Answering Greta: My Goals As An Atheist Writer

In order to deal with the questions of whether we should argue with religious believers or insult and mock religions, Greta Christina raised question of what the atheist movement should be aiming at. If we adequately define our goals, then we can assess what is or is not counter-productive to achieving them. I agree with Greta that our goals should be much more than just social and political ones of destigmatizing atheists and countering legal favoritism towards faith beliefs from the government. At minimum, I am a staunch political secularist who thinks the absolute separation of church and state is necessary for maximal human flourishing. But, like Greta, I want to go well beyond just legal arguments and well beyond combating bigoted assumptions about atheists that make atheists afraid to proudly own their atheism or admit to it publicly. Like Greta, I want there to be a public debate about the truth and falsity and the morality and immorality of religious claims. I want there to be serious, rigorous public discussion about what is real and what is good and end the default cultural deference to anyone calling himself or herself a holy person.

What I am against is not religion per se but a set of awful things that existing religions, particularly in the West but also in other places, are especially prone to. Here’s a somewhat comprehensive list of 16 things which I vehemently oppose which are to one or extent another unforgivably bound up with the dominant religions of the West: faith (i.e., the willful belief contrary to rational evidence), supernaturalism, superstition, moral and cultural regressivism, traditionalism for its own sake, fundamentalism, tribalism, patriarchal values, nationalism, racism, anti-intellectualism, pseudoscience, moral and cultural stagnation, anti-natural moralities, misogyny, homophobia, and, most importantly, authoritarianism in all its ugly forms—be they intellectual, moral, or political.

Remove or replace all of that and I don’t have anything particularly against religion in principle. But what’s left of religion if you remove all of that, you ask? Well, potentially a lot. We can have meditation practices, rational discussion of metaphysics and science, various foci of communal and family identities, non-governmental institutions for the communal moral education of children, structures for meaningful holidays, rituals for integrating values with practices as part of creating and reinforcing valuable habits of thought, reverence, and practice, techniques for creating full body/mental ecstatic experiences (typically, misleadingly called “spiritual”), etc.

At present many people accept some amount of the evils towards which religions are prone in order to get the benefits that religions promise. To some extent, both explicitly religious and explicitly secular people get some of the goods religions provide or aim at from explicitly irreligious sources as well. Nonetheless, I see a lot of potential value in creating communities that deliberately focus on discussions of ethics, provide values education of children in common, create holidays and rituals that give the calendar of life a meaningful structure that helps reinforce good values, and also that helps guide people towards meditative, mental, emotional, and intellectual experiences which are intense but wholly divorced from false philosophies and morally and culturally regressive values and politics.

Again, people can get each of these things individually from different secular outlets. People can take philosophy classes (though infuriatingly almost no one presently offers them for children in America). Many people can inculcate values in their children on their own and through consulting books and parents groups, though it wouldn’t hurt to have a rationalist community which deliberately focused on this task in common for mutual support and ideas. Many people can learn to meditate and to achieve ecstatic experiences by informally pilloring from the various practices already developed in religious contexts and just scrubbing them of their irrationalistic, woo connotations. But it would be nice if there were explicitly rationalistic, explicitly anti-woo, secular communities which guided people in such practices in ways consistent with reason so that the average person did not have to risk getting their mind muddled when all they are seeking is meditative clarity through perfectly legitimate means. It would be nice if self-consciously rationalist communities proactively offered “all the  ’spiritual’ results without all the misleading bullshit” to people so that they didn’t feel like it was a choice between a woo-worldview and their “spiritual” experiences.

I could go on and on finding ways that different pieces of the things people turn to religion for can be (and are) replaced with different secular practices and institutions. But I don’t see why there is inherently wrong with integrating all of them as a unique rival package to faith-based, authoritarian, morally regressive religions.

Why not take all the good things people want from one integrated “religious institution” and not provide it in rival institutions that say: ”Look, we can give you discussion of philosophy and values which is rigorous and stimulating instead of deadeningly dogmatic. We can give you and your children pragmatically valuable and enriching rituals based on contemporary cognitive science aimed at personalized cognitive-behavioral therapy that helps you live a happier life, with no pretensions of anything more mystical and legalistically enforced than that. We can show you how to meditate and achieve ecstatic experiences without delusions. We can give you a community that welcomes all-comers from diverse walks of life and unites them in common discussion of actual truth and common works of actual charity. We can do all of this for the low low price of free, with no priests, no hierarchies, no authoritarian thou-shalts. We can also have numerous different communities tailored to different plausible, ethically humane philosophies and values systems, without any hatred and division between us.”

If we create that alternative people will call it a religion. But so what? If it’s none of the sixteen awful things I listed, if its sixteen founding commandments are “thou shalt not have faith”, “thou shalt not be authoritarian”, “thou shalt not accept traditions without constant reinvestigation of their actual value”, etc. then what’s the problem? Why not use the powerful tools that humanity has developed the worldwide for integrating people’s lives and developing traditions and put them to service for rationalism and not in the service of irrationalistic authoritarianism where they have always been ripe for abuse?

The alternative to developing robust atheistic religions is to leave the alternative to be the benefits of integrating life the way religions can vs. the threat of a fractured, disoriented life as an atheist. Some current atheists get this and want robust replacements for religion. A significant portion of us are so burned on the abusive forms of religion wed to all the awfulness  I’ve listed above that they have an understandably knee jerk reflex against anything that even smells like a religion. Other atheists I think are partially atheists because it was their anti-communal and/or hyper-intellectual temperaments that made it relatively easy for them to break with religion and its emphases on group-based development of values and practices.

If atheists are to really broaden our ranks beyond the base of those who are smart enough to be unable to believe and those who are individualistic enough to have no use for group-developed values, we really need to offer the average person—i.e., that person of average intellect and average sociability, who for very good, highly evolutionarily selected reasons, wants to turn to institutions and authorities for guidance in values and practice and philosophy—something more robust than “think for yourself, learn science, visit atheist blogs, and stop believing all bullshit even when it’s bound up with practices and beliefs that give your life a powerful sense of orientation!”

A great many people are viscerally attached to their religions. They are more important to them than truth. For those of us who think truth should be paramount, we need to rival those other benefits for other people if they are to find meaningful ways to hook onto truth as robustly as we have. We need to make the case for truth religiously. We need to show that rationally philosophizing, meditating, discussing values, having ecstatic experiences, having community and holidays and rituals, etc. kicks the ass of doing all that in authoritarian, outdated, irrational, patriarchal, infantile, dogmatic, closed-minded, and superstitious ways.

So, my goal is not really to end religion. It’s to end the 16 bad things I listed and to end people’s allegiances to those religions which are irredeemably corrupted by them. If rival religions which are scrupulously rationalistic help to do that, then I have no problem with them.

But I don’t think the only thing atheists need to do is create rival institutions to the existing religious ones. We also should be on the attack against the bad ideas, bad intellectual and moral practices, and bad institutions that existing religions appallingly propagate. So how would I also attack the abuses and lies of religion? I do, and will, call every literal falsehood within religion a literal falsehood. Where there are good metaphorical ideas or structures of thought within a religion, I will recognize their value and recommend religious people keep them but situate them in a truer overall philosophical perspective. Where ideas are absurd, they deserve to be laughed at. Where a given belief or practice demands respect simply for being religious or based on faith, I will vigorously deny it that unwarratned privilege. A true, rationalistic religion would only let religion serve independently derivable truths—not to give beloved beliefs impunity. I will point out absurdity within logically absurd beliefs. Sometimes the best way to do that is to mock the idea since mockery highlights absurdity the most effectively.

As a matter of freedom of conscience and freedom from other people’s religions, I will not participate in religious ceremonies I don’t believe in unless for some reason I think another valuable thing is at stake. For example, I once participated in a very conservative Catholic friend’s very conservative wedding as a groomsman. I was honored he included me though I was an atheist, and so I went. When I knelt in the ceremony it was to my friendship and not my friend’s God or his church. When I freely make fun of false ideas, I do not do it to hurt individual people’s feelings but to have fun or to educate. I don’t go out of my way to insult people, but will not treat what others hold dear as in principle unmockable as that would be my treating as holy and “set apart” what is not holy to me. To be asked to defer in such a manner would be to be asked to share their reverence on their behalf. But I will not revere institutions or ideas on behalf of others. Religious people must learn the limits of their ability to make others revere what they do.

For all this, though, I will recognize the ways that religions do contribute in powerful ways to my friends’ identities, to the extents that they do. In that context, I will be frank about the falseness of their beliefs and will be willing to mock illogical ideas they suggest when it’s an effective educating tool to get them to see and feel an absurdity. But for the most part I will focus on productive relentless dialectical questioning that will put the pressure on them to square their beliefs and feel cognitive dissonance within themselves, and to eventually break down with one moderating concession at a time until hopefully some day they are ready to disbelieve outright. That’s usually more effective than just presenting a challenge from outside their framework.

I will also try conscientiously to appreciate the good in my friends’ virtues and in their religious expressions insofar as they are good. No things are all good or all bad. Despite the corrupting dimensions of their religions, their religions also provide the form and the structure for many good things in their lives. I can see that good even in its religious forms and admire it for its goodness at the same time that I also am critical of the corrupting dimensions that come with their ties to bad beliefs and institutions. I will focus on loving what is good in my friends, hurt them in no ways that are not actually productive to their personal growth, and respect the forms of their religions to the point that that is consistent with my own conscientious objections to their religions.

Finally, since my goal is the flourishing of rationalism, I will oppose tribalistic tendencies among atheists. I will oppose tendencies towards fundamentalism that reacts with reflexive, dualistic hostility towards anything that has any associations with religion. I will oppose tendencies of some atheists to assume that rejecting faith makes them inherently smarter, more rational, or more moral in all (or most) matters than religious people. I will oppose lazy anti-philosophical over-corrective backlashes that seek to jettison philosophy because of the failures of theology by those who don’t understand the difference between the two.

And most importantly, I will encourage my fellow atheists not to abandon rationalism for emotionalism or reasoning for bullying in the effort to combat religious beliefs. I will insist that we persuade others as rationally and reasonably as we can, with as little gratuitous obnoxiousness as possible. Our anger should be restrained and our mockery should be aimed at education, not abusing people who disagree with us. Making people atheists is not a good in itself. It does not justify stooping to the vices of “convert-them-at-all-costs” evangelicalism. We shouldn’t be attacking individuals as stupid, we shouldn’t let our justified anger become self-righteous dehumanizing belligerence, we shouldn’t confuse ignorance for malice in our enemies, and we should be more interested in behaving and thinking rationally and fairly than just getting others to agree with us by whatever means necessary.

For more of my ideas on themes covered in this post, please read the following posts:

Can You Really Love Religious People If You Hate Their Religion?

What Can An Atheist Love In People’s Religiosity

Top Ten Tips For Reaching Out To Religious Believers

How Faith Poisons Religion

True Religion?

Islam, 9/11, and “True Religion” (Or “What Could George W. Bush Mean When Talking About True Islam?”)

Audiences and Approaches

I Am A Rationalist, Not A Tribalist.

I Don’t Really Give A Fuck About Tone, Per Se

How Atheists Treat Religious Dictates As Holy

In Defense of Mocking and Embarrassing Religion

My Thoughts on Blasphemy Day

Evangelical Atheism?

What’s Worse For Atheism: Being Confused For Being Too Much Like Bad Religion, Or Too Little Like Good Religion?


  • Lycanthrope

    Here’s a somewhat comprehensive list of 16 things which I vehemently oppose which are to one or extent another unforgivably bound up with the dominant religions of the West: faith (i.e., the willful belief contrary to rational evidence), supernaturalism, superstition, moral and cultural regressivism, traditionalism for its own sake, fundamentalism, tribalism, patriarchal values, nationalism, racism, anti-intellectualism, pseudoscience, moral and cultural stagnation, anti-natural moralities, homophobia, and, most importantly, authoritarianism in all its ugly forms—be they intellectual, moral, or political.

    Excellent. I may have to co-opt this for my own debates/discussions/arguments with friends and acquaintances.

  • julian

    I think my personal biggest misgiving towards a Sacred Grove of Rationalism and Free Inquiry (I think a Sacred Grove beats a temple any day of the week) is how would it work? If we do have no structure, priesthood or orthodoxy, how does it maintain an semblance of unity?

    I can’t help but think back to Christianity which started as a thoroughly Jewish religion and became everything but in part because it was a series of splintered factions each believing they had stumbled onto the right interpretation of what Jesus meant. I can’t see us ending up any differently given how dramatically different atheists and other nonbelievers view free thought and authority.

    Already we have no end to the skeptics who’d think accusations of denialism is an attempt to stifle free speech. Where are we going to find common ground there? The only possible end result I see is something developing like the orthodox churches that sprouted up in response to the diversity of Christian belief pushing the lesser churches into obscurity. And I don’t see that happened without developing a hierarchy (not because it’s necessary but because we’re already predisposed to default to that sort of power structure.)

    ((sorry if that was a bit all over the place. I still haven’t made up my mind on this atheist religion thing.))

    • Daniel Fincke

      The thing is that being non-authoritarian, there’s no need to fight over a right interpretation of a cult leader as the religions that developed as cults did. For example, I could imagine atheistic existentialists developing one kind of community and sets of rituals, atheistic stoics another, atheistic humanists another, etc. There could be differences between moral realists and anti-realists, naturalists and deontologists, etc. These sorts of divisions would be based on philosophical disagreements but not claims to know the one undeniable Truth of all things. The key to me is not that every atheist religion be the same, only that they all adhere to principles of rationalism and oppose the 16 evils of existing religions which I listed above as a matter of principle.

  • rtmillic

    I am an atheist and I attend a Unitarian Universalist church. I think it takes all the good things about religion and leaves behind MOST of the bad. Through my church I have community, common purpose and work towards social justice. I have responsibilities and a leadership role as the head of the young adult group. Furthermore, I need not believe in any of the superstitious dogma of my old Christian church. I am an open atheist and I am accepted, although I am in the minority.

    These are the 7 principles of Unitarian Universalism:

    1.The inherent worth and dignity of every person.
    2.Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.
    3.Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.
    4.A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.
    5.The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and society at large.
    6.The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.
    7.Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part

    These are not dogmatic and are no means meant to be comprehensive, but are meant to serve as a guideline or jumping-off point for an ethical life.

    I do feel Unitarian Universalism has a theistic bias to it. Most people there are genuine agnostics or believe in some “higher power” or mystical force. There are a few times I feel uncomfortable. Once we said the Lord’s prayer, not as an affirmation of God but as an excercise in a lesson about “daily bread” or the need for something meaningful every day. I could not finish it. UUs pride themselves in the truth that, if you stick around long enough, you will be offended eventually.

    I know church is not for everyone. Many atheists grew up without it and have no need for it. But for those who are curious, I would recomend a UU church. I think UU churches, or something like them, would still have a place in a world where theism is no longer prevalent.

    • John Morales

      1.The inherent worth and dignity of every person.

      How is this not dogmatic?

    • rtmillic

      When I said it’s not dogmatic, I meant that there is room for discussion and interpretation. Respect for the worth and dignity of every person means, to me, that every human being has rights, even those that do harm to others. Obviously, if someone is committing crimes or behaving harmfully, he or she must be brought to justice by due process. There may be others who disagree or have a different understanding, and our organization would encourage dialogue to understand this. This is a far cry from the dogma of “you’re going to hell because the Bible says” of my old Church.

    • John Morales

      When I said it’s not dogmatic, I meant that there is room for discussion and interpretation.

      Hm — what evidence could (even in principle) falsify that doctrine?

  • Just Visiting

    Yep, here’s another happy UU Atheist. Those who insist on creating another religious structure, not that I’d stand in your way, but you might want to look at the UU structure as an organizational model, if nothing else. Pretty loose, locally determined, yet with a national identity. May not answer all of @julian’s concerns, but perhaps most of ‘em.

    I do like the “Sacred Grove” part, though…

  • carollynn

    And if it’s free – how do you pay for the building the services? events? are held in? Are all the leaders of the services/events volunteers? What if someone wants to explore atheism and rationalism as their day job but not as a professor? Do congregations (? – can we call them congregations?) take up collections? Pledge a certain amount a month? Not that that is a bad thing in and of itself, but I can’t see these atheist religions being “free” on anything but a tiny scale, and that pretty much cuts out any attempts to have a coherent structure to them. Even if there are just on-line curricula or suggestions to follow – someone has to put those together and presumably be compensated for their time and the bandwidth to keep it current.

  • Daniel Fincke

    Yes, by free I meant comparable to what religions do, donation based on a non-profit model.

    Otherwise, if not free, then a reasonable monthly membership charge, maybe waived for those who cannot pay.

  • Rich

    This is a great discussion. I love your checklist of desired positive results. What would happen if you just started a group on e.g. with those desired results listed as a goal? I think I’m going to printout your ideas and bring them to the local secularist community meetup. If we could consciously bring these aspects to a non-religious context, we could gain a foothold against the spiritual retardation offered by “faiths.”
    There’s an important idea that you missed. It’s that of “salvation from evil.” It would be great if a secular group could offer benefits to ordinary people such that if a confused individual wanted to better himself, he could get “remedial morality 101.” This is a huge benefit from religion that I personally benefitted from and have seen help others.
    Anyhow, what a great jumping-off place this article offers. I’m inspired by it.

  • Alan Cooper

    I am uncomfortable with references to *the* atheist movement (and like some others wonder how much your postulated new quasi-religion would be incompatible with the existing UU congregation), but there are many sentences and phrases in this thoughtful piece that I might like to steal.

    I do think though that many religious people use the word “faith” in a sense which does not imply “willful belief contrary to rational evidence”. Some use it for belief in the absence of evidence in things about which no evidence exists, and others in a more subtle sense similar to the “I believe in you” which would surely be redundant as an assertion of existence. It may even be possible to have faith in something which one believes does not exist – not too advisable with regard to an imagined bridge over a raging torrent of course, but perhaps not so out of place if one is capable of soothing one’s nerves by sucking on an infinite psychic placebo. (Has anyone ever studied whether or not the placebo effect can work on people who know they are getting the placebo?)

    Oh, and finally, I hope and trust (ie have faith despite the evidence in print) that in the last paragraph you meant to say you are not encouraging your fellow atheists to abandon reasoning for bullying rather than vice versa.

    • Daniel Fincke

      Thanks, fixed the bullying bit. oy.

      How would it be a placebo if they knew it was one?

      I have no experience with the UU’s but am glad to hear the positive reports people are giving with their experience with it. My qualm with it in theory is it seems primarily still theist and my impression is that it is more about uniting the existing religions as “all onto the same truth”, rather than ditching all that and creatively building something that is not so myopically focused on the symbols and myths and rituals of the existing religions. My impression may be way off, I really do know little about them. I’d just like to see things that are not just super far left progressive Christianity but purely rationalistic and fresh.

    • John Morales
  • jwloftus

    Daniel said: So, my goal is not really to end religion. It’s to end the 16 bad things I listed and to end people’s allegiances to those religions which are irredeemably corrupted by them. If rival religions which are scrupulously rationalistic help to do that, then I have no problem with them.

    I agree for now, as a stop-gap measure, taking what I can get in a sort of political compromise until the future arrives. That’s why my goal is limited to debunking evangelical authoritarian faith. I aim to knock them off dead center so they will be forced to think for themselves by driving a wedge between the brain of the believer and the Bible.

    If you haven’t already seen it you may be interested in Bruce Sheiman’s book, “An Atheist Defends Religion: Why Humanity is Better Off with Religion Than Without It”:

    You may find a lot to agree with in Sheiman, some of which I do, for now anyway.

    But perhaps you should also see a glimpse as to what an atheist society might look like in parts of David Eller’s book, “Atheism Advanced: Further Thoughts of a Freethinker”:

    Eller would be opposed to even using the phrase “spiritual values” for it has a way of legitimizing the concept of the spiritual. An atheist society wouldn’t have such words in their vocabulary. As it stands now atheists are scrambling for similar rituals and language to fill in the void left by rejecting religious faith. But we need to look far ahead in advance to what an atheist society would like like as human beings evolve, and with it our conceptions of what a society without a god would look like.

    Eller is on to something. We won’t need “spiritual” rituals. National holidays celebrating important secular people would be good. We wouldn’t have any freethought blogs or groups either, or be known as atheists. We would belong to humanitarian groups, Lodges, or fun groups like “Roller-Coasted Enthusiasts,” and so forth.

    Your stop-gap measures lack foresight, my friend. Think into the future. And while I agree with your stop-gap measures for now, I can do without “spiritual rituals,” or “spiritual values.” Why can’t others? We need to be visionaries, and in the future we should seek to end religion itself as unbecoming of thinking rational people. We call for it to end now, even though we can accept these stop-gap measures, because that’s all they are.

    My two cents. Change back would be appreciated. ;-)

    • John Morales

      An atheist society wouldn’t have such words in their vocabulary.

      Whyever not?

      Atheism ≠ naturalism.

      (e.g. Animism is not necessarily theistic)

  • William Quinn

    Thank you for your post, I feel very close to your thinking. OTOH, as noted in post #5 the creation and maintenance of a culture has monetary costs. So, it may turn out that a gradual transmutation of existing institutions may be easier than creating something entirely new. For example, right now, if I had a personal issue I needed to talk about and had a choice of a social worker, a cognitive psychologist, a psychotherapist, or an Episcopal priest, I’d make a beeline to my local parsonage. The American Episcopal Church may still retain more of the authoritarian traditionalist outer trappings than the UU, but on a substantive level is very close to satisfying the sixteen concerns you have listed, and meanwhile has a clergy which in my experience is entirely professional, well-trained, and trustworthy. For someone who still likes pipe organs, it’s a bit hard turn entirely loose of them.