Recently perusing a back issue of The New Yorker (from May 21, 2007), I noticed an article by Anthony Gottlieb on post-9-11 atheism titled “Atheists with Attitude” (77-80), the conclusion of which I found arresting:
[O]ne can venture conservative estimates of the number of unbelievers in the world today. Reviewing a large number of studies among some fifty countries, Phil Zuckerman, a sociologist at Pitzer College, Claremont, California, puts the figure at between five hundred million and seven hundred and fifty million. This excludes such highly populated places as Brazil, Iran, Indonesia, and Nigeria, for which information is lacking or patchy. Even the low estimate of five hundred million would make unbelief the fourth-largest persuasion in the world, after Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism. It is also by far the youngest, with no significant presence in the West before the eighteenth century. Who can say what the landscape will look like once unbelief has enjoyed a past as long as Islam’s—let alone as long as Christianity’s? God is assuredly not on the side of the unbelievers, but history may yet be.
Isn’t the idea that history may be on the side of atheism a striking thought? What we think of as natural (that most people are religious and have always been religious; that religious institutions and practices are human universals that will never change) may, in fact, be a mere artifact of the relatively short time frame through which we reflect on history.
Religion, in other words, might only seem inevitable because we tend to think of civilization as what’s gone on over the past 5,000 years.
But what if we widen our time frame? What if we see ourselves at the beginnings of a global civilization that will continue for another 50,000 years—or 500,000 years?
If we do this, it means that we’re in our collective infancy, and belief in gods—far from being inevitable—may well be just a part of that infancy, without much of a future. Like the gargoyals on the facades of medieval cathedrals, religious figures might still have the power to mesmerize and fright, but behind their image is really nothing substantial linking them to humanity’s ongoing intellectual evolution.
From the vantage of a person living 5,000 years from now, he or she may look back on a global civilization which, for thousands of years, half (or more than half) of its human beings have not been especially religious, and it will not seem at all natural to him or her that they must be so in the future.
A similar observation can be made about other things thought of by many people in our time as natural (such as war, patriarchy, racism, nationalism, and homophobia).
Maybe the gnu atheists, Gandhi, Barack Obama, feminists, Enlightenment-oriented internationalists, and gays are leading the way to our global civilization’s most natural (future) norms—the norms of empiricism, doubt, peace, individuality, universal friendliness, and justice.
Perhaps this is where we’re really trending. Religion, war, patriarchy, racism, nationalism, and homophobia may only seem natural in the light of our civilization’s infancy, not its maturity.