This piece was originally published in Free Inquiry.
What does religion provide?
This is something a lot of atheists and humanists have been asking ourselves: What does religion provide for people? What do people get out of it? Why do they like it? Why do they stay with it, even if they don’t like it? And how can atheists and humanists provide some or all of what religion provides… so that people who are questioning their faith will know that atheism is a viable option, and so people who do leave religion will have a safe place to land?
I think this is a hugely important question, and I’m delighted that our community is working so hard to respond to it. But recently, I’ve started thinking that, as vital as this question is, perhaps we should be reframing it. I think the question, “What does religion provide?” may not be all that useful. I think that instead, maybe we should be asking ourselves, “What do people need?”
I’d like to reframe it this way for a couple of reasons. For one thing, I don’t want to give religion any credit that it doesn’t deserve. I don’t think religion actually provides all that much that people can’t get in other ways. In fact, I would argue that there’s exactly one thing, and only one thing, that religion uniquely provides: a belief in the supernatural. Religion gives people a belief in a supernatural creator or creators, and/or a belief in a supernatural caretaker or caretakers, and/or a belief in a supernatural afterlife. Period. Everything else that religion happens to provide — social support, rituals and rites of passage, a sense of tradition, a sense of purpose and meaning, safety nets, day care, counseling, networking, activities for families, avenues for charitable and social justice work, events that are inspiring and fun, ongoing companionship and continuity — none of that is particular to religion. All of it can be gotten elsewhere.
I do think it’s interesting to ask why these human needs have traditionally been met by religion. Is it a historical accident? Is it because religion has been so relentlessly dominating and controlling? Is there something about belief in the supernatural that makes it easier for people to organize around it? But when we look at more secular societies and the ways that they’re flourishing, it becomes clear that, whatever the reasons are that these human needs have traditionally been met by religion, they certainly don’t have to be. And when we ask ourselves, “What does religion provide?”, I think we’re buying into the idea that religion does something special. I’d rather see us ask, “What do people need that religion currently provides?”
But mostly, I’d like to reframe this question because I think it will help us be better organizers. I think it will help us be more nimble, and more flexible. What people need varies tremendously: depending on their region, their culture, their subculture, their upbringing, their economic status, just on the individual person. And what people need from atheist communities varies tremendously, depending on all those things… and also depending on how dominating a force religion is in their area, and what religions are or are not currently doing for them.
In San Francisco where I live, there’s lots and lots and lots of stuff available for people who aren’t religious. There’s tons of secular social events, political organizing, charitable work, social justice work, activities and entertainment… having nothing whatsoever to do with religion. So if people aren’t religious, they don’t have as much of a need to turn to the atheist community for these needs. And if people aren’t religious here, they won’t be treated as pariahs. There’s sometimes conflict between atheists and believers… but coming out as an atheist here isn’t a social death knell.
But in the Bible Belt, that’s a lot less true. In the Bible Belt, a huge amount of socializing, charity work, social support, safety nets, economic and political networking, family activities, etc. are done through the churches. You can’t turn around without someone asking you, “What church do you go to?” Religion there is a hugely dominant force in people’s everyday lives. And coming out as an atheist can mean becoming a pariah. It can mean losing jobs, homes, custody of kids, as well as the love and support of family and friends.
So atheists in San Francisco are, on the whole, going to need something very different from their atheist communities than atheists in the Bible Belt.
When we started organizing the Godless Perverts Story Hour in San Francisco, these questions were very much on our minds. The genesis of the Godless Perverts Story Hour: David Fitzgerald and I were traveling to the same conference, happened to be on the same flight, and started talking in the airport about atheist organizing in San Francisco and what we could do to bring more people into the mix. We were thinking out loud, “What will get San Franciscans to come to an event? What do San Franciscans like?” And the answer popped into both of our heads at once: “San Franciscans like sex.” (Obviously people outside San Francisco like sex, too: but in San Francisco, people are generally more willing to be public about it.) So we thought: What if we organized an event where atheist writers do readings about our godless views of sex? We touched base with Chris Hall, who’d already launched the Godless Perverts thing with a well-attended and well-received panel discussion… and the three of us put together the Godless Perverts Story Hour, an evening of depictions, explorations, and celebrations of godless sexualities, along with critical, mocking, and blasphemous views of sex and religion. And it brought in a nearly sold-out crowd. We’re turning it into a regular event.
Now, if we’d been thinking, “What does religion provide?”, we would have never come up with this. We would have come up with picnics, coming-of-age ceremonies, something like that. There are lots of things that religion traditionally provides, but “explicit sexual entertainment” is not generally among them. But because we were thinking, “What do people need and want?” — and because we were specifically thinking, “What do people in the San Francisco Bay Area need and want?” — we were able to think outside the box, and to come up with an idea that Bay Area atheists responded to.
What people need from an atheist community in San Francisco is different from what they’ll need in Tulsa. It’ll be different in Austin and Manhattan, Minneapolis and Dallas, Montreal and Tokyo, Saskatoon and Seattle and Sydney and South Africa. If we keep asking ourselves, “What does religion provide?”, I think we may focus too much on what religion already provides, and overlook creative ideas that religion is generally missing out on. If instead we ask ourselves, “What do people need?”, I think we’ll be better able to, well, to meet people’s needs — the ones religion is currently filling, as well as the ones religion doesn’t have a clue about. And we won’t be giving religion credit that it hasn’t earned.