Can Atheism Improve a Society?

People seem to think that a society where atheism has become widespread and religion has been defeated will be a place where different sexualities will be tolerated, sexual freedom will be complete, and the respect for science will reign.

I hate to disappoint but I happen to know for a fact that this is not true.

I was born in a fully atheist society where nobody went to church (let alone a synagogue), religion was ridiculed, and everybody had to take classes on “Scientific Atheism.” We weren’t a country where religion had been driven underground. After several generations of people brought up as atheists, nobody knew anything about religion except that it was “an opium for the masses” and something that very uneducated, backwards folks believed in because they hadn’t discovered the light of reason.

And you know what? Homosexuality was punished by prison sentence in the Soviet Union until 1993. The society was fiercely homophobic in a way today’s United States, a country that is quite religious, is not. Sexual morality was extremely repressive. A young woman would be slut-shamed and vilified if she had a steady boyfriend, irrespective of whether she even had sexual relations with him. Victims of rape were shamed so badly that the suicide rates amongst them were staggering. The general consensus was always that a victim of rape must have “asked for it” in some way or another.

And science? I’m sure you have heard about the persecution of geneticists and cyberneticists in the Soviet Union, right? When the completely atheist leaders of the Soviet Academy of Sciences decided that “Darwin’s evolutionary theory is reductive and unsatisfying”, they persecuted scientists that studied genetics. Many of those scientists were killed for no other crime than practicing their science. Quiet, nerdy folks, killed by an atheist regime because they believed in evolution and wanted to study genetics.

The sad truth is that eradicating religion is not a road to tolerance, freedom, and respect for science. Human beings have a tendency to react violently to the manifestations of sexuality of others, they have a tendency to blame victims as a psychological mechanism of distancing themselves, they have a tendency to fear science and to kill each other.

An atheist society does not do any better or any worse than a religious society in terms of morality, tolerance, intelligence, etc. And you know why that happens? Because the moment religious (or atheist, or agnostic) beliefs stop being a deeply intimate, personal issue, they lose all meaning and turn into yet another way of building collective identities. Their principles become empty formulas that people recite in order to feel less alone in the world.

It doesn’t matter which group you abandon your individuality for. As long as you give up on your right to figure out the fundamental questions of existence for yourself and adopt the answers of any collective, you will become that more likely to participate in barbarity and fanaticism. And atheist fanaticism is just as bad as religious fanaticism.

23 thoughts on “Can Atheism Improve a Society?”

  1. Hence my phrase, “I will always take a moderate believer over a radical nonbeliever.”
    I believe that atheist/agnostic/skeptical activists do a lot of good work bringing to light the importance of protecting secular societies from encroaching religion, which is especially important work in the US (and lately, Canada) and I do sympathize with them, considering how vilified atheism is in many North American circles. But the more outspoken ones remind me of my simile about Canadians viewing religion like underwear: It’s something we all know about, we know it serves a function, and we don’t talk about it in polite company, so please, there’s no need to remind us that you’re going commando or to constantly bring up the benefits of an “unfurnished basement” as it will.


      1. I heard the original bit about “Canadians treat religion like underwear” on another blog. The whole phrase is,
        “We treat it like underwear. We acknowledge that it exists and plays a role in the life of most people; we believe people should be able to obtain whatever kind of it they are comfortable in; we are even beginning to recognise that some people don’t have much use for it and that’s okay. But we are really not comfortable with people who run around showing theirs off in public and get a little freaked out about people who exhibit an interest in other people’s, especially complete strangers’. To drag the analogy to the breaking point, relative to the Canadian political landscape, American politicians walk around without trousers on quite frequently.”
        The bit about the unfurnished basement and going commando are my own inventions. 🙂


  2. But isn’t Russia and other former UdSSR nations strongly influenced by the russian orthodox church today? When did that happen? I mean going from the complete absence of religion to what is today?


    1. In Russia, about 2% of people today are religious. Other people have started observing religious holidays (especially those that involve eating heartily :-)) but actual people who have joined the church are about 2% according to the most recent statistics.

      The ROC was and still is heavily involved with the KGB which is the organization that rules the country. This is what their influence has to do with. Actual religion, however, is not there and obviously will not be there for a long time to come.


    1. Who’s disagreeing? I passionately believe in the separation of church and state. And I mean complete and total separation. Not just a wall of separation but an ocean, a mountain range, a universe of separation.


        1. Teaching is a great example in this context. I can be the best teacher in the universe but if a student doesn’t show up to class, I will not manage to teach them anything. You need a willing student in order to impart knowledge successfully.


  3. “except that it was “an opium for the masses” and something that very uneducated, backwards folks believed in because they hadn’t discovered the light of reason.”

    And even if this was though by an oppressive regime, this is a plain fact. But furthermore, USSR soviet regime was a “crack overdose for the masses”.


    1. “And even if this was though by an oppressive regime, this is a plain fact.”

      – Religion, like love, cannot be collective. When it becomes something shared by the masses it turns into its exact opposite. Take a massive adoration of a movie actor. Would anybody claim that what the multitudes experience is actually love? Of course, not.

      “But furthermore, USSR soviet regime was a “crack overdose for the masses”.”

      – 🙂 🙂 I like your sense of humor. 🙂


  4. I’m admittedly a little jaded at the Soviets being the textbook example of atheism. But there is a less extreme example. Many atheists (including myself) beamed with pride when an atheist (Julia Gillard) became prime minister of Australia, but the honeymoon was soon over when it turned out she opposes marriage equality. Religion and politics are two different things. If one must vote, it makes more sense to do so based on politics than based on religion.


    1. ” Religion and politics are two different things. If one must vote, it makes more sense to do so based on politics than based on religion.”

      – Exactly. Ideally, politicians would not mention their religious beliefs at all. It’s none of anybody’s business and should be kept completely out of the public view in enlightened, secular nations. I always feel vicarious shame for people who start preaching about their religion during an election campaign.


  5. Sadly, this seems to be true about atheists, even from my personal experience. Those who claim enlightenment via science or philosophy are really mostly interested in power relations.

    For instance, long have I delved into the philosophy of Nietzsche. It’s a philosophy of liberation from religious binds, but it also upholds the extreme importance of subjective experience. Certainly, it embraces science, but via subjectivity. For instance, Nietzsche’s THE GAY SCIENCE (not in that sense, silly!) describes how one should base one’s learning of the world on testing one’s hypotheses about it practically. One experiments with one’s life in order to find out what is true or not.

    So, this is easy enough for me to do. I have little in the way of ties that bind my to convention or society, having entirely lost my society and my place in it by the age of 16. On the positive side, that makes me free to experiment.

    However, I’ve never met such opposition to this approach from any sort of person as I have from those who claimed to be “Nietzschean”, who were “philosophers” and so on.

    These were the ones who absolutely couldn’t stand me finding things out of my own accord.

    They castigated me for this in all sorts of ways. I’ve been called some really horrible terms for thinking for myself and engaging in free experimentation.

    I concluded from this that people are not interested in very much about the world, but are keen to embrace a dogma. They want to feel good about themselves, but without any cost to themselves. They want to do it via ideological self-justification.

    So, certainly, atheists are not necessarily superior to organised religious folk in any special way. They tend to both want the same sorts of things in life — power over others and self-vindication through ideology.


    1. “I concluded from this that people are not interested in very much about the world, but are keen to embrace a dogma.”

      – How true. This is why I’m saying that a religious fanatic and an atheist fanatic are pretty much the same person. They have both had the revelation and now want to show the light of their dogma to everybody else. That is, of course, a lot more fun than engaging in a long and painful journey of personal self-improvement. Who needs all that trouble when you can just memorize a set of “true beliefs” and start bestowing them on everybody else? It also is a great way to feel superior because there are bound to be some people somewhere who don’t subscribe to your set of beliefs.


  6. It took me years of thought and contemplation to reach my worldview, which is an atheistic one, and I am very proud of it. But it seems many people are eager to jump on the bandwagon now and that has certainly hurt the atheistic community.

    That being said, I understand the sort of condescending, mean nature of many atheists because I think it is a defense mechanism – albeit an immature one – in reaction to the terrible amount of prejudice against us. Open atheists are unelectable in the US, it appears most people find atheists to be fundamentally less moral than religious people. I can’t help but thinking the US would be better if it were less religious, but perhaps it really is that most religious people mindlessly adopt the dogma of their parents and insist on forcing it on other people. If each person really thought about their religion, this wouldn’t be an issue.

    I still would take a radical atheist over a radical religious person any day for many, many reasons.

    See, I really disagree with the underwear analogy, because I think it is very healthy to talk about/question religion, of course in a respectful way. Especially, because a lot of people (myself included) hold contradictory beliefs, and I think talking about these beliefs is very important and beneficial.


  7. In my mind attieshs and religious extremists are both fundamentally wrong. As far as attieshs saying that moderates and liberals justify the extremists, I am not sure if they are intending to demand that we justify the extremists, or assert that our existence justifies the extremists. It hink your article implies they are asserting the latter. Atheists can say whatever they want, as anyone can. We don’t have to respond in a way that satisfies them. If you don’t believe in a supernatural God, or any doctrines, what makes you religious? That’s the same problem and question I had being in the UU and that’s why I seldom go anymore, instead I go to Unity Church, which is all about prayer and spirituality, and is very very liberal. Philosophically I guess I am an agnostic, or better yet, an ignostic (one who is willing to acknowledge we don’t even know what God is enough to assert whether or not we believe in I am very impatient with religious fundamentalists and am similarly impatient with attieshs. Both sides have WAY too much confidence in their beliefs. They are entitled to their opinions of course, and free to believe and practice, but I think confidence HAS NO PLACE in discussions of the supernatural. I am fascinated enough by the very possibility of a supernatural existence to be endlessly fascinated by religion, spiritualism, and everything related. I thus lean towards faith and religion. Knowing that you DONT KNOW, is a real exercise of faith. To me, the attieshs are asking and answering all the wrong questions most of the time.My willingness to entertain the idea, of the possibility, of a supernatural realm, in no way justifies the folly and foolishness and cruelty and stupidity of religious extremism. The extremist idiots may use (their idea of) the (supposed) will of a supernatural God to justify their insanity and inflexibility. However, believing in God myself does not mean that i support the extremists nonsensical ideas. I think God exists or could exist, and the extremist nuts are just wrong about God and what God wants. I separate the ideas a little more fully than some do I suppose. Just because I believe there might be a supernatural existence doesn’t mean I agree with all the assertions fanatics make about God or anything else supernatural, because I THINK THEY DO NOT KNOW!!!I think abandoning the idea of the supernatural is throwing out the baby with the bathwater and I think it makes an insufficient basis for a religion. I think it’s giving up too soon, and letting the extremists have everything, and define everything, and for what? Because they’re confident? I DONT THINK SO!!!


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