Philosophical Advice For A Rationalist Atheist Who Wants To Be Religious Without Betraying His Ideals

Shawn writes:

I’m an atheist. I was raised as a Christian but deconverted in my early twenties when I realized that I didn’t have sufficient evidence to support my beliefs. Since then I’ve tried to adopt a consistent and rational way of looking at the world and I’ve tried to remain intellectually honest. I’m struggling with something right now and I feel like I’m letting myself down in that aspect, at least in the intellectual honesty department, and I could use the perspective of a clear-thinking secular person like yourself.

I’ve come to the conclusion that I want to be religious, at least in a manner or speaking. I want to perform rituals like chanting, praying, or making offerings. I also want to belong to a group of at least somewhat like-minded people who are doing the same things, so it needs to be in the context of some already-established tradition. I see some benefit to this kind of practice in people I know, even if everything is happening on a psychological level rather than some sort of “spiritual” one.

This seems to conflict with my desire for rationality to be my guide to truth. Invariably, there would be some aspects of any of these traditions that I’d be unable to accept as true. I’d have to view the gods as representations of nature or as something going on inside my own head rather than as real beings existing outside myself. I’d have to view stories as useful myths rather than as factual history. I’d have to paint every supernatural element as some sort of metaphor or useful tool rather than as being the truth. It seems like too much of a hassle to be worthwhile, but I think I’m willing to do it.

By adding this metaphorical spiritual level over what I consider to be natural or psychological phenomena, I’m not sure if I’m “betraying” rationality or not. I’m also concerned that this would be viewed as evidence that people “need” religion to live a fulfilled life.

I’d appreciate any thoughts you have.

Shawn, I think there is nothing to be ashamed of about in your desires for the kinds of good things that people experience in religious communities, practices, services, ceremonies, etc. I do not think they necessarily have to conflict with the ideals of rationality and intellectual honesty in any way. And you are not alone in longing for them. Unfortunately, mass consciousness raising movements often do best by appealing to people’s resentments. Anger is a powerfully motivating tool. And so the atheist movement has gotten tremendous mileage by appealing to atheists’ bitternesses towards religion. Appealing to how atheists feel like maligned outcasts and pointing out the encroachment of faith into our science classrooms and religious laws into our bedrooms have been fantastic ways to rally atheists together and to raise a consciousness of atheist identity.

But we atheists are much more than our anger. We are much more than what we reject. And many of us are increasingly cognizant that religions have been ripping people off for centuries not just by selling them counter-productive falsehoods but also by monopolizing, exploiting, and perverting powerfully important aspects of normal human psychology. Religious rituals, practices, communities, etc. are pitched directly at very real needs and real cravings of human hearts and minds. Religions would not grip so many human hearts for so many centuries had they not been tapping into something real in people. There is nothing remotely irrational about wanting those needs and cravings met.

If we are to be intellectually honest and rational we need to confront the ways that our brains are emotional, social, and physical. We need to accept that our bodies are part of how we engage with the world. While Christianity infamously disparages the body, many Christian traditions are masterful at manipulating it for Christian purposes. As empirically minded rationalists, we need to take our bodily nature seriously. We need to learn from the wide array of religious traditions about how they use bodily motion, communal ritual, communal life, emotional experiences, etc. in order to train people in ways of thinking and feeling and valuing and bonding. We need to take all of this seriously. All of these practices have great potential to give people intrinsic pleasure and to contribute to processes of conscientious self-cultivation and social transformation.

It is hard being a human being. It is hard getting control of our emotional and social and psychological lives. It is hard raising kids. It is hard making decisions. It is tough work to hammer out an integrated metaphysical and ethical worldview, build a social support structures, put one’s own mind and heart in order, and develop personal habits of character formation. It is even tougher to do all this stuff by oneself. It is hard in an era of fragmented and compartmentalized lives for people to develop a coherent sense of self and purpose in life and to do so in an integrated way where these various “spiritual” aspects of life are robust and mutually reinforcing. While many atheists are happy to try all this on their own (or simply do not personally feel or understand any of its importance), others quite rightly want help. But they look around and often the only institutions they see that have formed “programs” for working out all this stuff are steeped in supernaturalism, irrationalism, pseudoscience, authoritarianism, regressive values, superstition, etc.

But there is nothing irrational about wanting to harness the “irrational” sides of one’s nature; the ones that connect with other people through chanting or which change your mood with breathing techniques. Just as we are fighting to reclaim the body and sex as inherently good and worth celebrating against deeply suspicious and anti-natural Christian propaganda, we atheists need to reclaim many of our other bodily ways of regulating our inner and outer lives while overcoming the reflexive antipathy felt by anti-body species of rationalist atheists.

Just as sex can be great (even outside of marriage!) if we learn how to do it in ways that consensual and mutually pleasing, so can the other “irrational” sides of our lives be put to work serving overall mentally, emotionally, and socially healthy lives. We just need to be guided by reason. We need to routinely scrutinize our goals, our beliefs, and our methods with skeptical rigor to make sure they are not leading us down some rationally discernible negative path intellectually or morally or emotionally or socially. But beyond that we can be very constructive about harnessing the tools religions have developed for truer, more ethical, and healthier psychological and social ends.

Will doing this prove people need religion after all? What matters, Shawn, is what you need. If in fact you will flourish best by getting in touch with sides of yourself that religious practices help people with, then that’s a fact. Hiding it to advance an ideology that tries to erase that fact wouldn’t change the fact. You are an intellectually honest person. Let’s build our ethics around the actual facts and not try to contort ourselves to pretend another ideal fits us that doesn’t. And don’t worry, even if you in fact would be best served by religious practices, that does not mean all people ultimately need them. Let all people find their own path. Let’s destigmatize the different options. Let’s only stigmatize being an enemy of rationality or the good. Those who cite the benefits of religious participation as justification for faith and irrationalism and other forms of mental subordination to arbitrary authorities and beliefs or regressive values are those who need to be challenged. Those neutral psychologists who just recognize the plain truth that in many cases religious practices and communities empirically have some benefits that keep people coming back are not the problem.

But will joining a religious tradition give aid and comfort to irrationalism and authoritarianism? Unfortunately I think innumerable rational people trade off their minds (or keep quiet about their doubts) for religious benefits, thinking that participating in supernaturalistic, authoritarian traditions are the only way to have the latter. I do think in the long run that’s a problem because it deceives the superstitious into thinking more people believe in their literalistic fantasies than actually do–which only makes them more credulous and manipulable and dangerous to others. So, personally, I would advise disassociating from any religions where not only the liberal believers but the philosophically sophisticated ones are saying things they only mean symbolically in ways that deliberately confuse the less educated literalists. That’s a seriously bad part of what is perpetuating irrationalism. We need to reclaim the techniques employed presently by supernaturalistic and authoritarian religions, not simply help them perpetuate their Wizard of Oz act by playing along with it publicly.

But this is also why I want to actively encourage the intellectually honest who are interested in religiosity to jump in and contribute to the health and vitality of rationalistic religions that future generations of thoughtful people will see those options instead as clearly where they belong and they can stop propping up intellectual and moral authoritarians.

Fortunately, there are options for people who want to make clear that they are rationalists, skeptics, atheists, etc. while engaging in religious (or quasi-religious) practices. There are unabashedly atheistic Buddhists, Wiccans, Unitarian/Universalists, Humanists, Jews, and Ethical Culture Societies. To widely varying degrees, you can be among such people and be uncompromisingly clear that you find value in symbols, rituals, chanting, etc., but not in faith or authoritarianism or superstition.

I would personally recommend you join on with Humanists or Ethical Culture Societies since they are the most explicitly and universally non-theist. But there is value in being an atheist who helps rationalize Wicca and Wicca may help you find a distinctly naturalistic and non-Abrahamic set of symbols that might be more appealing to you if Christian symbols would feel too much like reneging on your atheism and reverting to theism. And Buddhism has centuries of developed thought and practice to draw insights and techniques from, much of which is metaphysically, spiritually, and ethically truer than Christian thought and more inherently compatible with secularism, in my experience. It will help get you way outside the limiting boxes of Abrahamic religious and philosophical categories. Alternatively if you miss Christian symbolism, then maybe you can get more of it at a UU service and should go that route.

This week I had an interesting conversation with a very liberally minded Catholic and pressed him to explain why he insists on remaining in his tradition. His answer got me thinking that for many people the only available language to describe and intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, and socially engage with large swaths of their human experience is religious. Only through the symbolic languages of religious traditions do they know how to articulate very real feelings, longings, needs, and sides of themselves and the world they experience. Naturalists still need to do a ton more philosophical and scientific work translating all those ideas into popular, rational, naturalistic categories that do justice to the grains of truth in them while removing so much chaff from them. But even more importantly, we need to stop trying to demystify them. People viscerally know that an account of love as “just chemicals” vitiates their lived experience of love and is, therefore, not only unsatisfying but in some crucial way false and counter-productive to the practice of living life. We naturalists, rationalists, and atheists, need to find naturalistic language and means of expression that convey a sense for the rich experiential content of life that can rival and replace the supernaturalistic language to which people are attached.

In the meantime though, you can accept that some things are so far only articulable through a set of symbols and metaphors. In one of my favorite posts, I have tried to argue that art can communicate in irreducible and invaluable ways sometimes that we shouldn’t even think of trying to translate into literal terms because it is inherently impossible to recapture the richness of what was there in the artistic expression. Even the most hardboiled atheists I know love to talk to each other through the language of shared stories be they film references, high art references, musical references, or sayings, symbols and other allusions that come from our rich contemporary tradition of sci-fi and fantasy myths.

Non-literal communication is an aid for expressing truths we do not yet have adequate literal expression for and often never will. There is no shame for employing it in the meantime or, in some cases, forever, for as long as it is the best language we have available and for as long as we do not illicitly employ it in philosophy or science or government or anywhere else where its false dimensions will only distort and confuse rather than illumine. It is also valuable that we do not assume all religious symbols are inherently more deeply true. Sometimes they are more false than true and potentially misleadingly so. So we must be rationally critical, even when we are being symbolical. But this is quite possible.

Over a year ago, I solicited insights into atheist religiosity from those engaged in it and was bowled over by the extremely helpful, thoughtful, and insightful replies I got in the comments section. If anyone is curious, I started to open up personally to the idea that we might talk about there being something like “true religion” as I thought through some ideas in real time on the blog three years ago now in one of my personal favorite posts “True Religion?”. Finally, in December 2011-January 2012, the non-theist metaphysician and philosopher of religion Eric Steinhart did a fascinating series of guest posts on the potential ways that Wicca could help atheists looking for non-Abrahamic resources for being religious and how atheists could help Wiccans become more rational and less potentially dangerously superstitious. His book length series of posts is provocative both religiously and metaphysically and I highly recommend it.

This was an installment in my Friday’s Philosophical Advice column. I am an American Philosophical Practitioners Association certified philosophical practitioner and I have a PhD in Philosophy from Fordham University.

As a philosophical practitioner I help people reason through their beliefs, values, priorities, identities, emotions, ethical dilemmas, life decisions, existential quandaries, religious or post-religious struggles, love relationships, interpersonal conflicts, search for meaning and purpose, or struggles in any other areas of life that some conceptual clarification, logical consistency, theoretical sensitivity, and emotional intelligence can be helpful.

I do not treat mental illness. I simply help people reason more clearly, consistently, ethically, and proactively about their lives. Send your questions to camelswithhammers at gmail dot com with the subject heading “Philosophical Advice”. The identities of all inquiring for advice are kept confidential and published e-mails will always use pseudonyms instead of real names.

If you are interested in counseling sessions write me with the subject heading “Philosophical Practice”. All sessions are confidential. And it does not matter where you are in the world; philosophical practitioners are not bound by state certification requirements and restrictions, so you and I can meet online.

To keep up with all installments in the “Philosophical Advice” Series keep tabs on this page.

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