialized and more plausible behavioral traits could account for the same phenomenon. Which begs the question, “So what?”
Pundits like Prager and Buchanan are putting the cart before the horse. Before one touts the advantages of one brand of religion or another, isn’t it first expedient to consider the question of whether it is true? If not, then what is being suggested is that mankind can’t handle the truth. We must be encouraged to believe in a pack of lies for our own good. And whatever version of “Judeo-Christian religion” one happens to be peddling, it is, in fact, a pack of lies. The fact that it is a pack of lies, and obviously a pack of lies, explains, among other things, the increasingly secular tone of conservative pundits so deplored by Buchanan and Prager.
It is hard to understand how anyone who uses his brain as something other than a convenient stuffing for his skull can still take traditional religions seriously. The response of the remaining true believers to the so-called New Atheists is telling in itself. Generally, they don’t even attempt to refute their arguments. Instead, they resort to ad hominem attacks. The New Atheists are too aggressive, they have bad manners, they’re just fanatics themselves, etc. They are not arguing against the “real God,” who, we are told, is not an object, a subject, or a thing ever imagined by sane human beings, but some kind of an entity perched so high up on a shelf that profane atheists can never reach Him. All this spares the faithful from making fools of themselves with ludicrous mental flip flops to explain the numerous contradictions in their holy books, tortured explanations of why it’s reasonable to assume the “intelligent design” of something less complicated by simply assuming the existence of something vastly more complicated, and implausible yarns about how an infinitely powerful super-being can be both terribly offended by the paltry sins committed by creatures far more inferior to Him than microbes are to us, and at the same time incapable of just stepping out of the clouds for once and giving us all a straightforward explanation of what, exactly, he wants from us.
In short, Prager and Buchanan would have us somehow force ourselves, perhaps with the aid of brainwashing and judicious use of mind-altering drugs, to believe implausible nonsense, in order to avoid “bad” consequences. One can’t dismiss this suggestion out of hand. Our species is a great deal less intelligent than many of us seem to think. We use our vaunted reason to satisfy whims we take for noble causes, without ever bothering to consider why those whims exist, or what “function” they serve. Some of them apparently predispose us to embrace ideological constructs that correspond to spiritual or secular religions. If we use human life as a metric, P&B would be right to claim that traditional spiritual religions have been less “bad” than modern secular ones, costing only tens of millions of lives via religious wars, massacres of infidels, etc., whereas the modern secular religion of Communism cost, in round numbers, 100 million lives, and in a relatively short time, all by itself. Communism was also “bad” to the extent that we value human intelligence, tending to selectively annihilate the brightest portions of the population in those countries where it prevailed. There can be little doubt that this “bad” tendency substantially reduced the average IQ in nations like Cambodia and the Soviet Union, resulting in what one might call their self-decapitation. Based on such metrics, Prager and Buchanan may have a point when they suggest that traditional religions are “better,” to the extent that one realizes that one is merely comparing one disaster to another.
Can we completely avoid the bad consequences of believing the bogus “truths” of religions, whether spiritual or secular? There seems to be little reason for optimism on that score. The demise of traditional religions has not led to much in the way of rational self-understanding. Instead, as noted above, secular religions have arisen to fill the void. Their ideological myths have often trumped reason in cases where there has been a serious confrontation between the two, occasionally resulting in the bowdlerization of whole branches of the sciences. The Blank Slate debacle was the most spectacular example, but there have been others. As belief in traditional religions has faded, we have gained little in the way of self-knowledge in their wake. On the contrary, our species seems bitterly determined to avoid that knowledge. Perhaps our best course really would be to start looking for a path back inside the “Matrix,” as Prager and Buchanan suggest.
All I can say is that, speaking as an individual, I don’t plan to take that path myself. I has always seemed self-evident to me that, whatever our goals and aspirations happen to be, we are more likely to reach them if we base our actions on an accurate understanding of reality rather than myths, on truth rather than falsehood. A rather fundamental class of truths are those that concern, among other things, where those goals and aspirations came from to begin with. These are the truths about human behavior; why we want what we want, why we act the way we do, why we are moral beings, why we pursue what we imagine to be noble causes. I believe that the source of all these truths, the “root cause” of all these behaviors, is to be found in our evolutionary history. The “root cause” we seek is natural selection. That fact may seem inglorious or demeaning to those who lack imagination, but it remains a fact for all that. Perhaps, after we sacrifice a few more tens of millions in the process of chasing paradise, we will finally start to appreciate its implications. I think we will all be better off if we do.