Am I Anti-Religious? Are You?

In my discussions on Atheism+ and its relationship to Humanism it has frequently been suggested that A+ is more “anti-religious” than Humanism.

What does it mean to be “anti-religious”? I’m not sure that I have much idea. Certainly, if there are things that religious people are doing or believing which cause harm then I am anti those things. If religious communities are engaged in politics promoting inhumane or iniquitous policies I am against them. If religious leaders are denigrating a minority or teaching dogma I oppose it.

I resent that I was told, as a gay teenager in an all-boys school, that “homosexuals deserve our pity and our prayers”. I think it is unjust that women are continually demeaned by representatives of religious traditions, who seek to limit their freedoms in accordance with ancient social roles. I hate the fact that a friend was tortured by hacks who thought they could “cure” his homosexuality through electric shocks and burns, and believed they should do it due to their religious beliefs. I abhor the discrimination and prejudice faced by nonreligious people in the USA, some of whom fear to reveal their true beliefs due to the potential for social or professional recrimination. I find it reprehensible that some religious parents force their religion on their children, disabling them form making an informed choice of their own. I think that the supernatural framework which surrounds most religions is irreparably false.

Does that make me “anti-religious”?

Or does the fact I love singing hymns during Anglican services mean I’m “pro-religious”? What about my enjoyment of the Christian soft-rock they play at evangelical mega churches? Or how I love to dance and sway during Shabbat services, and chant the Kirtan with the Hare Krishnas?

I love that moment in Christian services when you are invited to share the peace with the other congregants. I appreciate the quiet simplicity of Won Buddhist temples. I thrill to the force of drums as they reverberate through the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral, am uplifted by the sound of voices floating through St. Peter’s. I’m inspired by the intensity and passion of liberation theologians, who put their lives on the line to free the oppressed. I respect the polite, respectful demeanor which characterizes every Mormon I have ever met – even as I give them hell over gay marriage. I often find sermons thought-provoking – a chance for ethical and existential contemplation I don’t find in many secular spaces.

Does this make me “pro-religious?”

Ultimately I don’t think I accept either label. I think religion is far too complex and multi-faceted a phenomenon to take a single stance toward it, pro or anti. I want to identify and reclaim the parts of religious practice which are genuinely valuable, and change or discard the parts which are harmful. Does that truly mean I’m out of step with atheists and Humanists like PZ Myers, as he seems to think? Or am I just expressing my position differently? And how about you? Do you identify as “anti-religious”? And, if so, what do you mean by that?

About James Croft

James Croft is the Leader in Training at the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently writing his Doctoral dissertation as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.

  • Mary Becker

    Am I anti-religion? I would certainly say that I am very suspicious of religious leaders and their methods.
    My parents’ hobbys were archaeology and anthropology, so I suppose that I approach every encounter with an unfamiliar culture in an analytical frame of mind. Also, I am a trained visual artist and designer, and that only adds to my analytical toolbox, so to speak. Therefore, when I visit a temple or church, my mind is constantly making note of why this dais was placed at that height in that particular location, or I am noticing the placement of that window, in regards to the time of day, and why the artist used that particular combination of colors. I am noticing why the furniture on the first floor of the temple has changed to another style as one ascends into upper floors of the temple. Mind is compelled to ask, “Why have they designed this thing this way, and no other way?”
    And the result is, that I can clearly see that temples and churches utilize the same types of design (trickery) that are utilized by Madison Avenue advertising agencies, in ways that are intended to sell the observer some type of product / idea, in order to gain power over them, and to control them. But ultimately, as with the purveyors of, “minty fresh breath,” the leaders of the temples and churches really have nothing to offer those people but irrationality and solutions for problems that never really existed in the first place.
    The writers for the movie, “The Wizard of Oz,” were spot on, when Toto pulls back the curtain, and the Professor says, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.” As to the trappings of religion, all that I see are men behind curtains.
    So, if a secular group decides to repurpose some of the trappings of religion, the question that the leaders of that group must sincerely ask themselves is this: “Why am I doing this? Am I doing this in order to manipulate people towards a particular direction, and if so, why?” If the design of those trappings does not lead people towards seeking rational solutions for real problems, then one must ask, “Is it better to repurpose the trappings of religion, or to design entirely new methods of communicating solutions?” Ultimately, it is of no use to be tricked into feeling good, when a situation demands that one be prompted by discomfort towards seeking rational solutions to real problems.
    Am I anti-religious? Just call me, “Toto.”

  • Per Smith

    “The intention was to use our conference to draw attention to the idea that Humanism, like atheism, is nontheistic and not traditionally religious, but unlike some popular atheism, Humanism is not necessarily an antireligious ideology.” – Greg Epstein

    This is a complex issue, but as someone who has explicitly made the generalization you refer to, that Atheism+ is more anti-religious than Humanism, without any elaboration I thought I might offer a couple of points. Consider this very post. In it you have outlined aspects of religion that you reject as well as aspects that you embrace. To me, that makes you *less* anti-religious than those who reject anything one would normally consider “religious.” Also, while being specific about the aspects of religion you do reject you seem to at least suggest that these are not necessarily universal to all religious phenomena or necessarily endemic to religion as a category. To me, that makes you *less* anti-religious than someone who reduces all the problems perpetuated by religious groups and institutions to religion itself. I would relate that to Greg’s quote (see above) in the sense that people who do not consider religion to be the root cause of all human suffering are also less likely to focus on eradicating religion as their primary objective. They will instead focus on solving the more specific problems caused by religious (and perhaps nonreligious) individuals, groups and institutions instead. I would again call such people less anti-religious.

    In the end I agree with you that the waters are muddy, but I do think that one can analyze the priorities of different groups and see differences in them, and in this case I’m suggesting priorities in how to deal with religion do seem to be different between most Humanists I know and what I’m reading from A+ proponents. I also think that A+ proponents believe this to be the case themselves. They believe that Humanists aren’t as New Atheist as they are…that Humanists are soft on religion. I don’t personally consider being thoughtful enough to tease out the complexities of the problems caused by religions to mean one is “soft” on religion I do think that the fact that some other people do is significant.

    • TempleoftheFuture

      I pretty much agree with all of this.

  • NathanDST

    Yes, I think I am anti-religious. I do not think religion is the root of all evil (I’m not sure what is), but I think it *enables* some of our greatest evils in such a manner, and to such an extent, that properly dealing with those evils may be impossible while religion remains a powerful force.

    I think the biggest problem with religion is faith, in that it makes it very difficult to deal with the other problems caused or exacerbated by religion. Faith provides an armor against reason, and even empathy. I would be willing to sacrifice the nice things you mention you like about religious influence in order to be rid of faith.

    I could probably give a more detailed response, but this is difficult on my phone, and work beckons.

    • TempleoftheFuture

      But what if you didn’t have to sacrifice the good bits when you excise the bad?

  • Mary Becker

    Mr. Croft, I probably do not have to tell you this, but those trappings of religion that you enjoy and appreciate are actually the provence of the arts, which historically have been hijacked or purchased by religion. What you are responding to, are human emotions made manifest, brought into the light of day and shared via an ancient form of communication. And you are responding to them, because you are a caring person.
    Like yourself, I am a hugh fan of Ingersoll, because he speaks to the heart, as well as the mind, and there are those in the modern movement who would call that, “So nineteenth century.” But I would suggest that the very cause for the reverence that some New Atheists hold for Christopher Hitchens, has nearly as much to do with the man’s passion, as it has to do with the clarity of his arguments. Is that reverence a rational thing? Is that reverence a good thing?
    This conversation is of interest to me, because, speaking as an artist, I think that the modern free thought movement may not be utilizing the arts to the best of its advantage. Is it enough to win over people’s minds through rational discourse, if their hearts are left behind, yearning for choirs and incense? Or are we sacrificing rationality, when we appeal to the heart as well as the mind?
    I think that this is why serious and committed secular thinkers need to listen very carefully to what you are saying. If an artist feels so passionately about science, about rationality, about human compassion, that he is moved to create a work of art, the movement is ill served by those who would automatically brand that artist as irrational. And trust me, some do.