I feel like I take my life into my hands when I post something on the topic of religion, but is it really so terrible a thing to try and provoke discussion in this area? We all want freedom of thought, I hope, so let us have the courage to carry through that conviction! This post is for all the atheists who have stuck with me even when I behaved somewhat crassly in respect of your beliefs. I totally support your freedom of belief and of thought - please reciprocate by supporting mine! My thanks to you all for your patience!
Previously, I advanced a position that everyone should try to identify a religion for themselves. Now, I don’t know exactly how I worded this view before, but since then my position has been clarified by exploration and discussion, and I hope it is now clear that my argument is actually as follows:
Everyone should endeavour to understand their own metaphysics, and to develop from this a system of ethics. This process may be harder to achieve without the supporting framework of religions (or perhaps nonreligions) – although it is certainly not impossible.
This position can apply to atheists, theists and agnostics – and does not necessarily imply the need to adopt a religion (personally, I don’t think we can have too many agnostics). However, I feel that if one’s metaphysics or ethics transpire to correspond with a particular religious position it is helpful to identify oneself with that religion.
Now it is important to remember that when I say ‘atheist’ I
mean solely ‘the rejection of theism’ (i.e. gods). I recognise that some
atheists use atheist to mean ‘the rejection of religions’, but I don’t personally use
this word in this way. Since this additional definition has yet to make its way
into any dictionary I know of, it gives me some hope that this linguistic battleground is still
open to debate. (Dictionaries tend to run at least ten years behind the use of
language, so when a certain meaning is absent it usually means the case for the
new meaning has not yet been convincingly delivered to lexicographers). I am certainly not saying you can't use 'atheist' in this additional sense, though - we can each make language our own tool, after all.
I am certainly not saying you can't use 'atheist' in this additional sense, though - we can each make language our own tool, after all.
Choosing to reject gods is but a small part of metaphysics. Ironically, for a theist their metaphysics will likely be heavily influenced by their belief in God or gods, but for an atheist knowing that they reject gods actually tells us very little about their metaphysics. It is slightly akin to someone responding to the question “what is your nationality?” by saying “I am not an Atlantean”. It is often unhelpful to define oneself by what one is not.
Since you are an open minded, intelligent human being, I
trust you will at the very least listen to my case patiently, and endeavour to
understand the idea I am trying to express.
Leo Tolstoy wrote, in 1879:
The essence of any religion lies solely in the answer to the question: why do I exist, and what is my relationship to the infinite universe that surrounds me? It is impossible for there to be a person with no religion (i.e. without any kind of relationship to the world) as it is for there to be a person without a heart. He may not know that he has a religion, just as a person may not know that he has a heart, but it is no more possible for a person to exist without a religion than without a heart.
I agree with Tolstoy in the sense that no-one escapes having a system of metaphysics (which implies a religious position), but since I am heavily in support of agnosticism I am less willing to go so far as to say that no-one can exist without a religion.
However, I believe that one of the oft overlooked problems
of the twentieth century was that a great many intelligent individuals turned
their back on religion and sat in the ill-defined metaphysical and ethical position
of atheism, or were inadvertently sucked into a fundamentalist nonreligion. This
‘brain drain’ has hurt the development of religions, and made the situation
worse than it might have been otherwise. One does not transform religion by
opposing it – opposition to religion tends to further entrench those with
Religion can be transformed by those people who practice it. In this sense, all religions are bottom-up organisations to some degree. Therefore, I hope to encourage people who practice a religion to continue to do so – and to transform the practice of their religion for the better. I also hope to encourage any atheist unable or unwilling to practice a religion to at least take a neutral, agnostic stance on other people’s practice of religion, and not to fight for the abolition of religion – a metaphysical “salvation” as absurdly unlikely to occur as the kookiest religious eschaton.
We are now as ready as we will ever be to look at some of the atheist religions in the world.
Once upon a time it looked like the atheist community was co-operating to build themselves a religion. This was a positive step in my eyes! The essence of Humanism was a simple system of metaphysics placing living beings in higher import than gods (which are expressly rejected), and a focus on rationalism as the foundation for ethics. This leads to ethical systems which assert the dignity and worth of all human beings, and in some cases of all life.
Unfortunately, at some point this endeavour seems to have run into a problem, with many people who would otherwise identify their religion as "Humanist" being unwilling to do so because of their entrenched position in opposition of religion. As a result, Humanism seems gradually to have distanced itself from being considered a religion, with the expression ‘life stance’ being coined instead. Examining the Wikipedia entry on this term suggests to me that this is a synonym for religion which allows those with anti-religious views to practice a religion while simultaneously escaping the admission of this state of affairs.
Humanism is a great choice of religion for atheists! I call
upon practicing Humanists not to support the use of the divisive term ‘life
stance’ and to answer the question: “what is your religion?” with the logical
response “I am a Humanist,” rather than responding “I don’t practice a
religion, however my life stance is Humanist.” Otherwise it is only a matter of
time before we hear some Christians (Hindus, etc.) responding “I don’t practice
a religion, however my life stance is Christian”, instead of “Christianity
isn’t a religion, it’s a way of life.”
Pantheism holds that the universe and God are equivalent
terms, and is a feature of certain theistic religions (including Hinduism) as
well as certain atheistic religions. Naturalistic pantheism is an atheistic
form of pantheism that holds that the universe is unconscious and non-sentient,
but can still be a meaningful focus for mystical fulfilment. Naturalistic
pantheists believe that the universe is divine and that the Earth is sacred.
This metaphysical position allows practitioners of this religion to derive a
system of ethics.
Descending from Spinoza’s writings and containing significant influence from Taoism, the religion is represented today by two key organisations – the Universal Pantheist Society (the other UPS) and the World Pantheist Movement (WPM).
Einstein is generally considered to have been an adherent of
In certain countries, such as the
Many Christians view Christian Atheists as an "enemy", which is unfortunate since it has ethical goals in common with theistic Christianity. I suggest that Christians who desire to achieve the ethical goals put forward by Jesus should consider Christian Atheists as allies.
To an atheist currently not identifying a religion,
Christian Atheism (or indeed an atheist version of another theistic religion
e.g. Jewish Atheism) is probably not an appealing choice.
The oldest extant form of Buddhism, Theravada Buddhism promotes the idea of Vibhajjavada or Pali, meaning “teaching of analysis”. Worship does not form an element of this practice, and neither does any theistic notion of gods.
The central concept is that insight must come from the practitioners
own experience and critical investigation, and that blind faith is never
sufficient. Although some Theravada Buddhists include reincarnation as part of
their metaphysics, this is not essential.
I suspect that atheists will have a tough time accepting Theravada Buddhism, and would do better to consider Ch’an Buddhism (see below), but I mention it here as an option.
Ch’an Buddhism (Zen Buddhism)
Ch’an Buddhism is a
Ch’an goes beyond mere atheism, and seeks to abolish notions
of the self as well, and indeed, all conscious thought. In fact, the whole
teaching of Ch’an is concerned with destroying our assumptions and instead
perceiving reality in “whole mind”. The essence of its practice is that its
central message cannot be taught – it can be hinted at indirectly, but the
individual cannot learn it, they must apperceive it by abandoning
cognising as it is generally understood.
This is one of the five religions I currently identify as my
own, and I heartily recommend that atheists spend some time exploring it, even
if they do not wish to practice it. A good starting point may be the writings
of Wei Wu Wei, such as Posthumous Pieces, as he writes from a
comparatively modern position. However, atheists with a history of conflict
with religion might do better to start with Discordianism (see below).
Traditional Chinese Religion (Taoism and Confucianism)
This is a vague descriptive term used to group together the
metaphysical and ethical beliefs of many Chinese people, which otherwise would
be hard to categorise in a census. It includes both theistic and atheistic
variations, although in modern
I do not suggest that non-Chinese people will get much from
examining the Confucianism element of traditional Chinese practices, but Taoism can be much more intriguing. In fact, Taoism is also an important influence in all
schools of Buddhism, and well worth examining for this reason alone. However,
it may be easier to examine this from the position of Ch’an Buddhism.
One particular benefit of Taoist practices which may
interest some atheists is ejaculatory control – a method which allows men to
experience multiple orgasms, or to extend the arousal period thus experiencing
longer and more intense orgasms. Similar to Tantric practices, Tantra is
practiced by couples while Taoist techniques can be used to enhance masturbation.
Now this practice isn’t religion, per se, but it is still worth noting.
This atheist religion stresses spiritual independence and
the equality of all life with an emphasis on non-violence and self-control.
Because of its spiritual bias, many atheists will struggle to connect with this
religion, although it is strictly atheist in that it does not contain gods. I
mention it solely in passing.
Although still in its infancy, some people are attempting to fashion a religion from the notion of a Jedi. George Lucas in no way endorses or supports this endeavour. Although the Force is mentioned as a central tenet, this is not considered a god, and hence it is an atheist position. The last I heard, however, the religion requires one to give up direct attachments to other people i.e. to be single. As such, I don’t hold out much hope for the growth of this religion, but it is an interesting phenomenon all the same.
A good friend of mine once described Discordianism as “Zen Buddhism reinterpreted for the West”, and this appellation is apposite although not necessarily complete. Strictly speaking, Discordianism is an agnostic religion since it expressly extends to its followers the obligation to believe whatever they wish. However, many practicing Discordians are atheists. The Discordian holy book the Principia Discordia expressly states that a Discordian is prohibited from believing what they read (including that statement!)
Although copies of the Principia Discordia can be
found online I heartily recommend the yellow Loompanics edition as the best way
to approach this text; the online versions do not have quite the necessary
The most famous Discordians are arguably Robert Anton Wilson, who may actually have been responsible for a small amount of content in the Principia Discordia, and Steve Jackson, who published a black edition of the holy book in the 1994.
Discordianism is another of the five religions I currently
identify as my own, and I can honestly say that my years as a practicing
Discordian have been thoroughly liberating, utterly confusing, and strangely
engaging. My one caution is that to get the full value from Discordianism one
must arguably get together with other people and form a cabal or similar group,
as solo practice will tend to reinforce your own metaphysics rather than
allowing you to explore further afield.
Create Your Own!
And when all else fails, invent your own religion! In fact,
Discordianism has a long tradition of encouraging people to found their own
religions – the Church of the Subgenius being the most famous, albeit not
necessarily the most sincere, example.
Of course, this is not a step to be taken too lightly, and I do not necessarily recommend that anyone travels in this direction, but it is always worth bearing in mind that all religions start somewhere… if you can’t find the religion that’s right for you, why not create one? (And if not a religion, then perhaps a nonreligion).
Deciding to reject the notion of gods is a reasonable start
to identifying a system of metaphysics for oneself, but it should not be the
end of that process. Exploring the atheist belief systems that are available may allow you to better define your own metaphysical or ethical position, and even if it does not, at least by the
exploration you will have gained a broader understanding of other people's views on the universe. What have you got to lose but time?
This post carries a high risk of cognitive dissonance. If you find yourself feeling enraged at this point, please consider waiting a short while before posting a comment. Thank you for your patience! And for the flames I am doubtless about to recieve anyway, may I not lose my sense of humour!
The opening image is Lotus, by Ge Wu, which I found here. As ever, no copyright infringement is implied, and I will take the image down if asked.