There was a thoughtful essay over at Cosmic Variance concerning the Church’s loss of moral authority being a factor in the decline of influence of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland. The argument was made that as priests demonstrated themselves to not be exemplars of moral conduct, society tended to become more secular. In the discussion Sean Carroll notes,
For most believers, their belief is not a logical conclusion, it’s a mode of living. And the erosion of that belief will typically not, for better or for worse, be accomplished by the presentation and examination of evidence; it will be through telling a better story than the one told by religion. One that helps make sense of the world, provides a template for a fulfilling life, explains the difference between right and wrong, and brings meaning to people’s experiences.
That is quite insightful. Religion for many people does have a compelling story. What can we atheists offer? What is the story of Christianity? Many of us, myself included, often point to the Old Testament, rich in examples of brutality, genocide, and atrocities condoned and sanctioned by God. We observe these stories and rightly opine that this condemns God as evil and unjust if any of it were true. From the Christian perspective, the Israeli conquest of the holy land was necessary to create the conditions for the birth of Jesus so all humanity could be saved. Many of us observe that the plan for salvation itself is far too convoluted and resulting in far too much misery and suffering to have been realized by an all-wise, powerful and compassionate being. Especially considering that the whole thing could have avoided in the first place with better planning. But this is not the lens through which many Christians view their beliefs.
In spite of all the examples to the contrary, they see a God of love. One who loves us so much that he gave himself to us for our redemption. The misery and suffering that path took is glossed over as something perhaps necessary but beyond our ability to comprehend since we’re not God. For the sake of this discussion, I’m also glossing over the many examples Christianity has to offer of those who seem to revel in the suffering of the unbelievers (Phelps comes to mind, but it has a long historical tradition.). Christianity is seen as a rich family and cultural tradition that helps to bind society and social groups together and has the added effect of providing a kind of absolutist safety net in dealing with moral issues. It provides meaning for life’s experiences and also the hope of seeing loved ones again who have passed on. It is a mode of living. Who are we, as uppity atheists, to upset this comfortable apple cart? What better story can we offer?
This is not an easy question. In and of itself, atheism is simply a lack of belief in any deity and by itself, this does not provide any comfort or comfortable traditions. But atheism coupled with secular humanism may help us. The very human depth of compassion, wish for others happiness, and ensuring a societal framework that fosters this forms a basis for morality. Not a morality based on fiat through ancient scripture, but one subject to rational analysis to ensure that we are proceeding along an optimum path for all. Cathedrals, some church music (Bach, Handel, etc.) inspire awe and sense of spirituality for many. Of course, these works of art were designed to do just that, while trying to point the direction to an “awesome God”. But the knowledge we have so far gained through application of the scientific method has revealed a cosmos vast, inspiring, full of wonders, and has no need of a God to explain any of it. A cosmos so awesome, in the truest sense of the word, that ancient scriptures, supposedly inspired by the creator of it, gives no hint of the real grandeur. Of course, what we’re continuing to learn can inspire art as well. Not to mention that nature often creates here own music.
What about finding meaning in one’s life? For an atheist, it is up to each of us to find our own personal meanings. Perhaps this is harder work. But since there is likely no afterlife, we have to make the most of what we have in the short time during which we are on this planet. We have one shot to imbue our life with meaning and the experiences life has to offer. It is up to us. Without a belief in a God, this is what is left. Personal responsibility. Taking matters in our own hands. Creating our own heaven.
Jesus supposedly said in Matthew 7:13-14 (King James Version),
Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.
At least here in the States (and many fundamentalist Islamic regimes), religion is the broad way and wide gate that leads to destruction by basing attitudes and behaviors beyond rational discussion. It fosters a divisive and easy tribalism no longer useful. Atheism is the narrower and harder path. Because of the things we can achieve, not by religious indoctrination, and wishful thinking, but basing our lives and progress on evidence, on what works, this is the more rewarding path.
Now, there is this sense of community that religious organizations do provide. We atheists are kind of notorious for not having something of that scale. There are various atheist meet up groups and organizations of course, and I would urge anyone to join one or contribute. But the negation of a belief is not really a natural rallying point around which to build an organization. We don’t create “No Russell’s Teapot” societies, or “We don’t believe in the invisible green gremlin” groups. If there were no religious organizations which routinely encouraged atheist discrimination, in fact, no religions at all, would there be any need for atheist groups? In fact, every group would be a defacto atheist group without ever talking about it. But would sort of organization, if any, could provide the sense of community, belonging, and tradition that churches now provide? We may have a hint of that sort of future in the Unitarian Universalism type of church. I know a few people, even some fellow atheists, who occasionally go to this type of church, mainly for the sense of community. They’ve had atheist speakers, the members seem not to subscribe to any dogma, and generally seem tolerant. Are they simply ahead of their time? Over the next several hundred years, will churches simply abandon the religious scaffolding upon which the organizations were built to become secular? Or will people simply belong to perhaps several special interest groups (such as astronomy beer tasting, etc.) or general purpose community organizations that will more or less serve the same purpose? Of course, in the meantime, one could always win souls for Darwin in the Church of Reality.
As a last thought for this post, another part of the atheists’ story is that we get to sleep in on Sundays.