Atheists at the Pulpit

Congregations of atheists may be the new, beneficial alternative to organized religion.

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.

Sigfried Gold writes at Tailored Beliefs and designs interactive data visualization software. Follow him on Twitter: @godforatheists.

 

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  • CCNL

    Summarizing the situation with some 21st century reality:

    Only for the new visitors to this blog-

    Recognizing the flaws, follies and frauds in the foundations of Islam, Judaism and Christianity, the “bowers”, kneelers” and “pew peasants” are converging these religions into some simple rules of life.(e.g. Do No Harm). No koran, bible, clerics, nuns, monks, imams, evangelicals, ayatollahs, rabbis, professors of religion or priests needed or desired.

    Ditto for houses of “worthless worship” aka mosques, churches, basilicas, cathedrals, temples and synagogues.

  • grettavosper

    I agree that it would be wonderful if all religions and ideologies supported and affirmed our need to love one another and be tolerant of others’ beliefs but that is not the perspective that many religions promote or are willing to evolve. Religion establishes a common authority over communities, creates distinct practices, and nurtures social interaction and relationship. Research shows these three elements of religious community most responsible for well-being in members. As previously sacrosanct religious interpretations of the universe are relinquished by increasingly larger proportions of the population, social and religious norms become unsatisfactory. Mainline religious institutional decline contributes to the breakdown of democratic social cohesion and undermines the critical role mainline denominations once held in regard to the stimulation of democratic discourse on social issues and human rights, the mitigation of fundamentalist interpretations of religious moral law in private, public, and political spheres, and the personal quest for meaning. Loss of meaningful, institutionally supported community contributes to an increasingly isolated and exhausted populace; neighborhoods become silent as families retreat into the fortresses they have created, the only security they believe they can find. Fear grows in inverse proportion to cooperation and empathy and a pervasive experience of meaninglessness threatens to undermine the confidence of new generations.
    The looming demise of liberal denominations will leave a vacuum we would do well to fill before forces we are not prepared to welcome take the opportunity. The development of secular communities such as the church I lead (as an out-of-the-closet atheist) that raise up life-enhancing values as our “higher authority”, create meaningful secular rites and practices, and provide affirming relationship development and nurture would be a wise thing to do. Indeed, secular “church” may be, Obi-Wan, “our only hope”.

  • Rongoklunk

    Why should an imaginary skyfella have anything thing to do with love? I could never get that. When I think of religion I think of 9/11, when nineteen religious young men went to heaven via the WTC after blowing up three thousand human beings. The young martyrs expected bunches of celestial virgins and an everlasting vacation amongst the stars for their amazing bravery. They were not stupid. They were religious, Some folks will do anything for God, and think it’s so honorable.
    We can only be encouraged with the reality that religion is losing customers all the time. It cannot survive forever in an educated world.

  • DRJJJ

    You’re thinking of muslim terrorist with a pro death world view! Christianity is pro life-love God and love others! Most of the famous educators in US history were Christian FYI!

  • DRJJJ

    Secularization of church and state? Doesn’t work-turn on the news!

  • DRJJJ

    I’m guessing you believe we’re all just piles of chemicals that crawled out of pond scum, into monkey then very complex man, by chance and luck with no evidence, hope or designer? Ya, that’s intellectually honest!

  • Tender Hooligan

    DRJJJ, it is a shame that you do not understand the complexity of process of the development of self replicating molecules from the primordial soup, and how that led to the eukaryotic cell, and thence to multicellular organisms with specialised cells. The more I learn, the more beautiful the process is. I am very happy to be a collection of chemical elements, organised into molecules and cells, as indeed all living things are. Studying a discipline which is open minded, and is constantly developing in its understanding is just so much more satisfying, and intellectually honest, than turning your back on these ideas in favour of an unprovable myth.

  • Tender Hooligan

    One of the reasons why religion in all its forms is on the decline in the UK is often cited to be the fact that children have compulsory Religious Studies lessons in all state schools,unless parents opt them out of it. These studies cover all the major world religions, and indeed look at all the topics covered from a non religious viewpoint too. When children are able to learn more about different religions, they not only learn tolerance, but realise that no one religion has any moral high ground. In increasing numbers, we are replacing a religious view with a humanistic one, as young people realise that in order to believe your religion is right, you must believe all others are wrong. How much better then, than to treat all religions the same, ie replace them with a view that looks at morals and ethics without the need for a divisive god.

  • PhillyJimi1

    Is this really news? There are already 41,000 flavors of Jesus in the US alone.

    Funny ever ask a believer what is in the very mind of their god and they know exactly what their god likes, hates and approves of. There is usually no doubt. They know the very thoughts of their god. Most people don’t even know what their boss is thinking and married men have no idea of what goes on in their wife’s head. But they know god and everyone else is wrong. Why would that be?

  • HughTM

    Regarding this column, I agree that we should treat people should be treated with respect. I do not agree with Gold that all beliefs systems be treated that way. He says,

    “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.”

    Does Gold, demand that we be tolerant supernatural beliefs? Does he ask that we show respect and friendliness to religious practices like denying children life-saving medical treatment in favor of prayer or the subjugation of women? Does he want us to abandon our claim that science should trump superstition in how we understand evolution and climate change?

    Gold also says, “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.”

    I agree. But religious belief systems are more than about values. They include claims about the natural world we share. We can and should defend our efforts to be objective through observation, peer-reviewed journals, and openness to evidence. When religions or other belief systems thrust unsubstantiated claims into the realm of public policy it is time we defend naturalism with all our might. We need not demean followers of superstition, but must we show respect and friendliness to beliefs that are dangerous? I don’t think so.

  • ThomasBaum

    Rongoklunk

    You wrote, “Why should an imaginary skyfella have anything thing to do with love? I could never get that. When I think of religion I think of 9/11,”

    Could be because you never got past “religion” and thought about God?

  • ThomasBaum

    Sigfried Gold

    You wrote, “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?”

    Are you saying that a “religion” is alright as long as it does NOT stand for anything?

    Shouldn’t it be more about how other people are treated rather than standing for nothing and pretending that it is something?

    You then wrote, “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”

    This is a completely different statement, in this one you speak of people’s attitudes toward people of different beliefs and in the other you speak of people’s attitudes toward the belief, absolutely totally different statement, can you see that?

    I have pointed out many times that the most basic core belief of Christianity is that God became One of us in the Incarnation and that God Is a Trinity and that the god of islam not only claims that these are untrue but that he gets kind of perturbed, to put it mildly, in even hearing this and yet than claims Jesus as his prophet.

    This is why I have said that the God of the bible and the god of the koran are NOT one and the same and that either one or the other is true, they are both false but they can NOT both be true.

    Are you saying that one can have a “belief” as long as their belief completely agrees with every other person’s belief?

  • ThomasBaum

    Sigfried Gold

    You wrote, “I have no interest in defending the political efforts of the religious right. I believe they make a travesty of their own religions.”

    I agree with you and as far as those of the “Christian” persuasion, they do NOT seem to have listened at all to what Jesus taught.

    You then wrote, “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 agree with you somewhat since I believe that both the “religious” and “political” have lost in “this marriage”.

    Religion, in the true sense of the word, comes from within whereas politics (government) is something that comes from outside.

    You then wrote, “At this particular moment in history, the combination of religion and politics is overwhelmingly toxic.”

    Very much so and as far as those that wish to make a Christian theocratic state, Jesus clearly said, “My Kingdom is NOT of this world”, maybe those that “believe” in Jesus should believe what He said.

    You also wrote, “Religions need to be held to their claims of tolerance and universal love.”

    As far as “universal love”, God Is a Being of Love, love is not an attribute of God and as far as “tolerance” goes, this word seems to mean quite different things to different people.

    Also, is this “tolerance” toward other people or other people’s beliefs?

    No one should force themselves or their beliefs on others and no one should be forced to deny their beliefs in the name of “tolerance”.

  • itsthedax

    Mr. Gold, with regard to atheists, you’re not describing a religion; you’re describing a community. Not the same thing at all.

  • csintala79

    Yes, it is a far cry from the time when it was believed that a creature could not utter the name of God, much less know his will and inner thoughts. God was of such majesty that mere mortals could not experience HIm directly, e.g., the burning bush.