Freedom From Atheism

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Freedom From Atheism
Perspective Enhancing Document
Shii, December 2008


How to use this document

If you don't go to church personally but don't have any trouble with religion, this text is not meant for you. Your decisions regarding religion are likely to be reasonable and based on a mature understanding of human nature. Please enjoy your life.

If you are an atheist or agnostic who believes that the world would be better off with religion, please read on. This text is not meant to convince you that there are invisible beings who control your life, nor will it attempt to scare you with depictions of firey torture for people who question a party line. It may help you understand why such images are used by naive believers, but my principal aim is to free you from the illusion of perfect atheism and the incorrect dichotomy it imposes onto the world.

If you are questioning your own religion, or criticizing someone else's religion, this text may interest you as well.


These days both religion scholars and atheists are having increasing trouble defining basic terms. I will here use what I think are the definitions in popular use.

Religion: Communication with non-material entities, communication with material beings who have access to perfect knowledge, or both.

Other common definitions of "religion" are drawn from social relationships (e.g., Christian nuts may think your yoga instructor is practicing religion because yoga came from India), but it is not my place to argue for or against an entire planet's worth of relationships.

Atheism: A worldview that believes both of the above things to be so unlikely that they should be ignored in everyday life.

I am aware that atheism can be philosophically defined as nothing more than a passive lack of any assertion about the existence of non-material things. That is not the worldview I am dealing with here, and it is dishonest to say that atheism should not be associated with anti-religious sentiment. Atheism is not "just a philosophy", because people do not buy billboards to promote existentialism or Hegelian dialectic. Atheism as religious people are familiar with it is a political and social opinion which makes people want to change the world to conform to it.

Claim: Atheists don't need to read this, because we have no illusions.

I beg to differ.

[Brilliant religious folks] are people I call the faux intelligent. Even dogs can do things that appear extremely bright---how much more the case for a humanoid.
--An atheist
Even if they manage to seem smart in other areas, the massive gap in critical thought required to swallow religion renders you pretty firmly in the unintelligent category.
--An atheist

This repugnant mentality does not come out of nowhere. I claim that it is rooted in misconceptions tied to atheism, and I aim to show you exactly what these are. I hope I've now made my case that you should read through this document with an open, albeit skeptical, mind.

Executive summary

Atheists as a whole misunderstand the relationship between religion and culture. When societies move from religion to secularism, this has no impact on how the society operates--neither for better nor for worse. Human nature does not change. There is nothing magical about atheism that makes people more rational. On the contrary: when people become atheists they may lose part of the understanding that they often act on impulses other than logic. So there is no reason to advocate atheism. Rather, atheists can put their knowledge of religion to use to argue against specific practices like forced indoctrination within religion.

(Please do not write to me regarding this summary but rather the specific points in the full essay.)

Why be freed from atheism?

It may be counterintuitive at first to regard atheism as something one needs to be freed from. Let's consider this on personal terms. I, personally, like to make friends with people, and I prefer it to making enemies. If I think that the religion of my friend is based on a delusion then I essentially think my friend is stupider than I am.

I am not a complete relativist, and patently false claims must not be ignored: for example, if someone claimed the earth was flat, it would be helpful to that person to demonstrate otherwise, by flying around the world with them in a hot-air balloon if necessary. Religion by nature can easily become clogged up with false beliefs, and the common sense of others is always useful to improve one's worldview. But if you really want to understand someone rather than mocking them, you need to free yourself from the false belief that religion always impedes progress.

Some common myths about atheism

The atheism popular among Westerners today is based largely in an Enlightenment mythology. According to the Enlightenment model, any decision based in scientific thinking is inherently superior to decisions based in religious thinking. The Enlightenment was mostly a good thing; it promoted a respect for human dignity that has enhanced the lives of millions around the world. However, history demonstrates its push towards atheism as an incomplete understanding of human nature. People make mistakes, and atheism does not help them.

Myth: Atheism enhances decision making.

Good decisions lead to less suffering for people. Bad decisions lead to more suffering. If it is true that governments which abandon religion for science will make better decisions, we should expect to see less suffering as post-Enlightenment governments move away from being dictated by religion.

The 20th century was the most violent century in human history. Major wars of the 20th century include World War I, the Russian Revolution, World War II, the Chinese Revolution, the Greek civil war, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Iran-Iraq War, and the Gulf War. None of these wars were caused by religion. Principal causes of these wars include the battle between communism and democracy (both atheist philosophies) and control over resources such as oil.

Religion, being the dominant way of explaining things in medieval history, was used to justify the atrocities of that time. Today science and economics have mostly taken the place of religion in this dirty work, with few quibbles from the world's rulers. Atheism clearly does not enhance decision making in the most important way possible, reduction of suffering.

Myth: Atheism makes you superior to other people.

It is the conjecture of many atheists that their lack of religion makes them better people. For example, they will claim that when a religious person does a noble act like donating to charity, they were not being wholly earnest because they were compelled by "self-serving" religious motives, or out of fear stemming from threats of hellfire. When an atheist does a noble act, though, that act is seen as purely selfless and charitable.

As will be explained below, it is inappropriate to liken religion to a virus that forces people to act against their will. A religious person believes out of their own will. What's more, atheists cannot be motivated by anyone but themselves, whereas the religious believe themselves to be submitting to the will of an Other Power. So, the assumption being made here is the opposite of reality. An atheist could not donate to charity for any reason other than self-benefit, because she serves only herself. For the religious, the possibility of recognizing a greater compelling force is at least available.

I refer here to personal belief. When parents force their children to participate in religion there will understandably be some rebellion. When religious leaders force their followers to act against their own wills, the result is impersonal cult behavior where anyone who fails to worship the leaders as superhuman is punished. Again, a quick glance at 20th century history will demonstrate that this sort of behavior is by no means limited to religion.

The fact that you are an atheist does not make you any more praiseworthy for your good deeds, nor any less culpable for your bad deeds.

Myth: Atheism gives your beliefs a sound backing.

Why does it matter whether someone's beliefs are backed soundly? Is it just so you can win political arguments? Or do you actually care about causing suffering through improperly founded beliefs?

Social Darwinism was a widespread delusion at the turn of the past century. This delusion was atheistic, and it believed to be rooted in science. For atheists this would be two check marks on a list of requirements for a helpful belief. But in reality neither atheism nor science made this delusion any more intelligent. A real list of requirements for a helpful belief ought to be limited to, "Does this belief improve people's lives?" Social Darwinism did not, and that is why it is looked back upon with such distaste.

Christopher Hitchens believes that the Iraq war was a good idea. He believes this because he thinks that religion is an evil force, and Islam is a particularly bad form of religion, therefore the subjugation of Muslims must be carried out for their own good. There is no religion behind this belief, but it is still stupid, ugly, and wrong. Hitchens' atheism has not assisted him with forming logical opinions about people who live far away.

Atheists may understand some things about the order of the universe that theists are hesitant to affirm. But when it comes to real world decisions, theists are often driven to do things that even atheists must agree to be noble. If you are really unbiased about religion you will recognize that whether something is rooted in science or religion does not matter. It should not be a point on your checklist. Judge the outcome.

Some common myths about religion

Myth: Religion is superstition.

Many atheists believe that religion is a mistake based in the same roots as common superstition: detecting patterns where none exist, attributing coincidence to higher order, and being selective with evidence and memory. These are indeed the ways in which religion commonly distinguishes itself from reason, but the atheists confuse causes and effects.

Religion is not easily defined, because it is the bundling of all things which are not determined by reason into a force that drives human behavior. It is a label which covers many separate things, which the religious may reject as easily as they accept them:

  1. Religion can manifest itself as healing through prayer, a power which has been scientifically verified many times over (it is called the placebo effect).
  2. Religion can manifest itself as belief in tradition and the necessity of continuing past practices.
  3. Religion can manifest itself as knowledge of being unconditionally loved and accepted when everyone else abandons you.
  4. Religion can manifest itself as a prerogative to consider the needs of others before oneself.
  5. Religion can manifest itself as a feeling of unity with the universe or God and a desire to impress upon the world a course of right action.

While organized religions attempt to justify these manifestations with theology and preaching, more often than not they are believed in spite of, rather than because of, any intellectual argument. Buddhism, for example, is often studied as secular philosophy, but if you visit a Buddhist household in Asia the philosophy will not easily be found. This is because it is the religious motivation Buddhism demands, not the logical explanation for that motivation, that stirs people to belief.

It is easy to argue that these beliefs are either wrong and can be discarded, or right and can be continued "without religion". But this is the perspective of an outsider; believers do not see a set of ideas to pick and choose from, because the entire package and its overarching structure appeals to them. Religions honor beliefs that people recognize as important, even if they do not always remember them. If an organized religion begins preaching obvious falsehood, there will be discontent and upheaval among its believers. Therefore, controversial traditions and claims to supernatural power are not lies being forced onto the people, but verification that what people already believe to be true is sacred.

In the language of atheism, religion's relationship to humankind is at best parasitic and at worst manipulative. In its most extreme form you can state this argument as, "Religion leeches resources off of people and provides nothing in return." In fact, religion provides people with meaning that penetrates every other area of their lives. It is not a stray parasite that has attached itself to an otherwise good life, but the very base on which a life is built. If a specific organized religion does not provide this base, the people will rightfully abandon it, but not necessarily for atheism.

Myth: Religion is linked somehow to being stupid or desperate.

This is an offensive characterization that is caused by seeing science as the only true measure of success in society. Technology has brought us power, but only a neoconservative would say that power is the sole measure of cultural success. In our civilization, science has made our lives much more comfortable, but this is not a universal thing.

In the recent history of our society, inventions such as indoor plumbing and electricity have made life much more bearable in our overpopulated cities. It is now possible to manufacture almost anything in mass, including food. We rely on technology every day, and most of us understand that and are grateful for it. We have no need for religious traditions of the past.

But let's take a little trip to Thailand. Life in Bangkok is measured by stress, suffering, and unrest. The sex trade is an enormous industry, politicians and gangsters are often synonymous, and military coups provide a semi-annual holiday for the legislature. Compare this to the countryside, where people throw out a fishing net for the day's food and spend the rest of the day idling, planting rice, or dealing with matters at a communal level. Until the state came in with a "development" program and built a dam, there was little emigration from this society-- an excellent measure of its success. Religion provides part of the meaning of life here. To give thanks for good things and defend what is important to you is neither stupid, backwards, nor desperate. In fact, it's the same thing we do, only in a different context. If it did not exist someone would naturally invent it.

What on earth is religion good for?

We have established here that both science and religion are clumsy, human forces that can be used for both good and evil. There is nothing really to suggest that one of them is more dangerous than the other. But even if that's so, why do we need something like that today? Can't people do without it? These questions stem from legitimate complaints about religion, since it can be abused to dissuade rational thought or stifle conversation in ways scarcely ever seen in the world of science. A force that can be abused in this way, in an era when we place such importance in freedom of thought, certainly cannot exist without justification. I will therefore discuss what it is that religion does that secular humanism alone cannot imitate.


Do not think that I am arguing for everyone to "get religion," because that's not possible. Religion cannot coexist with the Holocaust. It does not spring naturally from torture or war, although people may mistakenly use these things to defend their beliefs. There is no answer to the problem of "evil" that is satisfying to an atheist, and religion can only answer evil in the context of a greater good.

Religion has its birth in a feeling of gratitude for the world. People are born with a natural inclination to recognize blessings, whether human, animal, or natural, and attribute them to something. In Buddhism it is good karma. In Christianity, the grace of God. Rationally speaking, goodness is Luck, which comes and goes as she pleases. Rationally speaking, as well, music is just an enormous destruction of wood, brass, plastic and bronze, as well as countless man-hours, in order to create enormous vibrations resembling no rational language which have no effect other than to distract people from what they were working on. But most people seem to like it anyway. And most people seem to like showing gratitude.

Distinguishing between the sacred and the profane

Culture endows the world with meaning, and religion is the unmalleable aspect of culture. Historically, religion has often been so bound into a culture that it is nitpicking to go look for the religious elements and separate them out. Even today, religion serves a purpose that trumps one's personal meaning-making. A collective idea of the sacred and profane gives us a sense of firm place in an alienated world, and can give us reference to past sacred deeds or virtuous people. Even people who believe themselves to lack any religion whatsoever still probably retain some sanctified reference points in their minds. A creation myth need not be linked to any "religion" as commonly defined, nor does it need to be based in fact, to represent a real sense of sacred and profane.

The idea of stark good and evil may strike some readers as dangerous. These ideas continue to be used today as a logical shortcut that justifies the unjustifiable: torture at Guantanamo Bay, for instance, was explained as a necessary action on the part of "good people". But the world rejects this reasoning because our sense of good and evil is too powerful to be subverted like that, and we know that torture is a profanity that taints even the "good people" in a war. The alternative to a personal sense of good and evil, pure relativism, does not exist; it is a straw man. Anyone with the least amount of motivation in life can recognize the problems of actions that cause suffering, and celebrate the victories of their own sacred ideals. Religion is a tool that embeds these ideals into one's everyday vocabulary.

Further reading: Mircea Eliade

Distinguishing between what you want to do and what you are driven to do

It would be both arrogant and wrong to claim that religion is the only force which makes people act against their selfish interests. The duty of explaining why people do selfless acts, though, falls under the category of scientifically unexplainable things which must be examined through the lens of religion. In atheism all decisions are self-motivated and any action you take stems from selfishness. If you are an atheist, you can have no concept of an Other Power which can trump your decisions. If you do have that concept you are not a true atheist.

I am aware of the scientific studies which attempt to explain selflessness as an evolutionary trait, some using other species as an example. These are speculative and not yet neurological. I expect when neurology reaches the state at which selflessness can be explained, our ideas of religion, atheism, and rationality will have to be reexamined as well.

Further reading: Living in Amida's Universal Vow, specifically the Amstutz article.

Embrace of the unknown

Just as the simple-minded equates appearance with reality, so does the overwise equate the expressable with the ineffable, the logical with the metalogical, concepts with things.
Abraham Heschel

Making ethical decisions

Our culture comes packaged with a secular system of ethics, but this has not always been the case, nor is it universal. Sometimes societies develop that are entirely secular; others are entirely religious. In our modern, fragmented culture, it is absolutely true that some people turn to religion to provide them with an ethical backbone that they could not express by themselves.

Common false statements about religion

Freud: Religion is an illusion

The terrifying impression of helplessness in childhood aroused the need for protection ... and the recognition that this helplessness lasts throughout life made it necessary to cling to the existence of a father, but this time a more powerful one.
The Future of an Illusion

Freud is one of those atheists who regress the debate by starting with the assumption that their opponents are brain damaged, and working from there. It is never useful when talking to someone to assume that they are inferior to you-- it leads to further assumptions, like thinking you know better than them, or considering them dangerous. You may think this statement a rather clever summary of religion, but it is actually pseudoscientific babble; if you really want to know why, read my essay about his work on religion.

Marx: "Religion ... is the opiate of the masses."

Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusion about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions.
Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right (1843)

When this statement is quoted alone, it is used either by theists to claim falsely that atheism is communism, or by atheists to claim falsely that religion is a crutch. Both these claims are an appeal to authority. The full quote shows us that Marx believed that his progressive reforms would lead to such widespread happiness that religion would no longer be necessary. What he felt would be better than religion cannot be found in this quote but in another entirely, which perhaps even atheists are hesitant to cite quite so freely.

Material force can only be overthrown by material force, but theory itself becomes a material force when it has seized the masses. Theory is capable of seizing the masses when it demonstrates ad hominem, and it demonstrates ad hominem as soon as it becomes radical. To be radical is to grasp things by the root. But for man the root is man himself. What proves beyond doubt the radicalism of German theory, and thus its practical energy, is that it begins from the resolute positive abolition of religion. The criticism of religion ends with the doctrine that man is the supreme being for man. It ends, therefore, with the categorical imperative to overthrow all those conditions in which man is an abased, enslaved, abandoned, contemptible being—conditions which can hardly be better described than in the exclamation of a Frenchman on the occasion of a proposed tax upon dogs: 'Wretched dogs! They want to treat you like men!'
Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right (1843)

In the 20th century, some of Marx's suggested reforms have been demonstrated to be harmful in implementation, and others have been celebrated as a great equalizing force. But the core of his claim, that "man is the supreme being for man", has been clearly shown to be false. There is no Marxist reform that prevents people from treating each other inhumanly, and no human being can prevent pain and death. Worship of other people alone thus has been demonstrated to be an insufficient recognition of Other Power. If religion is thereby an "opiate of the masses" in its ability to heal wounds, Marx has not found any sufficient replacement. And the other functions of religion are not even discussed.

Nietzsche: Misquotes

I hope that my condemnation of Christianity has not involved me in any injustice to a related religion with an even larger number of adherents: Buddhism. ... Buddhism is a hundred times more realistic than Christianity: posing problems objectively and coolly is part of its inheritance, for Buddhism comes after a philosophic movement which spanned centuries. The concept of "God" had long been disposed of when it arrived. Buddhism is the only genuinely positivistic religion in history.
The Antichrist

Nietzsche was a forward-thinking philosopher who did not childishly cast religion as an illusion but searched for its psychological origins and pondered the reason behind its irrationality. He did not say "God is dead"; this is a line spoken by a madman in one of his parables. Therefore, there is very little I can argue about with Nietzsche. I will leave his criticisms of Christianity to be answered by its theologicians.

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?

Comment by E. Bernstein: This quote actually means that modern civilization has abandoned the sacred, something Nietzsche saw as negative. It may have been spoken by a madman, but I think that Nietzsche actually meant the sentiment behind it.

Dawkins: ...

I didn't write this yet but I will get around to it someday.

Legitimate complaints about religion

Note that while none of these things are inherent to religion, they do often happen in a religious situation.

Conclusion: a caveat and a suggestion

Some of the new atheists argue that the world would be a better place. Sam Harris thinks that. I don't think Christianity or monotheistic religions are the source of all evil in the world. I think the problem is people just do wretched things. And they're going to do wretched things whether they've got a religious justification for it or some other justification for it. I don't think the church is either holding the world together or causing it to fall apart.
Bart Ehrman
Certain kinds of minds ... find certain aspects of popular religion so grotesque or so abhorrent that religion as a whole seems tarred with the same brush. To them, religion is something to be attacked. They never pause to ask whether it be a good thing to throw out the baby with the bath: indeed, it is probable that most of them have not noticed the baby, and would probably deny its existence.
Julian Huxley, Religion Without Revelation

If as am atheist you've read this far, I hope you have accepted my invitation to enhance your perspective on religion. It will probably not change your own beliefs; unless if you receive a personal revelation, you are unlikely to abandon your areligious perspective for the simple fact that nothing in the universe points you towards religion. But you can now at least recognize that when religious people, who are not you and need not live the same way you do, may find that religious better fits their needs and shapes their lives than atheism.

Finishing this essay and going back to your everyday life, it will be impossible to avoid reading about or experiencing situations where religion makes people do things that are simply wrong. While religion today does not cause as much trouble as it did in the past, it is still responsible for trouble. It is imperative with the rising threat of religious extremism that people learn to distinguish between good religious behavior and anti-social behavior. For this to happen, a good dose of reason is just as necessary today as it was 100 years ago.

But hardcore atheism does not assist this conversation in any way. You cannot make a simple case, with material evidence, that God does not exist. People's minds don't work that way. You can make the case, with material evidence, that peace is preferable to war, and moderation to extremism. Take up the this-worldly causes that you are certain will make people's lives better, and pursue them religiously. This, in any case, is the original sense of the word.

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