I'm impressed. The atheists are really getting their act together. They now have as coherent, articulate, and well-established a worldview as any religion, and one that's much more logical. The leading lights like Dawkins and Dennett can be quite dogmatic, but many of the rank and file are remarkably thoughtful and open-minded, as witness this post at (blog title notwithstanding) God is for Suckers. (Hat tip to The Mighty Middle, who found it via skeptic rising star The Uncredible Hallq.) There's no question that atheism is one of the fronts of intense inquiry into the nature of life and the universe.
However, the current prominence of "scientific" atheism as fundamentalism's media sparring partner obscures the fact that it is very much a minority position, and almost certain to remain so. A 2003 Gallup poll asked broadly whether respondents believed in "a personal God, universal spirit, or higher power." Five percent said no, 4 percent said "not sure," and a staggering 91 percent said "yes." Of those, however, only 66 percent belong to a religious organization or congregation. If we are to have a snowball's chance in hell of staving off theocracy, it's the 25 percent whose free inquiry ventures beyond the shores of the material who will have to be the wave of the future.
In my current book project (tentative title OUTSIDE: Spiritual Nomads and the Way Beyond Religion), I'm trying to demonstrate to the 25 percent that despite the riotous diversity of views that is a sine qua non of life outside tradition's walls, they -- we -- too actually have a coherent and well-established worldview; it just hasn't been articulated yet.
It is being articulated, however, most brilliantly by Jack Whelan at After the Future. Please go over and read his latest essay, Some Post-Secularist Thoughts. I'll quote it at some length (having received blanket permission from Jack a while back), but these excerpts are no substitute for the full sweep of reasoning. Jack thinks (and I do too) that not only old-time religion, but also secular materialism, is an artifact of the past. The 19th and 20th centuries are as gone as the 3rd and 12th and 17th. We should not mistake their proximity and seductive familiarity for signs of life. Jack:
The culture war between the religious right and the secular left has more to do with the past than the future--it was a modern battle, and we are no longer moderns. [ . . . ]
We are entering an era in which anything goes--we're already in it. It's an era in which there will be no consensus about anything, and people will believe pretty much whatever they want, whatever suits them. The human mind [ . . . ] can come up with the cleverest ways to justify the most absurd ideas. All any argument needs is a splinter of truth, and with it an elaborate fortress of delusion can be built.
And yet there is something in all of us that, despite our proclivity toward delusion, knows the real thing when we find it. And we are more likely than not to find the real thing in those elements in our culture that, even if a little tattered and worse for wear, have withstood the test of time. [ . . . ]
[O]ne such invaluable source of ballast is the world's great religious traditions, east and west. It doesn't matter what the officials of these traditions say or how they try to control things, because they cannot control the uncontrollable. Everything we need is available to us or is implied in these traditions; the question only remains whether we have the will to undertake the quest to find there what will do us any good.
The definition of authority is changing. Too great a proportion of the world's population is now and will continue to be too well informed, to have too easy access to too much information. People will not consent be told what to believe, but they will hearken to those who have found a way to live deeply, authentically from that which has been retrieved from that which sleeps in the tradition. The new authorities will be those who live something that demonstrates that a robust alternative exists which is plausible to the mind, resonant with conscience, and refreshing to the soul. [ . . . ]
The future lies with [those] who can no longer be satisfied by the rationalist/materialist straitjacket of the cultural left or the dead, abstract fundamentalism/dogmatism of the cultural right. They will demand something real, something that lives, that's intellectually honest and yet warm and fertile. [ . . .]
We cannot live as the ancestors lived, but the rationalist prejudices of the moderns caused much that our premodern ancestors valued to be discredited and lost. Our job now is to retrieve the lost gifts, and to adapt it to our life now lived in circumstances unimaginable to the premoderns. [ . . .]
We no longer can maintain a "first naivete", which is the state of the believer before critical consciousness. We must search out what has been forgotten or lost with a second naivete, which is the attitude toward the superrational that is childlike in its receptivity, but, because we must travel lightly, shrewd in its judgments about what is necessary and what superfluous.
That just gets from me a huge YES.
An essay at The Futures Foundation, "Religion: Why It's Here to Stay and What to Do About It", is more reductive than I'd like in locating religion strictly within the human brain, as a sort of hyperfunctioning of its its survival-crafted structures. Most hard-line atheists and philosophical materialists would agree that this is all religion is -- not a perception or intimation, but merely a projection -- a point of view that one day may be proven quite primitive and stupid. However, this essay does conclude, in accord with Jack Whelan, that the religious impulse does much too much for human beings to go away any time soon, and that rather than try to "destroy" it (á la Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett), which just makes it as crazy as a cornered animal, we should try to mature it:
Perhaps the answer lies not in expecting to do away with religious beliefs, but rather in attempting to evolve them. [ . . . ]
If the structures of religious belief are indeed permanent residents in the minds of humans, as research suggests, then perhaps our challenge is to evolve these religious tendencies towards a positive, embracing spirituality, at the same time as steering away from a destructive, fanatical and exclusive fundamentalism. To do so, we must better understand the deep spiritual potential of human beings, and the conditions under which the opposite possibility dominates. This evolved spirituality will help us understand ourselves and our world, and better cope with the human condition at the same time as it facilitates exploration of our expansive spiritual potential. Such a maturation of our innate religious tendencies is but one of humanity's many future challenges.