Monday, March 16, 2009

Church for Atheists

This past Sunday I did something that people who know me would find uncharacteristic: I went to church. The reason this might be surprising is that I'm a non-believer. In fact I agree with the New Atheists that the existence of a miracle-performing personal god is a scientific question with a scientific answer, and so far the answer is this: very unlikely.

But the question of the validity of individual religious claims is only one part of the argument, and probably the less important one. More than the truth of religion, the debatable point is its usefulness. This question itself divides into two: is religion good for individuals and is it good for society as a whole.

The answer I’ve settled on recently is, yes, religion is useful, but only the parts that aren’t intrinsic to religion as we know it. I don’t, for example, think that you need to believe in an afterlife and eternal soul in order to get through life without being in constant despair. And I don’t think that there has to be a punishing, watchful god for people to behave morally. There are entire nations of unbelievers in the western world that get by just fine without god.

I do, however, think that when left to our own devices, there is a tendency to become self-absorbed and, over time, isolated. Both intuition and evidence tell us that being charitable and social are far more likely to lead to sustainable happiness than being tightfisted and independent. But, as rational economic actors, each choice we make will often come down on the side of financial caution and personal independence. Religious institutions evolved, in part, as a way of mitigating these natural tendencies to act against our own long term happiness.

Of course this doesn’t take away the problems of religion as preservers of primitive superstition and intolerance. Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris seem to think the solution to religion’s problems is to work to end all religion. In their view, religious moderates do more harm than good by “giving cover” to religious fundamentalists.

I disagree. Religious fundamentalists and religious moderates have little or nothing in common. Most religious moderates today would be considered atheists and deists in another time. I doubt, for example, that many liberal Christians or Jews believe that the bible is the literal word of God. They do, however, choose to preserve the institutions of religion for the reasons I already mentioned.

The “solution” to religion isn’t to convince everyone to become atheists, but to moderate it until it no longer resembles the religion of history, but more like Unitarians, who are basically just humanists with a church, or many Reform Jews who have no problem being both secular and Jewish. In essence, as it moderates over time, religion will just become culture, like some Jewish culture, that doesn’t imply dogma but rather tradition and community.

This is, unfortunately, the opposite of what is actually happening in the world – moderates are leaving their religions while the fundamentalists grow in numbers – but I thought I’d do my part by attending a Unitarian church on Sunday. It was an interesting experience. The minister, a Jewish woman who studied at Harvard Divinity School, invited a few members of the Montreal Muslim community to attend. Most of the service was an interview on the tenants of Islam. At one point the minister said: “you mentioned God, but people in this room have a very diverse understanding of the word ‘God.’ What does ‘God’ mean to you?” As an atheist, I very much approved.

There was a decent size crowd in attendance, but maybe 75% had white hair, and I can’t imagine who will be replace them. April and I were the only people of our age group. It’s a little disheartening, but I’m glad I went, and if I can get out of bed on Sunday morning, I’ll probably go again.


  1. I've always that it an odd critique that some atheists make when they accuse science-loving religious folk of not being Godly enough. It's a common rebuttal that if you don't believe in the God with the long beard then you're basically a pantheist and don't count.

    But there are some shared values and goals between the modernly religious and the more humanist and reasonable atheists: we both think science is great, and recognize that religion is at is best when it promotes unity and not bloodshed. Far too few atheists recognize that a wholesale dismantling of religion is an unrealistic (and, I would argue, undesirable) proposition. If they/you are sincere about promoting a humanist and tolerant vision of society, then there's got to be some room for religion that loves science and embraces human solidarity.

    I'm not convinced that the unitarians are the best basket to put your eggs in, but good on you for having a go of it.

  2. Thanks for the comment! I agree with you about having shared values and goals, which is why I'm critical of the New Atheists for often being harder on religious moderates than fundamentalists.

    On your "not godly enough" comment: I didn't mean "you don't count," (I assume you mean "shouldn't be counted among the religious"), but rather that there is a qualitative difference between fundamentalists and moderates. One can give a serious of questions (age of the earth, nature of God, etc) and it's likely that a moderate would score more closely to an atheist than to a fundamentalist. Not to say that religious moderates are the same as atheists, but only that not all religious folk are the same, and in terms of belief systems, believers can be more different from each other than from non-believers. Dawkins likes to say: "We're all atheists. It's just that some of us take it one god further." You can apply that to other religious beliefs, other than just the belief in God.

    The Unitarian church, I think, is an example of a religion that completed the full evolution from religion to culture, meaning no faith in the "supernatural" is required, or even encouraged. In my view, they kept all the good parts of religion while weeding out the bad.

  3. I'm slightly amused that your post exploring religion assumes that being a rational economic actor is a natural human tendency. While, as an economist, I spend much of my time pretending that is true, the proliferation of religion seems to me the loudest clanging evidence against that fact. Churches aren't filled with hyper-rational individuals seeking to overcome the dis-utility of their short-term inclinations... they are filled with "believers."

  4. Thanks for the comment: I was hoping to stir up this sort of controversy. I do think, though, that you’re flogging a straw-man here.

    The claim that “Churches aren't filled with hyper-rational individuals seeking to overcome the dis-utility of their short-term inclinations…but believers” is one that I don’t have any problem with, and nowhere in my post should it suggest otherwise. What I did say was: “when left to our own devices, there is a tendency to become self-absorbed and, over time, isolated.” I am commenting on atheism, not religion. I agree: belief in any specific religious claim is not rational. My point was that, although this is true, there are other problems with non-belief, problems I confront as a non-believer. They may not be filled with them, but Churches ought to have a bit of room left for rational individuals seeking to overcome the dis-utility of our short-term inclinations.

  5. I'd argue there's nothing particularly irrational about people being religious. Economists don't hold that our desires or wants are rational, just that we're rational in fulfilling them. So if someone derives utility from contemplating the Divine, or feels a sense of calm from knowing God is watching over them and cares for their lives, then it is rational for them to be believers.

    The whole foundation of economics is subjective - people value various things for reasons that are entirely inscrutable to economists. We're just concerned in how they go about fulfilling these desires. If someone derives pleasure from being good to others (a 'warm glow') then they are seen as increasing their own private utility by donating to charity.

  6. Hm, I still think that economics does a poor job of explaining religion; likewise, the warm glow is a step in the right direction, but a step up a mountain economics is poorly prepared to tackle. Sure, rational decision making is part of it, just like chemistry is part of cooking; but it is awkward and clunky to explain why slightly raw cookies are more delicious than well-done cookies, on a molecular level.

    Jacob, I agree - there ARE hyper-rationalist reasons for going to church; but I think those arguments would seem ludicrous to the vast majority of believers. Not that I would know. But it is like trying to explain the role of advertising dollars as a valuable "hostage," which a company presents to potential customers, to a non-economist... first you have to try to convince them that the company is not out to get them, then convince them advertising might not be *bad*, then... and at the end of the day they tell you that, obviously, the purpose of the ad is to make you buy stuff.

  7. Munir: while it might be true that there is nothing irrational about being religious (depending on what you mean by "religious"), I'd say belief in most individual religious claim is irrational. I don't mean "we should be nice to each other and be charitable" - those are words of wisdom that can come from any tradition, religious or otherwise - but "the bible is the literal word of a supernatural intelligence" or "God can suspend the laws of physics to perform miracles." To argue otherwise, it seems to me you'd have to claim that any belief having some benefit to the believer is rational. I don't think that would sit well with the religious because that would justify any other religion or ideology as much as their own. It would also be bringing rational thought full circle to an intellectual free-for-all.