What atheists want

There can be, of course, no single agreed-upon answer to this question but it makes for a lot better title than the real point of this post, which is what do I, as an atheist, want.

What I want is what I imagine most people want, a world in which there is peace and justice and freedom from hunger. So what has atheism got to do with those goals that have no connection with religion per se? It is that I see religion as breeding sectarianism and tribalism and conflict, all major obstacles to achieving them. So getting rid of religion would be a major step forward.

Religious people sometimes make the erroneous and distracting assertion that atheists think that religion is the only source of evil and point out that there are many sources of conflict and that we would still have them even if religion were to disappear. But while that is true, this does not mean that getting rid of religion is not worthwhile since eliminating any source of conflict, especially a major one like religion, has to be a good thing since it improves the quality of life for people in general. To argue otherwise would be like saying that since we are all going to die anyway, we should not bother finding cures for diseases.

I am not of course optimistic that all religious beliefs (especially faith in the existence of some kind of supernatural agency) will disappear any time soon. Such beliefs are harmful in that they signify that one is open to irrationality and evidence-free beliefs, but by themselves are not that damaging to society. Belief in a vague supernatural entity is not much worse than a lot of irrational beliefs such as astrology or fairies or homeopathy. They may lead individuals to make bad decisions that adversely affect them but they do not serve as the focus for organized collective evil. Even political leaders who believe in astrology (and my country of origin Sri Lanka is infested with leaders of this kind) are limited in the amount of damage that they can do since astrological charts tend to be so vague that politicians usually end up doing what they wanted to do anyway. I have never seen even the most fervent believer in astrology do anything that seems to go counter to any basic beliefs that they held.

My main goal is to see the elimination of institutionalized religion and especially those religions that are based on some supposedly holy text or whose members follow leaders who claim special knowledge of divine intentions. This means pretty much major religions such as Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, and cults. It is these that are the major sources of harm because they enable two things: (a) evidence-free and dogmatically held beliefs that are often ghastly but thought to be good because they are in their texts; and (b) provide a means of organizing collective action by a large number of people based on those common harmful beliefs.

People who view themselves as merely religious or spiritual but do not belong to a text-based or leader-dominated group are not as harmful because they are not in a position to assert an external authority for their views or to harness large numbers in support of them. They cannot insert a conversation stopper into discussions of public policy by asserting that their view is immune from refutation because it is from their holy book or because their leader said it was a divine revelation. They have to arrive at their convictions on their own and argue matters of public policy using evidence and secular arguments, just like the rest of us.

Those who claim to have personally received a divine command in support of some position will be treated like the delusional people they are, unlike the leaders of religious institutions who are taken seriously when they make the preposterous claim that they are the mouthpiece of a divine agency or the authorized interpreters of the meaning of words written down by someone else thousands of years ago.

So what I as an atheist want is to separate people from their religious institutions and their religious leaders, not necessarily to make them atheists. The latter result would be a good thing no doubt but is more difficult to attain and is not, in my opinion, the most pressing need. Hence I have no real quarrel with those sophisticated modernist religionists whose view of god is so fuzzy and vague that one hardly knows what they believe, or with accommodationists who seek to find compatibility between science and religion. While I find the positions of both those groups to be incoherent and worth arguing against for that reason alone, they are not by themselves particularly harmful to society.

My main beef with modernist religionists and accommodationists is with those who, while they may not themselves take the words of the religious holy books literally or as prescriptions for social policy or follow religious leaders blindly, yet seem to have as their goal finding ways to support the continued existence of these harmful religious institutions, or to give credibility to their texts and thus enable people to continue to belong to them. In other words, to give cover for the continuance of institutions that are positively harmful to the public good.

That will not do and is what must be vigorously fought.


  1. jamessweet says

    So what I as an atheist want is to separate people from their religious institutions and their religious leaders, not necessarily to make them atheists. The latter result would be a good thing no doubt but is more difficult to attain and is not, in my opinion, the most pressing need.

    I even am inclined to be cautious about the “good thing no doubt” part of the quoted passage — my gut inclination is that a world with no religion is even better than a world with only warm fuzzy UU-like religion, but I don’t feel a though there is strong evidence of this either way. (Conversely, I feel that those who assert that while all religion is obviously false, some people need their warm fuzzy UU-like religion, that is an elitist attitude unless backed up by some pretty strong evidence. You can’t be like, “I can handle the truth, but the unwashed masses can’t,” at least not without extremely solid evidence to support that assertion.)

    There are three separate questions that always get conflated:

    1) Is any given religion true? Well, obviously the question depends on the “religion” in question, but pretty much anything that can be honestly called a “religion”, the answer is a resounding NO.

    2) Is religion, at its best, a net positive or a net negative? I remain agnostic (har har) on this question, awaiting more data. Perhaps there is some percentage of the population who is happier with a vague spirituality and a limited dogma that encourages them to do good. I am disinclined to believe this, but many have argued it is true and I don’t feel there is solid evidence either way.

    3) Is religion, as practiced now, a net positive or a net negative? Once again, now, I feel the answer is obvious. And as long as I feel that way, I feel justified in advocating against religion in all its forms, even if it may turn out some day that some limited amount of religion (i.e. comforting lies) is a net positive.

    So I’m inclined to answer: Atheists, first and foremost, want a whole lot less religion. We’ve got a loooooooong way to go before the nuances of that come into play.

  2. TNT says

    I, as a third generation atheist, want a world with much much less people, less industry, more wild spaces, where I can walk naked along the river and drink from it when I am thirsty, instead of finding it polluted. I want a world where people die of natural death at the end of our evolutionary lifespan, not some artificial sustained death occurring 30 years beyond, in the solitary confinement of age, after all my peers and family are long dead. The greatest harm that religion has ever brought upon this planet is making humans think we are superior to all other life forms on the planet. This remains atheists’s greatest challenge, to disrupt human dominion over the world, a religious legacy which most atheists still proudly carry.

  3. Sunny says

    The greatest harm that religion has ever brought upon this planet is making humans think we are superior to all other life forms on the planet.

    Exactly. I think religion is the highest expression of vanity. To think that you are so special that someone up there is pressing a button with your name on it is nothing but vanity.

  4. mnb0 says

    As research shows that believers make the same ethical decisions as atheists I don’t think the world becomes a better place without institutionalized religion. These institutions will just be replaced by non-religious institutions that will be equally harmful.
    I have given up such optimism on a grand scale; I prefer optimism on my own small individual scale.

  5. thewhollynone says

    “believers make the same ethical decisions as atheists”??

    Not in Mississippi they don’t, but maybe nobody has done any research in such a polarized culture. And maybe no research has presented the kinds of ethical decisions that divide more rational thinkers from authoritarian believers, decisions like whether or not a 48-year-old mother of six should risk her life to carry a Trisomy 18 pregnancy to term because the pope says so. Just what ethical decisions have researchers considered besides some fictitious people on railroad tracks?

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