Improving Atheism

by Izaak

I.

I consider myself an atheist. I don’t believe there is a god; I also highly doubt that we could be living inside of a computer simulation (which to me would be the same thing, fundamentally, as there being a god). I don’t believe that the supernatural exists. I think that everything is explainable by science. (Though not, it should be noted, by modern scientific thought: I think that everything is explainable by the scientific method, which is different.)

But god damn is atheism terrible at some things.

Right now, atheism is defined in its opposition to religion, and so anything that religion thinks is a good idea, atheism thinks is a bad idea. But reversed stupidity is not intelligence, and the world’s greatest fool may say the sun is shining but that doesn’t make it dark out.

This is my post about things in religion that I think are really good ideas, and things that atheists should try to keep around, in some form or another, even if the religions that practice them disappear. Some of these things will be very specific, and others will be more general.

II: Absolution.

In the Catholic Church, Orthodox Churches, Anglican Churches, and most Lutheran Churches, there is a concept of sin, and divine forgiveness, and by confessing one’s sins to a priest or pastor, one is forgiven for their sins.

Traditionally, Atheists (and plenty of other religious practices) dispose of this whole dichotomy. We recognize that there are evil actions that people can do – the equivalent of sins – but we think, usually, that forgiveness must be obtained through more drastic measures than simply confessing before a priest and saying a prayer.

(Note: my own ethical beliefs are more complex than this post warrants, so I’m going to try and talk about how most people think about morality rather than how I think about morality.)

But a lot of people suffer unease, stress, and in the worst cases, PTSD from memories of doing things that either (a) may not be actually bad, or (b) may actually be bad, but that they can’t really make right, or fix.

Imagine the story of John Q. Smith, who had an argument with his wife and stormed out of the house the morning before she was hit by a car and died. Has he done anything truly morally reprehensible? I don’t think he did, and I doubt many people think that either. But he may beat himself up about this every night for a year to come.

Now, many of you might suggest that John Q. Smith should seek therapy. But therapy is expensive, and more so than expensive, it’s scary.

An alternative that might help John Q. Smith is a chance at absolution. When he goes to his church, he can go into the confessional and tell his priest about what he did – argue with his wife before she died – and he forgives John.

John probably comes out of that 1 minute session about as well off as he would after 2 hours of therapy, and it cost him much much less money and time. (Don’t believe me? Brief opportunistic intervention therapy, which consists of doctors simply asking patients politely to stop drinking, has the same success rate as months of AA meetings.)

But maybe this hypothetical situation doesn’t convince you. Maybe you want a real example.

So, we’ll use me. I will admit that I am not a perfect person; I’ve done bad things in the past, things ranging from less harmful than John Q. Smith’s act, to things worse. I have tried to figure out how to make amends with these people, but in some cases it is not possible. And in those cases, I would love to have access to some atheist equivalent of absolution where I can speak to a person behind a screen, tell them about these things, and hear them say, simply, “I forgive you.”

III: Rituals.

Rituals have a really bad reputation. People think of rituals as being these big long boring things that no one enjoys and are useless. And some people may find them that way; and those people shouldn’t do rituals. But a lot of people find rituals fun, but don’t quite want to participate with the rest of the parts of religion to do the rituals.

It’s almost Christmas, so let’s go with a Christian ritual first:

The whole of Christmas Eve Mass is just spectacular. It starts with a darkened church. Then, slowly, candles are lit and people begin to sing quietly. The lights aren’t turned all the way up until Midnight, at which point (in my parish anyway) there begins a joyous Mass that is sung the entire way through. (Source)

That sounds really fun to me! Atheists should have that.

My own personal example comes from Judaism, because that was the religion and culture I grew up with. Now, I come from a very very liberal branch of Judaism, so my family never enforced the dietary rules, or the rules about what you can or cannot do on the Sabbath, and likewise the same was true for Passover.

But my family, and our family friends who lived in the area (none of my extended family did, so we did it with family friends) had a Passover dinner on one of the nights. And these dinners are part of my favorite childhood memories. I still look forward to going to them – sure, part of the fun is the fact that the attendees range from atheist to lukewarm theist, but I’m not advocating that atheists go and join religious ritualistic holidays.

I’m advocating that we create our own.

There have been some attempts to do this, of course, but most atheists look down on these attempts. This is mostly because atheists are killjoys who don’t like parties. (I’m joking, of course.) But most people do enjoy parties, and theres no way atheism will be able to spread among everyone unless we create our own holidays, rituals, and traditions.

Right now there are tens of thousands, perhaps millions, of atheists who are preparing to celebrate Christmas because that’s what they did as a child. Maybe they’re even going to celebrate it with an entirely atheist family. And that’s okay, but all it means is that 150 years from now, when these atheist’s great great great atheist grandchildren celebrate Christmas, they’re going to look back at today and not understand what the point is, because Christmas is really about waiting to be saved by a messiah. All the songs they will sing in choir will be about a mythological figure that will seem no more important to them than Zeus.

But we have a chance to change that experience. We can create better, more inspiring rituals, holidays, and traditions.

There’s the Secular Solstice, but unless you live in New York, you probably won’t be able to attend that (hopefully they’ll spread in the years to come).

Most atheist poetry is pretty bad, and the same goes for atheist choral music, but I quite like “That Which Remains“, arranged by Andrea Ramsey and text by Hellen Keller.

IV: Community.

I think a lot of people may disagree with the proposition that atheists don’t have a community. After all, there are places online to talk, like /r/atheism.

The problem is twofold. First of all, there’s no local community. And while the internet is great for communication, there are a lot of things that are a lot harder for internet communities to do.

One example; choirs. Christian churches typically have choirs. This is extremely hard to organize over the internet. Choirs need to be in the same room together, they really do, to rehearse well. Especially if the choir is small.

Another example is charitability. The internet is well known for it’s random acts of charity, where they order ten thousand pizzas for one girl with cancer. This is applaudable, but the ten thousandth pizza she gets is probably not nearly as exciting as the first. This is called the law of diminishing marginal utility, and is a concept in economics.

It implies that we would be doing greater good by ordering one thousand pizzas for one thousand sick people, than ordering ten thousand pizzas for one sick person.

Which is exactly what smaller, local, groups can do! Everyone can pitch in a dollar to buy Billy, you know, Andrea’s kid, who has cancer? a pizza.

The second part of this problem is that atheism, as a community, is almost entirely based in opposition to religion. Now, I get that not all atheists believe the same things; remember, both Stalin and Morgan Freeman are atheists, and I’m pretty sure that they share very few beliefs, besides their lack of one in god.

But atheism can’t exist forever in opposition to religion. Sure, maybe atheism can’t convert itself into one, solid, non-religious movement. But it can convert itself into many solid non-religious movements that are not defined in terms of “not religious.”

As long as atheism refuses to define itself as something besides “not religious”, there will always be new, and even more ridiculous, religions springing up for atheism to oppose.

V: Sermons.

Let me ask you to imagine a room, into which file between a dozen and a couple hundred people file to hear a prestigious member of an ancient institution speak about an area that they have devoted years of their life to the study of.

Since this is a blog post about religions, you’ve probably imagined a church. But this description equally fits a school, a classroom.

Sermons are a wonderful tradition! Every single member of the community gathers around once a week, and despite boredom, listens to an expert talk about their area of expertise. Sure, most of these sermons in modern religions are about religious acts; what you should do to please your deities, how to act ethically according to your gods, but they don’t have to be.

Some can still be about ethics – there are non religious discussions of ethics – but there can be ones about science, history, politics, art, literature! Imagine if we lived in a world where all adults, regardless of profession or socioeconomic status, attended a lecture once a week.

That’s what happened 200 years ago. And it’s a good idea; one that we should keep around. Education makes our whole world better, yet most people stop learning new academic things when they leave school. But we can continue this education forever, and make the world a better place because of it.

VI.

There’s no real conclusion for this piece, because it’s basically a list of much smaller posts. But I would just like to say again that for any atheists out there who care about the movement, we can’t simply discard everything that thousands of years of intelligent people have figured out. A lot of it is wrong, but not all of it, not even close.

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