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.
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: