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A World Without God - New Scientist

thoughts & comment — 16 May 2014

New ScientistTHE MAIN FEATURE in New Scientist at the beginning of this month was entitled Losing our religion. The cover showed a crucifix hanging from an old Bakelite light switch, underneath which is stuck in red Dymo tape: "COULD THE LAST PERSON TO LEAVE THE CHURCH PLEASE TURN OUT THE LIGHTS". A clever but mocking depiction of dying religion.

Written by Graham Lawton, the article describes what the world might look like if everyone just stopped believing in God — a world Lawton asserts would be happier, healthier and more sane. In fact, the article asserts that the safer the society, the less need there is for religion, which is why countries like Sweden, Denmark and Norway are the most "irreligious". (No mention is made of the work of Rodney Stark and the fact that these countries have a Lutheran monopoly that is mistaken for atheism, or that New Age beliefs in Scandinavia are becoming very popular.)

The article is based on an interview with Ara Norenzayan, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Norenzayan states "We have a powerful secularisation trend worldwide. There are places where secularisation is making huge inroads: western and northern Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and China."

But what both Lawton and Norenzayan have done to make their point is to polarise the debate into religion or rationalism, so that any rejection of religion is a victory for atheism and scientific rationalism, which is not the case at all. To try to bolster their perspective, Lawton and Norenzayan widen the definition of atheism to include what they term as mind-blind and apathetic atheism. In other words, those people who have no belief about religion or atheism, or who can't be bothered by either, are regarded as card-carrying atheists.

But many people are moving past traditional religious beliefs, not as a rejection of the sacred and the spiritual, but because conventional religion no longer adequately conveys these qualities — qualities that traditional religions had been associated with for centuries. Religion is dying because its outdated framework no longer serves its original purpose. So the death of religion is not the death of the sacred and the spiritual; it is only the death of outdated belief systems.

Lawton and Norenzayan are aware of this, and as a token gesture they throw some "superstition" in the mix as an afterthought at the end of the article. "When people no longer believe in god, it doesn't mean they don't have intuitions that are powerfully connected to the supernatural," says Norenzayan. "Even in societies that are majority atheist, you find a lot of paranormal belief — astrology, karma, extraterrestrial life, things that don't have any scientific evidence but are intuitively obvious to people."

Lawton writes, "Godless congregations like the Sunday Assembly can help, by serving the needs to nones who yearn for a sense of community and common moral vision. They also articulate secular values and get the message across that godless societies can be healthy ones. If that means accepting a certain level of new-agey irrationality, then so be it." He then ends his article by describing the atheist of the future as different from the cold rational atheists of academia: "a bit happy-clappy, a bit spiritual, driven more by indifference to religion rather than hostility to it…"

Atheists being a bit spiritual? A bit new-agey? Any reader can see that this is just contradictory nonsense. The sacredness and spirituality that forms the core of all religions is not dying… modern society is merely releasing these qualities from outdated belief systems and anachronistic social controls that no longer convey them. Those in love with scientific rationalism take this as a sign of an imminent Golden Age of Rationality and Secularism, albeit one that is "a bit" muddied by New Age beliefs that are needed to help us with "the deep and perennial problems of life…"

But Lawton and Norenzayan are so blinded by their views of what religion looks like that they cannot see the new "happy-clappy spiritual" beliefs that are springing up in front of their faces are actually the birth of new religions. Religion is evolving into new species more adapted to the modern world. These New Age beliefs are much more than just harmless irrationalities, and will liberate humanity, not only from the dogmas of traditional religion, but also from the dogmas of scientific materialism. Only the shortsighted interpret the demise of traditional religion as a victory for scientific rationalism.