Should atheists build churches for atheism?September 18, 2008 — Deacon Duncan
There’s an interesting discussion over at the NoGodBlog on the topic of “Nontheistic Churches.” Basically, the poster raises the question of whether or not atheists ought to build “churches” and hold weekly meetings, like the believers do. The goal would be to grant unbelievers the same social and legal benefits (e.g. tax exemptions) as theistic churches enjoy. Is this a compromise of atheistic principles, though?
The discussion in the comments is particularly interesting as different people weigh in with their perspectives.
My first impulse is to say, “No, atheists should not build churches to atheism.” Atheism is a religion the same way not believing in Santa is a religion, and not being Republican is a political party, and not having a job is a career. Trying to force atheism into a religious framework is not going to work; there are going to be conflicts and inconsistencies as people find that they need to define what “atheistic beliefs” are, when atheism is fundamentally a variety of unbelief. If you’ve ever gotten into a discussion over the difference between atheism and agnosticism, you’ll know what I’m talking about here.
On the other hand, I can think of a variety of religions that would be perfectly consistent with atheism, and that would be a great idea. For example, why not worship Alethea? If you want a real God, you can’t beat Alethea. She has all the real power of the gods, She exists at all times and in all places, all wisdom and knowledge reside within Her, She is greater than or equal to any other god AND—unlike so many other gods—She actually shows up in real life. Alethea is the only God you can have evidence-based faith in, and is the God who actually performs all the wondrous works attributed to other gods (or at least the works that actually happened). If you want to build a church that atheists can support, build a temple to Alethea.
The thing is, religion is fundamentally a social mechanism, a way of using natural, social instincts to compensate for the uncertainties and information overload that routinely inundate us. There are too many real-life situations where we can’t hope to think our way through all the myriad and poorly-understood variables; we need to respond based on a feel for things, an approximate, probabilistic pattern-recognition.
Religion taps into our social instincts, which have evolved to cope with the myriad, poorly-understood variables of human social interactions and are thus uniquely adapted to address this particular need. By casting the complexities of life as a metaphorical relationship with a personified “higher power,” we can apply our predictive and adaptive social habits to the problem of coming up with timely and relatively reliable solutions to real-world problems with a large number of factors that are unknown and/or out of our control. And (speaking from experience here) this approach works just as well even if you know it’s just a metaphor.
I’ve prayed to Alethea and had Alethea “answer” my prayers, and it works just as well as praying to Jesus ever did. The personal trust that used to get me through trying times with Jesus’ help still gets me through similar circumstances with Alethea’s help. In fact, Alethea is even better, because I can see Her and I know She’s real, and that I have a solid foundation of real-world experience of Her as the basis for my faith. It’s not something you can analyze or reduce to an algorithm because the whole point of having a God named Alethea is to address the circumstances that cannot be analyzed and reduced to an algorithm. But it works. It’s a myth, not in the sense of being untrue, but in the sense of being a limited approximation of an incomprehensibly greater reality, made more accessible to humans.
This is why a church that tries to build itself around some impersonal concept, like science or freethought or “the cosmos,” will never thrive. It will never be more than an exercise in believer envy, because impersonal religion misses the whole point of having a religion. Without the social approach to analytically intractable problems, the religion has no advantages over non-religious disciplines like math and engineering. What people need and want is a system that takes their natural talent (social instincts) and harnesses it to solve real-world problems, without the difficult and time-consuming calculations and research and experimental testing. To do that, you need a personal deity, even if it’s a frankly mythical one.
I can’t support an atheistic church, but I can support a church that worships reality itself. Religion in and of itself is a healthy and adaptive solution to a genuine psychological problem. (It’s the superstitions and prejudices that taint common religions and inject them with poisonous beliefs and practices.) A practical, open-eyed religion based on reality itself would be a good thing and a positive contribution to society in general and freethought in particular. But it has to have a personal God, or it will never work.