The title of this new book provides further evidence, if one needed it, of the self-assurance that the atheist community now exhibits. We have come a long way from the days when atheists were unable to speak of their lack of faith due to feat of persecution. That state of affairs still exists in a few places, mainly in some Muslim-majority countries, but in the rest of the world nonbelievers have progressed steadily: from being in the closet, to coming out to publicly, to making the intellectual case for atheism, to taking more or less for granted that atheism is the better way of understanding the world. The final stage is looking at practical ways to help atheists deal with coming out, discussing morality and death and other important and existential questions from an atheist perspective, and taking the battle to religion with the confidence that they can defeat it.
Ryan Cragun’s new book How to Defeat Religion in 10 Easy Steps fits into that final stage, as can be seen from the subtitle A Toolkit for Secular Activists. He is an associate professor at the University of Tampa whose research interests lie in the sociology of religion and this slim book (145 pages plus 26 pages of notes) is a practical guide on how religion can be dethroned from its current dominant role in society.
While his avowed goal is eliminate religion altogether, he is clear from the beginning that his main target is fundamentalist religion of all stripes because of its particularly pernicious nature and that he can live with what he terms liberal religion.
I’m actually not opposed to liberal religion, which tends to be accepting of science and modern human values. If people still find value in believing in things that cannot be proven to be true but also cannot be proven to be false, that’s fine. Many people who try very hard to base their decisions on scientific findings, critical thinking, and logic still hold some beliefs that cannot be proven true or false (e.g., that someone loves them), and that will likely always be the case. But I am opposed to fundamentalist religion, religion that accepts scripture as literal, that rejects scientific findings that run counter to scripture, and that views the world as wholly black and white or good and evil. Fundamentalist religion is the type of religion I’d like to see defeated.
However, I also concluded that certain forms of religion-liberal, nonliteralistic, modern, and egalitarian versions of religion-are not particularly harmful to society and may, in some ways, be beneficial. If someone wants to be religious today, liberal religion is the least harmful way to be so. This suggests, then, that religion is not necessary and fundamentalist religion is definitely not desirable.
The book is divided into 10 chapters each one dealing with one of the main strategies that he recommends that nonbelieving activists can take.
- Promote and Defend Secular Education
- Empower Gender, Sexual, and Racial Minorities
- Provide “This Life” Security
- Encourage Sexual Liberation for Everyone
- Stop Subsidizing Religious and Regulate It
- Encourage Regulated Capitalism
- Support Education, Art, and Science
- Syncretize Holidays and Rituals
- Change Society to Value Critical Thinking and Scientific Inquiry
- Teach Humanist Ethics in School
The underlying thrust of the book is that religion, especially fundamentalist religion, is basically reactionary and backward looking and anti-intellectual and thus is undermined by modernity and progressive social and humanist values. Thus promoting all these positive elements, apart from being good things and worthwhile in their own right, will also result in undermining religion.
Each chapter discusses the reasons why that strategy has been recommended as a means of undermining religion and ends with three sections, each one providing concrete actions that can be taken by individual secular activists, by local secular activist groups, and by national secular activist organizations.
Most of the chapter headings suggest things that are obviously reasonable to do but some such as #6 are quite novel. That section says that the reason that some people still go to church on Sundays is due to the fact that due to historical reasons that gave priority to religion, Sunday mornings are an entertainment wasteland with few shops open, no football games on TV, and none of the vast array of other options that people have to spend their time at other times. He thinks that people would seize the opportunity to do things other than go to church if good options existed and he recommends that we work to provide those options.
Chapter #8 says that rituals and celebrations are important in life and religions have done a good job of exploiting people’s desire for them. He says that boycotting religious holidays will not be effective. He recommends that rather than try and create new secular holidays and rituals out of whole cloth, we instead dive into religious holidays and secularize them, somewhat like the way Christmas and Halloween have become pretty much secular holidays. He points out that the major religions did something similar in the past, they took existing holidays and rituals and coopted them and secularists should copy that strategy.
The book is written in a breezy casual style that is easy to read. But sometimes the tone is so facetious, that one wonders whether he is being serious or has his tongue firmly placed in his cheek.
I would strongly recommend that you read the notes section at the end where he adopts a more serious and scholarly tone and provides data and citations to back up his assertions in the main text. It is written like an annotated bibliography and is interesting and useful.
All I all, I can recommend this book as a guide to activists who want to do something practical and want to go beyond intellectual arguments against religion, because that battle has been pretty much won.
It seems to me that this book may do more harm than good. The religious/political right is still very strong in this country, and they will be happy to seize a book like this to further their agenda. Now, instead of arguing against humanist education or teaching art on its merits, they can just hold up the book and say “look! It’s all part of the atheist plot to defeat religion!”
Marcus Ranum says
Brucegee -- they’re going to say that anyway.
Or have you been sleeping under a rock buried in the bottom of a cave somewhere?
Sounds like a very useful resource to have. I think the author is likely correct that we need to change some of our tactics.
I do have one criticism. In the portion of the book you excerpted here the author wrote “…“still hold some beliefs that cannot be proven true or false (e.g., that someone loves them), and that will likely always be the case.” I do wish people would stop framing these issues in terms of proving or disproving claims.
It is not about proving a claim false or true. Sure, I can’t prove that my spouse loves me. But then this is not the necessary standard. I can demonstrate quite convincingly and with compelling evidence that there is a very high probability that she loves me, provided we first agree upon a definition of love. It is not, and should not be, necessary to prove a claim true. Is it not sufficient to demonstrate with a compelling body of evidence that the claim is highly likely to be true or accurate, and/or that it is more likely to be true than it is to be false? Once done, while I have not proven the claim that my spouse loves me, would I not have provided a basis for accepting the claim that my spouse loves me and rejecting its opposite claim that my spouse does not love me?
“in the rest of the world nonbelievers have progressed steadily: from being in the closet, to coming out to publicly, to making the intellectual case for atheism, to taking more or less for granted that atheism is the better way of understanding the world. ”
I don’t recognize this scheme at all for one tiny part of the world: The Netherlands.
Ferdinand Domela Nieuwenhuis in 1879. One excellent quote: “To derive a divine world from our concrete world requires a salto mortale.”
Anton Constandse wrote in 1923 a booklet called “The Misery of Religion.” It’s online.
They were never persecuted for their atheism; FDN for lese-majeste. When FDN was chosen in Dutch parliament in 1888 (and also in his later life) he advocated most of those 10 points. They were generally taken over by Dutch socialist parties.
It seems that the Dutch skipped a few stages. So I dare to say the book is a bit of an anachronism to me ….
Btw I share the criticism of @3.
sigurd jorsalfar says
Anything but going to church has always been a good enough option for me.
File Thirteen says
In our house we reserve Sunday morning for taking our dog to the dog park. She loves it.
hoary puccoon says
Sunday morning is for brunch, with ham and bacon, pancakes or crepes. And mimosas! Also, classical music in the background to set the mood. Mmm….
We eat sensible breakfasts the other six days of the week.