On Atheistic Religion

by Eric Steinhart

Once upon a time, Carl Sagan predicted the appearance of an atheistic nature-religion: “A religion old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science, might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths. Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge” (1997: 50).

Many disparate groups are working to make this statement come true.  These include naturalistic pagans, humanistic pagans, religious naturalists, pantheists, and others.  Some of these groups or movements are non-theistic or even atheistic.  Atheistic religions already exist.  They include eastern religions like Theravedic Buddhism, Jainism, Taoism, and Confucianism.  And atheistic religions are possible in the west – there are many non-theistic strains in ancient Neoplatonism and Stoicism.  It’s not at all clear at present what this atheistic nature-religion might be.  It probably won’t be any version of Wicca, not even an atheistic Wicca.  It’s probably not possible for Wicca to renounce the culture of woo.  But an atheistic nature-religion in the United States is possible.

Anyone who thinks that an atheistic religion is impossible remains totally in the grip of theism.  Theists, after all, want you to think that theistic religion is the only type of religion; they want to claim all the benefits of religion for themselves, and paint atheism as utterly lacking in those benefits.  Theists want you to think that without God there is no meaning in life, no objective morality, no prosocial organization, no life after death.  And theists also want you to think that without God, you can’t do metaphysics.  Theists want you to think that if you want any of those things, then you need to be a theist.  And it is remarkable how many atheists agree with the theists on all these points!   Yet on all these points, theists are wrong, and so are the atheists who agree with them.  Atheistic religions can provide all those benefits – without idolatry and consistent with our best natural science.  That is, they can provide them without theistic deities, without God, and with science.

And there already are atheists in the United States

  • who are reclaiming the language of theology without god;
  • who are locating the sacred, holy, and divine within nature;
  • who are building atheistic theories of life after death;
  • who are developing and participating in atheistic initiation rituals;
  • who are socially celebrating the solar holidays on the wheel of the year;
  • who are building social institutions like charities;
  • who are providing celebrants to perform rites of passage;
  • who are reclaiming both the language and practice of spirituality;
  • who are participating in personal and group spiritual practices.

An atheistic religion does not shirk from ultimate questions but instead welcomes them and aims to answer them with non-theistic metaphysical accounts.  One such account, the metaphysics of natura naturans, developed through the logic of creation and evolution by rational selection, was offered in these posts.  Surely there are other accounts.  An atheistic religion does not have to propose any single account as dogmatic truth; on the contrary, it should encourage the perpetual examination of arguments pro and con.

An atheistic religion does not deny the existence of the sacred, the holy, or the divine.  On the contrary, it affirms that they are natural properties – there are many things and powers in the natural world that are sacred, holy, and divine.  But an atheistic religion rejects all idolatry: there are no sacred, holy, or divine persons.  Thus an atheistic religion also rejects all personal revelation.  Revelation comes from nature; and nature reveals itself to us through our natural senses and our natural reasoning powers.   Since there are no holy persons there are no holy books or holy doctrines.  Nor is there any faith in books or doctrines.  The sacred in nature is described by science, by rational metaphysics, by mathematics, and by logic.  It is always open to revision and never fixed.

An atheistic religion provides attractive social events and ceremonies.  It provides ceremonies for rites of passage (naming, marriage, death).  But it also provides prosocial ritual activities, in which many people can joyously participate, which are aesthetically and emotionally satisfying, and which strengthen positive and productive social bonds.  If the sacred is found in nature, then it seems most plausible that the ceremonies of an atheistic religion will be linked to natural events.  One such system of ceremonies consists of the eight solar holidays that make up the Wheel of the Year.

An atheistic religion cannot agree that our highest ideals like goodness, justice, reason, and truth are merely subjective or conventional.  On the contrary, it affirms that these ideals determine objective systems of value; it affirms that there is some system of morality that is objectively valid, that is mind-independent, that is independent of all times and places and of all particular human cultures.  This system is rationally justifiable.  An atheistic religion thus affirms that there are rationally defensible universal standards of human behavior.   And these standards do not come from any god, but from rationality itself, manifest in social animals on this earth.  The best of this morality is worthy of being passed on, from generation to generation, and constantly improved, from generation to generation.

An atheistic religion does not surrender the conceptual or practical territory claimed by theistic religions.  On the contrary, it claims that territory for itself, and it seeks to reconstruct it non-theistically, without any gods or idols.  It does not surrender the concept of the soul or the concept of life after death, but it seeks to re-interpret those concepts in ways that are rationally defensible and consistent with our best science.  It does not accept the theistic claims that meaning and salvation are possible only through god.  On the contrary, it seeks to boldly define its own soteriologies, and to link them with positive personal and social practices, in ways that provide prosocial and propersonal hope.  It seeks to develop life-affirming theories of ultimate existential value without god.  The Buddhist theory of rebirth, expressed here as rational rebirth, is non-theistic.  Surely there are other ways to develop non-theistic and rationally defensible soteriologies.

An atheistic religion does not surrender personal practices to theism.  Instead, it develops its own system of positive personal practices, and, when it develops those practices, it develops them only insofar as their claimed effectivities are scientifically justified.  For example, an atheistic religion does not agree that prayer requires gods to which to pray; it seeks to develop its own concepts of prayerful practice.   The practices mentioned here have included breathing, meditation, self-hypnosis, and visualization.  These are all effective within their own bounds; and there are many others besides these.  Nor does an atheistic religion allow the language of these practices to belong to the theists.  On the contrary, an atheistic religion claims terms like “spiritual” for itself, and defines them godlessly.

An atheistic religion does not seek to be left alone; it seeks to be socially engaged.  It seeks to build its own institutions, to have its own professional celebrants and counselors.  It does not allow theistic religion to wholly own the territory of social assistance, charity, and help to those who suffer.  It aims to socially and politically overcome injustice and suffering, and to realize the good here on earth as much as humanly possible.

A future atheistic religion may well compete with theism for all the psychological and social benefits that religion provides.  For every personal and social service provided by theistic religions, someday, it may be possible to turn to atheistic religions.  And, just as non-theistic science has done a better job of understanding the universe than theistic science, so it may be argued that non-theistic religions will do a better job of satisfying real human religious needs than theistic religions.  Modern science has done a good job getting the gods out of nature; it’s time to get the gods out of religion too.

References

Sagan, C. (1997) Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space.  New York: Ballantine Books.

 

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • James C.

    One must hope, of course, that a godless religion will be a humane one, without the pernicious dogmatism of the theistic religions I am familiar with.

  • Jeff Sherry

    Eric will an atheist religion develop that has no woo?

    Thank you for writing the many articles on wicca and your final analysis On Atheist Religion.

  • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

    I’m queasy about the soteriology but, otherwise, well said, Eric.

  • Gwynnyd

    Anyone who thinks that an atheistic religion is impossible remains totally in the grip of theism.

    Anyone who thinks they need the trappings of theism to live their lives in an intellectually and socially full and satisfying way remains totally in the grip of theism.

    • http://www.facebook.com/dana.logsdon danalogsdon

      I agree with above comment.

    • butterflyfish

      +1 I don’t get the point of it. Atheistic woo-free religion seems a lot like an alcohol-free bar. Maybe some people would be into that, but it seems kind of pointless to me.

    • Belial

      +1

      This.

      Having a full and meaning full life is a question of supporting your values. What a given person values varies tremendously and it’s ironic to insist adopting religion is the only way to ‘free your mind’ from religion.

    • http://templeofthefuture.net James Croft

      I suppose it depends on what you consider to be the “trappings of theism”. I, personally, welcome the opportunity to come together with fellow Humanists, to eat and talk and sing with them, to discuss our deepest values, and to go into the world to make those values a reality. I love the weekly meetings, the speaker events, the debates, the discussions, the service projects, the educational outings that my Humanist community provides. My life would be less rich without this community.

      Does this mean I am in the grip of theism? Because I enjoy the company of fellow freethinkers and seek out dedicated times and spaces to act around shared Humanist values? I think not. Rather, I think it makes me a human being with social desires, and value commitments I’m willing to follow-through on.

    • Sheesh

      It seems to me you’re in the grip of normal socialization, so I don’t see this strong need to call your socialization religious behavior.

      I mean it sounds like your social calendar already meets the low-bar for “atheistic religion” which means “religion” is probably a really dumb thing to call it (unless the goal is to make religion a slippery, useless word).

      (For that matter, why try to “reclaim” spiritual, when the concept of dualism is really what’s fucking up our whole culture?)

    • http://humanistcommunityproject.org James Croft

      I agree. I don’t see any use for the terms “religion” or “spiritual” and I don’t use them to describe my own practice.

    • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

      Obviously “the trappings of theism” are exactly what would be rejected. Once again I must ask, as I do so many times, why do you think that religion implies the trappings of theism? That implication is exactly what it means to be in the grip of theism.

    • ACN

      On point.

    • SAWells

      On the list of really annoying things about Eric’s style of “argument”: if you criticise _his_ proposed atheistic religion then you must think atheistic religion is impossible, if you criticise _his_ metaphysics then you must hate all metaphysics, if you attack _his_ abstract arguments then you must hate abstract arguments… this is not arguing in good faith.

  • http://intelligenttheism.blogspot.com/ kreepykritter

    Anyone who honestly believes that religion and science are mutually exclusive of one another is drastically under-estimating human potential for growth and understanding.

    Why exactly does the motivation for moral actions matter? I don’t care if you light black candles, sacrifice a chicken and masturbate while chanting to Cthulhu. If you’re a worthless human being, how you got there or what you believe is the least of my concerns.

  • karmakin

    I think you’re a bit mischaracterizing the opposition to atheistic religion. It’s not that generally people think that atheistic religion is impossible…it’s that they see that the harm that comes from religion comes from religion in and of itself and as such atheistic religion is just going to fall into the same traps as theistic religion.

    Now, I actually disagree with this. I actually think much if not all of the danger of what we commonly think of as religion has more to do with specific theistic beliefs than it does with the structure. In short, beliefs mean things and a lot of the time these things are bad news, either directly or indirectly.

    But still, my experience is that this way of looking at things is very much a minority view in the atheistic community. I very well could be mistaken on this, but again, this is just my experience.

    • http://templeofthefuture.net James Croft

      I don’t think it’s such a minority view as you might expect, especially if you read a lot of the comments and posts on this site. Every time I speak to a Humanist community or gathering of freethinkers (in San Diego, in San Jose, in Springfield MI, in Concord and Cambridge Massachusetts – wherever I go) I meet people who are yearning for true communities for freethinkers who want to go beyond atheism to a fully-fledged Humanism.

      A number of the writers on this site actually take your view (although they seem a little reticent about expressing it when the idea of atheist community is challenged).

      There are a lot of us out there – we just need to make our voices heard, and not be cowed by those who mischaracterize and misunderstand the desire for freethinking community.

    • karmakin

      After mulling it over, there may be a very big difference between the opinion of atheists from a decade or so ago (where I’m kind of basing my opinions on this largely on…I’ll be willing to admit that I’m stuck in a bit of a pattern) is very different than the opinion of newer atheists who have very different influences.

  • http://www.humanistnotes.com Kevin Watson

    Thank you for your post Eric and for sharing it on FB for me to find James.

    I completely agree and in fact many strains of Atheistic Religious communities are in fact alive currently in the United States.

    There is a strong religious humanist branch of modern Unitarian Universalism, in fact I belong to a community that specifically identifies itself asa community within this tradition without supernatural beliefs (First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis – http://www.firstunitarian.org).

    There is also Humanistic Judaism which has several communities around the US – http://www.shj.org/.

    Ethical Culture falls very much into this area as well and is organized under the American Ethical Union – http://www.aeu.org

    And then there are the groups that are more Secular Humanist, many of whom have roots in one or many of the above, like this one in Wisconsin http://humanist.madisonwi.us/

    So yes, I agree with Sagan’s prediction but this isn’t something far off in the future, even when Sagan wrote about in 1997, it is happening now and has been happening for decades. What might be happening now is that enough small groups and individuals are now talking about these groups that awareness has reached a tipping point.

    • http://templeofthefuture.net James Croft

      Kevin – thanks for posting those links. I think it is essential that the community0building freethinkers, who have little voice in outlets such as Freethought Blogs, remind the rest of the movement that we exist, and have been around for a long time.

      Check out the Humanist Community Project website for a place where community-minded atheists, skeptics and Humanists come together to talk about their values!

      http://humanistcommunityproject.org/

    • KG

      It’s interersting that quasi-religious groups of atheists such as chapters of the UU are, AFAIK, almost entirely confined to the USA. I suspect this has a lot to do with the fact that it appears to be common among Americans to ask acquaintances which Church they belong to. In most of Europe, and certainly in the UK, such a question would be regarded as odd, if not downright rude.

    • http://Templeofthefuture.net James Croft

      Yes, this is very interesting. I wonder if we might area shift toward greater religiosity in the next few decades, though, even in places like the UK.

  • Laurence

    I don’t think I buy a lot of what the author is saying. I think words like “sacred, holy, and divine” lose their meaning outside of traditional religions. I don’t know what it means to say that nature is “sacred, holy, or divine.” Nature just is, and we should preserve it to ensure the survival of life on this planet. And what is “rational rebirth?” That sounds really strange to me. Prayer is prayer, and meditation is meditation. No reason to call meditation “prayerful practice.”

    A lot of this post seems like a lot of word games to me, which I find exhausting.

  • consciousness razor

    And it is remarkable how many atheists agree with the theists on all these points!

    Then would you care to remark on how many atheists you think do agree with all of them? Because I know a lot of atheists, none of whom would.

    Atheistic religions can provide all those benefits – without idolatry and consistent with our best natural science.

    I agree they can provide them; but it appears you think atheists couldn’t obtain those benefits without an “atheistic religion.” This is plainly wrong. They simply aren’t necessary. I would say this is you in the grip of religion, but that’s already been covered.

    And there already are atheists in the United States

    who are reclaiming the language of theology without god;

    In other words, they know how to bullshit. Am I supposed to assume that’s a good thing?

    who are locating the sacred, holy, and divine within nature;

    This is bullshit. No such things to be located.

    who are building atheistic theories of life after death;

    Not theories, but false beliefs.

    who are developing and participating in atheistic initiation rituals;

    Good for them. When they’re fully initiated into atheism, maybe they can learn to be rational as well. Atheists don’t need to be rational, as you demonstrate.

    who are socially celebrating the solar holidays on the wheel of the year;

    Amazing. I’m sure that does everyone a lot of good.

    who are building social institutions like charities;

    So? This isn’t new. Also, given the choice, I’d rather have a secular government with acceptable welfare programs than assorted charities trying to pick up the slack. And as should be clear enough, I don’t agree with some of the goals these “atheistic religions” anyway, so to that extent I don’t count their work as furthering my own goals.

    who are providing celebrants to perform rites of passage;

    Who cares, and how is this different than an “initiation ritual”?

    who are reclaiming both the language and practice of spirituality;

    Again, who cares and how is this different than reclaiming the language of theology?

    who are participating in personal and group spiritual practices.

    Bullshit. There aren’t any spirits, but again: why does this matter? Do you honestly think meditating or whatever constitutes “religion”?

    But it also provides prosocial ritual activities, in which many people can joyously participate, which are aesthetically and emotionally satisfying, and which strengthen positive and productive social bonds.

    So does a local community theatre organization or a local arts council, for example. Again: so what? Why pretend this is about “atheistic religion” rather than demonstrating to goddists that we don’t need religion, period, to do good things and have happy and satisfying lives.

    • http://Templeofthefuture.net James Croft

      It seems to me there’s more a difference of terminology than of substance between you and Eric. To the extent that he is using the terms “religion”, “spirituality”, and “sacred” in a purely naturalistic sense, do you see a problem with building communities around shared Humanist values? If you use whatever terms you prefer t substitute for the woo-ish ones, do you still have an objection?

    • consciousness razor

      To the extent that he is using the terms “religion”, “spirituality”, and “sacred” in a purely naturalistic sense,

      Given the ridiculous elaborations of them in his woo-laden posts about Wicca, I’m not sure if there is any extent in which he’s using them in a purely naturalistic sense, his assertions to the contrary notwithstanding.

      do you see a problem with building communities around shared Humanist values?

      Yes. Communities aren’t composed only of humanists, but humans, some of which do not share “our” values. A community is by definition a public entity, and thus the public itself is responsible for building it according to its shared values, not according to some private collection of individuals acting under the banner of humanism, other atheistic religions, or any other institution or system of thought. If you want to have an insular view that humanists themselves should form a “community” for themselves, fine, but I don’t think it’s likely to improve the lives other people outside the group.

      Furthermore, the idea that humanists share the same values is dubious itself, so even considering them in isolation, you aren’t likely to see this community-building happen without first establishing a much more rigorous and persuasive account of what values we ought to have. For the time being at least, what we need instead is for the public at large to accept pluralism and secularism. Atheistic humanists are still a small minority in the U.S., and that likely won’t change for another generation at the very least. So if we’re concerned about making everyone’s lives better, we should make that a priority over spreading atheism and humanism far and wide.

      Besides, I’m a million other things than an atheist and a humanist, each of which obviously doesn’t define me by itself. If you’re saying that humanism should play a central role in my life and my identity, the way a religion does for a believer, I reject that because I don’t think that’s what humanism ought to be. It seems like the same pretension that religions proliferate about themselves: that they have some kind ownership of all the good things in life, and we simply can’t live decent lives without them. Now of course I don’t think humanism is wrong or bad, but I don’t want it to control my life or distort my thinking about it by becoming like a religion.

      Finke describes it well in the thread after this one:

      Why religion is so powerful is largely because it creates a way for the various parts of one’s life to reinforce the meaning and experience of each of the others. This is part of how even atheistic religions have sometimes succumbed in the past to totalizing tendencies. When each of the fundamental aspects of the self are bound up in one self-reinforcing perspective—one’s rituals, one’s identity, one’s fundamental metaphysical beliefs, one’s values, one’s politics, one’s community, one’s sexuality, one’s family, etc.—then it becomes harder to detach oneself from any of these things and assess them justly. It’s hard to reconsider a belief when it is systematically intertwined with nearly every other part of your psyche and practice.

    • http://humanistcommunityproject.org James Croft

      Thank you for your response – it clarified some things for me regarding your views on this topic, and helped crystallize some of my own too.

      Communities aren’t composed only of humanists, but humans, some of which do not share “our” values. A community is by definition a public entity, and thus the public itself is responsible for building it according to its shared values, not according to some private collection of individuals acting under the banner of humanism, other atheistic religions, or any other institution or system of thought.

      It seems to me that we might be proceeding from a different definition of “community” here. I tend to think of “society” as the total public entity or civic space, which is made up of many small “communities” which coalesce around various factors (identity factors like ethnicity, minority statuses like being gay, values-based identities like being of a particular religion etc.). Thus in my thinking it isn’t unreasonable to talk about a “Humanist community”, which would mean a group of people who identify with and organize around Humanist values (CfI branches or Ethical Culture Societies might count as an example).

      If you want to have an insular view that humanists themselves should form a “community” for themselves, fine, but I don’t think it’s likely to improve the lives other people outside the group.

      I don’t think a community has to be insular by necessity. I think they can be, but they aren’t necessarily. If you consciously organize as a community to be welcoming, open and outward-looking, I think you can avoid insularity and improve the lives of others who are not members. For example, when we did our recent food drive (20,000 meals packed for hungry kinds!) we certainly reached out to other communities and society at large while improving others’ lives in a tangible way.

      the idea that humanists share the same values is dubious itself, so even considering them in isolation, you aren’t likely to see this community-building happen without first establishing a much more rigorous and persuasive account of what values we ought to have.

      This is a difficult issue for me – I’ve thought a lot about it. My view currently is that there is a solid core of non-negotiable values which are definitional to Humanism, sine qua non. Indeed, I think that’s essential to any coherent values-stance. And I’d say the third Humanist Manifesto pretty much encapsulates those non-negotiables. Given those, there’s lots of wiggle-room. But as Humanists – not necessarily as atheists, freethinkers, skeptics, but as Humanists – there are, I believe, core values that are central to the definition of Humanism and which, if one does not assent to them, one cannot honestly claim that title. And it’s those values I see at the root of the Humanist Center and other Humanist communities I visit.

      For the time being at least, what we need instead is for the public at large to accept pluralism and secularism. Atheistic humanists are still a small minority in the U.S., and that likely won’t change for another generation at the very least. So if we’re concerned about making everyone’s lives better, we should make that a priority over spreading atheism and humanism far and wide.

      This is really interesting, because in my view the problem is the other way round: we won’t get the public to accept pluralism and secularism without constituencies willing to fight for pluralism and secularism. That’s one of my main criticisms of the state of the movement right now: lots of national organizations promoting secularism without much grassroots support (and therefore political power). AU has 75,000 members. Compare that with the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, which, in roughly the same time period, has grown to such a size that it can minister to around 36,000 students and university staff every year – so in a couple of years they will have, essentially, personally interacted with as many people as donate any money at all, yearly, to AU – and that’s just the students! I feel that’s a real weakness for our movement: we are a minority, but worse, we are a disorganized minority with little clout and few real constituencies which can make legislators listen.

      As for whether Humanism should play a central role in a person’s life and identity, I wouldn’t presume to judge – people must determine what is best for them. But I would suggest that it would be odd for someone’s deepest ethical commitments – a commitment to the use of reason to solve shared problems, to the equal dignity of every person, to hope for the human prospect – not to be a core part of their identity. And that, to me, is what Humanism is.

    • consciousness razor

      It seems to me that we might be proceeding from a different definition of “community” here. I tend to think of “society” as the total public entity or civic space, which is made up of many small “communities” which coalesce around various factors (identity factors like ethnicity, minority statuses like being gay, values-based identities like being of a particular religion etc.).

      Okay, but my point was that you were working with the wrong definition. Building a community around an identity means building the larger society to accept that identity. It isn’t unreasonable to talk about a gay community, for example, but the larger communities (or societies) in which they are embedded are the ones that need to progress by integrating them. Of course, many are still aggressively agitating for their rights and the respect of their friends and family and others, but fortunately there has been some small amount of progress. The point stands that gays are not responsible for “building communities” for themselves, as if the right way for them to achieve their goals were to build some kind of ghetto or commune so they’d fit in somewhere. I’m a straight man, and I resent the notion that I personally don’t have to play a part in building the community gays need to live happy, productive lives with equal rights as me. It’s my community that needs to be built, because we’re a part of the same fucking community in the relevant sense.

      For example, when we did our recent food drive (20,000 meals packed for hungry kinds!) we certainly reached out to other communities and society at large while improving others’ lives in a tangible way.

      Great. Honestly. But why is that a specifically humanist endeavor, rather than the same sort of thing a group like the Boy Scouts would do? Cite any of the Humanist Manifestos if necessary. How is that creating a humanist identity that is distinct from any other community? Or do you have a more original example (which isn’t also insular in its scope)?

      And I’d say the third Humanist Manifesto pretty much encapsulates those non-negotiables. Given those, there’s lots of wiggle-room.

      Lots. More than enough to wiggle, actually. You could get a nice workout jogging from one end to the other. That’s what I’m talking about.

    • http://Templeofthefuture.net James Croft

      I’m afraid you’ve lost me – it seems like you’re discussing with someone else. I haven’t ever said that it’s not society’s responsibility to change its views regarding minorities. I honestly don’t know why you think your most recent comment is related to what I’ve said.

  • Braavos

    Of all the bullets above the only one that seems useful (and certainly the only one of interest) to me is the one about charities. I don’t see the point of theology without god, locating the sacred in nature, or developing atheist theories of life after death. (Actually, as a materialist I find comfort in the thought that there is likely no such thing as life after death. As Byron said, “[W]e are miserable enough in this life without speculating on another.) Like Laurence says, it seems like word games to me.

    As for communal gatherings like James mentions (or initiation rituals – which makes me wonder, initiation into what?), why do they need to be institutionalized as a religion? Why isn’t spending time with friends and family enough? I simply don’t get it. It seems like a church service without the supernatural; i.e. just as boring but without the false beliefs. And if I want to hear singing, I’ll go to a concert or play Spotify not attend a weekly get together of like minded people, most of whom probably don’t have the pleasentest of singing voices.

    I won’t stop anyone from such activities, obviously, but I’d rather watch a good film and have a beer in the comfort of my own home any day of the week.

    • http://Templeofthefuture.net James Croft

      As for communal gatherings like James mentions (or initiation rituals – which makes me wonder, initiation into what?), why do they need to be institutionalized as a religion? Why isn’t spending time with friends and family enough?

      This is a good question, and one we get all the time at the Humanist Community Project. For me, there are three main answers.

      First, the sorts of issues discussed in our Humanist gatherings are the sorts of things people often find difficult or just weird to talk about with family and friends – ethical questions, death, the meaning of our experience, questions of identity. Sometimes I find it helpful to have a community space to explore these issues in in a more structured way, perhaps with a thought-provoking speaker followed by a discussion.

      Second, I think such community spaces play an important civic role: I meet and spend time with all sorts of people I do not get to meet in my work and family life – people of different ages, backgrounds and levels of education who I may never otherwise encounter. I think that’s a social good in itself.

      Third, and most important to me, it’s about values. Not all my friends share my passion for advocating for reasonable public policy, secularism, equal rights etc, and many are not Humanists. But at the Humanist Center I know that, at least in theory, I will be among people with shared passions and that we can go out and do something to change the world: service projects, science education campaigns etc. It tends to be harder (at least in my experience) to get your friends to do this stuff.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jehne.lunden Jehne Lunden

    Seems to me you’re hijacking the word atheist to suit your needs. Since when do atheists find anything to be sacred or believe in spirits and life after death? Let us atheists keep this label for ourselves as it is most simply defined: one who lacks belief in a deity. If you want to create or follow a religion that doesn’t have a god involved, fine by me. But please don’t call it an atheistic religion. Call it a Godlessism if you must.

    • Ben Finney

      Yes. Eric continues to dismiss the meaning of “atheist” as commonly used by atheists to describe themselves.

      As has been pointed out many times through his tedious series, it’s unsurprising that a bogus definition leads to bogus statements about atheism.

    • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/ Verbose Stoic

      In this case, it would be you who are reading things into the definition, not Eric. After all, if you have a religion without any theistic gods that would be an atheistic religion by definition. So if you have an atheist that holds things sacred without holding that sacredness to be produced by a theistic god, or if you have an atheist that believes in spirits or life after death but doesn’t hold a belief in a theistic god, then they are still atheists by definition. Thus, any religion that holds those things but still lacks a theistic god would be an atheistic religion.

      You can only have two gripes:

      1) That Eric is claiming that atheists necessarily, as atheists, believe in those things, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

      2) That atheist means a general rejection of “woo”, and those things are woo and so cannot be called atheistic. That would be reading things into the definition of atheist.

      So, which is it?

    • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

      Actually Ben I’ve been backing up my claims about atheists with data, such as from the Pew Survey, and various other surveys. Where’s your data?

    • Ben Finney

      You wrote: “atheism means denial of the theistic deity. And that’s all it means.

      That necessarily means that anyone who does not positively *deny* a theistic deity cannot be an atheist.

      We know many atheists don’t do that (Richard Dawkins, for example, does not; read “The God Delusion” for why not). Rather, such atheists *do not believe* the claims that any gods exist, without going so far as to deny those claims.

      So your assertion can only mean that Richard Dawkins and all those like him are not atheists after all; or that your definition is incorrect. Which is it?

    • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

      It is standard to say that the theistic deity is a deity that is a person, that transcends the universe, and yet intervenes in the universe. Dawkins explicitly denies the existence of such a deity and thus is an atheist. In the first chapter of The God Delusion, Dawkins describes himself as a religious naturalist, which is atheistic, but not opposed to the divine. And note that denial of the theistic deity need not rise to the level of logical certainty (nothing does, besides tautologies and contradictions).

    • John Morales

      Eric:

      It is standard to say that the theistic deity is a deity that is a person, that transcends the universe, and yet intervenes in the universe.

      Most of us gnus don’t quibble about the specific nature of whatever deity; we consider ‘atheism’ ≡ ‘adevism’.

      (No deities, no supernatural)

    • http://www.facebook.com/jehne.lunden Jehne Lunden

      Eric:

      I agree that Dawkins is a self-described atheist. He is a naturalist who finds nature, in all its magnificent glory, to be divine–but not otherworldly, scared, nor comprised of any mystical/supernatural elements or forces.

      When he states that he is 99% certain there is no god(s), he is leaving a 1% window open just in case he, as a scientist, is confronted with irrefutable proof to the contrary. This is how scientists think; they are open to new theories and will change their paradigms when new facts warrant such.

    • abb3w

      Depends how one defines “sacred” and “atheism”. Yes, the latter refers to the lack of belief in gods (approximately, depending on whether you want to use Boolean or Heyting senses); however, it’s also used to refer to the class of philosophies that lack such belief. If you really want the belief “atheism” and the class “[atheism]” can be notationally differentiated, but protests based on the former when the latter is referred to are not just semantic quibbles, but quibbles purely intended to avoid the substantive point.

      As to the former, there are at least some anthropological senses of “sacred” that could include both the conventional religious senses as well as some aspects of various members of the [atheism] class of philosophies as anthropologically implemented. Examples are easy enough for Sino- and Soviet- Communism, and only marginally harder for Randite Capitalism. For the anthropologically mainstream strain of progressive pro-science secular humanist atheism in the West, it’s a bit trickier, but not impossible.

  • Steve Schuler

    Eric,

    Thank you very much for this series of articles. I appreciate that you have made the effort to invite people to consider and explore domains and ideas that we may have not previously been exposed to or given much thought to. I had not looked into Wicca prior to this series of articles so it was all new to me and it has helped me gain an overview of at least some of the more significant aspects of the Wiccan religion. Now, I don’t feel like I ought trot down to the local Wiccan meeting place and investigate it further, but now at least I know why I won’t be making that excursion.

    I think that your proposition that religion is going to be an enduring aspect of human society is probably true. The various manifestations of religion that will actually be realized only time will tell. If the past is any indicator of what the future might hold, I think it is safe to say that some aspects of religion will be for the better and some will be for the worse. I think that your recomendation that we might collectively approach this matter proactively has considerable merit.

    Thanks Again,

    Steve

    • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

      Thanks Steve, for all your helpful comments!

  • Lillan

    Interesting article, and even more interesting reactions – I’m rather surprised at some of them.

    Where I’m from, nearly everybody – from atheists to christians to heathens – and especially those who have lived in the countryside for generations, can tick off nearly every item of the list (substituting “reclaiming” with “using”), because they’re cultural aspects and part of aeon long traditions and have very little to do with people’s personal beliefs. Of course, you can tie nearly any woo to these practices, but woo is not at all necessary to enjoy the practices with great enthusiasm and find them an important – even crucial – part of the fabric of being. As I understand things, the practices usually develop first, and then you come up with an explanation. And, the explanation doesn’t have to include gods and miracles.

    But, I might have misunderstood something here – I’m having my period at the moment and am not able to think clearly.

  • http://holywindlivingbreath.blogspot.com John Michael Wine

    One might add to the growing list: non theistic Friends (Quakers) who experience spirit moving in their midst, but don’t worry about the definition of it. The Nontheist Friends website addresses some of these isssues. And, in my book Authentic Teaching of Jesus, I show it is possible to do a very literal translation of his traditional teachings, without an anthropomorphic understanding of THEOS.

  • grumpyoldfart

    I predict that if the atheist religion ever gets organised, it’s leaders will tell followers what to say, think, read, watch on TV, and who to vote for. There will be continual pleas for cash donations, children will be sexually abused and apostates will be kept apart from family members still inside the cult. History has shown that all religions are run by control freaks.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1127827774 neleabels

      I agree completely.

      Quite interestingly there was a historic precedence for a “rational religion” which is stunningly similar to the “atheistic religion” Eric proposes: it prayed to a “supreme being”, i.e. deified reason, it introduced new, non-christian holidays, it had its own rituals etc.

      This religion was introduced during the French revolution of 1789 by Maximilian Robespierre, the despotic head of the “Committee of Public Safety”, who was responsible for one of the bloodiest periods in the French history. Thousands of people were sent to the Guillotine without so much as a trial, just because they somehow seemed to be “suspicious” to those in power. All that in defense of “reason”.

      Well, Robespierre did not live long enough to firmly establish his religion and it simply died with him – but it takes little guess what the main purpose of this religion had been, had it survived. In the long run, all religion ends always as a tool for suppression in the hands of those in power…

    • Evan Guiney

      okay… I probably agree with both of you.

      But more to Eric’s point, I suspect:

      If atheism continues to gain ground in the US (as I think we all hope it will), and as 30, 40, 50, 60% of the people in the country identify as atheist, then I predict:

      Atheist religions, much along the lines of what Eric has outlined in his fascinating series, will spontaneously begin to form. Why? Because religion is one of the things large groups of homo sapiens tend to do. That simple.

      So… do we stick our heads in the sand? Or do with think rationally about what features of religion (ideology in general, actually) promote capture and abuse by control freaks? And try to steer the inevitable intersection between atheism and nature reverence away from the crap, away from the woo, and away from the fundamentalism?

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1127827774 neleabels

      If atheism continues to gain ground in the US (as I think we all hope it will), and as 30, 40, 50, 60% of the people in the country identify as atheist, then I predict:

      Atheist religions, much along the lines of what Eric has outlined in his fascinating series, will spontaneously begin to form. Why? Because religion is one of the things large groups of homo sapiens tend to do. That simple.

      It simply does not happen over here in the northwest of Europe, where most societies are de facto secularized, although the large christian churches exist as organisations with a long tradition. A poll from 2005 counted 25% of the German population as atheist with the definition of “not believing in God or any other spiritural power”. Yet, nothing like an atheist church was ever established. Well, we certainly have some Ericesque wooish cults, new age nerds ans so on; but neither would anybody including their members call them atheist, nor do they represent any significant part of the population. A “cult of reason” simply does not exist.

      Moreover, the phenomenon that the large majority of the society doesn’t have any real regard for religion strongly shows with those people who still formally belong to one of the big christian religions. They rarely ever show up in church services which is lamented very much by the churches. Some protestant people I know call them “U-Boot Christen”, “U-boat Christians”, because they only appear on Christmas. Over here in Germany, many people seem to have the need for a nice wedding ceremony or a christening of a child in church; but I don’t see any need for an organised religion as such which is supposed to serve as an expression of some transcendent conviction.

      I am quite convinced that the claim about a supposed intrinsic need for religion is simply a claim… If American polls show such a belief in a majority of people, could it have to do with the fact that US-American culture is satiated with religion and that people are used to being told by religious leaders that nobody can do without religion?

  • bertilak

    “An atheistic religion does not deny the existence of the sacred, the holy, or the divine. On the contrary, it affirms that they are natural properties – there are many things and powers in the natural world that are sacred, holy, and divine.”

    If ‘sacred’ is a natural property, how is it measured? How can I determine the sacredness of a given object? What would be required to build a ‘sacredometer’?

    And what are these ‘powers’? Are there also Thrones, Dominions, Principalities, Archangels, etc.?

    • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

      Why project Christianity right back into the sacred? Why? Why does it have such a grip on your mind?

    • bertilak

      Eric:

      My point is that you have not demonstrated that “there are many things and powers in the natural world that are sacred, holy, and divine.”

      If there are, how can they be described and measured?

      My comment about ‘powers’ was making fun of you for discussing non-existent entities, by analogy like Thrones, Dominions, etc.

      Christianity has no hold on me, except that it is a subject, like UFO cults, past life regression, etc. about which I continue to ask how is that anybody ever believed this stuff.

    • Laurence

      But was do things like sacred, divine, and holy even mean without the construct of supernatural religion. I cannot even begin to fathom what that is.

  • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

    Thanks to everybody great comments here and a great discussion! I was glad to let this unfold on its own, without my interference, and the depth of thinking is very impressive. These are conversations we all need to have more of going forward.

  • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

    And, by the way, everybody here should really check out the websites mentioned by James Croft in his comments above.

    • John Morales

      I should, should I?

      (I think not)

    • http://Templeofthefuture.net James Croft

      How about taking a look before dismissing them? I’d be interested in hearing your view, provided that it is informed by taking a look.

    • Steve Schuler

      Hey James!

      I appreciate the links that both Kevin Watson and you provided for anyone who might be interested in looking into Humanist organizations. While my own exposure to Humanism has been entirely a cyber-experience due to my geographical location, what I have read has been very attractive to me. While certain segments of the atheist community seem content with relentlessly assaulting ‘religion’, which probably has some value, it really does not satisfy my own sense of propriety. I think that ‘atheism’ and ‘atheist’ as stand-alone terms are fairly vacuous and an enquiry into Humanism might provide a more substantive framework to help some people move forward.

      Here is a link to a page on the American Humanist Associations website which features an article titled “What Is Humanism?”:

      http://www.americanhumanist.org/who_we_are/about_humanism/What_is_Humanism

    • John Morales

      How about taking a look before dismissing them?

      I’m not dismissing them, only noting there is no ‘should’ about it.

      (I am neither community-minded nor Humanist.

      Ideologies are too constraining for my liking)

    • http://templeofthefuture.net James Croft

      Fair enough – I misread you. My apologies.

    • Steve Schuler

      So Eric, are you already beginning to think about a future series of articles featuring Humanism in it’s various manifestations as a worthwhile area of enquiry? (smiles)


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