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Unhappiness, conflict, ethnicity, religion and rational atheism

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Randolph Nesse1 has written recently that despite all of our technological achievements and the elimination of scourges such as hunger, pain, disease and disaster,” vast numbers of people remain deeply unhappy, and many of the rest live lives that feel frantic, meaningless or both. What we have been doing to increase general happiness is no longer working and there is no consensus about what we should do next.”

I submit that there is a fairly direct solution to this conundrum. Technology has not solved the greatest obstacle to human happiness – conflict. Here we are in the midst of the 21st century and hatred, war and genocide fill the air. It is this ever-present conflict that is the greatest impediment to happiness. Remember the general euphoria at the end of the Second World War and how quickly this faded as internecine conflicts reemerged?

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What are the causes of this ever-present conflict? I submit that the two greatest factors are ethnicity and religion. Vast amounts of hatred and bloodshed are attributable to these two facts of human existence.

What do we do about it? I believe that we should focus on the only aspects of life that all humans agree on – reason and a respect for evidence. All human beings no matter what ethnic, religious or sectarian group they identify with subscribe to reason and evidence. Although it might be argued that fundamental religionists eschew both, this only occurs with respect to challenges to their faiths such as evolution or faith healing. In all other aspects of life fundamental religionists show the same respect for reason and evidence as their diametric opposites – secularists and atheists. What about morality and ethics, one might ask? Are these not general to all humans? Probably less so. Societies can diverge remarkably on morality and ethics, and the two major political movements of the 20th century – liberalism and conservatism – diverge markedly on these issues. But both use reason and evidence in their many functions that are not connected with winning elections.

Reason and evidence, it should be noted, are the pillars on which rational atheism rests. Rational atheists differ from the rest of humanity in that they utilize reason and evidence for all aspects of life and not just in a consideration of deities.

The conclusion that I am driving towards therefore is that a path to reduced conflict and unhappiness might exist in the abandonment of divergent ethnicity and religion and the adoption of rational atheism by all. We might no longer hate and fight to the death about virgin births, unholy foods, driving on the Sabbath, Shia versus Sunni, Jew versus Arab, Catholic versus Protestant and Hindu versus Muslim. We would all be on the same side, would abandon that which divides us and abide by that which unites us. This is what rational atheism strives for. Although a non-ethnic, non-religious path was originally called for by the early Communists, Communism gradually abandoned reason and respect for evidence as it became dictatorial, dogmatic and authoritarian.

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Of course it will be argued that atheists have figured prominently in conflict and have done their share of killing particularly in the 20th century. And as atheists, we must accept the fact that we are only human and have been driven to murder by the need for revenge as occurred in the French Revolution. These revolutionaries had been brutalized for centuries by religion-supported tyrannical monarchies. As for the Communist and Fascist regimes of the 20th century, it is not known whether their killing was prompted by their Communism and Fascism, which have been likened to religious movements by no less an authority on religion than the Roman Catholic Church, or by their atheism as there have been no non-Communist or non-Fascist atheist regimes to compare them with. However, it should be emphasized that there is nothing in the tenets of rational atheism of reason and respect for evidence that commands atheists to kill religionists whereas there is a great deal in ethnicity and religion and that explicitly calls for hostility toward outsiders and death for nonbelievers.

It will also be argued that even if we abandon ethnicity and religion we will still fight over differences of opinion and attitude, e.g. democrats versus republicans. However, in this regard it is instructive to examine the history of conflict in science where reason and evidence reign supreme. In the 300-400 years that modern science has existed most scientists with competing theories or methods have generally worked out their differences peacefully because of their respect for these two principles. If it can happen in science why not in other human endeavors?

Wouldn’t we lose a great deal of the beauty of life if we all abandoned our ethnic and religious differences, assuming, of course, that there was some way that we could all agree to do this. Yes, indeed, but happiness might be worth the price

1Nesse, R.M. Natural selection and the elusiveness of happiness. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. London. B (2004) 359, 1333-1347. doi:10.1098/rstb.2004.1511

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I'm a neuroscientist and atheist. I do basic preclinical research on the neurobiology of depression at a major medical center. I founded Westchester Atheists. Sculpture and photography are my hobbies.

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