Successful society of atheists or mostly areligious people?

Cliff Arroyo informs us:

I usually describe myself as incapable of religious faith (that part of my brain/mind/soul/whatever is just plain missing). But I do have an attraction to a lot of religious imagery and/or practice.

I also respect religion and religious belief and it’s clear that human societies function best when some religion is present for the majority. It’s easy for the religious authorities or dogma to become too powerful which is awful but in the other direction there’s no record of any successful society of athiests or mostly areligious people.

I see no record of any set of cultural templates succeeding indefinitely. As far as any successful society of atheists or mostly areligious people, such a society (if it even exists) is something fairly new under the sun. Atheist literature, for all practical purposes, only goes back a couple of centuries or so. I’ve always wondered what explains this. I don’t think it’s a matter of atheism being a recent invention. I used to think it was simply a reflection of how persecuted, and therefore deeply closeted, atheists were prior to the Enlightenment, combined with the destruction of whatever writings might have existed in spite of that. This doesn’t quite fit, as we know a fair amount about other heresies such as albigensians, etc. I suspect that it may be that people living in a pre-scientific time and place are as incapable of contemplating non-divine explanations of phenomena as Cliff Arroyo is of religious faith. If that is the case (or if the recent arrival of atheism in the marketplace of ideas is due more to persecution) then atheism as a cultural norm is very young compared to rival systems, and it would be premature to dismiss it as patently non-viable. At any rate, secularity’s place in the present-day marketplace of ideas, including ideas about how to “run a society,” is one in which the other side has had a millenia-long head start.

I have done a little informal public opinion research on the whole question of whether civic religiosity is a prerequisite for civilization. One of the items in my questionnaire was:

Without widespread belief in the truth of some religion, life would be very unsafe.

Of course the pattern of responses to this survey item demonstrates a heavy bias indicating the sorts of people with whom I tend to be in contact. The correlation between answers to this item and answers to others raises some questions. If some kind of Fear of God is one of the major strategies for dissuading some types of conduct that are not conducive to civilization, what sorts of baggage might that bring with it? Is there truly no way out of this trap, which has deeply authoritarian implications?

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13 Responses to Successful society of atheists or mostly areligious people?

  1. “As far as any successful society of atheists or mostly areligious people, such a society (if it even exists) is something fairly new under the sun.”

    - I’m from such a society. I can say that it is definitely a relief not to have wasted any time on stupid church visits in my childhood. And not to have been brainwashed by idiotic beliefs. At the same time, we ended up being a society where moral norms are simply absent, even among good, intellectual wonderful people. I;m still not sure whether that has anything to do with religion or lack thereof, though. Maybe I should write a post about it.

  2. Todd S says:

    I would say that quite a few societies have been atheistic, at least in the sense of the society itself not being guided by any organized religious principles. The ancient Greeks and Romans, despite having large pantheons of deities available to worship, were generally areligious (though no less authoritarian than the devout societies).

    • n8chz says:

      Good point. Roman civilization was viable one way or another for a good millennium; solidly a good pre-Christian half millennium.

    • Lindsay says:

      That’s the first I’ve heard that the Romans were a-religious … I thought they had, not just a pantheon, but also public religious holidays? Priests and priestesses? And also wasn’t there a thing about the Emperor being a god?

      Aside from that, though, I did have a similar thought to you, in that I’m pretty sure that what we call “religion” is not as old as human society.

      • Todd S says:

        We have most of that today, and I certainly would not call the present day US a religious society. For the average person on the street, gods and their worship plays a very small role in their day-to-day lives now as it did then. Anthropological accounts of the time give the impression that deference to the gods was more rote than pious. Now, if we expand “religion” to include things not relating to divinity, then we most certainly are religious today. Our religion just goes by names like “liberalism” and “progress”. And since the birth of the Westphalian nation-state, the nation itself has become something of a deity.

        One problem with this discussion is that the originator has defined the terms so narrowly, that I can’t see that what he’s referring to has ever existed in the first place, let alone succeeded. And as you point out, the measures of this “success” are themselves open to interpretation.

      • Lindsay says:

        Oh, okay.

        I very much would call the present-day US a religious society! So either “religion” does not mean the same thing to us, or our impressions of present-day US society differ.

        I definitely see what you are talking about with the nation itself becoming a deity, though. And we certainly have that going on, to some extent merged with the de facto state religion of Christianity and to some extent coexisting with it.

        Are you an American? I am, and I live in Kansas. This — as opposed to if I lived in, say, New York or LA — is probably why I think the US is a religious society.

  3. cliff arroyo says:

    Unless you’re saying most Romans actively disbelieved in gods and/or rejected their observance that’s not what I meant (I used the word ‘areligious’ idiosyncratically but dont’ necessarily want to try to define it now). China might be a better example since the leading traditional religion isn’t really.

    I was mainly thinking of a) ex-Soviet style states where decades of officially sanctioned and often coerced atheism seems to have had a devestating effect on social relations that are nowhere near recovering yet.

    I’m also thinking of ‘post religious’ western european societies which are actively failing demographically (if a society can’t be bothered to reproduce at around replacement level it’s a failure and will be replaced by one that does). There are also more religious societies facing demographic collapse but I can’t think of a mostly non-religious (another term I won’t define right now) society that’s succeeding at a society’s first task : reproduce at a level needed to keep the society going.

    • Lindsay says:

      … [A] society’s first task: reproduce at a level needed to keep the society going.

      I don’t think that is the Categorical Imperative you seem to think it is, for two reasons. 1) cultural propagation is not the same as genetic propagation, and the latter is not necessary to the former; and 2) even if it were, now we are facing existential threats posed by too many people, especially too many people in industrialized societies. So for us to survive for more than another century or two, with living conditions rapidly degrading during that time, we have to figure out how to keep a society running with steadily fewer people.

    • n8chz says:

      I view birth rate reduction as a sign of success, not failure. It’s no coincidence that birth rate correlates both strongly and negatively with everything associated with high quality of life, from per-capita GDP, to level of education, to gender/sex equity. Of course, there is no way to switch from exponential population growth to sustainable population maintenance without a period in which the population’s age distribution is “top heavy.” This can of course be used by the crafty and devious as an argument against Social Security, or as an argument against the responsible preference for smallish family size, or both. But the “baby boom” generation will eventually pass through the python and be excreted into the hereafter. The much-ballyhooed “demographic crisis” of the so-called welfare state is a temporary problem, which I don’t believe to be the case for the alternative.

  4. Lindsay says:

    I would like to know what a successful society is, and whether one has ever existed.

    • n8chz says:

      I’m not holding out for an immortal society. I think a civilization or culture that manages to pass some art and literature to the (on a human scale) distant future is pretty successful in one sense. If they also pass on legal or ethical, maybe political principles, that’s a bonus. If they achieve several lifetimes of some combination of peace, prosperity, innovation, etc., I’d call that success.

      Sometimes we use the shark or the horseshoe crab as an example of evolutionary success because it bears a striking resemblance to fossils that pre-date the dinosaurs. As with genes, so also with memes. If a cultural pattern can go centuries or millennia with a stable set of mores, folkways, and governing principles, that’s a type of success, but if a culture, polity or way of life can rapidly obsolete itself within a lifetime with a burst of innovation producing lasting and replicable advances, I’d call that a grand success. If some fraction of their population are traumatized or made casualties by the shock value of even positive change, that of course is a subtraction from overall level of civilizational success.

  5. cliff arroyo says:

    There’s a whole bunch of undefined terms that are being used differently here. So I’ll try to clarify my position (a little).

    by “religious” I mean (roughly): a majority (maybe slim but 50% +1) has some kind of religious belief and a majority of those people make at least a minimal effort to practice something that might be called a religion.
    by “areligious” I mean (roughly): a majority has no religious belief and/or a majority of those who do pronounce some religious belief make no effort to follow their supposed ‘faith’.

    Cultural continuition sounds like a nice idea but does it really work in practice? The shakers tried it and look where they ended up.

    I think the benefit of some kind of widespread shallow religious belief is not that it scares people into behaving well but that it helps stave off nihilism (for most people) and makes them think that continuing their way of life into the future is worthwhile and that helps them go through the difficulties and inconveniences of raising future generations. It’s not enough (there are very religious countries with low birth rates) but it can help.

    I think countries learning to live with less populations is a good idea, but the elites (who actually set policy) don’t and are detrmined to bring in new warm bodies to take up what they see as the economic slack and don’t care if these new warm bodies are interested in continuing the culture of their host countries – and mostly they’re not. The old model of assimilatory immigration is mostly dead and immigration now mostly means population and cultural replacement.

  6. zahid karim khan says:

    right but for me religions have normally been made to satiate ones one desires of fame and power and to some extent wealth. religion is good when no humans are involved such as the prophets but the human common sense is involved where there is a god of all who does not have any particular shape or size and has no special relationship with any human being hence having no prophet has no heavens or hells in the life hereafter but a system for punishment and reward here in the world for these who escape the law of a state being influential

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