© Chris Port, 11th July 2011
I've recently been involved in discussions on how to promote the causes of atheism and secularism. There is no shortage of academic ammunition. The scientific and rational arguments against religious fundamentalism have won every battle.Yet the war drags on.
Why hasn't atheism landed a knockout blow? Because the other side hasn't shown up. Atheists end up punching empty air because religious fundamentalists aren't even fighting in the same boxing ring. They don't engage in rational debate. They proselytize on the basis of emotion rather than reason. This is what makes them so dangerous, because atheists usually walk away from emotional debate as being 'beneath them'. This is just ceding the seed ground. Atheism needs to fight religious fundamentalism on its home turf - the emotions.
To this end, we've been looking at ways of popularizing atheism. At the moment, atheists sometimes come across as being against other people's happiness because it's based on a delusion. Probably so, but this can make atheism seem negative and uncaring - an intellectual killjoy.
I recently suggested that the arts are a natural forum in which to broaden atheism's appeal. Rather than arrogant academics laboriously explaining why laymen's beliefs are wrong, atheism needs to develop a more positive belief system of its own. Religion has centuries of experience at converting people. I believe that the arts can fill religion's shoes.
If any of this interests you, I would be grateful if you could let me know of any particular works of art that have had a profound effect on you.
- Perhaps a piece of music moved you to tears or a state of sublime serenity?
- Perhaps a dance or painting expressed a mood or moment beyond words?
- Perhaps a poem found perfect words for something you immediately recognized but thought inexpressible?
- Perhaps a film or play was so powerful, so thought-provoking or emotionally exhausting, that you left that darkened room a transformed human being?
These are all natural states of epiphany which many people experience directly for themselves. They are as profound as the supernatural episodes which they are asked to take on good faith in various religious texts. They also have the added advantage of being real.
Please let me know what art has done for you.
* * * * * * *
[Here is the text of my commentary on the atheism and populism debate].
For those who wish to sway the plebeians, I think that there's a cautionary lesson to be learned from Mark Antony's speech to the mob in Julius Caesar...
The plebs nod politely when the honourable Brutus appeals to their sense of reason. But after only a few minutes of Marc Antony's manipulative appeal to their emotions, they're off to firebrand the conspirators out of town.
The awful truth that Shakespeare (and others, like Jim Morrison) picked up on is that the masses are a 'monster of energy' rather than angels of the intellect. Since demagogy would probably go against every rational bone in your body, the real question is how to make the intellect appeal to the emotions?
Science is wonderful. But unfortunately, to most neophytes, much of it is arcane and dull. The notable exceptions are 'celebrity' scientists enthusing about cosmology - and this should give you a heavy hint.
The 'simple' message is actually a message of 'awestruck wonder' at the complexity of the universe (which is very similar in feeling to the 'hit' that apprehension of God gives religious opium addicts). For me, the natural simple message that atheists are looking for is somewhere between science and art.
I have yet to meet another human being who isn't interested in art (although many have quite appalling tastes, but ho hum, Rome wasn't built in a day...) I would argue that art is what keeps most people sane. Even corporate reptiles like to chill out in the evening with a bit of music, or a fantasy film. If you want to steal religion's 'awe', I would look at ways of linking science with art.
The reason most people cling on to God is because they find the concept comforting, beautiful and meaningful. Hey? Guess what? Art does that. I would work on making art the new religion (with celebrity scientists in place of 'priests').
"Meaning is in art and aesthetics, not in unquestioning dogma."
"Don't worry about ‘reality’. You can never know it. I’m not sure if it even exists in any meaningful sense. Just know which game you’re playing. And learn the rules for that game. It’s the trick to a happy life..."