By Gerry Dedera, Humanities Faculty.

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Dawkins, Harris, Dennett

Religion Without God, the last book of the late philosopher Ronald Dworkin, will be published later this year by Harvard University Press according to the April 4th edition of “The New York Review of Books.”  This follows the flurry of recent bestselling books like The God Delusion by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, God Is Not Great by the late essayist and editor Christopher Hitchens, and The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation by neuroscientist Sam Harris, which heralded the entrance of what some have called “Radical Atheism.”  Hitchens went so far as to identify himself as an “anti-theist” to make sure everyone understood just how poisonous he believed any form of religion to be.  Search any of those names, along with others like philosopher Daniel Dennett and theoretical physicist Lawrence M. Krause, on You Tube to witness their titanic debates with a variety of religious scholars and leaders.  The fact that Dworkin’s book seeks to identify some common ground between religion and atheism demonstrates the strides nonbelief has made toward replacing religious belief as the norm in our society.  And this is a microcosm of the much larger historical trend.

The oldest human societies were tribal in nature, organized around families and patriarchs.  One can gauge the development of a modern civilization by its distance from tribalism.  Tribalism divides people in groups and seeks its own survival as the paramount good.  Religions are tribes.  Each holds its own beliefs in highest regard while claiming to know that the beliefs of all other tribes are ultimately and catastrophically wrong.  There may be some lip service regarding tolerance and diversity, but when push comes to shove, there is no tolerance of diversity.  Look no further than the histories of Northern Ireland for Catholic versus Protestant, or Jewish Israel versus Muslim Palestinians, or Hindu India versus Muslim Pakistan, or even Shiite Iran versus Sunni Iraq.  Wherever human beings seek to live together in peace with one another, religion is not enshrined as a prominent feature of that society.  Conversely, wherever religion is enshrined as a prominent feature, there is no peace among tribes.  That must surely be why the Founders of our nation expressly prohibited, through the First Amendment to the Constitution, enshrining any single religion as our national faith.  Refusing to promote one deemphasizes all.  The founding of the United States was the significant historical step away from tribalism by intentionally decoupling civil society from religious belief.  There have been, and continue to be, efforts to reconnect religion and state, but they are in response to a bridge already crossed and must ultimately fade from our public discourse.

Further evidence of the decline of religion can be seen within religions themselves.  The Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam illustrate the point. The oldest of the three, Judaism, is the most secular.  Whether being Jewish requires some degree of religious belief or ethnicity or cultural identity or Israeli citizenship or some combination of these to one degree or another is a topic of serious discussion among Jews.  Simply put, many Jews, perhaps a majority, claim that their Jewish identity can be lived devoid of religious belief.  The second oldest religion, Christianity, is on the same path.  The number of people who identify themselves as Christian, but do not attend worship services or believe what their leaders tell them is essential to their faith continues to grow.  There is no reason to think that this trend will reverse itself.  Finally, Islam, the youngest of the three, may be currently the most militant, but not to a greater degree than Judaism or Christianity were at about the same age.  Look no further than the Israelite invasion of Canaan or the Crusades or Inquisition for examples of barbarous militant exclusivism.  It would be interesting to compare timelines of these three religions to see what each was up to at about the same age.  But that’s for a later time.

For now, it is clear that we live in a time when religious belief is necessarily waning because of increased interaction with people of backgrounds different from our own.  Holding fast to the notion that my tribes’ beliefs ultimately represent the only accurate understanding of Truth inhibits efforts to interact with others as equals.  The historical trajectory of the three Abrahamic religions offers further evidence.  So, if the arc of history bends toward justice, as Martin Luther King claimed, it must also bend toward atheism.

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