Although I neither believe in nor practice any religion, I respect the beliefs of those who do. Yes, I have difficulty understanding how they reconcile their beliefs with the realities of the world we live in. Yes, I despise the manipulative, self-serving nature of many institutions of organized religion. Nevertheless, I feel I’m in no position to judge anyone’s beliefs, as did the Founding Fathers, hence the First Amendment.
Unfortunately, the same rarely applies in the inverse. As long as there has been religion, believers have vilified non-believers, and that despicable practice continues unabated. Thinly veiled disapproval of irreligion is even embedded in cherished traditions and everyday idioms. Absurdly, the terms “God-fearing”, and “church-going”, among others, are considered compliments. Politicians everywhere make a point of conspicuously attending religious services, and insert clichéd religious references (“God bless America”) in their speeches. Faith and religion are typically considered “good”, while atheism and non-belief are considered “bad”, despite the fact that religion is simply not a part of the lives of a large and growing percentage of us. Such is the stigma attached to atheism that many non-believers actually feel guilty about their non-belief, and go through religious motions simply to stay within the acceptable boundaries of their social circles.
In what can only be described as stunning irrationality, religious belief is widely considered the default human condition, and non-belief an aberration, logic (and Occam's Razor) be damned.
By any reasonable rationale, non-belief should most certainly be the default human condition. Why is it not?
The obvious answer is that religious organizations seized upon the inexplicable nature of much of the world to construct faith-based belief systems which allowed them to exert control over their flocks through fear. Non-believers presented a threat to this control, and were therefore vilified. What we see today are the remnants of that historical vilification.
Another reason that comes to mind is the erroneous but widely held belief that religious people, since they ostensibly adhere to a value system, pose less of a threat to society than “loose cannon” atheists, so society tends to favor the religious.
I believe there is an additional, more nuanced reason for the irrational disparagement of non-belief.
Religion means having an opinion. A strong opinion. An opinion of such strength that it exists and thrives despite its lack of evidentiary foundation and factual support. Irreligion means the absence of an opinion due to the absence of facts supporting one. Religion is zeal. Irreligion is indifference. So then, religion, particularly religious zealotry, or fanaticism, attracts opinionated people. People who are fervent about their beliefs, certain that there is no valid alternative to their opinion, and ready, willing and able to thrust their beliefs upon others. Although zealots represent a small percentage of religious people, they are vocal, visible and influential opinion leaders. And fanatics are capable of extreme acts in support of their beliefs.
The uncertainty and indifference inherent in atheism attracts a different crowd, far less fervent, more open-minded. Less opinionated. There is no such thing as an irreligious zealot. No one has crashed an airplane into a building in the name of atheism. Abortion clinics are bombed by religious fanatics, but churches are not bombed by secular fanatics. Israeli ultra-Orthodox Jews throw stones at those who do not share their beliefs about the Sabbath. Irreligious Israelis do not throw stones at the Orthodox.
So, irreligion should be the default human condition, but isn’t because its nature attracts people less fervent than those attracted by religion, and the zealous are more influential than the indifferent.
Not exactly a great commentary on the human condition.