by Eric Steinhart
Once upon a time, Carl Sagan predicted the appearance of an atheistic nature-religion: “A religion old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science, might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths. Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge” (1997: 50).
Many disparate groups are working to make this statement come true. These include naturalistic pagans, humanistic pagans, religious naturalists, pantheists, and others. Some of these groups or movements are non-theistic or even atheistic. Atheistic religions already exist. They include eastern religions like Theravedic Buddhism, Jainism, Taoism, and Confucianism. And atheistic religions are possible in the west – there are many non-theistic strains in ancient Neoplatonism and Stoicism. It’s not at all clear at present what this atheistic nature-religion might be. It probably won’t be any version of Wicca, not even an atheistic Wicca. It’s probably not possible for Wicca to renounce the culture of woo. But an atheistic nature-religion in the United States is possible.
Anyone who thinks that an atheistic religion is impossible remains totally in the grip of theism. Theists, after all, want you to think that theistic religion is the only type of religion; they want to claim all the benefits of religion for themselves, and paint atheism as utterly lacking in those benefits. Theists want you to think that without God there is no meaning in life, no objective morality, no prosocial organization, no life after death. And theists also want you to think that without God, you can’t do metaphysics. Theists want you to think that if you want any of those things, then you need to be a theist. And it is remarkable how many atheists agree with the theists on all these points! Yet on all these points, theists are wrong, and so are the atheists who agree with them. Atheistic religions can provide all those benefits – without idolatry and consistent with our best natural science. That is, they can provide them without theistic deities, without God, and with science.
And there already are atheists in the United States
- who are reclaiming the language of theology without god;
- who are locating the sacred, holy, and divine within nature;
- who are building atheistic theories of life after death;
- who are developing and participating in atheistic initiation rituals;
- who are socially celebrating the solar holidays on the wheel of the year;
- who are building social institutions like charities;
- who are providing celebrants to perform rites of passage;
- who are reclaiming both the language and practice of spirituality;
- who are participating in personal and group spiritual practices.
An atheistic religion does not shirk from ultimate questions but instead welcomes them and aims to answer them with non-theistic metaphysical accounts. One such account, the metaphysics of natura naturans, developed through the logic of creation and evolution by rational selection, was offered in these posts. Surely there are other accounts. An atheistic religion does not have to propose any single account as dogmatic truth; on the contrary, it should encourage the perpetual examination of arguments pro and con.
An atheistic religion does not deny the existence of the sacred, the holy, or the divine. On the contrary, it affirms that they are natural properties – there are many things and powers in the natural world that are sacred, holy, and divine. But an atheistic religion rejects all idolatry: there are no sacred, holy, or divine persons. Thus an atheistic religion also rejects all personal revelation. Revelation comes from nature; and nature reveals itself to us through our natural senses and our natural reasoning powers. Since there are no holy persons there are no holy books or holy doctrines. Nor is there any faith in books or doctrines. The sacred in nature is described by science, by rational metaphysics, by mathematics, and by logic. It is always open to revision and never fixed.
An atheistic religion provides attractive social events and ceremonies. It provides ceremonies for rites of passage (naming, marriage, death). But it also provides prosocial ritual activities, in which many people can joyously participate, which are aesthetically and emotionally satisfying, and which strengthen positive and productive social bonds. If the sacred is found in nature, then it seems most plausible that the ceremonies of an atheistic religion will be linked to natural events. One such system of ceremonies consists of the eight solar holidays that make up the Wheel of the Year.
An atheistic religion cannot agree that our highest ideals like goodness, justice, reason, and truth are merely subjective or conventional. On the contrary, it affirms that these ideals determine objective systems of value; it affirms that there is some system of morality that is objectively valid, that is mind-independent, that is independent of all times and places and of all particular human cultures. This system is rationally justifiable. An atheistic religion thus affirms that there are rationally defensible universal standards of human behavior. And these standards do not come from any god, but from rationality itself, manifest in social animals on this earth. The best of this morality is worthy of being passed on, from generation to generation, and constantly improved, from generation to generation.
An atheistic religion does not surrender the conceptual or practical territory claimed by theistic religions. On the contrary, it claims that territory for itself, and it seeks to reconstruct it non-theistically, without any gods or idols. It does not surrender the concept of the soul or the concept of life after death, but it seeks to re-interpret those concepts in ways that are rationally defensible and consistent with our best science. It does not accept the theistic claims that meaning and salvation are possible only through god. On the contrary, it seeks to boldly define its own soteriologies, and to link them with positive personal and social practices, in ways that provide prosocial and propersonal hope. It seeks to develop life-affirming theories of ultimate existential value without god. The Buddhist theory of rebirth, expressed here as rational rebirth, is non-theistic. Surely there are other ways to develop non-theistic and rationally defensible soteriologies.
An atheistic religion does not surrender personal practices to theism. Instead, it develops its own system of positive personal practices, and, when it develops those practices, it develops them only insofar as their claimed effectivities are scientifically justified. For example, an atheistic religion does not agree that prayer requires gods to which to pray; it seeks to develop its own concepts of prayerful practice. The practices mentioned here have included breathing, meditation, self-hypnosis, and visualization. These are all effective within their own bounds; and there are many others besides these. Nor does an atheistic religion allow the language of these practices to belong to the theists. On the contrary, an atheistic religion claims terms like “spiritual” for itself, and defines them godlessly.
An atheistic religion does not seek to be left alone; it seeks to be socially engaged. It seeks to build its own institutions, to have its own professional celebrants and counselors. It does not allow theistic religion to wholly own the territory of social assistance, charity, and help to those who suffer. It aims to socially and politically overcome injustice and suffering, and to realize the good here on earth as much as humanly possible.
A future atheistic religion may well compete with theism for all the psychological and social benefits that religion provides. For every personal and social service provided by theistic religions, someday, it may be possible to turn to atheistic religions. And, just as non-theistic science has done a better job of understanding the universe than theistic science, so it may be argued that non-theistic religions will do a better job of satisfying real human religious needs than theistic religions. Modern science has done a good job getting the gods out of nature; it’s time to get the gods out of religion too.
Sagan, C. (1997) Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space. New York: Ballantine Books.