Dr. David Wilbur: Power and Illusion: Religion and Human Need. Summary for Chapter 13: Atheism and Religion
by Ervin Taylor
This is Part 14 of the summary of Dr. Wilbur’s book. It should be emphasized that all of the text in this series of blogs in bold font in the body of the text of the chapter summary has been kindly provided by Dr. Wilbur. If there are any of my own comments, they will follow in regular type.
Summary for Chapter 13: Atheism and Religion
Atheism, Acculturation, and Individualism
Most humans are acculturated into a religion when they are young. This acculturation of the child seems to create an enduring comfort with a set of beliefs that are then hard to abandon or alter later in life. Alternatively most atheists seem to be so as the result of an individual evaluation of evidence. They don’t usually reach this belief because of a warm feeling inside that gives them confidence. There is a tendency for many such people to go on their way as private non-believers in a believing society, not seeking public notice and not founding religion like associations.
Other important currents include the officially atheistic Marxist world now largely gone and an efflorescence of anti-religion or anti-God books in response to Muslim religious terrorism.
Short Review of Some Arguments Supporting Atheism
The rational Greeks may be the first to leave us a record of rejecting the reality of the gods. Some of the concerns that fuel atheistic thinking are as follows.
Theodicy or the justice of God. In a world with much evil, how can you believe in some powerful, knowledgeable and kind supervisor?
The question of the supernatural. The central myth of every great religious tradition contains some supernatural claims. These are not based on publically evaluable evidence.
Exclusivity in Ethics. A good ethics is usually offered but then exceptions are demanded as prescribed by the leaders—speaking for God.
Use as a tool for domination. Among others, Karl Marx, Upton Sinclair and Jared Diamond have found frustrating this use/abuse of religion.
Direct disagreement with scientific studies. Immortal immaterial souls and a recent creation of the world and life are just two places where some religions make implausible claims.
The multiplicity of competing claims. The large number of competing religions, all based on similar claims suggests to some of us a human origin for these traditions.
Atheism and the Marxist World
For about 70 years the Communist Party had control of Russia and tried to create a Godless society. With almost three generations of control they were unable to form a compelling substitute for belief in religion and when their empire collapsed there was a rapid emergence of various religious alternatives: especially the Russian Orthodox faith. There may be many reasons for this failure but Paul Gabel suggested that the Marxist interpretation of religion as primarily a tool for domination by the ruling class made the party unable to appreciate religion’s adaptive power.
Philosophy, Religion, and Atheism
Philosophy addresses many of the same concerns as religion but tries to do it rationally without recourse to the supernatural. Religions often engage philosophers to relate their beliefs to the rest of human knowledge. In contrast some famous philosophers of the last few hundred years have eloquently defended skepticism or atheism: men such as David Hume, Bertrand Russell and Friedrich Nietzsche. Thus philosophy may defend skepticism and offer alternate interpretations of the universe but it seldom fills human needs as well as a caring religious community.
Is Atheism an Alternative to Religion?
Atheism offers a substitute world view compared to supernaturalism but it doesn’t easily fill the many functions of religion described in Chapter Two. Some secular humanist organizations have tried to develop social programs that fill this role but so far their success has been limited.
Is Atheism Dying?
Alister McGrath has written a book, The Twilight of Atheism, proposing that it is a dying belief system. His main support seems to be the failure of international communism. Other evidence suggests that secularism and atheism are thriving in many places.
Atheism and Atrocity
The government managed atrocities of the 20th century were driven by dreams of some future utopia that justified the violence. The Marxists had a “faith-based ideology” with prophet, scripture and eschatology. Their confident belief drove their actions but their atheism was only an incidental feature not responsible for the actions. The Nazis and the Fascists committed their atrocities, also justified by utopian visions but did it while maintaining good relations with the established churches.
Atheism has never been a replacement for religion in any society. Religion fills many roles in civilization and is usually chosen by the believer on an emotional, not rational basis. Atheism will always be an intellectually viable position that attracts adherents in most educated populations and sometimes a large minority. Humanism may have a role similar to religion for some of these people.