If peace on earth is our goal, atheism might be the means to that end

Jan 25, 2015

Photograph: Jayel Aheram / Flickr

By Adam Lee

The quiet truth behind the inescapable headlines about man’s inhumanity to man is that the world is actually becoming a more peaceful place. Deaths from war and conflict have been declining for decades – and, if current trends continue, we can make them rarer still.

What mysterious force is sowing peace among humankind? One possible reason is that there are more atheists and nonbelievers than ever before.

In America, millennials are the largest and least religious generation in the country’s history. The trend toward secularization in the US mirrors the movement in Europe and throughout the developed world. And poll after poll have shown that the nonreligious also lean more progressive and more pacifist on a wide variety of issues relating to violence: torture, the death penalty, corporal punishment, military adventurism and more.

A Pew poll from 2009, well before the Senate released its devastating torture report last month, asked whether torturing suspected terrorists could be justified found that the non-religious were most opposed to torture, with a combined 55% saying that it could rarely or never be justified. Gallup has also found that people with no religious preference are less supportive of the death penalty than any group of Christians. The non-religious are also among the most likely to say the invasion of Iraq was a mistake. The religiously unaffiliated are also less likely than Christians to believe that the US is superior to all other countries in the world, a hyper-patriotic attitude that’s hardly conducive to careful reflection about the use of American military power.


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38 comments on “If peace on earth is our goal, atheism might be the means to that end

  • There could be something in this.

    I can’t speak for anyone else, but off hand, I’m not able to think of any examples of atheist or secular sectarianism anywhere in the World; but I could be wrong, I usually am, so if anyone does know of any, I’d be grateful to hear about them.

    Indeed, I’m of the firm conviction that the only kind of societies or cultures in which the different religions can exist in peace are secular ones.

    I do hope this a trend, and that it doesn’t falter.



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  • As long as humanity was in thrall to the violent morality of religious texts, our societies were warlike and cruel. As the American revolutionary Thomas Paine said, belief in a cruel god makes a cruel man. It’s only in the last few decades, as we’ve begun to cast these beliefs off, that we’re making real moral progress.

    The moral button is ours to press.

    As ever, though, we must not be essentialist. The Quakers got here also, God turned down to an essence of non-intervening niceness and love.



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  • 3
    Cairsley says:

    You may well be right, Stafford, if only because ‘atheist sectarianism’ and ‘secular sectarianism’ both seem to be self-contradictory or conceptually incoherent phrases. In any case, I cannot think of any examples of them. Whether one ever needs to take an antitheistic or antireligious stance depends on whether people’s human rights are being threatened by the activity of theists or religionists, and taking such a stance in such a situation would in fact be a civic duty in a secular state.



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  • Although a massive step forward, I’m not sure that giving up mass delusional thinking (religion) alone will bring about world peace. What about Ukraine’s ideological split between Russia and Europe? The strange rulings of other countries, like the recent outlawing of gay drivers in Russia, may become a new focus for conflict, in the name of human rights.

    We seem to still operate as different smaller groupings, even though we’re living in a newly global world (tautology apology!).. but it’s a bit like being in the bathroom thinking you’re alone and turning round to see the surrounding walls of the whole house have collapsed. It may be a bumpy road to work out joint ethics, never mind uniform atheism.



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  • Just to continue that line of thought with something prob more interesting..

    If we liken societies to families.. what usually happens in a family is that you get conformed to an orderly way of thinking under at least one parent. Then you fly the nest and go off to university where you bump into all sorts of different people and backgrounds. Throughout ones life, if open to the evidence, reality will knock residual strangeness off our psyches.

    In some wider families (religious societies) they are able to cling onto their ordered way of working by keeping the parent figure throughout life. Measures are even taken to stop the university of other people’s reality creeping in.. (Boko Haram means ‘Western Education is Forbidden’.. to cite an example of its violent conclusion).

    But Lo! the internet.. the university has come to all the teenagers of the world.. we can see the madness of each other at the click of a button. Defensive action and conflict may increase for a time, but ultimately, I’m sure it is incredibly healthy for humankind. My midterm outlook?.. hell on earth!! I jest.. I hope.



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  • Implying causality from correlation is one of the fastest ways to error.

    Consider the EU. It has clearly removed a ongoing source of wars.

    Globalisation may be helping. War disrupts commerce. On the other hand, war triggers massive additional government spending.

    Consider some recent wars: Afghan, Iraq, Ukraine, In each case a major power went after resources owned by a weak country without allies willing to come to its aid. A large amount of war now is civil war.

    The bigger and richer a country is, the more likely it is to attack another nation.

    If were atheism that makes countries peaceful, Russia should be better behaved than it is.

    Religion helps people murder children and feel self righteous about it. Patriotism has much the same effect.



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  • Hitchens popularized the term “Islamofascism” amid a crusade to convince the Western public that Islam was, at its core, a violent, totalitarian faith and the greatest threat the modern world has ever faced.

    It is very important not to read too much into this. Hitchens may well have believed exactly these words but he had Muslim friends and was proud to be called brother to the Sunni Kurds for their principled stand against tyranny….Islamofacism.

    All the more reason to have a vocabulary that distinguishes the anti-Islamism stance from the Muslimophobic reaction.



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  • Roedy Jan 26, 2015 at 7:20 am

    If were atheism that makes countries peaceful, Russia should be better behaved than it is.

    I thought Putin and his ex-KGB millionaires, were pals of the Orthodox church!

    http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/how-vladimir-putin-helped-resurrect-the-russian-orthodox-church/article16361650/
    Until his death at the hands of Bolsheviks, Nicholas II was viewed by the Russian Orthodox faithful as the divinely appointed head of an empire that stretched from Poland to the Pacific Ocean. On the day he died, a sacred icon that had gone missing centuries earlier is said to have reappeared in Moscow, a signal to believers that God’s chosen ruler was gone.

    Ms. Leontieva calls what followed “the turmoils.” But the Russian Orthodox Church outlasted the official atheism of the Soviet Union and now, after almost a century in the wilderness, has regained most of the power and prestige it enjoyed under the Romanovs.

    Many in the church credit that to a man they believe may also be inspired from above: President Vladimir Putin. “Even his family name comes from the church,” Ms. Leontieva says with admiration. (The first syllable – pronounced “poot” – means “the path” or “the way” in Russian.)

    Long before he turned his attention to such international celebrations, Mr. Putin oversaw the resurrection of the Russian Orthodox Church, including the reconstruction of some 23,000 churches that had been destroyed or fallen into disuse. The Church on the Blood is not included in that count, since it’s a completely new house of worship, completed in 2003.

    To the delight of the church leadership, Mr. Putin’s policies have also taken a sharply conservative turn since his return to the Kremlin last year for a third term as President. Once viewed as a liberal, Mr. Putin has in the past 12 months embraced the church’s positions on such sensitive issues as abortion and gay rights.

    “There are no conflicts between the church and the state,” smiles Father Alexey Kulberg, an outspoken priest in Yekaterinburg, this city of 1.4 million near the Ural Mountains that separate Russia into its European and Asian halves. “The President’s ideology for developing Russia coincides with the direction of the Russian Orthodox Church.”



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  • I am surprised that more atheists don’t share my fear and loathing of all ideologies and not just the faith secured ones of religion.

    We must recognise that ideologies in general, possessing idealised ends, may license grievous means. Others, seeing this particular risk of ideology, are well placed for morality.



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  • David Jan 26, 2015 at 12:44 pm

    Well, two thousand years of religious rule hasn’t exactly been a resounding success has it ?

    I see that old Auntie C of E has consecrated her first female bishop, but they cannot even agree among themselves about that – let alone give guidance on equality to anyone else!! I suppose, that’s the result of seeking “right answers” using “faith-thinking”.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-30974547
    The Church of England has consecrated its first female bishop during a ceremony at York Minster.

    The Reverend Libby Lane, 48, has been ordained as the new Bishop of Stockport in front of more than 1,000 people.

    But divisions still remain between Anglicans who feel the change is consistent with their faith and traditionalists who disagree.

    Opponents of women bishops include some who place great importance on the laying on of hands by existing bishops in the consecration of new bishops, and wish to be looked after by bishops not affected by the involvement of women in this process.



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  • Religion helps people murder children and feel self righteous about
    it. Patriotism has much the same effect.

    Exactly. Religion is only appropriate frame which helps people to murder easier. Patriotism is the same. They are mechanisms for release of responsibility.

    Wars, conflict, it is all business. One murder makes a villain.
    Millions a hero. Numbers sanctify. (Charlie Chaplin)



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  • There’s no doubt in my mind, that religion is an impediment to understanding the world. Not the only impediment, but an important one.

    In my view wars aren’t actually fought for religious reasons, even the Crusades, but for real political and economic reasons. Religion is dragged willingly into the arena to provide “moral” support for “our boys”, whilst they go to slaughter each other on behalf of their masters.

    Does the author really think that the world is becoming more peaceful ? I don’t. But the modern weapons of destruction are just so much more powerful and expensive. The big players have to carefully watch before they engage in all out warfare these days.



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  • That’s a bit strong. All ideologies? You have sometimes praised the Quakers – do you fear their ideology? Do you fear the ideology of secular humanism? Don’t worry, this is not an intervention.



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  • Agreed. Bizarrely, even with movements of the people, we are all too ready to give a god status to our nation, our perfect ideology and its leader. Censoring input from outside may be the thing that leads to unhealthy and inhumane behaviour, rather than just religion itself.



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  • Perhaps there will always be conflict somewhere in the world, but if it is based the disparity between rich and poor, borders, resources, etc. these are disputes with real world solutions and quite solvable through international law, treaties, and other negotiable agreements. Conflict arising from delusional thinking however does not have the same flexibility, they are based upon a belief that a god has written the rules. This movement toward non-delusional can be nothing but positive.



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  • That’s a bit strong. All ideologies?

    Fear and loathing is over the top, but I wanted to pick a fight. Fear covers it. There are ideologies I have soft spots for. But I never describe myself as a Humanist though I often appear like one. I trail Quakerism, a little as a red rag, but also because it is almost a one precept ideology (well one and a half.) “You are the moral author, now go out and write…” Simple and open ended.

    My ideology-of-sorts, allowed under the principle that intolerance of intolerance is not in fact the same intolerance, is betterism. Pragma not dogma. True skepticism means you do not pretend to have an answer before the facts are in. Nor do you proclaim your moral values as necessarily “correct”. But your job is, nevertheless to say what you feel.

    Betterism knows its limits. It knows that the huge inter-relatedness of the human world, this huge rippled super cortex of a civilisation is something that we can’t look in that well. We can’t see anything like the long term consequences of our collective actions. The effects of those actions are second and third order, also, and our tastes, desires and values evolve lest we catch up with them, become sated and die emotionally.

    No certain route is possible for us all, only for those few like-minds making a beeline for some fantasy. Safest is to stop and ask again and check we’re all good, well as good as we can manage.

    Betterism is common sense in the face of idealism.

    I’ll talk about the virtues of mild anarchism on another day. If its not broken, break it. No? Well give it a good shake anyway…

    OK. I’ll go quietly.



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  • I can’t see what’s to fear in Quakerism, Humanism, Janism, Betterism …….

    If we could swap out the ideologies governing current theocracies for one of the above I’d expect a significant reduction in fear.

    If atheism is our goal, peace on earth might be the means to that end.



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  • I think that theist aggressiveness and intolerance scales from family to groups to society and to nations. And the way it works is by sending the wrong message that “we are right” and “everyone else is wrong”. But the same principle applies to ideologies.
    The simple truth is that intolerance is the first key factor in any aggressive behaviour.
    But another one is that some ideologies and religions impose rules and punishments associated to such intolerance, which in turn makes aggression “morally legal”.
    I think all atheists here have experienced this first hand; at home, at church and probably in your own neighborhood, and can translate that experience to your own country and the rest of the world.
    Personally i have even been “warned” by my wife not to teach my children about my atheist background. She is tolerant but not to the point where she would allow our kids get “contaminated”. Scale that up and you get whole nations where “different” is bad, and bad is punished.



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  • There is generally less to fear in ideologies that are simple, normal human processes. But why have any at all, except for the anti-idealism of Betterism?

    Atheism is just a byproduct of it as is the abandonnment of most ideologies.

    My interest is only more moral behaviours. I realised that that meant no other moral arbiter in my life but me, so atheism became part of my badge of goodness



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  • That’s just not correct. Communism is about communal ownership of the means of production. You are confusing this with dictatorship; which Marx considered necessary to coax the proletariat towards the end goal of comunism.

    Communism is not a state religion at all, it is an ideology and an economic system.



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  • There is no moral code that follows from atheism. What follows is that atheists reject religious morality. That means no necessary objection to graven images, no sense of blasphemy and no inclination whatsoever to be pious or devout. Even more fundamentally, atheists are not motivated to do good because good is what a god tells them to do.

    There is no atheist morality. Yet, there are universal moral principles which both the religious and the non-religious must respect for humanity to survive and thrive.

    A corollary of there being no atheist morality is that atheism is not the source of bad or good actions by atheists. Stalin was not a bad man because he was an atheist. Nor is atheism the way to a better world. We have to find the source of inspiration in our common humanity.



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  • If it looks and tastes like religion.. even though religion was said to be ‘the opium of the people’.. maybe ideology can be a form of it. The colossal statues of state leaders, the KGB/Stasi inquisition etc.

    Down with religion.. All hail Communism.



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  • Implying causality from correlation is one of the fastest ways to error.

    I agree, and I regard the conclusions drawn in the OP with suspicion. It seems more plausible to me that atheism is a byproduct of other factors that are more important. For instance, atheism and things like socialism, secularism, liberalism, leftism, internationalism/globalization, environmentalism, and so on also correlate, and any of the others could be potential candidates for major causal role (or roles) in reducing war and violence in general among the wealthier nations.



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  • 30
    NearlyNakedApe says:

    The Quakers got here also, God turned down to an essence of non-intervening niceness and love.

    The Quakers, Amish or Janes, however peaceful their religious beliefs may be, do contribute their share of abuse by denying their children access to higher education that would enable them to make choices that truly are their own instead of choices that are nothing more than a mere subset of their parent’s cultural baggage.

    Religious delusion and unfounded belief not backed by reason or evidence will always have the potential to do great harm because of that very reason: because it is based on irrationality. It also interferes with the acquisition of essential knowledge. We must not forget that we can do harm by omission as much as we can do harm by commission.



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  • The Quakers, Amish or Janes, however peaceful their religious beliefs may be, do contribute their share of abuse by denying their children access to higher education……..

    I think that’s just the Amish. From this Quakers FAQ:

    Are Quakers the same as the Amish?

    No. They are both “Peace Churches,” and both believe in simplicity. Early Quakers wore the “plain dress” that the Amish still wear. However, unlike the Amish, Quakers do use technology, drive cars, believe in higher education, marry outside the faith, and interact freely with the outside world.



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  • 32
    NearlyNakedApe says:

    Really?.. I stand corrected then. Guess I wasn’t up to speed with the facts about Quakers. Thanks for the heads-up Marktony.



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  • Ideologies, theologies and philosophies – all metaphysical belief systems not grounded in an objectivist, materialist reality – are misused equally by those aiming towards an ideal society based upon uniform moral standards. Any idea (meme) that privileges itself above other ideas (memes) and makes it morally permissible and/or morally obligatory to use violence preemptively in defending itself from extinction in the market place of ideas is, ipso facto, intolerant and prone to be used abusively by its adherents against its rivals. This is probably as true of atheism as it is of (poly)theism if we are not careful.



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  • You may be right that the rise of Secularism and Atheism could lead to less conflict, but beware the demagogue, the totalitarian dictator, the ideologist. They will continue to create division, with or without the help of religion.



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  • 36
    fadeordraw says:

    Back to the original article. According to Yuval Noah Harari in a Brief History of Humankind, the reasons for for the current increased prevalence of peace are: 1) the price of war has gone up considerably (a Nobel Peace Prize should go to Robert Oppenheimer and fellow architects of the atomic bomb); 2) the prospects of war profits have declined (can’t loot like the old days); 3) the profits for peace are more lucrative (foreign trade and investment has become all important); 4) peace-loving has become dominant (compared to previous, war-loving times); and 5) “there is a positive feedback loop between all these four factors”.

    War now more involves dealing with despots. Fanatical terrorism is relatively localized and, comparatively, of small impact, which one would equate with police and security rather than war.



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  • jay Jan 26, 2015 at 7:42 pm

    That’s just not correct. Communism is about communal ownership of the means of production.

    Unfortunately this concept of “Communism” is the utopian form.

    You are confusing this with dictatorship; which Marx considered necessary to coax the proletariat towards the end goal of comunism.

    When the means of production belong to everybody and nobody, they end up in the hands of dictatorial state leaders to be used for their own benefit.

    If you want “communal ownership” with responsible management of production, “Fair-Trade” co-operatives are the way forward.

    Communism is not a state religion at all, it is an ideology and an economic system.

    . . . . . Which has historically, quickly mutated from a utopian ideology, into a brain-dead state dictatorship, with worship of idealised cult leadership, and misdirection from the centre.



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  • fadeordraw Jan 29, 2015 at 11:11 pm

    2) the prospects of war profits have declined (can’t loot like the old days); 3) the profits for peace are more lucrative (foreign trade and investment has become all important); 4) peace-loving has become dominant (compared to previous, war-loving times); and 5) “there is a positive feedback loop between all these four factors”.

    Unfortunately, “faith-thinkers” like Bush and Blair, can’t rationally think out the downsides for the people or the finances, so launch into delusional conquests with wish-thinking objectives and wish-thinking budgets.
    Bush’s pals have seized Iraqi oil while his armaments pals, have had profitable government military contracts, but the result of this, is costs of $6 trillion added to an and earlier borrowing of $3 trillion debt – allocated to the tax-payers, along with responsibility for interest payments.

    http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/mar/11/us-public-defrauded-hidden-cost-iraq-war

    How the US public was defrauded by the hidden cost of the Iraq war.



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