Religion and Atheism in the 2000s

by Luke Muehlhauser on February 24, 2010 in General Atheism

nine-eleven

The first decade of the third millennium since the time of Jesus has passed. What happened for religion and atheism in this past decade?

The most defining moment was, of course, 9/11. Radical Muslims flew planes into the World Trade Center towers in New York, killing nearly 3,000 people. Religious terrorism escalated around the world. Muslims alone have carried out nearly 15,000 deadly terror attacks since that date in 2001.

Christianity provided the next major religious horror. Throughout the decade, thousands of cases of Catholic priests sexually abusing children came to be known. The Catholic Church had known about many of these abuses and covered them up instead of reporting them to authorities. The long-running abuse of children at Catholic “Magdalene Asylums” throughout the last century also caught the public’s attention due to the 2000-page Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse report and fictionalized accounts like The Magdalene Sisters.

In response, the (mostly peaceful) secular resistance to religion also escalated. Several pro-atheist, anti-religious books hit the bestseller lists in America for the first time. In Western countries, including the United States, a greater percentage of the population claimed no religion at the decade’s end than at its beginning. And for some reason, Switzerland banned (Muslim) minarets.

The contrast between the violent means of Islam and the peaceful means of secularism were best summed up by the Muhammed cartoons controversy. A Danish newspaper published 12 cartoons mocking Muhammed. In response, Muslims around the world destroyed several buildings and killed over 100 people. Some Muslim leaders called for peaceful protest, while others issued death threats.

The issue of homosexuality divided the faithful. The Anglican church split in half over whether or not to allow gay ministers. In America, the debate over gay marriage reached a fever point, with some states allowing it and others outlawing it.

This was also the decade in which Christian scholars noticed that Christianity had migrated south, away from wealthy and well-educated northern countries to the impoverished South: Africa and Latin America, where superstition and witch-burning may return Christianity to the Dark Ages.

It was also a decade of battle between evolution and intelligent design, which seemed to climax in a rousing defeat for intelligent design with the 2005 Dover decision. But intelligent design marches on, for example with Stephen Meyer’s popular book Signature in the Cell.

What do I think? I leave the decade very scared of Islam and what it will do to Europe. After all, the Muslim extremists are the ones following the demands of the Koran and the example of Muhammed. It’s not Islamophobia if they really are out to kill you.

I leave the decade hopeful about Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism. They each seem likely to very gradually fade into irrelevance over the next few centuries.

Finally, I leave the decade hopeful for the future of nonbelief. Unfortunately, I don’t yet see a likely rise in critical thinking. That cultural revolution is even further off than global secularism, I’m afraid.

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{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

Ajay February 24, 2010 at 6:15 am

Long time reader, first time poster. I noticed you wrote:

“I leave the decade hopeful about Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism. They each seem likely to very gradually fade into irrelevance over the next few centuries.”

I’d love to see the day when the Bible is read as imaginative fiction in literature classes, but what makes you think it’s *likely*? I’d like to be this optimistic.

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Bram van Dijk February 24, 2010 at 6:32 am

Luke, the Muhammed cartoons were published in a Danish newspaper, as in Denmark, not in a Dutch newspaper, as in the Netherlands.

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Briang February 24, 2010 at 7:11 am

“thousands of cases of Catholic bishops sexually abusing children”

This should be “priests”.

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lukeprog February 24, 2010 at 7:52 am

Bram,

Lol! That’s like the 10th time I’ve said that wrong.

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Justfinethanks February 24, 2010 at 7:54 am

It was also a decade of battle between evolution and intelligent design, which seemed to climax in a rousing defeat for intelligent design with the 2005 Dover decision. But intelligent design marches on, for example with Stephen Meyer’s well-received book Signature in the Cell.

Actually, when the history of science books are written, I think “Intelligent Design” will be noted as a movement that lasted from 1987 to 2005. (That’s from the decisions that determined that creationism shouldn’t be taught in schools as science to Intelligent design shouldn’t be taught in schools as science.)

Kitzmiller left them so scarred that their biggest advocates are writing posts on evolutionnews.org to this day about how evil Judge Jones is, and they have stopped saying they want Intelligent Design taught in schools. Instead, they simply claim they want the “academic freedom” to “criticize Darwinism,” which is a throwback really to creationists pre ID attempts to poison science education. The ID movement is really a walking corpse, and I think this is pretty well evidenced by the fact the biggest ID book addresses OOL studies, not biological evolution.

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Chuck February 24, 2010 at 8:06 am

Good post Luke.

It personally sums up the confusion that preceded my own questioning and ultimate turn to atheism.

I actually have hope for critical thinking if young men like you stay focused on helping old men like me better understand its practice. : )

Keep the podcasts coming. I love ‘em.

Be well.

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Ant February 24, 2010 at 10:56 am

Meyer’s book – “well received” – by whom? Not the scientific community, that’s for sure. Save for one or two bumblers and the usual IDiots, most have thoroughly trashed it.

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Joshua Blanchard February 24, 2010 at 12:39 pm

(1) I think this sort of account is slightly biased towards events of complicated political, and sometimes media import, especially 9/11. For example the Islamist extremists have had public gripes with American foreign policy before and after the attack. And religious extremists you probably don’t mind as much (e.g. liberation theologians in Latin America) have similar objections, with far less atrocious problem-solving methods. I’m not sure this says as much about the status of religion as it does the usual political power dynamics in a new globalized context.

(2) Also, putting thousands of Catholic child rapists in the same category… I was going to say it’s not comparable to 9/11, but the phrase “thousands of Catholic child rapists” is just so horrifying that I don’t mind anymore.

(3) Can’t we still just say that Intelligent Design is a quirky minority group wielding lots of power, descendant from crazy seventh day adventist profits? I think it’s unfair to burden the great religious traditions with such movements.

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TH February 24, 2010 at 12:58 pm

An ongoing take-down of Signature of the Cell, chapter by chapter, is at Steve Matheson’s blog. What makes it interesting reading is that Steve Matheson is a Christian, evolutionist, and Professor of Biology at well known Christian university Calvin College.

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Reginald Selkirk February 24, 2010 at 1:38 pm

Ant: Meyer’s book – “well received” – by whom? Not the scientific community, that’s for sure. Save for one or two bumblers and the usual IDiots, most have thoroughly trashed it.  

The Discovery Institute seems to have pulled a fast one by not sending review copies to those likely to write unfavourable reviews, and even forestalling such reviews by promising to send copies and not following through. The positive reviews have been by the usual ID suspects and a few philosophers who are clueless about science.

Those best equipped to write competent reviews, i.e. those familiar with evolution and the mathematics of information theory, have written bad things about it.
Stephen Meyer’s Bogus Information Theory by Jeffrey Shallit
More on Signature in the Cell by Jeffrey Shallit
On Reading the Cell’s Signature by Francisco Ayala

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Justfinethanks February 24, 2010 at 1:41 pm

Joshua Blanchard: Can’t we still just say that Intelligent Design is a quirky minority group wielding lots of power, descendant from crazy seventh day adventist profits? I think it’s unfair to burden the great religious traditions with such movements. 

Yes, one should obviously not judge a religion or any metaphysical worldview by its stupidest and most deceitful adherents. However, it’s worth tying to religion because ID is one of the worst examples of people with religious motivation trying to turn back the clock of scientific progress and keep the general public ignorant, and ID sadly still has some friends in high places (for example, the thumbs up by our former president, Alvin Plantiga is a fellow at the International Society for Complexity, Information, and Design, and WL Craig is a fellow at the Discovery Institute.)

ID is really only “fringe” to people who know what they are talking about. To about half of America, they are bold Galileos who seek to buck the scientific consensus.

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lukeprog February 24, 2010 at 1:46 pm

I changed ‘well-received’ to ‘popular’, which is more what I meant, anyway. I’m under no illusions that Meyer’s book makes a good argument.

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Reginald Selkirk February 24, 2010 at 1:54 pm

Stupid Philosopher Tricks: Thomas Nagel

In a previous post, I said, “Whenever scientific subjects are discussed, you can count on some philosopher to chime in with something really stupid.”

Here’s another example. Thomas Nagel, a philosopher of some repute, nominates Stephen Meyer’s Signature in the Cell as his pick for book of the year in the Times Literary Supplement…
- Jeffrey Shallit

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Jeff H February 24, 2010 at 3:22 pm

“After all, the Muslim extremists are the ones following the demands of the Koran and the example of Muhammed. It’s not Islamophobia if they really are out to kill you.”

Luke, you’re falling into the trap that too many of the “New Atheists” fall into – the need to interpret people’s scriptures for them. While obviously Muslim extremists are dangerous and scary, it’s important to remember that there is no “right” way to interpret the Qur’an or the Bible. Every interpretation is an interpretation, and being literal isn’t “better” than being metaphorical. So by saying that the extremists are the ones that are following the Qur’an and Muhammed (implying that the others aren’t), I fear that you’re legitimating the literalistic view and downplaying the metaphorical view. This is despite the fact that if given the choice, I’m sure you’d want to see Muslim tradition shift towards a metaphorical interpretation.

My point here is that if we want to push people away from fundamentalism, we need to make it look like it’s a ridiculous position to hold (even more than it already does that itself). And the way to do that is NOT to constantly imply that a literal interpretation is more correct than a metaphorical one. I’m sure that’s not what you mean to do, but it’s a subtle thing that I think needs to be stopped. Perhaps by at least acknowledging that metaphor is more acceptable than literalism, we can encourage religious people to shift in that direction. Then, maybe when 2020 rolls around, you can talk about a pleasant trend towards more moderate religion.

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Rhys February 24, 2010 at 5:44 pm

Stephen Meyer is a fool. He actually thinks saying natural selection and genetic variation did something is just as bad as saying Goddidit! He needs his head examined thoroughly to check for……..a brain.

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Hermes February 24, 2010 at 6:21 pm

Joshua Blanchard: (3) Can’t we still just say that Intelligent Design is a quirky minority group wielding lots of power, descendant from crazy seventh day adventist profits? I think it’s unfair to burden the great religious traditions with such movements.

I’d be glad to … as soon as the members of those great religious traditions stand up and say something in sufficient numbers to counter such nonsense.

Unfortunately, we can’t rely on the good efforts of a few good individuals such as Steve Matheson (as mentioned by TH) and of course Ken Miller when so many others are silent or give tacit or even active support for lies and dishonesty.

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UNRR February 25, 2010 at 3:37 am

This post has been linked for the HOT5 Daily 2/25/2010, at The Unreligious Right

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Joshua Blanchard February 25, 2010 at 3:48 pm

Hermes:
I’d be glad to … as soon as the members of those great religious traditions stand up and say something in sufficient numbers to counter such nonsense.Unfortunately, we can’t rely on the good efforts of a few good individuals such as Steve Matheson (as mentioned by TH) and of course Ken Miller when so many others are silent or give tacit or even active support for lies and dishonesty.  

The failure of an arbitrary quota of religious believers to speak up is not justification for falsely glossing religious traditions into sectarian novelty movements.

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Hermes February 25, 2010 at 4:23 pm

Joshua Blanchard: The failure of an arbitrary quota of religious believers to speak up is not justification for falsely glossing religious traditions into sectarian novelty movements.

If they are silent, they are complicit.

That might seem harsh, but with statistics in some countries showing that a large % or even a majority of believers are in agreement with the ID proponents, it’s not an unreasonable goal to set. After all, how many non-religious people are proponents of this nonsense? I know of none though I’m betting it’s a very very small number.

How much worse should it get before people are held accountable for their peers, or members in the same club? People boycott locally owned franchises over more trivial issues, why not demand more from the local vendors of Jesus or Allah?

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Paul Wright February 25, 2010 at 5:31 pm

What do you think is happening in Europe? The UK is about 3% Muslim. Muslims get a disproportionate amount of air time because an even smaller minority of them occasionally explode on public transport, and the left doesn’t know how to criticise Islam without feeling guilty about being racist, but I’m far from convinced that we’re being overrun.

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TK February 25, 2010 at 6:15 pm

In addition to everything Jeff H said, which is entirely correct, your characterization of Muslim terrorists as Islamic extremists is misleading. This seems especially silly given Qur’anic verses such as al-Baqarah 2:256 (“There is no compulsion in religion”) among others.

In fact, as Mogahed and Esposito point out in “Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think,” several of the 9/11 hijackers were heavy drinkers and porn addicts (69), hardly characteristics of Muslims “following the demands of the Koran and the example of Muhammed.” Muslims who describe themselves as terrorist sympathizers are also not significantly more likely to attend a mosque religiously or to describe religion as important to their daily lives (73). In Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world, no respondents to a Gallup survey cited the Qur’an as a justification for terrorism, but many cited the Qur’an to argue against it (73).

Suicide attackers in Lebanon in the ’80s included only eight Muslims, but three Christians and twenty-seven communists and socialists (80). Does this mean that socialism “really” commands people to commit terrorism, and the terrorists are the ones actually following those dictates?

The only overwhelming factor uniting terrorist groups and Muslim citizens who support or sympathize with them is mistrust of the West, in particular its support for democracy. The writings of Osama bin Laden are chock full of political and military atrocities committed by the United States and her allies against Arab Muslims; they make precious few direct citations of the Qur’an. Even if Islam is used in rhetoric, that doesn’t mean it’s the amin justification (or even a justification, really) for terroristic acts. Hitler claimed to be adhering to the word of God, and yet sources like “Hitler’s Table Talks” demonstrate pretty clearly that he held little respect for religion.

The seeming radical nature of Islam is a matter of historical contingency and politics, not the deterministic evolution of the Muslim faith. In another world, if Christianity, not Islam, were the main religion of the Middle East, and the Middle East were oppressed by Western countries the way it is in our world, we’d probably see much of the same coming from there. (The Bible is just as good a source of bedtime reading for terrorists as the Qur’an is. I notice Christians in Northern Ireland seem to be doing a pretty good job of blowing each other up and acting like asses.)

It should likewise be noted that, while European Muslims were very vocal about their disapproval regarding, e.g., the Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, majorities in European countries like France and the UK feel that other topics, such as mockery of the Holocaust or the printing of racial slurs, should not be protected by freedom of speech (144). The Muslims were a bit louder about their opposition to freedom of speech… So what? For many Muslims, opposition to the cartoons was not motivated by resistance to freedom of speech, but questions regarding the selectivity with which freedom of speech was protected. (In Germany, for example, arguments based on freedom of speech made no sense; Nazism and Holocaust denial are explicitly illegal there.)

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Chuck February 26, 2010 at 1:54 pm

TK,

I will assume you are ignorant of Sayyid Qutb and his influential “In the Shade of the Quar’an”.

I’d suggest you look up some of his ideas on secular liberty and Judaism.

You might think the current state of Islam is contingent on politics but, who cares, the ideology provides ample fodder for murder.

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Rhys March 3, 2010 at 6:31 pm

Slightly off topic here, but I found this article on New Scientist for anyone who is interested:

Where do Atheists Come From? [New Scientist, March 2003]

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charles Fisenne March 19, 2010 at 1:01 pm

Atheists recognize you are protected by a religious bond in the USA LOVE THY NEIGHBOR AS THY SELF— Rules and laws rest on the philosophy of Jesus of Nazerath

Look and you may find –Your soul elected to join your body for this incarnation –soul
enhancement is the goal. You [the body] and the universe are just 13.7 million year old atoms,transformed by intelligent design by a process called evolution.

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Chuck March 19, 2010 at 1:04 pm

No Charles,

You are protected by the 1st amendment – a document generated by the enlightenment. A SECULAR protection.

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charles fisenne December 27, 2010 at 6:33 pm

Philosophy of society, not a particular religion should be the major concern
The philosophy of the Jewish Rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth is the best hope for American and
global society. Love thy neighbor as thyself, – is paramount. A search for wisdom suggests, enhancement and ennobling society,with idealism and virtues are worthy aims. The weakness and faults of human kind should be challenged; but let us be joyful for all that act with good conscience. Our attitude counts and I hope you concede that historically Christianity in America has provided a sense of partnership safety,and well being to citizens. Celebrate the birth of the philosopher at Christmas.

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