by Eric Steinhart
We’re rational animals. Which means that we’re rational. And that we’re animals. Many biological and neurological necessities are satisfied by religion. Your neocortex has to live with your limbic system. And as long as we humans have limbic systems in our brains, we’re going to be religious (more on that later).
Atheists tend to downplay the practical and social aspects of religion in favor of focusing on the cognitive aspects. And that’s unfortunate. The practical and social aspects of religion are probably the main aspects for most people. Religion helps people solve all sorts of biological regulatory problems (e.g. the regulation of diet, sex, violence); it helps with social identity formation and group regulation. It works deeply at the boundaries of the biological self: birth, death, reproduction, and the boundary of the self and its group.
Religion serves certain purposes for life, and if atheism wants to flourish, it will have to serve those same purposes. People aren’t going to stop being born, reproducing, or dying. The problems at the boundary of the self and it social group will always be there. You don’t form your language, your emotions, or your thoughts by yourself. Your identity was built in a group (your mother, your family, your school, your tribe, your nation). And the limbic system is almost certainly here to stay, deep in the center of the human brain, persistently interpreting the world in its own strange ways.
On the one hand, religious atheism is probably a very bad idea. A religious atheism would probably be an incoherent mixture of conflicting purposes. (I take it that those who say “atheism is not a religion” are objecting to religious atheism.) On the other hand, atheistic religions are entirely possible. Buddhism, in its original Theravedic form, is atheistic. As much as I love Theravedic Buddhism, it’s just too alien to the Western mind to ever get much of a hold in our culture. What about atheistic Western religions? They are possible. And many people are working on building atheistic religions in the West.
Various writers have been talking about atheist spirituality. I don’t like the term “spirituality”, since it seems to be welcoming to spirits. But let’s set that aside. You might want to look at A Little Book of Atheist Spirituality by Andre Comte-Sponville. Atheists can do all sorts of apparently religious activities – like meditation. Sam Harris talks about atheistic meditation in Chapter 7 of The End of Faith. There’s a decent chapter on atheist spirituality at the end of Kerry Walter’s Atheism: A Guide for the Perplexed.
Another way that atheists have been building religious structures is through religious naturalism. Here I always like to go back to Dawkins, whose opening chapter of The God Delusion is “A Deeply Religious Non-Believer”. He beautifully describes an atheistic piety in that chapter. His atheistic piety is developed by the religious naturalists. He mentions Ursula Goodenough’s book, The Sacred Depths of Nature. Chet Raymo’s book When God is Gone, Everything is Holy is very good, but Chet is still clinging to his old Catholic identity. The best of all, in my opinion, is the work of Donald Crosby. I’d encourage every serious atheist to read Crosby’s A Religion of Nature.
Atheism has to solve the problems that life presents to people. And every solution to those problems pushes atheism (and atheists) in a religious direction. Some of those problems arise from simple facts of social life: atheists have to deal with their theistic (usually Christian) family members, neighbors, co-workers, and so on. Merely being critical and negative is rarely a helpful strategy. It leads to alienation and hostility. It’s almost always better, especially in America, to offer a positive alternative to theism.
People need to have ceremonies to mark birth, marriage, and death. People need socially sanctioned regulatory mechanisms for emotions and for biological urges to sex and violence. Most people need comforting rituals that either hold out the hope of having some power in the face of personal powerlessness (and the suffering that goes with it) or at least make personal powerlessness meaningful or dignified. And people need holidays. Any effort to satisfy those needs leads to religion-building.
Atheistic (Western) religions are being built. One way to build an atheistic religion is to try to naturalize or de-mythologize an existing religion. Liberal Protestants have been trying to do that for a long time, and the only result seems to be the failure of liberal Protestantism. Michael Dowd is trying to naturalize Protestantism with his evolutionary spirituality. I don’t think it will go very far. There is an atheistic (or at least pantheistic) strain in Catholicism, represented by Teilhard de Chardin, Thomas Berry, and Chet Raymo. But I doubt that will ever become a big part of the Catholic tradition. It’s probably impossible to naturalize any form of Christianity. It may be possible to naturalize Judaism. There is a Society for Humanistic Judaism. But I doubt that project will ever become mainstream.
Another way to build an atheistic religion is to reactivate older religious patterns. This is what is happening with religious naturalism. Religious naturalism is an atheistic version of older Western paganism. Today, the most well-developed type of Western paganism is Wicca. The idea of the divine as an ultimate immanent creative power of being is an idea that comes from atheistic philosophers (Spinoza, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Crosby). I might add Charles Sanders Peirce and plenty of lesser names as well. (And while Leibniz constantly declares his belief in the Christian God, he was thought by many to be an atheist, and there’s lots of weird evidence in his writing for a very deep type of atheism.)
I’ll say it again just to be clear: I’m not Wiccan, I do not advocate for it, I do not secretly want you to start practicing it. (Of course, if you want to, it’s none of my business to stand in your way.) I’m merely reporting on (and philosophically analyzing and criticizing) some very strange new developments in American religious culture. One of these developments is the emergence of an atheistic Wicca (or, more generally, atheistic neopaganism). Taking the woo out of Wicca seems to be pretty easy (more on that later). For all those who complain that Wicca is merely mythological, I’ve read plenty of Wiccan books that explicitly declare: hey, the god and goddess are just myths.
You want evidence for these strange new developments? Here are two cases. Consider the growth of Wicca within Unitarian Universalism. Take a look at the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans. Here the sometimes tense negotiations between the old-fashioned atheistic humanism of UU and the new-fangled Wiccan religion are going on at full blast. But my favorite example comes from the increasing use by American atheists of the Wheel of the Year. More on that in my next post.
Other posts in the series so far: