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We are at a moment in history where it is clear that new religions are going to be created in a big way. The growing 20 percent of Americans with no religious affiliation may not want new religions, but the existence of such a huge market of potential converts to something other than the traditional choices guarantees that people will be inventing new religions to win these converts like never before. The last 80 years have been unprecedented in humanity’s generation of new religions already, and we are on the verge of something much bigger than that.
The market for new religions is so hot at the moment that atheists are getting into the act. Alain de Botton’s 2012 book “Religion for Atheists” exhorts nonbelievers to replicate the comforts of religion — the choirs, the beautiful architecture, the mutual aid and charity, rituals to mourn the dead–without all the faith claptrap. The Sunday Assembly and Jerry De Witt’s atheist church are two efforts that have received recent press. I am personally more sympathetic to Religious Naturalism or the Spiritual Naturalist Society, but I applaud all these developments, being an atheist who is particularly friendly toward religion in general. But I worry that some of the new religions or quasi-religions in the works may replicate some of the worst qualities of the old ones.
To my mind there is one measure by which religions can be judged that is arguably more important than all others: does it truly treat other religions and non-religious belief systems with respect and friendliness, refraining entirely from claiming that it holds exclusive or privileged access to the truth? This measure, I posit, is most important because without it, any claim that a religion makes to universal love, brotherhood, humanity, etc., is contradicted by the attitude its believers will take towards others with different beliefs.
Many forms of Buddhism do well by this measure, as well as do Unitarian Universalism, the more recent Jewish denominations, Ethical Culture. Most of the mainline Protestant churches are moving in this direction. The current Pope seems to be pushing the Catholic church this way. Some Sufi and progressive forms of Islam acknowledge the legitimacy of other faiths.
Atheists have an amazing opportunity in this regard. It takes a considerable amount of philosophical sophistication for a believer to worship a God while granting that contrary beliefs have just as much claim on the truth as her own. For atheists and agnostics, though, this can be easy. There certainly are plenty of atheists who hold believers in utter disdain, but others, with no cognitive dissonance, can formulate their own beliefs without making any claims about the existence or non-existence of other people’s gods.
There may seem to be a contradiction in my own stance here: a claim to some superiority for some religions and viewpoints based on my preferred measure. I can’t deny it entirely, but I can say that I have tremendous respect for people and religions who fail to one degree or another by this measure. I would like to see all the world’s religions evolve in this direction of not claiming exclusive truth. But, in the meantime, I think much is to be valued and celebrated in the religions that haven’t gotten there yet (and maybe never will.) Values are values. I can believe in, argue for, and even fight for my values without claiming that mine have some objective priority over yours.
Atheists creating new quasi-religions have an opportunity to take this stand. The question is, will they?
Richard Dawkins and his ilk express contempt for religion at every turn, but the atheists starting quasi-religions will, I believe, mostly claim the kind of pluralist stance I advocate. But can they be trusted on this score? Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do they foster attitudes of acceptance for, respect for, or cooperation with people of strongly opposing views? Or do they use the incredibly powerful tendency of people to band together against a common enemy to foster a sense of belonging in their communities that feeds on disapproval of the moral, political or intellectual backwardness of evangelicals?
The New York Times recently profiled the new director of the Humanist Community Project at Harvard. I applaud her goal of fostering communities that “help us connect with one another more deeply, to spur us to act in the interest of the common good, and to change the way we think about values and purpose in a world where traditional religion is no longer vital for us.” Sadly, her career at Harvard seems to have ended before it began, due to some resume padding on her part. The gold rush mentality I’m describing is bound to lead to some moral embarrassments here and there, but this is a minor growing pain in a movement that seems poised for dramatic growth. The effort to spread atheist quasi-religious communities will be continued by others, including James Croft. He visited DC recently with a talk he’s been giving around the country called “God is Dead. So What?” He is an engaging, funny, charismatic preacher, but one of his primary points in arguing for atheist congregations is that we atheists need our own churches, our own “echo chambers for values” to combat the political power of the religious right.
I have no interest in defending the political efforts of the religious right. I believe they make a travesty of their own religions. And I fully admit that the marriage of religion and politics can sometimes create larger and more politically potent communities than either on their own. But what I value in religion is lost in such a marriage. I come to religion to learn to love people different from myself, not to combat them. Religions have done great and amazing things in the name of social justice, but Martin Luther King showed more compassion for his racist jailers than Croft shows for conservative Christians. At this particular moment in history, the combination of religion and politics is overwhelmingly toxic. Important political struggles can be effectively fought with political movements and organizations. Religions need to be held to their claims of tolerance and universal love. The moral high ground in using quasi-religions to battle the intolerance of the religious right can be gained by showing tolerance for the religious right–and a willingness to sincerely discuss their commitment to their own Christian values.