Towards Atheistic Religions (Or Away From Them, Depending On How You Define “Religions”)

Towards Atheistic Religions (Or Away From Them, Depending On How You Define “Religions”) July 13, 2010

In a rare occurrence, I am being taken to task for giving religion too much credit and atheists too little!  Here are the offending paragraphs I wrote on Friday:

I would say that various practices called religious, if stripped of all their dogmatism, traditionalism, literalism, and authoritarianism, can and do certainly coexist with and complement science in the overall scope of human lives.  There is a place for ritual, for myth, for shared community, for groupings oriented around concern for charity and ethical formation, for meditation, for metaphysical speculation, for rites of passage, for wonder and gratitude at nature, for solemnity, for pageantry, for ecstatic experiences, and for strong identification with previous generations of members of various institutions and one’s culture itself.

An atheism that abandons all those life-enhancing parts of the human experience and the human possibility because of their cultural and institutional associations with personal-God theism, faith, superstition, authoritarianism, and excessive traditionalism is one that would throw out a truly vital baby because it is presently drowning in some truly disgusting bathwater.  It is an easy mistake to make, but still a mistake

These paragraphs received this provocative retort from Jeff D:

The first paragraph of this quote from blogger Daniel Fincke is beautifully worded and offers some valid (perhaps even profound) insights, despite a fundamental bit of dishonesty that I’ll get to later on.

The second paragraph of the quote is just more of the same ol’, same ol’ piffle. I don’t know any atheists who “abandon” or denigrate “myth,” “shared community,” “charity,” “ethical formation,” “meditation,” “metaphysical speculation,” “rights of passage,” “wonder and gratitude at nature,” “solemnity,” “ecstatic experiences,” OR “strong identification with previous generations.” (I know quite a few atheists and even more theists who criticize some “ritual” as empty or silly and who criticize some “pageantry” as kitsch or phony.)

I don’t really know what it means to say that there is an “atheism” that denies anything other than a belief in the existence of deities.

It’s really interesting that the first paragraph in the quote refers to “various practices called religious,” and goes on to speak of stripping away “dogmatism, traditionalism, literalism, and authoritarianism.” All of these have been and can be aspects of religion, or of “various practices called religious.” But what about “superstition”? What about “irrational belief”? What about fierce determination to maintain and perpetuate such belief and to discourage or prohibit doubt, investigation, or inquiry? From where I sit, those are just as fundamental aspects of “religion” as “dogmatisim, traditionalism, literalism, and authoritarianism.” In fact, without superstitious belief, I’d say that a system of cultural ideas and relationships isn’t a religion at all.

I think this is the dishonest aspect of the quotation. And I think it’s odd that Daniel Fincke would do this, even by mistake, because judging from other posts on his blog site, I suspect that Mr. Fincke and I would agree about many, many things on the subject of religion, the nature of “faith,” etc. Maybe those two paragraphs only seem dishonest when removed from the context of the rest of Mr. Fincke’s post.

Superstition, and the reflexive favoring of belief (usually primitive, ignorant belief) over empiricism — consistently preferring the “will to believe” over the “desire to find out” — is what makes religion incompatible with science.

Fincke (in his blog review of Ms. Robinson’s appearance on the Daily Show) says that “religion knows nothing” but “does things.” Correct, as far as it goes, but I wish it were as easy as that. Religion also pretends to know, with great certitude, all sorts of things, many of them demonstrably untrue. Even Fincke would concede that.

What is the opposite of “guilt by assocation”? Virtue by association? Organized religion has been associated for so long with ethics, morality, and charity that it is extremely difficult for most human beings — at least in the part of the world in which I live — to imagine that ethics, morality, and charity could exist without religion. It’s been a standard argument of religious apologists for centuries. I don’t think it’s a valid argument. And I’m sick unto death of hearing it and reading it, even when it is twisted slightly and dressed up in eloquent prose, as in the second paragraph of that quotation.

In context, my goal in the criticized second paragraph which Jeff D quoted was to address the fact that many people hear atheists attack religion as incompatible with their rational understanding of the world. And yet because viscerally and emotionally to them “religion” means the various social, imaginative, ethical, and “spiritual” things I listed above, they reflexively balk at the opposition between religion and science/knowledge/rationality. To many people saying that you cannot be scientific and religious is like saying you cannot be a scientist and go swimming or you cannot be a scientist and go to your grandmother’s house.

Because in their minds, all these other good things are part of the religion package and, from a cultural standpoint, they are not specifically part of either a scientific or an atheist package. I think many people who do not really need the superstitious or authoritarian dimensions of religion and who either explicitly or implicitly eschew much of that, still see and define religion as an overall package of valuable parts of life. And so you have Catholics who are on the pill, who get abortions, who don’t attend confession or mass all that regularly and yet hang on to their Catholicism, even passionately.

They show up to hand over their babies for baptism and keep them in the church through first communion and confirmation, they will go to priests for advice about spiritual matters, they will sign up to have their wedding and their funeral with all the powerfully symbolic and moving ritual and pageantry of the Roman Catholic tradition for such ceremonies. There’s nothing kitsch or phony in most people’s minds about a Roman Catholic wedding, it’s the freaking gold standard in the West. And when they have old clothes to donate or are feeling charitable and want an infrastructure for finding charitable activities to get involved with, they go to the Church to get involved.

And when they are in the hospital, the priest is seen as a spiritual person, a wise and compassionate counselor, devoted to people and ethical principle, who just maybe might be able to help with his prayers. I mean, what could it hurt to have him pray for you? At least it calms the nerves and in playing along you might convince yourself you have a shot and hope is a good thing in life. And God is a word for their awe at the universe and sense of gratitude for it and hope within it.  It connects with their sense that something about the universe is grand and mysterious and beyond what they will ever fully comprehend.  It connects with both their sense that there are forces in reality that could obliterate them without their control and also their wonder that they exist nonetheless.

And all of this ties people to grandma and grandpa. And in America it is part of maintaining their identity as coming from Italian immigrants or Irish Catholic immigrants or Latin American immigrants, etc. Religious myths are casually engaged.  Religious ethics are adopted as they are useful.  The myths make for a shared imagination in the community and the rituals make for a shared life in the community. In certain contexts, everyone fantasizes along in the same only half-believed way that is not really clarified and in talking as though they believe, they sort of do. “Is this true? is it false? are there reasons to believe this stuff?” A whole lot of people either do not ask those questions or do not let themselves take them seriously.

And their superstitions still have serious serious limits. They indulge ghost fantasies (even those completely at odds with their actual faith’s beliefs because logical consistency just is not the issue—solace through whatever rationalization will calm their subconscious mind is all that matters really) and they carry lucky relics, but at the end of the day, they still mourn their dead as bitterly and hopelessly as anyone else.

Now, to most people all of this is just in a completely different universe from science and knowledge. They do not think that religiously based superstitious beliefs affect the law of gravity or can be used to get them out of having to pay their taxes or will fix their leaking roof. And most of them go to the doctor and not to faith healers.

So, the point is that they live an entire life that uses religion for what they can gain from it emotionally, socially, and ethically, etc., and they use science for what they can get out of it practically and, in some cases, intellectually.

They live this life of compartmentalized complementarity between religion and scientific modern living. When we skeptical atheists say they cannot they say, “but we do”.

Their cognitive dissonance either causes them no trouble or practical implications for most of their activities which require strict reasoning skills or they judge that the trouble it does cause is much less bad than the pain that would be involved in severing from religious communities or beliefs.  Fundamentalists, be they Evangelicals or Muslims, are religious propositionalists, by which I mean that they believe the Bible or the Koran is filled with true statements about the world primarily and so they have a harder time with this compartmentalization than Jews or Catholics do.  But for many religious people, the compartmentalization gives them the best of both worlds whereas they (wrongly) infer that atheism would demand they only get the best of one world.

Now, since what people mean by religion are all these things with all these practical benefits, when atheists speak broadly about having to choose between science and religion, I think people assume the choice is supposed to be between science and all the stuff they are getting out of religion because it’s all knotted up together.

So, what I was trying to say to such people is most of this good stuff you like about your religious experience is indeed good and can be made compatible with modernity and science if you give up on the notion that religion is teaching you truth. Religion has little to nothing to do with truth. The only truths in religion are mythic and even many of the myths are bad myths that should be abandoned or radically reunderstood.

My point was also not that that religion actually has been on the side of ethical progress or a better source of ethics than secular investigations into philosophical ethics which are based on reason and progressive responsiveness to evidence and growing knowledge. I am adamantly against religious authorities being taken as ethical authorities simply out of customary habit of seeing them as such. That’s what I lambast as authoritarian, traditionalistic, regressive, ignorant, etc.

What I am saying, in essence is that what is called “religion”—all these practical dimensions of life can be retained and reconciled with science if, or only to the extent that, people reject religion as a source of intellectual and moral authority. I am not trying to deny the plain reality that religion has historically also purported to know things. I am not trying to deny in the least that it has been dogmatic and superstitious. Religious institutions have used religious techniques and practices to cultivate pretty much all of humanity’s cognitive biases so that they could exploit those biases for their power over people. This is the depressingly undeniable history of religious institutions.

But we have this set of practices and parts of life which people love that for centuries have been most efficiently controlled and manipulated by false intellectual and moral authorities. They have exploited people’s natural cognitive errors, including their superstitiousness and their poor skills at discerning justified authorities from unjustified ones, exploited people’s fears, needs for community, ritualistic natures, etc., and used a range of practices for reinforcing their control over people.

Now, my point is this, we must insist that religious authorities and institutions be granted no special intellectual or moral authority beyond what they can justify according to reason. Unless they can show the truth of their beliefs, they must be abandoned as sources of knowledge.  Unless they can philosophically persuade that their view on a moral issue is correct, they must be morally rejected on that issue. Unless they dismantle their authoritarian structures of belief and institutional organization, they should be judged ethically as harshly as any other attempted tyrannies.

But we atheists need to be abundantly clear with religious people that we do not oppose ritual itself, traditional identities themselves, ethical community itself, meditation itself, hope itself, metaphysics itself, ecstatic experiences themselves, myth-making itself (as long as it is not confused for truth telling, but is understood as literature), etc.

Now, you can say, “Of course we don’t, atheists aren’t inhuman idiots!” Well, the point is that whether or not they should, many religious people do reflexively and prejudicially see an either/or between religion which contains all these sorts of non-cognitive, emotional, social, moral, and indeterminately speculative and imaginative parts of life on the one hand and rationality which is scientific and impersonal on the other.

For most religious people this either/or does not force a choice though.  They just think there are two different compartments that fit together in a whole human life. When they hear people say religion and science are incompatible, they hear us atheists saying we can only have cold impersonal logic and must reject all the rest of these parts of life. Of course they should not think we mean that and of course we should not mean that. There is nothing inherently irrational about the non-cognitive, emotional, spiritual, moral, social, and speculative parts of life. But they think that anyone attacking religion is attacking whatever cannot be produced in a laboratory or whatever is experientially known rather than mathematically formulated.

Now, I agree completely with Jeff D that all the goods people are equating with institutional religions are generally parts of human psychology and culture, each of which individually needs no necessary tie to those religions to be developed. In a great many cases people get ethical community, metaphysical speculation, meditation, ritual, ecstatic experiences, ties to past generations, hope, identity formation, philosophy, etc., from non-religious cultural and psychological sources.  And not only that, but in a great many cases, they get better versions of these things without religious institutions than they do with them.

But we atheists need to do several things. We need to affirm people that in the cases in which their religiosity is giving them all of these things well in practice that that’s great that they get those benefits and go on to clearly distinguish that what we are challenging is not their traditional identity that binds them to grandma but just the beliefs which are false. We need to affirm that we appreciate that they associate their religion with all the charity they do (or receive) through their church, but that that does not give them their religion the moral authority to claim that homosexuals should be forced into either celibacy or heterosexual relationships morally.

We need to affirm that we appreciate their correct point that science does not know everything but we need to remind them that that does not mean their priest knows anything that a scientist or a philosopher or they themselves could not know. We need to make clear that if they want metaphysics they can do philosophy, but they cannot just make stuff up or believe what ancient peoples just made up without evidence. We need to say we appreciate that their rituals or mediations or prayers calm their nerves and orient their minds, but that it is important that they not superstitiously make any choices which depend on those practices having magic power and that they not encourage their children and others to abandon proven methods of inference for false ones long surpassed.

In other words, people cling to religion for the good parts and accept the bad parts because of them, because in their minds they’re a total package that has to come together. So rather than target “religion” which for many people connotes all sorts of redeemable parts of life and turn people off, we need to relentlessly target faith (belief in what is either insufficiently proven or belief which ignores clear counter-evidence), dogmatism, literalism, traditionalism, ethical authoritarianism, intellectual authoritarianism, political authoritarianism, superstition, anti-intellectualism, irrationalism, wishful thinking, and all the other cognitive biases which religious institutions exploit.

And, secondly, I understand that atheism logically speaking is just the lack of belief in deities (though I would more specifically put it as “living without deities, usually because one lacks belief in them”) and, as such, has no other necessary implications for whether one adopts or neglects to adopt any of those other good (or bad!) things that are part of religions.

But atheists would do well to not only point out that you can personally have all the beneficial emotional, spiritual, ritualistic, speculative, traditional, identity-forming, etc., benefits people presently turn to religion for without actually having religion.  We atheists would also do well to recognize that part of what people love about their religions is their integration of all these things into a whole way of thinking, living, and having an identity.  What they think they need religion in specific to do is to unite all these things in life.

Powerful religions give people’s lives a sense of coherence because they interconnect their views of everything and tie them to their practices. It is because people associate their ethics, their personal identity, their familial identity, their meditative practices, their social network, etc. in deep ways with their religions that when forced to choose between religion and science they either punt the question and just compartmentalize or, when push comes to shove, they twist what they think science is so that it does not disrupt everything else that is balled up together.

So this is what is uncomfortable for atheists. As atheists, all that most of us are really worried about is that people be rationally scrupulous and morally good for moral goodness’s sake. And we see long legacies of people deliberately instituting religious practices—group understandings of ethics, group-based rituals, group-defining myths, group-shared meditations, etc. as tools for controlling and manipulating people through irrational means. There is nothing rationally necessary about not eating meat on Fridays. To make it a rule for the sake of making everyone share a common ritual is needlessly suffocating. It’s so arbitrary.

But if you do not lay down arbitrary rules, you lose the bonding effect it has on people. There is no rational reason to not eat meat on Fridays that has anything to do with the nature of meat and the nature of Fridays. But there are rational reasons to get everyone in a group to do the same ritual (or in this case the same ritual abstention) on the same day. It creates identity, community, loyalty, discipline, etc.

There are relatively rational ways though for atheists to establish rituals and a liturgical calendar, etc. The way to do that is to acknowledge that valuable things rationally deserve celebration and that it both trains and satisfies us emotionally to set up specific days of celebration for them. So, celebrating days in which we honor the earth, honor evolution, honor the solar system, etc. all as ways of reminding ourselves and future generations of our dependency on them is possibly a good thing to do. Maybe a rite of passage where 13 year olds have to have a pet monkey for a month so that they can learn to appreciate our shared ancestry.

Are you rolling your eyes yet, my fellow atheists? The challenge here is that human minds learn through rituals, symbolic rites of passages, holy days, etc. Religious institutions have no real reason on their side so they exploit whatever irrational messaging system they can get their hands on. If atheists want to compete with that, it might benefit us to develop our own irrational messaging systems that point people towards primary allegiances to scientific and philosophical truths and to scrupulously rational practices. We may just need to use the tools for irrationally persuading people to lead them to explicitly embrace reason and rational truths lest those same tools be used against reason and rational truths.

We do not need noble lies (myths which tell uncomprehending people a genuine philosophical truth, that is simply above their heads, in symbolic form which they are encouraged to think of as literal). That method of inculcating the truth in irrational people has failed for centuries since people have fetishized the symbols and let them resist reformulations as new truths were discovered.

But what we might need are noble atheist rituals, noble atheist communities, noble atheist meditative practices, etc. that train people through non-rational means to have explicitly, self-consciously, and truly rational practices and habits of thought and belief. This means, though, convincing atheists to work together and form an alternative community (or communities) to as a competing choice to religious institutions.

Some may call this religious atheism and others might say it’s an alternative to religion. This is semantics.

What matters is that an atheist community be defined by its scrupulous and unqualified rejection of faith (belief in what is either insufficiently proven or belief which ignores clear counter-evidence), dogmatism, literalism, traditionalism, ethical authoritarianism, intellectual authoritarianism, political authoritarianism, superstition, anti-intellectualism, irrationalism, wishful thinking, and all other cognitive biases. To the extent that religion means any of those things, atheists can have no religion.

But to the extent that religion means to people a community for ethics, meditation, philosophy, ritual, rites of passage, pageantry, hope, traditional identity, group-identity, solemnity, ecstatic experiences, gratitude and wonder at the universe, psychological support, charitable coordination, etc., then atheists should not be embarrassed to openly build such a “religious” community that provides atheists in common all these things in organized ways, but without any of the abusive irrationalism or authoritarianism of faith-based, theistic religions.

A lot of atheists will be squeamish about this. Some associate any group organizations with the worst possibilities for group-think and so refuse to join other atheists in this task because they think it can only lead bad places. Other atheists just do not care about community along atheist lines since they have other avenues for community in life. And other atheists will think since they personally can get all those other goods in life in an individualistic way, they have no need to associate with other atheists for them.

But if we as atheists do not imaginatively and rationalistically construct positive alternatives to religion for the numerous people who do turn to religion for its “full package” of beliefs, practices, ethics, and community, then we will lose those people to the inferior beliefs, practices, ethics, and community that authoritarian forms of religion offer.

So, what is it atheists? Do we only want to harp on the ways that we are skeptical, scientific, and a default negative with no other specific content necessary or do we want to risk adding to our atheism all the constructive stuff that would make for an “atheist religion” for those convinced that “religion” in some sense is a necessary good? Can we persuade them that they can have most or all of what they really want to DO with religion without any of the superstition, dogmatism, fideism, or authoritarianism? Should we even try?

Your Thoughts?

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