Wednesday, 6 March 2013

An atheist's quest to outsource religion

Consider this blog entry to be sort of a rough draft for a paper I want to write for my religious studies class about Atheism. This is an idea I have been kicking around my head for a while so it may help me form my ideas better to get it down on paper like this.  I encourage everyone who reads this to give me feedback on what you thought.  The more critical and harsh the better.

One of the things I sometimes disagree with the so called “new atheists” about is the role that religion plays in people’s lives.  I get the feeling from them that they think that religion has no useful purpose and should be cut out of people’s lives completely.  Because the word “religion” itself is notoriously mottled and represents such a wide swath of worldwide human society, I will have to set out beforehand what I will call religion.  In the instance of this blog, religion will mean the distinct section of western society that deals specifically with notions of God and supernatural claims.  Specifically the big three Abrahamic religions(Christianity, Islam and Judaism) that are the most present in my culture.  I will try to avoid talking about the eastern religions like Buddhism and Hinduism because the areas of society that they encompass are much different than we are familiar in the west.  For example, many scholars would struggle calling “hinduism” a religion in the same we call Christianity a religion.  

   I have no doubt in my godless mind that the appearance of religion is not an accident or an error in the formation of society.  Religion clearly exists to serve many purposes in the lives of believers everywhere and human society in general.  Some cultures use it to serve more purposes than others.  In the west, it has be relegated to a section of society that is smaller than it probably has ever been.  And I think that is why there is such vocal resistance from these religions.  Secular schools of thought are encroaching onto things that were once thought to be exclusive to religion.  Marriage and sexual morality were dealings that were just recently the exclusive property of the church but more and more they are being dealt with in totally secular environment.  Which is probably why abortion and gay marriage are the hot topics of the religious world today.

I chose to use the word outsource in the title on purpose to be analogous to economic terms.  Industries outsource in order to create products in a much more efficient way.  Its more efficient for a business to send jobs from Canada to countries where people will work for less money. In my personal life, I have outsourced the jobs of my cameras, alarm clock, laptop, mp3 player paper maps, television, radio and calendar to my smartphone.  Because it serves all of the jobs of all of those things much better and efficiently.  I think religion serves a purpose the same way an alarm clock serves a purpose. Although religion it does it inefficiently and sometimes just does it plain wrong.  I think I can outsource all the purposes religion in the same way, because it has already been happening.

If you look at the history of Christianity, the church used to be the place where people would inquire about truth about the natural world.  It served the purpose to feed human beings’ insatiable hunger for the knowledge of the truth.  But society has gradually relegated that job to the world of science to the point where the majority believers no longer refer to their holy book to determine the current understanding of the natural world.  (I don’t recall if the Pope had anything to say about the recent discovery of the Higgs Boson).  Science was determined to be a more efficient and better way to determine the truth about the universe than religion, so we outsourced it.  I will try to give some examples of how i think the purposes of religion can be outsourced.

Religion provides a sense of community with people with similar values.
Its very true that we feel more fulfilled as a human when we feel accepted in a community of people who think similarily.  We are tribal creatures, and a community of people who love each other are essential to our well being.  We would be more inclined to feel closer to each other if we shared similar beliefs. Or perhaps vice versa is also true.  We would be more inclined to believe something if we are feeling closer to people.  I don’t see how this need for community can’t be fulfilled in a secular environment.  With the expansion of the internet, it’s becoming more easy to find like-minded people.  Although the physical connection with people is lost online, you no longer have to feel alone in whatever you believe.  In the days before our global connectivity, people felt more inclined to fit in with their immediate community by following the beliefs of the people around them.  Not to mention the lack of access to information to cross-reference those beliefs.  I also think that there are countless other secular ways that we already form communitues through shared attributes.(race, nationality, local sports teams .ect)  Many of these social institutions provide a secular means for ritual and ceremony that religion provides.      

Religions provide myths that create a shared history and provides a source of fascination for stories of the past.
Secular myths already exist in the world.  One easy example is American thanksgiving which is a story of an early time in America’s history.  Whether the story true or not is irrelevant to the secular holiday of Thanksgiving, which is essential to American culture.  Christmas has already become mostly secularized into a money spending holiday, while the Christian meaning of it is mainly ignored by our culture.  

I am obsessed with many stories of science fiction and fantasy.  I get great joy out of reading about and watching the stories of Star Wars and Lord of the Rings.  These stories or myths are not true but that doesn’t mean I appreciate them any less.  This may be similar to people’s reverence and fascination of fantastic stories of their religion.  Whether or not the events in the Old Testament actually occurred may not matter that much to believers.  What matters to them is the mythology and meaning those stories give them.

Religions provide life changing mystical experiences that give a new respect and a sense of wonder to life.  
I don’t think that what is described as the “religious experience” is an experience that is exclusive to those who are pious.  I think that atheists such as myself have the ability to have incredible and life changing mystical experiences without any supernatural intervention.  Practices of meditation as well as substances such as LSD or psilocybin have the ability to take human consciousness to incredible places where people find a new appreciation and view on life.  I have been looking into studies that show that the religious experiences of christian priests and mystics are comparable to the experience of the psychedelic drug LSD.

“Religion provides a sense of great comfort knowing that there is a higher power looking after your life and knowing that there is a better life after you die.  Knowing that Everything will will turn out for the best”  
This is one argument for religion that I personally cannot accept.  I could not take any comfort in the fact that I am only a child being babysat by an all powerful cosmic parent.  I get excited believing that the only person responsible for my own life is myself.  I am inspired to make the most of my life believing in the fact that I only have one life to live.  It would be depressing to think that life on earth is only a doormat to wipe your feet on for a few decades before you live forever in a much better place called heaven.  It would also be very discomforting to belief that this all-loving deity would be responsible for the horrible things in the world.  I get great comfort in knowing that all human beings are in this crazy experience together as a species.  No one has all the answers to the universe and how to live a good life.  All that we can do is love each other and make the most of the very short time we get to spend together.  


  1. Hi Scott
    Great article! I agree with much of what you say, but as you know, I would disagree with the underlying premise. I believe that religion is based on more than the need for a psychological placebo.
    You say: "Science was determined to be a more efficient and better way to determine the truth about the universe than religion, so we outsourced it".
    True when it comes to the details. But Science is completely silent when it comes to WHY?
    The Bible says that in the beginning, God created the heavens, and the earth.
    Science fills in the details. It determines that the beginning of our cosmos was 13.7 billion years ago when every material “thing” that exists was contained in a sub-microscopic dot called the Singularity.
    The Singularity, which can't be scientifically described because physics breaks down at that point, suddenly expands in an incomprehensible burst of energy and information.
    It then evolves into gasses which coalesce into stars which produce elements which coalesce into planets which bring forth life. And here we are!
    Why? What, or Who, caused it? Science hasn’t put forward one credible theory on the subject for the obvious reason that time and space, and anything else that can be studied by science, began with the Big Bang. Anything that might have happened or existed before that time is beyond its purview.
    Yet surely, unless you can believe in something out of nothing, which I certainly can’t, Why?, and Who?, are the really big questions. (By nothing, I mean: no matter, no energy, no laws of physics or quantum physics, and above all, no information.)
    And it is information runs our cosmos. Some physicists are now looking at the possibility that space itself might be made up of quantum bits that correspond to the 1s and 0s used in computer programming.
    Everywhere I turn in the natural world, and particularly in new scientific findings, I see God waving his arms and shouting: Here I am! Of course, it is a long way from accepting the evidence for a transcendent Creator, to believing in a Christian God that says: “I love you.”
    Yet, I think the evidence for that is equally strong.

  2. Thanks for replying Dave. The purpose of my paper isn't to address the various arguments for the existence of God specifically. Because that can be a different paper all to itself. The point of my essay is starting off with the assumption that there isn't a God. If there isn't a God, what purpose does religion fulfill in society. Because religion is clearly doing something.

    You seem to be appealing to a God of the gaps. Since physics doesn't currently explain something, it must have been God. Who says we won't discover an answer to your problem in the future?

    A great book about science of the Big Bang is called "A Universe from nothing" by Lawrence Krauss. He explains how the big bang could have come about without appealing to a sentient creator.

    It's impossible to speak of what happened "before" the Big Bang because as we know, there was no time prior to time's emergence. The laws of cause and effect need the concept of time to make sense. So if there is no time then the laws of cause and effect no longer apply and the universe no longer requires an answer to its cause. Plus you say that you cannot accept something from nothing, but yet surely your God is a "something" and didn't God need to come from something? And what created your God's creator? This, you see is an infinite regress.

    I don't see why the discovery of computer programming in quantum physics would imply a creator either. The science behind it is still in its infancy. It might mean that we are living in a computer simulator which is in another world. But it would also be an infinite regress of computer worlds. Because if this world is fake, is the world in which the computer exists also a simulation?