The Cathedral and the Garden

One of the most fundamental differences between atheism and religion is that a religion is, by definition, a group of followers, while atheism is a collection of individuals. Each religion is built on some body of myths and rules that was compiled long ago and is now set in stone, inviolate. Membership in that religion is defined by obedience to these dogmas, which can be reinterpreted but not changed, neither to add nor to remove. No matter what new knowledge or moral advances emerge, religious believers are in a way trapped in the past, forever bound to uphold their creeds.

Atheism, however, has nothing comparable: no dogmas, no authority, no creeds to which every member must subscribe. Every atheist is free to discuss, criticize, or alter for themselves any belief held by any other, and even tenets held in common by many atheists can be revised or discarded entirely should it prove necessary. It is true in more than one sense that, to an atheist, nothing is sacred.

These two different worldviews can be likened to a cathedral and a garden. Religion is the cathedral, a vast and ancient edifice crusted with the baroque ornamentation of endless reinterpretations. At first glance it may seem grand, but at a closer look, one sees it for what it truly is: musty and stale with dogmatism, the altar ornate but sterile, the creeds carved in cold stone, the founders and saints now frozen in statue, their words as rigid and petrified as fossils.

In contrast, atheism is more like a wild garden. It is not rigidly structured like the cathedral, but its disorder is the exuberant disorder of life – a chaos of creativity, of free expression, a million bright blossoms each with its own voice and story to tell. And there is a hidden order beneath the seeming disorder, an invisible but strong thread of kinship that ultimately unites every tree and leaf and blade of grass. It endures not with the obstinacy of a stone block, something built to resist time, but with the constant rebirth of nature, made afresh each time some newly born freethinker discovers it for themselves.

The unchanging dogmatism of religion might be understandable if there was good reason to believe that it possessed the truth, since after all, the truth does not change with time. However, the evidence mitigates against that, and as a result the followers of religion are hobbled in many ways. Consider, for example, the area of morality. When it comes to deciding what is and is not moral, proponents of organized religion are trapped in this cathedral of the past, restricted by the collected beliefs of ancient people despite the fact that they live in a world those people could never have imagined. It is a strained fit at best, because books such as the Bible never mention a great many issues that are highly relevant today, and on the other hand, devote considerable space to a great many issues that are now utterly irrelevant.

The quintessential example is the way Christian fundamentalists wrestle with the Bible in an attempt to extract from it, via some exegetical alchemy, a verse forbidding abortion – a subject that, despite their efforts, that book never mentions at all, although it spends a great deal of space on far less important topics, such as how to deal with the “uncleanness” of menstruating women. (One wonders if these Christians do not, on some level, feel God could have made better use of his time.) On the other hand, the Bible clearly endorses human slavery on multiple occasions, forcing modern-day believers who now know this practice is thoroughly immoral to spend huge amounts of time and effort attempting to explain away these cruel and inhumane laws.

In contrast to all this, an atheist can live in the present, in the real world, with a head unclouded by the imaginings of the past. Atheists need not worry or obsess about what some long-dead tribal leader had to say when deciding our next course of action; nor do we feel any need to trawl through obscure texts in a vain search for guidance. We have the same gifts of reason and conscience as any other human being, including the ancient tribal leaders, and in addition we now possess much more understanding than they did. If we see that our current moral system is inadequate to deal with a new situation, we can conceive new principles to guide us, instead of trying to extract something relevant by twisting and squeezing what already exists. On the other hand, if a particular source says something that is immoral, we can simply acknowledge this and discard that source; we do not have to be endlessly making excuses for it.

Or consider the question of how we view the world – its origin, its extent, its fate, and the laws that govern it. Those theists who hold strictly to the cosmogony of their holy books are trapped in the small, limited imaginations of a bygone time. Earth was a small, simple place then, little more than a stage, where humans played their assigned roles under the eye of a God who would reward or punish them accordingly. The known world was, at best, a few hundred miles across, supported by pillars, girdled by uncrossable seas and mysterious wastelands populated by fierce alien tribes. Nature was mostly crowded out by the supernatural; the air was clouded with invisible hordes of angels and devils, spirits lurked in every hilltop and grove, and everything that happened was a miracle or an omen. Our lines of ancestry ran back only a few generations to the Garden of Eden, where humans were first sculpted out of animated dust, and our future looked ahead only a brief time to the world’s fiery dissolution, which every single human generation has believed would occur in their own lifetimes.

We now know better, of course. The world is a far more immense, complex and majestic place than these ancient authors realized, stranger and yet more wonderful. Regardless of their literary merit, these stories fall short; they do not do justice to the reality. But dogmas do not change, and as a result religious believers are trapped with these small myths, either allegorizing them to the point of meaninglessness, or worse, continuing to defend them as if they represented truth. Atheists have no such restrictions, however, and in the light of reason these myths evaporate, allowing us to perceive the greater truths that lie above them. In the light of reason, the Genesis story and other cosmogonies come tumbling down, like a painted backdrop, to reveal the unimaginably vaster and more beautiful story of the cosmos, and the firmament covering the world shatters to reveal endless blue sky and the starry arc of the galactic plane beyond. The faded scripts the religious read from cause them to overlook the much greater story weaving all around them and through them, a multi-dimensional helix of history and time encompassing everything from the vast migrations of human history to each base pair of our DNA, but an atheist can set aside these scripts and draw from the true, much more magnificent, book of nature.

There is grandeur in this view of life, a clarity and power that is all the more awe-inspiring because it is not all about us. We are but one small piece of a vast story, one brilliant bloom in a beautiful and wild garden, one voice in a cosmic fugue. Our investigations into the nature of things have revealed to us a vision that far surpasses the small and inadequate myths of the past, and one an atheist can accept without reservation, unhampered by artificial preconceptions of the way things should be.

Though fantasy has its place in human existence, spending your whole life inside one fantasy, one imagination, is to miss out on all the most wonderful things reality has to offer. The sheer joy and freedom of leaving these myths behind, using one’s own mind to study and judge, is something that can only be imagined by those trapped inside literalist interpretations of ancient religious dogma. To these people, I say: leave the cathedral, step out into the sunshine, and take a walk in the garden. You may like what you find.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • tobe38

    Nothing really constructive to feedback here mate, just that this is probably my favourite post so far. In my opinion, the opening paragraph alone dismantles the foundations of organised religion per se. The problem is getting people to remove their heads from the sand and see it (as you say in the closing paragraph, but without the grating cliché).

    It’s ironic that in someways the atheist’s world view is counter-productive to spreading that view. Throughout history, theocratic regimes have usually just opressively forced and indoctrinated people in order to hit their recruitment targets. I truly believe that the world would be a better place if everyone were an atheist but, and here lies the crux, only if everyone reached that conclusion of their own free accord. Sometimes, just sometimes, I think it would be easier if we could just opress people into following us, but that would be self-defeating because it wouldn’t be truely humanistic. Hey ho, the burdens of moral principles. Just another cross we have to bear ;0)

  • andrea

    Love it, as always. There is nothing more inspiring to me that just looking up into a night sky, to know I’m part of such a universe, that has such wonders as the volcanos on Io or the great winds on Neptune or the dense quiet of an earthly forest. The only thing that depresses me is that I can’t see it all:) But I can imagine it, in my own imagination and from the imaginations of others. No wonder I’m such an avid reader of science fiction:) I am not shackled to the stunted imaginations of a bunch of xenophobic people from *any* religion.

  • Archi Medez

    “There is grandeur in this view of life…” Ah, the words of Darwin…inspiring, certainly fitting for the tone of Adam’s posting. The Origin of Species is one of my all-time favourite books.

    Notes on morality.

    One of the key differences between morality in atheism vs. religions (such as Christianity and Islam): those religions gather together a limited number of ad hoc rules to be followed, whereas morality developed by non-religious and atheistic thinkers has tended to focus on more fundamental principles out of which specific moral rules may be derived, systematically.

    Religious “morality” (a la Christianity and Islam)…is it really morality? I’m not so sure. Is divine command theory truly a moral system, or is it something else? (I’m thinking of the Euthyphro argument here). My opinion is that divine command theory is not truly a moral theory, but is based on two chief fallacies: (1) Appeal to force, and (2) Appeal to authority. These fallacies, which are inherently amoral, get in the way of the development of a moral system. (We need laws and enforcement, of course, but I’m talking about how a system of morality is to be developed). In Islam, we can gather long lists of what is halal or haram, but there lacks a coherent, non-arbitrary, principled system of morality. Both Christianity and Islam failed to abolish the institution of slavery, even though the topic was discussed explicitly in the core religious texts.

    I often find it funny when religious people say to atheists: “You believe in man’s temporal laws, but we believe in God’s eternal laws.” This operates on the assumptions that (1) divine laws are in fact divine, (2) that divine origin is better than origin in human intelligence, (3) and that religious laws are somehow more permanent than man’s laws. Assumption (1) has not been shown true; all we know is that men wrote the religious texts; we have no evidence that those texts are of divine origin. (We cannot take men’s claims about the divine origin as positive evidence, because anyone could say without proof that their book is of divine origin or more divine than the others, etc.).

    As for (2), there is no evidence that divine origin is better than human origin; indeed, the Euthyphro argument suggests that divine origin is irrelevant. If God says 2+2=5, then God is in error. We use mathematical thinking and principles to find God in error. If God says it’s okay to take women captive and rape them in war, then God is also morally in error. We use moral thinking and principles to find God immoral.

    As for assumption (3), is permanence relevant? Isn’t the relevant question whether or not a belief system is morally sound? Permanence of institutions is subject to force and authority of whoever happens to be willing and able to preserve a set of rules. Permanence in human institutions or practices, then does not seem to be a reliable indicator of moral goodness. But, even so, if we take permanence, or endurance, as an indication of a belief system’s moral goodness, then surely Christianity and Islam testify against themselves. Christianity has been altered over time, in practice. Islam’s Koran itself contains the doctrine of abrogation, which includes a form of abrogation where an earlier revealed statement can be overruled or cancelled by a later-revealed statement–and this has significant moral implications because many of the seemingly-tolerant, milder verses are abrogated by later intolerant, bellicose verses preaching the killing, conversion, or subjugation of the non-Muslims. Also, many Christians themselves insist that the New Testament somehow overrules the Old Testament’s bad stuff (this is questionable, though). Both the Koran and Bible contain numerous internal contradictions and inconsistencies, and this raises doubts about the stability or reliability of the message. Of course, these books contradict each other too–New Testament says Jesus is a man, son of God, and Lord God at once, whereas the Koran insists that Jesus was a mere prophet. The Koran condemns the Christians (i.e., those who do not convert to Islam) to hell, and the New Testament condemns to hell those who do not believe Christ is God and Saviour.

    Overall, the moral systems of Christianity and Islam contain such significant problems that they are not worth the trouble of salvaging. Indeed, to conform to modern morality and law, major portions of those doctrines must be rejected.

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  • ryan campos

    the Bible doesnt support human slavery, slavery in the time of Israel was totally different than the slavery we think of today, chattel slavery, the generational slavery that African Americans endures in the U.S. is different than the slavery Paul writes about when he says “slaves obey your masters”. Slavery in that time was by your own will, a person would sell himself into slavery because of financial need and was paid for the work he did as a slave. Not only that but he was also not permanently a slave. It would be a for a time of 7 or 10 years or so. Much like signing a contract at a job today. Paul writes that these slaves, who have put themselves into this position should obey thier masters, much like how when a person puts himself into a contract, whether he likes it or not a year into it, he should still obey his boss, so long his boss doenst ask anything morally wrong or things of the sort.

  • ryan campos

    Darwin himself said that if any part of his theory was incorrect then the entire thing was wrong.

    In Darwin’s evolution theory, black people were supposedly the missing link between humans and apes.

    Not only that but today we have seen many parts of nature, such as the human cell which could never have been made by slow gradual proccesses, because in order for certain aspects of the cell to exist, the entire thing must have existed at once, and not been made piece by piece or else the cell would fail to live and die. Much like a mousetrap, if one section of the moustrap is missing, for example the spring, the mousetrap will not work. But in the cell, not only will the cell not work but it will die and not be able to further evolve.

    Many different examples of this have been found such as a giraffes neck. A giraffe’s neck send blood up to the brain with great force in order to make the climb, but when a giraffe bends down its neck to drink water from a pond, the force of the blood would hit the giraffes brain with even greater force due to gravity and kill the giraffe instantly. But in order to prevent this from happening the giraffe has pressure releases in its neck to release the force and prevent such damage to the brain. But the giraffe would not have been able to evolve these pressure releasers without first having learned that it needed them. And by the time it learned that it needed them it would have died. And the giraffe wouldwould need the force in the first place or else it would also die from not having sufficient blood reach the brain, thus ending the evolutionary process there. But we can cleary see giraffes today, only proving that these parts must have been made simaltaneously, which is not explained by evolution.

    Therefore these things must have been made all at once, because if they were made by gradual proccesess they would have hit many dead ends and not been able to continue.

  • ryan campos

    “The most frequently quotes Biblical admonition was Colossians 4:1: “Masters, give unto your servants that which is just and equal; knowing that ye also have a Master in heaven.””(Blassingame, The Slave Community Plantation, pg 270.)

  • http://pointlessness.freehostia.com/ Rhapsody

    the Bible doesnt support human slavery, slavery in the time of Israel was totally different than the slavery we think of today

    I’ve seen this argument before, and I think the main weakness in it is that this argument briefly says that slavery itself is not a bad thing, as long as it’s regulated. I don’t think that will go far in today’s society.

    Also, I recall another passage in the Bible where it says a master is not to be punished if he beats a slave to death if the slave does not die on the same day the beating happens. That by itself is pretty abhorrent.

    In Darwin’s evolution theory, black people were supposedly the missing link between humans and apes.

    I think this is hugely unlikely to be true, irrelevant in the unlikely case that it is true (evolutionary theory has advanced a long time in the last 150 years), and stinks of an ad hominem attack.

    I feel a bit too tired to take on the rest, so I’ll leave this to see if someone else wants a go.

  • http://nesoo.wordpress.com/ Nes

    It required a long response, and I still barely scratched the surface. I made a post on my blog rather than leaving a monster in Ebon’s comments (and with my luck, a trackback will pop up while I’m typing this one out, making this comment unnecessary). Unfortunately, I don’t know anything about giraffe necks, and I’m sure I still missed things or made some errors of my own. Feel free to correct and/or inform me.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    the Bible doesnt support human slavery, slavery in the time of Israel was totally different than the slavery we think of today…

    In other words, Ryan, contrary to your own assertion, you admit that the Bible permits human slavery. You just believe it was less disgusting than the more recent slavery of Africans and other indigenous people. As I’ll show, that is very far from the truth indeed.

    Slavery in that time was by your own will… Not only that but he was also not permanently a slave. It would be a for a time of 7 or 10 years or so.

    False. The Bible gives many examples of captured prisoners and others being taken as slaves or sold into slavery without their consent. It also explicitly says that there are circumstances under which the Israelites were allowed to keep their slaves forever (Leviticus 25:44-46, Exodus 21:6).

    Also, though you didn’t explicitly address the subject of cruelty, I will: the Bible explicitly says that masters are allowed to beat their slaves. It even permits masters to beat their slaves to death (Exodus 21:20-21). Does that sound kind or enlightened to you? To me, it sounds like exactly what it is: a savage and barbaric relic of an age far less morally enlightened than our own. Human slavery of any form is a vile and evil practice, and it’s symptomatic of a severely warped moral compass on your part if you’re really trying to make excuses for it.

    Darwin himself said that if any part of his theory was incorrect then the entire thing was wrong.

    Darwin was an excellent scientist and would not have said anything so obviously untrue. (For example, we now know Darwin was incorrect when it came to the nature of heredity. But his theory on the operation of natural selection and the way in which it acts to produce new species was dead-on.) I challenge you to produce a citation, but I’m sure you can’t.

    In Darwin’s evolution theory, black people were supposedly the missing link between humans and apes.

    This is a distortion of Darwin’s views (he considered the topic in Descent of Man and concluded that all races of humans were the same species). In addition, Darwin’s views on race were progressive for his day – he was a fervent opponent of slavery, for example, something that cannot be said of a great many Christians who were alive in Victorian England, including famous creationists like Louis Agassiz. But more important than any of this, Darwin’s views on race are irrelevant. His theory stands or falls on its own merits, regardless of whether he did or did not hold moral beliefs that we disapprove of today. If he had been the worst racist who ever lived, it would not show that evolution is false. The only judge of that question is the evidence, and the scientific community is unanimous: evolution passes every test to which it has ever been subjected with flying colors.

    Much like a mousetrap, if one section of the moustrap is missing, for example the spring, the mousetrap will not work. But in the cell, not only will the cell not work but it will die and not be able to further evolve.

    Michael Behe’s tiresome and false argument of “irreducible complexity” has been debunked on numerous occasions. Most pertinent is the fact that we have actually observed irreducibly complex systems evolve in real time, both in living things in the wild and in computer simulations that use evolution as an engineering design process. In fact, the emergence of irreducible complexity was actually predicted by scientists to be an expected result of evolution as early as 1918.

    But the giraffe would not have been able to evolve these pressure releasers without first having learned that it needed them.

    I think we can safely say that anyone who argues against evolution by asking how animals “knew” they needed any particular adaptation is so ill-informed about what evolution actually says that debate would largely be futile. The evolution of the giraffe’s neck, in fact, is a question that was answered by Charles Darwin himself: a proto-giraffe with a gradually lengthening neck could evolve increasingly effective methods for dealing with the gradual increase in blood pressure. We have transitional fossils documenting this evolution, showing giraffe ancestors with shorter necks.

  • anti-nonsense

    Not only that but today we have seen many parts of nature, such as the human cell which could never have been made by slow gradual proccesses, because in order for certain aspects of the cell to exist, the entire thing must have existed at once, and not been made piece by piece or else the cell would fail to live and die. Much like a mousetrap, if one section of the moustrap is missing, for example the spring, the mousetrap will not work. But in the cell, not only will the cell not work but it will die and not be able to further evolve.

    This is untrue. A bacteria cell is very simple, just a cell wall, cell membrane, DNA, and ribosomes. The eukaryotic animal and plant cells with their membrane bound organelles could have easily evolved, by gradual steps from an ancestor similar to a modern bacteria. There are a number of theories as to how this could have occured. for example it is widely accepted among biologists that the mitochondria in eukaryotic cells are derived from bacteria that became endosymbiotic with a distint answer of the eukaryotes at some point.

    As already stated the “”irreducible complexity” arguement for creationism has been used many many times, and has been debunked many many times. It does not work on eyes, wings, or cells. Sorry.

  • James Bradbury

    Was the title of this inspired by the book about open-source software: The Cathedral and the Bazaar?

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Not consciously, although I have read the essay. If anything, I think it was inspired by the experience of touring the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York.

  • Polly

    I’d also like to add that slavery as practiced in the OT was also RACIST!

    Hebrew slaves were to be released after a time. The year of Jubilee set a maximum time of servitude of 49 years, but it could ve much less depending on how far off then next one was. But, Gentiles were meant to be an eternal posession. But the rules didn’t work in reverse for resident aliens who acquired Hebrew slaves. They had to be let go. Also, there are OT passages that hint that Hebrew slaves were to be treated better(not “ruthlessly”) than the Gentile slaves. (Leviticus 25)

    People who think God is on their side always make an excuse to exploit the “heathens.”

  • http://www.ateosmexicanos.com/portal/ Juan Felipe

    “Una de las diferencias más fundamentales entre el ateísmo y la religión es que una religión consiste, por definición, en un grupo de seguidores, mientras que el ateísmo es un conjunto de individuos.”

    http://www.ateosmexicanos.com/portal/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=25&Itemid=35

    Great post

  • http://www.prokaryoticandeukaryoticcells.com/cells/endosymbiosis Endosymbiosis

    I agree that atheist like to criticize, because they don’t have belief. But everybody have right on opinion, and choice!


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