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Feb 17 2013

Atheists Don’t Need Religion

Kelly Boggs from Baptist Press thinks we need religion. She seems to have gotten hold of Alain de Botton’s work and is flogging it for all it’s worth without really realising that his work is inherently faulty on some aspects.

For many atheists, a belief in a supreme being is not only foolhardy, but it also is dangerous. According to these disciples of unbelief, the religious doctrines that flow from the idea of God — particularly from the adherents of Christianity — are chiefly responsible for most of the ills on earth.

Let’s call a spade a spade. Belief in a SUPERNATURAL being is foolhardy. The most important point in atheism is that the things religious people believe in are not demonstrable. Nor are they “implied”. And while “disciples of unbelief” sounds “pretty cool” it “doesn’t mean anything”.

And it’s “god”. Not God. God implies that only a single one exists while history shows that there are millions of them created by humanity in a bid to understand a world which didn’t make sense. We laugh at Thor and made him into a comic book hero. We made “gods” of our own in the forms of our action heroes who we explicitly call “fictitious”. Strength, Love, Intelligence, Willpower, Speed and Humanity, Wonder… (And also whatever it is with Talking to Fish)

A lot of the world’s issues are directly caused by believing in supernatural things. This causes people to believe blindly in the teachings of people who are ignorant of our achievements. It causes people to think the greatest achievement in the world was a 2000 year old book assembled by priests jostling for power rather than say… the Hubble Telescope or the Elimination of Smallpox or building the LHC (there are more examples here). It causes people to think that the people of a small part of the Middle East hit the pinnacle of human morality nearly 2000 years ago despite all the progress we have made since. It causes people to think that human achievement is nothing.

It is the slavery of the mind with the chains of dogma and the whips of guilt.

Alain de Botton does not agree with many of his fellow atheists on the subject of religion. In fact, the Swiss-born, London-dwelling author believes many teachings found in religion hold the keys to a better world.In his most recent book, “Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion,” de Botton, “suggests that rather than mocking religion, agnostics and atheists should instead steal from it — because the world’s religions are packed with good ideas on how we might live and arrange our societies,” according to a description on Amazon.com.

That may be the case, however that may be due to the sociology of humanity rather than any inherent cleverness of believing in a god. And the blind faith of belief is lethal as we have seen in cults of personality. Atheism means no gods. Not even human ones. And how we live is based on an understanding of how we affect others and we aim to do so in a positive way.

In de Botton’s view, religion was “invented to serve two central needs which continue to this day and which secular society has not been able to solve with any particular skill….”The first of the two needs de Botton acknowledges is “the need to live together in communities in harmony, despite our deeply rooted selfish and violent impulses.” De Botton believes the second necessity of mankind is “the need to cope with the terrifying degrees of pain which arise from our vulnerability to professional failure, to troubled relationships, to the death of loved ones and to our decay and demise.”

I disagree with de Botton’s view for the following reasons.

1. Our communal nature is deeply rooted in survival and evolution. Only the cooperative survive. We created society which is effectively a method of cooperation. We are different to the apes because “society” lets all of us work together by eliminating competition for food, breeding and survival at a group level. It allowed our ancestors to concentrate on “other things”. Which includes sharpening sticks and designing vaccines to kill smallpox.

2. Again, failure can be ameliorated through society rather than by belief in the fictitious.

3. Religion had more to do with explaining the world around us. It is a cult of statistics, a behaviour that we assume is statistically significant may not have any correlation or causation to an event. If we truly believe that the behaviour is responsible for the event then you start taking on the characteristics of religious faith.

It is why we use mathematical statistics and experimentation to prove or disprove such correlations in science. While thunder and lightning once came from the gods, now they are relegated to purely natural phenomenon.

In grappling with these needs, de Botton attempts to deal with age-old questions for which the belief system known as atheism has no real answers. “The real issue is not whether or not God exists,” he writes, “but where to take the argument once one decides that he evidently doesn’t.”

Of course not. We don’t worry about the non-existence of imaginary beings. I do not stay up late at night wondering how the abominable snowman will affect my life.

“Religion for Atheists” is de Botton’s attempt to create a moral construct for a society where God does not exist — amorality that he believes is a necessity based on human need. “The premise of this book,” writes de Botton, “is that it must be possible to remain a committed atheist and nevertheless find religions sporadically useful, interesting and consoling — and be curious as to the possibilities of importing certain of their ideas and practices into the secular realm.”

Yes. There are some good aspects to religion. It’s not wholly “evil”. But disconnected from the bells and whistles of “a god” these resemble purely secular institutions and these can exist without “a god” or the trappings of superstition.

Apart from “Religion For Atheists” and perhaps because of the book, de Botton has authored a brief “Manifesto for Atheists” where he espouses 10 virtues that would help better society,: Resilience, Empathy, Patience, Sacrifice, Politeness, Humor, Self-Awareness, Forgiveness, Hope and Confidence.

No. Many of these virtues have to be utilised with the over-arching bridge of common sense. Resilience is great but you need to know when you should call for help. Patience and Empathy are not limitless resources. Sacrifice when necessary. Politeness when possible. Humour is always good. Self-Awareness is important too. Hope is good but doing stuff is better. Confidence is great but don’t mistake it for arrogance. These are subjective ideas and not universal to everyone.

I am self-aware enough to know that I have these “virtues” in some form or other. I also do know my limits and my tolerances. And I know when to call it quits and cut my losses. And I loathe to call anything a virtue because it portrays anyone who fails to meet a standard as “weak” or “bad”. I can stand for 8 hours while running a fever. That’s because I HAVE to. I don’t get a choice so I grit my teeth and “do it”. I don’t expect others to do so.

Alain de Botton’s “Virtues” while nice if adopted by the wider atheist community will create a “I am a better atheist than thou” kind of mentality. We see it in religion where the Ten Commandments are regularly used to categorise people as “better Christians/Jews/Muslims”.

Be the best person you can be, push your boundaries and explore, don’t just give up (the best things in life are tough) and you may be surprised what you can do. But above all don’t forget that you are just like everyone else. If you can do something then so can someone else (except things like spring a 100 m in under 10 seconds…) if others have done something then so can you.

De Botton’s list is far from original. The Bible exhorts us to embrace theses virtues. However, I find one articulated by de Botton particular interesting, especially against the backdrop of atheism. In explaining the reason for hope, de Botton writes, “Pessimism isn’t necessarily deep, nor optimism shallow.” Remember, according to de Botton, one of the needs of humans is to cope with the many pains of life, such as the death of a loved one and the realization of one’s own demise.

And Christians would do well to remember what “politeness” means. It means not forcing other people to follow the restrictions of your faith. And no it doesn’t mean “We should not force you to pay for abortions and contraceptions” any more than me paying for your insurance means that we should restrict CT scan usage (It’s a bigger dose of radiation than X-Rays and should only be used sparingly!)

And would you rather hear a lie that your dog has gone to live on a farm or the truth that your dog is dead? That is the difference. If I told an adult that their dog was happily living on a farm with all the pedigree chum it could eat you they would never believe it.

Yet we say that our dead are in a magical place where they can do whatever they loved in life and constantly feel happy. No this is no different from the farm. This is no different from George and Lenny’s Farm (Of Mice and Men reference. I read it for my GCSE and I am damned if I am going to let up an opportunity to call on that knowledge), a lie to cover up pain.

But knowledge that this is a lie is enough to break the illusion. And what I say is that grief is natural and it hurts because you have lost someone that meant something real to you. They however have ceased to be. They have “stopped”. And this is sad because they were important to us. The truth of this doesn’t change if you think that they have gone to live in a magic land in the sky…

What matters is how we deal with grief and we deal with grief as human beings. We do grow and we do live with the loss of those we love.

I commend de Botton’s attempt to be respectful to religion — Christianity in particular. However, it is precisely here that I believe his ideas hit a snag.

Why?

Why should we respect a religion whose first commandment states that they should run around claiming that their religion is the super best religion? Why should we respect a religion who won’t respect others? It is Christians who seek to teach Creationism as fact. It is Christians who seek to deny our children the basic right to study “biology”. It is Christians who deny women the right to access proper gynaecology. It is Christians who claim that we should not only bully and force the GLBT to be hidden away but we should do so to children and deny the adults the same right to happiness that we all have.

This is without the wider Christian issues of hypocrisy, anti-intellectualism and attempts at cultural imperialism that we see across the world.

Why should we respect superstition when Christians do not respect other superstitions. The only reason Christians “tolerate” other faiths is due to the watchful eye of secular government. Why should we mock the Scientologists for Xenu and his Atomic Bombs and Volcanoes and Thetans and Space B-17s… And not deride Christians and their Holy Ghosts, Virgin Births and Ludicrously Incestuous Origin Story. What? Since when are “Aliens” less likely to exist than “Gods”?

The only difference is the age of both faiths. We mock Scientology because it’s young. We invite the Pope to tell us how to live our lives because Christianity is old. That’s it. That’s the only difference.

When one rejects the existence of God, the reality of a Creator is utter nonsense. Hence, all that is in the earth, including human beings, is the product of matter or energy shaped by chance. There is no other explanation for the atheist.

No. It’s shaped by the forces of nature. Random chance indicates that the sum of nuclear fusion from the stars could result in a planet made of fetuccini alfredo. There are cogent reasons for why the universe works the way it does. It doesn’t have anything to do with the personal god of the Christian. When we say “Laws of Nature” we don’t mean “written on stone or decreed or engineered”.

And you are here through UTTER chance.

There are 7 billion people on earth. 3.5 billion men. Each produces 5 to 7 ml of sperm per ejaculate containing 150 Million sperm cells to 200 million sperm cells EACH. You have come from just ONE of those. A RANDOM chance made you. You are 1 in at least 150,000,000. If we took that on a global scale you are a 1 in 525000000000.

So, if man is nothing more than a creature that has won the “evolutionary lottery,” why does he need hope? More precisely, how does one convey hope to a being that has come into existence purely by evolutionary chance?

See this is why Creationists shouldn’t teach Science.

Evolutionary Lottery doesn’t mean anything. Evolution is survival and despite what you think there are more bacteria inside you than there are HUMAN cells in your body. To bacteria you are nothing more than a giant bag of moving food. Evolutionary Lottery My Arse… They won it a long time ago. You merely rent their planet.

Hope? Well. What hope people have is not that a “god” will intervene but that humans will intervene. Your church prayed to god for nearly 2000 years but it was “humans” who killed Smallpox. Not prayer. Hope comes from the actions of humans and has always come from the actions of humans. When religion takes the credit for providing “hope” it’s usually because it has ignored all the people who have done the work to make “hope” possible in the first place.

A god isn’t feeding Africans, it is humans.

What hope does atheism offer the parents who find their infant lifeless in its crib, a victim of SIDS? What hope does it offer a person dying of cancer?

The same hope that atheism offers the priest who has a heart attack. Our world view is entrenched in the way science works. We believe in an empirical universe.

It’s why priests call the ambulance and doctors rather than pray to their god. Because “god” seems to be very very bad at saving people unless humans take a fair whack at it at the same time. And best of all god seems to act almost exclusively through humanity rather than say “zapping your incurable disease away in a big flash of instant light”. I have yet to see a single priest cure a Cataract and the Christian god’s claim to fame is bringing sight to the blind.

What Hope Do We Offer? We save children who suffer from RDS (Respiratory Distress Syndrome). When we understood how babies die from the disease we went out and STOPPED them from dying. You can make all the claims that these babies would be in heaven but I give them more time to spend on the planet. A baby who died of SIDS? What hope does Christianity offer the Hindu parents? Claiming that their child is in heaven but they will burn in hell for the belief in a false god is hope?

What hope does prayer offer for the person dying of cancer? My Chemo and Radiotherapy can increase your lifespan. My surgeries can reduce the damage and the pain of the cancer. My drugs can let you die in peace. Prayer does nothing. Hope? I can offer you the gift of time, the greatest and most precious gift of all. To a dying man every second counts. A child growing up wishes the days would go faster. A man working on a Friday evening wishes that time moved faster but the dying man wishes for SECONDS. And I try my best to give them that.

And remember. You are all dying. Some faster than the others. Think of medicine as the gift of time to use as you see fit. Which is why we measure life expectancy. And that is real hope.

For hope to have any meaning at all it must be anchored in something. For the Christian, hope is rooted in a God who loves fallen mankind and offers eternal redemption. The visible manifestation of this hope is found in Jesus’ righteous life, sacrificial death and subsequent resurrection.

Hope is anchored in the achievements of humanity and what we as people can do to make life better for all who live around us.

Really? And how does all that create hope? When your pet dog dies it is dead. You know it is dead. It isn’t living on a farm with a magical farmer.

Hope is anchored in the people around you who do small and large things to make the world a better place. You don’t need to sacrifice the King of Jews in order to be hopeful about stuff.

A creature shaped by chance really has no hope or meaning, other than to live life the way he or she sees fit.

The meaning of life is to survive. It’s just that we are so good at surviving we require “more” meanings. So the meaning of life is to experience and to enjoy and to make sure others can too. If you think the meaning of life is to get to heaven or fellate the ego of a mythical entity then be my guest. Nothing I say or do will get you to realise how much you are missing.

The point of life is to LIVE, not to die.

This is not to say there are not good and moral atheists by a society’s standard. There are. This also is not to say there are those who claim belief in God and who do not follow the virtues articulated in the Bible. However, for the followers of Christ, there is a constant standard and accountably.

And often the constant standard of what Christians consider to be moral simply isn’t.

The ultimate “why” for the follower of Christ for seeking virtue lies in the fact that he or she has been redeemed. The sincere Christian understands that he or she has been transformed by God’s love. Gratitude for this transformation results in a desire to live out the divine virtues articulated in the Bible.

And also in some cases to stop women from being in control of their reproductive cycle and to harass homosexuals. The “divine” virtues of the Bible also include “Listening to a Genocidal, Rapist, Slaver God”. So no… It is not a role model… The very source is toxic and requires a very selective read to be moral. And if you cannot understand why an action is moral or not and blindly do things then you have no grasp of morality. You cannot claim to be moral if your argument is “Old Book Says So”.

In de Botton’s view, it seems we might well be devolving. By “inventing” God and the virtues so helpful to the individual and society, it would seem our more “primitive” ancestors had a greater insight into human psychology and sociology than do we in sophisticated modern society. Either that, or they knew God.

I don’t really know what Alain’s view is. Our ancestors knew less about the world than we do. Which is why some of them killed each other for various reasons. Because they thought that our crops grow better if someone died for them. I know it’s a simplification and we desperately wish to see our ancestors do amazing things (or the corollary? We cannot believe some cultures did amazing things so we explain their achievements away through “Aliens”) so we try and make them seem wise and enigmatic and in tune with our supernatural when in reality they probably believed in ghouls and goblins because they didn’t know what went bump in the dark.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fmvS4mzWUkQ

This was a sound that genuinely terrified people. They thought it to be the sound of spirits, the sound of monsters and the sound of the poltergeist.

People heard that knock in the forests and as they stayed up keeping vigil over the dead.

That noise is the noise of the Deathwatch Beetle tapping on wood. And that is how religion and superstition start. When you cannot explain something it doesn’t mean that there is no explanation, it means that there is no explanation that you have at the moment. To yearn for a world with no explanations is not the way forward.

3 comments

  1. 1
    smrnda

    I dislike people like de Bottom since he’s basically arguing that religious people are useful idiots – sheep who need to be fleeced in order to keep them behaving.

    The other thing I don’t get is the idea that religion is necessary to keep people in check and keep society functioning, since secular societies do this far better than religious ones. I think the reason is that as long as you think problems can be solved by magic, they won’t be solved.

  2. 2
    Francisco Bacopa

    A close friend of mine lost her son a few years ago after he lived 11 years with severe disabilities. All her religion did was give her something to say, a script to follow. It in no way addressed the real pain she was going through. No grief could be more deep and there was no relief. I bet if you asked her today who helped the most, she would say I did. “Atheism” (as if that’s a “belief system”) can’t help, but atheists can. You stop by and cook dinner, you take out the trash, wash the dishes that pile up on the counter. And you listen!

    So take that De Botton. Atheism can’t help, but atheists can. And how does religion help anyway? Seems like it just adds a crisis of faith on top of the normal crises we have to deal with. The religious suffer just as we do, possibly even more.

  3. 3
    Kimpatsu

    Strength, Love, Intelligence, Willpower, Speed and Humanity, Wonder
    These are the class powers in a new MMO.

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