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

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.