23 November 2011

Mutual asinine destruction

In reading the stories of people who were raised religious but later abandoned religion, I've noticed an interesting commonality in many (though by no means all) of them. This is that they began to move away from their original religion not so much because of exposure to atheist arguments, but because of some contact with another religion or irrational belief system.

The recent "Why I am an atheist" series of personal testimonies on Pharyngula provides numerous examples. Matthew Donica was raised fundamentalist, started getting disillusioned after exposure to flamboyantly-crazy creationists, and finally read the Iliad and realized that the Bible, like it, was merely another mythical story. Heather V was raised as a Catholic, then became fascinated with Wicca, then married a Baptist and tried to adapt to his beliefs, then married a non-church-goer and, while trying to persuade him to become more "spiritual", came to see the flaws of supernaturalism. Natasha Krasle grew up with a mushy Unitarian-style "spirituality"; after she and her mother joined a church which proceeded to sink into Chopra psychobabble, they became disillusioned with the church and ultimately with spirituality in general. Adam was raised fundamentalist and began to see the light after studying evolution (in order, at first, to learn how to refute it), but what really turned him around was when his parents got interested in fake "alternative medicine" and he realized that religion was just as silly as the nonsense that so exasperated him about that quackery.

I've seen other such stories over the years. The common pattern is obvious: (1) Person grows up religious in the usual way. (2) Person encounters an irrational belief system different from his own religion. (3) Person is shocked that anyone could believe such obvious nonsense. (4) Person starts to notice analogies between the newly-encountered nonsense and his own religion's brand of nonsense. (5) Person eventually realizes that both are silly, and abandons religion.

It's not difficult to understand this. Most religious people (not all, but most) absorb their religion when they are too young to think critically, and then maintain it out of inertia in a cultural environment which treats religion as exempt from the kind of logical scrutiny which people are allowed or even expected to apply to other kinds of beliefs, such as political views. They often avoid reading frontal attacks on religion, which the culture's values still consider rude, inappropriate, "just not done".

But in a pluralistic society, those same values that demand respect for one's own religion also demand respect for other religions. The fundamentalist encountering Mormonism, the Muslim discovering Christianity, etc., and being expected to "respect" concepts which strike him as obviously absurd, feels the same kind of cognitive dissonance that we atheists feel on being told we should respect any religion. Why, this is obvious rubbish! But with prolonged exposure, only the most fanatical can avoid noticing parallels between the new rubbish and the old.

Carl Sagan once made a similar observation about intercultural encounters in the ancient world. Greeks and Babylonians, for example, would notice that their respective pantheons of gods claimed similar roles but were otherwise very different. The obvious explanation was that one set of gods had simply been made up by the priests -- but if one set was, why not both?

Magic underwear? God used to be a man? Ancient Hebrews in North America? How can those Mormons believe such drivel? Why can't they just see the plain sensible truth that Jesus died to save us from a force of evil we're all born with because 6,000 years ago a talking snake persuaded a woman made from a rib to eat fruit from a magic tree?

You may have seen this quote from Stephen Roberts: "I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours." Considering and rejecting an alien religion or superstition forces the theist into precisely this position.

I think this factor has played a major role in the decline of religion which has been going on for centuries and has accelerated in the last century and especially the last ten years. Educated people naturally became aware of belief systems other than their own which existed in distant regions. In a pluralistic society, it's easy to come into some kind of routine contact with different religions. And in the age of the internet, staying strictly within the echo-chamber of homogenous belief takes tremendous effort. Even a person who would indignantly refuse to read an atheist website, even if he lives in a small town in Alabama or Saudi Arabia, can hardly avoid some degree of exposure to other religions.

This is not to deny the importance of frontal attacks on religion such as those of Dawkins, Hitchens, and other New Atheists. Countless people who have abandoned religion have testified that these writings helped them along the path. But for many, it's an encounter with another religion that first sets them on that path.

If this is the case, then religion is truly doomed to further and further decline. The world will not stop getting more and more interconnected. The internet will not go away. Maintaining that echo-chamber of homogenous belief will soon require a total rejection of modernity, to a degree available only to groups like the Amish or the Mormon-fundamentalist cults. Even if we can't destroy religion, the religions, in a cacophony of clashing ideas in billions of brains, will eventually destroy each other.


Blogger LadyAtheist said...

I agree. It's how I deconverted, though I had doubts about my own religion from about age uhhh always.

I think this is the reason why crazy extremists are also isolationist. It's also why Christians home-school their kids. If their kids are exposed to kids of other religions (or even less crazy denominations) they know what will happen.

23 November, 2011 05:03  
Blogger Ahab said...

"Educated people naturally became aware of belief systems other than their own which existed in distant regions. In a pluralistic society, it's easy to come into some kind of routine contact with different religions."

On some level, I think, fundamentalists are aware of this risk, and try to protect their fragile belief systems by cocooning themselves away from other viewpoints.

23 November, 2011 06:44  
Anonymous Sherry Peyton said...

And then there is me, who fit none of your assumptions. I have a BA and a Law Degree, and most of a Masters, yet I came to faith in my 40's, and am all too aware of accepting of other faith systems and the mythology of the ancient world. I am of course nothing near a fundamentalist whom I detest as faith killers, but my faith is very real. I guess I am what?

23 November, 2011 13:14  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

LA & Ahab: Or in extreme cases they want to take over the whole culture and shut up anyone who might present them with discomfiting differences. Either way, they know they have much to fear from exposure.

SP: The post is about reasons why people leave religion; since you haven't done that, it doesn't really relate to you.

As the post makes clear, I'm speaking broadly of typical cases, while recognizing that exceptions exist. Non-religious people becoming religious does happen, but it's a lot rarer than the other way around these days.

23 November, 2011 14:07  
Blogger Shaw Kenawe said...

I don't know if I told this story here, so forgive me if I repeat myself.

When I was 6 and about to receive my First Holy Communion in the Catholic Church, I was told by the nun who instructed us in Sunday School that after the wafer was put on my tongue and I was kneeling back in the pew, I would hear Jesus talking to me.

There I was, in my pristine white organza dress--God's little angel--kneeling in the pew, hands together and head bowed in prayer, waiting for Jesus to say something to me. I waited. And waited. And waited. Then I heard it! "Now ******," it said to me. The voice said my name! But wait. Wait.

That voice was MINE! Not Jesus! I was talking to myself! I figured this out at the age of 6. And I guess you could say it was all downhill from there.

Every time I think of religion and how it was imposed on me, I'm grateful that I did not repeat that on my own children, who are religion-free, as are their children.

23 November, 2011 15:53  
Blogger John Myste said...

I am not sure what the picture has to do with the post, but I suspect tons of people "read it."

It is a very good take on the issue, though.

23 November, 2011 17:48  
Blogger Ranch Chimp said...

Happy Thanxgiving Infodel!

24 November, 2011 06:37  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

SK: Very insightful for 6 -- most people take a lot longer to figure out the same thing. Glad to hear that the subsequent generations have inherited your resistance to the infection.

JM: Thanks. Can't remember where I got the picture, but to me it just radiates civilization and non-fanaticism, with the bookshelf and tea-set and the nice lady absorbed in the world of ideas.

RC: Thanks! Tofurkey at the ready.....

24 November, 2011 09:19  
Blogger Nance said...

"Even if we can't destroy religion, the religions, in a cacophony of clashing ideas in billions of brains, will eventually destroy each other."

Never thought of it quite this way, but I wish they'd hurry up. We've been at this process of encountering other cultures and beliefs since somebody noticed all the easy game had run out on the home turf. In all that time, the clashes of territory, masquerading as clashes of true beliefs, have proceeded uninterrupted.

In my case, atheism grew from a more scholarly approach to the beliefs I was raised in. Once out of Sunday School and into modern criticism, I discovered a wealth of mutually incompatible truths within the One True Faith. Pfui on it.

25 November, 2011 07:41  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Nance: Military conflict isn't a good situation for the process I'm describing to work. For the clash of religious ideas to lead to mutual destruction of religions, people (preferably in large numbers) need to absorb ideas from cultures and religions other than their own. During wars, especially between mostly-illiterate primitives, that doesn't happen much. What's needed is a highly-literate, mostly-peaceful world with strong and easy communications between different societies -- conditions which have only recently arisen.

25 November, 2011 08:01  
Blogger uzza said...

Picture made me think of the emperor not having clothes ...

12 February, 2012 17:27  
Anonymous Keith Davidson said...

I hope not to be deleted. But you may view me as a "troll" since my beliefs are strong and do not line up with yours. I can tell you that you are wrong on many levels. One, the true believer does not have as "fragile" a belief system as you and many of your readers seem to think. Those who depart from the faith are simply weak in and of themselves and were never deeply rooted in their faith. Probably from a lack of experiences where God demonstrates His willingness and ability to be involved in your life if you but invite Him to. These are souls who just believed because it is what they were taught from their youth and they were wooed away by the temptations of the world and the flesh. Secondly, I do agree that there is a growing number of religious folk who are departing from their faith. But the falling away was foretold thousands of years ago by the Hebrew prophets, but lest I lose you I won't go off on that tangent. Trust me when I say that there are many "ways" one falls away, but the "reason" for doing so is a much bigger picture than either of us have painted here. More to my point, I can not prove to you that God is real any more than you can prove to me that you have ever had a headache. But you kow you have because it changed your day, perhaps if the headache was bad enough, it may have changed your entire schedule. And if your headache was of the chronic migrane sort, your entire life itself is different. Such is true with the hand of God on one's life. The more intense your experiences, when you know you have witnessed the hand of God in a situation, and then, when this happens enough times, defying all explanation, no matter how objective your approach, you then have to admit that to deny Him is just not wise.

16 April, 2012 22:28  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

KD: Your comment is mostly off-topic since the point of this post is how people get free of religious delusions, not debating the reality of the various deities imagined by one religion or another.

There's no reason to doubt the reality of headaches because everybody has them. They're a subjective feeling; the underlying physical cause can be determined by various objective evidence such as medical examinations. As for the subjective feelings religious people have, which they interpret as evidence for the reality of whatever deity their particular religion believes in, well, those feelings may be real (though they're certainly not felt by everyone as headaches are), but the underlying cause, like the underlying cause of headaches, can only be determined by objective evidence. If Joe the Ruritanian says he has a headache, I have no reason to doubt him; but if he says it was caused by Arglebargle the Ruritanian God of Headaches and this therefore proves Arglebargle really exists, then sorry, that's completely unimpressive.

Like most people I've had odd experiences in my life. If I had less of an understanding of how probability works, and if I'd been raised to believe in Allah or Odin or whatever, I might well interpret those experiences as evidence of the given deity at work. But that isn't reality.

My point in this post is that many people abandon the religion they were raised with because they come into contact with some other religion, immediately see that it's nonsense, and eventually realize that their own religion is no different. If a Hindu were to tell you he'd had exactly the kind of subjective experience of Brahma that you claim to have had of your own God, presumably you wouldn't accept that as proof that Brahma is real -- and you'd be right. Now you just need to take the next obvious step.

17 April, 2012 06:53  

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