We get used to the tired retorts from apologists: “Something can’t come from nothing!” “What meaning does life have if you are just going to be wormfood?” “How do you explain consciousness?” … and so on. But a nagging question which I’m putting open for debate is the question of replacement: that is, “What do you replace religion with?”
Like Freud, many of us understand that religion will always remain as long as people fear themselves, the world and the unknown, and perhaps especially death. God answers all the above-mentioned questions and most others. Purpose, meaning, morality, mortality – god (too easily) answers all. We also understand that some people belong to religion, not because they are necessarily (or only) scared but also because it creates opportunities. It is an outlet for their altruism and good-will; it allows them to connect with people on a “spiritual” (or non-materialistic) level; it makes them feel included, part of a group that nourishes their individuality by slowly diminishing it. In other words, it allows a part of a person to flourish that otherwise might not.
I think it is right, but it may be too easy, to say: religion doesn’t need replacement.
I think it’s right in the same sense that we don’t need to replace our belief in Santa Clause or the tooth-fairy. And god, being another imaginary creature, also doesn’t need replacement. However, religion is not simply the belief in god. Many non-religious people believe in (a) god – some are fideists like the great Martin Gardner or Soren Kierkegaard (this may be contested). And, similarly, some religious people do not believe in god: many secular Jews, for instance, are non-believers but might be the first to turn their lights off on Shabbat.
Here are some definitions of religion:
“Religion: Human beings’ relation to that which they regard as holy, sacred, spiritual, or divine.” (Brittanica)
“Religion: (2) a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices; (4) a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to, with ardor and faith.” (Miriam-Webster)
“The religious response is a response to experience and is coloured by the wish to provide a wider context for a fragile, short and turbulent life.” (Philip Rousseau, The Early Christian Centuries)
In all of these, there is barely a mention of a deity. Rituals, observances, the creation of sacred objects, places of contemplation, hymns, and so on – all can be observed by anyone without needing to believe in a deity. Why do it, then, one might ask? To benefit from all the things I mentioned before: to allow oneself the opportunity to experience a side of life that is neglected by other spheres.
I do not need such a system or a feeling of spirituality in my life – or rather, I obtain it from reading, writing, experiencing the beauty of the natural world, science, mathematics and philosophy. In these instances, however, the social element is largely missing. That is why groups like CFI, the Council for Secular Humanism, and so on, are so important to those who are not religious. They can and perhaps should provide the many outlets that religious groups provide: connections on more than material (so a place to discuss the meaning of life, truth, and other philosophical conundrums so rudely appropriated and answered by many religions), outlets for altruism, and so on. What troubles me about such things however is that it undermines the very reason some of us leave religion. We do not want to be part of a groupthink, we wanted out for individuality, for the maintenance of personal autonomy that all theisms view as unneccessary or, worse, harmful.
I am torn between wanting to promote a good life without god – focusing on ethical matters – and maintaining a distance from anything remotely religious. Not only is the god question unhelpful, I think it is mostly unimportant as soon as most people come to grips with it. And I do maintain that calling ourselves sceptics, or atheists, or secular humanists is unhelpful – but I can’t help see the necessity in belonging to something that replaces the need for fulfillment. Because above all, whether religion is nonsense (which it mostly is) or not, I think it’s important to realise that, for most people, it fulfills a need. Perhaps a way to combat it is to undermine its central tenets, whilst displaying a better way to appreciate beauty, promote happiness and cherish the love of others. God undermines these things by making humans become slaves to his desires; removing the agent from being good at all, since a believer thinks he can not be good without god. But people can and are good without god and we must stress this. Not only are they good, they live good lives and are often better people for it. They answer to no more abitrary Guy in the Sky or the whims of his self-proclaimed metatrons on Earth. How convenient that god wants you to donate to this man and all other gods are false!
It’s a fine line and I am uncertain how to straddle it. So, I think the question “What do you replace religion with?” should be answered with one of these.
A. Nothing, since the awe and wonder from religious nonsense could be correctly aligned to the awe and wonder of the natural world.
B. A strict tenet like secular humanism or something like that. I get jittery when I read about someone like Don Cupitt – but that’s probably my unease around anything spiritual.
What do you think is the best way to promote a life without god – a strict adherence to some code, which seems too similar to a religion or to underscore each debunking of religion with a better replacement?