Overview:

Religious believers are not resistant to atheism because it's not reasonable but because they aren't. So, reason needs to be taught early.

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I’m a nonevangelical nontheist.

That’s because I totally accept the fact it’s virtually impossible to convince adult true believers that the divinities they worship, for all intents and purposes, simply can’t be confirmed to exist.

With that view, it seems silly trying to convince believers that their faith is folly. It’s already baked-in, impervious, even hostile to reason.

Sure, if prompted, I’ll talk with anyone, rationally, respectfully, about why I reject all things supernatural. But when they start to argue for God’s existence without evidence (as true believers must), I immediately change the subject, knowing it would be pointless to continue.

However, I’m not averse to discussing religion with anyone who admits, upfront, that proving the existence of divinities is a fool’s errand, but argues that, for example, they still need the nurturing cocoon and inspiring purpose of a faith community to stay centered, and they need to believe something bigger than themselves exists “out there.”

Fair enough.

But I draw the line when people utter the equivalent of, “How can anyone not believe in God; He and his works are self-evident.”

That’s when I quickly pivot to another topic.

The hidebound inertia of faith

It saddened (and frightened) me when I came to understand some years ago that ardent religious belief is like being head-over-heels in love with a terrible person whose glaring deficiencies are starkly evident to absolutely everyone who is not in love with that person yet all-but-invisible to the lover.

Have you ever tried to talk someone out of being in love? Good luck with that.

I mention this after reading another very interesting, very objective, very fair-minded OnlySky Media essay by Will Gervais, a psychology lecturer at the Centre for Culture and Evolution at Brunel University London. The piece is titled “The treasured atheist idea that reason undercuts faith just doesn’t hold up.”

I agree with Gervais, to a degree. As I’ve said, I accept that once faith is well-established in a person’s mind, dislodging it with reason is virtually impossible. As confirmation bias kicks in, any opposing arguments are all but lost in the believers’ self-serving defense.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica explains that confirmation bias is,

… the tendency to process information by looking for, or interpreting, information that is consistent with one’s existing beliefs. This biased approach to decision making is largely unintentional and often results in ignoring inconsistent information. … Philosophers note that humans have difficulty processing information in a rational, unbiased manner once they have developed an opinion about the issue.

Teach the children well … and early

However, in my view, reason still can be effectively employed to counter magical thinking, but it’s largely a matter of timing: To be effective, reason must be employed well before faith is embedded in the mind.

So, I’m talking childhood. Preferably early childhood.

However, Gervais also contends in another recent essay that children are natural skeptics and, thus, not overly susceptible to religious indoctrination.

I don’t really buy that either, although Gervais girded his argument with scientific data. But, to me, the proof is in the pudding—the fact that up until the current uniquely nonreligious Gen Z generation (born since 1996), most kids ended up worshipping the same divinities their parents did—and continued to believe even after they become adults.


READ: What makes ‘skeptical’ kids grow up to be God-believing adults?


So whether it’s indoctrination or something else that sucks kids into the religious vortex, something clearly does.

In my second book, Holy Smoke: How Christianity Smothered the True American Dream (2020), I argue that the key reason Christianity in my country, the United States, has so broadly perpetuated over centuries is because American kids have long been continuously indoctrinated in the faith from an early age and never learn about nontheist views of existence in school before college.

They still don’t. That has given faith a huge cultural advantage over reason by default.

on the other hand
ON THE OTHER HAND | Curated contrary opinions

Will Gervais: The treasured atheist idea that reason undercuts faith just doesn’t hold up

Parents’ fear that children will think for themselves

Atheism (for example) isn’t robustly covered anywhere in American childhood education because the creators of curriculum standards long ago and up to now have caved to parents who feared learning about the existence of faithlessness in the world would lead their children away from their parents’ faith.

Religious parents don’t want their children learning about such threatening things as atheism due to questionable reasoning like this passage in a recent essay—“Is Faith Rational?”—in the Patheos blog hub:

Though faith is above reason because it can attain to knowledge beyond the natural realm, there can never be any real disagreement between faith and reason, as some like to claim, since the same divine Source who revealed the mysteries and communicated faith, has given to the human mind the light of reason, and the Divine cannot contradict Itself, nor can one truth ever deny another truth.

This is exactly why reason is generally useless against the already religious: God Himself is presented as the absolute failsafe against any oppositional argument to faith in God.

I agree with Gervais that reason is not an effective “antidote to faith”—but only if faith is already deeply embedded in a person, even if only partially embedded. It seems to depend on how big a person’s “God-shaped hole” is—how preternaturally disposed, how susceptible a person is to magical thinking about gods and demons and spiritual utopias in the great beyond.

It’s complicated, of course. A lot of genetics, experience and psychology contribute to making a person overly susceptible to anything.

But, all things considered, reason really is the only true antidote to fraudulent fantasies, whether or not any single true believer is even capable of being converted.

That’s another question entirely.

Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...

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