Imagining No Religion

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 plaindamnfool.wordpress.com

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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.


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