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Humanism and atheism as civil religions

Luke Bretherton ABC correspondent

Author: Luke Bretherton – ABC Religion and Ethics – 4 Oct 2011

(Source: http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2011/10/04/3331539.htm)

Pepsi and Coke

Rather than retaining its vocation as a prophetic witness, disabusing humans of our illusions and idolatries, atheism now seems content to become Pepsi to the Coke of religion.

In the early 1990s I met the then Russian minister for education. He alleged that a representative of Rev. Sun Myung Moon offered him $1 million as a personal gift if he would distribute textbooks extolling the virtues of the Unification Church in all Russian schools.

The response he related to this offer was unforgettable: “I will not sell the souls of Russia’s children.” However, the minister had the wisdom to know that while he could reject the Moonies offer, he was still left with the problem of how to teach virtue to Russia’s children.

As the conversation developed, it was clear that the minister was seeking some kind of textbook in order to accomplish the task of inculcating virtue. But he was perplexed by the need to find an alternative to the godless ideology of the Communism Russia was rejecting, but without thereby embracing a sectarian dogma.

I was reminded of this conversation on reading a press release this week from the British Humanist Association about a “new, free programme” for schools “that encourages pupils to make a resolution to help someone else” and to become more engaged in their local community. The programme is called “Resolution-Revolution.”

A teacher involved in a pilot for the programme is quoted as saying it is “An upbeat project designed to get children thinking about helping others, without the religious baggage.”

The Humanists’ programme follows in the footsteps of two prominent atheist children’s authors Philip Pullman and Michael Rosen, who in 2006 produced a course on atheism for schools, called “Why Atheism?”

The DVDs featured a “disbelieving” Christian, Muslim, Jehovah’s Witness and Hindu explaining why they rejected their religion; a Belfast journalist detailing life in a community divided by religion; and humanist celebrants conducting funerals, weddings and a baby-naming celebration.

In 2009 the American group called Camp Quest started up in the UK. Camp Quest is billed as an alternative summer camp for the children of “atheists, agnostics, humanists, freethinkers and all those who embrace a naturalistic rather than supernatural world view.”

One advocate of the Camps is quoted as saying: “We want to provide a space where people can learn that it is OK to be an atheist and that a lack of religion does not mean a lack of morals or ethics.”

What we see shaping up is a battle for the souls of children. But in the process we need to ask a question about what is happening to the “soul” of humanism and atheism?

While Islam is of contemporary concern, modern humanism and atheism are defined by their opposition to Christianity (and to a lesser extent, Judaism). Rejecting Christianity as enervating and undermining of republican virtue, Machiavelli saw Moses and Mohammed as much to be preferred to Jesus as the model of the good legislator.

What the new programmes for children mark is the turn from the critique of religion to the construction of humanism and atheism as forms of civil religion: an instrumentalised religion that provides the social and moral basis of the political order.

The paradox is that in the process they are becoming one more sectarian dogma.

But here we need to distinguish atheism and humanism. Arguably, humanism has always sought to provide an alternative to traditional religions through creating an anthropocentric civil religion.

There is a long tradition of wrestling with the problem of how to provide a moral basis for political and economic relations without Christianity that spans Machiavelli, Hobbes, Spinoza, Rousseau, John Toland and Comte.

However, unlike many contemporary humanists, these thinkers were aware of the pathos at the heart of this task: it involved replacing one religion with another. The task was necessarily one of setting up a compelling religious alternative to Christianity or de-christianising and remodelling Christianity so that it could serve as the basis of a civil religion.

Atheism had no such pretensions. Its aim was to rid us of the need for religion. Yet in its move to remodel itself as a civil religion it has become what it claims to reject. The disdain of a Marx or Freud for religion has given way to the shrill competitiveness of the “New Athiests.”

The sense in which religion and by implication atheism was simply a passing stage on the way to a new rationalistic outlook freed from religious baggage seems to have dissipated. Instead, a new confessional atheism has emerged, one ready to hawk its wares in the religious marketplace and compete for the souls of children.

Rather than a critique of religion from which the religious can learn, we find a “wannabe civil religion” that depends for its appeal on the continuance of the very thing it claims to replace. It has become an alternative rather than a critique.

Rather than a prophetic witness, disabusing humans of our illusions and idolatries, atheism has become Pepsi to the Coke of religion. To paraphrase the New Testament: what does it profit atheism to gain the whole world and lose its own soul?

Question of Contemplation

Luke Bretherton is Reader in Theology and Politics, and convenor of the Faith and Public Policy Forum at King’s College, London. His most recent book is Christianity and Contemporary Politics: The Conditions and Possibilities of Faithful Witness (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), and he is currently writing a book on community organizing and democratic citizenship.

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  1. I see what you did there and I’m not fooled. You have framed the act of being human as necessarily religious. The fool has said in their heart “there is a god… because without one I can’t understand the world I live in” … and the first to promote this ‘divine’ thinking damned the world to suffering and pain it does not need nor deserve. How dare you declare life a religion. Perhaps the rock will settle and the world will ne’er see you again.

    • Thank you for your comment, but to give greater clarity to your point, could you please elaborate and explain what you mean in response to the article. Because there are many survivors of Marxism, Stalinism and Communism who will tell you that atheistic ideologies are religions in their own right, which have merely replaced pre-existing religious or ideological perspectives/beliefs (or call it what you will). And I should note that many of these same survivors are not “religious” people in any sense of the word.

      I suppose certain considerations and questions need to be taken into account, and it might help to explain your point further:
      Being human is an experience in of itself, therefore what does it mean to be a human?
      What does being a human entail?

      What is atheism?
      What form does atheism take, how does it function, is it a belief system in its own right, is it a default response to an assertion or presupposition of religion or belief?

      We should then ask without pathos or emotion or some ideological predisposition, what is religion?
      Is it a conviction or belief in something? Can anyone be free from any sort of belief or conviction, since we are always making decisions on so many things and developing a value system to weigh it up? (Does not culture play its role on this point as well as the practical situations of life that helped the creative response of humans to adapt to their geographic/environmental situation?)
      Then we should consider whether religion and ideology are virtually the same thing because they place trust or belief in a certain system of values.
      Thus we should examine what can be defined as religion or religious beliefs.
      How does religion or ideology function, what forms do they take?

      This invariably brings us back to the point of what is humanism and how we define humans? Are humans solely logical and rational beings for example?
      And if humans are not solely rational and logical beings, but are an organic and holistic synthesis of emotions, senses and so forth, can we deny these other elements in forming the development of a value system in which the person trusts in and utilises to live their life?

      If one couches discussion on these considerations on some infantile argument of religion as the source of all evil and has created all the problems of the world, is to overshoot the mark and avoid answering these pertinent points. Because irrespective of whether someone has religion or not, it is a human characteristic that when someone selfishly wants something, which could be to the detriment of others, they will use whatever reasoning or excuse to justify their evil actions. But then you would have to ask what is evil then, and consider how you define what is evil? (- A discussion in of itself, which then asks how does one identify evil?)

      In any case, the 20th century saw the rise of atheistic ideologies whose prime claim and focus, was to promote humanism and human ideals. The effort was to socially, economically and politically reengineer societies according to these ideals, almost trying to create mini “paradises” on earth for the benefit of a specific people, nation or the world. Regretfully these ideologies had no qualms about imposing their view irrespective of the cost to individuals or to the community. And rest assured this was not “divine thinking” at play when the gulag system was developed in Communist countries, or Nazi use of Eugenics, or Zionism’s secularisation of Jews and persecution of the Palestinians, or the rise of nationalism. One may argue that this the result of the formation and implementation of a human value system, religious or not? Either way one cannot claim that it is divine thinking or atheistic thinking that creates these passions in peoples hearts and turns them to such evil, but they do differ in how they explain and approach these considerations.

      Therefore if your answer could avoid emotion and a personal vendetta on such considerations, you will certainly make your view clear and comprehensible, because as it is, it simply reflects the same dribble that one hears from religious fanatics who claim that God justifies their killing of other peoples, or how the atheist Communists used their ideology to send millions to forced labour in concentration camps. Note how I point out a common human trait between the religious and irreligious!

  2. When you speak of atheism, you speak in terms that engenders an understanding that it is a monolith movement of like minded people who share a common goal. Despite the conferences and ‘buzz’ on the Internet nothing could be further from the truth. There is only one thing that atheists are resonably expected to have in common: a lack of belief in gods and the supernatural.

    Getting any group of humans to agree on something generally requires a rallying cry and a goal. Atheism has neither. It’s rather like saying cancer survivors are a movement. Their rallying cry? Cancer sucks!

    There is no movement. People are just giving up on religion because it has no new information, the information it has is wrong, and as a tool governments can no longer use it to control the masses. The resistance to religion is not a grand revolution as some like to paint it. Religion is a house of cards standing in a gentle wind. There is no need of organization. People will turn to doing things they like to do. Some of them like singing in groups or getting together to feel like they’re part of something. Others just live life – religion free. You can find small groups of them everywhere. There are few that try to replace religion with an atheist church. They are just living their lives and spreading the logic and reason where it is needed.

    To borrow from Tyler Durden:
    “Look, the people you are after are the people you depend on. We cook your meals, we haul your trash, we connect your calls, we drive your ambulances. We guard you while you sleep…”

    You’ve covered some of the ways that some people tried to re-engineer society without religion. You might remember when people engineered it with religion and how that worked out. Atheists are not trying to re-engineer society. They’re fighting against the caustic aspects of religion. Religion is caustic to society. It fights to push its morals and restriction on everyone at the earliest possible age. The fights in Texas against creationism in science curiculums and creationist revisions of history curiculums among others are an example of why it is fair to say that religion is caustic to society. There remain many laws in effect which enforce religious discrimination. Religion is given a free ride that no other civic group is given. They publically flaunt their undue priviledge and the law. That is just in the USA. Around the world, religion is still promoting violence, bad medicine, and poverty for all.

    There are organizations like American Atheists and others which continue their work to educate the public and to shelter those who are victims of religious priviledge and bigotry. Atheists don’t want to run through the streets burning holy texts, they want to live a normal life sans religious priviledge and bigotry.

    These people are not trying to replace religion with a different version. They’re trying to live a good life. What you talk about is what makes the news. Well, the conversation that your 12 year old has about gods with school mates will now have a new facet – it’s likely that they will know an atheist and that probability is getting higher every day. By the time they get to college it’s certain. Fearing god will not be their only option.

    Your children will grow up knowing that atheists are not bad people. They are normal, and like doing normal stuff. Life and community will continue and the religions will continue to lose adherents because the message is stale, the books are wrong, and the evidence is not credible. Even 12 year olds can tell that much.

    The information age is here and there is no rewind button on that. Answers are everywhere because people are asking questions. Religion doesn’t have answers to the important questions. Religion just has stories and myth, rules that don’t make sense, anger, bigotry, and any number of other bad things. Don’t think that the Pope’s new PR will help. Once you been raped by a priest you don’t forget.

    The last couple of generations grew up knowing GLBTQ people as friends. The church can’t undo what they’ve done against these people. Perhaps we can forget the crusades or the inquisition, but stuff that has happened in the last 40 years… not so much. Just this last week there were witch hunts by Christians on the African continent… they burn them alive when they find them. Yeah, they get missionary support from the US.

    Would you like a run down of great news items from the world of Islam? Perhaps a recap of west bank killings? You’re right. People will use whatever tool they can find to justify their atrocities. Religion has been quite handy for that for a very long time. It’s time to remove that tool because it hides those who need punishment. It protects the guilty and by extension it punishes the innocent.

    To define society by holding up religion as some kind of mirror to examine it with is like defining what a healthy lung should look like by comparing it to a cancer riddled lung. Is that a harsh comparison? Perhaps, but the idea is sound. The good parts of society and community were usurped by religion centuries ago. It is no surprise that without religion some of these elements remain. Life without religion will be much as it is now but without all the churches and sociopolitical baggage. People will get together and build community. They will spread knowledge they have, as that is what we humans do. That is life. It is not religion.

    You asked for a civil tone. This _is_ a civil tone.

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