What Can Atheists Learn from Religion?

The British magazine New Statesman asked a number of writers (including a couple of notable atheists) what they (and we) could learn from believers. While their answers will make some of you cringe, they really do make a lot of sense — and will appeal to those atheists who are transitioning out of faith but still miss that connection to a church-like community.

Alain de Botton:

Atheists should learn to rescue some of what is beautiful, touching and wise from all that no longer seems true. What is good within the faiths belongs to all of mankind, even the most rational among us, and deserves to be reabsorbed selectively by the supernatural’s greatest enemies. Religions are intermittently too useful, effective and intelligent to be abandoned to the religious alone.

Jim Al-Khalili (President of the British Humanist Association):

Our society is no longer predominantly religious. Atheists are the mainstream. This is precisely why we should set out our stall to be more tolerant and inclusive. There are many issues on which we cannot afford to be complacent or conciliatory, such as the evil intent of religious fanatics, the wrong-headedness of creationists or the many injustices carried out against women or minority groups in the name of barbaric medieval laws, but we can often be more effective in getting our message across with a softer approach. The New Atheists have laid the foundations; maybe it is time now for the “New, New Atheists”.

Karen Armstrong, author of The Case for God:

The biblical God is a “starter kit”; if we have the inclination and ability, we are meant to move on. Throughout history, however, many people have been content with a personalized deity, yet not because they “believed” in it but because they learned to behave — ritually and ethically — in a way that made it a reality. Religion is a form of practical knowledge, like driving or dancing. You cannot learn to drive by reading the car manual or the Highway Code; you have to get into the vehicle and learn to manipulate the brakes. The rules of a board game sound obscure and dull until you start to play, and then everything falls into place. There are some things that can be learned only by constant, dedicated practice.

I’m with de Botton and Al-Khalili on this: There’s plenty to be gained by adopting the community approach taken by religious groups and taking on liberal theists as our allies in our common fights against religious extremism in all its forms.

As for Armstrong, it’s much more of a stretch. There’s an implication in her response that, without religion, you’re doing something wrong.

Faith isn’t always a virtue. Discipline and playing by the rules are great character traits, but you can have them both without adhering to any sort of religion.

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.

  • Bruce McIntyre

    This approach already exists… It’s called by a few names, Humanisitc Religion, etc. But instead, I finally joined a Universalist-Unitarian Church and found the best of both, Acceptance of Athiesm and strong intelligent community of church. Give it a try, it can’t hurt.

  • http://www.facebook.com/dan.allosso Dan Allosso

    Armstrong’s argument doesn’t work for me because it’s another way of saying, “people need a set of external commandments to adhere to, so they can get together and form stable societies.” You can argue all you want about the “civilizing” role of the church in the dark ages when it may have mitigated the effect of the little tribal monarchies of Europe, but what does that have to do with the 21st century?

    The community and possibly the local outreach elements of being in a congregation seem to be something secular folks miss. Lots of people in Minneapolis this weekend might be compared to a “Great Awakening” revival meeting — but will people take that back to their local communities, or will they spend that energy in a virtual community on the web?

  • Ellie

    You were right Hemant, I’m cringing.

    “Atheists should learn to rescue some of what is beautiful, touching and wise from all that no longer seems true.”

    What does that even mean? And when in the article he goes on to say we should learn from culture, art and literature….Yeah, how is that the same as religion? Don’t we already do that in many ways? I think many of us do, we just don’t go around preaching it. Maybe it’s too early for me to understand this when I haven’t even finished my first cup of coffee yet. This seems like an article that gives religion a place, that in my opinion, it doesn’t deserve.

    I’ll come back later though when I’m awake and read it again.

  • liu

    It bores me to tears really, the people who say that nonbelivers must learn a lesson from religion, and then go on to ‘prove’ their point with hazy, weird metaphors and claims that there’s something inherently good about being superstitious. I have yet to see anything good come from taking something ridiculous at face value without any evidence, and nothing that couldn’t have come from a secular approach.

  • Liz

    Previous comments are right: People don’t know quite what it is we ought to learn from religion, so they get vague with their comments. Some, talk about how we miss the whole community/worship together thing… But I don’t miss religion, or a lot of their church things, at all. If I missed anything from it, it’s probably the SECULAR things they did, like party nights, or game nights. And many of our local atheist groups have these kinds of get-togethers. As for Karen Armstrong, she is a mystic — so she’s always going to be putting down organized religion, but trying to argue for a more mystical type approach to a god. She thinks the idea of a god is useful, as one finds music, and art useful. She acknowledges that the mystic god lives in the imagination of man… The big problem with this is that music and art don’t seek to inform my moral ethos, and because these spiritual ideas aren’t grounded in anything, they tend to oscillate a lot between ‘feeling the need to be more regulated in our approach to a god,’ and ‘feeling the need to see god in a less regulated sense.’ ie, they oscillate between fundamentalism, and mysticism. All her comments are tainted by this favoring of mysticism. I suppose it’s a way for someone to make some progress away from mainstream religion, but not any sort of anything I need to embrace as a an atheist.

  • C Peterson

    Religion does indeed offer a powerful lesson for atheists: we made the right choice! There isn’t a religion on Earth, past or present, that doesn’t affirm that.

  • Kelley

    Religion suits those that have little confidence or imagination. Religion is similar to the military. There are rules for how, where, and when to live your life. Religion serves these people well until they can gain confidence and imagination. Too often, these people gain enough confidence within the cloak of religion that they imagine a world dominated by and for religion, just like some countries are ruled by and for their generals.

  • A3Kr0n

    “rescue some of what is beautiful, touching and wise” that has been hijacked by religion to begin with.

  • Stanley Dorst

    I agree completely. Very well said!

  • Stanley Dorst

    I’ve tried going to a UU church in the past and discovered that I was quite allergic to anything that sounded even remotely religious. Spending 4 years in Campus Crusade for Christ and then realizing what BS it all is will certainly do that to you! I’ve become more tolerant of religion recently, at least to the extent that I can recognize what role religion plays in people’s lives when they’re facing tragedy (I’m a physician, and run into that all the time). At the same time, I have no desire to contaminate my own brain with mushy thinking – hence no desire to go to a UU church, where I would have to be constantly on the lookout for BS. I find that exhausting, and get no benefit from it to make it worth the effort. I’m glad it works for you, though. To each their own…

  • Kengi

    The most important thing we can learn from religion is to always serve alcohol at our meetings!

  • LesterBallard

    You’re a nice, friendly atheist, Hemant Mehta.

  • Noelle

    free daycare and potllucks

  • randomfactor

    Karen Armstrong’s response suggests to me that there may indeed be value in asking the question “What can atheists learn from the rules of Monopoly, Clue or Candyland?” And it’s just as valid as the lessons to be wrung from religion.

  • http://www.facebook.com/garret.brown.7 Garret Shane Brown

    Alan’s: I fail to see anything beautiful or wise about religion.
    Jim’s: I agree in a lot of ways, depending on his definition of “softer approach”.
    Karen’s: The only thing I got from that is a form of Pascal’s Wager. “Just try it out and go through the motions; constant, dedicated practice will allow you to make it a reality.” and I cannot disagree any more with that. Ignorance is not bliss and I shouldn’t have to confirm to a set of hateful beliefs.

    I should note that the quotations I used for Karen’s weren’t from her own words, just my impression of them. I don’t want to misrepresent her and give a straw man.

  • C Peterson

    Ever notice how focused these guys are on encouraging the nonbelievers to learn lessons from religion, and how little attention is paid to what believers can learn from atheists and those with a secular world view?

  • NogahdzNoughmasters

    I almost skipped this article because of the headline but in a effort to avoid bias and my mental preconceived notion of “pfff…nothing!” in response, I decided to read the article and was glad I did. I know everyone likes to pile on Armstrong but I read a couple of Armstrong’s books and, although I disagreed with some aspects I found myself swayed by some of her arguments more than I thought I would. I think the biggest takeaway I got from her writing was there were different ways of looking at the world that are really beyond the fact/fiction, real/myth dichotomies. I think of it as a piece of music, say Barber’s Adagio for Strings for example. One person may analyze the chord structures and another lets it wash over them in a way that moves them to tears. Neither approach is right or wrong but it might be tempting for one to accuse the other of shallowness in each others approach. (sorry if that was that a hazy weird metaphor :)

  • Mick

    Clobber the Canaanites, clobber the Midianites, clobber the Amalekites, clobber disobedient children, clobber those who have sex before marriage, clobber the witches, clobber the people who worship false gods, clobber the people who work on the sabbath, clobber, clobber, clobber…

  • 3lemenope

    Having grown up attending a UU church, I can definitely sympathize with this reaction. While to their credit they have managed to expunge nearly all the overt dangerous anti-social crap from the practice of religion (e.g. the church I attended was not only gay- and trans- friendly but had at one point a lesbian minister), what they are left with seemed not to gel into anything substantive. They still tended to love (or at least be tolerant to the point of pain) woo in many forms, and the practices that they did borrow from other religious traditions formed a slap-dash syncretism that was silly at best and actually offensive at worst, since it didn’t seem to be very cognizant of the original contexts which, for better or worse, gave those ceremonies and practices a tangible meaning.

    In my opinion, it’s a great halfway house for folks weaning off of more “serious” religion, but is hard to take on a more permanent basis.

  • 3lemenope

    I took Armstrong’s point more as one that also tends to frustrates me about a predominant atheist trope regarding the nature of religion: religion is primarily a practice, a doing, not an abstraction or a set of rules or a platonic object neatly separated from the messiness of application. In that way, it is similar to most other human structures. Experience is the secret sauce for valuation, which in turn is what attaches meaning to ideas and events, what makes them matter. So, “doing belief” does not require someone, as you say, to confirm a set of hateful beliefs, because those individual rules (the legacy of the cultural history of religion and the idiosyncrasies of the societies that birthed them) are not actually the important part of what makes religion valuable to the religious.

    Given what else she has written on the subject, I do not doubt that she would be quick to point out that religious leaders, in contrast with those merely doing religion, have and do use religion for other, less savory ends, and so they unsurprisingly emphasize the rules-bound in-group reinforcement that makes religion an especially bitter pill. People following those leaders in turn mimic the moral hideousness of those leaders, because they have been perversely taught that to hate is good, morally-upright religious behavior.

    It is not to say that people should or must try doing religion. There are other decent reasons not to go down those paths; notably religions have abysmal track records when it comes to interrogation of the natural world, and many religious practices are underwritten by misunderstandings of the natural world that stand apart from mere cultural idiosyncrasy. But I think it reasonable for someone like Armstrong to say that one shouldn’t knock it before you try it insofar as you can’t understand it until you experience it. This, of course, is much less of a problem for folks who de-converted in the first place than for those (like me for example) who were never religious to begin with.

  • Bdole

    Not a single goddam thing.

  • 3lemenope

    Then you missed her point entirely. She’s pointing out that looking at the rules tells you nearly nothing. It’s the practice that matters, in this case the game playing rather than the game rule-reading. And given that game playing is a crucial way for humans to train social skills and sharpen analytical capacities, she may indeed have a point.

  • L.Long

    There is nothing I need learn from religion other then they are either hateful bigots or passively support hateful bigots.
    Community??? Never felt it when I was a catlick, and have 5 groups I have community with and none are even close to religious.
    Charity??? I would rather they tax the schite out of churches and any ‘charity’ work be documented and licensed just like secular charity is.
    Organization??? Well it’s easy to organize when you give Sheeple vanilla coated lies and the same Sheeple hate uncomfortable truth.

  • Andrew B.

    Uh, but the rules tell you HOW to play the game. You can’t play a game without rules.

  • 3lemenope

    But without playing the game, the rules are inert and pointless. They require instantiation in an actual play to work. Obviously you have to know the rules to play the game, but the point is the rules tell you pretty much nothing about the “what it is like” to actually play the game, the phenomenological element. In many activities, including games, the experience is the point, so the doing is more important to understanding than the reading, even though the reading at some level is necessary.

    Not to put too fine a point on it, but given that the question was “what can atheists learn from religion?” her point is a very simple (paraphrased) “If you think you can know what Christianity is just by reading a Bible, you’re fooling yourself.” Much like, don’t think you can know what the structure of American government is merely by reading the US Constitution. These things are given life by being applied.

  • randomfactor

    I don’t see any value in playing Catholicism over playing Monopoly. I’ve done both.

  • 3lemenope

    Which is totally legit. The point is you’ve done both, so you can know, experientially, that there is no value there for you.

  • Claude

    Have you finished your coffee yet? The religious and artistic impulses are interrelated; they both involve transcendence. It’s a truism.

  • Andrew B.

    Then what you’re saying is that you’d have to “play” every religion to know whether or not there’s value in it for you? I can’t judge, say, Wahhabism has value without trying it on for a few months/years?

  • jeffj900

    De Botton: “Atheists should learn to rescue some of what is beautiful, touching and wise from all that no longer seems true.”

    What really bothers me about this is the word “should”. It’s quite wrong. Atheists “may, if they wish to” would be more appropriate.

    Personally I’ve hated the formalities of organized religion my entire life, even when I believed in God and considered myself a Christian. For me there is nothing there interesting, and I consider it my personal choice, not my recommendation to others. To each his own. I love music, literature, art, science. I love to learn. I haven’t found anything religion can teach that cant be learned better in another context.

    Alaine de Botton can play at the forms and rituals of religion all he likes, fir his own amusement, but he should stop pretending he offers prescriptive solutions that all atheists should accept or embrace.

  • jeffj900

    Some games just aren’t worth playing. I played that game for decades until finally it was empty, boring, phony, useless to me. I don’t mind people playing the games they like, but they don’t need to pretend they’re for everyone, or that everyone needs their game. Are they so insecure they can’t take it if someone rejects their amusing pastime?

  • 3lemenope

    No, that is not what I’m saying. I’m saying without being a Wahhabi, you can’t know what it is like to be a Wahhabi. And without observing someone else being a Wahhabi, you have even less of a sense of what Wahhabism is. You may not need to know what it is like to be a Wahhabi or even see it in action to decide, legitimately, that it is not for you, or even that it is a pernicious, vicious doctrine, but what you can’t do is claim that the reason Wahhabism is bad because you experienced its badness. The most you can say is, well, I read it/heard about it, and it sounds like a really shitty idea.

    And that functions perfectly well for many things! As a practical matter, it is unnecessary under many circumstances to experience or observe in practice something before forming opinions about it. Understanding is not a requisite of day-to-day judgment. You don’t need to actually take heroin to know it might be bad for you, and you don’t even need to see a heroin addict; a list of symptoms of withdrawal would suffice. But on the flip-side, you wouldn’t have any point of contact for understanding what a heroin addict experiences. If your interaction with the world of heroin is simply knowing what to avoid, that may suffice, but if your job or avocation requires you to have a deeper understanding (say, as a counselor, or a cop, or a lawyer) of what taking heroin is like and how it changes internal perceptions of the hierarchy of needs and motivations, at the least it helps to have seen heroin in action.

    If all anyone ever wants to do is reject religion, without engaging on a deeper level about the experiences of the religious, then it suffices to know merely the sketch of ideas that constitute those religions. But if one seeks to discuss and argue persuasively with religious people, that doesn’t do at all; at least in my experience, it ends with the atheist saying really embarrassing and thus easily dismissible things about stuff they know not. At best it ends with the interlocutors talking past one another, and it’s usually not at its best because easy sneers accompany the dismissal. If all a person ever knows, say, about M*A*S*H was that it was a show that takes place in a Korean War forward army hospital, it would be easy enough for that person, not interested in the surface subject matter, to dismiss it and miss out on one of the most delightful shows ever on TV. That the experience diverges from the description matters most for understanding something on more than a superficial level.

  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Invisible_Pink_Unicorn Anna

    Atheists should learn to rescue some of what is beautiful, touching and wise from all that no longer seems true.

    I just find statements like this baffling. I don’t see anything at all beautiful, touching, or wise about religion. I mean, sure, there’s music, and there’s architecture, but the basis of religion is the ritualism and the supernaturalism, and I don’t find either of those things beautiful, touching, or wise.

  • Sigma Sam

    Okay how about we say it like this. What we can learn from each other. There does that sound better?

  • 3lemenope

    I agree. See my second response to Andrew B. below.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=645690699 Rachel Holierhoek

    I’m surprised, Hemant, that you interpreted Armstrong’s message that way. To me she is saying the rituals, the practice, make a personal God real to those who practice those rituals: not that a personal God *is* real. If you’ve read Armstrong, I get the message from her that modern organized religion is what is doing it wrong. She’s saying religion is learned via practice and ritual and repetition, but not that religion is true. Being familiar with her work (Charter for Compassion) I’m aware that her focus is on bringing compassion to the center of religious practices. I’m a humanist and I think she’s got it right. I would have few objections to the religious and their actions out in the world if they actually did have compassion — the golden rule — as their guiding principle.

  • http://twitter.com/TychaBrahe TychaBrahe

    I don’t think the ideas are without merit.

    It’s a bit like asking what chemists can learn from alchemy. Now if you look at the whole concept of alchemy, that you can change lead (or other base metals) into gold through processes that invoke metaphysics and magic, you’d say it has nothing to do at all with modern chemistry.

    But if you look at it who alchemists were and the diligence at which they practiced their craft you can learn quite a bit. You can learn about experimentation and the importance of careful study and note-taking and about dedication. It’s no secret that the first modern chemists started out in alchemy, nor that alchemists made chemical discoveries, even if they weren’t intending to.

    The same sort of “it’s here somewhere” attitude was in Thomas Edison, who tested thousands of materials in an effort to find a good filament for an incandescent light bulb. It’s in every researcher who is endlessly searching for a vaccine for AIDS or malaria.

    I think from religion we can learn about community, about how a community can inspire its members with generosity. We can learn about great works and the need to both create them and preserve them. We can learn from the stories of religious people who do good works from a sense of duty. That they do it in the name of a god we don’t believe in doesn’t mean that they haven’t done good work. And no, I’m not thinking of Sister Teresa. I’m thinking about the women who organized 3 Angels Ministries, an orphanage and school and hospital in Haiti. I’m thinking about nuns who go into nursing. I’m thinking about the high level Masons who become Shriners and raise money for hospitals for crippled children. I’m thinking of Dr. Tom Dooley, and the Jesuits who hid Jews from the Nazis, and Corrie and Betsie ten Boom, and all the people who run and volunteer at Habitat for Humanity (motto: “Once again the world needs a good carpenter”).

  • C Peterson

    It sounds better, but of course, there’s a presumption that there is something of significance that nonbelievers stand to learn from religion. I don’t happen to believe that’s the case.

  • Pseudonym

    Hijacked from what?

    The stuff we’re talking about goes back to a time before there were separate words for “religion”, “music”, “medicine”, and “art”. Religion hasn’t hijacked any of this. It inherited it from a common ancestor.

  • Pseudonym

    If you don’t need it, that’s cool, but not everyone is like you.

    Being a mystic usually isn’t something you choose. It’s a personality trait, just like being an extrovert or an artist. I think it’s important that mystics are able to find a home outside organised religion. Many have, and that’s a good thing.

  • Ellie

    Well I understand the transcendence of art, as an artist myself, I still do not take that to be like religion in any way. But as someone who never has been religious in any way or at any point in my life I guess I just missed that connection completely and don’t take them to be interrelated at all. My artistic impulses are completely artistic I have never thought them to be like a religious impulse. Perhaps I’m still missing the point.

  • Pseudonym

    religion is primarily a practice, a doing, not an abstraction or a set of rules or a platonic object neatly separated from the messiness of application.

    If I could make the atheist world understand one thing about religion, it’s this. Religion is primarily something that you do, not something that you believe.

    Of course, there are a lot of religious organisations who have a strong vested interest in promoting the precise opposite, because it’s how they enforce “otherness”. It’s a shame that the atheist community seems to accept this flawed premise.

  • Pseudonym

    I don’t think that’s a charitable interpretation of de Botton’s statement. By “atheists”, I think he was referring to the collective community, not each individual atheist. And by the word “should”, I think he meant it exactly like it says in RFC 2119: stronger than “may” but not as strong as “must”.

    Alain de Botton believes that there needs to be a space for people who get a lot out of religious practice within the atheist community. He does not (to my knowledge) believe that it is a requirement for every atheist to get something out of religious practice.

  • Drakk

    We can at least learn how not to do it.

  • C Peterson

    Agreed. The list of cautions we can take from religion is endless. It is the notion that religion has anything positive to add to the discussion that I doubt.

  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Invisible_Pink_Unicorn Anna

    Huh? But belief is intimately connected with the doing. You can’t pray to a god unless you actually believe that the god exists. Carrying out some ritual or singing some song is meaningless if you don’t accept the underlying premise.

  • 3lemenope

    If the self-reports of many religious people are to be believed (and there really isn’t any reason not to) it can go either way. Sometimes belief coincides with practice, and sometimes it follows practice.

    The traditions and ceremonies, unsurprisingly, are designed to point a person’s mind towards the conclusion that the underlying metaphysics is substantive, and just as unsurprisingly (given the utterly ridiculous tenacity of religion over the millennia) are generally successful at the task. Paul Tillich, though he was a Protestant theologian, mentioned in his A History of Christian Thought that the subjective, emotive effects of being at a Catholic church alter were potent and visceral in a way that the comparable Protestant experience was not, because the aesthetic ornateness and depth associated with the location lent it an “otherness” (the literal meaning of the word “sanctum”) that had the capacity to be moving quite apart from belief. I imagine the effect can be explained psychologically as akin to the supermarket choice effect, where the sheer quantity of aesthetic content overwhelms a person’s ability to think rationally.

    Long and short of it is, “fake it till you make it” is actually an effective and surprisingly common way for people to actively change their beliefs. It works because human brains can be overwhelmed by input and conditioned by ritual, and it does not require a preexisting commitment to the underlying metaphysics to work.

  • Pseudonym

    It’s true that you can’t pray to a god unless you believe that the god exists. However, there are a number of other things you can do (e.g. meditation) which are the same or equivalent.

    Community singing is also an excellent example. If you’ve ever been at a pop/rock/whatever concert in a crowd which is all singing along with the band, you’ll know that it actually doesn’t make any difference what the song is about. You can still sing along with Melissa Etheridge, even if you’re straight.

    You’re right in that in some cases, you have to buy into the belief for some practice to work. Reciting a Hadith or a creed is meaningless if you don’t believe it. Nonetheless, they are practices, and the criteria by which they are retained or lost in a religious tradition is not whether or not it’s correct, but whether or not it works.

    This is why Armstrong doesn’t speak of religions being “correct” or “incorrect”, but “effective” or “ineffective”.

  • Pseudonym

    It’s probably not said because among the intelligentsia of mainstream/liberal religion, it’s a given.

  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Invisible_Pink_Unicorn Anna

    I get what you’re saying, but I see practice and belief as being much harder to separate. For example, prayer and worship are such huge parts of Western religion (at least Christianity) that the whole thing falls apart if actual belief is not involved. You can’t worship something you don’t think is real, and you can’t imagine either a one or two-way communication with an entity that you don’t believe is real.

    The practice stems from the belief. Like the songs. Sure, anyone can sing the songs and on some level it doesn’t matter what the lyrics say, but no one would promote singing those kinds of songs unless they they connected with them on an emotional level and further believed that the songs indicated some sort of truth about life, the universe, etc.

    And a lot of it may be tradition, ie: people having an emotional connection to songs they were taught as young children, but I think that’s separate from the practice of “doing religion.” You can’t really do religion in any meaningful sense unless you have an active belief that it’s based on something real. So the religion itself isn’t effective (to use Armstrong’s words) absent the belief.

  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Invisible_Pink_Unicorn Anna

    Interesting. That’s just so foreign to my way of thinking that I find it hard to wrap my mind around the concept. I suppose the idea is that if I spent enough time in religious environments merely pretending to pray to a god, then it’s likely that the act of going through the motions would somehow change my underlying belief system.

    I’ve read When God Talks Back by T.M. Luhrmann, and it’s similar to how those types of evangelical churches train their adherents to use their minds. That training can have an effect even on adults who were raised in more “normal” environments to suddenly begin to interpret their inner thoughts in highly supernatural ways.

    I guess people are very suggestible. But again, it’s hard to imagine myself in that situation. I don’t think any amount of pretending could cause me to question (let alone abandon) my atheism. I’d like to think that my mind is stronger than that!

  • A Portlander

    I think his next point is much stronger–it’s one I make myself, frequently:

    “What is good within the faiths belongs to all of mankind, even the most rational among us, and deserves to be reabsorbed selectively by the supernatural’s greatest enemies.”

    It’s all part of our human heritage, and we should help ourselves liberally to as much of it as serves our purposes.

  • 3lemenope

    One of the most important cultural gifts that religion has bequeathed (mostly unwillingly) unto its host societies is an effective vocabulary for dealing with qualitative human experience. Because religion is generally tasked with describing the indescribable, the transcendent, the infinite, concerns of origin, purpose, and eschatology, and of morality and valuation, most of the effective secular language for approaching these troublesome concepts was stolen liberally from the religious paradigm. The self-consciously non-religious equivalents tend to be, well, rather pathetic in comparison. The metaphors, symbols, and tropes generated by religions are so useful for this purpose that they are happily appropriated by artists, performers, and content creators, regardless of their personal religious opinions.

  • Stanley Dorst

    Well, it may be true, but it is certainly not a truism. The word “transcendence” is defined as “existence or experience beyond the normal or physical level.” I’m not sure that even means anything. Both religion and art stimulate emotional responses, but I don’t think that has anything to do with “transcendence,” at least by that definition of the word.

  • Claude

    You are being unduly literal about religion. You don’t need to be “religious” to be involved in the same movement of consciousness toward greater expression. Presumably you’ve read some art history and recognize the concomitant development of art and religious practice. The cave paintings at Lascaux are thought to have been possibly magical or shamanistic. Even if that were not the case, the very act of creation is itself magical and transcendent. Pseudonym made a pithy explanation above:

    The stuff we’re talking about goes back to a time before there were separate words for “religion”, “music”, “medicine”, and “art”. Religion hasn’t hijacked any of this. It inherited it from a common ancestor.

  • The Other Weirdo

    There is a scene in the 2007 St. Trinian’s movie where the new Minister of Education breaks into the school to snoop around. One of the first rooms he comes across is “Religious Education” and in it he finds a girl crucified on a wall with a sign over her reading, “Practical Studies.” It’s never explained what the girls were trying to learn, but since religion has no practical application, they had to do something real. It’s possible that they just wanted to crucify a girl, but moving on.

    So it is with this. The only thing atheists need to learn from religion is oratory. Content of a message is all well and good, but if you can’t deliver it in a way that people will listen, you’ve wasted an opportunity to accomplish something practical.

  • 3lemenope

    Oh trust me, I think it’s weird as all-get-out, too. And I’d like to think that I’d be resistant to suggestion of that sort, but upon sober (and cynical) reflection I’d hazard that nobody is really immune.

  • Baal

    The more i look at de Botton, the more convinced I become that he shouldn’t be read as anything other than an example of how not to line up ideas. I rather the substance of his ideas be expressed by someone else.

  • baal

    ‘ware the one trick ponies, yes.

  • Art_Vandelay

    Pops and buzzes. Nothing but word salad.

  • jeffj900

    I didn’t mean to be charitable.

    De Boton gives the impression that somehow atheists lack some essential factor that only religion, or the superficial forms of its rituals, can provide.

    I don’t think there is anything uniquely provided by religion, that only religion can provide and no other human cultural institution, unless perhaps it is to fill a nostalgic longing for religion. I have no nostalgic longing for religion.

    I don’t care if Alaine wants to start a small hobbyist club of atheists that like to emulate religion as a game, like civil war reenactors or something, but he shouldn’t pretend that such a social club would provide fulfillment of essential needs that atheists can not fulfill in any other way.

  • dan davis

    “Social skills” of being a bigot and having no felling of guilt, because I was just following orders….The atheists I’ve met have no problem with social skills or analytical capacities; wait, are you actually saying the “game of religion” sharpens analytical skills? LOL!

  • dan davis

    A liberal, fun-loving society where nudity was beautiful and sex was
    good clean fun. Does the cross enhance the beauty?

  • 3lemenope

    No, you’re totally misunderstanding what I wrote. I was responding to the snark that “What can atheists learn from the rules of Monopoly, Clue or Candyland?” is just as valuable as what can be found in religion by pointing out that there *is* something valuable to be learnt from the playing of games; there is a structural parallel between that argument and Armstrong’s, and so if that snark is the meat of the counterargument, then maybe she has a point after all that folks (like you here just now) are being somewhat unduly reductive about what religion is and what effects it has overall.

    And drawing an equivalence between religiosity and the Nuremberg Defense is really stupid on an uncountable number of levels. It makes painstaking arguments about the actual harms of religion next-to-pointless, because folks who make them can’t hope to escape the shadow of the drivel being spewed. A religious person who is neither a bigot nor a fucking nazi takes one look at an argument like “…just following orders” and justifiably laughs their ass off.

  • jeffj900

    Like what for example? Soul, spirit, heaven, hell? Fine, these are poetic metaphors that can have a secular meaning in literary art. The word “soul” is a fine word designating something like essence, an abstract idea with no spatially located referent. If someone uses it, that doesn’t create an opportunity for a religious person to say “gotcha, you used the word so you must believe”. I’ve heard this kind of childish nonsense before.

    What else in religion is a cultural gift?

    Even if language was shaped during a period when religious institutions were dominant and were thus able to heavily imprint their ideology on language, that doesn’t mean religion is essential to the meaning of any of that language.

    Daniel Dennet and compatibilists, when discussing free will, put a heavy emphasis on language. We have language that evolved in a context of believing in a divinely granted free will, a special human dispensation from divine determinism. A word like “choice” for example implies a branching of a decision path, a selection from among multiple alternatives that we can imagine to be free of physical determinism in the brain. “We” choose what “we want”. We feel like we make free choices, but we can only imagine that choice is free of determinism because we think of our goals, our interests, our preferences, our emotions, our means of estimating outcomes and comparing potential consequences, and other factors that would influence our choice, to be free of determinism as well, which in fact they are not.

    As Schopenhauer put it more succinctly: “Man can indeed do what he wants, but he cannot will what he wants”.

    Because we understand human choice differently today doesn’t mean we have to abandon the word “choice”. Most people can even continue to function effectively believing as people have always believed, that we have free will when we make choices.

    Language is so deeply embedded in our culture and our psyche that self-consciously trying to eradicate language related to religion is a silly idea. But I doubt there is much language that is truly important that comes from religion. Religion tries to claim things like love, family, marriage, etc, but religion was never necessary for these concepts or experiences.

    Most of the language of religion is as important as the language of numerology, astrology, phrenology, and other obselete cultural systems. It can be of interest to historians and hobbyists, but very little of it will survive far into the future as essential or important to human culture.

  • jeffj900

    An excellent example of how little we need religion is to examing the artificial companion to the real music industry known as Christian Rock. Christian Rock is the most dull, boring, flavorless, pretentious, uninteresting, sickly sentimental cultural product I’ve ever encountered. It is the musical equivalent of gruel heaped with white sugar.

  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Invisible_Pink_Unicorn Anna

    That’s true. I’d like to think that I’m resistant to peer pressure, but you never know. If I was immersed in that type of environment for months or years, who knows what might happen.

  • 3lemenope

    Were there unicorns in this magical place?

  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Invisible_Pink_Unicorn Anna

    Really? I’ve seen just the opposite attitude among liberal religionists. If there are mainstream/liberal leaders who heap praise upon atheists and believe that their adherents can learn important lessons from those who reject the idea of a deity and the supernatural, who are they and where are they making those statements?

  • Pseudonym

    Are you, by any chance, referring to the liberal, fun-loving society where women couldn’t work, vote or own property? Or are you referring to the liberal, fun-loving society with the extreme caste system, the war fetish and the succession of leaders chosen and assassinated by the army?

  • Pseudonym

    If you didn’t mean to be charitable, then you’ve committed a methodological error. This is Critical Thinking 101.

    FWIW, I agree that there is nothing uniquely provided by religion that only religion can provide. If that’s what you think de Botton was saying, then I think you really didn’t understand his point.

    The question here is whether or not there is anything provided by religion that nothing else currently provides, or that nothing else currently provides enough of, and if so, how that could be provided in a non-religious context.

    This is, for example, what Foundation Beyond Belief is trying to do with charitable giving.

    Finally, you may not find it essential, but there are a lot of people in the world who aren’t you. There are people in the world who don’t find music, or sex, or alcohol, or fine food “essential”, and I hope they’re all happy.

  • Pseudonym

    I don’t know about “heaping praise”, but John Shelby Spong and Richard Holloway are two examples which spring to mind. I would say Karen Armstrong counts, too.

    More to the point, liberal religious academics and non-religious academics in the same religious-studies-type fields tend to pretty much see eye to eye on most topics they study. They won’t talk in terms of “atheism is good” or “liberal religion is good”, but rather “good scholarship is good”.

  • Pseudonym

    Incidentally, the culture which produced the original sculpture was extremely religious.

  • r.holmgren

    Whether it’s sports, or work or relationships (pseudo love) or possessions or power or the pursuit of – well – let’s say in this case, the pursuit of “discussion,” these are nothing but the distractions of life being mistaken for life itself. More to the point, these are just a means of being distracted from the message and example of Jesus so that you can feel as intellectuals discussing “religion” and it’s predictable faults. Missing completely that it’s not religion that poisons everything. Rather, it’s humans who poison everything, including religion – and atheism – or haven’t you noticed?

  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Invisible_Pink_Unicorn Anna

    Maybe we’re at cross purposes. I wasn’t thinking of scholars, but of religious leaders.

    Can you point to specific statements? I’m wanting to know if there are liberal and/or mainstream religious leaders who tell their adherents to consider that they can learn important lessons from people who reject the idea of a deity and the supernatural.

    I’m not familiar with Richard Holloway, but I’ll grant you that John Shelby Spong may have said something like that. He is quite liberal, though of course I wouldn’t classify him as mainstream. Karen Armstrong isn’t a religionist, is she?

    I’d just be curious to know if there are any proponents of liberal or mainstream religion who specifically tell believers to consider that there is value in a completely secular worldview that rejects the supernatural.

  • Pseudonym

    Well, I mentioned Richard Holloway. He is the former Bishop of Edinburgh in the Scottish Episcopal Church, and wrote a whole book on the topic called Godless Morality: Keeping Religion out of Ethics.

    That’s the first example that springs to mind.

  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Invisible_Pink_Unicorn Anna

    Thanks! That sounds promising. I see that Holloway has also written a memoir, so I’ll have to look out for his books.

  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Invisible_Pink_Unicorn Anna

    Thanks! That sounds promising. I see that Holloway has also written a memoir, so I’ll have to look out for his books.