New York Times Blog Asks: Can Atheism Replace Religion?

The New York Times “Room for Debate” blog is tackling the question “Is Atheism a Religion?” (More specifically: “Can atheism replace religion? Is it a religion?”)

Here’s a sampling of the responses:

Penn Jillette:

Religion is not morality. Theists ask me, “If there’s no god, what would stop me from raping and killing everyone I want to.” My answer is always: “I, myself, have raped and killed everyone I want to … and the number for both is zero.” Behaving morally because of a hope of reward or a fear of punishment is not morality. Morality is not bribery or threats. Religion is bribery and threats. Humans have morality. We don’t need religion.

Jason Torpy, president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers:

It doesn’t matter whether atheism is a religion, and atheism doesn’t have to replace religion. What matters is that we as a society of many beliefs can welcome and embrace atheists as a newly visible part of the diversity in America.

Cord Jefferson, West Coast editor of Gawker:

Growing up, I was turned off by a great deal of the dogma I heard coming from religious institutions and their acolytes: a reverence for blind faith over evidence, puritanical sexual hang-ups, insistences in codified bigotry that vilified gay people and subjugated women. That being my experience, I should hope with all my heart that atheism never becomes a religion.

Phyllis Tickle, Christian author:

No, atheism is not a religion. Like a religion, it can offer community and common cause to its adherents. It can have a powerful and solid moral code and even, under cordial circumstances, may develop a body of oral and written material that is analogous to, or is a form of, wisdom literature. In all this, it resembles religion.

You can check out the other responses here and chime in with your own comments.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • PietPuk

    I was never religious, so the question is rather nonsensical to me. It is like asking if playing music can be a substiture for playing soccer.

    • dandaman

      You’re stating that one real thing can replace another, but that is not the case here. It is like saying not plating soccer is also a sport, or not playing an instrument is music.

      • PietPuk

        I get your point. I was trying to illustrate that the two van not be comapred.

  • cipher

    My answer is always: “I, myself, have raped and killed everyone I want to … and the number for both is zero.” Behaving morally because of a hope of reward or a fear of punishment is not morality.

    The problem, however, is that we’re dealing with a populace consisting of many people who aren’t similarly motivated. How many times have we heard fundies offer a variation on the following, “If I didn’t fear God and hell, I’d be out there raping, pillaging and plundering”?

    I find myself going back and forth on this issue. On the one hand, the afterlife scenarios devised by most religions are a collective abomination developed over the course of centuries by psychopaths. It should be beneath the dignity of a human being to believe them. On the other hand, as we’re dealing with psychopaths, I wonder if the threat of postmortem consequences isn’t necessary to keep them in line.

    The problem may lie not in religion’s existence, but in the fact that we’ve allowed its most primitively developed adherents to take the reins of society.

    • ortcutt

      This is a case where people overestimate their own psychopathy. People stop believing in divine punishment all the time without any negative effects. There is a certain old-fashioned elitism–expressed by some religious folks and some atheists–that says that atheism is good enough for sophisticated folks but the scullery maid needs religion in order to be good. It’s the sentiment expressed in Voltaire’s reputed comment that ““Whatever you do, don’t tell the servants there is no God or they’ll steal the silver.” I don’t see any reason to believe that any such elitism is warranted. Everyone is as capable of empathy and morality without religion as they are with it. Legal and social sanctions of illegality are just as effective with and without religion.

      • cipher

        I don’t see any reason to believe that any such elitism is warranted.
        Everyone is as capable of empathy and morality without religion as they
        are with it.

        I’m afraid I can’t agree. It isn’t because they’re brought up with religion that millions of them relish (or at best, have no problem with) the idea that billions of their human siblings will be tortured for eternity. To the contrary, these sordid afterlife scenarios have been developed and embellished upon by people who are inherently incapable of empathy. They exhibit textbook symptoms of of psychopathy, notably Antisocial Personalty Disorder. I don’t discount early childhood environment entirely, but this isn’t learned behavior. It’s inherent. Frankly, I think we need to begin making firm decisions about who is and isn’t allowed to reproduce, but I don’t want to get into that.

        You may be right about legal sanctions, but I suspect they aren’t enough. I’ve heard plenty of fundies say they don’t behave in an antisocial manner because they fear postmortem consequences. I’ve never heard one say, “because I might go to jail”.

        • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001731128615 Rip Van Winkle

          I’ve never said “because I might go to jail.” That’s just as ludicrous as “because I might go to Hell.” Normal, sane, rational people don’t do bad things simply because it would be a dick thing to do.

          The whole concept of humanity is to do to others what you would have them do to you. Religions try to claim that for their own and then embellish it with ritual and myth and superstition. But at the core of it all, it’s simply the innate human nature to be kind to others. Those who deviate from this are sociopathic…or, in other words, defective humans.

        • ortcutt

          The question is whether people who say that these things would rape and murder if they became atheists. There is zero evidence to indicate that they would. Certainly the evidence from people who once believed in divine retribution who now do not suggests that people don’t start murdering and raping.

          • cipher

            Well, this points to another matter. Most of them won’t become atheists. There is a growing body of experimental data that is strongly suggestive of a neurological foundation for ideological orientation in general, fundamentalism/authoritarianism in particular. In my opinion, the few people who leave that world have won the genetic lottery. The vast majority won’t leave because they’re inherently incapable of doing so.

            • ortcutt

              So, Norway and Japan are genetic anomalies? Baloney. You seem to be making up these biological (even genetic) essentialist theories because you want to believe them and you don’t seem to care about the fact that the evidence indicates the opposite conclusion.

              • cipher

                Actually, I think the concentration of fundamentalists in this country would serve to support my assertion – but whatever.

                I’m not “making up these biological (even genetic) essentialist theories”. There are articles available online based upon some of the research that’s been conducted in recent years, if you want to look. If not, fine. I don’t want to argue about it.

                • ortcutt

                  You’re the one making the claim. There’s nothing more irritating than someone saying, “Well, there are articles somewhere online that support my claim. You go find it.” No, you go find it and present it if you think these articles support your absurd claim. A majority of Americans believe in Hell. Are you seriously claiming that those people are all genetically determined to rape and murder if they became atheists? Complete bullshit.

                • cipher

                  I think I’ll just bow out. I would have been happy to point you to some of the material I’ve found, but you’re reacting like a fundie. Anything I present, you’ll find a way to dismiss, and I just don’t want to waste my time. As I say, if you really are interested, it’s online.

                • Artor

                  Bullshit dude. If you have links, present them. Refusing to back up your argument and calling people who ask for evidence “fundies,” is a huge load of crap. If you don’t have evidence, then don’t imagine that your speculation is anything more than that.

                • cipher

                  I didn’t call him a fundie; i said he was reacting like one. I thought we were having a conversation; he became reactive.

                  I’m walking away. I can’t be bothered with this any longer. You guys can have the last word.

                • fin312

                  Why should someone do homework for you?

                • KMR

                  Not to mention the assertion Cipher makes is one that has evolved from reading countless material on the subject. I am assuming he has at any rate. I have read many articles and studies on the subject and have come to the same conclusion – ” The vast majority won’t leave because they’re inherently incapable of doing so.” Cutting and pasting one such article proves nothing though and would be a waste of time.

                • ortcutt

                  So, neither you nor he can cite ANY of the “countless” material on the subject because only all of it taken together will miraculously support your claims. This really sounds like the Courtier’s Reply.

                • kmr

                  Sure. If he gave a shit about convincing you he was right. He obviously doesn’t. Nor do I.

                • ortcutt

                  We’re not schoolboys doing exercises. If someone claims that articles support his claim, he should be able to cite the evidence.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001731128615 Rip Van Winkle

      I have never once believed in god, jesus, or any of the lies of the bible. I have, coincidentally, never thought of hurting, raping, or stealing. You don’t have to be threatened to do the right thing. The religious fucktards who say God is the only reason they don’t need to be locked up, cuz according to their magic skyman fables, god is pretty good at slaughtering, condoning rape and slavery, and outright genocide. He’s a lousy role model.

      • cipher

        You don’t have to be threatened to do the right thing.

        Well, you don’t. That’s my point.

    • C Peterson

      I think it is important to distinguish between our inherent moral code, and our imposed moral code.

      Our inherent morals are simple and largely universal. Very few people require external motivation (the law, fear of a god) to stop them from killing, raping, and stealing. Not doing these things within our communities seems largely built into us.

      We subject ourselves to a much more complex set of morals that are not natural, however, and which vary with time and culture. For instance, we currently find it immoral to condone slavery. We find it immoral for an adult to have sex with a post-pubescent child. We find it immoral for a parent to beat their child. These things do not follow from any natural moral code, but rather from our vision of the sort of society we want to live in. Because these things are not natural, we define them by laws, and punish those who don’t obey. And most people do… because in our societies, obeying the law is itself a moral imperative that most people seem to accept as natural. And perhaps it is.

      In any case, for those tempted to act against the moral code of a society, I think the fear of immediate, temporal retribution is a more effective deterrent than the fear of some uncertain future retribution occurring after death. The morality imposed by religion (which in modern society isn’t even moral in many cases) is not necessary at all.

      • cipher

        Our inherent morals are simple and largely universal.

        I think it’s a plausible assertion, but I’m not convinced. I’ve seen too much. I’m not convinced everyone is equally hardwired for it.

        • C Peterson

          All people aren’t properly hardwired for moral behavior. At least a few percent of the population are sociopathic to some degree. Presumably, in a more natural setting, they’d be selected out easier than they are today!

          That’s one reason why we still need laws against things like murder. Those laws don’t really prevent murder from happening, but they provide a consistent way of dealing with those who choose to murder.

          • cipher

            You know, honestly, CP – I’ve come to feel it’s far more than a few percentage points. I’m convinced it’s the reason we’re in the predicament we are.

            Perhaps you’re right that in a more “natural” setting, they’d be selected out. There are anthropologists who feel our transition from a hunter-gatherer to an agricultural society was an absolute disaster (Jared Diamond has been pushing this idea in recent years, although he isn’t an anthropologist). Perhaps they’re right, and perhaps it subsequently became easier for these types to alternate between hiding and acting opportunistically.

            • C Peterson

              You know, honestly, CP – I’ve come to feel it’s far more than a few percentage points.

              You may well be right. I’ve seen higher numbers suggested. The whole issue of sociopathy is very interesting. It is certainly true that our development of complex culture occurred at a much faster rate than we typically observe physical evolutionary changes. So I think the suggestion that our social state is out of sync with our physical state is very plausible, as is the suggestion that many of our problems stem from that lack of sync.

  • http://www.facebook.com/patrick.n.odriscoll Patrick Niall O’driscoll

    If you wish to replace religion with a positive philosophy, try Humanism … it’s not a religion , but a world-wide movement well worth your consideration .

    • C Peterson

      But humanism only replaces the ethical system offered by religion. Other components of religion are replaced by other things (and some components need no replacement at all, simply elimination).

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=639378446 Bridget Gaudette

    Religious belief kept me from doing things that I thought were immoral. Now humanism does.

    • ortcutt

      I wish people would give themselves more credit and not attribute their own good choices to abstractions like “religious belief” or “humanism”. Neither religious belief nor humanism is responsible for your good acts. You are.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=639378446 Bridget Gaudette

        Our beliefs guide our actions.

    • C Peterson

      You didn’t really become a humanist. Rather, you discovered that you are a humanist. And you probably always were, and that is why you always acted morally. Not because of your religion. You just allowed yourself to believe that your religion kept you moral. In fact, your own personal ethical code is what did that. Just like most people.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=639378446 Bridget Gaudette

        No, I was actually quite selfish as a Christian. I didn’t care about others much except to try to convert them.

  • corps_suk

    In all truth, religions will very much like to keep Atheism a nonreligion, and here is why. Atheism only exists in the real world with real answers, it actually cures diseases, actually feeds the poor, and actailly makes amazng things happen like going to the moon or discovering black holes. None of these things can any religion claim, if we define Atheism as a religion and start to compete to increase our flock, imaginary based religions would tremble at the result of human realism.

    Religions are just an organized place to share ones beliefs, and Atheist church would simply share the idea that there are REAL answers to our questions and we should strive to find them…not imagine them.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001731128615 Rip Van Winkle

      Atheism doesn’t do anything except identify an individual as a nonbeliever. Atheism itself doesn’t feed anyone or cure anything, nor does it (or has it ever) influenced the same horrors of this world that many religions have. What you’re looking for is Atheism+ or whatever. Atheism + humanitarian aid, Atheism + scientific research.

      • corps_suk

        No, atheism is more than just a mere non belief, thats a small pathetic goal.
        Atheism needs to stand for something, and in my view it stands for real answers.
        Real answers to humanitarian aid, not just prayer. Real answers to science, not prayer, real answers to social struggles, not prayers….
        So IF, we defined atheism as a religion it would destroy the achievements of other imaginary religions and could take credit for anything in the real world that worked because of a lack of belief, and an acceptance of reality.

        • Thackerie

          Nah. You’re just confusing atheism with humanism.

          • corps_suk

            Thats what you call it… i dont base it in humans. More like Realism

        • Artor

          Sorry, but words have meanings. The word you want here is Humanism. Atheism is just lack of belief in gods; nothing more than that.

          • corps_suk

            No its not.
            I know what words mean, this is a hypothetical discussion of should Atheism replace religion. I deny the proposition that humans deserve an -ism, i call it Realism. But go on and be self centered enough to call it Humanism

      • Blacksheep

        It’s actually influenced much greater horrrors, (“influenced” is the perfect word, look at regimes where State Atheism existed) although humans have done terrible things in the name of religion as well.

    • allein

      I would say science does all those things. There are plenty of religious scientists who are able to compartmentalize their beliefs and do actual work in the real world. Though I would also say the more religious a person is, the less likely they probably are to have the scientific mindset to do that.

  • icecreamassassin

    According to Phyllis Tickle:
    “What atheism does not have is the architecture of mysteries.”

    I’m not certain why the mysteries of the totality of reality do not count as an ‘architecture of mysteries’ on par with the transcendence afforded by religious ‘mysteries’.

    Beauty and transcendence do not require *principally unanswerable* mysteries.

    • Artor

      Scientific discovery is a far more awesome mystery than anything I’ve encountered in religion, and it keeps me hungering for more. MORE I say!

      • Blacksheep

        Most Christians I know don’t even separate the two – We feel that we live in a universe created by God that offers the awesome mystery of the unexplained as well as scientific discovery – with one not disounting the other.

    • Lagerbaer

      This. I’m sick and tired of this trope. Sure, how a god can be three different people that are simultaneously one might be a “profound mystery”, but it’s an irrelevant one if you don’t believe in that god to begin with.

      I prefer the mystery of how certain ceramics based on copper can become superconducting at low temperatures. :)

    • Pseudonym

      You’re right that beauty and transcendence doesn’t require a priori unanswerable mysteries.

      However, what Tickle said is strictly true. Atheism does not come equipped with a ready source for beauty and transcendence for the simple reason that atheism doesn’t come equipped with anything at all.

      The natural world, or philosophy, or naturalistic forms of mysticism can provide them, but they’re extra.

  • http://absurdlypointless.blogspot.com/ Bubba Tarandfeathered

    “American” Atheism is not a religion. It is a political agenda in direct conflict with the American Christian agenda. The confusion that arises about American Atheism is due mostly because we lack a party. Sure we have lobbyists but that does not compare to a political party. The American Atheist Party for 2018

    • ortcutt

      An atheist political party is one of the least secularist things I can think of. As a secularist atheist, why would I want any such thing?

    • http://boldquestions.wordpress.com/ Ubi Dubium

      There is one, the National Atheist Party: http://www.usanap.org/.
      But it’s small, and does not have a lot of support, since if there’s one thing atheists are good at, it’s disagreeing with each other. And there’s very little likelihood of a third party making any headway against the two main parties for any high-level offices.
      I prefer approaches more like the Secular Coalition. I think it’s probably a better use of resources, at least right now.

    • http://absurdlypointless.blogspot.com/ Bubba Tarandfeathered

      After sleeping on it though, perhaps a different name would be better since “atheist” has such horrible connotations. So maybe, Democratic Humanist Party(DHP), American Secular Party(ASP), American Freethinkers Party(AFP), First Amendment Party(FAP), Though the last one defines our true intent to uphold the first amendment its acronym is too humorous to be taken seriously.

  • C Peterson

    As others have noted (and I have argued many times), atheism isn’t a thing at all, so it can’t replace anything. The very suggestion that atheism can replace religion is absurd, and whoever proposed such a question in the first place betrays a deep ignorance regarding both atheism and religion.

    The question should be “what can replace religion”, and the answer depends upon defining what “religion” actually consists of. Depending on the specific religion and the personal views of religious people, religion provides different, unrelated things. It offers its believers answers about the physical world. It offers its believers a moral base. It offers its believers solace in the face of sickness, death, and the unpleasant. It offers hope for an escape from personal death. It offers a community.

    Each of these things can be replaced, but not with any one thing. Knowledge of nature has already been replaced by the knowledge that science has produced. All religions are factually wrong in their representation of nature, and intelligent, educated people of all religions now accept the scientific understanding of nature.

    As Jillette hints at, people are born with a basic ethical code, and it remains (perhaps in better form) when religion is removed. More complex ethics- man-made moral codes that are not intrinsic- are better provided by philosophical systems like humanism.

    Solace in times of pain can come from something other than religious platitudes. There is nothing to suggest that religious people weather difficulty better than non-religious people.

    The religious offer of eternal life is replaced with the understanding that eternal life would be a nightmare no sane person could want. It is replaced with the understanding that the finiteness of our lives is a major component of their value.

    And finally, community comes from… community. People connect through so many avenues. Most religious people don’t need to replace the social community of their church with anything, because it already exists alongside other communities. But for those who exist solely in their church community, there is no shortage of opportunity for other associations.

    Key in all these “replacements” is that there is no mention of atheism. There is no need to mention atheism. It is a logical fallacy to even associate atheism with these shifts.

  • baal

    I don’t have a church shaped hole in my day planner. My time is fuller than I want it to be with various other obligations as well as social events and having a family. ‘Religion’ isn’t missing, ‘Religion’ doesn’t need a replacement.

  • http://twitter.com/yjmbobllns Zach, or: YB

    Art and science both offer the same kinds of positive things people get from religion. There are many variant forms of art, and within each form there are varying genres and interpretations, which allows people to still be sectarian and exclusionary in their devotion to specific genres/forms/artists. Science also has many different branches of study, with a wide field of approaches that are constantly incorporating new and more sophisticated bits of information.

    Take tax breaks away from churches and give them to people who write books, act in plays, or write music and give it away for free. Do this and watch culture shift from creationism to creativity. Take away tax cuts from corporations and give them to research centers and privately-funded exploration, I think we would see a market shift towards more positive social interests.

  • Urbane_Gorilla

    Sweden (86% atheist) : 3/100,000 murders per year.
    Mexico (99% christian): 13/100,000 murders per year
    US (86% christian) and the murder rate is 5.8/100,000 per year.

    The issue of atheists going on a rampage because they have no invisible being telling them what they can and can’t do is specious. It’s a silly Christian pastime, like trying to determine how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

    • Blair Says…

      Sweden has a largely white, homogenous population. No huge contingent of gang bangers or Mexicans stabbing each other.
      Your correlation with atheism is not causation.

      • Urbane_Gorilla

        So you’re saying only Latinos kill people?


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