Monday, August 23, 2010

Why Does Atheism Exist?

Why do atheists exist?

This may sound like an odd question to regular readers of this column, and there are many good answers. But in this case it's actually an interesting question because it came from one of my readers (I'll call her O.P. for privacy) who felt that my book, The Religion Virus, didn't answer this question.

O.P. is on board with the basic premise of my book, that people believe ideas (memes) that they want to believe, often with little regard for the veracity of the ideas. And the ideas that they like the most are far more likely to spread, to be passed on to other people.

As religion evolved, changed and spread across societies and down through history, the ideas that were the most appealing (either because they were the most attractive or the most frightening) were the ones most likely to gain adherents. Religion became a constantly-changing thing, shaped and improved each time it was retold. It became more and more "infectious" because that's what evolution does. At each generation, the "stickiest" ideas are the ones that are retold. After a thousand or two years the religion memes that survived in this "survival of the fittest" battle became very tenacious. These religious memes have become incredibly appealing.

(This is a pretty terse summary of the foundation of my book – I hope readers who aren't familiar with memetics will enjoy my book or any one of a half-dozen others that do an excellent job presenting the concept of memetic evolution, how ideas evolve as they move across society and down through history.)

So how does atheism survive? Given that it has no dogma, no Bible, very little literature, and few organized congregations bent on spreading it, why are there so many atheists? How do atheism memes propagate themselves?

The answer is that atheism doesn't survive. It's like asking, "What's in a hole?" There's nothing in a hole. It's only a hole as long as nobody fills it with something. The word "hole" describes the lack of content.

Atheism exists because some people are resistant to being infected by religious memes. Perhaps they weren't indoctrinated early enough. Perhaps the religion virus settled in their brains early, but other memes, like math, physics and chemistry, made the environment too hostile for the religion memes and they died out. Or perhaps they studied the religion itself too closely and it fell apart under its own inconsistencies.

The reason this question even comes up is that theists, particularly Christians, are trying to trick everyone. It's a two-step trick. First, they tie secularism, atheism and science together by claiming that science is nothing more than an alternative set of beliefs about how the universe works, and is on equal footing with creationist dogma. Once they've done that, the next step is to claim that atheism is a religion. If that succeed, then viola! They can put creationism in our science textbooks right alongside real science.

As someone famously said (I've seen it attributed to Dawkins, Michael Shermer, Stephen F. Roberts, but it probably goes back to Bertrand Russell):
There have been something like 16,000 gods in human history, and you don't believe in 15,999 of them. I just believe in one fewer god than you.
Atheism is not a belief system. It's a lack of belief in the supernatural.

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Dear readers -- I am no longer blogging and after leaving these blogs open for two years have finally stopped accepting comments due to spammers. Thanks for your interest. If you'd like to write to me, click on the "Contact" link at the top. Thanks! -- CJ.

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