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27 April: Religion - Is it Forever? - Peter Bowden

A Philoagora Debate asking whether religion or atheism will prevail in capturing everybody's beliefs in the long term.

Ian,  Sydney's well known proselytizer for atheism  and a regular PhiloAgora attendee locked horns with Peter Bowden, a solid Huxley agnostic,  tending to Dawkins,  about whether the rational arguments for the non  existence of God will ever  convince the bulk of ordinary every day  people to give up religion.  Ian says that common sense and intelligence must win. Bowden says it never will - religion is wired into us

Religion: is it forever?  This argument - at Sydney’s philosophy café, www.philoagora.com, - is that it will last forever. That religious beliefs are wired into us – they will be with us - the human race - until the end of our time on this planet.

Those who disagree, will I presume, argue that common sense, human intelligence and rational thought will win out in the long term. People will eventually give up religious practices. After all, church attendance is dropping in the Western religions even now.

Before I start, I need to state that I am a Huxley Agnostic, although tending largely to agree with Richard Dawkins. Thomas Huxley, Darwin’s bulldog, coined the term agnosticism, presumably from the Greek, agnostos, unknown or unknowing. He stated that we do not know whether God exists or not. I certainly do not know. And that we cannot prove it either way. But I do believe that an all-powerful and loving God who listens to our prayers is highly unlikely.

But that is God. This argument is about religion. I have five reasons that state that the rational beliefs in atheism will never entirely win out, even in the very long term: for they evidence a total misunderstanding of human nature. The five are:

One: We have had religious beliefs in all communities and all races since the beginnings of historical time. I suspect, in fact, since our earliest of evolutionary days, and the development of a brain large enough to understand the concept of cause and effect, and the ability to assign intention to the actions of others. The reasons are many: fear of the unknown, need for assistance, for consolation, our spirituality, as well as punishment for our supposed sins. We had to assign a cause, and try to mitigate the effects – so early man invented Gods – and with them came the interpreter, the shaman

Two: Religion is rational. It creates a community, a sense of belonging, a reason for existence. When spirituality, or even for some religions, mysticism, is coordinated into a belief system and a series of moral expectations, total rationality is at work. Communities are social vehicles, coherent, protective of members, offering assistance to and engagement with others in the group.

In the Christian religion we only have to look at the Bible and its values for a community. The baby born in a stable; fury at merchants in the Temple; the Sabbath as a day of rest; the truth that shall make you free; the parables of Good Samaritan; the Prodigal Son; and others. The Sermon on the Mount; blessed are the meek…

Or Jainism, almost a thousand years earlier stated an overriding rule of life - not to hurt one another.

To win all hearts and minds, atheism will need to replace these values.

Three: Religion offers consolation in times of great suffering. And possibly the greatest need in such times is at the loss of a loved one. All religions have an after-life. They simply tell us that our loved ones are not gone from us - that we will join them again. The Catholic Church has the day of Resurrection. The Pentecostal type churches are much more explicit: you will meet your loved one again in the after life. He or she is not dead. When we ourselves go, we are also not dead.

I would be the last to deny that consolation to those who pray. The ceremony must be included in the consolation - the gathering of family and friends, the prayers of farewell, the hymns, the eulogies, the liturgy. Death is an occasion. For us who are left behind, it is worthy of some ceremony. I have trouble with this ceremony being conducted in the local hall – hired out for the farewelling a loved one; I have even more trouble with the farewell being in the home… “The funeral is on at flat 34, third floor up, opposite the staircase”

I might add that I suspect that the prayers are no more than a statement of the loss…nothing to do with a religious belief. In fact  that Christian teaching of the reward of heaven or the fear of hell do not rank at all highly in peoples’ consciousness. We see them for what they are - illogical and somewhat inconsistent carry overs from a more primitive past. I also doubt that many, even believers, acknowledge that they are destined for hell. Perhaps hell was created for the same reason as the Inquisition, or the persecutions - to encourage, even force compliance with the ruling dogma.

Four: Religious beliefs are wired into us. Robin Dunbar, “one of the most respected evolutionary psychologists in Britain”, points out the research that shows people with religious beliefs get sick less often than the rest of us, and when they do, they recover more quickly. They also get over major surgery more quickly. The research is extensive, although not universally accepted. Reasons may lie in the reduction in stress or the greater levels of comfort open to a believer. If the research is valid, it also demonstrates that religion complies with the conditions for an evolved behaviour: a practice that has existed over centuries, across all cultures, that has resulted in longer lives, and greater numbers of children with an affinity to that behaviour. Dunbar doubts the human ability to do without religion. Even Dawkins – the most militant of atheists – wondered at the recent Global Atheist convention (quoted by Barney Swartz, SMH April 2, 2010) why religion is a human “universal” – “There might be a psychological disposition that had a survival value of which religion was a by-product” 

Five: The absence of valid counter arguments. Existentialism is the only philosophy arising from the belief that God does not exist. Nietzsche announced the death of God. Kierkegaard, a Christian, told us that we are alone, anxiety claims us all. Heidegger put forward the belief that life is absurd, as did Camus. Sartre pointed out that we have no purpose, we exist only. Their arguments are quite frightening. Life is absurd, abandoned, it has no meaning.

The existentialists’ beliefs on the meaninglessness, the absurdity, the anguish, of our lives are indeed disconcerting. We evolved from the primordial slime, as accidents of evolution, with no purpose or meaning. We live our four score years or longer, sometimes with great pain. Then we die. Gone forever. It is quite meaningless.

We can give ourselves meaning, of course, purposes in our lives, apart from religious beliefs - our family, work, our special undertakings. But that is individual, not collective.

Philosophers have tried to provide us with answers. The early philosophers gave us eudaimonia - a fulfilling life. Aristotle set out the path through a series of virtues (although some of them are very self serving, it must be admitted). In modern times John Rawls gave us justice - a world that is fair. Bentham and Mill built on the ancients to argue for both a personal and a political philosophy - creating happiness, ensuring minimum pain for the greatest number. Mill, the more sophisticated thinker, warning us to care for the minority. In that eudaimonia can be translated as happiness, utility is a philosophy that has been with the human race longer than most major religions. But it has been attacked, at times viciously, and by the churches. Philosophy has been trying for 2,500 years, but has not as yet been successful, in mapping out a “why” for our lives. It has not been able to give us the answers.  Mill, in stating that avoiding harm to ourselves and others is the overriding need of the human race, may have gone the closest. But he is much maligned.

Atheists have tried to give us purpose. Richard Dawkins has given us the ten atheist commandments. Andre Compte-Sponville has recently brought out a book in atheist spirituality. He puts the concept of the faithful atheist - faithful to ourselves and others. Sam Harris has told us to try meditation, not such a fanciful idea. The existentialists also have tried. With somewhat conflicting approaches, they appear to agree that we are in charge - we decide, not others. Sartre, In Existentialism Is a Humanism has put forward concepts on our lives with which we could possibly agree.

But we have a long way to go. The spirituality, the fears, the meaning of our lives are eternal questions. Many directions are possible. We can guess that religious practices will continue to decline, at least in the West. We can guess that the inflexible dogmatic rulings of today’s church leaders - somewhat reminiscent of the purges of the Inquisition (although thankfully bloodless) will give way to individual beliefs and practices, possibly without God. Some Eastern religions have already taken that path. We can adopt a Christianity – the teachings that I mentioned earlier -- without the power structure of the churches, without even a God.

But I cannot ever see the day when religion will be abandoned completely. At the ceremonial points of our life - at births, marriages and above all death, we need a spirituality. Mothers will always pray for help at the loss of a loved one. We will always need consolation. Some will pray, even when they do not believe in God, at times when they are close to abandoning hope. Spiritual leaders have arisen, will continue to arise, some will be shamans, even charlatans, others will be genuine. Many will follow.


According to the American Religious Identification Survey, a major study released in 2009, 15 percent of Americans claim no religion, making them the only group to grow in every state since 1990, when the ``nones'' made up 8 percent of the U.S. population. Atheists make up a smaller portion -- 2 percent -- but they've almost doubled their numbers in the past two decades.

There are an estimated  56,452 Taoists in the US ( 2004). That is a growth rate of 74% (1990- 2001) http://www.adherents.com/rel_USA.html#religions

The smallest, the Eckankar has about 30,000 .They say each of us is connected to God through Divine Spirit (the ECK), which can be heard as Sound and seen as Light. Eckankar offers a spiritual toolkit to help you experience the Light and Sound of God. Its growth rate is 44%

Bahai has a growth rate of 200%


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