Afternoon InquisitionReligionSkepticism

Afternoon Inquisition 1.8

An offhand exchange with Skepchick reader and frequent commenter James Fox, along with Rebecca’s Travolta Tragedy thread, got me thinking about time lines and results for rationalist movements.

Many of us here spend a lot of time promoting skepticism in the hopes that good critical thinking skills will help people stay safe from scams, pseudoscience, ineffective alternative medicines, and any dangers to which irrational thinking (or zero thinking) can lead. And though we don’t really have deadlines or time lines for success, often we see results fairly quickly — the bereaved parent eschewing psychics after learning about cold reading and abysmal accuracy rates; regular people standing up so religious myths aren’t taught in science classes; even popular actresses speaking out in favor of scientifically sound vaccines when many of her peers seem to be getting dumber.

We may or may not be the directly responsible for those things, but we see victories in them nonetheless. Hope for those types of outcomes are why rationalists act in the first place. They are why we even bother.

However, some battles are much bigger and victories take longer to attain. It may even seem like the battles will never be won.

For example, where we may not be anti-religious per se, it’s difficult to instill a wholly rational mindset in our religious friends and neighbors. It’s difficult enough that doing so can be seen as a Sisyphean boulder to the skeptical activist; a task worth toiling over, but one that will never end.

But is it? Will we ever get the boulder to the top of the hill and have it stay there?

Will there ever be a complete integration of rational thinking into religious circles? Assuming continued success of rationalist movements, what will be the fate of religion, and how will its story play out?

Speculate about time frames, if you’d like. Also, feel free to speculate about the fate of religion assuming failures of rationalist movements.

Sam Ogden

Sam Ogden is a writer, beach bum, and songwriter living in Houston, Texas, but he may be found scratching himself at many points across the globe. Follow him on Twitter @SamOgden

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  1. I know this isn’t really the question but I doubt anyone is capable of completely rational thinking. I think we all need a bit of woo just to get by; some more than others.

  2. Feh. As soon as they get an orbital elevator working, I am out of here. I’ll go live on a satellite, and let the fundies have the surface. With some start-up capital, we could put together an asteroid mining operation.

  3. Religon will exsist in some form as long as Humans exsists.

    2050. Scientology and LDS overtake Christianity as major religions

    2051. First Scientologist US President.

    2052. “Fair Game” becomes official US Policy. First Burning of Heritics, L Ron Hubbard Monument replaces Lincoln Monument.

    2053. Puerto Rico’s GDP over takes mainland US and it declares independence

  4. I don’t think rationalism will ever permeate western religions simply because the vast majority of the individuals who discover rationalism leave their religious circle. In my opinion, due to the success of freedom of speech on the internet, religion is all but doomed in the western world. I suspect that in the next 2 generations christianity in the US will diminish to a few secluded cults of maybe a few thousand. Maybe I’m an optimist, but I think it’s an inevitability.

    However, superstition and unwarranted dogma will most likely always be with us in some form. So, keep reminding the world that nothing is sacrosact.

  5. I guess that if current trends continue, God will move farther and farther away. He used to be everywhere, creating magic, then he was in his throne room in the sky, now he’s outside the universe. Eventually the anthropomorphic god will fade from view entirely.

    Except in Alabama.

  6. I think there is something in human nature that makes us WANT to believe. I think fear of death, hope for an afterlife and our fantastic ability to delude ourselves means that we will always have some form of religion. It may become the minority though. That would be nice. But religion also makes money. So there will always be people who will try to promote it.

  7. I think it boils down to a simple matter of neural wiring. How do we learn how to function in society as children? We take the lessons, both overt and suble, from our parents or other figures and write them into our own life narriative. We are inseparably subjective creatures, so when we look at any lesson, or happening, or instance, we will inevitably suffer from various ‘built in’ biases, such as the conformation bias, the ego bias… etc.

    Religion in particular is a non-rational activity, because it actively allows people to take things that may have a clearer, or ‘rational’ explination, and it validates alternative explinations, especially ones that appeal to our emotional side.

    Frankly, I think that, unless we propose a radical restructuring of every aspect of our society, making us into Vulcans and suppressing every emotional thought and non-rational explanation, then there will always be people that are happier listening to the crazies.

  8. I don’t see religion being supplanted by rational thinking for the foreseeable future. People being what they are, they respond to the religious message that they are special and going to get an eternity of goodies if they toe the religious line. People like to feel special, to be chosen above others that to be chosen by God, who by definition is above everything, is a powerful motivator. They also like the feeling of security the comes from knowing that after a lifetime of having to work their butts off to get by, they’ll be taken care of in the great retirement home of the afterlife.

  9. There is one thing that gives me confidence in the future and makes me think that the situation may truly improve.

    The Internet.

    It is way too early to be certain, and the opposite of what I hope for may come about, but I think the Internet is a game-changer. Information (good and bad) is so much easier to get to now, and I think that most people will know enough to accept the good and reject the bad. At least, I hope so.

    This is based on my own personal experience. I would still be very religeous were it not for the information that I have received, and could only have received from the Internet. (talk origins, PZ, etc., etc.)

    This has the potential to be bigger than the printing press (which was huge).

  10. Crystal ball, hmm? There seems to be a correlation between quality of life and rationalism. Both are probably linked by access to educational materials. So, in some StarTrek-y egalitarian future where everyone lives well and has easy access to the sum total of all knowledge and wisdom, it might be possible for the non-religious to greatly outnumber the religious. There will always be a few holdouts who will hijack starships and try to find Sha Ka Ree, though.

  11. I agree with @russellsugden

    Religon will exist in some form as long as Humans exists. The human brain seems to be wired to believe in woo. Religion has always cropped up when people are left to their own devices.

    I remember reading someplace recently that religion may even serve an evolutionary benefit. The sort of collective thinking that religion focuses gives the sort of tribal cohesion necessary for humans to cooperate well enough to make agriculture possible. The theory is untestable, but I like it.

  12. Until we find a way to make ourselves immortal, we will always have religion. Religion is at it’s core a way to explain and deal with…death. I confess that I’ve sometimes wished I could actually believe in a god and or afterlife because it would make my mortality a lot less scary.

    Inclusion of rationalism and religion….I dunno. When it’s not a breeding ground for woo, Unitarians are pretty reasonable and rational. They certainly set an example I wish a lot more churches would follow.

  13. @Athos:

    What? You’re not immortal? Damn it. Who let Athos on this site.

    Seriously, I was going to mention a fate for religion similar to the Unitarians. Sort of a religion-without-divinity type arrangment, where the social, community, and support elements are present, but not all the magic of conventional religions.

    Joel Osteen’s church, is rumored to be headed in that direction. God and Jesus are still the headliners at this point, but by all accounts, their importance is fading among the congregation in favor of the “community”.

  14. @Sam Ogden: I’m on regeneration number 7ish these days…. Felt like I needed a walker after finding out that kids born in ’91 can buy cigarettes now.

    But you bring up an interesting point and that reminds me of a story here in Denver that cropped u a while ago about a group called Red Door

  15. So much of what religion has to offer involves community and social support. Much of this social support is generally a good and positive thing and only tends to be exclusive in the more conservative denominations. I know a number of people who attend our local Episcopal Church because they like the aesthetic and community but have no real religious beliefs.

    Religion makes people happy, supports social connections and provides activity for kids, teens and seniors. My local Skeptic’s in the Pub meet ups don’t even come close. Many churches have structures that allow altruistic activities and a sense of involvement and belonging.

    Most people do not want to ask difficult intellectual or philosophical questions of themselves let alone someone else. So for these reasons and other that have been mentioned I think religion will have lots of traction well into the future. And if economic and political problem become more endemic the general rend of most uneducated or undereducated folk is to fall back to religious default settings.

    And I agree with RoaldFalcon about the internet. I think having more information/evidence and discussion broadly available is likely to blunt the influence of religion at a minimum.

  16. Maybe mainstream religions will change or die out as it seems that the “God of the gaps” is becoming increasingly smaller as science continues to find better explanations. Of course, unless first cause is established religion will always have something to fall back on. It also seems as if the religious see the writing on the wall as they try to use science and pseudoscience to support their belief systems.

    I cannot hold out hope for a rational world, however, because I think that people will continue to find false causations and judge subjective and random occurrences (thinking of someone and then they call) as appropriate evidence for supernatural phenomena.

  17. @RoaldFalcon and @James Fox: I figure that the Internet will work like a massive solar flare, blasting away the atmosphere of picky doctrinal differences, while leaving the rocky core of basic supernaturalism.

    As it becomes easier for folks to see how many different faiths that are out there, they’ll avoid cognitive dissonance by ignoring the differences and focusing on the aspects that they share. Witness the recent story that said some percentage of Christians believe that everyone can go to heaven, regardless of their beliefs.

    Eventually, we’ll wind up with one very fuzzy, inclusive deism, with some slight regional variations. Meanwhile, those of us who call the whole thing bollocks will be busy colonizing the solar system.

  18. @Oskar Kennedy (LBB): Universalism does tend to be a weigh station between strong-belief and non-belief.

    But if in the midst of their internet self enlightenment the religious don’t notice that religions are all similar social constructs created to answer preindustrial and prescientific questions and there is absolutely no evidence for anything supernatural and no rational reason to maintain these beliefs then it will be hard to imagine people wont relapse into strong-beliefs if social or personal situations warrant or influence.

  19. Will there ever be a complete integration of rational thinking into religious circles?

    Actually, it scares me to say that I think the younger generations of religious are just as fervent if not more so than generations before. As I type this two things come to mind: first, the “horror” docudrama “Jesus Camp,” and secondly, my memories of the Catholic Popefest World Youth Day. I went in 2002. One half million Catholics aged 13 to 35- laid back and cool, right? Nada. I watched these young hip Jesus freaks cuss each other out because on the day of the Pope Shindig people were squatting in other peoples spots, stealing unused trash boxes for shade, and almost trampled an injured girl in a vain attempt to get a glimpse of a dude in a funny hat.

    I’m gonna go out on a limb and say “no” to part 1 of Sam’s AI.

    Assuming continued success of rationalist movements, what will be the fate of religion, and how will its story play out?
    I’d like to think it shouldn’t make a difference how one’s religion shapes one’s life purpose. My husband is a huge fan of J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien was a very spiritual man, but criticized writers like C.S. Lewis for their blatant Christian undertones in their novels. Unfortunately, not a lot of people feel that way, and tend to endorse writers/products/speakers/themes that endorse their particular religion, and are willing to raise a stink about other things that they don’t agree with. It seems like any movie that isn’t Narnia is boycotted by some group with some agenda (Golden Compass, DaVinci Codes, the Potter man, etc.) I think we’re a long way off from rational thinkers taking over The Catholic League, The Discovery Institute, The American Family Association, Focus on The Family, and Operation Rescue. These groups thrive on irrationality. Irrationality feeds the evil bellies of these curs.
    I wouldn’t mind a happy ending though, something like: “And so, with the evil wizard Religionot0 slayed by the frail manchild Rationalitolio, all was peaceful and calm in The Land. The forest animals cheered and the now liberated peasants rejoiced. Rationalitolio married the hottie Princess Chicklet and they had tons of little skeptics. And we all lived happily ever after.” I don’t think it will happen in my lifetime.

    But I was also wrong that Virginia could become a blue state-and we put Obama in the White House. So go figure. :D
    Have a great day!

  20. Christian beliefs are as nutty as the alien Scientology beliefs- I mean come on- about a snake making a lady eating an apple causing us to be sinful and a guy on a cross making it better and all that- why don’t they question that when an xian kid dies?? I’m no scientology fan but it’s a shame this boy’s death had to be blown up into a religious debate..

  21. Religiosity in America goes in roughly 35 year cycles. This latest resurgence in rationality and secularism fits right into that pattern. (The 1970s may have had ludicrous fashions, but it was overall a very secular and tolerant age. The 60s, OTOH, gave us Jesus freaks, Jack Chick, and The Cross and the Switchblade.)

    Stupid, brutal pointless wars have a way of bringing out the rationalist strains in a society — Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club talks about the rise of secularism and freethought in the wake of the Civil War. The aftermath of the Great War brought waves of secularism across the globe in its wake, although those were quickly broken by the Depression. WWII seemed to have cured Western Europe of its centuries-long addiction to war and religion for good (although I’m keeping my fingers crossed in any case).

    And I think when the history of the early 21st century is written, the New Atheism will be widely seen as a reaction to the GWOT, and not a sea-change in human society. It is, as wars go, not a particularly bloody one, but it is certainly a colossally stupid and pointless one. So value these days, and learn and preserve as much as you can.

    In any case, no, I don’t think that we’ve seen the last of religiosity. We may someday see the last of Christian and Islamic fundamentalism, but there’s plenty of nutballs waiting in the wings.

  22. I’m going to put on my wild-hypothesis hat here. I think the religious tendency is a result of our brain’s function and reward system. Religions seem to stem from the various systems of explanation for the world around us that jive with our in-born system of logic (which is flawed) that doesn’t jive with rational and critical thinking, which must be learned. And we don’t like not knowing, fear of the unknwon is unpleasant, and we have to have some sort of satisfying answer because a weak bit of plop (from a weak, very personal perspective) will leave you with cognitive dissonance, so we think big in our explanations. So, as long as we have undereducated people, we’ll have the sort of cranks who deny evolution or the age of the earth. But no amount of education will fill in all the gaps, so, there will always be gods in the gaps, but growing acceptance of science and critical thinking can keep the gods from reaching out of the gaps, and keep those gaps shrinking. And you rarely win over the people on the far ends, but you can win over those in the middle, or shape the way the next generation grows up, and just wait for this one to die (I fear increasing life spans might be a bit of a drag on social change, politics still seems steeped in the language and ideas of the cold war, or even WW2 to me).

  23. Across the longest possible timescales, I think religion as we know it will eat it-assuming of course that the sensation of group unity some people theorize pays the adaptive bill for faith can’t be adequately replaced by sensation of global unity brought about by trade, travel, communications, and more stories of other people…which I personally think is a body more than up to the task. The facts that don’t jive with religion aren’t historical nuisances that can be buried-they seem to be pretty well interwoven with reality, and the case just keeps getting stronger generation after generation.

    Insofar as the tide of facts gets bigger, and people can learn, religion will fade. Not before another century or two of wrathful death paroxysms though.

  24. “I mean come on- about a snake making a lady eating an apple causing us to be sinful”

    I think these things are all supposed to be metaphors, but people take them literally. The garden of eden is the innocence of childhood and the ejection from eden is the coming of age – the movement from childhood innocence into adulthood (a snake and a women – could they make it any clearer?).

    I think there a possible compatibility between science and religion to be found in the mystery that underlies existence. Science provides a narrative (big bang -> cooling and mass ecretion -> star formation -> primordial soup -> Paris Hilton) along with the laws (E=mc^2, F=ma, etc), but it really can’t explain the mystery of existence (why does the universe exist at all?).

    Religions provide an excuse to go to Church and all the community that goes along with that. At their best they do a lot of good in the world. On average, religous people tend to be more charitable than secular people.

    If skeptics want to be as successful as religion in terms of public acceptance, they need to create a framework that offers the same sort of comfort and community that people find in religious fellowship.

    12 Step programs are a possible bridge. In a 12 step program you get to make up your own God or “higher power” to your own specifications. Nobody dictates the characteristics of that higher power other than to suggest that it be a “loving God”. For the fellowship that I attend, I decided my higher power must be compatible with the known laws of the universe and not conflict with my skeptical tendencies that have served me so well in my journey out of darkness.


  25. While I’ve always believed that education is the ultimate key to leaving religion behind. It is also important to remember that we are talking about a business. In the same manner that oil and coal companies use media to protect their profits, so goes the major religions.

    The really scary part is that our world is quickly returning to that point in history were almost all conflict is religious conflict. Except with bigger and better weapons. And there is no down side for the religious. Whatever the outcome they honestly believe they win.

    The real question may end up being, will rationality survive when religion decides to prove it’s ultimate point.

  26. Will there ever be a complete integration of rational thinking into religious circles? Assuming continued success of rationalist movements, what will be the fate of religion, and how will its story play out?

    I think if history is any indication that religion will always be the way the majority people approach the world. Whether they will integrate rational thinking, sure but only in some sects. The longer humans live here on this orb we create more and more religions. This will probably hold unless some evolutionary change happens to our brains.
    I lean to thinking that as the rationalist movement grows, you are more likely to see serious backlashes from religion then an welcoming of ideas. It would be interesting to know what percent of the population are rationalist and more importantly what is the rate of change of that percentage? Can we outbreed the religious? Doubtful. Can you “convert” enough to change the percentage? Isn’t true people get more religious as the age? Do you focus just on the youth?
    As the rationalist movement grows does it splinter as religions have?
    Crap here I am again with nothing but questions. Back to work…


  27. @jbell2r:
    “It is also important to remember that we are talking about a business. In the same manner that oil and coal companies use media to protect their profits, so goes the major religions.”

    Exactly. Unfortunately, there is a mental divide (fostered by the religious organizations) in many people’s minds that prevents them from seeing this very point. I’ve often thought that organized Christianity is the longest running scam in history.

  28. Before last week I would have said that we would always be a small minority and that religion would always be strong. Then I started reading about Sweden and Denmark in the excellent book “Society without god.” I beleive that as society improves religion will become weaker. When citizens feels secure and in control of their lives religion will become weaker. My guess is that we are at least a century away here in America.

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