Atheism is becoming a religion and its prophet is Richard Dawkins. The fledgling Church of Dawkins is on track to follow the same evolutionary path trod by other organised religions. Originally, it is intellectuals that embrace the teachings (because they understand their true essence) of the prophet and went about to propagate said teachings. It is when the teachings are made accessible to non-intellectuals that things become interesting.
Part of the effort to propagate the teachings of Dawkins involves dumbing down the message to some extent. Actually to a significant extent. Dawkins wrote big thick books that collectively aimed to explain three essential things:
(1) Life is not engineered. It is a subset of natural self-organisation phenomena and its advanced forms are the outcome of accumulated random mutations shaped by selection pressures applied by nature.
(2) Real knowledge is a continuously-evolving body of information — not something subject to acceptance by edict.
(3) The concept of a “god” is a conversation-ender and has no place in on-going debates that aim to continuously improve the quality, coherence, and soundness of humanity’s collective body of knowledge.
The details and nuances of the above concepts are generally inaccessible to the minds of most people. This is because the human mind is programmed by millions of years of evolution to take cognitive shortcuts in its efforts to make sense of its complex surroundings. The orchestra of emotional response that dominates the human brain is a cognitive ability we share with almost all animal species and is backed by hundreds of millions of years of survival success. Human intelligence, by contrast, is only tens of thousands of years old. Indeed, animals that are stronger, faster, and even far more numerous than humans survive and propagate without human intelligence. For that matter, there are many humans that are able to do the same. Such people are driven mostly by emotion and minimally by the higher brain functions that are unique to our species.
When push comes to shove, emotional response trumps intelligent thought. It takes half a second to thoughtfully consider something. But it takes a tenth of that time to respond emotionally or reflexively. That’s just the way things are. Human minds are wired that way.
No surprise then that society’s most potent institutions have taken advantage of the way the human brain is wired to respond to its surroundings. By transmitting an emotionally-engaging message (in whatever form; an image such as a meme, a 140-character quip, or a poetic string of sounds, say), a savvy messenger can make a roomful of people dance. It is the science behind that ability that business enterprises, politicians and monarchs, and organised religions have invested billions to develop, hone, and apply.
So on spying embriotic institutions starting to form around, say, Richard Dawkins’s work led by people aiming to build a memetic propagation machinery to systematically disseminate his message to a mass audience (an audience consisting of a majority set that are cognitively ill-equipped to intellectually digest Dawkins’s work), we are actually seeing history repeat itself.
The First Church of Atheism, for example, was reportedly founded by comedians Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans. Like many Christian churches, members of the First Church of Atheism gather in a Sunday Assembly to participate in “inspirational talks, readings and sing-alongs”. Jones says that “The Sunday Assembly has been called the atheist church, but we prefer to think of it as all the best bits of church but with no religion and awesome songs.” The congregation is growing and its organisers are now touring the world to spread the word…
“The rate at which it’s growing I think shows that it’s meeting a need,” Melbourne convenor, Kathryn Murray] said.
“Especially within atheism, I think there’s a bit of a stigma that’s gotten attached to it that you have to be angry and outraged and anti-religion to be an atheist and it’s just not true.
“There are heaps of people who don’t believe and just want to be good people and part of a community.”
To be fair, the First Church of Atheism does not prescribe Dawkins as its prophet. But we can defer to the words of Sadhbh Walshe who in his The Guardian column wrote…
I would have thought the message of atheism (if there needs to be one) is that churches and ritualized worship (whatever the focus of that worship might be) are best left to the people who feel the need to have a God figure in their lives. I say this as someone who has done plenty of Elizabeth Gilbert (“Eat, Pray, Love”) style dabbling in various philosophies to find life’s bigger meaning, albeit on a lower budget and so far with less satisfying results – no mega movie deals or hot Brazilian husbands have materialized to date, but the journey continues.
We need to be reminded that the need to congregate and commune, to respond in dance and song to music in groups, and share and socialise experience is a core part of what it means to be human, so much so that this need is shared across cultures and across intellectual ability. This is not to say that communing with fellow atheists, even within a manner organised at a scale that approaches the character of religious institution is bad. As asserted at the start of this piece, we just need to be vigilant that the rigour of atheism’s intellectual origins be kept at the forefront and not be allowed to take a back seat to the human face that the institutions that seek to propagate it seem to be evolving.
The key is balance. Atheism, if perverted enough, can breed its own army of fundamentalists who can apply a cold scientific rationalism to the development of thinking that is not too different from Islamic jihad and Christianic crusade in practice and execution. Given enough non-thinking adherents, atheism can be easily used to justify genocides just as cruel and audacious as that induced in the name of the world’s older more traditional organised religions.
Being a “non-believer” does not necessarily make one an “atheist” much the same way as being an “atheist” does not necessarily make one a “non-believer”.
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