In recent weeks, there has been huge controversy surrounding issues of religiosity in the public sphere. A recent judicial decision that vindicates public prayer as constitutional has greatly polarized the country. There are political currents, particularly within the religious right, that are pushing for Christianity to have a more prevalent role in public life by imposing Christian prayer. And there are secularists who are concerned about boundaries, about state-sanctioned indoctrination. Because religion produces a more docile citizenry, it also indirectly facilitates authoritarian regimes, and many fear that the US is exhibiting tendencies seen in states governed by religion and superstition that are invariably punitive, hostile to civil liberties, and treat their citizens like children.
The first curious fact about the controversy surrounding public prayer is that Christians who wish to impose themselves in this manner ignore Jesus’ teachings on how to properly pray. He called people who pray in public hypocrites, and it’s true that there is difficulty in discerning whether a person who prays in public is merely putting together a show, or if the display of public piety is sincere. A genuine desire to commune with God is, after all, a very intimate, private affair.
When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you. – Jesus, in Matthew 6:5-6
There is another problem with public prayer: many or most atheists think it’s rude, it’s meant to exclude them and anyone who does not resonate with majority beliefs. There is clearly an overt, religious agenda at play here. Public prayers can be easily framed in such a way as to intimidate or coerce people into voting for certain policies (against the teaching of evolutionary science), or being ashamed of certain solidarities (Gay and Lesbian, Feminist). It’s impossible to ensure that public prayer is not misused or politicized.
And so, Jesus thinks his followers are hypocrites when they pray in public, and atheists think they’re rude.
How should Humanists respond to this? As an Epicurean, I’m always cognizant of how people need to sustain their existential health and I feel like the atheist conversation is usually polarized and misses the context within which religiosity emerges. I think we should first evaluate and contextualize the roots of religiosity.
Gregory Paul published in 2005 the findings of his meta-research on the correlation between supernatural beliefs and quantifiable symptoms of societal dysfunction, a study which demonstrated the clear link between religiosity and crime using prison statistics and demographics and census data from many countries, including data on teen pregnancy, educational levels, marriage stability, and so on. Invariably, the more religious communities exhibit higher degrees of societal dysfunction and the least religious communities exhibit higher societal stability. This is known to be the case both when we compare the more religious versus the more secular countries and when we compare the more religious versus the more secular states of the union.
Paul later went on to publish The Chronic Dependence of Popular Religiosity upon Dysfunctional Psychosociological Conditions. These studies show that religion is a symptom of dysfunction that is tied to, and often leads to or preserves, an overall lower quality of life.
Intuitively, it always made sense to me that supernatural belief dramatizes a person’s desire to escape reality, and maybe gives a culturally accepted way to do so, but now there is tangible data showing the nuances of this dynamic.
It also makes sense that crime and religiosity coincide, since crime increases with poverty, which increases with illiteracy and lack of educational opportunities, and with lower levels of education there is an increase in religiosity. There is a constellation of factors that must be understood together. Materialism teaches that people’s ideologies and beliefs emerge from their materiality, from their tangible reality, from what they know. The atheist that arrogantly treats a person’s religiosity as a mere symptom of idiocy and as an isolated factor, should humanize and contextualize faith prior to judging it.
Over the last several decades, the wealth gap has widened obscenely and, particularly after the 2008 financial crisis, there has been a sharp increase in poverty and marginalization in America. Government and Wall-Street-influenced mainstream media try to hide the reality of poverty behind dubious financial data that is concocted by and only relevant to wealthy investors, who have gotten wealthier as the poor have gotten poorer. For a more accurate picture of poverty, one may visit sites that directly service poor populations, like feedingamerica.org or the National Poverty Center.
Materialist philosophy teaches that there are real necessities that are a pre-requisite for human dignity, for human civilization and for philosophy. People need food, they need shelter, they need wholesome association. They also need time for leisure in order to enjoy the things that make life worth living. As the Uruguayan president Mujica famously said in his diatribe against consumerism and the false values we’ve inherited, people need “time to love”.
When people lack food, shelter, or love, they oftentimes seek the non-tangible, imaginary consolations of religious fantasies. It is much easier for someone who lives in poverty and has nothing, to accept the false consolations of superstition, of an afterlife, the non-tangible consolations of religion. Therefore, the marketers of religions prey on those who have nothing.
What this means for secularists is that one can not effectively fight the prevalence and the saturation of public life with religiosity and superstition without also battling the poverty and the economic marginalization that feeds religiosity. There is no other way. The secular struggle must, therefore, be re-framed as a struggle for economic justice, a struggle to close the wealth gap, a struggle for increased educational opportunities, and a struggle to end poverty.
Atheism doesn’t have to become a revolutionary political ideal that seeks a higher moral ground than religion, but if an atheist wants to diminish religious intrusion in our lives, he must become an altruistic Humanist in solidarity with the fight against poverty. He must participate in hedonic covenants: commitments to maximize everyone’s pleasure and wellbeing, and to minimize everyone’s suffering, which ultimately benefit individuals by increasing their stability, peace and safety.
The components of how the hedonic covenant is expressed can be as varied and creative as there are people in society. There are specific and tangible things that can be done, even by the small person, in this regard. Soup kitchens, as well as debt-management, educational, and wealth-building initiatives should all be part of the larger vision. There are lifestyle choices within Humanism that lead to limiting our cooperation with the economic system that breeds supernaturalism and the reduction in our quality of life that comes with it.
Epicureanism teaches about autarchy, the importance of self-sufficiency, and promotes frugality, living within our means, and curbing our mindless desires in order to eliminate vain and empty consumption. It gives us the tools to do the inner work required to exit the vicious cycle of consumerism, which leads to debt, which leads to wage slavery and poverty, which leads to an increased need to cling to false consolations.
Non-religious people do not want to be coerced into feigning piety, or to live in a society hostile to their civil rights, but for as long as poverty increases there will be an increase of religion and superstition in the public sphere.
Poverty is dangerous for society. It leads to greater crime and violence, and it polarizes, divides, and dehumanizes us all. We can try to ignore it, but are never unaffected by it.