[LINK] The Unbelievers: Lawrence Krauss and Richard Dawkins Team Up Against Religion

post by shminux · 2013-04-30T18:11:13.901Z · score: 1 (15 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 25 comments


  Do you foresee a time when the conversation will be over?

I am looking forward to watching this documentary for entertainment purposes, but I don't expect it to affect people's opinions about religion much.

I have no doubt that both Krauss and Dawkins are very bright and insightful people. However, here is a piece of an interview I found somewhat naive:

Do you foresee a time when the conversation will be over?

LK: I think it’s frustrating. When I was a kid in the ’60s, I was sure that by now there would be no religion. In a way it’s very surprising that there are these momentary resurgences. I think it’s going to be a long road.

RD: If you look at the broad sweep of history, then clearly we’re on the winning side. I think things are moving in the right direction, probably not as fast as I would like to see.

Both of them seem to tacitly assume that religion ought to eventually yield to scientific progress and such. While this may be the overall trend in the West, or at least in the US, it has not necessarily been so elsewhere. I am somewhat surprised that the two rather bright guys seem to have these rose-colored glasses on.

The current and ex-Communist states are the most stark example. In the Soviet Union religion was marginalized for some 70 years, two generations grew up in the environment of state atheism, yet soon after the restrictions were relaxed, the Church has regained almost all of the lost ground. The situation was similar in the rest of the ex-Warsaw bloc (with less time under mandated atheism), and even in China, where the equilibrium was restored after the Cultural Revolution. The standard argument for this happening is "but Communism was basically a religion by another name", what with the various Cults of Personality and the beliefs in the One True Path.

This argument seems convincing on the surface, but consider a similar situation transplanted into a US setting. Suppose that, for whatever reason, after the Civil war religion was abolished all across the country together with slavery. Overtly religious activities are frowned upon and marginalized by the authorities. The community organizations like the Y, the Salvation Army, the Scouts and others do all the same work, only without mentioning God, or maybe replacing it with some secular symbol, like the Motherland/Fatherland/Abe Lincoln/Capitalism/Free Enterprise, whichever. The movie The Invention of Lying alluded to a similar setup.

Furthermore, imagine your parents and grandparents not attending any church, not taking you to the Sunday school to learn about Christ dying for your sins. They are still fervently patriotic and proud of the great achievements of your country, they wave the Flag and they are distrustful of the world outside it, but none of it has religious overtones. No one bothered to add "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance. All the regular prejudices are still in place, like racism, homophobia (only without any religious references), misogyny etc. Sex education is in the same awful state. Again, this is how things were or still are in the former Eastern Bloc countries, so it's not much of a stretch. People still have their superstitions, like Friday 13, black cats, umbrellas and what not.

Science is respected, the Darwin's theory of evolution is accepted as much as the Newton's theory of gravitation and taught at school without any controversy. No Creationism. No one pays much attention to promoting atheism, because it's the obvious default position. No explicit training in Rationality beyond the usual lousy Critical Thinking courses. There are still churches, mosques, synagogues and temples, but they are mostly cultural objects, though some are active, enough to satisfy the needs of the tiny minority of believers. 

A setup like that would be a dream come true for Dawkins and Co., wouldn't it? Then something bad happens. Say, the Great Depression all over again, or worse. The federal government loses all credibility and collapses, and the state governments follow suit (maybe there was some big conspiracy uncovered, or something). No social safety net, no Medicare, no jobs. Ordinary people barely scrape by to survive. What would you expect to happen religion-wise? Someone like Dawkins would probably anticipate a surge in observance, since "there are no atheists in foxholes", followed by a relaxation to the default state once things improve again, as they usually do. 

Instead, what is likely to happen, if the experience of other countries is any indication, is the proliferation of religious beliefs and institutions, maybe institutionalizing of one dominant religion, as the leaders look for something to unite the people. And this elevated status of religion becomes the new status quo. It is not clear which way it goes from there, but there is certainly no guarantee that Atheism ought to win out, no more than there is a guarantee that Free Enterprise wins out, or that the Dictatorship of the Proletariat is the future.

This view might be overly pessimistic, if you are an atheist, and there might be some historical examples to the contrary, but I am certainly not convinced that religion will eventually fade away.



Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by John_Maxwell (John_Maxwell_IV) · 2013-05-01T08:20:31.200Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

It's well-known that religious people reproduce more. I worry that if religious deconversion efforts succeed, they'll lead the more sensible religious people to abandon their religion and become humanist hipster types, leaving the babymaking to the ones who are on average genetically more prone to dismiss uncomfortable thoughts. (I'm the oldest of 6 children. My parents prayed for a while and decided God wanted them to keep having more even after the first three.)

Think about all the humanist hipster types of previous eras, or the conscientious, altruistic couples who chose not to have kids so they could do their part to fight overpopulation. (Which isn't looking like much of a problem these days.) Isn't it a shame that the descendants of those people aren't with us?

What exactly is the case for deconverting people from religion, anyway? It doesn't particularly bother me to reserve the word "marriage" for heterosexual unions. Religious people are happier--my current characterization of Christianity is "a reasonably effective form of self-help that requires you to believe some nutty stuff". "hbd chick" has an entire thesis that touches on how Christianity changed Europe by forbidding cousin marriage, increasing genetic diversity and decreasing tribalistic attitudes; monogamous marriage may also have been key to the West's success. (Seems pretty clear that the West did something right, and if it's not broke, don't fix it, right?)

comment by chaosmage · 2013-05-02T14:58:29.275Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Religious people have reproduced more since at least antiquity. Try Rodney Stark's excellent "The Rise of Christianity" for a well-founded argument about how much of a difference a ban on abortion and infanticide can make over dozens of generations. So it seems logical to assume that most atheists who have ever lived have been children of religious parents.

If you decide against having babies, you are effectively outsourcing the production of babies to religious and third-world people.

Babies produced by religious families can be deconverted. Between YouTube and The God Delusion, we're getting a lot better at that lately. Babies produced in the third world need access to educational and economical opportunities, and we're getting a bit better at that, too. In either case, you get someone who's about as likely to contribute relevant insights to the knowledge of the species as your own child would.

comment by Desrtopa · 2013-05-14T13:03:56.770Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

What exactly is the case for deconverting people from religion, anyway?

Raising the sanity waterline?

I think recognizing one's mistakes of reasoning on religion can be good training for the rest of one's life. Look at Luke, for instance.

comment by John_Maxwell (John_Maxwell_IV) · 2013-05-15T03:59:26.384Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Spreading atheism seems like an unusually inefficient way to raise the sanity waterline: people are highly resistant to it and it's more of a group affiliation than a mental toolkit. Spreading rationality (e.g. the concepts listed in EY's sanity waterline essay) and letting people deconvert on their own seems like a better path to me. (Deconverting on your own might make for a better rationality exercise, also.)

comment by Bugmaster · 2013-05-14T19:20:56.259Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I'm not too worried about the reproduction of biological people. What I'd like to promote is the reproduction of good ideas. True, people usually indoctrinate their biological children with their own ideas, but that is not the only vector ideas use to spread themselves.

comment by John_Maxwell (John_Maxwell_IV) · 2013-05-15T03:47:29.208Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Intelligence is something like 0.85 heritable once people reach adulthood: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heritability_of_IQ Good ideas won't solve that.

comment by Bugmaster · 2013-05-15T16:54:57.008Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I wasn't talking about intelligence, but about theism (or lack thereof). I doubt that belief in a particular god is 80% heritable.

comment by knb · 2013-05-01T00:39:51.688Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I agree that they are way too optimistic, I'm surprised Dawkins would be this naive.

The main trend is not so much a movement toward secularism (which would entail a shrinking of fundamentalist groups as well as liberal religious groups), but of liberal religious groups declining and losing members both to secularists and fundamentalist religious people. Also relevant is the fact that fundamentalists have high birthrates, while secularists have very low birthrates.

The main recruiting grounds for atheism are groups like mainstream Protestantism, liberal Catholicism and reform Judaism. These groups are themselves in decline due to a combination of factors: low birth rates, conversion toward more fiery religious groups, and conversion to secularism/atheism. Eventually this hunting ground will be depleted enough that seculars can no longer grow by recruiting them. They will have to raise their birthrates or start converting significant numbers of fundamentalist religious people to grow, and even to sustain their numbers.

comment by gjm · 2013-05-01T08:45:23.408Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Perhaps it's different in the US, but here in the UK most of the ex-Christian atheists I know are ex-evangelicals.

Caveat 1: It should be said that what's called evangelicalism in the UK is generally saner than what's called evangelicalism in the US.

Caveat 2: I'm one of them, so there's an obvious sampling bias.

I think maybe there are two different processes going on: gradual drift, where religious people become less seriously religious (and maybe eventually nonreligious) over the course of their lives, and more sudden conversion, where they explicitly think things through and decide to change their position. ("More sudden" can still mean "over a few years".) The first mostly produces atheists out of casually religious people (because they're less firmly committed to a particular position and can drift more easily) and out of liberally religious people (because the distance to atheism is less). The second mostly produces atheists out of seriously religious people (because they find it more important that their beliefs actually be true, and take more trouble to think about them) and out of conservatively religious people (because their positions are more drastically and obviously wrong). It may also be that there's correlation between being seriously religious and being conservatively religious, e.g. because there's little point in being not-seriously fundamentalist.

comment by chaosmage · 2013-05-02T15:22:21.147Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I agree with your observations and disagree with your conclusion.

Religious fundamentalism is strongly inversely correlated with size of the group. A small religious group will either fail to attract converts (you never hear of those, except if they're Westboro) or grow. As it grows, it gradually reduces its degree of tension with the surrounding society to accommodate the growing range of interest of its more numerous members. It thereby becomes both more mainstream and more boring, which makes it harder to attract converts. So religious groups, after they attain enough size to become mainstream, grow mostly at their own rate of reproduction. If you doubt this, here's a list of relevant literature.

Therefore, the mainstream religious movements of the next centuries, besides the shrinking ones we know, will be some of the ones that are now small, having grown to a size where they can't maintain group cohesion on the oddities that make them distinct. One church that has been making this transition in recent years is the New Apostolic Church. I expect the Jehovah's Witnesses to go the same way soon - they've been de-emphasizing their most characteristic quirks for a while, while maintaining steady growth by telling female adherents to be fruitful and avoid higher education.

comment by ThrustVectoring · 2013-05-02T17:11:42.201Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

There's also the inverse relationship too - as religious groups lose members, they tend to get more extreme beliefs as a group as the more mainstream members leave earlier.

comment by bogus · 2013-04-30T21:56:02.844Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

How would Krauss and Dawkins feel about a non-theistic system of rituals and ethical norms? The persistence of Chinese Confucianism over thousands of years suggests that such a setting is actually stable in the long run. Some people have proposed that "Atheism" should evolve into something like this, calling it "Atheism 2.0" - and what's called "Atheism Plus" is not all that different, being a lean combination of "atheism" (i.e. commitment to a non-theistic cosmology) and humanist ethics.

comment by CronoDAS · 2013-04-30T20:16:00.811Z · score: 3 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Historically, religion has proven very resilient to government suppression; it tends to continue to exist, only underground. Just look at the history of Judaism...

An old Russian joke:

A man is being interrogated by the KGB.
Q) Where were you born?
A) St. Petersburg.
Q) Where do you live now?
A) Leningrad.
Q) Where do you want to die?
A) St. Petersburg.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2013-04-30T21:52:50.581Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Where did you go to school?

comment by buybuydandavis · 2013-05-01T08:09:12.258Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Historically, religion has proven very resilient to government suppression;

And very capable of taking advantage of government oppression.

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2013-04-30T20:07:18.776Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

How do you assess the state of religion in the ex-communist countries?

Certainly religion has regained some ground after communism, but most? I am under the impression the answer to this question varies hugely between countries.

comment by Viliam_Bur · 2013-05-01T07:06:43.687Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Data point: In Slovakia, the religion does not seem so strong as before communism, but the problem is that the balance is only moving in one direction. Step by step, small changes in favor of religion are done, usually when some religious party wins the election. Steps in the opposite direction are never done; they would be strongly opposed by religious people. Religious people simply organize to fight strongly whenever a change against them is proposed; while non-religious people don't organize well when a change for favor of the church is proposed. If this trend will follow for a few decades, it could go too far.

An example of such step is introducing religious education to elementary and high schools. You can get religion to schools, but you can never get it out of schools. (Funny thing, considering that one of the popular slogans in the Velvet Revolution was to "take ideology out of schools". Yeah, we took out Marxism-Leninism... and replaced it with Catholicism. Big success!)

I usually want to avoid conflicts with religious people. But examples like these show me that an agressive opposition is sometimes necessary... otherwise the freedoms of non-believers will simply be taken away slowly, one small step (supposedly not worth fighting over) after another.

But even at this speed, it would take a few decades, maybe a century, to restore the power of religion to the level it had before communism.

comment by davidkatz · 2013-05-04T13:53:35.756Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I'll side with Dawkins and Krauss here. It seems to me inescapable that scientific progress and an ever better understanding of the natural causes of our world will ever tend to push out fables not based on evidence. As long as science will continue coming up with better answers, and as long as these answers (slowly) become known to more people, religions will continue withdrawing their claims from ever more areas, and with that their influence and authority will lessen.

In the last decades we've seen religious authorities the world over (including many Jewish and Muslim authorities) withdraw their claims against evolution, as part of a long cat and mouse game in which religion first lays down divine claims which may not be doubted, and then quietly withdraws those claims in the face of insurmountable evidence.

Historically this also seems to be supported, and not only in the west. While Eastern Europeans continue to give Christianity much respect, there's no denying that the influence of religion and the church has drastically dropped there compared to say, 100 years ago.

Even Eastern Europeans or Russians who go to Church every Sunday increasingly accept naturalistic causes and increasingly consult non religious authorities for their decision making. Where once the priest was the ultimate authority over every aspect of life, for an increasing number of people the priest has authority over matters of church, and many a church going Eastern European or Russian would not seriously consider heeding a priest's advice on which career path they should take, whether they should get a divorce, or who they should vote for.

comment by jmmcd · 2013-05-01T10:08:59.380Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

In the Soviet Union religion was marginalized for some 70 years, two generations grew up in the environment of state atheism, yet soon after the restrictions were relaxed, the Church has regained almost all of the lost ground. The situation was similar in the rest of the ex-Warsaw bloc (with less time under mandated atheism), and even in China, where the equilibrium was restored after the Cultural Revolution. The standard argument [bold added] for this happening is "but Communism was basically a religion by another name", what with the various Cults of Personality and the beliefs in the One True Path.

I don't think that is the strongest argument. I think that in Eastern Europe and China, religion never really went away. People don't change their minds in response to government-mandated atheism. Dawkins is talking about people changing their minds. I think on balance he is right, though the trend is obviously weak.

Whatever trend there is goes along with increasing wealth and education, obviously. The issue to be argued is whether wealth and education will continue to spread and increase, albeit slowly and with backsliding, or the backsliding is enough to prevent any ongoing trend.

comment by Jack · 2013-04-30T21:19:48.224Z · score: 1 (5 votes) · LW · GW

The "historical inevitability" module is adaptive for most, if not all memetic entities of this class.

comment by shminux · 2013-04-30T21:44:44.093Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

Uhh, English, please?

comment by Jack · 2013-04-30T21:56:26.553Z · score: 11 (13 votes) · LW · GW

Cultural evolution selects for belief systems which hold that eventually everyone will see their logic and adopt them.

comment by wanderingsoul · 2013-05-01T09:47:46.429Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Well then LW will be just fine; after all we fit quite snugly into that category

comment by buybuydandavis · 2013-05-01T08:06:40.678Z · score: -1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

RD: If you look at the broad sweep of history, then clearly we’re on the winning side.

Seems terribly myopic to me.

Naturally, it depends on what you mean by religion. If it's believing in a slave master to whom obedience is due, I don't know that Dawkins is any less religious than the Pope.

I'm with Stirner in saying "Our atheists are pious people."

Take notice how a "moral man" behaves, who today often thinks he is through with God and throws off Christianity as a bygone thing. If you ask him whether he has ever doubted that the copulation of brother and sister is incest, that monogamy is the truth of marriage, that filial piety is a sacred duty, then a moral shudder will come over him at the conception of one’s being allowed to touch his sister as wife also, etc. And whence this shudder? Because he believes in those moral commandments. This moral faith is deeply rooted in his breast. Much as he rages against the pious Christians, he himself has nevertheless as thoroughly remained a Christian – to wit, a moral Christian. In the form of morality Christianity holds him a prisoner, and a prisoner under faith. Monogamy is to be something sacred, and he who may live in bigamy is punished as a criminal; he who commits incest suffers as a criminal. Those who are always crying that religion is not to be regarded in the State, and the Jew is to be a citizen equally with the Christian, show themselves in accord with this. Is not this of incest and monogamy a dogma of faith? Touch it, and you will learn by experience how this moral man is a hero of faith too, not less than Krummacher, not less than Philip II. These fight for the faith of the Church, he for the faith of the State, or the moral laws of the State; for articles of faith, both condemn him who acts otherwise than their faith will allow. ...
Those who are zealous for something sacred often look very little like each other. How the strictly orthodox or old-style believers differ from the fighters for "truth, light, and justice," from the Philalethes, the Friends of Light, the Rationalists, and others. And yet, how utterly unessential is this difference! If one buffets single traditional truths (i.e. miracles, unlimited power of princes), then the Rationalists buffet them too, and only the old-style believers wail. But, if one buffets truth itself, he immediately has both, as believers, for opponents. So with moralities; the strict believers are relentless, the clearer heads are more tolerant. But he who attacks morality itself gets both to deal with. "Truth, morality, justice, light, etc.," are to be and remain "sacred."

From what I've seen of Dawkins, he has as much or more piety than your average bible thumper.

comment by gjm · 2013-05-01T08:46:12.262Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I think you are defining "piety" too broadly.