Imagining No Religion

Dear NPS readers: I’ve started up a blog of my own, which I hope you’ll check out at here. The following post originally went up yesterday, and I’ve expanded upon it a bit below. Check out the original if you want (and you know, subscribe or whatever).

Earlier this week, Cee Lo Green ruffled some feathers with his rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine” on NBC’s New Year’s Eve with Carson Daly. He offended Beatles fans and atheists alike by changing the last line of the following verse:

Imagine there’s no countries

It isn’t hard to do

Nothing to kill or die for

And no religion too

His replacement? “And all religion’s true.”

Personally, I don’t much care for the Beatles, so while I think the change was a bit dumb I’m not too bothered by it. On a deeper level, though, it got me thinking about what a world without religion would really be like.

Greta Christina blogged a few weeks ago about the goals of the atheist movement. She points out that a lot of the infighting seems to stem from a conflict of goals, and I think on this point she’s mostly right. She says:

Many of us don’t just want a world where believers and atheists get along and let each other practice their religion or lack thereof in peace. Many of us want a world where there’s no religion.

I wouldn’t say I’d be happy with a world where everyone did as they pleased in peace, because I’m not happy to simply say “you do you” to the fundamentalists who compare homosexuality to child molestation or bestiality. But a world where atheists and the religious can get along, because they have no legitimate complaints to raise towards the other, would I think be a better goal to strive toward. The more liberal brands of Abrahamic faiths, as well as some Eastern religions seem like they can fit in this picture just fine, and I think the interfaith work done by the Interfaith Youth Core and my buddy Chris Stedman is making good strides in that direction (though Greta may disagree).

It’s the second goal, though, that bothers me. Chris, responding to Greta in the Huffington Post, writes:

I do not think the termination of religion is an achievable goal, and I have no reason to believe it would eliminate dogmatism and totalitarianism, which I believe are the central causes of religious (and nonreligious) conflict.

And I think this is more or less spot on. Greta was off in her post a bit, I think, because I’m not so sure the fundamental disagreement is over our goals. It seems to me like the issue here is how we view religion: is it the problem, or just another institution that can, but doesn’t necessarily, reflect dogmatism and totalitarianism—the real problem? I think if you mapped those who answered the former against the latter, you’d see exactly the two conflicting sides in the atheist community (though there do seem to be some anomalies, like my co-blogger, Chelsea Link, who wrote a great and nuanced post just recently about evangelical atheists being involved in interfaith work).

So I’m imagining no religion. I’m imagining snapping my fingers and having religion disappear, and I’m not sure what I’m seeing is a better place. Maybe this is the conversation we should be having: is a world without religion, all else equal, a better world to live in? And if not, is eliminating it really a proper focus for us to have?

I’m not so sure it is.

I think it’s tempting to look at the success and well being of secular nations like Japan or Sweden, and conclude that the way to such prosperity is to get rid of religion ourselves. In fact, many recent polls show a strong negative correlation between a nation’s well being and how religious the country is. But the causal picture is almost certainly the other way around: reducing religion doesn’t increase well being, but increasing well being leads to a reduction in religion.

If a picture like this holds, then it makes just as much sense to desire an end to religion as it does to desire an end to aspirin, just because the world would be better place if we didn’t have headaches. More so, the method for this change wouldn’t be eliminating religion or telling people not to take aspirin; it’d be to relieve inequality and somehow otherwise prevent head pain.

So I think it’s important to not only seriously think about what our goals are and why we should pursue them, but of what methods are best appropriate, as well. If the goal of eliminating religion is grounded in making the world a better place, how best to go about it should give us pause. Too frequently I read vague references to other civil rights struggles paired with platitudes like “it takes both kinds” of activism, as if that somehow justify whatever tactics “firebrands” want to use to eliminate religion (which isn’t to say there’s no place for being a firebrand, though I’m generally unmoved by the firebrand/diplomat dichotomy).

If firebrands really think eliminating religion is an appropriate and plausible goal to pursue, they still need to consider what methods will work best.  And we already have a good idea of what does: working towards women’s rights, alleviating poverty, increasing education, and raising general well being. Frankly, we have no idea whether writ large criticisms of religion as a monolithic entity are effective, and I have serious doubts that  they are.

If nothing else, I think it’s important to take a step back and seriously think about our goals, why we have them, and whether what we’re doing is really working towards those goals. It’s not hard at all to look at history and find reasons to be frustrated by religion, but we shouldn’t try to rationalize behavior that makes us feel better while achieving little else.

Vlad Chituc is a senior at Yale University, studying Psychology and Philosophy with an interest in how we form beliefs (particularly moral and religious), and an interest in metaphysics and moral philosophy on the side. He has served as the Community Service Coordinator and President of the Secular Student Alliance at Yale (formerly the Yale Humanist Society), during which he participated in the Inter-Religious Leaders Council and worked closely with the Yale Chaplain’s Office to foster relationships with liberal member s of the Yale religious community. In his spare time, Vlad enjoys listening to hipster bullshit and writing sarcastic articles and music reviews for the Yale Herald. If you want to read more of his writing, check out

Vox’s primer on microaggressions
Atheist lent, why it matters, and also what should I (and maybe you, if you’d like) give up?
Robert Wright: Is ISIS Islamic, and does it matter?
Daniel Loxton on the future of skepticism
About Vlad Chituc

Vlad Chituc edits NonProphet Status. He's a researcher at the intersection of psychology, philosophy, and sometimes economics at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. He likes the South very much and lives with his dog, Toad, who is great. In 2012, he graduated with a B.S. in psychology from Yale University, where he spent a lot of time reading philosophy and learning to write.

  • Huda B.

    I think you make some really important points Vlad, for example: “But a world where atheists and the religious can get along, because they have no legitimate complaints to raise towards the other, would I think be a better goal to strive toward.” I completely agree with you 100% on the point you are trying to get across – but I have to say that I disagree with the dichotomy that you have created and the terminology you have chosen to use. During undergrad I took a class where we spent a semester trying to define the term ‘religion’. After taking that class, and reading many scholarly attempts to do the same thing, (and maybe only I’m in the minority here) it came to appear that creating a universal definition of religion was impossible (and, frankly, kinda useless). I also think that the term is way too complicated and charged to use in such a blanket statement. For example – you could look at the recent South Park episode about Atheism where Richard Dawkins is portrayed almost as a prophet-figure. I’m not saying that THAT is the foundation of what makes a religion, but I believe that it can be argued that Athiesm can be a religion in and of itself as well (who said they had to be mutually exclusive?).. Therefore, in Lennon’s song ‘Imagine’, “and no religion too” could also include Atheism. I don’t think that the base requirement for a religion is ‘believing in God/gods’ either – which is a dichotomy that you have used in this article and that many people continue to use. I’ve never understood why Atheism was taken out of the “religion” equation. This dichotomy separates those who ‘believe in God/gods’ and ‘those who don’t’. Now, I’m not saying that this is what you have intended to do (especially based off of the point I mentioned at the beginning of this comment) – but regardless the dichotomy is being used… and why? I have never understood why such dichotomies are created. Sure – I’m a Muslim, I’m religious, I follow a religion — but that’s only one aspect of who I am. There is so much overlap between who people are that it makes a conversation about ‘Atheism vs. religion’ almost irrelevant. Instead – what I believe should be focused on – is people of faith and non-faith traditions getting along (again – like stated in the point you made above). At the end of the day, it’s conversations such as this (I believe) that are going to actually change people’s perceptions…instead of categorizing people. Again – I know that this wasn’t the goal of your article…but it’s something that kept bothering me while reading. I just think that people should be conscious of their use of ‘religion’ and realize that it’s not as simple as a term as people are led to believe.

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  • timberwraith

    I’m trying to imagine analogous versions of the “eliminate religion” approach being applied to other social movements that focus upon challenging prejudice toward marginalized groups:

    ~Lesbians and gay men calling for future generations to engage in only same-sex relationships

    ~Feminist activists demanding that all males undergo sex change operations

    ~Immigrant’s rights activists advocating the relocation of all current citizens to other countries

    Don’t you think that all of those movements would greatly improve if they adopted the “eliminate the oppressor” approach of aggressive atheism?

    I can just imagine how useful the ensuing wave of anger, fear, and hatred from the dominant group will be in challenging prejudice and discrimination. Add that wave of animosity to existing levels of privilege and bigotry and just imagine the goals you can achieve…

    “Our long-term goal is to convert you, your children, and your community to atheism.”

    Can you imagine the response that little gem of honesty would generate if it were the next atheist billboard campaign?

  • Becky N

    [pedant on]“Imagine” was written by John Lennon and released 2 years after the Beatles breakup.[/pedant off]

    A thoughtful post.

  • timberwraith

    Greta Christina’s post is currently being discussed at The Slactiverse. My comment at that blog is equally applicable to this blog thread as well. So, I’ll re-post it here:

    A slight modification of Greta Christina’s words:

    “Many of us don’t just want a world where homosexuals and heterosexuals get along and let each other practice their sexual orientation in peace. Many of us want a world where there’s no homosexuality. We don’t want to see this happen by law or violence or any kind of force, of course. But we think homosexuality isn’t just mistaken. We think it’s harmful. Some of us think it’s appallingly harmful. Some of us think it’s inherently harmful: that the very qualities that make homosexuality different are exactly what make it capable of doing terrible harm. What’s more, we see homosexuality as not just hurting the traditional family. We see it as hurting millions of homosexuals themselves. So we’re working towards a world where homosexuality no longer exists.”

    You know, as an atheist, a lesbian, and a trans woman, that quote gives me the creeps. Would anyone believe that a group of straight people embracing this philosophy could be trusted?

    Now, imagine a future where aggressive atheism has tipped the demographic scales and is accomplishing it’s goals quite successfully. Three quarters of the populace doesn’t believe in god. Atheists occupy around 75% of the seats of government and dominate most of society’s institutions and businesses.

    Now, imagine the original quote of Greta Christina’s being embraced by that 75% of the populace that now dominates society. How much do you think the atheist majority could be trusted not to behave like the over-privileged heterosexuals of the quote at the start of my post–like the ones that are currently making queer people’s lives miserable?

    Think about that for a while.

    I dunno, maybe we should nip our prejudice and paternalism in the bud before we become the majority? Because if we don’t, I’ll predict that we’ll come to embody the evil that we currently criticize. History has been fairly consistent: human beings have a way of treating minorities like shit, regardless of who is currently sitting in the seat of social dominance.

    Personally, I’ll put my vote in for embracing the spirit of pluralism because I’m pretty darned familiar with being a minority among throngs of people who think they’re better than me. It’s pretty f***ing awful.

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