Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Atheism is not robust   posted by Razib @ 1/02/2007 01:13:00 PM

Recently I had an email exchange with a friend about the nature of religion, and whether Communism could serve as a religion-proxy. The basic idea being that messianic political movements are godless religions. I don't dismiss this analogy, and I do believe that there is a significant intersection between the cognitive states of those who are passionate about God and those who are passionate about political justice. But I don't believe there is one 'God module,' and I suspect that 'religion' is a catchall term for a range of beliefs and mental states common in our species which emerge from convential human psychology (e.g., 'agency detection'). On some of these traits messianic political movements and supernatural organized religion intersect, and the idea that socialism is secularized Christianity is true insofar as I believe that many political movements exhibit the characters of radical religion shorn of supernaturalism. That being said, I tend to believe that supernatural religion is far more robust than messianic political movements because God does not die, but Stalin or Castro do. In other words, I believe that the emotional locus of a charismatic leader is essential to these movements (operationally a "God-king"), and when that leader dies unless there is a replacement the political movement is liable to lose its vigor. In contrast, gods never die but persist, and so the emotional attachment can transcend generations and develop powerful cultural staying power.

The reason I bring this up now is that Derb pointed me to some data from Russia which suggests a massive revival of Orthodox religiosity within the last 15 years. You can read the google translation here. The important point is that 16% of Russians now call themselves atheists. I have seen data that a plural majority were avowed atheists in 1990 (e.g., 30-40%). If you look closely at the data the massive revival of religion is to some extent notional and nominal, but the point is that all it took was 15 years for the reassertion of the traditional religious sentiments of the population in name if not action. This polling data is a bit extreme in its findings, but I've seen other surveys which confirm its general result, that religion exhibited a massive and almost immediate bounce back after the fall of Communism. What does this tell us? Note that the Soviet Union went through 3 generations of disincentives toward supernatural religiosity, and yet people seem rather casually to flip back toward an Orthodox confession in half a generation (both Yelstin and Putin were public converts to Orthodoxy from a secular-atheist background). I think this goes to my above point, religion is natural and robust. Messianic political movements devoid of supernaturalism can fill the same vacuum, but over the long term I believe they are at a disadvantage and relatively epiphenomenal.