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A Nation Divided: Rationalists and Theists in America

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Before imploding in the face of his sordid extramarital trysts, presidential candidate John Edwards based his campaign on the idea of two Americas: one rich, the other poor. He was right about the idea that American is divided, but wrong about the nature of the division. The deeper and more important split is defined by religiosity, not riches.

The nearly even distribution of votes between conservatives and liberals in the presidential elections of 2000, 2004 and 2008 reveals clearly a lasting and deep chasm in American society. Heated rhetoric, vitriol, excessive passion and closely contested elections expose the existence of two societies with little in common, living side by side but miles apart.

The barrier separating us is defined by the unbridgeable gulf between god and rationalism. This is not a culture war, but a cosmic battle between theism and humanism.

The conflict between these two world views is made apparent in the voting booth. The closest election in American history offers plenty of evidence for the religiosity divide. Of those voters who attend church more than once per week, 68% voted for Bush and 32% for Gore. Of those who never attend church, 35% went for Bush, 65% for Gore. Religiosity alone is the most important, obvious and conclusive factor in determining voter behavior. Simply put, church goers tend to vote Republican. Those who instead go the hardware store on Sunday vote Democrat by wide margins. The divide in our society is not between rich and poor, or Catholic and Protestant, or Christian and Muslim, but between those have faith and those who have reason. Obama's election does not negate that calculus. Forget not that 50 million Americans voted for the other ticket.

Rationalism and Theism

Those who accept the idea of god tend to divide the world into believers and atheists. Yet that is incorrect. Atheist means "without god" and one cannot be without something that does not exist. Atheism is really a pejorative term that defines one world view as the negative of another, as something not what something else is. The word atheist is analogous to the denigrating word "colored" to describe African Americans, which was meant to say they are colored relative to the "pure standard" of white. Atheism is similarly meant to describe rationalists against the "pure standard" of belief. Both terms are the result of ignorance and bias about what constitutes the baseline for comparison. Just as we thankfully no longer use the world colored, we should abandon the term atheist.

If we insist on defining one group as the negative of the other, then the world would better be divided into rationalists and "arationalists" meaning those with reason and those without. But a more reasonable and neutral description of the two world views would be theists and rationalists (or humanists, take your pick).

The Moral Divide

Perhaps the clearest distinction between theists and rationalists is found in the perception of which group best defines and protects our moral values.

The association between morality and religion has been established so firmly over the past 2000 years that the link largely goes unquestioned. Churchgoers tend to believe that they have a leg up on moral behavior over humanists, or, worse, that rationalists are a threat to morality. In that environment of religious fervor, any attempt to shift to a strictly secular model of morality strikes many as heretical, on par with Galileo's transgression so long ago.

But cold statistics prove the association between religion and morality wrong. A recent paper published in the journal Evolutionary Psychology concluded that societies with the lowest measures of dysfunction are the most secular. How did the author, Gregory S. Paul, arrive at this conclusion? He analyzed 25 indicators of "social dysfunction" including rates of homicide, abortion, teen pregnancy, STDs, unemployment and poverty. He compared those rates to religiosity as measured by self-professed beliefs and frequency of church attendance within each country studied. The two most religious countries, the United States and Portugal, turn out also to be the most socially dysfunctional measured against those 25 indicators. His conclusions have been challenged by some skeptics who claim the results are a consequence of "selection bias" in what data are collected and analyzed. There is likely some truth to that since social and behavioral studies can only rarely completely eliminate the bias of self reporting. But Paul's conclusions though are fairly robust in spite of the study's flaws. Society has the association of morality with religion inverted. Humanism is the guardian of morality.

Secular and Religious Morality

Traits that we view as moral are deeply embedded in the human psyche. Honesty, fidelity, trustworthiness, kindness to others, and reciprocity are primeval characteristics that helped our ancestors survive. In a world of dangerous predators, early man could thrive only in cooperative groups. Good behavior strengthened the tribal bonds that were essential to survival. What we now call morality is really a suite of behaviors favored by natural selection in an animal weak alone but strong in numbers. Morality is a biological necessity and a consequence of human development, not a gift from god.

Our inherent good, however, has been corrupted by the false morality of religion that has manipulated us with divine carrots and sticks. If we misbehave, we are threatened with the hot flames of hell. If we please god, we are promised the comforting embrace of eternal bliss. Under the burden of religion, morality has become nothing but a response to bribery and fear, and a cynical tool of manipulation for ministers and gurus. We have forsaken our biological heritage in exchange for coupons to heaven. That more secular countries suffer less social dysfunction is not only unsurprising but fully expected.

Human Hubris

Religious morality is fundamentally flawed, resting precariously on the false notion of human superiority. For millennia, peoples of nearly all cultures have been taught that humans are special in the eyes of their god or gods, and that the world is made for their benefit and use. This is revealed clearly in Genesis, which gives humankind the mandate to fill, rule over and subdue the earth. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

Of all visible creatures only man is "able to know and love his creator." He is "the only creature on earth that God has willed for its own sake," and he alone is called to share, by knowledge and love, in God's own life. It was for this end that he was created, and this is the fundamental reason for his dignity. (CCC #356)

Blinded by this deeply ingrained religious bias, we keep forgetting that our highly developed cerebral cortex does not confer upon us any special status among our living cousins. People easily embrace the idea that humanity is set apart from all other animals. But nothing could be further from the truth. Humans are nothing but a short-lived biological aberration, with no claim to superiority. If evolution had a pinnacle, bacteria would rest on top. When the human species is a distant memory, bacteria will be dividing merrily away, oblivious to the odd bipedal mammal that once roamed the earth for such a brief moment in time. Our self-promotion to the image of god is simply embarrassing in the face of the biological reality on the ground. There is a loss of credibility when you choose yourself for an award.

This hubris and conceit of human superiority as the only creature close to god is not benign, leading to catastrophic consequences for humanity. The species-centric arrogance of religion cultivates a dangerous attitude about our relationship with the environment and the resources that sustain us. Humanists tend to view sustainability as a moral imperative while theists often view environmental concerns as liberal interference with god's will. Conservative resistance to accepting the reality of climate change is just one example, and another point at which religious and secular morality diverge.

An Uncivil War

The two world views offered by theism and rationalism are fundamentally incompatible. The result is a ceaseless shouting match between opponents trying futilely to convince the other side. That will never happen because the language of faith cannot be translated into the word of reason.

A Chinese speaker can communicate effectively with an Englishman through an interpreter because while the two speak different languages many of the ideas being shared are common to both parties. That allows an interpreter to bridge the gap by finding different words to express the same thought. That is not true in a conversation between a theist and a humanist. Not only are the languages of faith and reason different, but so too are the fundamental ideas. There is no role for an interpreter here because language is not the most significant barrier. Somebody who believes in god cannot possibly comprehend a world in which god does not exist. Somebody who understands god as a myth cannot pretend to grasp a world controlled by some higher power. So we keep shouting incomprehensibly at each other in a growing cycle of incivility. With no common language and incompatible world views the decibels and vitriol of our protests and proclamations are the only measure of success.

Both sides are guilty of shouting, but that reality misses an important point of volume. According to a 2008 survey from Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, more than 78% of Americans identify themselves as Christian. Only 4% are self-proclaimed non-believers (broken into the survey categories of atheists at 1.6% and agnostics at 2.4%). A yelling contest is not exactly equitable. The humanist cry is like a mouse peep measured against the roar of a jet engine.

Yet in spite of these massive, overwhelming, deeply embedded majorities, Christians often speak in the dialect of victimhood. Many feel under attack by secular humanists threatening them with gay marriage, abortion, Darwinism and moral decay. This idea of Christians as modern victims is the perfect example of how the two sides can never communicate. From the perspective of a tiny 4% minority, any claim by a 78% supermajority that the views of a few are a threat to the many is simply surreal. For humanists the idea is too absurd to contemplate, but it is quite real to theists. There is no room for dialogue; the gap is just too wide.

So we will remain a nation deeply divided by theism and rationalism into the distant future. Coming together and singing Kumbaya would be great, but that will not happen in our lifetimes. As time passes political favor will ebb and flow between the two world views, allowing for short-term victories for each. But the fundamental chasm between those of faith and those of reason will never be bridged. We are a nation divided. That is the reality.

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