Man is, biologically, just another species of chimpanzee, lacking fur but possessing a brain which is unique among animals. He is marked by, among other things, the capacity, frequently used, to make war upon his fellow man, often with great cruelty. Historically, his natural form of social organization is hierarchical, with those at the bottom living a barely-human existence to support those at the top. This social order is defended, when threatened, with the same ferocity and cruelty shown in war. It also seems to be a ubiquitous feature of humanity to believe in a transcendent order that exists above and beyond mundane material reality. We can frame many explanations for this desire to believe -- belief in a happy afterlife is consolation for an unhappy present one; a projection onto nature of human will; an explanation for frightening events which are not understood, but whose authors hopefully can be propitiated through magic rituals; the cry for a heart in a heartless world. Whatever our explanation, humans seem to have a powerful yearning for the sacred. Conscious atheism is conspicuously rare in human history. However, unless this is organized and given form, it remains at the level of mere superstition: astrology and lucky rabbits' feet and alternative medicine. Organized religion gives form and coherence to the religious impulse. Often, but not always, it infuses it with rules which help social cohesion, including ethics. Most of the great religions seek, in principle, to modify the pure egoism of their followers, by, for example, some form of the Golden Rule. Often organized charity is part of religion. Of course, organized religion, which has so often had a powerful hold on men's minds, has also been harnessed for far different things than charitable acts. Organized religions often become purely tribal religions, and in that capacity justify the acts of savagery of one tribe against another. And organized religions have been particularly bestial when trying to suppress close competitors -- Gibbon pointed out that the Christians themselves killed far more of their fellow Christians than the Roman persecutors ever did. Religion is modified by, and adapts to, the society it is in. Thus the Christianity of the 2nd Century AD was a far different thing from the Christianity of the 12 Century, which was in turn far different from Christianity in the 21st Century. Except for the word "Christian" and some formal allegiance to certain rituals and writings, they are entirely different religions. Modern Christianity, by and large, is very much a product of the Enlightenment -- which, in fact, it helped bring about. An open atheist can live next door to and work with a devout Christian, and fear not. Someone can even proclaim himself a Satan-worshipper and a witch, and all he will receive from most Christians is a bemused shrug. Of course, where organized Christianity still exists, some of its adherents are active in politics, and try to use their religious organizations to further political aims which are congruent with their religion, as they see it. Thus fundamentalist Protestants agitate against the right to abortion (although not against the right to divorce, even though divorce except in cases of infidelity is specifically condemned in the New Testament). And the liberal National Council of Churches enjoins us all to move towards a mild form of socialism, as well as calling for an armed invasion of an oppressive Muslim-run state in Africa. Note that these forms of political intervention are well within the spectrum of the secular politics of their peers. At best/worst, the fundamentalists would take us back to the 1950s -- not back to the Middle Ages. And the liberal Christians would turn us into Scandanavian social democrats -- not laborers in the Gulag. All of these churches teach their followers tolerance and civilized behavior in practice. All of them accept the norms of the Enlightenment, and in general respect the rule of law. Militant atheists, like Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens, get very worked up about them, and go on at great length about the rather improbable things which are part of their formal belief system, things which defy the laws of physics. And of course it easy to laugh at people who literally believe in Adam and Eve, and the like. But the essence of modern religion is not, by and large, an insistence on the literal truth of events that happened, if they did, and in any event were recorded, in the distant past. Rather, religion represents a faith in the existence of a transcendent order. Now no one can prove that such an order exists. And yet atheists -- or at least philosophical materialists -- evince a belief in something which is, at present at least, miraculous. Materialists believe that human beings -- like everything else -- are collections of atoms. Now one atom cannot experience the color red, get angry, or feel a sense of awe. Nor can two atoms. Nor three. But no one can explain how it is, following the laws of mathematics and physics, that the umpty-jillion atoms making up you who are now reading this, can do all these things. No one can explain consciousness, and the sense of identity, and free will. They remain miracles, but believed in by the most ardent atheist. The atheist knows consciousness and free will exist, even if he cannot begin to explain them. He has faith, but not blind faith. He experiences their reality every day. (There are people who deny that they have free will, and who believe that, with respect to consciousness, once you have explained assemblies of neurons firing, you have explained everything. In the extreme case, these unfortunate people are called autists. In the normal case, they are called sophomore philosophy majors.) Now the intelligent believer just extends this mode of thinking to the things unseen. We may decline to join him. But we need not sneer at him. In any case, atheists also make a much more serious error: they assume that because they are decent people -- and most militant atheists are just as kind and trustworthy as your average Christian, Jew or Muslim -- that if atheism spreads, that everyone will be kind and decent too. In other words, atheists deny the social utility of organized religion, even in its post-Enlightenment form. They may be right, but ... I would invite any American atheist who yearns to see the average workingclass American lose all his religious belief, to visit the United Kingdom, where religion among the average people has faded away. Not only do the lower ranks of British society have no interest in religion, they are also the beneficiaries of a good deal of the kind of welfare-state ministrations which have taken the place of personal and religiously-organized charity. The British proletariat may not have the consolations of religion, but they have free health care, free education, and a wealth of "benefits" which allow anyone who does not feel like working, to avoid doing so. (You will have to persuade a doctor to sign a form testifying that you cannot work -- few doctors will refuse a robustly-made request.) So, no God, and the welfare state. And the result -- a lot of proletarian Dawkins, espousing ethical culture? Come see for yourself. I will pick you up at the airport, and take you to a nearby public housing estate, where you may meet your fellow natural atheists. (Not that they would know that word, or very many others.) Just walk around, and see what we have created here, where religion has vanished, and hierarchy and discipline and authority have been exposed as the tools of the ruling class. (Not after dark!) Don't take anything valuable with you. It will be an eye-opening experience. Is there a transcendent reality, beyond this material universe? I don't know. Probably not, although given the enormous mystery of consciousness in all its aspects I am reluctant to profess a simple physical materialism. (And I would certainly not lightly sneer at the beliefs of men who are far more intelligent than I am.) The great chronicler of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire said that in pre-Christian Rome there were many religions, and that they were for the philosophers equally false; for the masses, equally true; and for the magistrates, equally useful. He was a cynic. But he was on to something.