Each of the 115 posts I’ve written in the past five months since my blog of the same name as this column “Dispatches from the New Enlightenment” over at wearedone.org began Oct. 20, 2013, is based upon a recent event or commentary regarding the absurdities and cruelties of religion or some scientific report usually pertaining to evolution in some way such as new find in paleontology, paleoanthropology or genetics, what have you, with Creationism coming under frequent and pointed attack. But not today. Today boys and girls, is a mere essay, a few observations of the secular movement without any links to a science or news report or another blogger’s commentary.
I witnessed a civil and well-prepared panel discussion recently at Richmond Residential College on “Is religion necessary for morality?” There were three secularists: each nonbelievers of some sort and three religionists (three Xians). There were no ad hominem attacks, no anger, only some very pointed arguments against religious reasoning and claims, and biting illustrations of immoralities rampant throughout the Bible: mostly well-spoken, sincerely presented arguments from both camps.
The first thing I noticed, all three Xians being under 30, was that they gave a lot of ground immediately as far as acknowledging nonbelievers could be moral. It wasn’t even argued but presented as a given by both sides that atheists nowadays were capable of and surely demonstrate good behavior as often as anyone else. How times have changed.
Fifty years ago nonbelievers were characterized as hopelessly immoral atheists like Stalin, Mao or Kruschev and the “most hated woman in America” Madelyn Murray O’Hare. It wasn’t even a question that atheism and morality were polar opposites and religion had the exclusive rights to encouraging moral behavior. That was the given idea then: an unquestioned given. One didn’t hear much about the prominent humanistic atheists of the day such as a Bertrand Russell, or the outspoken Katherine Hepburn, or the incomparable Frank Sinatra, whose 60s interview in Playboy reads like the responses of any number of prominent nonbelievers of today. The “good atheists and agnostics” didn’t get any press back then. It was more like such people just didn’t exist. But not today.
Nowadays, the younger Xians especially, are too un-isolated to hold the idea that non-believers are typically monsters like the Stalins or Maos. They know that any atheist, agnostic or freethinkers they might meet or see in the media aren’t dastardly communists, aren’t advocating genocide or eugenics, aren’t assumed to be of any evil affiliation at all really, rather are just regular people like believers are. A few bad ones may exist among either group, maybe even a few real “saints” but the majority of both camps are just average, reasonably kind and not overbearing folks. That’s the given nowadays. Even most hard core older conservative Xians in today’s times know someone who doesn’t believe in god or belong to a religion personally, and they know them to be good people no different from anyone else.
That’s a huge change that I think contributes to the dramatic shift in attitude of young religionists of today who cannot, who will not make the argument for morality being an exclusive function of religion. They can’t. They see too much of the reality of OK folks who happen not to be churchgoers but declared atheists, agnostics, freethinkers. Regular people who didn’t believe were completely under the radar not so many years ago. There were no local, neighborhood persons of disbelief up front about their lack of religious affiliation. Just as significant, there were no prominent celebrities known worldwide as peaceful, thoughtful, educated counterexamples to the monstrous Communist atheists.
The role models of today’s New Enlightenment: Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris to name the most widely known, despite being called strident or attacking or simplistic: they aren’t viewed as monsters to be hated for their inhumanity as were the atheists presented as iconic up until the last decade. A religionist may hate Dawkins for his supposed stridency and direct and unapologetic attacks on religion, but they can’t hate him for killing millions of those who dare not to adhere to his ideology or for being some sort of immoral bastard that would approve of such things. One has to admit however one vehemently might hate Dawkins for his outspoken atheism, that he is a quiet, thoughtful and pacifist English gentleman, and Sam Harris is the American version of that same calm utterly nonviolent and compassionate academic. How times have changed.
There are no monsters to pin it on. Atheism is modeled in our modern world by completely different figures than those of barely a generation ago, and nearly everyone, conservative Xians included, know someone who doesn’t believe. The old assumptions can’t stand up to the new data – data that is well-known common knowledge. Information kills religion. Don’t doubt it.
Column by William Zingrone, Associate professor of psychology