Atheist Pastor: the Future of Religion is Much Too Bright

Atheist Pastor: the Future of Religion is Much Too Bright September 14, 2015

Editor’s Note: UCC pastor “Andy,” while doing his part to encourage humanist ideals in in his congregation, is not optimistic that his approach will be broadly successful.


By “Andy”

Unfortunately, I think religion has a bright future.


In his book, The Future of An Illusion, Sigmund Freud predicted that we (the human race) would attain adulthood and have no need for religion. We would accept its death and learn to cope with our finitude in more mature ways. However, even he was fearful that “the great majority of mortals will never be able to rise above this (religious) view of life” (Civilization and Its Discontents).

There will always be insecurity, trauma and catastrophe, and there will always be people who respond by recourse to illusory metaphysical forces, like God or Satan.

God Creation_of_the_Sun_and_Moon_face_detail

I am reminded of what happened in the aftermath of 9/11. Attendance increased a full 50% at the congregation I served, and remained that way for over a year. I see this same phenomenon at work in the sundry individual ‘catastrophes’ that happen to people who have long left the confines of the church, but who return for a while after the death of a loved one, the loss of job or career, the diagnosis of cancer or other disease, et al. It’s as if they fall back on religion as a good-luck charm. Even parents whom I esteem as fully ‘secular’ will come to me to have their infants baptized, as if to say,

‘I’m not really into religion, but just in case . . . it’s nice to have an eternal life insurance policy.’

Dan Dennett

Dan Dennett recently commented that

“misery and fear (are) the soil in which religion flourishes best” (Wall Street Journal—Why the Future of Religion is Bleak).

Oddly enough, that’s why I think the future of religion is not bleak. There’s plenty more misery and fear out there, and plenty more folk who will find recourse in religion. Humanity, I am loathe to admit, will never lose its fascination with superstition; there will always be among us those who falsely attribute causality of both good and evil to the gods.

I myself take solace in the direction my congregation has taken, with our emphasis on community service, fueled by common, humanistic values. The climate in my church is growingly secular. I have made the point over and over again in my leadership of the congregation that:

I don’t care whether people believe in god or not. I care only about ethical behavior.

I boil that down to selfless service, a service that obviates any need for theological certification.

I sincerely hope this will be the wave of the future, but still fear that a more recent Dennett prediction might come true:

“A global plague, a world war fought over water or oil, the collapse of the internet and power grid, or some as yet unimagined catastrophe could throw the remaining population into ignorance, misery, and fear, which is the soil in which religion flourishes best. And then we’d have to start rebuilding civilization all over again.”

**Editor’s Question**  How optimistic or pessimistic are you about the future of supernatural religion?


Andy,” a former Southern Baptist Minister, is currently a Pastor in the United Church of Christ. He plans to retire in the church, despite his rejection of metaphysical speculation (God, salvation, heaven, etc.). His life has been an evolution from traditional theism, to non-theism (via Tillich and Spong), to agnosticism (via linguistic philosophy), to ‘incipient atheism’ (via secular humanism). He holds a PhD in Biblical Studies from a major American university.

>>>>>>Photo Credits: “Sigmund Freud LIFE” by Max Halberstadt – Licensed under Public Domain via Commons –

“Creation of the Sun and Moon face detail” by Michelangelo – Unknown. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons –

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  • MNb

    I’m largely indifferent. I care about pushing science. The decline of religion may be an effect of this, but is not a necessary condition.

    • Andy

      I can be indifferent up to a point, but that point is quickly reached when religion becomes harmful. Case in point: Kim Davis and her religious supporters clearly stand in the way of civil rights for many in Kentucky. At that point I am clearly not indifferent.

      • MNb

        Neither am I, but that’s because religion has entered the public space in such cases.

    • rationalobservations?

      Most of us European citizens now have the luxury of being apatheists (Recently coined word for apathetic atheist if you haven’t come across the term).

      We do however find the need to slap down the rump of relligiots now and again when they wish to impose their superstitions, dogma or prejudices upon the rest of us, or try to be excused from the egalitarian laws that replaced religious totalitarianism long ago here.

      The USA has a long way to go in this regard, perhaps?

      • MNb

        Yes and that amazes me. The USA pulled off the revolution of the 1960’s, which initiated the secularization of the Western European and some more countries. Why is the USA different?

        • rationalobservations?

          I am pretty certain that more US citizens are closet “nones” than surveys and popular urban mythology would indicate.

          The recent PEW Research centre survey ( indicated that far more Americans than ever before are comfortable to tick the “not religious/no religion” box in polls and surveys.

          The gap between those Americans who claim to be “regular and frequent” church goers is revealed by the actual church attendance figures that indicate fewer than 30% really attend regularly.

          There are significant regional variations in the numbers in active membership of religious cults across Europe. The UK has some 6% of the population in thrall to one religious cult., or another when active membership of all “faith groups” is totaled. Shamefully high when compared with Sweden and other more rational nations of Europe – but heading in the right direction.

          Just as in Wales and the ROI where religion dramatically declined almost “overnight” when the evil iniquities of employees of religious businesses became common knowledge – it may be that those Americans too shy or too scared to “come out” as non-believers may find a tipping point and realise that they are probably now actually the silent majority?

          • Andy

            Agree. I would even say that there are ‘closet nones’, as you put it, sitting in church pews all across the country. So why would a ‘none’ continue to attend church? One of the reasons I have observed is ethnic identity. There are regional pockets (for example, the ‘Swedish’ Evangelical Covenant Church in the upper Midwest) where the church is more an enclave for those wishing to keep their cultural identity alive than it is to affirm a system of beliefs.

          • AnnewithanE

            I agree that there are many “closet nones.” I am one of them – in fact I grew up in a family that is deeply involved in the Evangelical Covenant Church! I hardly meet anyone who knows much about them so your comment caught my eye. I will say, though, that in my case my continued affiliation there isn’t about ethnicity – the number of actual Swedes is shrinking all the time and my family doesn’t really identify strongly as Swedish – but it’s really about community. Without family close by, I miss the close relationships my family had with other church members, even though I no longer agree with the theology.

          • Linda_LaScola

            Wouldn’t it be nice if someday those warm welcoming communities could change to the extent that members could be honest about their beliefs. It’s so obvious that the community is so much more important than the beliefs.

            It’s almost like everyone pretending there’s a Santa Claus because they think everyone else believes in him.

          • AnnewithanE

            Exactly! I genuinely enjoy spending time with and care about many members of my “church community” and it makes me sad to know that my relationships with many of them would change if I honestly expressed my beliefs. Also, it’s interesting to note that they haven’t noticed based on my behavior. It’s almost as if nonbelievers can be good people!

          • Andy

            Indeed. We can celebrate Xmas without confessing our belief in Santa Claus. Around the tree, no one cares–in fact, everyone knows that every other adult dismisses his existence.

          • Andy

            I have some friends in the ECC in that neck of the woods. Great folk! As you say, there are a warm and welcoming bunch. Certainly not every ECC member is there for the ethnic culture. Thanks for your response. Best wishes.

  • Brad Feaker

    Unfortunately I must lean more towards “Andy’s” argument. With an educational system (in the US) that does not teach children to think critically, the indoctrination children receive from religious parents and the seemingly endless sources of pain and misery in our world – I doubt we will see the end of this anytime soon.

    While there are many positive elements that lead people to reject religious superstition (hurray for the internet!) the ratio of theist to non theist is growing to slowly to see the end of supernatural religion anytime soon.

    • rationalobservations?

      Your statement may appear to be fairly accurate with regard to the backward, red-neck southern christer-fundie states that are very far behind the democratic and predominantly secular/non-believing northern states of America, and centuries behind the vast, vast majority of Europe where active membership of any religious cult or sect is down to single percentage points of population.

      Hopefully the Northern US states will now rapidly catch up with Europe, and the southern states will gradually catch up with the north when it comes to reason and the logical rejection of superstitions, gods and magic?

      • Brad Feaker

        You guys still have your share of the religious population….especially once you leave the big cities and move out to the rural areas. Do not mistake the larger population of secularists in the population centers of the Northeast as being representative of the entire state.

        But living in the south (so please refrain from the sweeping redneck statements – not all of us go barefoot everywhere) we are densely populated with the religious and probably do have the largest percentage of fundamentalists in the US.

  • Linda_LaScola

    Humanity, I am loathe to admit, will never lose its fascination with superstition; there will always be among us those who falsely attribute causality of both good and evil to the gods. – See more at:

    I tend to agree with Andy here, but like to think superstition won’t be able to take hold as effectively if there are fewer ministers actually teaching it (because it’s no longer considered a good field to go into) and if being religious is no longer automatically viewed as being good or superior.

  • John Powell

    Religion proposes reasons for and answers to the world around us, including the good and bad and everything in between. Humanism may address these issues also, but seemingly at much lesser levels, such that when a crisis hits it is to religion that people turn. To claim that such people are superstitious or fearful is an oversimplification and does not take seriously the claims of religions and the very real issues they address in people’s lives. If all you want to do is discount religion in the name of science, education or anything else, you can do that. But you will not have really addressed what religion is and why it matters. Religion isn’t going anywhere because it answers questions bigger than circumstances and gives hope beyond the immediate.