Are atheists more misanthropic than theists

Philosopher Michael Schmidt-Salomon"Enlightened religion dying out like men's choirs"

Religions influence political, social and cultural developments around the world on a daily basis. But they are not the only such powerful worldviews. Atheism - the view that there is no God - also has profound social, cultural and political consequences.

One of the most famous atheists in Germany is the philosopher Michael Schmidt-Salomon. He is co-founder and spokesman of the Giordano Bruno Foundation, which, according to its own statements, advocates "evolutionary humanism" and the Enlightenment as the "leading culture". It is named after one of the "most famous victims of religious violence", as Schmidt-Salomon says: The priest and philosopher Bruno was burned at the stake in 1600 by the Catholic Church as a "heretic".

In an interview, Schmidt-Salomon explains what consequences the atheistic worldview of evolutionary humanism has for thinking and acting, where it can be reconciled with a liberal understanding of religion - and why religious dogmas as "cultural time machines" can be so dangerous.

Christiane Florin: Mr. Schmidt-Salomon, why did you decide in favor of a worldview, an -ism?

Michael Schmidt-Salomon: Evolutionary humanism has a wonderful quality: it is evolutionary, that is, it is designed for change. He makes change a program, so there are no absolute dogmas, no holy scriptures, no infallible prophets who have access to absolute truth. We assume that everything people say what they think is prone to error. That we are subject to time-related, culture-related, cognitive distortions, and that is why our knowledge has to be constantly changed - and that appealed to me a lot about this type of thinking, there is a categorical imperative in this field, and that is: We have to be wrong Let ideas die before people die for wrong ideas. And unfortunately that has happened all too rarely in history.

"I wouldn't say that belief in God has been refuted"

Florin: You were not born an evolutionary humanist. They were not baptized as such, that would be a contradiction in the system. How did you get there?

Schmidt-Salomon: Well, I was actually baptized a Catholic. As a child and still today, I had a strong need for logical consistency. So when someone contradicted himself in a sentence or claimed things that could not be reconciled with the obvious facts, it always irritated me very much.

Florin: For example, what was that that irritated you as a child?

Schmidt-Salomon: For example, if people actually believe that a person died 2,000 years ago and rose from the dead and that they will actually find salvation if they follow this man, why don't they try harder anymore? And at the same time, of course, I asked myself: Can it even be true that this story happened? Or is that kind of fake news from the past, so to speak? Of course, I didn't have the term at the time, but I thought about it a lot. I was also really ready to be persuaded of any religious belief, but it didn't work.

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Florin: The evolutionary in evolutionary humanism takes up evolutionary biology - and that means, among other things, that the biblical account of creation is refuted. Why is the belief in God refuted when one says that the account of creation is incorrect, that it couldn't have happened that way?

Schmidt-Salomon: I wouldn't say that belief in God has been refuted. The problem with this term God is that it has not been adequately defined or that there are innumerable definitions of God. I cannot say per se that all definitions contradict our scientific knowledge. I have met people who said: "God is only the sum of being." Or: "God is love." Since I do not doubt the existence of this universe or the possibility of love, I have no reason to have to refute these ideas of God. As a philosopher I would only insist on calling love, love and the universe, universe and being, because otherwise it would lead to confusion. Of course, my difficulties arise when certain personal qualities are ascribed to a god, when this is connected with a history of salvation that is difficult to reconcile with what we know about the world.

"Much useful, very much nonsensical, very much dangerous"

Florin: You reject religion for yourself. Why would you also want others to say goodbye to religion? Or I could ask the other way around: Do you proselytize for your evolutionary humanism?

Schmidt-Salomon: Well, I want to convince people with good arguments. That doesn't even mean that I reject all religions. There are certainly overlaps between my philosophy and certain currents that have emerged in all religions. For example, great similarities with Meister Eckhart in Christianity, Advaita Hinduism, Zen Buddhism, with some Sufi currents in Islam, I'm a big follower of Spinoza - well, he was banned from the Jewish community - so it's not so that I would generally say that I reject religion. I actually see religion as a cultural treasure trove of mankind, there you can find something meaningful, but also a lot of nonsense and unfortunately a lot of dangerous things. I would just advise that we subject religion to a critical examination. If people were to apply the same degree of rationality to their worldview that they show when they choose a smartphone, for example, then the world would look a lot better.

Florin: What is the dangerous thing about religions? I assume - or I know: you are not targeting a single religion, but it is something fundamentally dangerous that you attest to religion.

Schmidt-Salomon: It is this strong concentration on supposedly eternal, absolute values. We know that humanity has changed in the course of its cultural evolution. That we have actually developed further in ethical terms, from beings who originally only thought within the limits of their own horde, later perhaps within the limits of their own religious community or their own nation, to the formulation of universal human rights. Religions came into being at a time when these ideas were not capable of reaching a consensus in societies, so they are often something like cultural time machines that bring values ​​into the present that are actually long since obsolete.

"Unfortunately, charity and hatred of far from abroad go hand in hand"

Florin: What are your values?

Schmidt-Salomon: For example, there is this concentration on one's own group. The real ethical problem does not consist in love for one's neighbor, but in "hatred of distant people". Unfortunately, charity and hatefulness go hand in hand, as a rule. Religions do not have one ethics, they always have two ethics: one ethics for members of their own religion and a completely different one for outsiders.

Florin: What do you mean by that? That the external image is, so to speak, more harmless than the image that is conveyed internally, or vice versa?

Schmidt-Salomon: No. God shows himself loving, merciful, kind and the believer should show himself to those who are on the right path of virtue.

Florin: Not really. If you take the New Testament: Jesus turns to those who are not on the right path of virtue and says: I will help you anyway.

Schmidt-Salomon: Yes, but they belong to the same community. But for those who do not keep to it despite the instruction, the eternal hellfire is intended. The passages in which Jesus describes this are tremendous. You can even find these passages in the Sermon on the Mount or in the correspondent offices. For example, if you look at a woman lustfully, it would be better for you to have torn your eyes out of your head than to see the eternal hellfire where the worm never dies. These are very massive messages of violence that are also laid out in the New Testament, and also in the Revelation of John. I know of no passage from de Sade that is so marked by the boundless sadism of the punishment of others. And that is actually what constitutes religions: They create cohesion in their own group, differentiating them from the others. This is the root of group enmity.

This also explains why we have this strange international of nationalists around the world today, where national chauvinists combine with reactionary religious people. No matter where you look in the world. It is a phenomenon of Christianity, Evangelicals in the USA, Catholics in Poland ...

"Nationalist and reactionary religious currents go together"

Florin: The Orthodox ...

Schmidt-Salomon: ... the Orthodox in Russia. You have linked it to national values ​​in Islam in Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran. You have it with the ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel too. You have it with the radical Hindus and the radical Buddhists. This is a phenomenon: this merging of nationalist and reactionary religious currents. And, in my opinion, we can only escape this if we escape this identitary discourse ...

Michael Schmidt-Salomon sees nationalism and religion in close collaboration in many places (picture-alliance / AP / Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Florin: However, you have now read the Bible - or in general: the holy books - as fundamentalist as a fundamentalist. One cannot define away the statements glorifying violence in the Bible or the Koran, but of course one can classify them with a little knowledge, put them into perspective, and with good reason one can also single out the other statements.

Schmidt-Salomon: Yes of course. This can be.

Florin: You can't read a book like this without prejudice and without knowing it and say: It’s in there and I’ll do it now.

Schmidt-Salomon: Absolutely. Yes / Yes. So I don't doubt that exegetical virtuosos are capable of doing that. But that is exactly what they need to convey to believers. And it is just the case that the humane interpretation of these religious scriptures obviously does not work to the same extent.

"I have more in common with the theist Albert Schweitzer than with the atheist Josef Stalin"

Florin: Regarding the identity that you described, I would say: every religion has different currents: fundamentalist, liberal, conservative, arch-conservative, reactionary. Often times you will find strong opposition between the liberals and the fundamentalists. They fight each other much more strongly than one fights the other religion. Is that true with this "distant hatred", isn't it more the polarity within one's own religion?

Schmidt-Salomon: Yeah well If an in-group member, i.e. a member of his own group, deviates from the given path of his own consciousness matrix, then he is even more dangerous than someone who comes directly from outside. That is why we have had these tough arguments between Catholics and Protestants and - now still - between Sunnis and Shiites.

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I totally agree with you: the religions are extremely ambivalent: there are very liberal currents and there are very authoritarian currents. Incidentally, you will also find this with atheist ideologies. I am of the opinion that this alleged dispute between theism and atheism is a sham battle, because that is not the point. I have a lot more in common with the theist Albert Schweitzer than with the atheist Joseph Stalin.

Florin: If so, then the danger that you described earlier is not at all in the essence of the religious, but something else is also at work there. If I take human rights as an example, which are very important to you. There are huge violations of human rights in the name of religions, against the rights of homosexuals, against the rights of women for example. You ought to be able to connect quite well with the liberal currents of religions in the name of human rights.

Schmidt-Salomon: We do that too ...

"Without hell and the devil, Jesus' act of redemption is as exciting as a penalty shootout without an opposing team"

Florin: Then what separates would not be the question: religious or non-religious, but something else.

Schmidt-Salomon: The question is to what extent these liberal Christians and Muslims actually still correspond to the ideal type of their religion. The enlightenment process also took place in the religions. And the problem that I just see is that there is this self-secularization in these religious communities, and that these liberal currents are much less suited to binding people than authoritarian ones. This is a phenomenon that we can see worldwide: the more liberal a religious community is, the more likely it is to lose followers. And the more authoritarian it is, the more likely it is to retain supporters.

And that has something to do with the nature of religion. Because what makes a person actually set his life on a specific religion? It is the belief that something really important is at stake here. Belief in a pure metaphoric religion has no inner drama at all, does not actually bind people to this worldview, because you have to make sacrifices, so to speak, in order to belong to the elect of a religious community. Jesus' act of redemption is as exciting without hell and the devil as penalty shoot-outs without an opposing team.

People ask themselves: Why should I follow a religion that could be interpreted this way or another? I very much support the liberal currents within the religions. For example, I suggested Mouhanad Khorchide write a book on Islamic humanism after my friend Hamad Abdel-Samad wrote a book on Islamic fascism.

Florin: You do not predict any missionary success for these liberal currents.

Schmidt-Salomon: I fear that this form of liberal, enlightened religion is something of a dying cultural phenomenon, comparable to men's choirs that "sing at the fountain in front of the gate". This is of course dangerous, because these liberal believers provided the interface between the fundamentalist believers on the one hand and the purely secular people on the other. If that melts away, it's a dangerous process. I think that is exactly what we can currently observe in the world, this polarization in camps that hardly have anything in common.

"Anyone who does not believe in the further development of our species is not a humanist, but a cynic"

Florin: Do you benefit from the fact that not so many people are members of a church that they either quit or are not baptized at all?

Schmidt-Salomon: You mean the Giordano Bruno Foundation?

Florin: Yes, the foundation and the worldview to which they belong. Will it be less for some and more for you?

Schmidt-Salomon: I believe this process is not that straightforward. No. I also have to say that there are indeed liberal Catholics and Protestants - church members - who supported the Giordano Bruno Foundation, even priests and pastors. It's not like you can judge people by their denomination. But the process of de-Christianization and de-churchization is constant and will not abate, because it is not only related to the fact that people are leaving the church, but also to the fact that the relationship between the newly baptized and the dead is very unfavorable for the church statistics.

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Florin: We have reported several times about heretics regulars, including the heretics days, which took place on the fringes of the Catholic Day. It was noticeable that there was just as much talk about the churches as at the church events themselves. If the churches were gone, would there still be something to talk about or would a very big topic break away when you no longer have the opposite church?

Schmidt-Salomon: No. Because that is what distinguishes evolutionary humanism from pure church criticism. It's a worldview. A humanistic worldview. What does that mean? If a theist is distinguished by believing in God, a humanist is distinguished by believing in man. This does not mean that humanists consider human beings to be godlike, but it does mean that they trust that we can create better, freer, fairer living conditions than we find today. Anyone who absolutely cannot believe in the further development of our species is not a humanist, but a cynic.

It is the great task to make human living conditions freer and fairer. Even beyond human living conditions, because we are not the only sentient life beings on this planet. We have a very big task and the Giordano Bruno Foundation dedicates itself to this task in a large number of projects. We try to achieve a better metabolism with nature, in the field of ecology, we try to establish animal rights in our consciousness. These are all questions that must be dealt with completely separately from the question of whether there are still churches or not.

"New atheism - the tip of an ideological iceberg critical of religion"

Florin: And what would be better if fewer people were religious? Many religious people are committed to climate protection, for charitable purposes.

Schmidt-Salomon: The problem is that the term religious you are using in the question is not clearly defined.

Florin: But you have a clear definition. You need to know what you are criticizing.

Schmidt-Salomon: There are areas of religion that I am not criticizing at all. Schleiermacher described the religious as the sense and taste for the infinite. I think that an evolutionary perspective that also serves the vast dimensions of our universe much more strongly than the very anthropocentric religious narratives that we know. Anyone who has become sensitive to the real magic of the cosmos will not be so easily fobbed off with the lazy magic of the creation stories concentrated around man. That is one aspect.

The second aspect is: if we look at religious institutions, if we look at which conflicts exist worldwide, the conflicts are caused by a non-evolutionary way of looking at the world. The New Atheism, about which so much was talked about, was only the tip of an ideological iceberg, critical of religion. What is below the surface is much bigger. It's not just about believing in God. It is about the question of whether we can develop a view of people and the world that is actually at the level of the 21st century. There is still an incredible amount to be achieved. This is the real thing: It's about a new humanism, it's about an evidence-based, rational view of the world.

"Everyone lives in filter bubbles"

Florin: Now it can be scientifically proven: people are not always rational.

Schmidt-Salomon: Nor would it be rational to always want to be rational.

Florin: Just.

Schmidt-Salomon: Sure, we prefer quick thinking and don't like reflecting that much. Nobody longs to apply the principles of critical rationalism, that is, to have their own convictions falsified. We all live in filter bubbles and design the world according to our expectations.

Florin: They also?

Schmidt-Salomon: Yes of course. All live in filter bubbles. No one has existed outside of filter bubbles. However, not all filter bubbles are the same. There are filter bubbles that to some extent meet the criteria of rationality and those that grossly violate them.

Giordano Bruno, philosopher and modern astronomer (1548-1600) (Gundling)

Florin: Critical ability is very important (for evolutionary humanism). At the moment monuments are being torn down, literally and figuratively. How critical do you see Giordano Bruno's hostility to Jews? Do you need to come up with a new name for the foundation?

Schmidt-Salomon: No. Giordano Bruno was hostile to any religion, one can say. Anyone who should really think that Giordano Bruno even remotely pursues this eliminatory hatred of Jews or anti-Semitism like Martin Luther, is greatly mistaken.

"There are no infallible prophets - this also applies to Giordano Bruno"

Florin: What would have to happen for you to say: "This is so much criticism that we have to exchange the name, we are committed to a foundation name that does not have a person at its center"?

Schmidt-Salomon: We named Giordano Bruno the name of the foundation for various reasons. Because he is the most famous victim of religious violence, because he anticipated insights that we can only really grasp today. This is exactly why he was burned at the stake after six dark years of imprisonment. We as a foundation see ourselves as an avant-garde. We want to bring in a future perspective that cannot yet be thought by a majority, but which may move people in the future. You always have to try to bring ideas into the debate that have the chance to make us as a species a little more free, a little more rational, a little more tolerant. That is why we resorted to Giordano Bruno, because he was actually a contemporary of the future and because that makes us aware that it can actually be dangerous to question the consensus of the time.

Florin: This is also a kind of canonization.

Schmidt-Salomon: No. There are many completely insane sentences in Giordano Bruno. I have already said: For us there are no infallible prophets who have leased the truth for themselves. This also applies to Giordano Bruno. He's certainly not my favorite philosopher, but he represents something that is understood around the world.

Statements by our interlocutors reflect their own views. Deutschlandfunk does not adopt statements made by its interlocutors in interviews and discussions as its own.