The Reason Revolution, a dangerously naive little book about Atheism
by Ivar Slavenburg
A while ago, Dan Dana, the author of „The Reason Revolution: Atheism, Secular Humanism, and the Collapse of Religion” sent out an invitation to review his upcoming eBook. The title was very inspiring so I signed up. The book is available now. After reading it extensively, find below my review.
As the title suggests, the main point of the author is that the influence of religion on society is decreasing. Secular humanism will take over its role. This raises a series of questions, to begin with, the evidence that this is taking place and why this is a good and, maybe also in some cases, a bad thing.
The scientific evidence of Atheism
It was the late Christopher Hitchens who stated that the extra ordinary claims of religion should be backed up by extra ordinary proof. Undoubtedly, he had agreed that the opposite would apply as well and in his book “God is not great” he succeeds very well. Unfortunately, that does not apply to Dana and his book, as hardly any scientific evidence is presented for the claims the author makes.
There is an extensive chapter that describes 9 reasons why religion should be treated with skepticism. The author claims they are all derived from scientific discovery. In short they are:
- Today, there can be found many religions on earth. History learns there were many more in the past. How how do we know which one of al those religions is the right one?
- In the whole cosmic “machinery”, the human race looks rather insignificant. Why would a heavenly creator (or creators?) go through all this trouble? Just for us?
- The theory of evolution provides the best explanation for the development of species on earth, much better than e.g. creationism, as taught by Christianity.
- From philosophy we learn that the current state of humans is just an accident. If sometimes in history one sperm cell had taken a different road, important figures in our history might not even have existed (e.g. Jesus, Mohammed, etc.).
- The concept of a God is often used to explain gaps in our knowledge of how the universe works. However, science is capable to ever more close these gaps, eliminating the need for a God.
- The human species is an emotional animal that wants to believe things if it helps to be relieved from hurt (e.g. after the death of a loved one). This makes it susceptible for being influenced by clergy offering the possibility of rejoining with loved ones in some sort of afterlife.
- The lack of evidence for prayer to work, which suggests either God is not listening, does not care, is powerless or does not exist.
- The need of humans to be lead and the urge for strong leadership, a need that only organised religion was capable to fulfil in early days.
- Most leading scientists are atheist.
The list seems to contain some overlapping arguments, e.g. number 3 and 4 are the same. Important arguments seem to be missing, e.g. why no evidence have ever been found of the events that are described in holy books, like the Thora, the Bible and the Quran, ever took place. Did we ever find any evidence for the existence of Noah’s arc?
However, as part of argument number 7, the author remarks „For reasons understood well by evolutionary psychologists, humans form durable emotional attachments (love) to family members and friends”. This in itself is a powerful explanation for many phenomena normally assigned to religious morals. Unfortunately, the author doesn’t elaborate on this point or, for that matter, actually proofs it by referring to scientific publications.
Some arguments on the list are not proving that much. Isn’t logical that scientists believe that science is better in describing the world around us the religion? Well, actually the ratio of scientist being religious is hardly any different than of “normal” humans. Only among the small group of leading scientists it is lower.
It should be clear there are more scientific arguments against religion than those mentioned by the author. For whatever reason Dana chooses to either omit them or maybe he is simply not aware of them. The latter could make clear why the author isn’t telling you he is making a selection, and thus where his selection is based on. Or maybe he didn’t study the subject enough to be able to provide a complete overview. Who knows?
The dynamics of change
Based on his scientific evidence, the author argues that to change a society, support of the political class is important. That’s clearly disproved in many classical liberal, aka scientific, theories. He states „governments create laws that encode the religious tenets of one segment of the population into enforced policies that apply to all citizens”, which he identifies as a problem. In the next chapter he takes a different view though, as he states that politics will change if the people change, because „democratic governments will follow their people”. Maybe both mechanism apply (or none); in his book, Dana keeps it a mystery what the dynamics behind change in a society is, especially the one we are dealing with here.
He notes that he „“admire[s] societies and national governments that share this [secular humanistic] worldview and implement those values through policy”, though he fails to mention one example of such a society or national government. It does become clear though that he doesn’t mean the US government though, with an ever increasing influence of religion in state affairs. Dana states „I shudder to think that America might one day be among them [countries guided by religious morals, IS], and I do my civic duty as a voter to prevent that outcome.”
The unsupported case for a Paradigm shift
In the chapter „The collapse of religion”, the author predicts a paradigm shift, because of a „globale consensus that […] religion is bunk”. He supports his claim by pointing to the change in public opinion in America over same sex marriage. However, this is a pretty thin argument, as it seems that primarily certain elites in American society have changed their opinion and now use state laws to push it down the throats of the unwilling part of their citizens. You might find this a good development, but it is no argument for a change of opinion, let alone that is says anything about the position of religion in American society.
Additionally, the recent SCOTUS decisions, where particular parts of health care insurance coverage for employees can be denied based on the religious beliefs of their employer is not pointing in a the direction of decreased influence of religion on American society at all. It seems more like a dance, where American is taking some steps in one direction and some other in the opposite. Where it will end up is hard to predict.
Much more important is that, since the author is so focused on scientific evidence to „debunk” religion, you expect the argument for a paradigm shift to be backed up by scientific facts, but this isn’t really done. As already mentioned, no mechanism is described how such a paradigm will take place, nor is it backed up by actual information (demographic trends, etc.). As such, it remains an utopian prediction of a better world. The use of the word utopian is on purpose here to stress the actual developments in all western countries, including the US.
The scientific argument of demographics
In his book America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It (signed copies available here), the author Mark Steyn describes a different paradigm shift and he does seem to have scientific data to back up his claims. Demographic developments in e.g. all major European countries show that the Muslim population is growing, while the “original”, predominantly secular or christian population is declining. It is estimated that in some parts of Europe in only 2 to 3 generations Islam will be the dominant religion in those countries! In some cities, like Malmo, Brussels and Paris it already becomes clear what the consequences will be for the secular humanist society that the author is in favour of so much: it ceases to exist.
In other words, if demographic, scientific, evidence is considered, there is no reason to believe that in those countries atheism will prevail anytime soon. Especially since in these countries Islam is already claiming (and getting) certain rights and privileges. To me, this seems like an amazing and dangerous oversight of the author!
Focus on less relevant arguments
My thought after reading this document is that it is far to much focused on whether or not religion is compliant with science. In other words, whether it is “true”.
Like some other writers, I think that even if God exists and one of the many holy books turn out to contain his words indeed, religion is still left empty handed, as the morals God is teaching remain highly questionable.
His ways and teachings are cruel and violent. His position on gays and women ridiculous and simplistic. Bottom line is that civilised people shouldn’t want to live their lives this way. Science provides some nice and overwhelming evidence against the the validity of religious claims, but whether or not the stories told in the holy books are true or not is of secondary importance. More important is what they try to teach people, which actions they want to provoke among their believers!
Obviously, the author is entitled to his hopes and dreams. However, if this is all he has to show for, the case for atheism as the dominant view in society in the near future is, as presented here, underwhelming and at times significantly flawed.
Fact checking and investigation
The danger is that people reading this book will think that everything will be alright, they will not conceive it as what it in my opinion should be, a call to action! Contrary to his hopes and dreams, there is no overwhelming evidence that secularism is on the winning side, let alone whether what is potentially replacing it is any better! So, if you want to live in a free society, you better have a plan!
In conclusion, concerning this book, I think the absence of a debate about the moral teachings of religion and instead sole focus on scientific evidence, his unsupported claim concerning the bright future of atheism and the lack of a clear call to action makes this is a dangerous document that needs further investigation and fact checking. It is only fortunate that there are countless other books available that does that job pretty well.
Photo Credits: Ivar Slavenburg, “Cornflower”