Do Atheists “Evolve” Their Communal Ideas More Quickly than Religious People? Is that a good thing?

Do Atheists “Evolve” Faster?

Interesting post by Chris Stedman notes that while atheists are seen as more sympathetic to LGBTQ issues they are not uniform in this. A bit ago there was a post on the same site wondering if the atheist community has trouble treating women well.

What interest me is the question of whether atheists change their minds more quickly than religious people in alignment with societal trends. If we were to poll atheists 30 years ago where would their ideas about Same Sex marriage be? What about 100 years ago? What about atheists in ancient Greece? (Beyond Greece atheists in the ancient world are hard to find.)

Old Ideas of Dead Men

A caricature of religion is often the embrace of old beliefs by dead men. There are a cluster of ideas here, some are generalizations, some are biases, some are just assertions

  • Old beliefs are outdated and perhaps disproved by better science.
  • Religious people uncritically embrace these old ideas which are preserved by religion which is a fear response to change or chaos
  • Religious people get stuck in old biases and religion keeps them bound to them
  • Religion keeps people reading old books and believing in old myths

Compared to this the competing generalization is that “scientific” minded people based on what “science” discovers today are quicker to jettison old, outdated (hear “wrong”) ideas for newer ones with more support from better science. There is a clear chronological bias or as CS Lewis calls it “snobbery”.

“Right Side of History”

This is a favorite term. Google search it and you’ll see it applied to same-sex marriage, policy in the Middle East, Russia invading the Ukraine, etc. Not too long ago the temperance movement and prohibition were on “the right side of history”. Eugenics were on “the right side of history”. Communism was “on the right side of history.”

These are all assertions of metaphysical narratives. They are, dare I say it, religious assertions.

It is a confessional statement for the myth of progress and that somehow history only goes one way and it is always the right way. The assertion is an implicit invitation to join in with what conventional wisdom today asserts is “the right way to go”. The “winners” in history somehow are able to be known today and so we must align ourselves with it.

It is important to see that there is a sense of this in Christian theology, an eschatalogical view that Christ has won and in the end his victory and resurrection will prevail. What’s different is that this is usually employed (today) in a contrary sense that “even though today history seems to be going the wrong way in the end Christ will prevail.”

Religion as a Communal Ulysses Pact

I’ve written about this before.  Religion tends to be a risk that what is clear to you or your religious predecessors is of such importance that we ought to bind ourselves to it knowing full well that circumstances in the future will tempt us to abandon them. Ulysses (Odysseus) has his crew bind him to the mast so he can hear the Sirens but demands his crew plug their ears so as not to be lured to their death on the rocky coast.

What Are Your Ulysses Pact Commitments?

Both atheists and religious people (who are behaviorally far closer to each other than either side often wishes to admit) are both moved by the conventional wisdom of their times. What seems to be important in this are the Ulysses pact commitments that they retain and hold on to. How do they shape the behavior of the community in times of rapid cultural change?

I think any group of people with a communal identity tend to possess Ulysses pact type commitments. Given the science (or sometimes scientistic) commitments by the atheist community I wonder if their beliefs aren’t in fact more prone to change following conventional wisdom? Are they a pact of early adopters because of the nature of their quasi-religious commitments?

How Do Truth Seekers Relate to Change in Time?

What are the consequences of being a community who is most prone to adopt contemporary beliefs?

Part of the difficulty we have as mortal creatures is that we are terribly subject to time. Both science and revelatory religions attempt to address the problem of time by seeking out truth that is timeless. One might say “a God who is outside of time reveals this” while the other says “we believe that the physical laws of existence that we find in the empirical world do not change in unpredictable or chaotic ways and so we extrapolate upon these to discover truth about our world.”

Thomas Kuhn famously demonstrated that sociology of knowledge impacts science as well. The surety of Newton’s world gave way to Einsteins, etc.

Different Stakes?

Does it matter if you are an atheist and you are wrong about lots of things? If you lived at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries and you embraced eugenics based on Darwin and assumed that African people’s were “less evolved” than the “Arian race” does it matter? Maybe today some will think ill of you and change the names of parks and schools because of your beliefs but there is no god to hold you to your ideas.

For religious people these questions matter more. At least in Christianity our God cares about both our deeds and our thoughts.

It is interesting to ask what the upsides and downsides of both approaches may be for in fact finding “truth”. Does religion stretch the list of consulted persons back in time giving “old dead men and women” more of a say in our beliefs? Is this a good or bad thing?

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
This entry was posted in philosophical reflection and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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