WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: When God Goes Away, Superstition Takes His Place.
People who think themselves too rational for religious belief end up believing in “astral forces”, ghosts and other phenomena. Sometimes these superstitions take the deadly form of political ideologies that fanatical believers take up with religious fervor—communist atheists murdered tens of millions of people in the 20th century in the irrational grip of an ugly ideology. They scoffed at the credulity of religious believers even as they worshipped the infallible insights of Stalin. Similarly, the Nazis presented their faith as an alternative to the “outgrown superstitions” of historic Christianity.
It’s something very much worth remembering: a world without faith in God wouldn’t be a more rational or more humane place.
In his famous Analog essay on memes, Keith Henson wrote:
I have picked dangerous examples for vivid illustrations and to point out that memes have a life of their own. The ones that kill their hosts make this hard to ignore. However, most memes, like most microorganisms, are either helpful or at least harmless. Some may even provide a certain amount of defense from the very harmful ones. It is the natural progression of parasites to become symbiotes, and the first symbiotic behavior that emerges in a proto-symbiote is for it to start protecting its host from other parasites. I have come to appreciate the common religions in this light. Even if they were harmful when they started, the ones that survive over generations evolve and do not cause too much damage to their hosts. Calvin (who had dozens of people executed over theological disputes) would hardly recognize Presbyterians three hundred years later. Contrariwise, the Shaker meme is now confined to books, and the Shakers are gone. It is clearly safer to believe in a well-aged religion than to be susceptible to a potentially fatal cult.
In this regard, I think that even doctrinaire atheists might prefer to live in a world in which most people believe in some well-established Christian religion.