There is no consensus among atheists about the proper way to treat religion. Prominent atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens don’t seem to give any credence to any form of religion, thinking that we’d be better off if we just got rid of it entirely. However, not all atheists think this way, and some either see some value in religion or else just feel it best to leave the whole mess alone. I’d like to give my own views on this issue, since I tend to write about religion a lot, and I think it is an important issue to talk about if atheists attempt to give any sort of semi-unified approach to religion. I’d love to hear what others have to say, however, whether atheist or religious believer, and I welcome disagreement.
When thinking about one’s beliefs, I think that the primary consideration is the truth value of those beliefs. I place a high importance on truth, because I see truth as valuable – both in and of itself, as well as for the usefulness that it brings us. I think that most atheists would agree with this sentiment, and since they believe that it is false that God exists, they think that religion is false. But I think this is being a bit too hasty. Religion is more than simply a collection of beliefs. So while beliefs can be true or false (or perhaps, accurate or inaccurate), “religion” as a whole cannot be true or false. There are some aspects of religion that might be valuable even if the beliefs which it contains are false. If this is indeed the case, it might be that religion still should be kept even if God does not exist. I’d like to discuss this in a bit more depth, examining some of the other aspects to religion that may still hold value.
1. It provides a shared meta-narrative that provides meaning and purpose.
I think it’s fairly safe to say that the meta-narrative that religion provides is one of its primary purposes. Religions attempt to answer questions about why we are here, what our purpose is, and what activities are important. Indeed, this is one of the reasons that many religious people give as to why religion is so important – that without it, “life is meaningless.” Now, I think they’re wrong about this. I, like most atheists, believe that life can certainly be full of meaning and purpose even without religion. But the idea of a random, chaotic universe doesn’t exactly make finding grand meta-narratives easy.
One of the things that humans seem to need is a set of principles for them to organize their lives around. These principles help to answer questions such as, “Why am I here?”, “What am I supposed to do with my life?”, “What kind of things should I value?”, etc. Broadly speaking, this could be considered one’s “worldview”. However, I’d like to keep this idea of organizing principles a bit more broad – a worldview might suggest that there could be a right and a wrong way to view the world. Organizing principles may not be “right” or “wrong”, just like there is no right and wrong way to organize the books on a bookshelf. Instead, these principles are more a matter of individual utility or preference, or what seems to make the most sense to the person. While atheists may be content to organize their lives around society, around science, or any other broad scheme, this doesn’t mean that the religious person is wrong for organizing their lives around a supreme being or overarching purpose to the universe. What matters most is that the scheme chosen provides a sense of unity and coherence to life, in order to make sense of events.
So this meta-narrative might be a way that religion provides value to some people, even if the claims within the religion are false. Let’s examine another possibility.
2. Religion provides a vehicle for culture.
Religion is often a way of passing down cultural values. It has likely had this purpose since the first religion came about. Religions help to clarify what values are important in a culture, and what normative behaviours are acceptable. Certainly this can happen without religion. Parents and other caregivers play an enormous role in socialization of children, and this would be the case whether religion existed or not. But the rituals and the ceremonies of religion often provide a more formal way of teaching children what the world is like and how they should behave. Rites of passage help individuals pass through the stages of life so that they will become functioning members of the society. Moreover, religion can take some of the pressure off of parents, by supplying pithy sayings and words of wisdom that might otherwise be only held at a subconscious level. It helps parents communicate the important lessons more easily.
Now, this might be a contentious issue. Dawkins and others have often spoken out against the indoctrination of children. But here I’m not talking about indoctrination, the process of telling children about the proper beliefs to hold. Instead, I’m talking about socialization, a sort of “introductory course” to living in that particular society. Religion does not necessarily have to teach that one set of beliefs is right or wrong, or that only one way is acceptable. (For instance, consider Buddhism, which teaches that everything is temporary – even Buddhism itself.) Religion in this sense merely operates as a vehicle for culture, to help introduce children to the social rules and norms that they will face. Religious practices, like the bar mitzvah in Judaism, can survive even when the content of the religious beliefs are taken away. (For example, many secular Jews still perform bar mitzvahs and have Jewish weddings, etc.) Thus, religion can still provide value in this way.
3. It provides an incentive to act morally.
Religion often offers, as a part of its package, a set of incentives to do the right thing, and disincentives to avoid doing the wrong thing. In Christianity, for example, people are told that they will be rewarded in heaven for the good things they do. They are also told that those who do wrong will be punished in hell. Similar incentives are given in other religions. These certainly may help to provide an extra reason to do the right thing.
Now, of course, some don’t like this idea, because they believe that doing good should be done for its own sake, i.e., because it is the right thing to do. They believe that offering incentives “cheapens” it – now the person is just doing it to get the reward, rather than because it’s a good thing to do. I’m sympathetic to that view myself. However, it may be the case that some people simply won’t do the right thing unless they have some incentive to do so. I don’t really know. Some might be intrinsically motivated to be good, but that doesn’t mean that everyone is. Religion can provide those people who aren’t motivated intrinsically with an extrinsic reward for being good. And, presumably, those who would be good anyway, will still be good.
Some might argue that it’s not fair to promise rewards or punishments that don’t actually exist (assuming, for the moment, that religions’ claims about these things are false). That might be a fair criticism. However, we see it as perfectly acceptable for virtually all parents to use rewards and punishments to teach their children about right and wrong. Parents reward a good child with a treat or special privilege, or they punish them with a time-out. The intent is that as the child grows older, hopefully he or she will begin to internalize feelings of right and wrong that will guide them, so that incentives will no longer be necessary. But perhaps some children simply don’t receive this training process. It might, then, be useful to provide religion as a sort of “surrogate parent” to train them as parents typically do. This could be done with the expectation that at some point, the incentives will no longer be necessary.
4. Religion provides a sense of community.
This is likely an uncontroversial point. For myself personally, the aspect I miss most about religion is the community that I had. I was able to make friends easily, because I had a social club that I went to one or more times a week where there were people with similar interests and values. I’ve heard the same thing from other former believers. Now, certainly this type of community can be found elsewhere. Schools, jobs, clubs, neighbourhood associations, charitable organizations, political associations, etc. can all provide social links. But religion is another one, and the value of this community can’t simply be ignored. Even if religious beliefs are false, the community is real, and the social connections are real. Thus, religion can still provide value in this way.
So, as I’ve illustrated above, religion is more than just about beliefs that are “true” or “false”. It encompasses a number of dimensions that can still provide value and that are not subject to the characteristics of being “true” or “false”. Now, granted, it might be more difficult to affiliate oneself with religion when one does not believe that the religious claims are true, but I don’t think that it’s impossible. While some might find it easier to throw the whole concept away entirely, others might be fine with attending church, or otherwise labeling themselves as religious. What works for some people does not necessarily work for everyone. So I reject the notion that if one atheist can live without religion, then everyone can. For some, it might simply be very difficult, or even impossible, to be non-religious. And if religion still provides them with value, I don’t see a reason to take that away from them. Certainly I think it is still important that they engage in critical thinking and properly evaluate their beliefs for truth, but I am of the opinion that it is possible for someone to do that and still continue to call themselves “religious”.
So I can’t conclude that religion is worthless if God does not exist, and I can’t advocate that atheists should fight against religion to eradicate it entirely. First of all, I’m too much of a realist to believe that religion will ever disappear entirely. I suspect that there will always be religion in this world, even if we decide to call it something else. But setting that aside, I think the crucial fight that atheists should take up is the fight against falsehood and against irrational thinking. We don’t need to concern ourselves with “you should stop going to church” or “you should stop having Catholic weddings” – we need to advance the notions of critical thinking, of the supreme value of truth, of the usefulness of science and the dangers of blindly accepting authority, and of the merits of reason over dogmatism. These are the fights we need to have. Let the religious be religious, but help them to become more reasonable and more diligent about examining their own bias. And let’s never forget that we are not above them, for we too have errors in judgment and cognitive biases that continually challenge us. It’s important that we come alongside others, even those with whom we disagree, in order to advance toward a more perfect understanding of truth. When we can do that, we all win.