Essay:Irreligion as Intellectual Privilege

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They have their faith because what they believe in doesn't judge them. Who am I to tell them that what they believe is irrational? Who am I to tell them the one thing that gives them hope and allows them to find some beauty in an awful world is inconsistent? I cannot tell them that there is nothing beyond this physical life. It would be cruel and pointless...soon I saw my atheism for what it is: an intellectual belief most accessible to those who have done well.
—Chris Arnade[1]

Forward: This piece deals with "religion" in the popular sense. This is contrasted with "irreligion," which includes atheism, agnosticism, deism, and other rejections of the popular religions. For the purposes of this essay, "irreligion" also encompasses the highly abstract or metaphysical interpretations of the theistic religions held by many intellectuals, which do not reflect the worldview of the average believer.

The idea that religion will die out at some point in the future, assaulted by an ever more educated, rational population, is not modern. The ancient philosophers felt that since anthropomorphic deities were clearly illogical, the population would abandon them if reason ever flourished. Omar Khayyam and Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi in the Arabic world felt that the continued pace of scholarship in the Golden Age of Islam could have but one conclusion. The European Enlightenment thinkers restated the same idea.

Throughout history, the question of education has held religious overtones. Religious authorities, especially among the Abrahamic religions, have always held a fear that education inversely correlated with religious piety. Christian Europe attempted to blunt the progress of free thought by outright banning the teaching of concepts considered heretical[2][3], a practice which ultimately failed to stifle the coming Enlightenment. The Muslim world deployed a more novel and much more successful response - shifting educational achievement into religious studies, rather than trying to ban elements which encouraged questioning of Islam.[4][5]

The numbers today show their fears were well-founded. Disbelief is concentrated among the educated, to the point where disbelievers tend to know more than believers about the very religions in question.[6] Indeed, the educated upper classes of society have always been less pious, regardless of culture, language, or religious group. [7]

But at the same time, a great failure must be registered - in today's world, where a greater percentage of people are literate than at any other point in history, religion still persists.


New arguments have been contrived to support religion, but they are no better than the traditional examples. Furthermore, the average believer is not aware of these more intensive stances, and cites the same, ancient, thoroughly debunked positions instead. Religion has certainly not become more justifiable, in fact, the discovery of systems such as evolution and the big bang has allowed science to answer questions that formerly forced even the most rational philosophers to accept some form of theism. And yet, among the educated, literate masses, old beliefs cling.

The answer to this dilemma transcends economic and educational disparities - these are negligible in the Western world compared to what they once were - and points to a more sobering conclusion: in religious societies, irreligion is a privilege of those lucky enough to win higher critical thinking skills on the genetic lottery.

The Simplicity of Religion[edit]

The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful.
—Edward Gibbon[8]

A common adage is that religion provides easy answers to hard questions. The core aspect of the religious worldview is always trivial - God created the world, and the order within it. From this foundation, we get the pillars of religion: God is omnipotent, and omniscient, and interacts with humans in a direct way.

Building on this premise, the basics of religious beliefs are similarly easy to comprehend - the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Five Pillars of Islam, the concepts of karma and reincarnation. There is room for the theologians to argue the finer details, but these limited foundations are all that is necessary for one to participate fully in the religion, and expect to attain its promises. Religions are inherently populist.

The sociological view of religion meshes it with culture to the point of indistinguishably, and this standpoint explains the evolving nature of religions and their attendant cultures. It also allows religion to be understood in the context of a complete, cultural standpoint - for the masses, religion answers the basic philosophical questions of life while also providing the appeal to divinity that justifies their feelings of cultural superiority.

The key element of any religion, more so than even a conception of divinity, is thus accessibility. Religion, as with the cultures around it, evolves by the action of the majority, and thus always reflects the requirements of the majority. It follows that those who reject religion are the same as those who are capable of leveling philosophical criticism towards their culture and society, as all are on the same plane.

The Failures of Anti-theism[edit]

When one looks at how atheism was promoted [in the U.S.S.R.] and the actual tenets of scientific atheism, its unpopularity proves less confusing. First, the doctrine of scientific atheism was itself problematic. It confusingly claimed to be a science while abandoning scientific methods altogether. Actual scientists avoided the topic of religion and produced no work that could verify the science of atheism. Second, scientific atheism replicated religious ceremonies, rituals, and produced a new Communist sense of the sacred as an alternative to religion. This simply confused the population, many of whom mistook scientific atheism for a new religion and not an exit from religious belief altogether so that even those few who wanted to believe in the ideals of atheistic communism simply ended up praying to the gods of Lenin and Stalin. Finally, the messengers of scientific atheism themselves lacked credibility. Atheist proselytizers knew little about religion or science and their ignorance was apparent to their would-be converts...Nearly seven decades of anti-religious propaganda and atheist promotion could not secularize Russian society. Systems of belief, be they religious or atheistic, need to engage individuals in order to gain widespread acceptance. In the end, the attempt to force secularization in Soviet Russia was fundamentally insipid, the result of an atheistic monopoly that never questioned itself or addressed the concerns of its would-be converts.
—Paul Froese[9]

Modern anti-theism, be it in the form of Soviet oppression or the prolific New Atheists, has not greatly undermined religion in society. Indeed, even in the face of the internet and the globalization of information, the world has a seen a resurgence of religion, especially fundamentalist strains. [10] Popular anti-theism seems to have little effect on the masses, despite the strength of the arguments presented. The societies which achieved mass secularization, notably those in Northern Europe, did so without revealing what combination of socio-economic factors allowed this. It could not be education, for that has failed everywhere else, nor could it be wealth, for the United States and Saudi Arabia are highly religious. The apologist's explanation, which posits an emotional or physiological need for religion, could not be true, for the non-theistic East Asian societies have proved highly successful in the modern world. The only certainly of the decline of religion in Northern Europe was that it took centuries.

The persistence of religion in the majority of the world can best be explained by the sociological view established above - religion is an extension and modifier of culture. As with cultural norms, religious beliefs are indefensible from any rigorous standpoint, and their extreme resistance to logical challenges closely parallels the survival of cultural identities. Once more, those with the faculty to leave strong religious traditions are likely to be the same persons who undertake criticism of cultural norms. This leaves the majority, who subscribe to both and question neither, stranded in the intellectually and morally restricting paradigm of their local religion.

For these reasons, anti-theism tends to fail, unless the anti-theists are interacting with people who already hold a privileged, nuanced viewpoint of the world.

The Privileged Elite[edit]

With all of the above being established, does an irreligious viewpoint confer any benefits, or is it just a intellectual toy for those of philosophical bent?

Due to the symbiosis with culture, religious moral systems and restrictions inevitably reflect the cultural standards they evolved with. A crucial problem is that, due the absolutist claims of religions, they may not 'keep up' with cultural changes. Reactionary movements in all societies are almost universally rooted in religious support. Passive, and occasionally violent, rejections of human rights and gender equality on "ethical" grounds are invariably backed by conservative religious attitudes. A religious believer is barred from participating in many areas of secular societies, at least in theory. Psychological effects can also be severe, from an individual feeling simple guilt due having sinned to believing they are distinctly inferior to other people.[11]

Philosophically, religion alters one's view of the world. In the process of providing absolute answers, religion prohibits believers from readily and seriously considering foreign solutions to the original questions. In addition, religious belief ties them to a superficial understanding of their own religion and its historical impact and evolution. A believer's worldview inevitably contains an inescapable bias in favor of their religion and its associated persons and cultures, depriving them of a great deal of nuance. For this reason, an irreligious person will always be able to craft a more accurate perspective on the world, provided religious bias is not replaced with a similar bias.

With the negative effects above being established, is irreligion a position of privilege in and of itself, or rather a stance simply correlated with existing educational and intellectual privilege? This privilege hinges on whether or not an individual is able to reach this point in the first place, and in highly religious societies, most individuals will not. Thus, it should be considered a subset of intellectual privilege, rather than a novel form of privilege in and of itself.

This has substantial implications for both the 'myth of progression,' i.e. the belief that societies will naturally lose religion as they become more educated and affluent, as well as anti-theist positions.


  1. The Guardian - The people who challenged my atheism most were drug addicts and prostitutes
  2. Condemnation of 1277
  3. Documents condemning the teaching of heliocentrism as a physical reality
  4. The Decline of Islamic Scientific Thought
  5. How religious schools led to the decline of Arabic science
  6. Pew Religious Knowledge Survey
  7. Religion and Social Position
  8. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 1776, Vol. I, Ch. II
  9. Paul Froese, Forced Secularization in Soviet Russia: Why an Atheistic Monopoly Failed. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Vol. 43, No. 1 (Mar., 2004), pp. 48
  10. Martin Riesebrodt, Secularization and the Global Resurgence of Religion. University of California Comparative Social Analysis Workshop March 9, 2000
  11. A Muslim woman explains why women should be inferior to men