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.


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