I was wrong about religion

allthingsarepossibleOn this blog I’ve written relentlessly about atheism and explained why I’m an atheist. I always assumed that religion exists primarily because of indoctrination from an early age, and because people have a natural predisposition to believe in the supernatural. Our need to explain the world in terms of narrative leads us to suppose that random events happen for a reason, and so we get sucked down an intellectual rabbit hole.

However, fellow blogger, Mike from Self Aware Patterns, has told me on more than one occasion that atheism is, in his words, “emotionally expensive.” I felt this was a patronising opinion, rather akin to how people used to think that women wouldn’t want to vote, because it would worry their pretty little heads. But I respect Mike a lot, and so I listened to what he had to say, and I mulled it over for a while. Then suddenly I had an epiphany. In a flash I understood why so many people find real value in religion.

It’s about security, confidence and motivation, I think. In a godless world, things happen for a reason, but they often appear to be arbitrary. If your crops are ruined by bad weather, there’s a reason why it happened, but it might just seem random and cruel, as if nature is a mighty force waiting to crush our tiny lives (which it is, of course.) If we believe that God causes events for a reason, then even though we might not understand that reason, we can take come comfort that it’s all part of a grand plan. We might even be able to think of a reason (God is angry with us because …) and do something about it. Whereas the atheist shrugs at disaster, the devout has a plan of action and some reasonable confidence that God can be placated.

I realise that this is an over-simplification, and that many people have far more subtle relationships with God. But the idea that there’s a plan, or some kind of intention behind events, must be comforting.

Religion also confronts head-on that most terrifying of questions – what happens to us when we die? It gives us a certain answer, and even suggests a plan of action for how to approach death.

Religion is a tool for amplifying faith. We need faith to believe in religion, and in return it gives us back more faith, more confidence in our beliefs. Even though that belief may be false, it has power. The science presenter, Neil de Grasse Tyson, once said that the best thing about science is that it works even if you don’t believe it. Perhaps the best thing about religion is that it works if you do believe it.

Maybe Gandhi was thinking along these lines when he wrote that all religions are true.

Imagine that you can say a prayer, or make a sacrifice, or change your behaviour in some way, and just know deep inside that God will be on your side. Wouldn’t that be amazing? You would have the confidence to do anything.

After all, confidence doesn’t depend on being right. It depends on believing that you’re right. And religion offers that belief, especially if you belong to a community that reinforces and encourages you in your beliefs. That’s a very powerful force indeed.

Without that confidence that God is on your side, life is much more of a struggle. You have to wonder if you have the right tools to succeed, if you planned carefully enough, if you’re the right person for the job, or if your goal is even the right one. You have to dig deep inside to find the courage to go on.

I realise that this is another over-simplification, and that religious people have plenty of doubts too, but I also recognise that religion can be a source of hope in people’s lives. More than that – it can be a powerful motivational force for good.

I imagine that Christians must view atheists rather like flies. We buzz around their head, annoyingly droning on. You swat us away, but we just keep coming back. In any case, what use to a Christian is a discussion about the existence of God, when you speak to Him daily through prayer? Why dig into shortcomings of the Bible when you find it a useful working document that guides you through the trials and hardships of life? In a way, atheists and Christians aren’t even addressing the same questions.

When controversial Christian blogger, Kenneth Justice,  wrote that atheism is a failure because it offers people no hope, I had literally no idea what he was talking about. I thought it was one of the most stupid things I had ever read. Giving hope was never the goal of atheism. Atheism won’t fix your love life or help to cut your energy bills either. But now I get it. Atheism doesn’t offer hope in the sense that Kenneth talks about. It’s not in its nature. But people need hope. They need something to power them through the day, and guide them through life. Atheism doesn’t offer that. It never tried to. So maybe Kenneth was right when he said that atheism fails to offer an emotionally fulfilling alternative to religion.

We have to look beyond mere atheism if we want motivation. But that’s another story.

For now, I’m content to admit that I was wrong, and that my understanding has deepened. Feel free to tell me that I’m still wrong, of course. I’m always listening.

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59 responses to “I was wrong about religion

  1. In that sense there’s nothing wrong with religion. The problems arise when people believe they know God’s mind and feel the need to assert the truth of that understanding.

    I like to believe in God sometimes, but for me God is something vast and incomprehensible – and the idea that God has detailed and specific requirements regarding human cultural expression is wholly absurd.

    Which, really, is little different from atheism, except for a sense of connection and eternal spirit.

    The rest of the time I’m an atheist, and often quite depressed about human folly…

  2. As a devout Christian, I can say that in a way, you’re spot on. I could nitpick minor details, but overall I agree with most of what you’ve said. When nay-sayers criticize religion by calling it a crutch, I’ve always wondered why that was a bad thing! I take so much comfort and strength from the belief that a God who loves me is taking care of me and has a plan, even when I can’t see it. There’s so much peace in knowing that He’s in control of circumstances that are beyond my control. Why would someone want to take that peace and security away from me, even if they think my beliefs are wrong?

    Thank you for this post. It’s not often that I read an article on this topic without feeling annoyed at someone. If they agree with my faith, I get frustrated at how they come across to others, and if they disagree, I often come away feeling belittled and treated like an idiot for daring to give credence to the Bible. It’s both refreshing and fascinating to read the perspective of someone who doesn’t share my faith, but who can see some of its value.

  3. An interesting post.

    You are spot on when you say
    “Religion also confronts head-on that most terrifying of questions – what happens to us when we die?”

    If we look at the much much longer timescales. If events take place according to the (known) law of science then, in about 1 billion years time. the whole Earth will become eventually unsuitable for life. and over much much longer timescales the entire Universe will be unsuitable for life and according to current theories will consist of nothing but dark energy. One could say that the Universe has no purpose in the absence of a god ,as I cannot imagine what the overall purpose could be.

    The Science Geek
    http://www.thesciencegeek.org

    • Those are such long timescales that most people won’t really relate to them. There certainly won’t be any humans around in a billion years, although there may be post-humans. Wherever we look, humans use the laws of nature to adapt the world to our needs. I don’t see why humans or post-humans can’t continue to do that almost indefinitely.

  4. I think you’ve answered two different questions. “Childhood Indoctrination” answers the question “Why do people almost always follow the religion of their parents?” But now you are tackling the question “Why do people stay religious, even once they’re old enough to know better?” Many children fervently believe in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy, but then grow out of these beliefs. Why don’t they all grow out of the god belief at the same time? (My children did exactly that, so it’s possible.) I think you have a piece of the answer here. But I think it’s a very complex topic, so there will probably always be more to learn about what keeps people in religion.

  5. I have to say, as a sort of free-floating Buddhist and hence being non-theistic, that the theists at least win hands down when it comes to making music Steve – they certainly got that bit right.

    • Christians have wonderful music – and art, and architecture too. But I think that Buddhists have done just as well in this respect (as have atheists.)

      • Islamic art and architecture is exceptional too of course. I can’t think of too much decent Buddhist music to be honest Steve (modern Jazz aside), though Glass’s 4’33” is kind of Zen I suppose. 😉 And as far as music is concerned, I do believe that attempting to evoke/invoke the divine in worshippers (liturgical music) continues to elicit quite stunningly beautiful music. I get tears in my eyes every time the first few bars of The St. Matthew Passion strikes up – I just can’t help it.

    • I quite agree, Hariod. Einstein thought religious faith was a cornerstone of inspired science as well.

  6. Imagine that you can say a prayer, or make a sacrifice, or change your behaviour in some way, and just know deep inside that God will be on your side. Wouldn’t that be amazing? You would have the confidence to do anything.

    This is true. But, unfortunately, that “anything” includes beheading infidels, destroying cultural heritage, stoning adulterers and homosexuals, and waging war on nations that do not share your values. IMO, religion is more powerful than nuclear power, but it does not come with the same level of safety measures.

  7. You’ve highlighted that the difference between theism and atheism is identical to the difference between optimism and pessimism. One is based on an idealistic view of the world while the other is more analytical and fact-based. And despite pessimism being the statistically more accurate view, there are some tasks that can only be accomplished by optimists who are willing to overlook that the odds are against them. (See “Learned Optimism” by Martin Seligman.) So both have their place, but while there are times where the optimist is required, there are also times where optimism is the worst possible choice. It usually takes a pessimist to tell the difference. 🙂

  8. Nice post!

    At their roots, all religions have in common the idea that life has (intrinsic) purpose and meaning, and that how you live your life matters. This, I think, is what Gandhi referred to. In that quote he goes on to say that all religions also have a bit of error in them — they are created by us humans in an attempt to apprehend the Infinite and the Absolute.

    They’re also created by us humans as worldly, political organizations. Anything with power attracts people interested in power, and that’s one point where many of them go dark. Yet citing their evils necessarily requires citing the good they’ve done, and the balance is hugely in the good.

    Religion is a powerful force for community and morality, and a concern I have about atheism is that it would replace that with… what? Fearing hell, or coming back around as a cockroach, still doesn’t stop many humans from awful behavior. The law is an even weaker force for social behavior, as the law can’t be everywhere all the time.

    If everyone woke up tomorrow free of religious thought, given the history of the world, what kind of world would it be? How would we behave, in general, in a godless world knowing there was no consequence to our actions?

    Even if religion is purely a human fabrication, it may turn out to be a necessary element of a healthy human society. Like justice or equality or many other things we’ve invented (or discovered).

    “It’s about security, confidence and motivation, I think.”

    You go on to include hope. There is something else, as well: joy.

    The hope, the faith, that life has purpose and meaning — even if ultimately that turns out to be imagined — creates an abiding joy. As Hariod says, theists win hands down when it comes to music. There’s a reason for that!

  9. Atheists have always puzzled me.

    As a Christian, they have always puzzled me because it is hard to believe that someone could believe there is no God, or other “higher power,” whichever form/religion someone might choose.

    Why does this puzzle me? Well, it seems to me that denying the existence of God is a pointless stance. If there is no point, there is no hope; however, if there is no hope then there is no point. Atheists remove hope and purpose from their lives because, in the end, there was no purpose to life while hoping for nothing once it is over.

    Look at it this way:

    If a Christian is wrong about there being a God and there isn’t one, then what have they lost? Nothing. They lived their lives the best way they knew how and they gambled on hope, faith, love, devotion; it just didn’t pan out. But, ultimately, they can’t be punished for being wrong because nothing exists after death.

    If an atheist is wrong about there being a God and there is one, then what have they lost? Everything. They have lived their lives the best way they knew how and they gambled away their hope, faith, love, devotion; it just didn’t pan out. But, ultimately, they can be punished for being wrong because something did exist after death.

    The question is, which one would you rather take a chance on? I am not trying to make light of the commitment that faith takes because it is a lot of work. BUT, in the end, where would you rather be?

    • I’ll just repeat again that I’m an atheist and I am filled with hope and joy. My life is not pointless.

      What will happen to me when I die if it turns out that there really is a God? Would your god really send me to hell because I didn’t believe the (rather flimsy) evidence that he exists? Even if I lived my life as well as I could, loving those around me and helping those I could? What kind of God would that be?

  10. I believe in God, but do not attend church regularly. The idea that someone loves me, despite all my flaws and regrettable behavior, is comforting and gives me hope that I can feel this way about myself one day. It inspires me to be a better person, mom and wife. Just my two cents.

  11. What a wonderful post. I’m not quite settled (or courageous) enough to openly tackle this topic directly, so I tend to approach it from indirect angles (scholarly exploration, personal inclinations, literature, etc.), and I really appreciate seeing such an open, non-judgmental conversation about religion and faith. This is one I’ll read a few times over.

    • I imagine that as a philosopher it’s hard to come down firmly on one side or another of any argument. It’s the job of a philosopher to keep asking awkward questions!

  12. Nicely analysed and written. I think we shouldn’t just believe sth blindly. We should reason well and if we believe in that, then we should stick to it, may it be religion, God or anything else.
    The problem today is we change our faith and belief too often because we don’t try to analyze a thing properly. We just read somewhere then take a decision.
    Before deciding sth, we must try to find the roots of it. Cant always be doubting Thomases. 🙂

    • Yes, I don’t think any person of faith believes 100% in religious texts. That would be impossible, as there are too many contradictions. Everyone uses reason to pull out the strands that make most sense to them. That’s a good thing of course. For me as an atheist, it simply illustrates how all religions are the creations of the human imagination and intellect. Humans are pretty awesome in my opinion.

  13. Very well said Steve. I’m honored that I had a role in inspiring you to reexamine your views in this area.

    My usual line is, non-belief is an emotionally expensive proposition; those of us who can afford it should be careful not to be cruel to those who can’t.

    I think religions, like the cultures they exist in, have both good and bad qualities. It seems like what anti-theists most often object to is rigid adherence to doctrine over people’s welfare. But many believers would agree with that stance. And history shows that you don’t need religion to value ideological purity over people.

    • Thanks, Mike. There are other movements that can inspire similar motivation and faith in their followers – communism has done a pretty good job for instance. But religion will always trump worldly ideas. Life after death is the trump card.

      Rigid adherence to doctrine is a problem whenever it over-rides the well-being of individuals. I wouldn’t be surprised if Jesus even said something similar.

  14. Atheism is to Christianity what Buddhism is to Hinduism. Be good, do good, if you you don’t believe in a creator, no one will be angry at you. A couple of things to keep in mind, namely, Prof. Antony Flew & Hempel’s dilemma.

  15. Where ever you ultimately land on the religion spectrum, I admire you for taking the time to remain open minded, to hear an opinion differing from your own, and to write out some thoughts on it that have inspired a conversation with so many people. The first step in bridging the gaps between us is to listen and try to hear each other’s take on life’s big questions. After all, they are considered “questions” for a reason and with so many, many different “answers” we humans come up with, we all have a lot to learn from each other. I appreciate your thoughtful approach and the integrity you’ve shown in reevaluating your own beliefs and in listening to something you don’t entirely agree with. Thank you and once again, it’s always a pleasure reading your blog.

    • Thank you for your very kind words, Laura. I’m delighted at what a conversation this post has sparked. And there is no sign of the usual hate that often spoils these kinds of discussions. It just illustrates how easily we can all get along together when we try.

  16. For some, religion is a comfort against death and the inexplicable. This is religion based on weakness. For others, religion is a vehicle for reaching into something timeless and transcendental that we sense at the core of our beings. This second category is not (necessarily) related to fear of death or of anything else (thus, not necessarily based in weakness but in some intuitive strength). All religions and philosophies can offer that positive transcendental pathway, but too often practitioners get bogged down in the superstitious crust covering the deeper wisdom – do this or you’ll go to hell, I can’t put on my electric light on Saturday but my neighbor can do it for me, etc. – or as Sri Sri Ravi Shankar says: “Religion is like a banana skin. And spirituality the banana itself. The problem with this era is that people have thrown away the banana and are holding on tightly to the banana skin.”

  17. Hi Steve Morris,
    What about self-deception and untruth in connection with religion? Are these only of secondary importance for you?

  18. The manner you address atheism and religion is relaxed but nevertheless compelling which is really good, Steve. No lengthy use of jargon or verbal gymnastics that make my eyes glaze over and make me want to cry out, “Just get to the point, please.”

    I came across some files of religious handouts (I received when I was younger) days ago and I couldn’t help shake my head looking at missives that read, “Believe your prayers will be answered. If not, they will be answered in a different way. Such is the glory of God.”

    I believe the incredible power of the mind is what’s really at work on matters of spiritual faith, not to mention the monumental human ego that refuses to accept our existence was a mere product of cosmic accident; an existence no different from all the other animals that will simply turn into nothing after death.

    When it comes to religion, the heart could only be wiling to follow anything the mind embraces.

  19. This is a very good attitude. I wish academic philosophers would write like this.

  20. For humans, to admit that ‘I was wrong’ is one of the most difficult yet most noble of sentences to be uttered. To admit to a mistake or shortcoming shows evidence of self-reflection and ponderment. My belief in God has shown me that when one can identify that ultimately, they are ‘deficient’ and prone to mistakes; then this is a great sign from God, as it is the first step to self-rectification.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts Steve. If we could all admit to our flaws, then perhaps we’d be able to identify how we need to develop as people, rather than how we ‘need’ develop an iPhone every 6 months.

    Thanks again 🙂

  21. A great post and discussion! I suppose it’s possible to be an atheist (by that I mean someone who believes God does not exist) and be happy, but I couldn’t do it. After a while, I found myself very eager to move into the realm of agnosticism. I was always on the lookout for arguments that would prove me wrong, something that would convert me. Instead I found that religion wasn’t what I thought it was, that I simply haven’t had the experiences that others have had. In other words, there are things I just don’t know. I find this pretty comfortable.

    So in Mike’s terms, atheism is expensive, and I’m thoroughly middle class. Maybe even lower middle class, but with good credit. (Pascal’s wager does have a certain appeal, but I’m not into gambling.) 🙂

    • Ha ha! I like that analogy. I don’t know why I’m so confident and secure in my (non-)belief, but I haven’t had any doubts about it since early childhood. In fact, I derive a huge amount of emotional security from being certain that the world is as we see it, and that it isn’t simply a curtain concealing the “real” world beyond.

      • I can totally understand that. Mystery can be annoying sometimes.

        In most senses, I’m the same. I can’t seem to believe in the idea of life after death. I acknowledge that I don’t know, but if we’re talking about beliefs—what we feel is true deep down—I just don’t buy into that one. I wouldn’t argue about it, though. I acknowledge it’s nothing more than a strong belief. For me, the belief in life after death feels too much like wishful thinking, the ego wanting to keep on going. But I also acknowledge that I have a pessimistic nature and a tendency to irrationally think that good things=not true.

        Whether there is some underlying harmony in the universe that we might call God, that’s another story. I don’t know if this is a Being, or if that’s just an easy way to express such a huge concept. In any case, deep down I could believe in something like that. That idea brings me comfort, even though it may not affect my personal situation. Perhaps it’s just a feeling that I’m a part of a unified whole, that even if I die and never come back again, I’ve at least been a part of something coherent. I also acknowledge that most people would not call this God, so I try to be careful when people ask me if I believe in God.

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