Obstacles to Skepticism, Atheism & Secular Humanism
While many of these areas are interrelated, we’ve tried to tease out and address the major obstacles to moving towards a more secular worldview. We recognize that change in this area can be especially difficult and would recommend major changes only when you are emotionally ready and have the support of at least one major relationship in your life (or can establish one through the process e.g. The Clergy Project, FASHA, etc.). Sometimes it is even worth considering the professional guidance of a trained professional. Whatever path you take, Flathead Area Secular Humanist Association wants you to know that we are here to provide whatever resources, support and guidance we can. In the Resources area, there are many links to resources that may help you along your journey.
False Positives: Current research seems to indicate that we may be ‘hard wired” towards belief in the supernatural. It is believed that this is an evolutionary adaptive trait which gave humans a survival advantage. An often cited example of this is one in which you picture yourself as a hunter gatherer walking through the woods. You suddenly think you see a tiger through the thick undergrowth but you’re not sure. In this situation, it is much more advantageous for you to believe that there IS a tiger even when there is not one. If you are wrong, you loose little. On the flip side, if you proceed and are wrong, you loose your life (and the ability to reproduce). This beneficial trait to respond to false positives would have been selected for and thereby increased in early human populations. Religious belief may be a generalized extension of this adaptive trait
Perceived “Agency”: Agency is the human trait to see “intentions” in animate and inanimate objects. In the case of animate objects, to be able to predict with some accuracy whether another human or an animal intends you harm certainly is a huge survival advantage for an individual, even if you are wrong (related to “False Positives” above). It would allow those individual those few extra seconds in order to avoid harm. Once this trait was established, combined with the human capacity and desire to “predict” the world around them, it is easy to see how this trait would be generalized to the inanimate world. Does that storm, volcano, earth shaking, drought or flood have agency behind it? Maybe. Better to be safe than sorry. It may have not have given early humans any actual biological survival advantage, but it almost certainly gave them some feeling of control/comfort in an otherwise unpredictable world. Individuals like shamans, witch doctors, etc. and later, organized religion, have been the social vehicles to address these unseen “agencies”.
Cognitive Dissonance: Cognitive dissonance is the psychological stress we feel when we are confronted with information that contradicts our current beliefs. Of course, people don’t like stress and work to resolve it as soon as possible. There are generally two options when cognitive dissonance arises. One is to dismiss the new information as completely and quickly as possible. This can be accomplished through a whole host of defense mechanisms; rationalizing it as inaccurate, minimizing it as unimportant, discrediting the source, etc.. It is worth noting that this can occur instantaneously and reflexively, sometimes even without conscious awareness. The other option is to consciously tolerate the stress, be aware of and resist defenses as they arise, seek out confirmatory evidence, and if warranted, incorporate the evidence into a new and more accurate worldview. Secular Humanist strive to choose this second option.
Confirmation Bias: In order to avoid Cognitive Dissonance as much as possible, people tend to seek out information that confirms current beliefs and to dismiss information that contradicts those beliefs. While everyone is susceptible to the confirmation bias, it appears to be an especially strong feature in religious belief. This is evident in the fact that the majority of believers have not actually read most of their “holy” books and therefore, either through self study or “church shopping”, “pick” the passages and concepts that are the best fit for their current beliefs (e.g. in christianity, not reading Leviticus or Deuteronomy and only focusing on the “good news”). More generally, people tend to seek out books, online resources, articles, people, etc.. which support or do not challenge their current beliefs. The confirmation bias is so strong, that recent studies have shown that when people’s deep seated beliefs are effectively challenged, the short term result is an actual strengthening of their original beliefs. Secular Humanism is a worldview that attempts to counteract this tendency by being open to, but skeptical of, all new lines of evidence. For example, if compelling evidence for a god were to be presented, Secular Humanists would be open to that evidence and to changing their beliefs accordingly.
Black and White Thinking: While either/or thinking can serve a useful purpose in emergencies and helps us to feel more assured, it is also constraining and inflexible (e.g. fundamentalists tend to be constrained by a holy book and therefore close themselves off from the wonders of evolution, other sciences or the dangers of climate change). When used outside of it’s area of usefulness, either/or thinking can constrain thinking, emotional responses, problem solving and critical thinking. As a result, it makes us less responsive to an ever changing world and therefore constrains our potential. Secular Humanism seeks to increase our capacity for more flexibility in these areas by being open to other points of view, new evidence and new possibilities. This doesn’t mean we have an “anything goes” attitude, only that we recognize that there are many shades of gray and that deeply held beliefs may need alteration with new evidence/information.
Authoritarianism – Best described by Robert Altemeyer from his book – The Authoritarians – “”Authoritarians are highly submissive to established authority, aggressive in the name of that authority, and conventional to the point of insisting everyone should behave as their authorities decide. They are fearful and self-righteous and have a lot of hostility in them that they readily direct toward various outgroups. They are easily incited, easily led, rather un-inclined to think for themselves, largely impervious to facts and reason, and rely instead on social support to maintain their beliefs. They bring strong loyalty to their in-groups, have thick-walled, highly compartmentalized minds, use lots of double standards in their judgments, are surprisingly unprincipled at times, and are often hypocrites. But they are also Teflon-coated when it comes to guilt. They are blind to themselves, ethnocentric and prejudiced, and as close-minded as they are narrow-minded.” It is of little wonder how and why a person raised in a fundamentalist environment would grow up to have their psyche shaped in this way.
Fears: Fear is a healthy emotion and serves us well from a survival standpoint. It keeps us safe by avoiding behavior or situations that would be harmful to us. But sometimes fears can be unwarranted, restraining and/or unhealthy. We believe that many of the fears arising from religious belief fall into this latter category. Here are some of them.
- “Something bad will happen”: When you are brought up from an early age believing that “hell” is real and that “doubt” is the greatest sin, it is to be expected that even small mental movements in the direction of non-belief will be immediately met with fear, guilt or even dread. This is what keeps many, many people stuck in their “faith”. Either consciously or unconsciously, individually or collectively, through dogma or institutional structure, religions have and do effectively reinforce this fear. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Countless courageous atheists have broken this “spell” and nothing bad has happened – no lightening strikes, no unexplained illnesses, no sudden increase in accidents, etc.. Of course, these things still happen, but no longer are they attributed to “supernatural forces” but are seen as simply painful facts as a result of living in a universe that is ambivalent towards our health or survival. As has been known for centuries “Good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people”. The fact is that many atheists, after leaving religion and superstition behind, feel that a weight (in this case a fear) has been lifted. We hope you find your way there.
- Social Stigma: A recent reliable poll indicated that atheists are perceived as one of the most untrustworthy minorities in America today. “People use cues of religiosity as a signal for trustworthiness,” the researchers write in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Given that “trustworthiness is the most valued trait in other people,” this mental equation engenders a decidedly negative attitude toward nonbelievers. “A number of researchers have argued that religious beliefs may have been one of several mechanisms allowing people to cooperate in large groups, by in effect outsourcing social monitoring and punishment to supernatural agents,” they write. Religion, in other words, has served a specific function throughout much of human history (beyond assuaging existential fears): It keeps people in line, discouraging them from engaging in selfish acts that hurt the larger community. The Researchers point to recent research that bears this notion out; several studies have found people engage in less-selfish behavior “when reminded of watchful supernatural agents”. If you believe – even implicitly – that the prospect of divine retribution is the primary factor inhibiting immoral behavior, then a lack of belief in a higher power could amount to a free pass. A 2002 Pew Research Center survey found nearly half of Americans feel morality is impossible without belief in God. Secular Humanism is a worldview that counteracts this historic and cultural belief. Secular Humanism proudly affirms that you can be good without a belief in god. In fact, we claim Secular Humanism is morally superior to religion’s emphasis on “acting” morally to avoid punishment (hell) or gain reward (heaven). With the understanding that our actions have either positive or negative effects on other people, the world, and on us as individuals right now and into the future, Secular Humanists strive to be good simply for the sake of being good. Secular Humanist morals are “grounded” in reality and are changeable as we become aware of new evidence. Our American legal system is largely a reflection of Secular Humanist morality i.e. based on the pro-social ideals of; doing no harm, accepting responsibility for mistakes (making changes), doing unto others as you would want done unto you, etc.. Like the Secular Humanism moral framework, our legal system is also responsive and flexible in responding to advances in understanding.
- Loss of/Stress in Social Connections: We are social animals and have a need for social connection. Religions generally provide a context and structure for these social connections and satisfy this need very well. Connections with family and friend can, at least superficially, be reinforced by common religious beliefs. Sometimes, religion is “the only game in town”. But what happens when you no longer hold those shared beliefs? How will you get your social needs met? Many people respond to this angst by “going through the motions”. They attend church, they bow their heads at the dinner table, but their heart just isn’t in it. This seems an emotionally lonely way to live a life and is one, if not the most, painful experiences of a budding atheist. Others join other social organizations – sports teams, men’s and women’s clubs, etc.. But what about alternatives where you can be in the company of people who share your more deeply held beliefs (discussing what your favorite football team is only goes so far). No sugarcoating – coming “out of the closet” as a non-believer will often result in major changes in your social life both with family and friends. Some relationships will end and some will have more distance. But, other will grow stronger (How many friends and family members share your “doubts”?) sometimes just out of respect for your courage and honesty. While Secular Humanism doesn’t promise a complete replacement, it does attempt to offer an alternative. While we currently don’t have the resources in the social area that religion has developed over decades and centuries, you joining us is a step in that direction.
- “Life Will Be Meaningless”: Moving away from the only metaphysical “meaning” that you have ever known is difficult and should be approached cautiously. Some people do indeed “need” religion especially when they don’t know about alternatives. Without an alternative, this can result in feeling “lost”, depressive symptoms, and nihilism (that life is without objective meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value). As a result, some people move to a non-supernatural source of meaning in a progressive process (e.g. moving from one of the monotheisms, through to Eastern philosophies, then to “New Age” spirituality and we hope, finally to a secular philosophy). For others, they want to take the “big step” right away. For them, Secular Humanism is a healthy, sound “landing spot” alternative. Within Secular Humanism, people are encouraged to take responsibility for making their own meaning in life based on their goals and experiences and reality, rather than relying on others to provide meaning for them. while preserving a commitment to reason, evidence, and critical thinking.
- Where Will I get my Morals? – This is one of the most often cited charges (insult actually) made against atheists. If you don’t have a law giver/god, then how can there be objective moral standards? The answer is simple: there are no “objective” moral standards. We institute, refine or eliminate moral teachings and actions as we go along, based on the shared experiences of what promotes human flourishing. It is a never ending process of individual and societal trial and error but the process has led (sometime slowly) to a general overall improvement in the human condition (US law IS an example of this process in writing). Additionally, often this progress has been in spite of religious teachings (e.g. slavery, women’s rights/equality, reproductive rights, rehabilitation vs. eye for an eye punishment, etc..). Any “moral” action should be judged based on it’s merits (pros and cons re: human sufferring) rather than on ancient teachings. This isn’t to say that ancient writings have nothing to offer in terms of morality, only that we should realize that they were written by people who knew so little about the world that it would make a 6 year old blush. Christopher Hitchens regularily challenged apologists to name one moral action that a religious person can do that an atheist cannot. Despite ample opportunity, no one ever did and likely no one ever will. So next time someone asks how we can have moral standards without god, tell them “With all the progress we’ve made since we’ve cancelled his contract, why would we want him to come in and muck it all up again?”
- Physical Harm: Threat of or actual physical harm are legitimate concerns of those who come out as an atheist. While this is still somewhat of a risk in American culture (lessened by the increasing liberalization of religion and education), it is much more prominent in some other countries and religions, especially those religions that have as part of their dogma specific passages that require harm to apostates. Anyone considering coming out as an atheist should evaluate this risk carefully, but especially so if you are already in a living environment that tolerates mental or physical abuse.
- Job/Financial loss: This is of particular concern for those who make their living in fields directly associated with religious institutions. A new organization has been established which confidentially directly addresses the needs of pastors, priests, ministers, imans and others in church leadership positions. Please follow these links for more information on this program – FFRF Info. page, and The Clergy Project. Even for those outside of a “faith based” employment situation, job loss is still a major concern and should be evaluated carefully. It is a question only you can ultimately answer because it often comes down to the relationship you have with your superiors and your co-workers.