What Atheists Should Know About Religion’s Extinction Burst

Study after study document one glimmer of hope for the United States: As our country progresses, we become more secular.  Not only has the United States become more secular over time, but where religion is expressed, it is expressed more liberally and less dogmatically. In a nation where the fastest growing religious group includes atheists, agnostics, and the non-religious, the religious experiences that many have are becoming more personal: Where religion is concerned, they are “doing their own thing,” and not playing by ancient rulebooks. While that idea has its own set of problems, it can leave naturalists hopeful that the ethical guidelines our religious countrymen are constructing are based more in reality and less in ancient, arbitrary books.

While the rise of secularism in the United States is spectacular enough for other nations to see, atheists inside the United States are constantly on the defensive. And it is exhausting. Some atheists may even be confused by the Guardian’s recent assertion that it is not atheists but the religious who have been put on the defensive–that the religious are, in fact, the ones in a dire state and are lashing out against nonbelievers and getting louder. Aside from some short-term discomfort, the recent force shown by the religious right is a good sign.

In the Southern region, we’ve seen political attack ads against candidates for political office accusing one candidate in Alabama of–horror of horrors!–not believing that the entire Bible is true and once stating that evolution best explains the origin of our species (despite his objections and solemn oath that he believes the entire Bible and not evolution, he lost the race). The winner of that race, Governor Bentley, then made a statement early in his term that people who were not Christians were not “his brothers and sisters.” In Mississippi and Alabama, residents are urging atheists to “go back to Wisconsin” after the Freedom From Religion Foundation complained that public schools were inappropriately leading children in prayer. Mississippians followed this up by introducing legislation to recognize that a person becomes a legal person “at the moment of conception,” a move which would likely outlaw abortion along with birth control. (I wonder if it will apply to the U.S.-conceived zygotes of illegal immigrants).

On the national scene, we have Republicans fighting over who is more Christian, and some of their frontrunners for the 2012 presidential race are backed by Christian Dominionists. President Obama reads scripture  in a stunning appeal to the religious majority. Just four years after a president who talked to God about invading Iraq left office, we could be in for one who prays for rain and debt solutions, wears special underwear, or submits to her husband’s will under the Bible’s command.

Yes, when all of this is taken into account, it may seem that we’ve taken a few steps back in the secularism-arena, but I promise good news. As Daniel C. Dennett once observed, “The religious fervor of today is a last, desperate attempt by our generation to block the eyes and ears of the coming generations, and it isn’t working.”

The “desperate attempt” Dennett referred to is known as an “Extinction Burst” in behavioral psychology: a temporary increase (or worsening) of behavior before it is extinguished.

To explain: When a child in the supermarket asks for a sweet and is told, “No,” the child may begin to cry or beg. In the past, such behavior has rewarded the child when an exasperated adult caved in and gave the child the desired sweet. However, if the adult says, “No,” and sticks with it or even becomes more firm despite the child’s crying, the child will become frustrated and begin altering his behavior–this is the extinction burst. Like someone whose remote control has just stopped working, the child may try pushing all kinds of buttons, crying louder, then screaming, then pleading, then, as some of us may have witnessed, lying down and screaming in the middle of the store, stealing, or even attacking the adult. The frustrated move from begging to hitting and screaming is an extinction burst, and how the adult reacts makes all the difference.

If the adult gives up and caves in, the behavior is rewarded, and the child will do this again. If the adult stands firm, the child will probably not find the strategy useful enough to continue.

Extinction bursts are visible on individual and societal levels where religion in the United States is concerned. For instance, Pascal’s Wager worked for many generations to keep people in church. Fire and brimstone sermons worked for some time to keep people fearful of questioning God. But, then, atheists and others got loud about it. They said, “You’ll burn in hell for eternity,” and atheists said, “Hell is imaginary.” Some tried to bring hell to earth, but, then, they fizzled out. After realizing that atheists and others would not be swayed, they want to agree to disagree. Some 40% of Christians no longer believe in Hell and many more do not think nonbelievers are necessarily condemned there (contrary to direct Biblical teachings).

On a societal level, I recently wrote about the disagreement between Mississippi’s DeSoto County Schools (and the Christians in the area) and Freedom from Religion Foundation. FFRF told the school system that praying over the PA System at football games is unconstitutional. The school system complied with the law and stopped the practice. The Christian residents, frustrated like the child in the supermarket, rather than accepting the law and the reasons for which it exists, began shouting prayers in unison at the games. But the extinction burst didn’t last; no one gave them the PA back.   Except for a loud few, they now meet elsewhere to pray or pray silently just weeks later.

Now what for the nation?

On a national level, the religious right will push hard and try to move the center to the right by defining America as religious and even altering our history. Like other issues for the religious majority, this will pass in time. In the past years, we’ve seen church leaders come out vehemently against homosexuality and gay  marriage, yet some churches now accept homosexuals and 51% of our population support gay marriage. Similarly, Ken Ham (Creationist from Answers in Genesis) angrily (sadly?) and regularly makes posts mocking churches that have accepted evolution and denied the Biblical creation story. The Vatican now even accepts the theory of evolution. Hopefully this will trend into mainstream America as well, as their tactics have already changed from trying to outright ban the teaching of evolution to attempting to have Intelligent Design taught as an “alternative.” The trend is that, when it is first suggested that church leaders are wrong, they forcefully deny and fight it, but, as evidence mounts, they become more tolerant of the idea.

As secular America stands firmly to maintain the Separation of Church and State and to even reverse the damage of the past, those clinging to old ways will increase their volume levels and up their rhetoric. Their political leaders will remain loud. Their pundits will paint godlessness as a disease and the godless as vermin with increasing frequency. They will continue to paint attempts to limit religious intervention in government as a conspiracy to rob them of faith and to send their children running into their devil’s hands. We may well continue to see death threats against atheist activists.

But that can’t silence reason, and it can’t hide evidence. If we are at a crossroads where we must decide how to respond to extinction bursts, the decision must be to stand firm and continue to maintain the Separation of Church and State. Any other action rewards their tactics–but if their strategies do not work the way they have planned, they will try something that is hopefully more rational.

That’s our good news. :)


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K. Mason

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10 2011